Chapter 1: 00. the turning point
Many thanks to @electriicl0ve for giving it a look over!
Also, I know second person POV is irregular but it's only for this prologue chapter and just partially so bear with me. It just didn't sound right in third or first so we're doing it like this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A single gust of laughter and the direction of the wind distorts under a butterfly’s wings. You sway the fan and the chime sings a slightly different tune than it might have in another wave. Such a small thing, and still the outcome is changed.
The ripples of one small act carries down the stream and you would find yourself somewhere entirely different without even realizing, your bumps and bruises unlike what they might have been.
This time, you’re just a little faster, but no less desperate and still you are late. The sword pierces his sister’s throat, her blood still splashes his face. He screams in agony while his brother holds the motionless body of her in his arms. He’s not moving, but Wei Ying is. And so are you.
This time, you stopped helping others clear up and started pushing people away earlier, so you’re closer. It’s not enough. Wei Ying’s fingers curl around the boy’s throat, his thumbs press inward and you hear a pop, a snap. The boy goes limp. Wei Ying lets him drop like a sack of waste.
There are too many people in your way.
You call his name, louder than you’ve ever raised your voice, but he can’t hear you. His entire body trembles, as if he’s about to fall apart into the blood and the gore and the dirt around him. You hear him wail under the shouted accusations, and watch as he reaches into his sleeves and pulls out two halves of a monstrous seal.
There’s no time, and you don’t stop to waste it by thinking. Within seconds Wangji is out and it thrums with a great pulse of sound, throwing people to the mud. Wei Ying only staggers, but it’s enough of a delay for you to come up behind him and close your hands over his. Your body covers his and he thrashes.
“Let me go!” Unyielding, you hold on. “Let me go! ”
The two pieces dig into your fingers and palms, gravitating to each other like a beating heart trying to mend itself. Wei Ying screams and thrashes against you, curses you without knowing who’s holding him. His tears splash on the pooling blood of both your hands, and it’s only then that you notice he’d shoved and twisted his way back to facing Jiang Yanli, limp in Jiang Wanyin’s arms. The two brothers face each other as the sight burns itself in a gruesome record of Wei Ying’s worst hour.
You step back, taking him with you, speaking to him just near his ear. Wei Ying. I’m here. Wei Ying. He chokes on his tears and begins struggling anew the further you take him from his sister’s cooling corpse. He doesn’t have the voice to beg you, and you think yourself wretched for being glad for it.
You bring your lips to his ear and tell him to let go. He gasps for air he can’t find. Desperate now, you say it again, again , faster and faster until his fingers loosen enough that you can curl yours under them and finally manage to hurl one piece to the side.
Cultivators begin to recover from the carnage of the corpses, some inching closer. Any more and you’ll be crowded, trapped with an unforgiving audience. In your arms Wei Ying begins fighting you again, crying out as he tries to run from you.
“Shijie! Shijie!! ”
Time’s run out. Bichen tremors at your call and unsheathes itself to hover next to the both of you. You spin Wei Ying around and crush him to your chest, the blood from his wound seeping through your robes alarmingly fast. His empty hand is flat on your breast, right above your thundering heart, and he howls you curses when you step onto Bichen with him. You don’t want to hurt him — you’ve never, ever wanted him hurting — but he’ll only stay still if you use force to keep him steady, pressed to you to the point of confinement.
Jiang Wanyin, as if triggered into focus by the break in his stare on Wei Ying, is stumbling to his feet with unspeakable fury in his eyes. Jiang Yanli is left on the floor at his feet and on his hand, Zidian crackles to life, but before the whip could be slashed into the field you have already taken to the skies, leaving the Nightless City behind.
Wei Wuxian grasps at emptiness, trying to find his shijie with her last words. His consciousness threatens to fade as he cries himself hoarse, held still against a body he can’t recognize. His sobs are wet with tears and blood, so potent with grief he could taste his failure. Even the winds in his ears can’t stop the echoes of Jiang Yanli’s final moments.
‘I’m… I’m here to tell you…’
Tell him what? Her final judgement, her condemnation, her scorn? Words that never left her haunt him now, bitter and raw in his ears but they’re all in his own voice. Even now when he deserves it the most, he couldn’t imagine her saying any of them.
Wei Wuxian felt like a child again, crying for her to come save him. His worthless, weak, foolish self cornered by no one’s fault but his own and he still wants her to rescue him. Jiang Yanli would never save him again. Wei Wuxian holds his hands out for absolution and finds nothing.
