Lan Zhan is eight years old when the red thread first appears on his wrist.
It happens when he is practicing calligraphy in the lanshi, silent alongside the other students. As part of this week’s classwork, he and the other disciples his age must copy the Lan sect rules a hundred times each until shufu approves their penmanship, then recite them out loud from rote memory.
It is when Lan Zhan is copying the fifty-second sect rule that the new addition to his wrist hooks his attention.
Running is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, and Lan Zhan is very, very good at following the rules, so when class finally ends, he does not sprint to his brother’s quarters. He walks very, very quickly, his heart pounding sickly in his chest the whole time.
“Gege,” he says when he enters, and he means to explain what’s happened in a manner that’s detailed and controlled, but his voice chokes off and all he can do is wordlessly hold up his wrist, where the scarlet thread is a visible brand for anyone to see. He had tried pulling it off, of course, but his fingers had slipped right through the string, over and over. The pale inner skin of his wrist is scratched red from his efforts.
Lan Huan pauses in the middle of organizing his scrolls; his eyes widen at the sight of his wrist. “Didi.”
“What do I,” Lan Zhan says helplessly. “What should I do?”
Lan Huan abandons his task, rounds the desk to cross over to Lan Zhan as he appraises his expression with concern. “A-Zhan, you are...not pleased?”
“Of course not,” Lan Zhan bursts out as Lan Huan stops in front of him. Louder than is well-mannered. His voice breaks a little over the words.
“Why not?” Lan Huan asks, in calm and soothing tones; only twelve years old, but he still exudes a practiced paternity that Lan Zhan has never questioned. “Having a thread is something to celebrate, no? A red thread only means that someone in the world is your intended person.”
Lan Zhan stares at him, his shoulders drooping and a crumpling feeling in his chest. “I do not...want that.”
A slight frown pulls at Lan Huan’s brow as he asks again, “Why not?”
“I don’t ever want to be married,” Lan Zhan insists.
At this age, he knows he is still considered a child, but he is not so young that he does not know himself. His effect on others. The degree to which he values his uninterrupted space. The thought of forcibly sharing himself with another is alien and arresting, like being unexpectedly thrown into Cold Spring.
From Lan Huan comes the expected response. “You’re too young to know that, didi. When you’re older, matters like marriage will make more sense.”
“I’m not,” Lan Zhan says stubbornly. “I hear what the elders say.” He has seen his father’s coal-black shackle, the colder black of his eyes. “I know the red thread’s love is a bad thing.”
“It’s not,” Lan Huan protests, his frown deepening. “Love is a very good thing. A-Zhan, why do you think that?”
When Lan Zhan thinks of love, he thinks of frostbitten knees, a closed door, the saltwater press of stifled tears. He thinks of his father, his empty eyes and his long sleeves. When he thinks of marriage, he thinks of the tired lines crowded around his mother’s eyes, already fading from his memory. He thinks of her house, beautifully adorned and empty.
Lan Zhan does not say anything in reply to his brother, just bunches his fists by his sides. Lan Huan steps closer to him and drops a light hand on his shoulder.
“In any case, your soulmate thread won’t matter until years from now,” Lan Huan says placatingly. “Try not to think about it, okay? Soon you’ll get used to seeing it, and you won’t think about it at all.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Among the cultivation sects and beyond, the soulmate threads are a shared and common knowledge.
Like anyone else, Lan Zhan has known the colors well from a very young age, and has even seen a few on the wrists of his sect peers — light and faint, but nonetheless visible. Blue for a familial soulmate. Silver for a friend. Red for a lover.
Red threads are rare in the Lan sect, but always a communal source of intrigue in the instances when they do appear — a combination of the GusuLan’s characteristic, tight-lipped disapproval about such matters and a natural but grudging curiosity. Red threads without fail draw hushed speculation, no matter what the sect rules dictate about gossiping.
No one speaks of the black thread. In their limited visits, his father had always donned long, draping sleeves, so Lan Wangji had only caught a glimpse of it twice, charred into his wrist like a shackle. He had known, even from a young age, that the black thread is the worst kind of sentence: a physical and permanent reminder that a soulmate is beyond where they can ever be reached again.
Later that evening, lying straight-backed on his bed, Lan Zhan holds his wrist up against his paper lantern, studies the blue spider crawl of his veins nested in the orange backlight of his skin — and the red thread. So far, he’s noticed that it sometimes fades from view when he twists his wrist, as though shifting in and out of existence with different sources of light.
He had tried ripping it off with his fingers, with his teeth, but perhaps it’s not quite so physical as that. He has only recently started his cultivation lessons, but the elders have informed him, rather proudly, that his golden core is unusually strong for his age. So Lan Zhan closes his eyes and reaches out with the beating ember of his qi.
With his spiritual energy, Lan Zhan plucks at the thread like a guqin string. He feels it hum, then vibrate out into the vanishing silence, meeting only emptiness.
Then, after another still moment, he feels the thread tug on the other end, an unmistakable response. Almost a gentle tease. As if someone is saying, Hello to you too.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Zhan does not touch the thread from that night onward. Unfortunately, this means little to the person on the other end, who tugs at the thread constantly, now that this new trick has been revealed to them. Annoying, insistent, almost like they’re trying to exhaust a response out of him. His person does not discriminate based on time of day, either — the string is tugged during morning classes, during his midday guqin practice, during his afternoon cultivation training, during silent mealtime in the evening, during his pre-sleep rituals.
By the end of the first week, Lan Zhan has ground his teeth so much that a permanent ache has taken up residence in his jaw.
“Gege,” he says to Lan Huan after that first week. It is not a whine — he does not whine. Excessive complaining is prohibited. “He will not leave me alone.”
Lan Huan blinks, as though startled, then looks at Lan Zhan with a complicated expression. He asks, a little carefully, “Didi knows that it is a boy?”
Lan Zhan’s teeth click shut, and blood rushes to his face, a sudden roar in his ears. He had not. Meant to say that. He doesn’t know why his automatic assumption is that his person is a boy. It’s just that whenever he pictures the figure on the other end, it’s a boy’s face, bright eyes and a taunting, roguish grin.
“I,” Lan Zhan says, and flounders more.
Lan Huan rushes to end his flustered silence. “I was only curious, A-Zhan. I didn’t know if the person on the other end had done something that let you know their gender.”
Lan Zhan hesitates, then says, “No,” and Lan Huan smoothly lets the subject drop, but Lan Zhan can’t shake the lingering, mortified sense for days after the conversation that — based on Lan Huan’s startled reaction, how quickly he had tried to mask his surprise — he’s revealed something damning about himself. Something he perhaps is too young to fully understand the implications of.
It could be a girl, couldn’t it? The red thread is for…lovers, after all, Lan Zhan reminds himself with a cringe. Thus far, he has only seen marriage between men and women in his sect.
It’s only that, for whatever reason, Lan Zhan cannot picture a girl on the other end, teasingly tugging his string. He does not know many girls — the men and women are educated separately in the Cloud Recesses, so he does not know how girls behave. Maybe that’s why he can’t picture it being a girl. That must be it. He will explain it to gege later.
◈ ◈ ◈
It isn’t long at all before his sect peers notice the new addition to his wrist, before the whispers follow him like a hush of rainfall.
Like a ripple of wildfire, the elders know within days. One visits him in his quarters to give him a stern lecture on the importance of discipline and restraint, on the significance of his headband, how he must guard his heart closely and his carnal desires even moreso.
Lan Zhan nods obediently but thinks, through the entire conversation, I am eight years old.
Sometimes, he can’t shake the sense, when the elders are looking at him, that they are imagining his father in his stead.
◈ ◈ ◈
As the months pass — and in a slow trickle, the years — the hourly string-tugging abates, much to Lan Zhan’s fierce relief.
However, one ritual remains. Every night before hai shi, as Lan Zhan moves through his nightly rituals for sleep — meditating, undressing, bathing, combing his hair, untying his ribbon — there’s a small but unmistakable tug at his wrist. Almost as if the other person is aware of his sleep schedule and is saying good night.
Much against his will, Lan Zhan comes to anticipate it: the tiny thrill of knowing someone else is out there, an unknown face in an unknown place, thinking of him. He spends his days alone, but that small, tethering pull each night is a strange comfort.
Every once in a while, he tugs back.
◈ ◈ ◈
Then, when he’s thirteen, the tugging stops.
Lan Zhan does not tug, not wanting to impose on the person at the other end, but the anxiety of this absence consumes him, enough so that after a few weeks of the silence, he asks his xiongzhang, as they quietly share tea, if it’s possible something had happened to his person.
“Is your thread still red?” Lan Xichen asks, and Lan Zhan hesitates, then nods. “Then they should be okay. If they were gone from this world, your thread would turn black.”
