The scenery outside the bus window defined monotony: all asphalt and concrete barriers in grainy grays, the black poles of streetlights slashing up into the bruised sky at regular intervals, their harsh glare turning the night into an overexposed photo. Cars passed by sluggishly, then came to a stop, sometimes waiting as the bus inched forward, sometimes rolling along beside it. When they came up to a curve, Wei WuXian could see strings of red tail lights stretching out unbroken to eternity.
At some point, it had started snowing. He wasn't sure when—he'd been zoned out and missed it. His head was all floaty, his awareness detached from reality, the way it got when he drank too much. Time wasn't flowing properly. He couldn't remember how long he'd been riding the bus. It had to be long past his stop. It felt like it had been forever.
His hoodie was too thin for the weather, but he couldn't bring himself to care. It wasn't cold on the bus. He stared out the empty window at the night beyond that crept past, slower even than the gridlocked traffic, and let his mind wander.
They had come to a bus stop. The hiss of the breaks and the sharp clack of the doors opening snapped him out of his stupor. Wei WuXian shook his head, trying to get his thoughts to focus. What had he been drinking, anyway? He couldn't remember even going to a bar.
A few people got off the bus. A few more got on. It was crowded. Few seats were open. Listlessly, he watched a man board, thinking absolutely nothing of it until their eyes met suddenly. For a moment, both of them froze. Overtaken by the strangest sense of recognition, Wei WuXian shifted unobtrusively further from the vacant seat to his right. He felt a weak smile flicker to life briefly on his face. It was invitation enough for the man.
The closer he got, the more Wei WuXian was struck by how beautiful he was. Tall and graceful with a fair complexion and dark hair tied back in a severe ponytail, he was strikingly handsome. His eyes, in particular, were pale and clear, arresting in the way they seemed to stare right into Wei WuXian. There was something achingly familiar about him, but surely, he would have remembered meeting such a person.
He swallowed hard, and belatedly realized that he'd been staring. The smile he offered as the man sat down next to him was lopsided and apologetic.
“Hey. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you've just accepted a ride on the slowest bus in the city.”
The man's blank expression—the only thing detracting from his looks—remained unchanged. “How long have you been here?” He had a nice voice, low and soft, pleasant to listen to.
Huffing a laugh, Wei WuXian shrugged. “I lost track a long time ago. Ages. Not in a hurry, are you?”
“I have somewhere I need to be, but...I can afford a small delay.”
“Might be quicker to walk.”
The doors clattered shut. The brakes released. The bus pulled back out into the sluggish flow of traffic.
“Too late now,” Wei WuXian said.
He turned away, leaning against the window to watch the city roll slowly by. A bone-deep exhaustion dragged at him, and within minutes, he felt himself fading. He thought he heard someone murmur his name, but who would know him on this bus?
When he came to, the bus was on the freeway. The windows were dewed with drops of melted snow that shone with captured light. Outside, traffic was at a standstill. Dingy slush covered the roads, gradually accumulating as snow drifted down from the woolen sky, the flakes picked out in sharp contrast where they plunged into the light of streetlamps and headlights. Wei WuXian laughed softly to see it. When he turned away from the window, he saw that the beautiful man from earlier was still sitting next to him, watching him with an expression that might, optimistically, be called inquisitive.
“The snow,” Wei WuXian said, gesturing outside. “It looks like champagne bubbles, only going the wrong way.” He laughed again, and rubbed his head. “Have you ever felt drunk, but been pretty sure you weren't drinking? Haha, no, never mind me. I'm just tired.” He rubbed a hand over his face, wanting desperately to sleep.
“Where is your stop?”
“Your stop. You should not miss it.”
“I.... Does it matter? At this rate, we'll never reach it. What about yours?”
The man only stared at him, radiating the sort of childish stubbornness that practically shouted 'I asked you first!' Wei WuXian couldn't help but laugh.
“Thanks for your concern. I'm Wei WuXian.”
“Lan WangJi....” He tried it out on his tongue, liking the sound of it. It was a nice name. “If I fall asleep, will you wake me when we're back in the city proper?”
