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Twilight of Our World, Dawn of Our Lives

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I

 

Wei Wuxian comes into Lan Wangji’s life in a flurry of white robes and with moonlight reflected in his eyes.

He smiles when they see each other for the first time and continues to do so even as they fight; and surprising even himself, Lan Wangji memorises that smile and carves it into his heart. It comes with the sound of Wei Wuxian’s laughter and the curvature of the cowlick that stands out of his hair, untamed just like him.

Lan Wangji wants to reach out and tuck it behind Wei Wuxian’s ear, and the novelty of that thought makes his attacks even more ferocious than they already were. The fight is short and unfair—for what good is a clay jar of wine against Bichen?—and yet it is still longer than Lan Wangji would have ever imagined. It thrills him, this unexpected challenge, but he quenches that feeling and shoves it deep behind the bars of the iron cage of his will.

“Fine, fine,” Wei Wuxian concedes eventually, but there is no telling how much of genuine repentance lies behind his decision rather than just a simple desire to preserve his last intact jar of wine. He is holding onto it like a treasure. “I won’t come in, you’ve made your point.”

“Alcohol and late returns are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji repeats out of sheer force of habit.

“Then I shall find a maiden willing to share a bed for the night in Caiyi town.” The smile on Wei Wuxian’s face is wide and bright, and Lan Wangji barely restrains himself from grabbing him and dragging him back to the disciples’ quarters. Such shameless behaviour is unbefitting the head disciple of the YunmengJiang Sect—surely he must know that? “I’ll be seeing you around!”

Then he is gone, and Lan Wangji is left alone on the roof on a night that has never been so dark before.

 

II

 

Of course, Lan Wangji has heard about Wei Wuxian. Who hasn’t? The prodigy of the YunmengJiang Sect, the golden boy successful in whatever endeavour he attempts. The future of the cultivation world, mentioned under one breath alongside the Twin Jades of Lan. The stories always praise his swordsmanship and his brilliance, and the sheer strength of will that allows him to emerge unscathed from whatever disaster may befall him.

Not even one of those stories has ever mentioned such a blatant disregard of rules.

“Oh, it’s you!” Wei Wuxian shouts when he enters the lecture hall. He waves as soon as Lan Wangji glances in his direction, and his smile shines brighter than the sun. Young masters of YunmengJiang and QingheNie are right behind him, but Lan Wangji hardly even notices them. He sees only Wei Wuxian, who plops down onto the floor by the table right next to his. “Hello again!”

Deafened by his own thundering heartbeat, Lan Wangji says nothing. Making excessive noise is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, he wants to tell him, but in the end thinks better of it. Wei Wuxian does not make excessive noise, he is excessive noise.

“You’re not even going to say anything? I thought we bonded last night.”

“Ridiculous,” is what Lan Wangji says to that, even though dozens of thoughts flick to life in his mind one after another. No improper sitting posture, he considers. What bonding? he wants to ask.

I do not know how to talk to you , he wishes he could say.

He does not listen to Jiang Wanyin, who starts berating his shixiong with determination and fervour befitting the future Sect Leader. No; instead, Lan Wangji focuses on Wei Wuxian’s laughter that suddenly turns the Cloud Recesses into a completely different place.

Lan Wangji does not know if he likes that. It tugs at his heart and brings turmoil to his mind. It changes the unchangeable.

His uncle’s ire is a testament to that. It flares brightly like never before and before Lan Wangji even knows what happened, Wei Wuxian runs out of the lecture hall, his laughter echoing all around them. As he goes, he takes a part of Lan Wangji’s soul with him and leaves behind an aching empty space.

Lan Wangji wishes he would give it back. He wishes they never met.

He wishes to see that smile again.

 

III

 

Wei Wuxian paints on sheets of paper just as expertly as he brings colours to the world.

With time, Lan Wangji stops telling him to cease playing around and return to copy the rules. Instead, he finds contentment in observing him out of the corner of his eye. Wei Wuxian fills the paper with stick figures and ridiculous scenes, with lifelike portraits and landscapes that rival reality. He draws a certain couple often; a woman with eyes filled with happiness and a man with a soft smile. He draws an ageless lady with a scowl on her face and ribbons in her hair. He draws Jiang Wanyin in the company of a young woman.

He draws Lan Wangji once.

“Here,” he says as he gives him the drawing. Lan Wangji’s heart starts to beat faster. Blood rushes to his head and makes him dizzy. “The month is almost over, so this is something for you to remember me by. Do you like it?”

Lan Wangji takes the sheet of paper and hopes his hands do not shake. Only now he notices that Wei Wuxian has drawn a flower atop his head. It is—

As warmth blooms in his chest, he realises it detracts nothing from the drawing and happiness fills him at the sight of it.

“Lan Zhaaaaan,” Wei Wuxian whines. He is standing right next to him—close, too close—and Lan Wangji feels his breath on his skin. “Come on, won’t you say anything? I thought you’d scold me.”

Lan Wangji folds the drawing with all the care in the world. Then, he slips it into his personal copy of Lan An’s poems. He had copied it a long time ago, when those words still rang hollow to his ears and carried no meaning.

He thinks he is finally starting to understand them now.

So he says, “Thank you,” and even though at first Wei Wuxian blinks a few times, the smile he eventually gives him in return is worth more than any book in the world.

 

IV

 

Lan Wangji falls on a summer afternoon.

Maybe he has already fallen earlier; maybe it was a process rather than just a lightning-like strike of realisation. Maybe he has fallen gradually, with each day and each smile, and with each word that brought him warmth and reminded him of days long gone. Or maybe it truly is just a moment in which his limbs turn to stone and his heart stops.

He watches Wei Wuxian fall into the lake and for one terrifying second he cannot so much as move.

Someone screams, “Wei Wuxian!” but he does not know who. It might even have been him.

He wastes no more time and plunges into the water, ignoring tendrils of resentful energy that try to coil around his legs, drag him deeper and hold him underwater until he no longer remembers what the surface looks like. It takes longer than he deems acceptable to notice Wei Wuxian. He is hovering amidst the chaos and languid flow of water that is not water, reaching out towards strands of seaweed that is not seaweed. It licks the tips of his fingers and twists between his fingers.

Fury sets Lan Wangji’s heart aflame.

He hauls Wei Wuxian out of the lake with nothing but sheer determination. He locks the fires of anger and dread deep inside his heart so that no one will ever be aware of their existence. It stuns even him, the ferocity with which the panic burns within him. Wei Wuxian’s absence would make silence fall once again upon Lan Wangji’s life and for the first time, Lan Wangji hates the very idea of it.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says and Lan Wangji wants to keep hearing him say it for the rest of his life. “Why won’t you hold me properly? We’re already so close.”

He almost drops him then, because it is one thing to think about it, and something else entirely to hear someone spell aloud what he wishes to keep to himself. “We’re not close.”

After that, he no longer looks down—and Wei Wuxian says no more.

 

V

 

One stroll in the rain, one argument, and one fight later, Lan Wangji crashes onto the ground with Wei Wuxian in his arms.

Raindrops are falling onto his face as he lies and tries to catch his breath. Wei Wuxian does not speak for a while. Lan Wangji has never imagined how deeply disconcerting it would be, to witness Wei Wuxian’s usual exuberance and never-ending stream of words cut short like this.

He is not even looking at Lan Wangji, and perhaps that is what hurts the most. Come to think of it, he had not been looking at Lan Wangji since the incident at the Biling Lake and Lan Wangji finds this akin to being bereft of the most precious of things. Once, he thought he would welcome the silence that was going to fall once Wei Wuxian departed from the Cloud Recesses. Now he has begun to dread it, for he got used to the way the days start with Wei Wuxian’s smile and end with his laughter. Thanks to both, Lan Wangji has started looking forward to the mornings for the first time in years.

“You’re outside now, too,” Wei Wuxian tells him, but his eyes remain focused elsewhere. A brief urge to grab his chin and make him look comes to life in Lan Wangji’s heart, but he quenches it immediately, terrified of himself.

He will never become his own father.

“I shall take responsibility,” he says eventually, when he is certain his voice will not waver.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Lan Zhan.” His heart flutters as it always does when Wei Wuxian says his name aloud. Does he even know what he is doing to Lan Wangji because of his insistence on using his birth name rather than the courtesy name? Does he know how Lan Wangji’s breath stutters in his throat and his mind wonders what that name could sound like if Wei Wuxian whispered it to his ear? “Can’t you let it go for once? I nearly died yesterday, I deserve some distraction.”

Lan Wangji nearly gives into the need to wrap his arms around Wei Wuxian and pull him closer, to keep him safe and sheltered from all harm. In the end, he does none of this and just says, “No dying.”

“Yeah, yeah, no dying in the Cloud Recesses, I get that.” Wei Wuxian falls quiet for a moment. “Is that even a rule? Are you making this up? Lan Zhan?”

He only nods.

“Lan Zhan.”

“Mn.”

“Lan Zhan, are you making fun of me? Was that a joke?” His eyes sparkle even in the darkness of the night. “Lan Zhan, you’re actually capable of telling jokes!”

Lan Wangji does not have the heart to correct him; not when Wei Wuxian is finally looking at him again and it feels as if the sun rose early to shine only for him. He wants to preserve this moment and knows he cannot; not when tomorrow shall bring punishment for both of them.

He cannot decide what would be worse – Wei Wuxian looking at him with hatred or not looking at him at all. So for now he simply does not get up even though he could, even though he has no right to keep Wei Wuxian in his arms like this.

But Wei Wuxian does not get up either, and his eyes soften as he gazes upon Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “You’re touching me now.”

“Mn.”

“What happened to ‘we’re not close’ ?” His voice is cheerful when he says it, teasing even, but pressed close like this, Lan Wangji feels how Wei Wuxian’s muscle tense when he speaks. “You were so insistent.”

You happened, he wants to say and knows he cannot. “You were going to get hurt.”

Wei Wuxian sits up in his lap and Lan Wangji’s blood sings. “So now you’re hurt instead. What good did it do?”

“Not hurt,” he clarifies, because his aching back is the last thing on his mind right now. A thought is slowly forming in his mind, something he cannot grasp yet. It is the shape of Wei Wuxian’s jaw seen from this exact angle and the weight of him on Lan Wangji’s legs. It smells like rain and is the colour of the night sky above them.

Wei Wuxian hums noncommittally, but does not pick up the subject again. “Lan Zhan,” he says instead. “We’re close, aren’t we? Lan Zhan?”

And Lan Wangji says, “Yes.”

 

VI

 

The dream ends on the cusp of autumn.

Lan Wangji wishes it lasted longer and gave him more time to figure out this tangle of emotions that has taken his heart captive. It makes him desperate and reckless, seeking out Wei Wuxian while he should shun him instead. There is little comfort to be found in that, for he sees Wei Wuxian smile although it is not for him, and neither is his laugh nor the arm thrown around someone’s shoulder. For Lan Wangji is a hand waving from afar, an echoing laughter, and an occasional visit at the Library Pavilion that always leaves him craving more. Nowadays, they always seem to pass each other by and it carves a hole in Lan Wangji’s heart, bottomless and impossible to fill.

And now Wei Wuxian is going to leave the Cloud Recesses for good and Lan Wangji will be stripped even of those few moments that are already not enough.

He conceals the desperate need to see Wei Wuxian under the guise of an afternoon stroll in the courtyard. Wei Wuxian is kneeling on the ground, one arm raised in front of him and the other pressed to his lips, illuminated by a faint sheen of spiritual energy. Too curious for his own good, Lan Wangji follows the line of the outstretched arm with his eyes. It is pointing at a cultivator in white, who is standing under a nearby archway with Sect Leader Jiang, a man dressed in black and red, and Lan Qiren.

Somewhere in the middle between Wei Wuxian and the white-robed cultivator, a stone is hovering in the air.

Lan Wangji sighs loudly enough for Wei Wuxian to hear. 

“Oh, Lan Zhan! Are you looking for me?”

“Ridiculous,” he tells him rather than ask, ‘ Are you unhappy I’m here?’. He would never get a serious answer to that, even if that question ever left his mouth. Better to leave it unsaid, like so many other questions that keep him awake at nights.

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Yes, I think we’ve established that already. Also that I’m pathetic, occasionally extremely pathetic, shameless—” He falls quiet for a moment and the stone moves toward the white-robed cultivator. They are still standing with their back turned to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, unaware of what is going on. “And I forgot what else. What else, Lan Zhan?”

