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The Space Between Dreams

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The tomb is an obvious trap. The dark walls gleam in the torchlight, beautifully carved, inlaid with gold and jade. The stone floor is completely free of dust—unless one counts the crumbling bones of intruders many years dead. In the center of the room sits a pedestal, and atop the pedestal sits an urn.

Wei Wuxian knows they won’t find what they’re seeking here, but they might find something else.

“One of these fools must have broken the lock,” he remarks, stepping over a skeleton and further into the chamber. “That’s why it was so easy to get in.”

Lan Wangji halts his progress with a firm hand on his shoulder. “Too easy.”

It’s unfair of Lan Wangji to touch him like that. How is Wei Wuxian supposed to think, when Lan Wangji’s fingers feel so strong against his collarbone? When his palm feels so warm through his robes, even warmer than it felt in Wei Wuxian’s dreams last night? That dream, with Lan Wangji’s hand wrapped not around his shoulder, but around his—

He has a mysterious tomb to investigate. He doesn’t need distractions.

Pulling away won’t work, though. Not with this new Lan Wangji, so much taller and stronger than Wei Wuxian’s new body. He’ll have to take his revenge another way instead.

He leans into Lan Wangji’s side, blinking guilelessly up at him. “I don’t think any bits of our Dear Friend are hiding here after all. There’s not enough resentful energy. But—no.” He tenderly bites his lip, as though lost in thought.

Lan Wangji lets go of his shoulder and puts several paces between them. Success? But his voice is disappointingly calm as he agrees: “There’s no resentful energy here at all.”

“You’re so smart, Lan Zhan.” Twenty years ago, that teasing tone would have had Lan Wangji flushing with anger. Today, he doesn’t even seem to notice. Wei Wuxian sighs in defeat and returns his attention to the mystery at hand. “All these bones, and nobody was angry enough to stick around? I don’t believe it. I wonder what’s in the urn…”

He steps forward, avoiding the crumbling corpses. The pedestal is carved wood, sculpted trees and vines entangling, blooming with jade and gold flowers. The urn itself is plain ceramic; Wei Wuxian would have expected the top to be decorated with people and animals, a palace, an entire celestial city. A fitting place for a soul to rest, not this plain dark urn, the lid flat except for the rounded handle.

Wei Wuxian leans forward, brow furrowed. “It looks like a soul vase, but I’ve never seen one this plain.”

Lan Wangji says, “Don’t touch it.”

“Ha, of course not!” He retracts his hand to casually push his hair back. He thinks for a moment, then draws his bamboo flute. He misses Chenqing, but this makeshift instrument will do.

The flute doesn’t reach his lips. Lan Wangji’s hand is warm on his wrist, and Wei Wuxian is dizzy with the sudden scent of him. He doesn’t have the will to protest when Lan Wangji says, “Let me.”

He’s always liked Lan Wangji’s playing, anyway. The way his strong hands dance so delicately across Wangji’s strings. The subtle reverence of the sound. It’s even better like this, in a dark tomb where Wei Wuxian only has to share the song with long-dead bones. Lan Wangji right beside him, close enough that Wei Wuxian could count the eyelashes sweeping over his porcelain cheeks. He’s so beautiful when he concentrates.

Wei Wuxian is about to tell him that, to see if he can make him blush and falter, when the song crests and the room echoes strangely. The urn shakes.

The lid flies off, and a wave of dark energy pours out.

Wei Wuxian moves without thinking. But even if he’d stopped to think about it, he would have done the same thing: he shoves Lan Wangji to the side, and takes the blast himself.

Darkness surrounds him. He chokes. He falls. Ground lurches beneath him. Cold dirt against his face. He scrambles to his knees. The ground beneath him is wet to the touch, then dry, then wet again. The sky above is dark red and starless. All around him are broken black mountains and broken black walls and shadows thick as ink flickering through the air.

The walls burn with black fire. The flame calls to him, seductive, familiar. He knows that resentment. It’s the same cold power that saved him and doomed him all at once, long ago at the Burial Mounds.