“You should try not to sleep.”
“Aww, but you seem like such a kind stranger,” he teased, already losing his hold on awareness. “Sorry to trouble you, but I really....”
It was no use. There was only darkness and silence. He dreamed of being lost.
Lan WangJi was still there when the world filtered back in. Stretching, Wei WuXian covered a yawn. “Where are we?” he mumbled.
“Not far from when we spoke an hour ago.”
With a sigh, Wei WuXian slumped further in his seat. “We're never getting off this bus,” he proclaimed. “We're trapped. For eternity.”
Glancing over, he took in Lan WangJi's severe frown, and laughed. “What, not looking forward to being stuck here with me forever?”
“You will not remain stuck here.” He corrected Wei WuXian's absurdity with such seriousness, that it was impossible to hold back laughter.
“Lan WangJi...! You really are too funny!”
Just as Wei WuXian was settling down, his gaze fell upon a seat near the front of the bus. There had been a girl sitting there by herself earlier, but now she was gone. He sat up straight, stretching to lift his head high enough to peer over the seats before and behind him, even going so far as to lean across Lan WangJi to look down the aisle.
“Lan WangJi, where'd that girl go?”
“She was sitting up front, you passed her when you got on. I'm sure she was there before I fell asleep....” His eyes grew wide, and he leaned in close. “Lan WangJi...do you think she's the ghost?”
Open disbelief met his question.
“I heard someone whispering about it earlier. This bus is supposed to be haunted!”
Lan WangJi's brows drew in. “No.”
“No, it isn't haunted? Or no, you don't believe in ghosts?”
“The girl got off the bus.”
“But we haven't come to any stops!”
Lan WangJi regarded him with a flat stare, then stood up. “Can you walk?”
He was still so tired, and the thought of walking only made it worse. Still, somehow, he found himself getting to his feet and following Lan WangJi toward the front of the bus.
“I can, but—”
“I would like to get off.” The words weren't addressed to him, but to the bus driver, slumped at the wheel in a state of weary acceptance over his fate. He barely glanced at Lan WangJi as he pulled the lever to open the door.
Then, just like that...they were free. Lan WangJi led the way between stopped cars to the side of the road, and Wei WuXian followed behind over the icy pavement, awed by a solution he hadn't even considered.
Aside from the two of them, it almost seemed as if the weather had frozen the world. Snow fell, exhaust rose in thin clouds, the cars sat motionless across all lanes, lights shining steadily out into the night. Something in the air, in the unreality of the situation, held back Wei WuXian's exhaustion. He felt more aware than he had for a long time, although he still wasn't sure why he had followed this man off the bus and into the frozen night.
“Lan WangJi!” He struggled to catch up, footing uncertain on the piled slush. “Where are we going?”
Lan WangJi had his phone out. He held it up just long enough for Wei WuXian to catch a glimpse of Google Maps. “We are not far from a station. We can walk.”
He set off again without another word, leaving Wei WuXian to keep up and fill the silence. Lan WangJi barely responded to his questions or to his running commentary as he made up stories about the people trapped in bubbles of frozen time all along the still roads. He looked back only occasionally when Wei WuXian would fall briefly silent, battling the weariness that never truly left him. Once, when Wei WuXian was about to slip, Lan WangJi started to reach out as if to catch him, only to draw back at the last moment. Another time, as they turned into the wind that blew bitterly cold along the street, he actually spoke, pausing to look back and ask if Wei WuXian was cold.
“Ahahaha! And what would you do if I said yes? Give up your own coat? Chivalry is all well and good, but I don't want you to freeze, either, Lan WangJi. Don't worry about me. I'm fine.”
He was, too. He barely felt the cold. Distantly, he noted that he should be worried about that, that there were, in fact, a list of things that ought to have him very concerned. He had no energy left to worry about himself, however. All he had was taken up in putting one foot in front of the other, and of filling the unbearable silence that cut at him far more than the cold and the snow.