Maybe it’s the fact that they’re both growing up, Lan Zhan reasons, as he tries to fall asleep that night. Although he does not know anything about this person, he thinks that they may be close to his age. Maybe his person had decided the tugging was a childish ritual, or had grown bored of Lan Zhan’s intermittent responses and stopped. Maybe his person had forgotten about him.
Despite himself, Lan Zhan can’t help but house in his chest the new loneliness of these nights.
◈ ◈ ◈
When he’s fifteen, mere days before he receives his courtesy name, Lan Zhan’s father dies.
Lan Zhan’s grief around it is curiously empty, lake-smooth. A hollow mouth in his chest. He feels sad about his father’s passing because he is expected to, rather than that he misses someone he hardly knew. The truth of the matter is that he had known his father far more from sect lore than from personal interaction.
The week of the funeral passes in a blur, a collection of observations and images as slippery as water: A pearl-white banner draped over his father’s house. The cloy of incense and joss paper burning. The tomb-like silence as he had knelt in vigil, for hours, by his father’s stiff, silent body. The crimson red of the thread on Lan Zhan’s wrist, a disrespectful streak of color against his white mourning robes. Too glaringly cheery for current events. He keeps it tucked away, out of sight, inside his sleeve.
The night after the funeral finally ends, as he waits for sleep, Lan Zhan tugs the string. Silence. He tugs again, and again, in a sudden desperate need to know his soulmate is there, still alive.
He waits for a long time with his breath caged tight in his lungs, staring wide-eyed and awake at the gingko-shaped indigo patterns on his ceiling before he starts to drift, his body succumbing to exhaustion.
Right before he drops off, he feels it, the gentlest pull at his wrist. It’s possible that he dreams it.
◈ ◈ ◈
Only months later, the Cloud Recesses are in a flurry.
Well, flurry may be too strong of a word for the reserved movements of Lan disciples, but there’s a suppressed, anxious energy in the air as Lan Wangji’s sect prepares accommodations to host other young disciples for the annual guest lecture. It’s the first year that Lan Wangji himself will be able to participate in classes, to mingle with disciples from other sects.
He is not looking forward to it.
“This will be a good opportunity for you, Wangji,” his xiongzhang tries to encourage him after the silence of their evening meal. “You spend far too much time alone. This ge is starting to worry about you. It will be nice to meet other disciples your age, don’t you agree?”
“Hm,” is all Lan Wangji says. He does not want xiongzhang to worry over him for ridiculous reasons, so he will try. Unhappily, but he will.
◈ ◈ ◈
The night before the first day of lecture, a delinquent breaks into the Cloud Recesses.
Fortunately, Lan Wangji has been trained as disciplinarian for the past year, and he excels exceptionally in this role, so he catches the boy red-handed with little effort.
“You wouldn’t truly be so unforgiving to an honored guest, would you?” the boy is saying as Lan Wangji holds him at swordpoint. He’s a talker. Clearly accustomed to charming his way out of situations, earnest white flashes of teeth, wheedling tones, smiling eyes.
It’s very lucky for his sect that Lan Wangji is impervious to being swayed. Anyone else might have let this reprobate go.
“You have already broken four of our rules,” Lan Wangji replies, unmoved. “Is that the behavior of an honored guest?”
The boy has the gall to pout at him, as though he doesn’t have a blade pointed to his throat.
“Lan-gongzi,” the boy says, his lower lip still slightly jutted. It would be a nearly endearing expression, to anyone who was not Lan Wangji. “How am I supposed to know your rules? In my Jiang sect, offering liquor would be taken as a sign of friendship. How was I to know that I’d be punished for my generosity?”
Lan Wangji does not buy a word out of this boy’s mouth. But it’s good to know he’s from the YunmengJiang sect. He will keep a close watch on its disciples from here on, especially this boy.
“You will accompany me to receive punishment,” Lan Wangji says, and sheathes Bichen when it becomes apparent the boy won’t attack him. “Perhaps then you will have a firmer understanding of the guest etiquette here.”
“Ah,” the boy replies. “No, I don’t think so.” And he takes off with a wild laugh, flying to the next rooftop. Lan Wangji is momentarily stunned by the sheer audacity of it before he gives chase.
They spar on the next two roofs, and Lan Wangji is infuriated, a little amazed to find his strikes matched blow for blow, interspersed with effortless grins from the boy through the clash of their swords — like he’s enjoying this. The boy’s style is markedly different from his own, a Jiang form of fighting, but he adapts to the Lan style with unflappable ease, picking up the forms by the second.
“Ah, your skills are formidable, Lan-gongzi,” the boy calls over the sharp clang of steel. “Who is it that I have the honor of fighting with?”
Lan Wangji rips away from him, embarrassed to find he’s heaving for breath. The boy is as well, and the playful lilt to his features remains, but he watches Lan Wangji with a closer interest than before, not so dismissive. Despite himself, Lan Wangji’s heart gallops faster in his chest.
“Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji,” Lan Wangji replies coolly. He doesn’t often pull rank to gain an upper hand, but he’s angry and a little put out, so he feels rewarded by the slight widening of the boy’s eyes as he recognizes the name.
Then the boy’s mouth curls up, brushing the edge of condescending, and says, “I didn’t realize I was in the presence of Lan royalty, Lan er-gongzi.” In an exaggerated, sweeping motion, he salutes.
It’s outrageously disrespectful, given Lan Wangji’s title and status. Lan Wangji’s fist tightens around Bichen.
“And who do I have the pleasure of reporting?” Lan Wangji asks through his teeth, and ignores the strange flip-flop in his chest when the boy throws his head back and laughs with genuine mirth.
The boy is pretty. It’s a fact, an objectively true one, that should not register or matter, and it makes Lan Wangji angrier when the conscious thought crosses his mind, but the truth of it cannot be denied. The boy is pretty, and he knows it, and he uses it to his advantage in situations such as this one, and Lan Wangji will not be charmed or swayed by it.
“Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian,” the boy answers with a wide, moonlit smile. “YunmengJiang’s head disciple, if you’d like to write that in your report.”
Lan Wangji blinks. That explains the boy’s aptitude with a sword. But does the Jiang sect really allow someone so undisciplined and irreverent to lead its disciples? Is the boy lying?
Lying or not, Lan Wangji silences him, dumps his liquor, and drags him to meet shufu and xiongzhang in the hanshi. The boy, Wei Wuxian, pitches a fit the entire time; he sulks when he’s reprimanded, casts about wildly as he retells the events of the evening to his uncle and brother. Mutinous. Bratty. Too loud, exaggerated, talks too much. Lan Wangji cannot stand him.
Wei Wuxian is given a punishment in the library, a standard assignment of repeated rule-copying. It’s completely unfathomable to Lan Wangji, but the boy seems to have recovered his good cheer by the end of the conversation, brightly bidding Lan Wangji a good night as he scampers off to find his siblings’ quarters. As if nothing from the past shichen had just happened.
“I have a good feeling about that Wei-gongzi,” xiongzhang tells Lan Wangji moments later with a serene, almost mischievous expression, and Lan Wangji is shocked speechless. He storms off to the jingshi, too indignant to indulge whatever ridiculous potential that his brother imagines he sees in the Jiang boy.
That night, as Lan Wangji tries to fall asleep, he scowls at his ceiling, his muscles still too tense from the events of the evening, from their sparring. He thinks about how Wei Wuxian had looked silenced and on his knees, his mouth twisted and his brows pulled together. About the mercurial dance of his moods, from cheerily bright to hotly indignant to childishly sullen, each a performance on his expressive face.
Who does he think he is? Lan Wangji wonders to himself in a quiet rage, and he suddenly feels a pull at his wrist. He holds up his arm and blinks at the thread, certain that he’s mistaken. It’s been a long time since he’s heard from his person, since his father’s funeral, but sure enough, the tugging starts up again, insistent and almost obnoxious.
Lan Wangji isn’t sure whether to be more pleased or annoyed at this development.
He tugs back once, sharp, as if to say, Shut up.
It is far past his bedtime, after all.
Three quick tugs from the other person, a petulant cajoling. Pay attention to meee.
With a brief spasm of horror, Lan Wangji realizes he’d heard the silent plea in Wei Wuxian’s whiny, wheedling voice.
Of course that wretched boy would ruin this part of his evening, too. Lan Wangji slips into a furious meditation, blocking out all other sensations until the tugging finally goes away, like the person had either fallen asleep or given up. Eventually, Lan Wangji, too, drifts off into a fitful, restless sleep.
◈ ◈ ◈
As to be expected, Wei Wuxian starts causing problems in the Cloud Recesses almost right away.
It takes two days for him to be thrown out of lecture for suggesting alternative, unorthodox cultivation methods. Two days for Lan Wangji to watch his uncle turn a sickly shade of violet that he has, in his entire life, been yet to witness. Two days for Lan Wangji to be saddled with the unenviable — but grimly necessary — task of rehabilitating Wei Wuxian’s behavior.