There is nowhere left to turn to. He is alone.
Knives. Knives everywhere.
I'm hesitant to add slow burn into the tags because I've never actually written slow burn before so I'm not sure how successful I'll be at this. Aiming for a weekly (or every two weeks at worst) update schedule on this one. Moving on from here, the chapters will be longer, naturally. I'm just a sucker for a solid, punchy start.
In this AU we keep our scars, learn to live with them and make peace with our mistakes. Things will get worse before they get better, but they will get better. Lan Wangji I respect you and hold your love at the highest regard.
They fly through the night for a good few hours until he feels Wei Ying’s nonsensical rattling on quiet down to shallow breathing.
The place where the arrow struck still bleeds. Slow but insistent, Lan Wangji feels ichor soak into his clothes like a wound they share between the two of them, a warm spot against the cold of the night.
Something’s not right. Wei Ying is losing too much blood for his cultivation level. For a moment he fears the worst, but when he feels Wei Ying’s breath teeter over his neck, he finds he can’t delay a brief stop in their journey any longer.
Frequent glances over his shoulder have assured him no one was following them — yet — but he didn’t dare risk stopping until then. In his arms Wei Ying shivers; Lan Wangji cradles his head to his nape and considers their situation. Lan Wangji holds onto him even tighter for fear of having him slip. Finding a safe place should come first, but Wei Ying’s wound needs swift attention.
Out of options and seeing no immediate shelter in sight, Lan Wangji takes a moment to lower them under the cover of an elder oak tree and assess his state. His robes are askew from the hectic ride and the tearing from the arrow, slipping over collarbones too sharp and defined, giving Lan Wangji a lingering sense of unease. Nearby, there’s the unmistakable rush of a river — a water source nearby feels blessedly auspicious at that moment. He’s careful not to jostle him too much when he sets him down by the river and does his best to preserve his modesty by parting his robes only a little more.
For now, he makes quick work on a press made of oak leaves to staunch some of the bleeding, applying an even force with a small seal to attach it to his skin for the time being. Wei Ying’s head lolls to the side; his breathing is too short and a cold sweat has broken on his brow, his hair clinging to the sides of his face in limp wisps.
Even the small bit of colour he held in his face has paled to a sickly tone, his lips white and trembling. They’re dry and cracked, and Lan Wangji finds himself lost in a moment of weakness, wanting to trace with his fingertips, to offer some meagre form of comfort to the pain that haunts him even in sleep.
But he doesn’t. His restraint does not waver. Not like this.
Generally, Lan Wangji’s medical knowledge was at a higher level than the regular cultivator, and more than sufficient by Lan standards in an emergency. But he is no doctor and no matter how he tries to make out whether it was poison in the arrow or a deeper injury he’s unable to see, it’s useless. They don’t have the luxury of reclining in the forest when cultivators will no doubt be on their trail soon, if they weren’t already.
So he shrugs off his outer robe and wraps it around Wei Ying’s frail body, bundling him in his arms as he continues their escape on foot, under the cover of night. A quick detour to refill his water flask and wipe Wei Ying down draws his attention to a well-worn road along the other side of the river, likely a route to a village.
His uniform was a dead giveaway if he wasn’t careful, hence seeking respite in a village was out of the question. Anywhere with people is too great a risk to expose Wei Ying to, where they would no doubt be recognized. The first place those after them would search would be somewhere with amenities. If his brother was with them, he’d assume Lan Wangji would want to treat Wei Ying first.
He wouldn’t be wrong, so Lan Wangji opts to merely dab at Wei Ying’s sweat-damp skin, secure the press and make his way across the river, avoiding following anywhere near the path to the village entirely. An alternative would appear, or he would simply carry on with Wei Ying until it did. This far gone, he knows there is no stopping what he’s put into motion.
Assured in his resolve, Lan Wangji continues through the forest, walking west away from the rising sun of morning. His hopes bear fruit when he reaches an aged, crumbling bridge and a crudely formed cave reveals itself in the cliffside it connects. Hidden by a slab of fallen mountain rock leaning over its entryway and the weeds hanging on the wall of the path, it's concealed enough that he considers it. As if to hasten his decision, Wei Ying gives a shuddering sigh in his arms, stirring.
It’s better than nothing. We will go press on when night falls, stay on the move.