“Lan WangJi! You shouldn't ignore me! What if I fall behind and you don't notice? My phone has no service! How will I find my way without you?”
He had only been talking, only shouting out whatever words came to mind. Even so, the relief he felt when Lan WangJi stopped, when he turned back and waited and slowed his steps when they continued so as not to outpace him was immense. Far more than it should have been. Was he really so afraid of being ignored? Why did it feel like the night would swallow him up if Lan WangJi stopped paying him attention?
Finally, they reached the entrance to the station. Wei WuXian stopped at the top of the steps, staring down into the darkness that shrank from the fluorescent lighting but couldn't be entirely banished, and failed to suppress a shiver. Half a dozen steps down, Lan WangJi realized that he wasn't following, and looked up.
“I don't....” His throat had gone dry. He had to stop and swallow and start again. “I don't think I want to go that way.” He took a step back, and then another. “It was nice meeting you—”
“Wei WuXian.” He came back up the steps, reaching out as if it was second nature, then curling his fingers back into a fist and letting his hand fall as he noticed what he was doing. Back on the sidewalk, he glanced at his phone again, and then nodded. “Follow me. I will make sure you do not get lost.”
Relief. Again, that crushing relief. Wei WuXian smiled, feeling on the verge of tears. His body felt so heavy. His legs had begun to ache and his head throbbed, but he wasn't alone. He laughed off the way his heart had wrenched at the offer, and walked backward along the sidewalk down their new route, watching Lan WangJi's face.
“You're so kind, Lan WangJi. Are you sure we haven't met before? You seem sort of familiar, and you'll forgive me for saying it's hard to believe that you would go out of your way for a stranger you met on a bus.”
Lan WangJi studied him for a long moment, then said: “I know you.”
“You do? From where? Why can't I remember you? Was it a party? Was I drunk?” he pelted Lan WangJi with questions that accumulated like the falling snow, but received no answers.
They walked the icy city streets for hours. Snow was piling up in drifts faster than the city grunge could discolor it. It sparkled beneath the streetlights as the sidewalk grew slick with rime. There were few other pedestrians out so late in the unforgiving weather, and all of them ignored each other, hurrying along on their own business. The only person who paid Wei WuXian's ceaseless chatter any attention was Lan WangJi. In a night that already felt surreal, he seemed the only constant in a strange dream. Without him, the walk would have been nightmarish. The ache in Wei WuXian's legs only worsened. The pain in his head became sharper than the worst hangover he'd ever suffered, and there was a persistent ringing in his ears. It was bad enough to chase away much of his exhaustion, but that only left him more aware of it all. His smiles became harder to keep up. His voice dulled, lost its enthusiasm as his words came slower.
Lan WangJi seemed to notice. “Not much further,” he said.
“To where?” he murmured, not expecting an answer.
It was becoming hard to think. Garbled memories were slowly filtering back in. Wei WuXian was certain now that he knew Lan WangJi. The name sat awkwardly in his mind, not...wrong, but...not quite right, either.
“Lan WangJi...where are we going? I don't...I don't know this area.”
He stopped and met Wei WuXian's eyes, and there was something so sad and so earnest in his fathomless gaze. “I will bring you home. Trust me.”
And he did. Somehow. His heart leapt forward in his chest, and he was reaching out to take Lan WangJi's hand before he knew it. Only recalling the way Lan WangJi had not allowed himself to reach out earlier stopped him before their fingers touched. Lan WangJi looked down, then turned away and set off again. Helplessly, Wei WuXian followed.
They walked half a dozen more blocks before Lan WangJi stopped again and turned to look back at him with such sad eyes. Behind him was a hospital. Staring at it, Wei WuXian began to shake. Reflexively, he took a step back.
“We are nearly there. Please, Wei Ying.”
Hearing that name snapped him out of his daze. He stared into Lan WangJi's eyes, and heard his own name echo in a thousand different inflections. All his questions dried up and stuck in his throat.
Lan WangJi began walking again, reluctant this time to take his eyes off Wei WuXian. He kept glancing back over his shoulder, making sure that he was still following.
What else could Wei WuXian do?