Wei Wuxian tries to sneak off to the back mountain before his first afternoon of punishment. When Lan Wangji searches for him, he finds Wei Wuxian in the middle of wrangling with a poor, helpless pheasant. Lan Wangji physically drags him to the library pavilion as Wei Wuxian whines in his ear the whole time.
“Such a brute, Lan er-gongzi,” Wei Wuxian sniffs at Lan Wangji when he takes up a seated position at one of the desks in the library. “It’s good to know your gentlemanly reputation is nothing but a huge farce.”
“Quiet,” Lan Wangji says icily.
Wei Wuxian flashes him a grin across the library, a shaft of sunlight bouncing off water. “Or what? You’ll silence me again?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, and digs his nose into his book to ignore Wei Wuxian’s grunting and moaning.
Mercifully, Wei Wuxian stays quiet as he grinds ink and starts on his task, but of course it doesn’t last. Not even a quarter shichen after, Wei Wuxian wanders across the library to sit next to Lan Wangji’s desk.
“Wangji-xiong,” Wei Wuxian says, tugging at his sleeve.
Lan Wangji ignores him.
“Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian tries again.
Lan Wangji pictures a clear, undisturbed cold spring. He envisions sinking into its silent, glacial depths.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian chirps, too loud, and Lan Wangji does flinch at this, the shock of over-familiarity in it.
“There we go,” Wei Wuxian says with a self-satisfied curl of his lips as Lan Wangji turns to glare at him. It’s the first time Lan Wangji has been so close to him. The bow of his mouth is rosebud-pink, very plush. His eyes are gray, glinting with mischief. Quick and lively, like sun catching the silver backs of darting minnows. Lan Wangji returns to reading, ignoring the observations.
“Or would you prefer Lan er-gege?” Wei Wuxian wonders aloud, and walks two fingers along the desk toward Lan Wangji’s hand.
Lan Wangji silences him.
Wei Wuxian gives a stifled groan of protest and reaches out again, spreading his fingers wide and placing his hand directly on Lan Wangji’s scroll to stop him reading. Very obnoxious, and Lan Wangji almost slaps him away, but the motion causes Wei Wuxian’s sleeve to slip, and Lan Wangji blinks, momentarily arrested by what he sees.
A faint but unmistakable red thread.
He lifts the silencing spell and does smack Wei Wuxian’s hand away, then swivels to stare at him. Wei Wuxian harrumphs at him and cradles his hand close to his chest with a petulant expression.
“Your wrist,” Lan Wangji says — unable to stop himself from asking, or to keep the grudging curiosity from his voice. In his whole life, he’s had yet to meet someone else his age who has the red thread.
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian asks, and squints at him. Then he blinks in realization. “Oh! You mean this?”
He peels his sleeve back and holds his wrist up, where the red thread pulses against his tan skin.
“Red,” Lan Wangji says, still angry with Wei Wuxian, but the question in his tone unmistakable.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian replies with a bright smile, seeming eager to have finally captured Lan Wangji’s attention. “It means that I’ll get to fall in love one day.”
Lan Wangji blinks again, then scowls. “Ridiculous.”
“What’s ridiculous?” Wei Wuxian protests. “That’s what it means! Don’t tell me you Lans don’t have red threads here.”
“We do,” Lan Wangji says coldly, and leaves it at that.
“I think it’s nice,” Wei Wuxian says, rocking his bent-up knee back and forth. He sucks on his lower lip thoughtfully before he adds, “It’s romantic. It means that I’m meant to love somebody out in the world, and they’re guaranteed to love me in return.”
There’s a hot, squirming pressure building in Lan Wangji’s chest. The heat of it creeps to his ears and steadily burns. How can Wei Wuxian listen to himself talk this way? It’s absurd.
“What’s that face for, Wangji-xiong?” Wei Wuxian asks, tilting his head to survey him. “You don’t believe in soulmates?”
“Of course I do,” Lan Wangji answers, irritated. The existence of soulmate threads is an irrefutable fact.
“You don’t believe in romance, then,” Wei Wuxian tries.
“In fiction, perhaps,” Lan Wangji says coolly. “Many other matters take precedence over love.”
He’s well aware he’s saying too much, being lured out into this conversation like a wary mouse as Wei Wuxian circles him like a smug cat. He finds, for whatever reason, that he cannot stop himself.
“Wow, you Lans are so boring,” Wei Wuxian replies, sounding appalled. “So vapid and stuffy! What’s the point of anything if not for love?”
Lan Wangji stares at him, utterly taken aback. Wei Wuxian meets his gaze, earnest and a little challenging. He really believes what he’s saying, not just spouting shameless nonsense for the sake of annoying Lan Wangji.
Then there’s a teasing hook of Wei Wuxian’s lips, and Lan Wangji at once senses danger.
Wei Wuxian slithers closer to him, leaning forward on Lan Wangji’s desk on both of his elbows.
“Or,” he says in a low, silken voice, “could it be that Lan er-gongzi is jealous he doesn’t have a red thread?”
“Shut up,” Lan Wangji snaps, flinching away from his proximity. Too close, too warm — he wants to flee, to unsheathe his sword and fight.
“I can only imagine what your soulmate would be like, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says laughingly, a shimmer of sound close to his ear. “Oh, god, there’d be two of you in the world. That I would like to see.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t know why he does what he does next; there’s something about Wei Wuxian that makes him desperate to grapple for the upper hand, in a childish, immature way he’s never experienced. For that reason, he yanks back his sleeve and holds up his wrist, and feels a vicious tug of satisfaction to see the surprise register on Wei Wuxian’s face.
“You too, Ji-xiong?” Wei Wuxian asks with a startled blink. “Huh. I wouldn’t have thought that you…”
There, Lan Wangji wants to say, smugly. That will teach you to think you know anything about me.
“Wow, your soulmate is gonna be so bored,” Wei Wuxian says, then starts laughing, too loud and unbridled for general tolerance, but especially for the observant silence of the library pavilion. Lan Wangji glares at him, seething with outrage.
Finally, Wei Wuxian leans out of his space, yawning with a creak in his jaw, an appealing flex of his jawline. Abruptly, Lan Wangji remembers that Wei Wuxian still has several lines of precepts to copy. He’s allowed himself to be goaded as he told himself he wouldn’t, letting himself become unforgivably distracted from his task.
Just as Lan Wangji is about to tell him off, Wei Wuxian asks, consideringly, “What do you think your soulmate is like, Lan Zhan?” and the line of inquiry brings Lan Wangji up short.
“Do you know anything about them?” Wei Wuxian continues.
Lan Wangji frowns. He reflects on the years of teasing tugs, his own furious despair over it as a child.
“Playful,” he says before he can stop himself. “Loyal.” The person had pulled his thread every night, after all, even when there was often no reply. “Persistent.”
Wei Wuxian laughs, looking a little surprised to be answered. “How can you know?”
“I just do,” Lan Wangji snaps, and returns to staring unseeingly at his scroll.
“I don’t know anything about mine,” Wei Wuxian says mournfully, either oblivious or uncaring to Lan Wangji’s lack of attention. “I think she must be quieter than me, though. More...subdued.”
That would not be a difficult achievement, Lan Wangji wants to say, but bites it back, doing his best to ignore Wei Wuxian’s words where they settle in his ears.
“I bet yours is another Lan,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “All that no-nonsense, no-romance stuff. I’m sure you two will be very happy together.”
The sarcasm earns Wei Wuxian another heated scowl, but Wei Wuxian just smiles sunnily back at him, clearly pleased to have snagged Lan Wangji’s attention again.
This conversation is over. For no reason other than petty spite, Lan Wangji silences Wei Wuxian again, ignoring the small tantrum in his periphery as he does his best to unhear everything from this last conversation.
Lan Wangji can’t help but pity the person destined to deal with Wei Wuxian forever, he thinks, watching through his eyelashes as Wei Wuxian finally returns to copying rules, his face blotched a deep red from resisting the silencing spell. It’s enough of a trying task just to try to modify his uncouth behavior. Whoever Wei Wuxian’s soulmate is will have to constantly keep him in check. To wake up every day to overbright laughter and teasing jibes and swooning, ridiculous notions about love.
It would be awful, Lan Wangji thinks, ignoring the unsteady rocking of his chest, like a boat on storm-tossed waters.
◈ ◈ ◈
A routine develops. Every day, Wei Wuxian — Wei Ying — causes a ruckus in class, enabled by the quietly cackling Nie Huaisang and some of the other Jiang disciples. Every day, he makes his library punishment as difficult as possible, for both himself and Lan Wangji. Every day, Lan Wangji silences him at least once.
Every day, Lan Wangji’s gaze snags on the red thread looped around Wei Ying’s wrist, and he wonders.