“Wei Ying,” he hisses as unease rises like a wave in him. He wants to grab Wei Wuxian and shake some sense into him before the trouble he gets in becomes too great to deal with.

Wei Wuxian gasps and looks at him, the stone forgotten. “Lan Zhan,” he says, his eyes twinkling and mouth widening in a smile. “Lan Zhan, you’ve never called me by my name before! I’m—”

The stone hits him right in the forehead. Immediately, a bright laughter follows and fills the courtyard, while something quieter and much, much uglier rears its head in Lan Wangji’s heart. It is cold and foreign, and makes his fingers itch.

“Hey!” Wei Wuxian yells, seemingly unperturbed. He is rubbing his forehead. Lan Wangji clenches his fists lest he does something unsavoury. “You’re cheating! I was distracted!”

The white-robed cultivator turns to face them and only now does Lan Wangji realise it is a woman. “Good,” she says as she starts walking towards them. “There’s plenty of distractions in a real fight, you need to learn to ignore them. Now tell me, what has distracted you so?”

Amusement fills her eyes when she looks at Lan Wangji. It is somewhat familiar, the way her eyes light up and twinkle brighter than the stars themselves.

“You’re bullying me and I’m telling grandmother,” Wei Wuxian bemoans. He shoots to his feet and hides behind Lan Wangji, much to Lan Wangji’s confusion and the woman’s amusement. “Lan Zhan, save me, my own mother is making me suffer.”

“Your—” He looks at the woman who smiles even wider. Belatedly, he remembers to bow. “Madam Wei.”

She laughs and it hits him – her laughter reminds him of Wei Wuxian. “No need for formalities, you can call me Cangse.” Even though her voice is kind, he still takes it as admonishment but knows he will never heed her wish. “So you’re Lan Zhan. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Wei Wuxian whimpers behind his back. Lan Wangji wants to comfort him somehow, but how would he even do that? He knows of no words, and his hands are stiff, unused to offering affection. And above all, there are boundaries he dares not cross.

“You’re all my son is writing to us about,” Cangse explains unprompted. “Every time we get a letter, it’s always full of ‘Lan Zhan this’ and ‘Lan Zhan that’ .”

Is she displeased? Lan Wangji cannot tell, but the possibility settles heavy in his mind. It battles with something else, something light and bright that resembles elation more than anything else. It is probably against the rules to feel so happy about being mentioned in another person’s correspondence.

“Muuuuuum,” Wei Wuxian whines from behind him. Something warm lands between Lan Wangji’s shoulder blades and he needs a moment to realise it must be Wei Wuxian’s forehead. His heart stutters and then picks up speed like a scared animal. “Stop it, Lan Zhan doesn’t want to hear about this.”

“I do not mind.”

He almost curses himself for that slip of self-restraint, but then Cangse’s smile changes into something smaller, softer—and he thinks that maybe letting go of it was not a bad thing.

“Ying-er,” she says to the son she cannot see, “go apologise to your Sect Leader.”

Wei Wuxian emerges from behind Lan Wangji but does not move away. Scant millimetres separate them, a space so minimal and yet so impossible to reach out over. “Mum?”

“Go. I fancy a walk. Would you walk with me, Second Young Master Lan?”

Lan Wangji thinks he hears a whispered, ‘Oh no’, but he cannot be certain. “Of course I will , Madam Wei.”

She laughs. “Come on, you can call me ‘mother’.”

His heart stops as his ears begin to burn in shame. Is his weakness for Wei Wuxian that obvious?

“Mum, if you bully him, I’m telling grandmother.”

She gasps in mock offense. “Where did you even get the idea I’d bully your Lan Zhan?”

“Experience, mother. Experience.”

“Go, you ungrateful brat.” She waves him off like one would a pest, but the smile on her face speaks clearly of her love for him. Lan Wangji’s heart twists painfully. “You have a family tradition to uphold and not much time left to do so.”

“If I perish, it’s on you.” And with that, Wei Wuxian runs off without a word of goodbye. Lan Wangji cannot help but look after him. Soon, he will not have even that.

Cangse is standing right next to him. There is warmth in her eyes and a smile on her face. They remind him of his own mother.

“Will you walk with me, Second Young Master Lan?” she asks and he agrees. He already has, after all, and he is not the kind of man to go back on his word.

They walk in silence at first. Cangse is vibrant by his side, merry and cheerful just like her son. Lan Wangji notices traces of Wei Wuxian’s smile in hers. She is calmer than him, though, and a soothing kind of contentment radiates from her.

“You know,” she finally says when they have only the wind and the waterfall for company. Water is reflected in her eyes. “I’ve never liked this place. All these rules to follow! Even my old master wasn’t that strict and that’s saying something.”

Lan Wangji remains silent. Rarely does he know what to say and his current predicament is no different.

“I expected A-Ying wouldn’t like it here, either. I expected letters full of wailing and pleas to save him, and that he’d rather go study under my old teacher.” She looks at him now, and there’s warmth in her gaze. “But instead, he’s been writing about you.”

Satisfaction explodes and engulfs Lan Wangji’s heart; he feels the signs of it on his ears. They are burning and the afternoon wind does nothing to prevent it. He does not remember the last time he was this happy; perhaps the truth is he never was. Happiness brought by Wei Wuxian is as effervescent as he is. In no way does it resemble the mellow contentment encouraged by the GusuLan rules.

Sometimes, Wei Wuxian makes Lan Wangji think he has never truly known what happiness is like.

“I think,” Cangse says now, slower, “he hasn’t had a real friend before and that’s something I have to thank you for, Second Young Master Lan.”

That does not sound right. Wei Wuxian is the sun; wherever he goes, people follow in dozens. “He is friendly,” he tells her, but that is not right. Words always fall short when he wants to convey his thoughts properly.

“He is, but that doesn’t mean he has friends. So thank you for being his friend.”

Something is writhing at the bottom of his heart, something that demands consideration and voice—and Lan Wangji is not going to give it either of those. Nonetheless, it sours his elation with regret too great to disregard.

“He is my friend as well,” he says even though it does not even come close to the depths of regard he holds for Wei Wuxian in his heart. He doubts he will ever be able to give words to what he feels. It is ever changing, after all, growing with every day and threatening to consume him if he allows it. There is no way of knowing how long he will be able to stand against the onslaught of his own emotions.

When they come, he will be devoured and it terrifies him.

“We’re planning to go to Caiyi town before we leave Gusu. A-Ying told us a lot about the restaurants there.” They are well on their way back when Cangse speaks again. For someone whom Wei Wuxian resembles so greatly, she is much quieter than he is. Lan Wangji wonders if the years to come are going to do the same to him, if one day he is also going to gain that faraway look in his eyes and that serene smile befitting an immortal. “Would you like to come with us? I’m sure A-Ying will be thrilled.”

Only now does Lan Wangji realise Wei Wuxian will never again invite him to tag along to Caiyi town with him and other guest disciples. He has asked so many times, only to be met with yet another excuse justifying Lan Wangji’s refusal. Lan Wangji will no longer have to think about them, even though he yearned to accept the invitation at least once. He is already known for fearlessness, has always faced danger head-on, but the kind of bravery that allowed him to do that has never been enough to say ‘Yes’ when it counted. He notices the way other disciples look at him, sees the wariness and mistrust in their eyes, and knows his presence would have only made them even more uncomfortable had he agreed to go with them. The last thing he wanted was to drive a wedge between Wei Wuxian and the others who flocked to him just like he did.

He has almost managed to convince himself that watching from afar was enough.

“Was that presumptuous of me?” Cangse asked once the silence stretched on. “Have I... misread you, Second Young Master Lan? Your father and uncle were much more open when we were all your age.”

Lan Wangji nearly opens his mouth to ask—and then closes it, because what can he possibly ask about? He has many questions; so many that he does not even know which should be the first. And then he hears it – Wei Wuxian’s pearly laughter carried by the wind. Lan Wangji looks up and sees him in the distance, telling a story to his father. Every move he makes is full of excitement, and every word he says sounds like music to Lan Wangji’s ears.

He wonders if he can recreate it on his guqin.

“I will be happy to accompany you, Madam Wei.”

She gives him a smile; wide, bright. Lan Wangji wishes she could meet his mother. Surely they would have liked each other.

“Husband dear!” she yells across the courtyard. They both turn to look at her, Wei Wuxian and his father. “Come meet Lan Zhan!”

“Muuuuuum!” Wei Wuxian wails at that, but Lan Wangji says nothing.

Deep in his heart, he does not mind. He watches Cangse smile at her son and husband with all the love in the world. Then she turns to face him, and the smile remains on her face.

Warmth blooms in Lan Wangji’s heart and for once, he lets it take root.

 

VII

 

Lan Wangji thinks he remembers Wei Wuxian well. His smile shines in his memory, his laughter rings in his ears, and the proximity of his body makes Lan Wangji’s skin tingle. It does not matter if all of those are only shadows of what is no more. The world has been silent ever since Wei Wuxian left the Cloud Recesses.

Then the day comes when he sees him under the harsh sun of Qishan, and suddenly colours slither back into his vision. It is the purple of Wei Wuxian’s bell tied to his belt, and the red of the ribbon holding his hair in the high ponytail he favours so much, and the stormy grey of his eyes. Lan Wangji watches him drape himself over his cultivation brothers who gaze upon Wei Wuxian with wonder, and knows the exact same look is mirrored on his face.

He turns away a moment too late, because soon Wei Wuxian is in front of him, all smiles and laughter, and Lan Wangji’s hands itch.

“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! It’s so good to see you!”

People are watching them; some with surprise, others with disgruntlement. Jiang Wanyin’s face is contorted in a scowl much deeper than that he sported in the Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji does not find it in his heart to be bothered by that. Wei Wuxian’s presence makes the scrutiny bearable.

“You as well,” he says. He wants to ask how Wei Wuxian has been faring during all those months he spent away from Gusu, or how his mother is doing, or—

The questions are stuck in his throat, choking him. In the end, he gives voice to neither of them.

“Lan Zhan...” Wei Wuxian hesitates and does not finish whatever he intended to say. Before Lan Wangji can inquire about it, Jiang Wanyin is already calling for him across the field. Light dies in Wei Wuxian’s eyes as he turns to leave.

Lan Wangji nearly reaches out to grab his hand and only years of discipline stop him from doing so.

“May the best man win, yeah?” Wei Wuxian shouts and waves and then—

Jiang Wanyin drags him away to form the line with the rest of their Sect’s disciples. And then—

Wen Ruohan signals for the competition to begin, his eyes never leaving the gathered disciples. The intensity of his gaze chills Lan Wangji to the bone. And then—

The stone forest is quiet around them when Wei Wuxian grabs and pulls Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon. It comes undone and so does his hair as he whips around. His heartbeat is  thunder in his ears and a drum in his chest. Something snaps; only the sting in his hand tells him it was his bow.

Wei Wuxian’s face is pale. Lan Wangji wonders what made it so.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” He gives the ribbon back to Lan Wangji as if it was not Lan Wangji’s heart he is holding in his hand. “You can tie it back again.”

A storm rages in Lan Wangji. He does not hear those words, nor does he see the proffered hand. Broken remains of his bow fall to the ground from his loosened grip; he steps over them, uncaring. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen and that is all he has time for before Lan Wangji pushes him against the stone wall behind his back.

“Lan Zhan!” he yells. His voice echo between the rocks surrounding them. “Lan Wangji, what—”

“Wei Ying.” Only a hair’s breadth separates them. Lan Wangji can count every single one of Wei Wuxian’s eyelashes. “Do you have any idea...”

Wei Wuxian puts a hand on Lan Wangji’s chest. He is still holding the ribbon. Lan Wangji ignores it, even though every fibre of his being is screaming at him to tie the ribbon around Wei Wuxian’s wrist and watch it remain there for the rest of their lives. Instead, he just lowers his head until their foreheads touch. Wei Wuxian’s sucks in a shaky breath.

“Lan Zhan,” he whispers. Lan Wangji just shakes his head. The time for words has passed. He cups Wei Wuxian’s cheek; warmth explodes under his palm and crawls up, turning Wei Wuxian’s skin red. It looks good on him, Lan Wangji decides.