He trailed after Lan WangJi, ignored by everyone else as they passed by the reception desk and took an elevator up. He shivered, only just beginning to feel cold, now that he was out of the snow and noticing for the first time how it had gathered on the shoulders of Lan WangJi's coat and melted into his formerly pristine ponytail...and how not a speck of it had clung to himself.
His legs hurt. His arms felt itchy and bruised. There was a tightness in his chest, and a noise in his head like the squealing of brakes, the screeching of tires on asphalt, that went on and on and on. Still he followed in Lan WangJi's wake, pulled along by more than his strange attraction and unexplained trust. He followed him down an empty hallway, past darkened rooms, until they came to one near the end. He avoided looking at the name of the resident on the door, terrified suddenly that he would know it all too well.
Lan WangJi turned on the light in the room. He crossed to the bed where a figure lay, hooked up to machines that beeped steadily and dripped fluids into veins. Tenderly, Lan WangJi lifted one pale, limp hand in his, then looked back at Wei WuXian, holding out his free hand to him.
Slowly, feeling as if his knees would give out at any moment, Wei WuXian stepped into the room. He walked closer, and stared down at the person lying unconscious in the hospital bed.
It was so strange to see his own face from the outside.
He remembered the oncoming car, now, remembered the screech of tires, the moment of disbelief before the impact.
“...I got lost,” he said absently, staring at himself and taking in the changes. His face was gaunt, his eyes sunken, underscored with bags the color of bruises. His cheekbones were too sharp over the hollows of his cheeks. His lips were pale and chapped.
Abruptly, he tore his gaze away. When he reached for Lan WangJi's outstretched hand, he found he could see right through his own. A touch that he couldn't quite feel, his fingertips on Lan WangJi's palm, and his transparency was suddenly no longer an issue.
In an instant, he was whisked away from the mundane world, the pull of his body having become inexorable. As if Lan WangJi's nervous system was a conduit, he was drawn through in a fraction of a second. For only the tiniest increment of that time, he brushed against Lan WangJi's soul and....
That was how Lan WangJi loved him. That breadth and depth which, even glimpsed only for a fraction of a fraction of a moment still left him reeling.
Lan WangJi had been waiting for him. It was time to wake up.
The tempo of the machines' beeping changed as Wei WuXian's breathing deepened and his face scrunched up with discomfort. Everything felt so heavy, every sensation too large and immediate to process. He gripped Lan WangJi's hand and waited for the chaos to die down to manageable levels.
There was breath in his lungs and blood in his veins and he was more intimately aware of all the motion and function and weight of his body than he ever thought possible. Everything hurt or ached. He felt weak, almost too weak to even open his eyes, but he heard Lan WangJi whispering his name in a tone of fragile hope, and he couldn't let him down. He pried open his eyes, wincing from the light that was no brighter than it had been a minute ago, but that was now far too harsh on eyes that had been closed for so long.
The first thing he saw was Lan WangJi's face. Were those tears in his eyes, or was it merely a trick of his blurry vision? Wei WuXian tried to speak his name, but no sound came out. Before he could even begin to worry, however, Lan WangJi was already uncapping a bottle of water that had been left on a bedside table, and was gently propping him up to help him drink.
After one quick swallow—
“Lan.... Lan Zha—”
—a brief coughing fit, and a few more cautious sips—
“Lan Zhan...! Lan Zhan!”
—his voice, though weak and rusty, had mostly returned.
He opened his arms, reflexively tugging against the restriction of the wires and tubes before Lan WangJi leaned over and hugged him as best he could without upsetting all the equipment. He was definitely trembling, and Wei WuXian was sure that, if he could, Lan WangJi would have brought him immediately home, even if he had to walk the whole way carrying him. Grinning, he pulled back enough to see Lan WangJi's face, feeling as if he could look at him forever.
“You came to pick me up,” he said, laying a hand on Lan WangJi's cheek.
“Mm.” He nodded, covering Wei WuXian's hand with his own. Then, because that hadn't been enough, he promised quietly: “Always.”