The routine is broken about a week and a half later when Wei Ying doesn’t show up to the library. This negligence is to be completely expected. Lan Wangji is going to give him a quarter shichen to show up before he goes out to hunt him down with his not-inconsiderable tracking skills.
Then, surprisingly, Wei Ying does appear, flushed and sweaty and panting for breath and his arms wound tight behind his back.
“You are late,” Lan Wangji says sternly at his arrival.
Wei Ying beams at him with all of his teeth, and Lan Wangji’s heart constricts. An odd reaction. Discomfort or anxiety, perhaps.
“I know how hard Lan er-gongzi has been working to oversee this humble student,” Wei Ying begins in ingratiating tones, crossing the library floor with his arms still behind his back. It cannot mean anything good. “So I thought I’d bring a small gift in thanks. Not Emperor’s Smile this time, I promise.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji warns, disliking the general direction of this.
Wei Ying’s arms snap out in front of him in a white blur, and suddenly, Lan Wangji’s lap is full of — soft, wriggling warmth. Warmth that is very much alive.
It renders Lan Wangji mute with shock. He can only stare downward, frozen to his seat.
“Bunnies!” Wei Ying says happily. “Look at how cute they are, Lan Zhan! I saw the two of them on the back mountain and knew I had to catch them for you, if only to see your face.”
“Why,” Lan Wangji says, strangely flustered as the rabbits poke and sniff their way across his lap; cloud-like balls of fur and wiggling, pink noses.
Lan Wangji adores them, helplessly and immediately. He hates the fact that he does. But he does. One of his hands comes up to cup the downy fur of the white one, his heart twisting strangely in his chest. He’s not sure what his face is doing, but it is likely damning.
Wei Ying is watching his expression closely when Lan Wangji looks up, just in time to see delighted awe break over his features, a soft light.
“Oh, Lan Zhan, you…” Wei Ying says, his eyes so warm. Almost tender. “You really like them, huh?”
“Get out, ” Lan Wangji yells at him, and Wei Ying scampers away cackling while Lan Wangji buries his face in his hands, miserably, as the bunnies scuffle on his desk.
◈ ◈ ◈
It’s during the third week of Wei Ying’s library punishment when it happens.
The afternoon starts out as any other has, with Wei Ying deliberately trying to annoy Lan Wangji and Lan Wangji stonily ignoring him.
Wei Ying is, unfortunately for Lan Wangji, keenly perceptive, and he had picked up from their first days in the library that the most likely way to engage Lan Wangji was the soulmate conversation.
So today, Wei Ying asks, with no subtlety, “Hey, Lan Zhan, have you ever tried to talk to your soulmate?”
Lan Wangji takes a breath, aware he’s being baited. He replies anyway. “How would I do that?”
“I don’t know, you’re a really strong cultivator,” Wei Ying says, propping his chin on one hand and swaying forward on his desk. He uses the other to twirl a dark strand of his hair around his finger, around and around. “Surely you could come up with some creative way.”
“Hm,” is all Lan Wangji says, and he continues copying lines before he comes to the humiliating realization that he’s been mindlessly sketching the characters of Wei Ying’s name instead of Lan An’s poetry. Carefully, so as not to draw Wei Ying’s attention to it, he rips out the leaf of paper and crumples it in his fist.
“Like, for example,” Wei Ying is saying, chipper and blessedly oblivious, “I found out when I was young that if I use spiritual energy a certain way, I can do this.”
Wei Ying closes his eyes in concentration, and from across the room, Lan Wangji sees the red thread around his wrist jerk, as though it’s been yanked.
At the same moment, Lan Wangji feels the familiar, unmistakable tug at his own wrist.
His breathing stops.
“I’ve done it a lot,” Wei Ying continues over the sudden oceanic roar in Lan Wangji’s ears, “but I don’t get much of a response, which makes me think my soulmate isn’t a very strong cultivator. That’s fine, though. Cultivation isn’t everything.”
A coincidence. That’s all it had been, Lan Wangji reasons, still feeling dizzy. A very odd coincidence, but there’s absolutely no possibility that —
“You try it,” Wei Ying says, guilelessly eager as he stares at Lan Wangji from across the room.
Lan Wangji’s heart thunders in his chest, a rapidfire knock against his ribs. With practiced ease, he reaches out with his qi to pluck the string, and watches with mounting horror as Wei Ying startles the moment he does.
“Oh, that was strange,” Wei Ying says with a small laugh, a smaller frown. “It felt like…”
All at once, aglow in a slant of sunlight through the library windows, the red thread is visible, a long scarlet string that spans the space between them. Less translucent, more solid than Lan Wangji has ever seen it. On one end is Lan Wangji’s wrist; on the other is Wei Wuxian’s.
“No,” Lan Wangji chokes out, just as Wei Ying blurts, in disbelief, “You?!”
Much like when he was young, Lan Wangji follows the rules. He does not sprint to the hanshi and throw himself at his xiongzhang’s feet in despair.
He walks. Very, very quickly and with purpose, with a pace as if ants are crawling in his shoes.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen greets him with a smile when he enters, though he seems puzzled by the unexpected entrance. “I did not —”
“Forgive my intrusion, xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says, out of breath, then salutes. He’s still shaking. Lan Xichen observes his discomposure with visibly growing concern and confusion.
“Wangji, what’s happened?” he says in a low voice, standing up from his desk.
“It’s him,” Lan Wangji says miserably, his throat tight. An impending migraine throbs at his temples. “Wei Ying.”
“What is?” Lan Xichen asks.
Lan Wangji can’t say it in words, not yet. He holds up his wrist, hoping his brother will understand.
Lan Xichen does. His eyes widen, an audible breath pressing out of him. “...I see.”
“I know that there are...there are means to remove it,” Lan Wangji says, in what he thinks is an admirably steady tone of voice, for the havoc thrashing around inside him. “Doctors who specialize in surgery of spirit, not flesh.”
“Wangji, slow down,” Lan Xichen says, his brow furrowing. It is perhaps the first time in his life Lan Wangji has received this instruction. “Removal is an incredibly drastic measure. I don’t think it will be necessary, yet.”
Lan Wangji has only heard rumors of soulmate thread removal, but has never actually encountered information on it. It’s true that the circumstances he’s heard are more dramatic, usually the bereaved begging for their black threads to be removed. But he thinks being bound as Wei Ying’s soulmate may suffice as a necessary grounds for it.
“I don’t want it,” Lan Wangji whispers. The words sound so small, incredibly childish even to his own ears.
“Have patience, Wangji,” his xiongzhang says gently. “You hardly even know Wei-gongzi yet.”
“I know enough,” Lan Wangji mutters.
Lan Xichen smiles at him, warm and maybe a little pained. “You’ve spent a lot of time with him, have you not? Have you not seen any redeeming qualities?”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji says, neither an affirmative or dissent.
Lan Wangji knows there are no set rules for how to act on soulmate threads. Someone with a silver thread could fall for and marry their intended platonic soulmate; someone could have a silver or blue thread and still happily love and marry another person. (His brother’s silver thread showed up when he was thirteen, its other half still unknown.) Someone could have the red thread and still not love or want to be with their intended. (Lan Wangji thinks of his parents.)
The thread is not binding; he is not promised to Wei Ying. And yet, in a way, he is: Since they were young, their paths have been intertwined. For better or worse, their hearts are cut from the same cloth, as little as Lan Wangji can understand it. The soulmate threads do not lie, and they do not make mistakes.
Which means the color of the thread is also no mistake. With sweating palms, Lan Wangji thinks about the hours he’s wasted trying to catch glimpses of Wei Ying as covertly as he can, his slim wrists and firm waist and the beautiful arch of his neck, the fullness of his lips and the glow of his smile. Lan Wangji is already in danger; he just hadn’t realized quite how much.
Lan Xichen watches the array of emotions spelled out on his face; indetectable to any other, but a glaring beacon to his brother who knows him best.
“You have...already fallen?” he guesses, not unkindly. Almost sympathetic.
Lan Wangji shakes his head, reeling. “No. No. He is not — I don’t —”
“Wangji ah,” Lan Xichen says, gently. “It’s okay. Fate cannot be helped, after all. Although his behavior may...challenge our principles, Wei-gongzi has a good spirit. He’s intelligent and lively and your equal in a fight, as well as in cultivation. You could have a much worse partner.”
“I will not — ” Lan Wangji says, squeezing his eyes shut. He trails off, says nothing for several moments.
Lan Xichen waits patiently.
“What will shufu say,” Lan Wangji eventually mutters, staring down at his wrist.
At this, Lan Xichen quirks a smile, genuinely amused. “Shufu will be...displeased at first, I am sure, but he too cannot contest the mysterious workings of fate. If Wei-gongzi is truly your intended as you say, he will accept it in time.”
“I don’t even get a choice,” Lan Wangji says, a little despairingly.