His mind made up, Lan Wangji adjusts the precious cargo in his arms and ventures into the cave on Bichen. Once inside, he gets to work with frightening efficiency. It’s a dark, cool cavern— he’s relieved at the untouched quality of the cave, his worries for unwelcome intruders or previous occupants easing.
When lowered, Wei Ying sags into the hard floor, only shielded somewhat from the sharp cold in large part to Lan Wangji’s robe under him. Still, he’s shivering, and watching him suffer condemns Lan Wangji to a feeling of helplessness. Words string at the tip of his tongue with no coherency he can cobble up to speak out loud to the unconscious man in front of him, but his hands do not shake when he unravels Wei Ying’s bloodied robes, pushing them down to his waist.
He’s careful not to touch him unnecessarily.
Wei Ying looks to his eyes as if he is wasting, like there’s an infection somewhere and it gnaws on him, taking and taking until this pitiful, gaunt body is all he has left to hold himself together with. The more Lan Wangji looks on, the more it hurts him to cede to what it’s done to the man he loves — so he burns it to memory with all the more determination. He refuses to look away.
On the left side of his chest, the Wen brand is proud and cruel, an ever-present reminder of what Wei Ying has endured for others, because he has only ever struggled to be righteous. The blood from his sister has smeared across his cheek during their escape, a gruesome mockery of colour on his ashen complexion. This, the brand, perhaps even more Lan Wangji does not know about — all scars he bears to prove the scorn people are capable of.
He doesn’t know how much more Wei Ying can carry.
Lan Wangji studies the arrow puncture, his face grim. There is some relief, to find it had struck Wei Ying in his sternum and it hadn’t entered his chest cavity. A small blessing, but though it hadn’t lodged in a lung or his heart, the wound itself has yet to be properly staunched. Removing the makeshift press reveals an oozing hollow in his skin, in need of cleaning before he does anything else.
Worryingly, he doesn’t sense even a scrap of circulation of spiritual energy to aid in the healing process. But the way Wei Ying shivers reminds Wangji he’s risking something worse than a flesh wound, so he sets that concern aside for now.
From the pouch hidden in the inner pockets of his robes, he grabs a handful of medicinal herbs. The sour feeling he held towards the small pink reticule is nowhere to be found, and he adds some astringent herbs he finds into the water of his flask. Once the wound is clean, he adds a few drops to mix with the remaining herbs and spreads a generous dollop of the improvised poultice over the wound.
This should help speed up the clotting.
There isn’t much on hand he can use for wrapping, so Lan Wangji tears off a piece of his own robe under Wei Ying and makes do. Wei Ying’s breathing stutters when he tightens the fabric around him, his exhale interrupted by a weak wheeze of pain, and he eases up to make sure it’s comfortably secure.
He’s quick to dress him again when he’s done, the distinct discomfort of touching him while unconscious gnawing at him. Lan Wangji kneels beside Wei Ying, timidly holding his hand by his fingers, his thumb tracing his knuckles with a reverence he can’t restrain. His other hand settles down above his golden core, to begin spiritual energy transfer.
Wei Ying’s breathing has eased up considerably, and Lan Wangji warms him with the transfer best he can. Wei Ying won’t be bleeding to death under his watch, but if he didn’t wake up…
Lan Wangji doesn’t want to consider it. He paces himself — there is a long night ahead of them both.
Wei Wuxian wakes up to a dark, cold place. He’s been in caves before — the last one he’d found himself in was only slightly less pleasant than this.
The headache throbbing in the back of his skull reminds him he’s conscious enough to feel, so he’s either alive or he’s in hell. At this point, he’s not sure there’s a difference between the two. Heaven’s been off his trajectory for a while now, and he imagines that to be a blissful nothing. Just moving his neck to look around makes him groan. Breathing takes more effort than it’s worth, but as soon he makes his noise of complaint, a pressure he hadn’t noticed on him is removed.
“Wei Ying,” someone says, as if above a water surface. Wei Wuxian cracks open bleary eyes and sees a stranger’s figure clad in white. A cool hand cups his cheek and he can’t help sighing at the relief just that much gives him. “I am here. Wei Ying.”
He can’t recognize this unknown like this, but their hand is so gentle on his skin that he leans into it, unable to help himself. It feels like a reprieve he steals from. He’s slowly coming to, and the pressure on his chest turns to dull, deep pain that feels much more fitting than the pleasant numbness. The smell of medicinal herbs mixing with blood burns his throat when he breathes.
He wants to ask who this stranger is — a man, he can tell that much, and no slight thing either — but his voice is lost in another straining wheeze. In such a pitiful state, if he had any shame left to spare, he might have been dismayed by how his eyes fill with tears all over again.