“Wei Ying.” Nothing but a murmur leaves his lips. His heart is chanting that name as well. Perhaps simply no other words are left in Lan Wangji’s universe. Wei Wuxian—Wei Ying , because at this point how can it be anything else but that?—puts his other hand on Lan Wangji’s nape, just below the hairline. In turn, Lan Wangji snakes an arm around his waist and pulls him flush against himself. Wei Ying’s breath hitches; the blush on his face spreads.

Does it reach his chest? Lan Wangji wants to push Wei Ying’s collar aside to find out. He nuzzles his nose along the line of Wei Ying’s earlobe instead. He could spend hours doing this. Learning Wei Ying’s body is an endeavour that calls for weeks of devoted effort. Every part that makes him squirm, every single place that leaves him breathless – Lan Wangji would memorise them all and learn how to worship Wei Ying the way he deserves to be worshipped. He is the sun, the bright end at the end of the road, the conclusion and the reason, the answer to all questions Lan Wangji has ever had. And now...

Now Wei Ying whispers, “I...” and takes a step back. “I have to... The competition.”

He is gone before Lan Wangji can even think of what to say. The ribbon falls; he catches it before it touches the ground, acting on a pure instinct ingrained in him due to years and years of learning of what it means to be a Lan. It does not matter now, though, because why would it when numbness erupts in his heart and spreads, and soon he is hollow where he used to be whole? Why would it matter when the only thing he has ever allowed himself to crave is so out of his reach?

He is holding his shattered heart in his hands and wishes it was just a meaningless strip of fabric.

 

VIII

 

Everyone compares the Wen Sect to the sun. They say it shines upon all and its splendour is blinding in its intensity. They say it casts no shadow in which one can hide.

To Lan Wangji, the Wen Sect is a raging inferno, consuming everything and everyone on its path. It takes and takes and takes – his home, his father, his brother; but not his heart, for he has none to give. Not anymore. His heart belongs to the sun, the real sun, and it has already been burnt to ashes.

This is why reason and common sense win with his desire for justice. He hands his sword over and says nothing. He clenches his teeth through pain and humiliation, and does not even know which of those hurts more. A QingheNie disciple dies in his arms and suddenly, he is in front of the Library Pavilion again. Smoke fills his nose and fire licks at his legs; his golden core thrashes in his chest, filling him with energy to which there is no outlet. He quells it and swallows the words coming to his mind. What could he possibly say? What use is righteousness when it brings nothing but death?

Wei Ying is here as well, always within sight. Turning away from him should have brought Lan Wangji pain but it does not. The emptiness cannot be hurt, and emptiness is all he is made of now.

“Lan Zhan, come on!” Wei Ying says. “I’ll carry you on my back! We’re already so close, no need to be shy!”

It is akin to an epiphany, seeing that smile again. Wei Ying’s eyes are kind and his face is open, and Lan Wangji—

Lan Wangji is tired. He is tired of pain, of numbness, of the way his heart – that stubborn little creature he cannot get a hold of – skips a beat whenever Wei Ying speaks to him fondly. The ribbon tied around his forehead is a reminder that kindness and perhaps a sliver of friendship are all Wei Ying regards him with.

So he says, “Not close,” and walks away rather than give voice to what lies in his heart. He tricks himself into thinking that leaving is painless, that it is better to let go now than tumble down later once those ridiculous feelings grow too big for him to ignore. He will bear them in silence like he always has.

After all, it is his fate to carry them with him just like the ribbon around his head – and he shall do both without a word.

 

IX

 

And when he sings in the darkness, a steady drip-drip-drip of water accompanies him. And when he takes Wei Ying into his arms and places him gently in his lap, his heart rises from the ashes, reforms itself and hurts, hurts, hurts . And when Wei Ying reaches out for something he can neither see nor touch, Lan Wangji takes his hand and holds it firmly in his own, and it is cold even though the fever should have made it blisteringly hot.

The beast is dead. Against all odds, Lan Wangji and Wei Ying are not. But they are hurt and trapped, and the ghosts of the lake are creeping closer with every breath.

“Lan Zhan...” Wei Ying mumbles through the haze of fever. He has not woken up in hours; Lan Wangji no longer tries to shake him awake. He holds his hand instead and sings. And sings.

And sings.

 

X

 

The inferno swallows Wei Ying whole and does not even spit the bones for him to find, so Lan Wangji sends his Inquiry out into the world in hopes of finding from the dead what the living cannot tell him.

He finds nothing, but Cangse Sanren finds him.

“Second Master Lan.”

Has he been expecting to hear his name from her? A profound sense of disappointment blooming within his heart tells more about his desires than he will ever be willing to acknowledge.

“Madam Wei.” His fingers never leave the strings of his guqin . The wood beneath his fingers is too smooth, unblemished, and the strings do not feel right yet. He misses his old instrument, broken to pieces and left to burn before the Library Pavilion.

The soul in front of him, bright and silent, knows nothing so he dismisses it when Cangse sits down next to him. Behind them, Lan Wangji’s attendant is just as silent as the soul was.

“You know,” she says, her eyes never leaving the faint traces of spiritual energy that still shimmer in the air even though the soul is gone, “my old master doesn’t allow anyone to return. If you leave her, it’s final. You can never go back no matter what.

“But despite everything, I wanted her to meet A-Ying. I wanted her to know I was just as happy as I’d been when I studied under her care. She’s like her mountain, Baoshan Sanren. She’s old and stubborn and doesn’t break for anything or anyone.” She flashes him a smile that looks just like Wei Ying’s. Lan Wangji’s heart twists painfully. “But I’m just as stubborn as she is, if not more.”

Lan Wangji wonders where Wei Changze is. He wonders if the war devoured him like it did  Lan Wangji’s own father, but he does not ask. One conversation years ago does not give him the right to pry.

“I took A-Ying with me that day. He was two and she was ancient.” Her smile dims and gains a nostalgic edge that makes Lan Wangji turn his gaze away. “I put him down and let him walk to her even though he could barely do it back then. He waddled to her, raised his arms, and said, ‘Up, up!’. She picked him up because she’s kind like that. Then A-Ying hugged her and laughed and kept saying, ‘Granny!’ over and over again.”

He tries to imagine that, a memory from a better world, from before the fire and blood and the night that has fallen never to pass. Wei Ying as a child, with a mop of unruly hair sticking out in every direction. An immortal who watches the world from afar, holding the sun itself in her arms and seeing its brightness for the first time in centuries. The past is where his hope lies – perhaps if he wishes hard enough, if his heart’s desire is strong enough to be woven into the fabric of the world, that hope will once again become reality.

“My son,” Cangse Sanren says, slowly, “to this day calls Baoshan Sanren ‘grandmother’ and she lets him .” She puts her hand atop his and the guqin ’s strings fall silent. Somehow, inexplicably even to himself, Lan Wangji does not flinch. Her touch reminds him of the comfort his own mother’s hands had given him for years—and of all the years without it, too. “What I’m trying to say is that A-Ying had been doing the impossible even before he became a YunmengJiang disciple. Whatever happened, wherever he is... he’ll be back.”

And he wants to believe her—oh, how he wants to, how he wishes for the sun to rise again. Her assumptions may even be right. They have gone through so much already that it is nearly inconceivable Wei Ying would be unable to overcome any kind of challenge thrown at him by the world. As long as he comes back, Lan Wangji will be content.

Even if it means his ribbon will remain forever tied around his head.

 

XI

 

The world is coming down in flames around them, but Cangse laughs and laughs and laughs even as tears fall down her cheeks. Lan Wangji cannot look at her, blinded by his own tears. An inferno is raging in his heart, a mixture of fury and pain intertwined so tightly it leaves him shaking. The strings of his guqin are hanging loose, coated in blood.

The Burial Mounds, something insistent whispers in his mind. The endless maze of death and what lies beyond it. The graveyard of the forgotten.

“Are you telling me,” Cangse says now, and a hysterical note to her voice is nearly unnoticeable, “that Wen Ruohan explicitly ordered you to return to him... and you disobeyed him? Oh, I almost want to be there when you tell him what you’ve done.”

Wen Chao sneers, but Lan Wangji could not care less about him. His eyes are on Wen Zhuliu instead, the second most dangerous man of the cultivation world. If he so much as moves a finger, Lan Wangji is prepared to push Cangse out of the way. He is loath to imagine having to tell Wei Ying he failed to protect his mother.

 “As if my father would ever let you near him, you rogue lunatic.” Distance grows between Wen Chao and his entourage as he walks closer, and it creates an opening to attack too good to pass. One look at Cangse’s face tells Lan Wangji her thoughts are exactly the same. “You will all die here and join that brat of yours in hell. He’s been waiting for too long already.”

Something is born in her hands, something heavy and dark. “Wen Chao, you have no idea .” And then she jumps, with no weapon but herself, and Lan Wangji with Jiang Wanyin can only follow. Dragging Wen Zhuliu away from her is all Lan Wangji can focus on; an endeavour as ambitious as it is impossible. Core-Melting Hand is Wen Chao’s shadow, ever-present even in the depths of night. Countless cultivators have fallen at his hand, from powerful and minor Sects alike, and nearly everyone left alive cowers at the sound of his name. Yet here he is, fighting against a rogue cultivator who shows no sign of fear or weakness. A crease on his forehead gets deeper and deeper as time passes by and she holds her ground steadily. There is something unique about the way she wields her power, how she twists it between her fingers and hurls it at Wen Zhuliu with the speed of a falling star.

Still, it is not enough, for the battle before was long and tiresome, and the blood they spilled was plenty. And yet she still pushes Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin behind her as if they were in need of protection rather than her. She does not know Wen Chao like Lan Wangji does; she has not seen what he does to women. Lan Wangji prays to his ancestors she will never find out.

“Kill them all.” Wen Chao’s order is full of fury he does not try to control. There is something in his eyes when he looks at her; something new. Lan Wangji does not like it. “Keep their heads intact, I want to present them to my father.”

Cangse smiles. It is the unreadable smile of an immortal who has seen the world turn one too many times. Lan Wangji readies himself for a last stand against Wen Chao, even though his spiritual powers are now nothing but a trickle where a roaring river used to be. If this is how he dies, then so be it. The world as he knew it is already in shambles, so what does it matter if one more soul is gone from it?

He used to dream about the future. It has turned out nothing like he imagined.

“Lan Zhan?” Cangse’s eyes are warm when she looks at him. She offers him her hand and he takes it. “It’ll be all right.”

Despite all logic and evidence, he wants to believe her. It is not such an awful way to die, with someone akin to a mother by his side. He hopes Xichen is well, and that one day his uncle will be able to recite the rules of the Cloud Recesses again, and that Wei Ying truly is alive, wherever he might be. So when shadows and darkness rise and engulf them in a cold embrace, he takes one last deep breath before a suffocating weight settles atop his shoulders and crushes him until he sways on his feet.

Then death comes on the wings of crows and in the shrill notes of a dizi . The dead rise, ravenous, and he who controls them arrives with the shadows hand in hand. In his palm, night itself rests, interwoven with blood dripping from the setting sun.

Drenched in darkness, he feeds the Wens to the night in scraps of flesh and streams of blood. And when the deed is done, he emerges, a sun long lost, a son that has gone out.

In that cold, tired, gaunt face, Lan Wangji barely recognises Wei Ying.

Cangse’s grip tightened on his hand. “A-Ying?”

Only now does Wei Ying look at them, dazed and weary. Has he not noticed them before?

“Mum?” Even his voice is different, lower and raspy as if he has not used it in a while—or used it too much. He is dressed in smoke and blood, and the night lies heavy in his hand. “Lan Zhan. Jiang Cheng.”

“Ying-er, what have you done?”

Wei Ying straightens his back. He is thinner than he was the last time Lan Wangji saw him; his chest is broader, though, and his hair is longer. It falls down his back in waves, free of the ponytail. “What I had to,” he says defensively. “I survived. I got out.”

Lan Wangji remembers the talismans drawn in blood, and people torn to pieces. It is all around him now, this blanket of resentful energy and the horde of corpses that should never have moved. The air is thick, suffocating. The smell of burning wood does nothing to hide the iron tinge of blood underlying it.

The smile on Wei Ying’s face is no more and Lan Wangji does not know how to bring it back.