Was he doomed to fall for Wei Wuxian from their first day? From before? Has the universe been mocking him all this time, offering him someone so completely his opposite, so utterly infuriating? He suddenly pictures Yue Lao gleefully laughing at him, and his fists knot even tighter.
“Love is always a choice, Wangji,” his xiongzhang says, at once very serious. “The threads guide but do not define.”
He doesn’t need to mention their parents for Lan Wangji to know what he means, what they are both thinking of.
“If you choose Wei-gongzi, and he chooses you,” Lan Xichen continues, “then the thread is of no consequence.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Wangji doesn’t know what he expects of Wei Ying regarding this development, but their first conversation about it is about as disastrous as he could imagine.
“Okay, so,” Wei Ying says in the library two days later, and promptly slaps a stack of scrolls down in front of him. “At first, I will be completely honest, the idea of being your soulmate didn’t thrill me. But then I thought, well, we’re bound together for a reason, right? The threads are never wrong. And if we’re going to be lovers, I thought we should probably educate ourselves a little, just for mutual benefit and satisfaction.”
“What,” Lan Wangji chokes out. “You —”
“The red thread,” Wei Ying says, with barely suppressed impatience.
Wei Ying has clearly done the same mental calculations about their predicament as he has. Lan Wangji is already blushing to the roots of his hair even without knowing the books’ contents. He wants to melt into the floor.
“So I gathered these texts with some help from my good friend Nie Huaisang,” Wei Ying continues, blithely unaware of Lan Wangji’s inner turmoil. “I think they could be educational if we’re going to be married.”
“There is no rule we have to marry just because we are bound,” Lan Wangji points out through gritted teeth.
Wei Ying sulks at him. “Aiii, Lan Zhan, you’re no fun. What’s all the resistance for? Can’t you just fall for my boyish charm like everyone else?”
Lan Wangji absolutely will not. He hasn’t — he has not. He won’t.
Lan Wangji opens one of the books just for something to do with his hands, to distract himself from Wei Ying saying absurd things about falling in love, and it takes him a blank moment before he understands what he’s looking at. When he does, blood rushes to his head with shocking speed, drowning out the sound of Wei Ying’s chatter.
It’s...cut-sleeve erotica. The opened page depicts one half-dressed man with his head thrown back, clearly in the throes of ecstasy, and another man between his legs, using his mouth to —
Lan Wangji jolts up from the table, painfully slamming his knee as he stumbles back into the nearest shelf. The fire in his blood makes his eyes smart.
Wei Ying stops talking to frown at him. “Lan Zhan?”
“How — dare you,” Lan Wangji manages, and wonders if it’s possible to die from rage. Cultivators have qi-deviated from less. The lewd picture is still seared to the backs of his eyelids. The fact that Wei Wuxian had showed up just expecting to, to — to go through texts like this with him —
Wei Ying gives him a puzzled look, cataloging the violence of his reaction. “What’s the big deal about this? It’s just art. Surely you’ve seen artwork like this before.”
Lan Wangji is trembling as he stares at Wei Ying, speechless with fury.
Realization dawns over Wei Ying’s features, and he looks back at Lan Wangji with his mouth popped ajar. “Wait, have you really not…?”
“Shut up!” Lan Wangji fumes. “Of course I — you — shameless — ”
“What’s there to be ashamed of about this?” Wei Ying asks as though he’s genuinely surprised, cocking his head. “Okay, at first, to be totally honest, I also was kind of surprised at the idea of my soulmate being a man, given it’s the red thread and all. I was uncomfortable with it for, mmm, about a day. I’ve always really liked pretty girls, so I always thought it would be a woman on the other end of the thread. But then I got over it when I realized it doesn’t really matter. You’re as pretty as any girl — prettier, really — and the mechanics of this part are pretty much the same. Lan Zhan ah, you shouldn’t care so much about things like this.”
“Shut up!” Lan Wangji lashes out again, for lack of something better to say. His mind is rabbiting in several different directions. Wei Ying finds him pretty? This conversation cannot be happening — Wei Ying can’t possibly be talking about...doing that with Lan Wangji, with utter and academic seriousness, as if it’s an inevitability.
“So unreasonable,” Wei Ying mutters, rubbing at his nose the way he does when he’s put out.
Then he glances up at Lan Wangji slyly, an expression Lan Wangji has come to associate with imminent peril.
“Hmm,” Wei Ying says at a dismal note, belied by the coy flick of his lashes. “I take it this means you don’t want to practice kissing, then?”
Lan Wangji’s vision briefly goes white, and in that short span, he realizes he’s unsheathed Bichen. Wei Ying scrambles back, looking faintly alarmed for the first time.
“Ah, okay, wow! So scary! Lan Zhan, I really think you’re overreacting. Kissing me wouldn’t be so bad, don’t you think?” There’s a trill of laughter in his voice now as he dances away from Bichen’s attempted strike. It makes Lan Wangji’s temper flare even redder. He lashes out again; again, Wei Ying nimbly dodges. “I’ll leave these valuable materials with you that way you can closely study them, and when you’re ready, we can talk about —”
“Get out,” Lan Wangji shouts, his voice booming so loud in the quiet of the library that it nearly cracks, and Wei Ying fixes him with an unimpressed look before he turns and runs off.
Lan Wangji sheathes Bichen, blindly sweeps up the books in one of his sleeves — he can’t just leave them here where any innocent bystander could find them — and flees to the jingshi.
The second he’s through the door, he throws the texts on the bed and presses the heel of his hand to the throb in his groin.
He leans back against the sliding door with a soft moan, overwhelmed by the relief of just this simple touch. Lan Wangji has never had issues with this element of his control before, but heat has been steadily building under his navel since he opened the book, since Wei Ying had said this and that about kissing with his pink, pink lips and curious mischief in his eyes and the slim curve of his waist —
Lan Wangji hitches up the four layers of his robes and reaches into his trousers, his head slamming back against the door when he takes himself in hand. His head is spinning, his mouth dried out with lust. His tongue is a block of wood in his mouth. He’s careening wildly out of control — he’s never lost his composure quite this badly before, but the need of it burns through him, insuppressible.
The books, scattered haphazardly across his bed, seem to stare back at him in judgment.
Any time a problem like this has arisen — when he’s woken up hard or with his sheets already soiled — it has been manageable. Lan Wangji has meditated it away. Sometimes taken a cold bath or a trip to the cold spring, if the issue was more stubborn. There is no stopping this, the sweet friction of his own grip moving against his stiffened cock, already leaking at the tip. It’s dizzying, blinding, a tangible electricity behind his teeth.
It takes only a moment to finish. Entirely unpermitted, his mind supplies the imagery from the book, only it’s Wei Ying with his head thrown back like that, his expression lost to pleasure, Lan Wangji between his legs with Wei Ying’s cock, hard just like this, in his mouth — and Lan Wangji bites into his own arm hard enough to sting as he comes with a muffled, miserable sound, his vision starry and his hand and robes suddenly wet.
His spine slides down along the door so that he’s sitting with his knees curled up to his chest. Panting, disbelieving as he stares down at his spent cock, softening and bare to the air of the room.
Lan Wangji’s mind has gone pleasantly blank, an unbroken snowdrift. He floats in this state for a moment, observing the odd lack of tension in his body before he returns, with a sharp recoil, to his senses.
He cannot allow this to happen again, Lan Wangji thinks as he closes his eyes, tips his head back. Wei Ying had done this, unraveled all of his years of carefully curated control.
He will be on his guard. This will not happen again. It will not.
◈ ◈ ◈
Every night, Wei Ying pulls at the thread, and every night, Lan Wangji jerks off to the thought of him with a shame that burns low and sour in his belly. He never returns the erotic texts, but instead keeps them stored under a loose floorboard in the jingshi, and Wei Ying never asks for them back, perhaps assuming they’d been destroyed.
Lan Wangji studies the images until the yellow pages are thin and worn. He firmly tells himself his fascination with the texts is for educational purposes, as Wei Ying had said. He recites sect rules all the while, meditates and practices handstands until the joints of his shoulders are sore, but it does nothing to abate the bizarre fever that has recently taken hold of him.
It must be the red thread, he reasons after a week of this. It would make sense that this would be a side-effect that his sect elders never discussed with him. It’s too unspeakable, too appalling. He now, at last, understands their warnings to him about untoward desires, about temptations and the necessity of restraint.
That night, Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Ying is experiencing the same issue, and the mere thought of it makes him hard all over again, groaning into his fist.
Has Wei Ying done this before? Surely he has, if he has such a demonstrated curiosity in...matters such as this. He is probably an expert in it. What does he think about, what does he imagine when he does it?
Thinking about him in such a state is enough to push Lan Wangji to finish, a little miserably, and he simmers with shame as he cleans himself up.
What would his family say, if they knew his lack of restraint? What would the elders say?