This isn’t the Burial Mounds. He’s inside the soul vase, and he needs to escape.

He pinches his arm. The sensation is muted; he feels the hurt echoing all through him, not where it should be. Then it isn’t hurt at all, but an inescapable pang of fear and longing. A strange loneliness not his own.

He walks forward, drawn to that longing. Every footstep hurts. Cold fire licks past his bare feet, curling around his calves. He draws his flute and tries to play, but the song rings hollow, and the resentful energy doesn’t respond like it should.

The loneliness stays out of reach.

Wei Wuxian walks and walks, and all he sees are new shadows, old shadows, broken mountains rising like rib cages. Broken rib cages rising like mountains. The red-black earth bleeds into the red-black sky.

He wonders if this is what the urn always looks like inside, or if it’s taken the shape of his own nightmares. The lonely, painful longing still calls to him, but he’s getting no closer to it, no matter how far he walks. Like a song echoing around the walls of the urn, from every direction at once.

Every direction. If it’s not before him, then… He stops, turns around, and finds a familiar white-robed figure. Of course. Lan Wangji has been right behind him this whole time.

“There you are,” he says. “But—huh. Usually in my dreams, you’re…”

This isn’t the real Lan Wangji, of course, even though the tilt of his head is so realistic. He’s a perfect copy, right down to the ribbon around his forehead—except for the occasional shimmer, the hint of transparency.

The real Lan Wangji is in a tomb all alone, and Wei Wuxian has to get back to him soon, because the longer he waits—he shies away from the thought of Lan Wangji alone and scared and missing him. He focuses instead on how annoying Lan Wangji will be when he returns.

“Younger,” he says after a moment. Usually when he dreams, he remembers Lan Wangji as he was thirteen years ago, or even longer ago, when they first met. He remembers Lan Wangji kneeling at a desk, brush in hand, a furious flush on his face. This vision is Lan Wangji as he is now. Taller, broader, a new coldness to his eyes.

A new warmth as well.

“Wei Ying,” the vision says, in perfect mimicry of the low, sweet voice that sends shivers down Wei Wuxian’s spine. “I’m not a dream. Come back with me.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. “That’s exactly what dream-Lan Zhan would say.” But there’s no point in arguing with a figment, and he has a vague suspicion that dream-Lan Zhan might be useful. “What do you know about this place?”

“We need to leave.” Lan Wangji extends his hand, palm up.

“There’s your problem. My Lan Zhan would have just grabbed me.” He puts his hands on his hips and surveys the nightmare landscape. He can sense other presences now, badly faded, barely distinct from the mountains and shadows. His head spins with the darkness, the power, the pain he can’t wield. “All right, let’s think. There was no resentful energy in the rest of the tomb, so the urn must have stolen the souls. All the resentment is here. Pretty smart trap, really.”

“Wei Ying. Take my hand.”

He nearly does, on instinct. He holds himself back, despite the pleading in dream-Lan Zhan’s voice. “I’ve already fallen into one trap today,” he explains regretfully. His head feels so muddled. He’s starting to shiver with cold. “So, we can’t do what we usually do in dreams. Maybe later, if I run out of ideas.”

Lan Wangji steps closer, his voice low and urgent, “Please. Come back. I need you.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. Even this vision of Lan Wangji is as distracting as ever. It’s particularly awful when he feels so dizzy. “Remember when I used to bother you in the Library Pavilion, when you were trying to study? Are you trying to get revenge for that?”

“Wei Ying,” the dream breathes, and takes his hand.

The touch is faint, ghostlike. Then strong, warm hands tighten around his, a sudden anchor in the fog.

Heat crests in his body. It doesn’t echo diffusely like the earlier pinch, like the cold fire around his ankles. It’s sweet. It’s inescapable. It’s the first real sensation he’s felt here.

It gives him an idea.

“Please,” Lan Wangji says, pale eyes wide. “I can’t lose you again.”