All over again…?
He’d been crying.
Why was he crying?
His mind follows his steps backwards, and he recalls a battlefield. An arrow striking him square in his chest. A sword meant for him, skewered through bone and cartilage. Gore splattering on his face and her head had… Her face was—
Bile rises before his mind catches up — to the name, the voice, what he’d done — and he chokes on it before the grief forces him to his elbows and he rolls over retching. The man says his name again but it’s lost in white noise. No, no, no no no no no no no no,
“Wei Ying.” The man says near his ear, the world spinning. The man has him sitting upright now, and he’s closer, kneeling in before him. He’s holding Wei Wuxian’s hand and whispering over and over against his knuckles with a tenderness that rakes over his nerves. “I’m here.”
He recognizes him now. He wants to tell him to go, but instead, his hand grasps at his sleeve, and his voice falls apart on his name.
“I am here,” Lan Wangji says again, sounding like salvation.
Delirious with grief, Wei Wuxian has the sudden mad thought that Lan Wangji had descended upon him like a heavenly harbinger to deliver him his end, and laughs through his tears. He deserves it. If he is to go by anyone’s hands, for it to be Lan Zhan’s feels like a blessing he hasn’t earned, but will gladly take. Lan Wangji looks alarmed, and a pair of hands close around his upper arms to haul him back on whatever he was laying on top of before.
The back of his head is cradled as he’s set down, and he finally gets a look at him.
Lan Wangji’s front is stained with blood that isn’t his own, but not a single fold is askew. If it weren't for the utterly hilarious look of concern on his face, Wei Wuxian might have thought it was on purpose with the way he wore it like he was meant to have it on him.
He can’t help it. He laughs again. And he keeps laughing, keeps wheezing, shoulders shaking under Lan Wangji’s hands, eyes spilling hot tears down over his temples as he stares at him. Of course Lan Wangji isn’t here to kill him. No, Lan Wangji is too good, too stubborn for that.
Lan Wangji wants to save him.
“Lan Zhan…” He chortles, because it becomes funnier and funnier the more he understands, the more he comes to.
Because if he doesn’t laugh, he will wail and scream, and if he is going to cry anyway he might as well do it laughing. “Are you taking me back to Gusu? Congratulations, Lan Zhan. You get your way in the end.”
There’s a sharp intake of air. Lan Wangji looks stricken but Wei Wuxian barely registers it. He imagines it’s because he’s cut to the meat of the matter so quickly, not even giving him the chance to try and justify himself. And somehow, even in this miserable state, Wei Wuxian finds there’s comfort in looking at Lan Wangji’s handsome bearing. The hand that clutches his sleeve slips, Wei Wuxian’s strength abandoning him entirely.
“It’s okay, Hanguang-jun,” he continues without knowing why he’s so compelled to do so, other than falling back into the one thing he knows when he’s cornered. He streams his murky consciousness into words and once he gets going it’s impossible to stop. If he doesn’t let them out, he feels they’ll bounce into a million echoes of each other in his head and truly drive him to insanity. “I know — I can’t run away anymore. Jiang Cheng isn’t here to protect me either. Y-You don’t have to pretend.”
There’s a lump in his throat he just can’t get rid of no matter how he tries to swallow it back. “But you know Lan Zhan, I… I still don’t want to go to Gusu.”
The words hit their mark on him. Not with any focused precision, but with the haphazard impact one achieves when they throw words out just to make someone else hurt too. Lan Wangji breathes out shaky, composing himself, but says nothing. Instead, he reaches down again and pulls his robes closed, covering the sun branded on his skin. “I won’t take you back to Gusu.”
He’s firm, unwavering. His words are a promise, not a placation.
Somehow, that’s worse.
Why the hell is he here then? To witness him at his lowest? To watch his fall and be there on impact to bear witness?
Finally, Wei Wuxian stops laughing, his smile slipping from his face. A warden dragging him back for penance, he can accept. An executioner, he would welcome. But not this. Not a keeper for the records, a beholder to his downfall. “Get lost.”
He spits the words like venom, warm anger replacing the cold mirth and the gnawing grief all in one fell swoop. He was looking for excuses, he realizes as much in some small part of his mind, but he hates the thought of Lan Wangji staying to fucking watch. Wei Wuxian twists to rise again and Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch, but then he's pressed back down with a hand on his shoulder. Heats blooms in his chest again, and the scent of blood hits him as his wound reopens. Son of a bit —
“No,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian rasps under his trembling hands.