Cangse goes to him. She cradles his face in her hands and pulls him down to look at her. He is taller than her now. “At what cost?” His skin is pallid in comparison to hers, and the muted grey of his cloak only brings it out. “A-Ying—”

He takes a step back; he is limping slightly, unable to hide it. “Mother. Let it go.”

Lan Wangji’s feet carry him closer to Wei Ying. He cannot fight it even if he tried. “Wei Ying,” he says, pleadingly. Wei Ying turns to look at him and so do the dead. “The heretic path harms both the body and the heart, you shouldn’t—”

“I shouldn’t?” His eyes turn crimson. A murmur rises behind him, low and steady like a buzz of a bee hive. “Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do? You have no idea what I had to do!”

Lan Wangji extends his hand; the only thing he can do when words fail him. And fail they do, more often than not; especially when it counts the most. “Wei Ying,” he says like he used to when life was easier and the world was simpler. “Come back to Gusu with me.”

“Come back to Gusu?” Wei Ying laughs; coldly, haughtily, so unlike the way he laughed before. “Whatever for? So that you can lock me up? Cleanse me? Have something for your uncle to show his students as an example of dangers of cultivating outside the broad, easy path?”

Darkness seeps into Lan Wangji’s heart and stays there. It feels like defeat and loss. It feels like the emptiness after his mother’s death. “Wei Wuxian!”

“Lan Wangji!” His voice is a storm that breaks out around them. They stand in the eye of it, untouched, separated by a distance unreachable. “Why do you have to stand in my way? Why do you have to mock me? Do you really—”

And then it is over, just as unexpectedly as it began. Cangse stands in front of her son, shaking. Redness blooms on Wei Ying’s cheek where she slapped him. “Listen to yourself!” A sob tears itself from her throat. In all those months spent searching for Wei Ying, Lan Wangji has never seen her cry. She looks so small now, lost and broken. “How can you even think that?”

But Lan Wangji knows; oh, he knows. Whatever had been between them, he ruined it at the archery competition, when his weak heart took advantage of his common sense. Wei Ying has never looked at him again, not the way he used to in Gusu. Too late did Lan Wangji realise what he was being presented with. Too late did he open his heart.

“With all due respect, Madam Wei.” Jiang Wanyin moves to stand between them like a wedge. Wei Ying looks away from all of them, quiet and distant. Where are his laughter and sunny smiles? Lan Wangji is tempted to ask but knows he will never get an answer. “No matter what you and Second Master Lan would like to do, Wei Wuxian is still the head disciple of the YunmengJiang Sect and if he were to be held accountable for what he did, his punishment is up to me.”

Lan Wangji knows a lost cause when he sees it. Wei Ying will not spare him so much as a glance, let alone a word, so he swallows his and walks away, leaving behind the hollow shell of his sun. The ringing in his ears is deafening but does nothing to silence the pain of his heart.

“Wei Ying...” Cangse’s pleading tone is as loud as a thunder. She says what Lan Wangji dares not speak.

“I must go with my Sect Leader, mother.” And isn’t it amusing? Wei Ying no longer wears purple, and the YunmengJiang bell is no longer on his belt. It rests between the folds of Lan Wangji’s robes, warm and solid, a memento he cannot bear to part with. “Surely you understand.”

Silence falls. Then she speaks, quietly. “If you see Wen Ruohan, run. Run and don’t look back. Promise me that.”

 “If I see Wen Ruohan, he’ll die.”

Once, Lan Wangji would have scoffed at the audacity of that statement. Now, leaving as quickly as possible, he cannot help but think that this Wei Ying, who has gone out of the Burial Mounds with the shadow in his hands and the dead at his feet, who has done the impossible and conquered what no one else before him even thought of conquering—this Wei Ying would be more than willing to stand against the most dangerous cultivator in the world.

Lan Wangji makes his way back to Gusu under the cover of the night and realises that Wei Ying might have dragged his body out of the Burial Mounds, but he obviously left himself behind.

 

XII

 

Time flies. Blood flows. People die. Lan Wangji tries to put his life back together.

He does so as far away from Wei Ying as he can. Common people suffer – the Sunshot Campaign is taking its toll on everyone, especially those who cannot defend themselves. Lan Wangji goes in and does it in their stead and soon, his name fades and a title rises in its place. It does not bother him; he does what is right and accepts the consequences of it. If it means he becomes even more untouchable than he already was, then so be it. After all, the only person who has ever tried to leap across that distance cares no more.

Thus he roams, even though at the same time he is eager for every bit and piece of stories. People call Wei Ying the mad genius, the master of death, the one who does the impossible and then looks for more. In time, fear is born underneath the praise, and suspicious murmurs rise where nothing but admiration flourished before. The mad genius becomes just the madman, and the unspoken awe turns to disgust.

Wei Ying is a star that falls from the sky, burns bright for one exhilarating moment, and then crashes to the ground in nothing but dust and debris. He takes what remains of the Wen Sect and flees, and the only place where he can hide is where he was once thrown into to die.

And just like that, Lan Wangji finds himself gravitating towards Yiling more and more often. The Burial Mounds loom on the horizon but he never goes into that labyrinth of what lies beyond the world. For all he knows, Wei Ying never leaves the place that devoured him seemingly so long ago. For all he knows, Wei Ying may even be dead.

During one of those visits, he stumbles across Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze. Her expression is distant, his – gloomy, and Lan Wangji can only greet them wordlessly. No words of comfort come to his mind. If they had existed, he would have already convinced himself to believe in them.

“Second Master Lan.” Wei Ying’s father returns Lan Wangji’s bow just like etiquette dictates. Cangse, on the other hand, just pats him on the arm without a word. Her eyes are darting all over the crowd. It must be a trading day – the streets are busy, people are shouting, and a child is crying somewhere nearby. Lan Wangji has been here mere minutes and he already wants to leave.

“Is Second Master Lan here to knock some sense into that idiot son of mine as well?” Wei Changze asks. Cangse just shakes her head and storms off, expertly making her way through the crowd. They both look after her until not even a sliver of her white robes can be seen amidst the swarm of people.

“Just passing by,” Lan Wangji answers calmly. Wei Changze only hums and somehow that is enough to make Lan Wangji want to say more. This quiet acceptance reminds him of his brother, who has always waited just as patiently for him to find his words. “I... have not seen Wei Ying in a long time.”

Wei Changze scowls. He looks worn out, far older than he truly is – and perhaps the war has stolen the future from everyone. “I was hoping you two kept in touch. Even Young—Sect Leader Jiang doesn’t know what’s been going on with A-Ying recently.”

“Wei Ying made it clear he wanted to sever all ties between us. I could only honour that.”

Wei Changze rubs his eyes tiredly. His hand is shaking. “My best friend turned my son into an idiot and I can’t even yell at him for that because he’s already dead.”

Lan Wangji refrains from commenting. It is unbecoming to speak ill of the deceased, even more so when the person in question is a former Sect Leader. He knows this kind of regret well, though. After all, even he had not told his father everything he wanted to – and now the chance to do so is gone forever. His thoughts will remain with him for the rest of his days; all those unasked questions and unvoiced regrets.

“One shall not dwell on the past,” he says instead. Silence would be less empty than those words, trivial and borderline insulting. And even though a ridiculous remark like that is more than expected from a Lan, he is not beyond questioning the point of it all.

Loneliness on the road is changing him and there is no way of knowing what awaits him at the end of this journey.

“Boys! Boys, come here!”

They both look at the crowd. Cangse is waving at them madly in the distance, jumping up and down. Wei Changze’s lips curl into a smile, but Lan Wangji’s heart only twists painfully. It is something Wei Ying would have done in their youth. He would have laughed and waved and screamed for everyone to hear.

The past has never seemed so long gone as it does now.

“The lady says, ‘come,’ so I must. Second Master Lan doesn’t have to follow if he’s unwilling.”

Lan Wangji adjusts the guqin on his back. He has got so used to its weight that sometimes he does not even notice it anymore. “I do not mind.” If anything, he should at least say goodbye before he allows the wilderness to welcome him again to its silent and desolate embrace. They make their way through the throng of people – the villagers move out of Lan Wangji’s way as they always do everywhere. Sometimes they do not even look at him.

He wonders sometimes what they see.

When they finally see Cangse, the world stops. Wei Ying is standing next to her, holding a toddler in his arms. The boy is hiding his face in the crook of Wei Ying’s neck. Cangse’s expression is unreadable, arms folded and brow furrowed, and Wei Ying at least has the decency to fidget under her scrutiny.

Lan Wangji cannot breathe.

They are thin, both Wei Ying and the child. Their clothes are smudged with dirt and have clearly seen better days. With a gaunt face, unruly hair, and bags under his eyes, Wei Ying looks even worse than he did when he came back from the Burial Mounds. Sickness clings to him; Lan Wangji sees it in his distrustful eyes and skittish moves. It reminds him of a shadow dispersing in the sunlight, writhing and diminishing with every second.

“Mum, dad.” Wei Ying looks at Lan Wangji as if he hardly believes his eyes. “Hanguang-Jun. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

So it has reached even him, the title that nowadays seems to precede Lan Wangji everywhere he goes. Spoken in Wei Ying’s cold voice, it sounds like an insult. “Wei Ying,” he says for the first time in months. That name has always been like music to his ears, carrying meaning he is yet to decipher.

“We met on the road.” The lie rolls easily from Cangse’s tongue and is, surprisingly, enough to serve as an acceptable answer. “And who’s that?”

For a moment, Wei Ying says nothing. Then he glances at his father. Wei Changze’s expression is stormy; it reminds Lan Wangji of Lan Qiren seconds before an outburst.

“My friends’ nephew. I’m just taking him out.” He puts the boy on the ground and pushes him gently towards Cangse. “Go on, A-Yuan. Don’t be scared.”

The child, A-Yuan, glances up at the three of them and then plasters himself to Wei Ying’s leg. “Hello,” he mutters.

Cangse crouches and coos at him; and before Lan Wangji even realises what is happening, Wei Ying is telling a story of how he buried A-Yuan in a radish patch. For the first time in forever, Lan Wangji hears him laugh again. He sees him smile and pat the child on the head with fondness befitting a parent and—

And that is when Lan Wangji knows he has never stopped being an outsider. Despite Cangse’s warm acceptance, despite Wei Ying’s freely given affection of yore, they have only ever passed through his life never to remain in it. A wall of rules and cloud-crowned mountains of Gusu are the landmarks in Lan Wangji’s life; the stillness of the cold spring and the distance from the world embrace him—and it is cold and lonely and he wishes it were not so.

The bright sun has never been for him.

So he takes a step back in silence that has been his friend for years. Thankfully, the Weis are not looking at him; he turns before he overstays his welcome even more. The crowd cannot swallow him fast enough; he is too tall, too white for this place. Heavens above, he should never have come to Yiling.

“Lan Zhan?”

Of course it is Wei Ying who notices his departure. Lan Wangji’s heart stutters as he stops in his steps. The sleeves of his robes do nothing to hide his clenched fists.

“Are you going to leave without even saying goodbye? Again?”

For a moment he recalls no such thing, but then a realisation hits him. With it, the memories of fire and the stench of the dead come forth, unbidden. Wei Ying is right, he did leave that day as fast as he could, incapable of looking at the shell of the man he cared about.

He has never expected Wei Ying to notice his departure, let alone remember it years later.

“It is impudent to interrupt,” he says. Now Wei Ying’s parents are also looking at him, which is yet another thing he hoped to avoid by making himself scarce quietly enough for no one to take notice of it.

“Oh, but it’s not impudent to just disappear?” Wei Ying throws his hands into the air. Then he picks up A-Yuan from the ground and turns away from Lan Wangji. “You know what? Forget it. Go. I’m sure Hanguang-Jun is busy enough without us wasting his precious time.”

If only he knew Lan Wangji throws himself head-first into danger just to forget the old days and the debilitating longing his heart is suffused with. If only he knew that his smile haunts Lan Wangji’s dreams and fills them with nostalgia unimaginable. If only he knew that Lan Wangji would have fought the Heavens themselves to ensure his safety and wellbeing.

But he will never know. He does not care, after all.

So Lan Wangji says nothing because there is nothing to be said. Nothing Wei Ying is willing to listen to, anyway.

“Manners, A-Ying,” Wei Changze barks now. Unlike Cangse and Lan Wangji, he does not hide his displeasure. His emotions are displayed out in the open for everyone to see. Wei Ying used to be like that, too, before he let the Burial Mounds into his heart.