As he tries to sleep, Lan Wangji stares up at the ceiling and forces thoughts of Wei Ying out of his mind. He meditates instead, submerging himself in a cool darkness. Despite this, Wei Ying’s face is the last thing he thinks of before he drifts off.
◈ ◈ ◈
Two weeks after the soulmate discovery, they set off lanterns.
All of the other sects and its young disciples are also in attendance — Jiang Cheng, Jin Zixuan, Nie Huaisang. Lan Wangji has never spoken to any of them, despite his initial promise to his brother. His waking thoughts (and most of his non-waking ones) are consumed by Wei Ying, by this dislike that’s starting to feel less and less like dislike and more like a helpless infatuation, and then he has to take several despairing moments to wonder if it has ever, truly, been dislike, and if he knows himself at all.
Wei Ying makes him a lantern, painted with a stunning likeness of one of the rabbits he’d captured from the back mountain. His smile is far brighter, a sunbeam compared to a lantern’s glow, not a hint of teasing or mockery to be detected as he shows Lan Wangji his handiwork.
Lan Wangji can feel himself weakening, the stone cliff of his resolve eroding by increments. This boy had kept him company on too many nights to count, had laid in bed li away in Lotus Pier and also thought of him, spoke to him without words. His only consistent companionship in a lonely and friendless childhood.
His feelings are as confusing as they are terrifying. Lan Wangji had thought his hatred of Wei Ying would be easily tended, a natural dislike due to their diametric opposition. He had been raised to distrust that which opposes, that which challenges, to hold it in contempt. Wei Ying is the first anomaly — the only anomaly that has mattered, thus far.
They release their lanterns. Wei Ying clasps his hands together, the red thread he shares with Lan Wangji burning like an ember against his skin. He says earnestly, “I wish to always pursue justice and to live with no regrets.”
Lan Wangji breathes in, and the stone cliff crumbles completely.
◈ ◈ ◈
That night, Wei Ying punches Jin Zixuan, and by the next day, he has been formally asked to return home to Lotus Pier.
After he prepares his things for his departure to Yunmeng, Wei Ying seeks Lan Wangji out to say goodbye in front of the hanshi. Lan Wangji ignores the aching beat of his heart, the stir of heat in his belly that flares up whenever he sees Wei Ying now.
“Lan er-gongzi,” Wei Ying teases, and tugs at the red thread so it’s a visible line across the distance between them. He reaches out, playfully, to stroke a thumb along Lan Wangji’s cheek, and Lan Wangji’s knees threaten to cave. “My sweet Lan Zhan, will you miss me?”
Lan Wangji’s face burns. Lying is forbidden.
“Yes,” he says through his teeth, then turns on his heel and leaves him, the final image of Wei Ying’s startled expression branded in his mind.
◈ ◈ ◈
The rest of summer passes in a slow, lazy crawl of heat, the heaviness of it unusual for the mountains.
Lan Wangji cares little about lecture — and even less so about other sects’ disciples — now that Wei Ying is not here. Jiang Cheng is gruffly polite to him when they cross paths, but Lan Wangji ignores him, uninterested in making small talk. He goes about his duties, every day the same without the tornado of Wei Ying wreaking havoc on his life. He trains and cultivates and reads and practices guqin, he attends lecture and dutifully answers shufu’s questions to provide other students an upstanding example, he privately tends to the rabbits on the back mountain, he jerks himself off to the thought of Wei Ying writhing and begging underneath him, he goes to sleep, he wakes up at mao shi. He thinks about Wei Ying in Lotus Pier, at home among the lotus pads and the pretty young women and cool green waters and spiced-red dishes and bustling marketplaces that Wei Ying had described to him in such lurid detail.
He practices guqin every day, and he finds his focus inexcusably wandering as he does. His fingers, almost unconsciously, start to pluck the notes of a different song — one he has not heard before, and one he has certainly never been taught by his instructors. By the end of the first month, the new piece has taken a loose and undefined shape; not fully finished in execution, but Lan Wangji holds it so clearly in his mind that translating the notes to guqin is almost secondary. He finds it in the backdrop of his dreams, a persistent and distant hum throughout his daily tasks.
Every night, Wei Ying pulls the thread.
For the first week, Lan Wangji ignores him. And then he starts to pull back.
◈ ◈ ◈
Not long after that idyllic summer, things go to hell.
Lan Wangji’s home burning to the ground, a broken leg, and being stranded in a monster-infested cave with Wei Ying should not be correlated events, but, oddly enough, they are.
After Lan Wangji watches the Cloud Recesses burn and feels a piece of his heart go with it — after his brother disappears, after everyone he knows is either dead, injured, or gone missing — he is dragged on a shattered leg to Qishan. It is quite possibly the last place on earth he wants to be.
But as he limps into Nightless City, he catches a glimpse of Wei Ying, watches his eyes widen as their gazes meet across the distance after nearly a year apart, and there’s a lightness in him for the first time in months. A weakness. A relief.
◈ ◈ ◈
The Wens drag them through the forests outside Nightless City like cattle, herding them toward Dusk Creek Mountain. It is a grueling journey, given Lan Wangji’s injured leg, and he lags far behind the rest of the cultivators even as he tries his hardest to keep up.
When they finally do stop for rest, Lan Wangji watches as Wei Ying flirts with a Jin girl named Mianmian, as he whips out his usual arsenal of quick wit and sunny smiles for someone else. Lan Wangji seethes. His sect rules outline precautionary measures about jealousy, the inherent dangers of its toxicity being housed within, but Lan Wangji cannot help it for the life of him. It eats away at his insides like an acid.
The pain of his leg, barely healed from being broken, does little to add to his mood. In a fume of despair, he hobbles away from Wei Ying to rest on a nearby tree stump. It’s humiliating that this, of all things, is what’s pushing him to the verge of angry tears, even though he knows rationally that his destroyed home, his missing brother, his injured uncle, his confiscated sword, the heat, his thirst, and the unrelenting pain of his crippled leg all have probably contributed to his general misery.
Mianmian angrily berates Wei Ying as he dances around her with some satchel that he’s managed to tease away from her, as shameless and frivolous as he always is. Lan Wangji’s alleged soulmate, flirting with somebody else, as if Lan Wangji has any face left to lose now. He has not seen Wei Ying in almost a year, and had missed him every day of it. It is awful to feel like this. He stews in the swamp of his envy, trying to swallow down the thick feeling of it in his throat.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, and Lan Zhan startles and looks up at him; when had he gotten over here?
Wei Ying crouches down next to him, and suddenly Lan Wangji’s embarrassment has an audience. He tilts his chin away, unable to look Wei Ying in the eye, his stomach fluttering with nerves. He hopes the move will pass for the apathy he is desperately trying to project over the unfortunate noise of his inner turmoil.
“Lan Zhan, let me carry you,” Wei Ying says, and Lan Wangji turns his head back to blink at him, sure he’s somehow misheard.
Wei Ying is still kneeling down next to him, a hand cupped on Lan Wangji’s uninjured knee. His gaze is frank and concerned, absent of any trace of his usual teasing. Lan Wangji has rarely seen him so serious, and it has an odd effect on him: His pulse picks up, beating against the roof of his mouth.
It’s the first time he has spoken to Wei Ying since they parted at the Cloud Recesses, all those months ago. He looks older, his familiar features having slightly sharpened without Lan Wangji around to watch it happen. More handsome now than boyishly pretty. But still a good degree of boyishly pretty.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, again, more insistently. “I heard them say your leg is broken. Let me carry you.”
“No need,” Lan Wangji answers. The mental image of such an act is preposterous; he would lose what little face he has left. He would appear even more conspicuously weak than he already does, when Wen Chao already has a target fixed to his back.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying protests. “Don’t always say you’re fine when you’re not. What’s a little carrying between soulmates, huh?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes snap to his, assessing for mockery, but there’s none he can detect. Just Wei Ying’s face too close to his — a river-gray gaze, sun-warm and earnest and beautiful, the comfort of its familiarity its own homecoming, and ah, Lan Wangji feels a pang sound out in his chest, ringing inside him like a strike to a singing bowl.
He shoves past Wei Ying and limps as quickly as he can to catch up with the rest of the group, ignoring the weight of Wei Ying’s concerned eyes on his retreating back.
“So stubborn,” he hears Wei Ying mutter behind him.
Lan Wangji cannot afford to be distracted by Wei Ying, not here, or to let his feelings be noticed, used as a liability against them both. If Wen Chao finds out about their soulmate thread, he will show no mercy to either of them. As if destroying the Cloud Recesses and its most precious items was not enough, Lan Wangji thinks bitterly, and experiences a rare flash of hatred.
The hatred crystallizes into killing intent when Wen Chao shoves Wei Ying off a small cliff inside Dusk Creek Mountain. He is certain it can be felt, but Wen Chao is either too stupid or too distracted to pick up on it, consumed with greed as he is.
However, Lan Wangji doesn’t get to enact any of his increasingly violent fantasies against Wen Chao because from there, things progress very quickly.