“Fuck off. ”
Lan Wangji puts more pressure, enough to make black circles swim in Wei Wuxian’s view. “No.”
Wei Wuxian feels himself fraying, and he struggles against the strength pinning him down. “Go away,” he cries, but before he can say any more, there’s a tap on a pressure point near the base of his neck and he’s dragged back into empty nothingness.
There’s a third person there when he’s roused to wake again. Wei Wuxian is weighed down as though the world itself is hanging from around his neck, even as he takes note of how he’s actually draped over Lan Wangji’s shoulders instead. His head is too heavy to raise, his ears feel like they’re stuffed with cotton. A pulsing migraine comes up to greet him in his waking moments.
Everything hurts, still. Not all of it is in the flesh.
He tries to catch a glimpse of the person he hears Lan Wangji speaking to, but to no avail. They’re not in the cave anymore, but it’s still too dark to really make anything out when he’s barely able to keep his eyes open, and their voices are too low among the rustling of leaves and the chitter of insects.
The world feels and sounds too busy to let him focus on Lan Wangji’s even voice, only the vibrations he feels through his back giving him a clue that this person is no foe - at least not enough of an immediate threat for Lan Wangji to keep his guard up. His voice hums at a calm and even cadence, his back steady as a mountain. Wei Wuxian only catches a few words that pass between the two.
“... have to keep moving… he won’t last like…”
“... your brother… about him?”
“... I will bear the consequences with him.”
This he hears with perfect clarity, and yet it compounds his confusion even further. Why? Wei Wuxian heart stutters, his eyes fill with tears. No more — no more of this. He couldn’t bear to hear it, the words felt like Lan Wangji was reaching into the empty well in his chest and holding his hope in a vice.
He isn’t allowed to dwell on it when he hears the follow up to Lan Wangji’s baffling declaration.
“... have friends in Meishan… take care of you both…”
Meishan…? They’re going to Meishan ?
Wei Wuxian fingers twitch anxiously at the thought of heading into Madame Yu’s homeland, the very idea suffocating him into choking out a weak protest. He tugs on Lan Wangji’s collar when his voice eludes him, but Lan Wangji only pauses for a moment, before there’s a noise coming from him that sounds suspiciously like an agreement.
“ No ,” he croaks, half his face buried in Lan Wangji’s firm shoulder and muffling his already feeble refusal. Lan Wangji still had a firm grip on his legs when a hand settles on his head, and his wakefulness slips away from him again. The last thing he hears is the voice of the third person, rich like honey, soothing him.
“Back to sleep now, Young Master Wei,” is the last thing he hears before he’s sinking back into the blissful dark.
The next he wakes up, he’s not in the dark cave anymore or a windy forest, but in an inn room lit only with a single candle by his bedside. This time, his limbs are less like lead and he can move. The first thing he does is move into a sit, go blind with dizziness, and then promptly roll over off the bedroll with no ceremony whatsoever. His knees hit the floor with a painful thump, but before his face can meet the same fate, a hand grasps his arm and holds him up.
He raises his head to take a look at him, and he’s stunned to find him not in his Gusu Lan mourning robes, but brown and green common clothes. His white ribbon with the delicate blue cloud imprint looks so out of place with his outfit that Wei Wuxian finds himself stuck on it against other more pressing concerns he should have. His clothes hugged his body closer than cultivators’ garbs, but that only meant he actually got to see his broad shoulders and defined upper arms all the more clearly. Even now, frazzled as he is with dizziness, Lan Wangji still cuts an impeccable figure.
He’s helped up, but he frowns at the ribbon as if offended by the clash it made before turning it to his clothes. There was nothing wrong with the ribbon, after all, it was the clothes that were stranger. Lan Wangji’s hand is still on his shoulder, and he shrugs out of his hold as soon as he felt steady on his feet.
“Hanguang-jun,” he responds, with a little tilt of his head. There’s no veneration in the gesture. He doesn’t mean to sound mocking either, but there’s nothing to be done for the teasing that comes naturally, however hollow it is now.
The look on Lan Wangji’s face is a little fractured, but he composes himself and lowers his hand. “How are you?”
Wei Wuxian let his silence drag out as his answer, staring at him with dry eyes weighed with a dull ache. That would be all the crying he’d done, he supposes. If he stops to think of what he really feels like, he wouldn’t be able to compose himself, and so he resolutely pushes it down, down, down, until it’s stuffed into that bottomless hole in his chest, where he’s stashed every mistake he didn’t want to confront.