Cangse puts a hand on her husband’s arm and rubs it up and down. “A-Ying mentioned he and his... friends would be having dinner soon. Come with us, Second Master Lan.”

Wei Ying’s face is unreadable but at the very least he does not disagree on the spot. He does not look at Lan Wangji, though. He has not in a while.

“I don’t want to impose.”

“You’re not imposing,” she says reassuringly and nudges Wei Ying without even a sliver of subtlety. “Isn’t that right, A-Ying?”

Wei Ying shrugs. It is somewhat hindered by A-Yuan dozing off in his arms. “Do what you will, I don’t mind. Don’t expect luxuries, though.”

Sometimes, Lan Wangji spends weeks with no bed to sleep in and no roof above his head. His brother would be worried if he knew, his uncle – appalled. He, on the other hand, could not be bothered. The cultivation world is suffocating and he prefers spending his time on deeds that actually benefit others, no matter what it does to his reputation.

“I do not care for luxuries,” he says. Wei Ying shoots him a doubtful glance but does not comment—and oh, how Lan Wangji wishes that he did. It would have been just echoes of the past, but even that is better than nothing. But Wei Ying no longer does any of the things he could not live without once, and isn’t Lan Wangji exactly the same? They have grown up too quickly in the shadow of the war.

And thus they are off, a mismatched quintet of people brought together once more by nothing but coincidence. People watch them as they go; gossip will no doubt start as soon as they are out of earshot. Lan Wangji expects it will spread like wildfire – the only question is if it is going to leave Yiling.

He realises he does not care about that either.

Soon, the countryside’s fields become barren, gentle rolling hills give way to jagged rocks, and the air gets heavy and cold. Hair on the back of Lan Wangji’s neck stands on end. His hands are itching to grab the guqin and feel its comforting weight in his arms. By the time they encounter the first feral corpse, resentful energy around them is so thick he can barely breathe.

Wei Ying does not care about that walking corpse. He just strolls past it as if it were another rock; the corpse, on the other hand, scurries away from them as fast as it can. More come in its place; some of them move on their own, others disperse when Wei Ying whistles at them. He does not even bother to take out the flute. Even though Lan Wangji’s instincts scream at him to cleanse the area, he has to admit that Wei Ying’s control over the dead is impressive.

He wonders what would have to happen for him to lose it.

The stone labyrinth opens to a sizeable plateau and Lan Wangji sees—

Rows of tents slowly being replaced by simple wooden houses. The wood is dark and old, and so are all the trees that still remain standing. Leafless and twisted, they could just as well be dead husks rather than still growing plants. Vegetable patches pop up here and there; the soil is dark, hardly any better than dust. And he sees—

People working on anything they can; their faces gaunt and eyes wary as they watch them arrive. They are dressed in simple clothes, similar to those A-Yuan is wearing, and there is no sign of the Wen Sect colours anywhere. A woman who appears older than his granduncle is sitting on a makeshift bench and humming something to herself as a few crows hop around her feet. And he sees—

Dozens upon dozens of flags with sigils and arrays he does not recognise. Seals are drawn on the tents and the houses; they flare in red from time to time to a rhythm he cannot even begin to decipher. And he sees—

A woman walking quickly towards them, her white robes adorned with red motifs making a striking contrast with the bleak grey that reigns all around them. Someone is trailing after her, half-hidden. Lan Wangji notices only glimpses of pale skin and long hair, but something in his mind urges him to grab Bichen and—

“Wei Wuxian!” The scowl on the woman’s face could rival Lan Qiren’s. “You’re late!”

“Sorry, sorry, I was held up.” Wei Ying glances at the person behind her. “Wen Ning, my good brother, can you relieve me of your nephew? He’s getting heavy.”

Lan Wangji’s heart drops as he watches a walking corpse take the child into his arms. Cangse goes rigid right next to him; she gasps loudly, even though she tries her best to hide it. Wei Ying hands the child over and pats him on the head; only then does he turn to look at them.

“Oh, right, I didn’t introduce you. Meet Wen Qing and Wen Ning. Qing-jie, Ning-xiong, these are my parents and Lan Wangji.”

Wen Ning’s face is expressionless when he bows. “Master Wei, Madam Wei, Second Master Lan,” he says quietly. “It’s an honour to meet you.”

Wen Qing just mutters something unintelligible under her breath, but Lan Wangji pays her no mind. All he can think of is Wen Ning, who should not be so docile, let alone able to speak.

“Close your mouth, Lan Zhan, it’s a stupid look on you.” How long has it been since the last he heard Wei Ying chuckle? He likens that sound to music, now that it happens again. “Wen Ning is not your regular undead, he’s a fierce corpse. Fully sentient and conscious, no different from how he was alive. Mostly, that is. He’s much stronger now.”

“Y-young master Wei...” Heavens above, Wen Ning actually stutters. Lan Wangji did not even know corpses could stutter.

“What? It’s true. If only I could’ve—”

Wen Qing swats Wei Ying on the head as if he were a misbehaving child. “Stop embarrassing my brother. How many times do I have to tell you? And you, A-Ning,” she looks at Wen Ning who seems to shrink under her gaze, “take A-Yuan to Granny, she’s been asking about him.”

“Yes, A-jie.” And with that, he walks off. Lan Wangji lets go of Bichen; his fingers hurt from how tightly he was gripping its hilt.

It would have been better for everyone if he had not come.

Wen Qing watches them with a frown. “We don’t have much,” she finally says, “but since you’re already here, then you should at least eat with us.”

“There is no need for sharing, Clan Leader Wen.” Cangse’s voice does not even waver when she speaks. “We can go without and just keep you company if you’re willing to accommodate us. I realise A-Ying’s invitation might’ve been... inconsiderate.”

“Nonsense.” Wen Qing would have made a striking Sect Leader if only the world had been kinder. Lan Wangji has heard nothing but praise about her skills as a doctor – both before and after the Sunshot Campaign. She disappeared some time after it had ended; and now here she is, hiding in the Burial Mounds side by side with the man who had slaughtered thousands of Wens. A part of him wonders what could have possibly brought them together, another – envies her. “Come.”

She falls back a step behind Wei Ying as he leads them to a dining area that is nothing but a wooden table with benches around it and a roof above. A makeshift kitchen is located right next to it. Neither have walls yet. Some people are already sitting by the table, others are still coming in groups.

Elderly and children. A few cultivators Lan Wangji would probably be able to defeat without resorting to using his spiritual powers. Wen Qing, who is a medic, and her brother who he prefers not to think about. A toddler no older than three.

Lan Wangji has harboured no expectation as to whom he would meet here and what he would see, but he certainly did not imagine all... this.

“You’re limping again,” Wen Qing says from behind him. He glances at her. She is focused on Wei Ying, her brow furrowed. Now that she mentioned it, Lan Wangji notices that as well.

Wei Ying just shrugs and clambers onto the bench. “It’s the weather.” He grabs for a bowl whose contents are far redder than anything else on the table. His parents sit down beside him. “Nothing to be done.”

“Oh, please, your mood isn’t that bad.” Lan Wangji files that statement away for later because even though it makes no sense, it sounds too intentional to be meaningless.

“The weather down the mountain, beyond the Mounds,” Wei Ying clarifies. “Like I said, nothing to be done.”

“And you’re stiff.”

“A-Yuan is heavy and I was carrying him all the way up and down.” He looks at Wen Qing just in time to see her open her mouth. “Qing-jie, please. Not here and not now.”

She scowls but does as he asks. “I’ve left new medicine in your dingy cave, make sure you take it after dinner.”

It proves to be an awkward affair. The Wens are wary of them despite Cangse’s fervent and cheerful attempts to drag them into a conversation. Wen Qing says nothing; she only glares at Wei Ying from time to time, who ignores her with determination he has always shown once he made up his mind about something. Lan Wangji does not speak either, and the mood at the table reflects the surroundings – bleak, heavy and suffocating.

He is not surprised when Wei Ying gets up, gives a bow to the cook and rushes away toward the edges of this pitiful excuse of a village. Wherever his path is leading to, it is illuminated by lanterns giving off warm, soft light. They are swaying slightly even though no wind disturbs the stale air.

Lan Wangji is on his feet before he even thinks about it.

Cangse gives him an approving nod while Wen Qing only rolls her eyes, but neither says a word. He follows Wei Ying without trying to be inconspicuous, without getting back a single teasing word or a bright smile. Years prior, Wei Ying’s constant chattering grated on his nerves. Now, Lan Wangji would pray for a fraction of that if only there were a god he could pray to.

“I suppose there’s no point in inviting you in since you’ve already invited yourself, right?” Wei Ying does not even turn to face him. Talismans and wards adorn the entrance to the cave he stopped at. It is a far more remote location than the plateau taken over by the Wens. Resentful energy is thicker here, nearly tangible. Wei Ying does not seem to mind, but then again, why would he? After all, this is what he uses nowadays for reasons unknown.

Once upon a time, he might have been willing to share them with Lan Wangji, but those days are long over.

“I can go,” Lan Wangji tells him, heedless of his heart’s objections and desires. Whatever Wei Ying asks of him, he will do – even if it means leaving him here in this gods-forsaken place.

It is a good place to be lost and maybe that is what Wei Ying wants. The world certainly wishes he did exactly that.

“Ridiculous,” Wei Ying scoffs and just saunters inside, his long robes nearly indistinguishable from the surroundings. So that is what it feels like, being on the receiving end of belittlement for every single word and action.

Lan Wangji promises himself to never do it again.

He follows Wei Ying and keeps his lips closed even though he craves to comment on the state of the cave. Wei Ying should not be living in a place like this, confined to wet rock walls and mossy earth with nothing but a single blanket thrown on the ground. Notes and talismans litter every available space. Lan Wangji recognises only a handful of them and it causes him as much frustration as wonder. Even in this abysmal place, under the cloudy sky and despair-filled days, Wei Ying’s brilliant mind has not diminished.

A wooden cup lying on the table catches Lan Wangji’s eye. Wei Ying grabs it and drinks whatever was inside without a moment of hesitation. It must have been the medicine Wen Qing mentioned earlier.

“What is that?” Lan Wangji asks even though he knows better. There is not much he can ask about, after all. If he wasted his breath on empty pleasantries and trivialities, it would be nothing short of mockery.

Wei Ying puts the cup away with a scowl. “Painkillers, I hope.”

There is no deception in his voice, no taunt or challenge. He sounds just as tired as he looks, grey and fading like everything around him.

“Are you hurt?” There are no visible injuries on him, but the heretic path is unpredictable. Lan Wangji prefers not to think about its effect on Wei Ying’s body and golden core.

“Some bruises, a few broken ribs.” Wei Ying shrugs as if it is nothing. Then he looks around, resembling a lost child more than the man he is. “Ah. I don’t have any tea, sorry.”

“I do not care for tea.” Maybe it comes out too harsh for what they are, especially since those are but a few and what they are not is great many a thing. It is irrelevant; and perhaps he is mad for thinking he could turn back time and act as if nothing happened between them, as if he did not attempt to reach out only to be rejected. Wei Ying is here now, though, and maybe Lan Wangji is insane but he will keep on trying till the end of days. “How did you get injured? Why hasn’t your doctor treated you properly?”

Wei Ying’s eyes narrow. He starts tidying the table, though it is a futile battle against the sheer number of notes and scrolls. “She is treating me, thank you very much. That’s why I drink her concoctions even though they taste like shit.”

“How did you get injured?” Lan Wangji asks again because he knows of no scuffle at the Burial Mounds. He would have come running if he heard so much as a whisper.

 “A small mishap during bringing Wen Ning back, nothing serious.” Wei Ying stops pushing the papers around. He fooled no one, least of all Lan Wangji. “Why do you care all of a sudden?”

And maybe it is exhaustion and the weight of regrets on his shoulders, maybe it is nostalgia and longing and boundless, unbearable loneliness, but Lan Wangji realises he is tired of what they have become. No words will make up for what he should have said years ago, no action will render the past irrelevant – he can only move forward.

So he reaches into his heart and from its depths comes, “I have always cared.”

For a while, Wei Ying says nothing. He just stares as if Lan Wangji was a puzzle to decipher and at that moment, Lan Wangji hates the silence like nothing else in the entire world.