Wei Wuxian shifts his grip so he can squeeze Lan Wangji’s hand too. The flesh isn’t quite real, but it’s not the same thing as the rest of the nightmare. Perhaps this Lan Wangji is purely from his own imagination, not part of the soul vase at all. “I figured it out,” he says, because he can’t resist explaining his own cleverness, even to a figment of his imagination. “The urn traps resentful souls. So, to escape, I just need to be happy.”

Confusion crosses Lan Wangji’s face, until Wei Wuxian’s free hand seizes around his neck and drags him down.

It’s probably not a good kiss. Wei Wuxian doesn’t really know how to start a kiss—all he’s ever done was sit blindfolded while someone else kissed him. The atmosphere is terrible, too, all smoke and dirt and death.

But Lan Wangji’s lips are soft, and his mouth opens so pliantly against his. Then strong hands are tight around his waist, and Lan Wangji’s tongue presses between his lips, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t care if it’s good, because it’s the best kiss in the world.

Everything goes white, then dark.

The ground lurches again, and he staggers forward. He doesn’t fall this time. Strong hands still clasp him tightly, holding him up, and he lands against a familiar wall of a chest, and his face is on fire, and he’s—

He’s still kissing Lan Wangji.

He yelps and stumbles backwards, but Lan Wangji’s grip on him is too tight, and he can’t go far. He can only stare dizzily up into Lan Wangji’s face. He’s back in the tomb, surrounded by dusty bones, but in the flickering torchlight all he sees is the desperate joy in Lan Wangji’s face.

Maybe it’s the light, but his eyes look red.

“Ah, hello,” Wei Wuxian says breathlessly. “Are you all right? That blast almost—”

Lan Wangji swoops down before he can finish, and this kiss is nothing like the last. Not fire, but moonlight flooding through his lungs, illuminating his bones, until nothing’s left of him but air and joy. He’d float away, if not for the very real, rough press of lips on his. A hint of teeth. Lan Wangji’s tongue warm on his lips, in his mouth. He can’t breathe. He doesn’t want to breathe, if it will distract from this.

Okay, actually. On second thought, he does want to breathe. He breaks away, panting, face flushed. “So, you weren’t a figment of my imagination.”

“Wei Ying.” The words are barely more than a whisper, but they resonate through the tomb. Lan Wangji reaches up and touches Wei Wuxian’s face, trembling fingers gentle against his cheek. “I called for you. You were gone all night—I thought—”

His fingertips are wet. Wei Wuxian jerks back, seizing his wrist, and stares at Lan Wangji’s hand. His fingers are cut through the calluses, dripping blood. Wei Wuxian was gone all night, and that’s how long Lan Wangji played the plaintive song he followed through the wasteland.

He can’t breathe again. He can’t stay in this tomb a moment longer. He retreats, still holding Lan Wangji tight, and Lan Wangji follows. They stop to grab Wangji, tired strings now silent, and they leave the bones and shadows behind.

They emerge into the night. The hillside is quiet, and the sky glitters with stars. The night is still cold, but dawn hints pink at the horizon, and an ember of warmth burns in Wei Wuxian’s heart. He sits heavily in the wild grass, pulling Lan Wangji down with him.

“Lan Zhan, I’m cold,” he lies breathlessly.

Lan Wangji either believes him or pretends to, because suddenly he’s surrounded by warm, strong arms. Wei Wuxian falls limp against his shoulder. The rush of power and adrenaline fades from his limbs and leaves only exhaustion, like he really has been walking all night.

He has things to do. He needs to bandage Lan Wangji’s hands. He needs to exorcise that cursed urn. He needs to kiss Lan Wangji again, to see if it’s just as magic the third time.

But right now, all he can do is whisper, “You won’t, you know.”

Lan Wangji holds him tighter. “Hm?”

Wei Wuxian cuddles closer. “Won’t lose me again. Wherever I go, I’ll come back to you.”

He swears he can feel Lan Wangji’s heart stop, then start again. It’s a rapid rhythm, and Wei Wuxian wants badly to play with him, to see what he can do to make his heart race even faster.

Lan Wangji kisses the top of his head. He whispers, “Wherever you go, I’ll follow,” and Wei Wuxian’s own heart stops.

Then starts again.