Par for the course for him, really.
Taking a quick glance around the room itself, he sees it’s smaller now that he’s standing. In the corner is a low table with a flat seating cushion on each side. Across from Wei Ying’s is a second bed, their sides facing each other elevated with low wooden rails. Other than that, the only other furniture in the room is a small wooden bucket and a ladle inside, a rug between the two beds, and candle lamps by the door.
All in all, it’s not easy to navigate. Even less so if he wants to make a run for it. Lan Wangji takes up as much space as he does, if not more, and Wei Wuxian’s movement is limited. The whole place feels cramped as it is with just the two of them, and Wei Wuxian feels himself sway ever so lightly. That scraps the flimsy idea for making a run for it before Lan Wangji could catch him. Even if the man didn’t have an outlandishly broad reach, Wei Wuxian is more likely to trip over the feet of the bed before he could make it to the door with his presently abysmal coordination.
Wei Wuxian's hand unconsciously feels over his chest, finding fresh bandage and gauze covering his injury. He still wore his own robes, albeit free from blood and grime and smelling pleasantly of soap. He was practically sterile with cleanliness. It was an odd feeling.
He then brings his hand to the wooden windows, though he doesn't bother trying to push it open; the bolt on it was secure and would not likely be moved by his efforts. “Where did you bring me?”
He feels his sleeves and his waist, checking for Chenqing, but he finds neither the flute nor the other half of the seal and he feels his blood run cold. He rounds on Lan Wangji with a vengeance, grabbing his collar and yanking him down to snarl, “Where is it? Where is Chenqing? Lan Wangji, did you take the seal as well?”
Lan Wangji opens his mouth to respond, but just then the door to the room clicks open and a woman in expensive robes appears on the other side. Wei Wuxian doesn’t recognise her, but she smiles at them like she’s known them for years. A snuff bottle hangs from its strings between her fingers, and she lets it sway as she sizes them both up. She’s shorter than both of them, but the way she held her shoulders and how she peered at them from above her nose told volumes of how that difference meant nothing to her.
“So, our swooning villain is awake?” She swings the snuff bottle and catches it in the air, tapping it against her cheek with mischief in her eyes. “Good afternoon to the esteemed Yiling Patriarch. Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Wangji turns to the woman and bows a little, enough to still manage to keep his eyes on her. Wei Wuxian is caught between the bolted window and Lan Wangji’s impressive figure, half blocking him from the woman’s sight. Undeterred, she leans to the side and smiles. There are laughter lines around her eyes and they crinkle charmingly.
“How are you feeling, young man?” she asks, and after scanning her top to bottom and seeing her herself didn’t look especially old, he deigns to merely shrug.
There really is no good answer to that, and rather than give an honest one, he opts to keep his peace. He feels too tired to exchange pleasantries, every bit of his body sore with aches he couldn’t even place. The honest answer would have been that he wants to go back to sleep and preferably not wake up again.
“As well as one can expect, then.” She nods a few times, and pushes herself off the door frame, walking to a small desk in the corner of the room. She sweeps her skirts around her with a grand gesture, settling down on a cushion.
There’s a pause as she stares at the two men standing awkwardly in the further corner of the room, and impatiently gestures across herself. “Well? Hurry and sit now, I haven’t all my day to spend waiting for you both. I’m sure you have questions and though I will do my best to answer them, I hope you will forgive my answers only being limited to my scope of knowledge at this current time.”
Lan Wangji turns to him and moves out of his way, waiting for him to go ahead first. Just for that, Wei Wuxian wants to mulishly dig his feet and refuse to move, but the woman is staring at him just as patiently, and he wants answers. So, he obediently shuffles over and curls his legs under himself, sitting with as much composure as he can manage.
“You know who I am,” Wei Wuxian drawls, but it’s less out of laziness and more from a distinct lack of intonation he wants to inject into his voice. He eyes Lan Wangji, who sits with perfect dignity next to him. “You know who he is as well. But who, exactly, are you?”
The woman smiles and crosses her arms on the table, leaning on it like she’s about to share a secret. “This one goes by the name of Ma Xianglan. You are both taking refuge in my houseboat, currently.” And that’s really all she has to say to give Wei Wuxian pause.