“Would you look at that,” Wei Ying eventually says in the emptiness that lies between them, “the great Hanguang-Jun, telling a joke.”

Even though Lan Wangji’s heart twists painfully, his face shows nothing. How he wishes it were not so. “I would never joke about that.”

“Oh?” Wei Ying comes closer. The scowl on his face twists it into a raging visage befitting a demon. “So you ‘cared’ when you wanted to drag me to Gusu for punishment? You ‘cared’ when you mocked me in Qishan? You ‘cared’ —”

“Not punishment,” he cuts in, propriety and rules be damned. The rules have shaped his life since birth; they gave him purpose but painted his world grey and left him perpetually waiting at the doorstep of a cottage no one would come out of. What would happen if he cast them away? “Protection, yes. Never punishment.”

“Protection?” Wei Ying repeats. His eyes turn crimson; Lan Wangji keeps looking at him as if nothing has changed, as if the fury raging in Wei Ying’s heart and making itself visible on his face was nothing. “And why would the great Hanguang-Jun want to protect the despicable Yiling Patriarch?”

How many times will he have to say it? Every single one is akin to ripping his heart out and presenting it for the entire world to see. Every time he speaks aloud about his feelings, it feels like burning off yet another piece of them until nothing remains. He fears nothing will remain of them in the end.

“I care for Wei Ying,” he says again, his ears burning. For all the control he has over his face, the ears have always told what he does not express otherwise.

“This again.” Wei Ying scoffs and takes a step back. Flames of resentful energy die in his eyes and he is once again just himself, tired and lost in this place that chips away at him with each passing day. “What a wonderful way of showing it you have, then. Ridicule, endless scorn, and righteous fury. If that’s how you let someone know you care about them, then I dread to imagine what it’s like when you truly hate them.”

Lan Wangji hangs his head low without a word because what can he possibly say to that? Apologies mean nothing in the face of his mistakes. He knows them; he owes them. Still, he balls his hands into fists at the futility of his hopes. Harbouring no expectations is one thing, realising he was right to do so is a completely different matter. So he turns to leave, knowing his presence is unwanted. He should never have come, but the desires of the heart were stronger than him.

It takes him a moment to realise that it is Wei Ying’s hand clutched around his sleeve that is preventing him from leaving.

“Where do you think you’re going? Again ?” Wei Ying’s voice is angry, rightfully so. “Do you think you can just say things like that and leave?”

Heavens above, how he craves not having to leave. “You made it clear my...” What does he even feel nowadays? He no longer knows. It changes every day, and only ever grows stronger. “Affections were unrequited. I do not wish to make you uncomfortable any longer.”

Wei Ying spins him around before Lan Wangji finds it in himself to protest. Some part of him does not even want to resist – not when it means being so close to Wei Ying for the first time in forever. It is pitiful, this desire for scraps; unbecoming of him just like so many deeds he has done in recent years.

He regrets neither.

“What are you even talking about? What affections, what—when have I ever— What?!

“The archery competition in Qishan.” Thinking about that day is still painful; talking about it even more so. And yet speak he has to because without the truth, his heart will know no peace. It matters not by what name he can call this emotion. It will stay with him regardless of labels and terms, for that is the way of the Lans. “My forehead ribbon. I let you keep it but you gave it back and left. That was enough for me to know.”

Wei Ying just stares at him. His mouth opens and closes a few times but no words follow. Then he lets his hands fall from Lan Wangji’s arms. Lan Wangji has to remind himself not to miss the touch that will never be bestowed upon him again.

“What,” Wei Ying eventually says, oh so slowly, “does your forehead ribbon have to do with it?”

He flinches, visibly this time. He cannot help it – it is one thing to suspect this blatant disrespect towards his clan’s traditions and another to be so explicitly subjected to it. Maybe it is easier for Wei Ying to go through life with no regard whatsoever for the world around him, but it is Lan Wangji who offered his heart only to have it trampled over.

“Do you truly not know?” he asks. Bitterness turns his voice clipped, sharper than usual. He does not care to reign his emotions in. After all, there is no one around but them, and no Wall of Rules he should adhere to. “After all these years and all the lectures, you still don’t know?”

“Should I?”

It does not even hurt, not anymore. At this point, Lan Wangji’s heart has gone numb. Perhaps it is true what people say about him – that his soul truly is like jade, unblemished and immovable. He feels the scream that lies at the bottom of his throat, perpetually trapped and grating. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot be rid of it.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying touches his hand with hesitation so unlike him. Tentatively, like a scared animal, he slowly pries Lan Wangji’s fist open. His fingers are scorching against the skin of Lan Wangji’s palm. “Lan Zhan, what does your ribbon mean?”

He takes a deep breath and tries to ignore the tingling sensation that spreads from his hand up his arm. His nerves are on fire and there is no stopping it. “If I were to marry,” he says, his voice still deceptively calm, “I would tie the ribbon around my intended’s wrist. I would give it to—” ‘you,’ he wants to say but cannot, “—them at the wedding, for it would be theirs to hold.”

Wei Ying swallows audibly. Lan Wangji stubbornly refuses to look at him. Maybe this way he will stop himself in time from doing something unforgivable.

If you were to marry?” Wei Ying asks after a long while measured by Lan Wangji’s frantic heartbeat. “Why ‘if’? Surely you will have many opportunities, anyone—”

And just like that, the warmth turns to ice. He tears his hand away from Wei Ying’s grip even though his heart throbs in longing immediately afterwards. He should not have let Wei Ying touch him – one moment was enough for him to etch that feeling into his memory. It will come to haunt him later, he knows, and covet it he shall till his last breath.

“Not interested.”

“Why?” Wei Ying presses as if this mattered to him. But Lan Wangji knows not if it truly does, so he offers no answer and makes for the exit only to be stopped again. This time, Wei Ying wraps his arms around his waist and holds onto him with strength much greater than his emaciated body should possess.

The sharp breath Lan Wangji takes is louder than he expects and just as uncontrollable. And then Wei Ying’s arms tighten and he forgets how to breathe altogether.

“Why?” Wei Ying asks again. “Why, Lan Zhan?”

His heart is thrashing against his ribcage, its rhythm nearly painful. “Wei Ying—”

“What happened that day in Qishan, Lan Zhan?” Why does Wei Ying insist on repeating his name over and over again? He turns it into a spell binding Lan Wangji’s heart to him even tighter. Resistance is futile – not that Lan Wangji so much as even contemplates resisting. He lost that battle many years ago. “What were you trying to do?”

He closes his eyes and tries to get his heart under control. It was a mistake to follow Wei Ying to this cave where resentful energy reigns and brings turmoil to his thoughts. It is even greater a mistake to remain here and allow Wei Ying to hold him like Lan Wangji has always dreamt to be held.

“I...” He shakes his head. Too much time has passed for him to remember clearly – all he recalls is what he might have wanted to do. Sometimes, when dreams are benevolent to him, he is brave enough to turn his desires into reality he has never been granted.

Wei Ying chuckles; the sound of it raises the hair on the back of Lan Wangji’s neck. “You know, all these years I’ve been thinking you were making fun of me.”

Lan Wangji tenses – it is involuntary, and only because of that does he realise how pliant he has become in the circle of Wei Ying’s arms. He wants to protest; to shout and scream and shake Wei Ying until he stops spewing nonsense. He wants to accuse him of not caring enough to realise the consequences of his actions.

He wants to make himself at home in Wei Ying’s arms.

“You claimed we weren’t close.” Wei Ying’s breath is liquid fire on Lan Wangji’s skin. It washes over him until his very soul is aflame, burning away at the uncontrollable speed. “You pushed me away again and again so much that everyone knew you hated me. I didn’t want to believe that but then you went and did that in Qishan and I thought...” Wei Ying hooks the thumb of one hand on Lan Wangji’s belt and splays the other flat against Lan Wangji’s stomach. He lets it wander upwards, slowly and tentatively, and Lan Wangji burns. “I thought you were going to kiss me and I was so happy. I’ve been thinking about kissing you since I saw you on the rooftop, you know? But then I remembered you couldn’t possibly want that so I... let you go.”

Does he know what his words are doing to Lan Wangji’s heart? It has transcended beating; a force of nature now sits in Lan Wangji’s chest, tearing down his excuses and principles one by one. Rules fall apart and reservations turn to dust. He is stripped bare, defenceless against the onslaught of emotions he has been setting aside for years. Now they are a tempest capable of destroying the world should he let it.

And oh, how Lan Wangji wants to indulge for once in his life.

Then Wei Ying’s arms are gone, and Lan Wangji staggers, bereft. Only after a long moment does he turn around, breathless, still feeling the phantom of that touch. Wei Ying stands before him, holding a red ribbon in his proffered hand. Free of it, his hair falls down his back in waves. If only Lan Wangji could run his fingers through it, he would treasure that moment in his memory more than anything.

“I know it’s not...” For the first time since their first meeting, Wei Ying’s voice is unsure. He is looking intently at the ribbon. “It doesn’t have the same significance and I’m still not sure what it really means, but...”

He does not finish. Instead, he takes Lan Wangji’s hand in his and pushes his sleeve up, letting his fingers ghost over the exposed skin. His touch is freezing and yet it is burning; it has to be leaving a scorched trail in its wake, a mark of ownership Lan Wangji would gladly bear.

“Wei Ying...” he stutters now, having lost the capability to form coherent words. Even his thoughts are falling apart, burning up just like he is. “What—”

Wei Ying does not look up. In a profound silence befitting a temple rather than a forgotten cave in a lost world, he ties his ribbon around Lan Wangji’s wrist until no loose fabric remains. Ridiculous, that should be all there is to it; a mockery of an age-old sacred tradition.

Lan Wangji cannot find it in his heart to mind.

“Tell me—” Wei Ying’s voice breaks. He has to cough a few times and never does he raise his eyes to look at Lan Wangji. It does not matter – Lan Wangji drinks in the sight of him like a man dying of thirst, like a believer witnessing a miracle performed by their god. Only because of that does he see a flush that erupts on Wei Ying’s cheekbones. “Tell me, Lan Zhan. If I were a Lan, would that be it? Would that be right?”

“Wei Ying,” he says again and perhaps those are the only two words left in the universe. They certainly are what has taken over his mind, now.

Wei Ying finally looks at him. “Lan Zhan. Is this… all right? Is this fine?”

“Yes,” he whispers and kisses him.

Wei Ying’s lips taste of dinner and Wen Qing’s medicine, but Lan Wangji does not care. What matters are the facts, and the facts are these:

He presses his lips to Wei Ying’s long enough to memorise their shape and the warmth. They are chapped and dry, and at first neither of them moves. Times slows, and so Lan Wangji licks Wei Ying’s bottom lip and sucks on it until Wei Ying gasps into his mouth and grabs the lapels of his robes like a lifeline. Lan Wangji pulls him ever closer, wraps his arm around his waist – thin, too thin, he is no more than skin and bones now and it should never have happened – and holds him steady against his body. His other hand rests on Wei Ying’s cheek; it is getting hotter and soon touching it feels akin to holding a flame. Wei Ying is trembling like a leaf, falling, fallen, lost beyond saving. He sighs and then gently bites Lan Wangji’s lips until all that is left in the world is the warmth between them.

Lan Wangji does not know which one of them opens his mouth first. He is only aware it happens and then the kiss goes from insistent but gentle to deep and desperate in a blink of an eye. Wei Ying moans; Lan Wangji chases that sound like a man possessed, like it is a treasure meant just for him. It is sloppy, messy, far from perfect – and yet he would never trade it for anything else.

Wei Ying is the first to pull back, some indefinite, infinite amount of time later. His face is red, blotchy in a disturbingly unhealthy way, his eyes are wide and his hair is a mess, but he is still the most beautiful sight in the world to behold. Lan Wangji pushes a stray strand of hair away from his face. Perhaps he is allowed now. Perhaps he will continue to be, as giddy and incredible as that sounds.

“Wei Ying,” he whispers even though there is no one to hear them. Anything louder than that would be a sacrilege.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says just as quietly. He smiles; small at first, then wider and wider until his grin is bright like the sun itself. He hides his face in the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck and it is burning.

Lan Wangji wonders if he looks the same. It certainly feels like it.

He kisses the top of Wei Ying’s head just because he can. Then his ear. And his temple. Then he starts peppering kisses all over his face – because he can. Reasons or excuses are neither necessary nor needed. Wei Ying giggles like mad through it and makes no move to stop him.