First, they find the monster — the Tusha Xuanwu, if Lan Wangji’s assumption is not mistaken — and chaos ensues. Second, Wei Ying, who is apparently infuriatingly noble under all of that chattering bravado, attempts to sacrifice himself; first by protecting Mianmian from a flaming brand, and then by staying behind as the others swim to safety. Third, Lan Wangji stays to help Wei Ying because the idea of leaving him here to face this creature alone is entirely unthinkable, which results in almost losing his leg entirely.
This is how he and Wei Ying end up trapped, alone together in a cave underneath the earth — chilled to the bone, sopping wet in dirty, bloodied pond water, both severely injured, and probably about to starve to death.
It all seems oddly fitting somehow, Lan Wangji reflects bleakly as they both settle against the slick cave wall and try to catch their breaths. His and Wei Ying’s fates are tied together, after all.
The sensation of Wei Ying shucking up his wet robes pulls Lan Wangji back to his senses; the motion bares his new wound to the cold air. Lan Wangji hisses at the pain and unexpectedness of it, and Wei Ying flits a sympathetic glance to him before he looks around for something to brace his leg.
Wei Ying is bleeding steadily from the arm where an arrow had pierced him — from one of Lan Wangji’s own cowardly disciples, no less. There’s also a new brand mark burned into his chest, the destroyed skin peeking out through the charred layers of his clothes. Looking at his injuries while Wei Ying tries to treat him, Lan Wangji’s stomach twists. Both could have been prevented, he thinks. Wei Ying will carry these scars with him for the rest of his life, a permanent marring that cannot be undone.
“Who would have thought Mianmian’s silly little perfume pouch actually would come in handy?” Wei Ying muses to himself as he taps some of the herbs into his open palm. “I was really just messing with her.”
“Why do you flirt when you don’t mean it,” Lan Wangji snaps before he can stop himself, then feels himself flush as Wei Ying blinks up at him.
“What’s the big deal about flirting?” Wei Ying protests. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just for fun. Surely you’re not actually drinking vinegar over this.”
“You should give Luo-guniang your red thread then,” Lan Wangji answers, so sullen even to his own ears, and Wei Ying blinks again in surprise before he flashes a wide, delighted grin.
“Is that what this is about?” Wei Ying teases while Lan Wangji scowls at him. “Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan. I had no idea you cared about such things. So sweet.”
“Shut up,” Lan Wangji retorts, just shy of burying his face into his lap and staying there for the rest of his immortality.
“Okay, okay,” Wei Ying laughs. “I’ll tease you after you’re not hurting. Do you have anything to tie this brace, by the way?”
Lan Wangji looks at him warily, and in the next moment, Wei Ying reaches for his headband.
He manages to loosen it before Lan Wangji slaps his hand away. “Do not.”
“You just said I’m your soulmate!” Wei Ying whines, rubbing at his afflicted hand with the other. “Isn’t the rule that soulmates get to touch it?”
Lan Wangji hesitates, which gives Wei Ying enough leeway to snatch it from his forehead.
“Wei Ying,” he grits out.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying echoes Lan Wangji in the same tone, far more smugly, then ties the ribbon around his wounded leg.
This is the worst day of Lan Wangji’s life.
The moment the thought crosses his mind, the universe sets out to prove his point: Wei Ying stands up and starts to disrobe, perfunctorily peeling off each soaked layer and letting them pool on the ground with wet slaps.
“What are you doing,” Lan Wangji manages, as if the answer isn’t dreadfully apparent.
“Taking my clothes off,” Wei Ying replies, without a single care. “They’re stinking and soaking wet, plus I need the cloth for bandages.”
Lan Wangji turns his head away, working his jaw against the heat crawling up his neck.
“I know you would rather drown in Xuanwu blood, Lan Zhan, but you really should consider doing the same,” Wei Ying tells him, settling cross-legged onto the hard cave floor. “It’s only going to get colder down here, and you’ll get sick if you wear wet robes for too long.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, sneaking a look at Wei Ying through lowered lids. His top is bare, the hollows of his collarbones thrown into stark relief from the firelight; the cords of his biceps firm, his torso slender but lean with muscle. His nipples have hardened completely from the cold. Lan Wangji clenches his fist where it’s tucked away in his sleeve, his mouth drying out.
Yes, this is definitely the worst day of his life.
Wei Ying is distracted, ripping up one of his robes for strips of cloth, but it just makes the firelight glide more appealingly along his skin as his muscles work, touching his body to a palette of oranges and golds. He seems entirely oblivious to Lan Wangji’s scrutiny.
Lan Wangji is so distracted that he full-body flinches when Wei Ying takes one of the bandages and wraps it around his leg, then ties it off.
Lan Wangji gags; the pain of the jostling movement congeals the thick feeling in his chest. It feels like something sour has settled in his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe.
Wei Ying hesitates, appraising him thoughtfully, before he says, “Hey, Lan Zhan, remember what I said about practicing kissing?”
“What?” Lan Wangji chokes, immediately panicked. He cannot seriously — Wei Ying doesn’t really mean to — here, of all places —
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says brightly, his eyes gleaming like polished coins. “I mean, we’re alone now, so we might as well, right?”
Then Wei Ying leans toward him, and Lan Wangji’s mind blanks, the shock of it a hard grip in his chest, and he — immediately turns to the side and throws up.
When he recovers himself, Wei Ying is pressing, gentle but pointed, along his meridians, soothing small pinches of spiritual energy here and there.
“There,” Wei Ying says, with clear satisfaction. “Feels better with the old blood gone, right?”
“You…” Lan Wangji begins, annoyed and wildly, bizarrely disappointed.
“Sorry about the kissing thing,” Wei Ying says breezily, pulling back from him. “But hey, it worked, right?”
Lan Wangji stays silent, unsure what to say to this. His heart is still knocking way too hard against his ribs.
“Thank you,” he says, for lack of something better, and because he does owe Wei Ying a thanks, after all.
“Ugh, none of that,” Wei Ying says with a grimace. “Don’t make it weird.” Then he twists to reach for the arrow wound on the back of his arm.
Clearly there’s a demon possessing Lan Wangji, because there’s no other explanation for why, in the wake of everything that’s just happened, he hears his own voice tell Wei Ying, “Let me.”
Wei Ying swivels back to look at him in surprise, before he says, more eagerly, “Okay,” and scrambles over to sit next to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji has noticed that Wei Ying likes being close to people, likes to lay touches on his loved ones and to soak up the nearness of those around him. So he tries his hardest not to flinch away when Wei Ying turns his back to him and offers the herbal pouch over his shoulder.
Lan Wangji takes it, silently breathes in through his mouth. Then he pinches some of the healing herbs and presses it into the arrow wound on the back of Wei Ying’s tricep. Wei Ying hardly flinches, but his shoulder does twitch at the contact.
Focusing on the bloody mess of the wound proves to be a surprisingly efficient distraction from the expanse of Wei Ying’s warm, bare skin, the knobs of his spine, the curve of his neck. Wei Ying is a good patient, perhaps due to a long history of practice; he’s surprisingly quiet as Lan Wangji works to clean the blood from the wound with a mindless swipe of his own robe. A gush of fresh blood rushes to fill the spot Lan Wangji has cleared.
“I’m sorry,” Lan Wangji murmurs, then gently presses the remaining herbs into the wound.
Wei Ying sucks his teeth at the discomfort, and then asks, “What are you sorry for? It’s not like you shot me.”
“It was a disciple from GusuLan who did this,” Lan Wangji says. “Who hurt you.”
“That’s okay,” Wei Ying says easily, and Lan Wangji frowns at the back of his head. It is not okay. “I understand why he did it, you know? It’s practical. More would have been saved with the sacrifice of one.”
“No,” Lan Wangji says, too harshly, because he’s suddenly sick at the thought of Wei Ying being a sacrifice for anything.
Wei Ying tilts his head so he’s in profile; he does not quite turn to look at Lan Wangji, but the intention is there. Lan Wangji drops his gaze and focuses on finishing, tying off the wound with one of the strips of cloth Wei Ying had torn off. Soaked with dirty water, their bandages will not be the cleanest, but they are preferable to losing more blood.
Wei Ying shifts around to face Lan Wangji, and oh, now they’re just as close but looking at each other, and Wei Ying is still so. Exposed. Wei Ying blinks at him, also seeming to register their proximity, before his mouth tilts up in a closed half-smile, observing Lan Wangji closely.
Had Wei Ying’s earlier offer been in earnest? Lan Wangji wonders, trying not to stare at his mouth. This time, and the time before in the library? About...practicing. Practicing kissing. Or has it all been to get a rise out of him? Because it’s... funny, to Wei Ying, to provoke him with this?
Involuntarily, Lan Wangji’s attention drops further to Wei Ying’s pectoral, where the sun brand has puffed up enough to lose any of its distinct details.