“You… You’re Ma Xianglan?” She’s pleased by his awe, but Lan Wangji inclines his head. Ah, he should have supposed Lan Wangji wouldn’t know her, or her fame. Hanguang-jun was not the type to frequent brothels, nor the type to care enough to know some of the more famous ladies of the trade. It doesn’t seem to bother her much, and she continues on without further explanation.
“This one is in the process of a collaborative project with a group of literati — poets, mostly, but our route follows the Min River southward and my troupe will be performing in Meishan before heading into Chongqing for a final performance. You are welcome to remain until then,” she says, drawing the map of the river on the table with her finger. Wei Wuxian isn’t especially good with geography, so it’s rather wasted on him, but Lan Wangji beside him shifts closer to pay attention. His eyes are as difficult to read as ever, but Wei Wuxian spies a furrow between his brows and imagines it must be contemplative.
“After that, it’s up to you both if you want to stay, or if you’d like to continue on.” Ma Xianglan crosses her arms back again and peers at them warmly through dark, kohl-lined eyes. She was a beautiful woman, but now that Wei Wuxian sat in front of her, he could tell she truly had the bearing of a matriarch, with her subtle makeup accentuating her best features and the way she held herself. “If you have any questions, ask them now. I won’t be speaking on this matter outside of this room.”
He has countless questions, some of them harder to confront than others, but they all need to be asked one way or another. One cursory glance at Lan Wangji tells him he won’t be getting these answers from him, and so he sits up straighter and braces himself. “What news from Yiling?”
“Nothing I can promise with certainty.” Ma Xianglan’s fingers drum on the table idly. “I’ve heard Lanling Jin has laid siege to the Burial Mounds already, but I’ve also heard Yunmeng Jiang is the one to have it surrounded. None of my informants have sent me any definitive news as of yet. I imagine we’ll have word from the eastern districts when we land in Meishan. Here, it’s harder to gauge what’s true and what isn’t. I have only gotten this much from passing merchant ships and fishermen on the river.”
Guts twisting, he listens until she’s done, nodding numbly halfway through. His mouth feels too dry, but he swallows with some effort to speak again. The next question comes out urgently, surprising him with how anxious he is to hear the answer. “Is… Is the Meishan Yu sect part of your clientele?”
Ma Xianglan blinks, her sharp eyes betraying the first sign of startled surprise, as if she’d expected a much different question being thrown at her.
She searches him for something , but not finding it, simply answers with, “The current sect leader is an elderly man, but his grandsons do come to visit regularly whenever my troupe performs in Meishan. His daughters don’t, usually. The only one left in the city is Yu Mingzhu, but... “ A scoff escapes her at that, and a roll of her eyes with no small bit of disdain. “She’s expressed a few times she’s rather too good for my establishment. Her husband frequents more.”
Wei Wuxian nods slowly, absorbing the information. In Madame Yu’s home turf, her city of birth and where she spent her childhood, he didn’t think he had the face to step a single toe on the soil she might have once walked on. Her scathing gaze and ruthless eyes don’t haunt him anymore — not having her approval nor her affection had never hurt him the way it hurt Jiang Cheng. You can not miss what you’ve never had, after all.
From the day he’d been brought to Lotus Pier, she’d seen another in Wei Ying before ever giving him a chance. But his feelings for her were heavy with admiration. And shame, for his failures. For making her life harder than it had to be. For causing her demise, and failing still to keep his promise to her. If only for that, he would never besmirch her home city with his presence.
Someone clears their throat and Wei Wuxian flinches, brought back too suddenly. Ma Xianglan is still smiling, but it’s not only at him now. Lan Wangji is the picture of sobriety beside him and doesn’t notice her gaze flickering between the two of them.
Feeling a distinct discomfort at her scrutiny, Wei Wuxian decides ending this meeting quickly is for the best. The way she eyes them is too fox-like for his liking. He bows lower this time and speaks with admiring deference. “Thank you for accommodating us.”
Ma Xianglan shakes her head as if telling him to think nothing of it. He sees her reach behind her as he raises his head, and his heart leaps to his throat when she pulls out Chenqing. Wei Wuxian's heart beats a little faster. The flute is set on the table with care, and she smoothes out the tassel with deliberate purpose, letting it slip between her fingers as she pulls away. The jade pendant lays flat on the wooden surface, the green of it warm under the candlelight. “Here, take it back. I took it as insurance, but I never intended to keep it.”