If Lan Wangji could, he would gladly keep doing this forever.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei says after a long, long while. He is holding onto Lan Wangji’s arms, but there is no strength in his grip. Be it because he withholds from gripping too hard, or because of the state he is in, Lan Wangji does not know. His heart is not fond of either possibility. “What now?”

That breaks the bubble of happiness shielding Lan Wangji from the world at large. There are consequences to consider; the Sects’ politics and traditions to follow. There are the GusuLan rules, as unbreakable and inescapable as the rhythm of the seasons. For the first time in his life, he is willing to break every single one of them.

He is willing to face the world for Wei Ying, consequences be damned.

“You cannot remain here,” he says because he has to start somewhere. Words have never brought him the outcome he desired, but maybe now Wei Ying will be inclined to wait until Lan Wangji shapes his thoughts into sentences that will leave no room to doubt. “Neither you, nor the Wens. This place brings only death.”

Wei Ying’s grip on his arms, loose up till now, slackens entirely. Acting on an instinct he has not even been aware of, Lan Wangji wraps his arms around his waist and hopes it will be enough to stop him from running away. So many times has Wei Ying run away from him already, so many times has he turned a blind eye to what Lan Wangji tried and failed to tell him. Maybe no more; maybe now he will stay and Lan Wangji’s heart will finally know contentment.

“Where else can we go, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks in a broken voice. He is fragile in Lan Wangji’s arms, nothing but skin and bones wrapped in ashes and shadows. “Wen Qing’s clan hasn’t done anything wrong. They’re doctors and farmers and... Have you seen Granny Wen? The Jins made her carry a banner in the rain at night all over the camp. She was holding A-Yuan all the time because there was no one else to take care of him. Tell me, Lan Zhan. What war crimes did a newborn commit to be sent to a labour camp?”

A spark of fury comes to life in Lan Wangji’s heart. He does nothing to quench it. Let it simmer, let it grow—and when it does, he shall bring it forth and carry it out in the open for the entire world to see. Justice may not be simple enough a concept to recognise it on sight, but there is no doubt what should be said about Wei Ying’s tale.

There is no justice in it.

“I will help you find a place.” He flips through his memories, recalling one by one faraway places and peaceful surroundings with good soil and gentle sunlight, with fresh, running water and air that does not steal one’s breath with the weight of resentment permeating it. He can think of a few locations, but none seems appropriate.

All of them are too far away from Gusu for him to rush to and help Wei Ying should anyone decide to attack him.

“And where would we go where no one would come after us?” Wei Ying asks, voicing Lan Wangji’s thoughts and worries. “The moment they’re out, the Sects will descend on them like vultures. Only Wen Ning and Wen Qing can defend themselves. There’s nowhere to go. No broad path for either of us.”

No. No. He refuses to believe that. He will defy the Jade Emperor himself if it comes to this.

“I will find a place.” He presses one last kiss to Wei Ying’s forehead and lets it linger. “And I will come back when I do.”

“Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan, wait!”

He does not. He storms down the mountain path and mounts Bichen as soon as he can, heedless of the screams of confusion that follow him until he no longer hears them. The sound of wind fills his ears but does little to calm his heart. The distance between Yiling and Gusu is huge on foot and only slightly shorter by sword. It will take time to reach the Cloud Recesses but he does not mind.

Discussions awaits him and he must face it with arguments impossible to counter. It is all right, though. Lan Wangji is a Lan and like all Lans before him, he is anything if not patient.

 

XIII

 

Words fail him, so Lan Wangji bears the weight of the elders’ screams of indignation and all sorts of accusations, most of which violate at least one third of the rules. He perseveres through his uncle’s scorn and his brother’s incredulity, he does not shy away from the elders’ disgust.

In the end, Lan Wangji kneels.

He kneels through harsh sunlight of the day and cold winds of the night. He kneels through whispers and questions, through stolen looks and shaking of heads. He kneels through his uncle’s recitation of all the rules he is supposedly breaking and responds with a list of his own that enforces his request. He kneels through the elders’ threats of banishment and does not care about them.

There is justice to be brought and he will call upon righteousness until it is on his side.

Lan Wangji kneels and eventually, his brother comes.

“Wangji,” he says and his voice is tired beyond compare. “Won’t you relent?”

“I cannot.”

“Why?”

“If brother saw, he would understand.”

Lan Xichen kneels in front of him like he did when their mother died. “Then help me understand.”

 

XIV

 

The day Wei Ying walks through the gates of the Cloud Recesses with a starry-eyed A-Yuan in tow, Lan Wangji’s heart soars.

His uncle has not talked to him since his brother agreed. The elders coughed up blood and now shun him, but this is something he has long grown used to. They treated him the same way when he refused to leave the closed door of his mother’s cottage after her death. It does not matter, not when Wei Ying is here, with him; not when he smiles almost as widely as he did before the war, not when his eyes sparkle in his gaunt face.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, breathless. He looks like a ghost caught in broad daylight, with his pale skin and ashen robes. “How... how did you...”

“Brother saw reason,” he says. He does not say how long it took or how many arguments his brother shot down in order to make Lan Wangji’s request reality. “He is a good man.”

Wei Ying smiles. It is not his old smile, but for now it is enough. “I can see that now.”

It goes unspoken what he might have thought earlier. Lan Wangji is not surprised – after all, Wei Ying has learnt not to trust anyone for many good reasons.

“How are your people settling down?” he asks instead as if he knows nothing about the new settlement that is growing by the river down the mountain. This is the first day Wei Ying has decided to visit him, and Lan Wangji will do his best to be a gracious host.

Maybe, if the Heavens are willing, Wei Ying will eventually come to stay.

“They’re happy to be out.” At this point, there is no denying the Wen remnants have indeed become ‘his people’ . Not when they left their clan name behind at the Burial Mounds. The Wens had gone in to hide from the world, but the Weis left the shelter of the mountain of the dead. “It will take time to build everything from the ground again, but there’s no rush. Mother and father are helping, and because of you, there’s no one who’d dare to come at us.”

Lan Wangji does not know what is happening to his heart, but surely it should not be beating this fast, should it? The moment he thinks he has it under control, Wei Ying smiles at him again and that is enough to make Lan Wangji’s blood run faster. Now not only does Wei Ying smile, oh no. He looks around instead, then shrugs, comes up to Lan Wangji and kisses him out in the open, where everyone can see.

Is there anything on the Wall of Rules against public displays of affection? Lan Wangji cannot recall a single thing as he wraps an arm around Wei Ying’s waist and pulls him close in a way he has never believed possible. He dreamt of it, of course, and sometimes even allowed himself to wonder what it would feel like, but reality is nothing like that. In dreams, he could not feel Wei Ying’s warmth under his hands and lips, or his fingers toying with the loose ends of his forehead ribbon. In dreams, Wei Ying did not giggle into the kiss like an overjoyed maiden.

The dreams were perfect the way reality could never be, but Lan Wangji thinks he prefers the imperfect quite a bit more.

“Xian-gege.” A-Yuan’s voice brings them out of their small world. Wei Ying’s face is red when he looks down at the boy and Lan Wangji can barely resist the urge to lean in and steal one more kiss. “Xian-gege, look!”

They both follow the line of A-Yuan’s outstretched hand. In the distance, in the middle of a well-maintained garden path, a pair of rabbits is frolicking. The only reason why they are still unnoticed is probably because everyone in the vicinity is staring at Lan Wangji and Wei Ying, rules and propriety be damned.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying exclaims happily and tugs at his sleeve. His face is red, his eyes are shining, and Lan Wangji is so in love. “Lan Zhan, you’ve kept the rabbits!”

As if there was ever any doubt he would. “They were a gift from Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying turns away from him, but not before Lan Wangji sees his face go even redder than it already was. He picks A-Yuan up in a move so effortless it speaks of months of practice. Lan Wangji wishes he were there for him during those months. He wishes he could turn back time and regain the years they wasted.

He wishes for great many things, but perhaps there is no need for wishes anymore.

“A-Yuan,” he says to the boy who looks at him with hesitation and tentative hope. “Do you want to meet the rabbits?”

And when they both beam at him, Wei Ying and A-Yuan, Lan Wangji knows every single one of his wishes has already come true.

 

XV

 

The invitation to Jin Ling’s one month celebration comes to Wei Ying only, but Lan Wangji goes with him nonetheless.

Normally, he would have gone with his brother and stayed as long as tradition dictated that he should. Then, he would have slipped away, the intruder at a celebration that meant nothing to him. Would Wei Ying have come if he had still been in hiding at the Burial Mounds? Would the cultivation world even let him come, despite Madam Jiang’s heartfelt desire to see her shidi again?

It scares Lan Wangji that he cannot tell what could have happened.

Wei Ying seems to share none of his qualms. His chatter is as endless as always, his mood – understandably joyful. For once, A-Yuan was left behind in the settlement, and although Lan Wangji has grown fond of the boy, he appreciates the opportunity to be alone with Wei Ying.

It takes them... a while to get to Lanling. They would have arrived sooner, but Wei Ying insisted on walking and who was Lan Wangji to deny him? Stealing kisses has never been easier. He indulges happily, and Wei Ying lets him, pushing him against a tree with little strength but a great deal of enthusiasm. Lan Wangji matches him in kind. Never before have touches and smiles come to him as easily as they do now, with Wei Ying in his arms and life.

“You’re shivering,” he tells him some indefinite time later. He runs his hands over the simple fabric of Wei Ying’s robes. It is far too thin for this season.

“That’s because you kissed me breathless,” Wei Ying retorts and grins for good measure. “Who would have thought that Hanguang-Jun is such a great kisser? I’m about to swoon like an innocent maiden.”

Lan Wangji plants one last kiss to the tip of his nose. “No swooning,” he says. “Lanling is ahead.”

“Yes! And shijie!” Wei Ying brightens up and Lan Wangji can only smile. “I hope the Peacock has been treating her well, because otherwise I’m going to pluck his feathers out.”

“Wei Ying.”

He hums inquisitively and turns. Lan Wangji wastes no time in draping his outer robe over his shoulders. When Wei Ying says nothing, he fixes the lapels and adjusts the sleeves, and his hands almost do not shake as he does so. With a mouth wide open, Wei Ying looks down at the robe and then up at Lan Wangji’s face again. Still, he says nothing, and this is quite probably the first time in forever something has rendered him speechless.

“So that you don’t get cold,” Lan Wangji explains and gestures at the road. “Shall we?”

Wei Ying does not take the robe off – neither on the road, nor when they enter Koi Tower, and everyone’s eyes are bulging at the sight of the Yiling Patriarch wearing the GusuLan whites. Lan Wangji ignores them all as heavy, possessive satisfaction curls in his stomach and steals his breath away nearly as well as Wei Ying does.

And when he joins Wei Ying at Madam Jiang’s side to offer his best wishes to both the parents and the child, he puts his hand on Wei Ying’s waist and revels in the spark of elation he sees in Jiang Yanli’s eyes.

 

XVI

 

Winter is already in full swing when he goes down the mountain to the settlement. ‘GusuWei,’ people have started to call the Wen remnants living there and not even Wei Ying can stop them. It is a good thing the common folk do not shun them. Lan Wangji has learnt that change always starts with them.

The decline of the Yiling Patriarch and the rise of Sect Leader Wei of the GusuWei Sect is the most welcome change of them all. The truth is there is no sect and no disciples, but it matters little. The perception has already been altered and not even Jin Guangshan can do anything about it.

“Lan Zhan!”

Cangse is walking towards him, waving as she goes. They have settled down for a while, too, she and her husband. Although all Wei Ying does is complain about her hovering all the time around him, Lan Wangji knows he does not mind. Far from it. The absence of parents is a heavy burden and he knows it better than anyone.

He bows as he always does. “Madam Wei.”

“Just call me Cangse,” she says as she always does and only her smile points at how much she enjoys this usual banter of theirs. “A-Ying’s out, so if you’ve come to see him, you’ll have to wait.”

“No. I...” The letter in his sleeve is like an ember, burning to the touch. He resists an irrational urge to make sure his robes are not smouldering. “I have come to talk to Madam and Master Wei.”

