Wei Wuxian remembers Dafan Mountain. He remembers awakening, unmasked and so very known, to notes drawn from a guqin, to Lan Wangji - Lan Zhan - and to a brief and stilted conversation, thick with so much more meaning than its sparse words should have carried. He heads down to the Cold Spring in search of Lan Zhan and finds a man, shirtless and ethereal in the nigh-freezing water, whose skin is painted in scars.
“Whips,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. Lan Wangji turns towards him, his form simultaneously softened and broadened by sixteen years, and there are worse scars than the whips - Wei Wuxian can feel the echo of the marks against his own skin, and wishes he could have been there, done something, protected Lan Zhan with his own flawed form. There’s a brand, twin to his own, against Lan Wangji’s chest, and two darker scars arc beneath his pectoral muscles from just above the solar plexus. None of this makes sense. None of this is right.
“You’re awake,” Lan Wangji states needlessly a few minutes later, all soaking robes and thick dark hair; the years have changed his gaze, made it somehow softer but no less intense, and Wei Wuxian feels Lan Zhan’s eyes on him like the Wen brand all over again. He struggles for words, breath caught too tight in his chest. His heart pounds painfully against his new bandages.
“Lan Zhan,” he begins, and falters. “Your scars -”
Lan Wangji does not answer. His chest rises, falters, and falls with his breathing. Wei Wuxian wants to ask - about the whips, a shameful punishment , and about the brand, an echo of wars long since fought, but most of all about the curving scars still raised and faintly pink against his chest - but can’t find the words.
Then the Lan juniors descend upon them in a storm of overenthusiastic, billowing white, and the moment is lost.
The next morning - after the chaos in the Underworld Chamber, and Wei Wuxian’s strangely poignant conversation with Lan Sizhui - Lan Wangji joins him in the dawn. They stand in silence for as long as Wei Wuxian can bear. And he basks in it. But he cracks, finally, when Lan Zhan stares at him with a solemn kind of resignation and opens his mouth to speak.
Wei Wuxian should ask about the sword, of course. About this new mystery. About these sixteen years, and this new time’s host of newer evils. Instead, he asks about -
“The scars on your chest,” Wei Wuxian breathes into the freezing morning, returning Lan Zhan’s eye contact with his own unfaltering stare. “The others I could - begin to understand, maybe. Whips for discipline. The brand - I don’t want to think about it, but I could understand. But your chest -”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says insistently. Then, with careful deliberation: “They were - I thought you knew.”
“Knew what, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian snaps. “I don’t know things if you don’t tell me.”
“I told you,” Lan Zhan murmurs. His voice is deep and low. “Years ago.”
“I don’t -”
“You interrupted me.”
“I would never interrupt you!” Wei Wuxian protests. “Not if we were talking about something this important, not if I knew it was important - who did this to you, Lan Zhan?” He pauses. “And why? They’re … really weird scars. Were they trying to hurt you? They can’t have been very good at it, I’m sure other wounds would hurt worse -”
“A doctor,” Lan Zhan explains, taking on the air of a man explaining something with perfect clarity, even as he does nothing of the sort. “And … I had a hand in them.”
“You put your own hand in -”
“No,” Lan Wangji huffs, and there’s the most miniscule glimmer of mirth in the corners of his eyes. Wei Wuxian grins back, delighted. For all the years and hurting and mystery, he can still provoke his Lan Zhan -
ahem, no. He can still provoke Lan Wangji, who is no one’s but his own.
“I’m serious though,” he continues, slightly frantic as he shoves away the too-comfortable stirrings in his chest. “Why would you need a surgery like -”
Wei Wuxian breaks off, his heart pounding. It can’t be the same. The scars are in the wrong place, for one, and Lan Wangji most certainly still has his golden core.
“A surgery like what?” Lan Zhan inquires, frowning. Wei Wuxian shakes his head minutely. Lan Zhan will accept that for now, he knows - his slip will not go unnoticed or forgotten, but it will be shelved for a later date. Lan Zhan nods back, and then, in a faltering murmur, whispers “I tried to tell you but you interrupted me - years ago. I said, I would not harm you for the same transgressions I share -”
Wei Wuxian frowns. “I don’t remember.”
“On the mountain,” Lan Zhan adds, voice still tentative, as though tiptoeing towards a precipice. “We were walking to the top, to make lanterns. You stopped. You could not breathe, because of your -”
“No,” Wei Wuxian says flatly, disbelieving. “You mean -”
Their eye contact is burning again. Lan Zhan turns towards Wei Wuxian and places a hand on his wrist-cuff. He says, “Wei Ying.” He says, “I’m sorry.” He says, “I tried to tell you.”
Wei Ying looks away with great effort, dipping his head to take in Lan Zhan’s fingers instead, curled tight around his wrist. The knuckles are white. “I need you to say it,” Wei Ying insists. “If I’ve - since I’ve already been wrong once, I -”
“I was,” Lan Zhan says, and then pauses to correct himself. “Am like you - I had no courtesy name.”
“Always the euphemisms,” Wei Ying complains, even as the knowledge settles over him like a blanket, strangely comforting despite its newness. “There are better words, haven’t you heard? Like man with -”
“Don’t be coarse,” Lan Zhan snaps.
“I would never!”
Lan Zhan says nothing. He doesn’t have to. His disappointed-but-not-surprised expression speaks for itself.
“I suppose,” Wei Wuxian says after a minute, with Lan Zhan’s hand still loosely grasping his wrist, “we should talk about the sword ghost.” Daring, and somehow emboldened by his newfound understanding, he tugs his wrist away from Lan Zhan’s until their fingers brush. “And discuss the mystery.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees, and takes his hand in earnest.
There are still questions, Wei Wuxian knows. There are things to be answered. But they can wait. So he watches Lan Wangji’s chest rise and fall slowly as his breathing relaxes, and the air is cold enough to chill both of their lungs from the inside, and Wei Wuxian holds Lan Wangi’s hand.