Wei Wuxian feels flustered when speaks to him with humility, apologetically. “I wouldn’t have—”
She waves her hand in a gracious dismissal and rises to her feet with a grace only a courtesan of her calibre could achieve. “I know that, now.” Ma Xianglan’s smile is sympathetic when she turns it on him, balming over his anxious thoughts. She had a way of talking that made him think of…
It was very warm. Sound and sturdy, like the main pillar of a sanctuary.
“But I’ve still made sure my people are safe regardless of your promises. Precautions have been taken, and there are no corpses on board. If you are to use that phantom flute of yours, it will be for music and nothing more.” Not a threat, but an invitation.
There is very little Wei Wuxian can say to that. He can only keep his head low and agree with his silence.
She reaches over, and lightly pats his head. “Consider it a moment of freedom from your burden, at least for a while.”
Right before she departs, she turns back and tosses something at Lan Wangji. He catches it and opens his palm to look at the snuff bottle laying innocently. He glances at Ma Xianglan blankly, who simply smiles back at him. “If the Yiling Patriarch feels unwell with aches and pains, take that to the cook in the lower floors and ask him for some yingsu soup. It’ll fix you right up.”
With that, she crosses the threshold of the door and shuts it behind her with a much quieter sound than she’d made upon arrival.
Wei Wuxian watches the door for a long moment before deflating. His hands come up to cradle his head, thankful for Lan Wangji giving him space and the silence.
His thoughts swim between urgency to return back to the Burial Mounds and take the Wen survivors away somewhere else, and the mounting pressure to bury his head in the sand instead and never surface again. Except there is no sand to bury it in, only the trail of bodies he keeps leaving behind him — and they’re catching up to him now.
Now, however, there is one unexpected detail that’s still unaccounted for. It terrifies him to ask it.
“Lan Zhan… Why did you save me?” He doesn’t have to elaborate. And still, it’s not even a question he asks to have answered, but Lan Wangji’s response is swifter than he expects.
“I won’t leave you alone.” Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide. His answer shocks the reaction out of Wei Wuxian for a moment and Lan Wangji, undeterred, adds, “Won’t leave you alone again.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart bleeds at the promise so unconditionally offered, scaldingly hot, like he’s dunked himself in a fresh bath and all his tension is seeping away into the water, washing off him to leave behind raw skin. Defenceless and yet, lighter for it. That Lan Wangji could say such things to him was unthinkable until he’d said them, and Wei Wuxian finds he actually… believes him.
He feels his lower lip tremble, and Lan Wangji’s indecipherable face flickers with distress. “Wei Ying..?”
Of all the things to do, Wei Wuxian reacts with a sudden, broken sort of laugh, shaking his head. He finds he can’t look at him right then. The smile on his face is brittle and he knows it won’t hold if he tries to face Lan Wangji.
If you stay, I'll ruin you too.
Many thanks to Amee and Wurf for betaing!
Some notes on the chapter! Feel free to skip, it's just me rambling about research and the side characters I've included specifically for this fic.
Firstly, Ma Xianglan is an actual real person! She was pretty amazing - a courtesan by trade, she was also massively successful. Wealthy and considered a matriarch in courtesan circles, she's also the only known woman to have owned her own private theatre troupe! She also had a sweet houseboat she hosted parties and such on. I don't know if she's ever been a part of a collaboration like this, but she was definitely an artist and poet, and a celebrator of the arts herself, so I inserted her into the story itself as a pseudo-OC that cultivates a little, but is more generally just an upper-class lady with a good heart, doing a favour for a friend. The man LWJ spoke to is also a non-canon character, but more on him later... :^)
Research for this chapter was deeper than I had foreseen it to be, but I learned quite a lot! I wanted to include Ma Xianglan's intro with a pipe to smoke with, but I had to narrow the timeframe MDZS is actually loosely set in. It's fantasy ancient China, but the location names are the same so I pulled up a map of eastern China and mapped out the river route she'd take, but when it came to narrowing down the timeline... there weren't that many things to glean information from. In the end, I went to the episode where WWX tricks LWJ with a porn book he swapped with the poor boy's poetry collection and from studying that pinpointed the style to either the Ming Dynasty, or the Qing dynasty. I went with Ming because it was one of the earliest appearances of snuff bottles there as well, and I had somehow skipped over the fact that pipes WERE used to smoke tobacco before this, but eventually I decided the snuff bottle was a better choice regardless.
Whew! Okay. That should be it. This chapter took it out of me, and I'm tired of looking at it so I've loosed it to the wild. See you guys next chapter, hopefully sooner than this one took me to post!