She falls silent for a moment. Something in her eyes makes him squirm and he does his best not to. “Follow me,” she eventually says and walks away without further ado. Lan Wangji trails after her, nodding his greetings at the people around. Despite the unfavourable weather, they are still working to make this place look habitable.

Perhaps after the Burial Mounds no conditions are unbearable.

They find Wei Changze in the middle of a heated argument with Wen Qing and Uncle Four. Lan Wangji does not even try to follow it. Too many subjects does it concern, and he is proficient in neither.

“Husband dear!” Cangse calls out. “Take a break, we have a visitor.”

The first thing he does is kiss her cheek. Only then does he bow to Lan Wangji. “Second Master Lan.”

“Master Wei. My apologies for arriving unannounced.”

He could have waited, that is true. He could have done this as custom and traditions demanded, through many a message and a third party involved, but that would require waiting and he has had enough of that.

“Come, come.” Cangse takes his husband’s hand and starts dragging him in the direction of one the houses. She grabs Lan Wangji’s sleeve, too. “I made tea, it should still be warm.”

It is far from the best tea Lan Wangji has ever drunk, but he can barely feel the taste. His stomach is twisted, leaving him nauseous and on the edge of his seat, and no amount of spiritual power can change that. Cultivators do not get sick, not so easily at least, and the thought of nervousness is so preposterous he quells it down the moment it appears. The feeling remains, though, no matter how much he wants to ignore it.

“So, Second Master Lan,” Cangse says when the tea is drunk and the silence becomes unbearable. Conversation has never been his forte and for once the Weis do not chat for the three of them. “What brings you here? It’s not that we’re unhappy to see you, it’s just unexpected for you to visit when A-Ying isn’t around.”

The letter has been burning in his sleeve all the way from the Cloud Recesses and burn it still does when he takes it out and gives it to Wei Changze with a deep bow. He does not straighten his back when he hears the whisper of the parchment, neither does he look up when Cangse gasps out loud.

“Second Master Lan, this is...” Wei Changze does not finish and Lan Wangji cannot bring himself to look at his face. Is he surprised? Disgusted? Outraged that Lan Wangji dared deem himself worthy of asking?

His heart is sinking, and so is he. He falls to his knees and kowtows. “Master Wei, Madam Wei,” he says. His words ring loud in the silence of the house. “I beg you to allow me to marry your son.”

He hears rustling, then – footsteps. Moments later, Cangse gently pulls him up. Tears are streaming down her face but she is smiling so, so wide and in her smile, Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying.

“Second Master Lan,” she says and then shakes her head. “Lan Zhan. What made you think our answer would be anything but ‘yes’ ?”

Fear is a beast that has had his heart in a death grip for longer than he remembers. First, he feared the emotions he was feeling, new and unknown. Then, he feared his family noticing, and eventually fear for Wei Ying’s life and safety overshadowed all. Even now some of it remains, ready to sink its claws back into him despite Cangse’s overjoyed expression and Wei Changze’s wide smile.

And then Cangse wraps her arms around him and Lan Wangji can think of nothing.

“Lan Zhan,” she says, “I will be proud to call you my son.”

 

XVII

 

For the first time in years, the Cloud Recesses are drenched in red.

The noise is deafening, but no one points it out or silences the perpetrators. No one dares; not on a day like this. What the Lans lack in outwardly displayed joy, the guests make up for in abundance. There are not that many of them, all things considered. Lan Wangji refused his brother’s suggestion to invite everyone just for the sake of it. Too many people would look at Wei Ying with barely – if at all – concealed disgust. That would not do.

On the day of their wedding, Wei Ying deserves to be surrounded only by those who wish him well.

They kneel in the Ancestral Hall and perform their bows with only Wei Ying’s parents and Lan Wangji’s brother and uncle as witnesses. They serve them tea, and Cangse cannot stop crying even for a moment. Even Lan Qiren’s eyes are softer than usual, as impossible as that seems to be. It is not the approval Lan Wangji has wanted, but acceptance is enough for now. He has time to make them see what kind of person Wei Ying truly is.

Cheers greet them when they enter the banquet hall and settle behind the table. Purple and white robes are abundant. He notices a few greys and golds, too, and the rest is a merry mix of all colours, no doubt the friends the Weis have made along the way. They are the loudest and wildest of all the guests, and seem to be more interested in entertaining A-Yuan than the feast itself. Lan Wangji does not understand. When Wei Ying is around, the entire world fades away and only he remains in it, holding Lan Wangji’s attention without fail.

Perhaps it is for the best that no one else looks at Wei Ying like that. Jealousy is a coiled, sleeping dragon at the bottom of Lan Wangji’s heart, and he fears its awakening. It stirred once already, a long time ago, back in their youthful years when Wei Ying gave his attention freely and Lan Wangji could barely understand the storm raging in his heart. The sleeping beast is what is left of it and will never leave him be.

When Wei Ying smiles at him, it murmurs in contentment in Lan Wangji’s blood.

“Lan Zhan!” he calls from where he has wandered off to. “Look, they’re friends already!”

Jiang Yanli flashes Lan Wangji a smile. She is holding Jin Ling in her arms, and A-Yuan is watching him like a hawk. ‘Friends’ is clearly not the word Lan Wangji would use, but the usually fussy Jin Ling is quiet for once, so maybe that counts for something. Lan Wangji will have to get to know Wei Ying’s nephew in all but name eventually. Maybe when he and A-Yuan grow old enough to be taken on a night hunt, Lan Wangji will have an opportunity. For now, Jin Zixuan does not let his family out of his sight. That is a welcome change from his father’s behaviour. Even Wei Ying has noticed.

Perhaps neither of them is destined to repeat their fathers’ mistakes after all.

When the guests fall silent, he thinks nothing of it. It happens. No one but Wei Ying can talk for hours on end. But then the silence stretches and gets heavy, and it finally makes Lan Wangji look towards the entrance.

A woman dressed in white is standing there, her timeless face that of a descended immortal. She carries no weapon, but even if Lan Wangji were fully armed, he would consider twice the foolish idea of attacking her. Even in the brightness of the Cloud Recesses, she seems to be aglow with spiritual power.

Lan Qiren gasps and scrambles to his feet to bow. The elders follow suit and even Lan Xichen does so, though his face reflects the confusion he fails to hide. Cangse grins and waves with both hands. And Wei Ying—

Dressed in splendid crimson wedding robes, Wei Ying jumps over the table, cries, “Grandmother!” at the top of his lungs and runs over to her to take her into his arms and spin her around. Lan Wangji approaches them in a much more controlled pace and bears the full force of her gaze the moment she turns to him.

“Revered one.” He bows; deeper than he usually would. “This one welcomes you to the Cloud Recesses and wishes to express his gratitude for your arrival.”

She hums and slings an arm around Wei Ying’s shoulders. “So you’re Lan Wangji,” she says and her voice is a melody of time meandering and seasons passing slower than ages and faster than thoughts. “And... you love this menace of a boy?”

“Grandmother!”

For the first and what he hopes is the last time, Lan Wangji ignores Wei Ying’s wailing. “I do.”

“And how exactly did you manage to convince them to let you marry him?”

The elders scowl at her tone but say nothing. Lan Wangji doubts there is so much as one person in the world who would dare to talk back at Baoshan Sanren.

Well, there is Wei Ying, of course, but he is, without a doubt, an exception that cannot be taken into consideration.

“I didn’t take no for an answer,” Lan Wangji answers truthfully, for lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses and he sees no reason to conceal the truth. If need be, for Wei Ying he would stand against the elders with a sword in his hand.

She smiles then; wide, bright. Just like Wei Ying. “Your ancestor would be proud. Now go get me some Emperor’s Smile, boys. I haven’t had it since Lan An’s wedding.”

 

XVIII

 

He notices it the moment he undresses Wei Ying layer after layer of clothes. He takes time with each one, and his hands learn the shape of his husband’s body in a way he did not think possible. Wei Ying does the same to him, his fingers nimble and skilful but trembling just like Lan Wangji’s.

The scar on his sternum is a coiled, protruding thing. Lan Wangji almost asks about it, but then Wei Ying’s lips are on his and his hands find their way to his chest, and all questions evaporate like mist under the morning sun.

Later – much, much later, when night slowly starts giving way to a new day, when the time to rise from the bed approaches rapidly and irrevocably – Lan Wangji holds Wei Ying in his arms and gently asks, “How?”

He is so frail, Wei Ying. Even now, so long after leaving the Burial Mounds, shadows of hardships he has gone through still cling to him like parasites. Sometimes, Lan Wangji thinks Wei Ying has given away all he had, hollowed himself out and filled the emptiness with whatever the mountain of the dead demanded that he take in exchange for a safe haven. It hums beneath his skin from time to time, when Lan Wangji touches it with just the right amount of spiritual power bleeding from his fingertips.

It always seeks what Wei Ying no longer has.

He is shivering now. Be it from cold or anguish, Lan Wangji does not know, but pulls him closer nonetheless.

“I had to,” Wei Ying says. He is quiet, like mornings in the Cloud Recesses and the silence of unspoken regrets. “Jiang Cheng, he... He was the next Sect Leader. YunmengJiang can survive without its head disciple, but it won’t make it without its leader.”

Jiang Wanyin is a brash, irresponsible man who has only ever taken Wei Ying for granted. Regardless of the tragedy that befell his family, he has done nothing to deserve such loyalty and such a tremendous sacrifice from shixiong he never treated with the respect Wei Ying deserved. To think Wei Ying gave up his boundless potential for a man like that is beyond comprehension.

But the deed is done and no matter how Lan Wangji rages inwardly at its consequences, he will never belittle his husband’s choice.

“How did it...” What kind of a forbidden technique had Wei Ying unearthed? If anyone asked him, Lan Wangji would have said transferring a golden core from one person to another is impossible. “Who?”

“Wen Qing.” All of a sudden, it makes perfect sense. Who else if not the miracle doctor, the brightest of her generation? “And it... Two days and one night. I...”

“Wei Ying,” he whispers, horrified.

“It hurt, Lan Zhan. It hurt so much.” Tears fall onto Lan Wangji’s skin, but he says nothing about them. His own cannot dry fast enough. “And I miss it like, like a limb, or like I ripped my own heart out and now it’s beating for someone else and I still feel it, and—and...”

Whatever words come after that, Lan Wangji does not understand them. He doubts Wei Ying himself does, for what they resemble the most is the wailing of a wounded animal. He holds him through it and whispers reassurances he knows hold no meaning. Nothing does, when life has long crumbled around someone, and all that is left is clawing one’s way out of the rubble.

By the time Wei Ying calms down, the sun is high in the sky. For the first time in his entire life, Lan Wangji did not rise up with his Sect. There are priorities, after all – and his are Wei Ying and his wellbeing and comfort.

“Lan Zhan. I can’t cultivate in the normal way anymore.”

He hums. It matters not. Should it come to this, he will cultivate for them both.

“I... I will die.” For a moment, Lan Wangji’s heart stops. His embrace tightens on its own, but Wei Ying does not seem to mind. “I can’t cultivate to immortality. I will grow old and die and—”

And just like that, there is no dilemma, no question and no hesitation. “Then I will not cultivate to immortality either.”

Wei Ying looks stricken, shocked into muteness. He has never been more beautiful. “Lan Zhan—”

“I will not go where Wei Ying can’t follow.”

“Even at the cost of your life?”

What is life without Wei Ying? He had lived it, and it was unbearable. So he kisses the last vestiges of tears from his husband’s face and gently pulls him closer. With a sigh, Wei Ying drapes himself atop Lan Wangji’s torso as if it was a pillow. He is pliant like this, in a way Lan Wangji would never expect him to be mere months ago.

He never expected he would get this, and his heart swells in his chest until it feels ready to burst.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers, and his voice is full of wonder. “I like you so much you have no idea.”

 “Mn.”

“I fancy you, I love you, I want to night hunt with you till we grow old and die and then I want to find you again in our next life and do it all over and over again.”

And who Lan Wangji is if not a weak, weak man? He echoes Wei Ying’s babbling into his hair and leaves behind kisses that flow endless. Whatever his husband desires, he shall provide.

“And I also want a donkey.”

“Wei Ying!”

When Wei Ying laughs, Lan Wangji’s heart swells. He has known music his entire life, played and mastered it, but no sound has ever been more beautiful than Wei Ying’s laugh.

And it will be his companion for the rest of their lives.