Thoughtlessly, governed by an urge outside his understanding, Lan Wangji reaches out to touch it, but Wei Ying catches his breath and he remembers himself and stops just short. He yanks his hand back, his scalp tingling.
“You can touch me, you know,” Wei Ying says. Still watching him, intensely, pupils flickering to track Lan Wangji’s expressions. “If you ever want to, I mean. I don’t mind.”
Lan Wangji’s breath hitches before the panic catches up to him, the familiar paralysis of intimacy, and he leans away, out of Wei Ying’s space.
“Ridiculous,” he mutters, without any heat, and Wei Ying laughs softly, unbothered.
“Hey, Lan Zhan, I meant it about your robes,” Wei Ying says, and when Lan Wangji levels a weary glare at him, he adds defensively, “I’m not trying to flirt for once! I really mean it, you’re going to get sick, and we’re both men, anyway. It’s not dishonorable, even if someone were to find us like this.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji says. His ears are already burning.
“Besides,” Wei Ying says, pitched lower — a hand to Lan Wangji’s shoulder now, a tentative test. “I’m your red thread.”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes, either too tired or tongue-tied to resist further as Wei Ying pulls at the lacy folds of his outermost robe. He does feel lighter when it’s gone — the heavy damp of it had started to settle into him with increasing, near-intolerable discomfort. He shivers as Wei Ying works at the next layer, partially from the cold and partially from the cardiovascular antics of Wei Ying undressing him.
“There,” Wei Ying says with a satisfied sound, when all that’s left on Lan Wangji is the inner robe and his trousers. “Don’t you feel much better than before?”
Considerately, Wei Ying lays the robes out to dry by the fire, his damp-waved hair swinging down along his arms. Lan Wangji watches him hazily. He can feel the thick pull of sleep despite the rock digging uncomfortably into the back of his skull; despite the throb of his leg, the growling hunger pangs in his stomach.
“Thank you,” he says quietly, and Wei Ying tosses him a disapproving look.
“Stop thanking me,” Wei Ying protests. “Aiyo, it’s just decency. No need to be so serious all the time.”
“You should rest,” Lan Wangji hears himself say, and Wei Ying replies, but the words slip away from his comprehension, muddled, and the next thing he knows, Lan Wangji is blinking awake. Wei Ying’s warmth is pressed into his side, his head lolled onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and Lan Wangji’s pulse skips at the realization of it. It makes practical sense, after all, to share body warmth in a place as wet and freezing as this, and the craggy cave walls do not make for comfortable pillowing. The boldness of it is, furthermore, completely characteristic for Wei Ying.
No, Lan Wangji finds he cannot mind it at all.
◈ ◈ ◈
Help does not come. After days, when they’re left no other option, they fight the monster. It takes hours.
In the end, the dead monster doesn’t matter. The ribbons sliced deep into Lan Wangji’s palms, split open by rope and string, don’t matter. What matters is that Wei Ying slips into a fever after the fight, his brand and his arm wound infected from so much time in filthy pond water.
Wei Ying’s head lolls from one side to the other as Lan Wangji rights him against the cave wall and gives him an urgent shake.
“Ow, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles, petulant even now.
“Wei Ying, stay awake,” Lan Wangji says. His hands are still shaking from adrenaline and the muscular fatigue from the fight, and he places one of them to Wei Ying’s hot, clammy cheek. There’s a reek all around them, monster blood and viscera and the cold cavernous damp.
He spends the next undefined span of time passing Wei Ying what’s left of his spiritual energy, but there is not much, and it seems to do only a little good. It isn’t long before Wei Ying is dozing off again, muttering this and that about his boredom, and Lan Wangji says again, more wildly than before, “Wei Ying, stay awake.”
“Then make me,” Wei Ying mushes out, then smacks his lips as though he’s thirsty.
Lan Wangji hesitates, then says, helplessly, “How.”
“Sing me something,” Wei Ying suggests. His eyes are closed and fluttering, his breathing too shallow and uneven. “Serenade me with your pretty voice, Lan Zhan.”
Ridiculous, Lan Wangji thinks, tiredly and without heat. He only has a handful of strings with him, but it’s enough to — enough to play something, probably, if that’s what Wei Ying wants. In regular circumstances, he could play a Song of Clarity to restore Wei Ying’s strength, but his own energy is entirely depleted.
So, tentative at first, strangely and viscerally shy about it, he plays through the song he has composed over the last year. It isn’t like Wei Ying will remember it, anyway. He has to modify it slightly as he goes, with his limited instrumentals.
After the first play-through, Wei Ying is softly humming with him, a small smile pulling at his mouth.
“It’s nice,” Wei Ying rasps, when a ringing silence falls after the second play-through ends. “What’s it called?”
Lan Wangji, until now, has not given it a name, although one had stubbornly attached itself the moment he had first started to play it. He had immediately pushed it to the back of his thoughts and kept it there, embarrassed with himself for the sheer schmaltz of it. Nonetheless, he had never been able to shake the title, those two characters, whenever he played. As if the song had forcefully named itself.
It doesn’t seem so hard to say it now, in the dark and dripping quiet with Wei Ying as they slowly die. It feels like the last chance to tell him something.
So he does.
◈ ◈ ◈
When he’s certain Wei Ying is fully out, Lan Wangji scoops him up under his shoulders. His skin is still too hot, especially for the temperature here. A little awkwardly, given his bad leg, he maneuvers Wei Ying’s head into his lap, and in his sleep, Wei Ying sighs and the pinch of his brow smoothes out, as if he had been distressed before.
Lan Wangji uncomfortably settles his shoulders against the cold rock, and for a long time stares emptily into the dying flames of their makeshift fire. He will have to rebuild it soon, which may be difficult without Wei Ying’s talismans. He sighs, and drops his gaze to Wei Ying again.
He must have miscalculated the depth of Wei Ying’s unconsciousness, because he startles to find Wei Ying’s half-lidded eyes fixed on him, dark and bleary.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and there’s a dry click of his throat, trying to swallow. “Am I dreaming?”
“Sleep, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, shifting Wei Ying’s head so it’s pillowed more comfortably on his inner thigh. Wei Ying tilts further into it, his nose brushing against Lan Wangji’s dirty robes.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles, more insistently. He starts to squirm, his breaths picking up as though he’s anxious. “I promise I won’t get sick again, okay? I promise, I almost never get sick. It won’t happen again.”
Lan Wangji blinks and steadies Wei Ying’s thrashing movements with his hands.
“Even if you get sick again,” Lan Wangji says. “It would be fine.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whines, as though this is the wrong answer.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji replies evenly.
“One day when we’re married,” Wei Ying slurs out, his closed eyelids shining. “I’ll be the one taking care of you, okay, er-gege?”
Lan Zhan’s face burns hotter than any fever. Wei Ying is delirious, he reminds himself; he has no idea what he’s saying, nor is he likely to remember it.
“Wei Ying,” he says again.
“You have to let me,” Wei Ying says stubbornly. “Okay? Do you promise?”
Lan Wangji swallows hard around the strange lump lodged in his throat.
“Yes,” he says, almost inaudibly.
“Say it,” Wei Ying insists, “I wanna hear you say it.”
As strange as the conversation is, Lan Wangji is helpless to do anything but comply. He answers softly, “I promise to let Wei Ying take care of me.”
“Good boy,” Wei Ying whispers, canting his head to the side again, his cheeks still flushed with fever. “Ah, it’s good, right, gege?”
“Hush,” is all Lan Wangji can think of to say, and he tentatively runs a hand through Wei Ying’s matted hair. He’s never touched anyone like this, ever, and he’s surprised by how natural it is; his hand picks up into a more assured rhythm, soothing strokes along the crown of Wei Ying’s head.
“Feels good, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles. “Ah. So nice.”
“Rest,” Lan Wangji whispers, and like a miracle, Wei Ying obeys, the tension in his neck slacking and his mouth falling open.
Lan Wangji watches him for a long time, trying to ignore the traitorous stuttering of his heart. Wei Ying is so cute, even like this. It’s a ridiculous thing to be distracted by, so he tries to redirect his attention by passing what little remains of his spiritual energy to Wei Ying. Wei Ying’s core is strong, probably the strongest he’s encountered, but the toll of the resentment and the fight after days of injury and starvation is severe, and Lan Wangji’s own energy is nearly gone.
Perhaps belatedly, it occurs to Lan Wangji as a real possibility that they may die here. Lan Wangji tries to summon a sense of alarm over it, but maybe due to his own exhaustion, he finds he cannot. He had watched his home burn down to the ground, taking many of his peers with it. If he’s to die, there are worse ways than doing so with Wei Ying asleep on his lap.
It isn’t long before he drifts off into a muddled state of restless, painful half-sleep. Thoughts of dying spin in his head like motes of light, prevent him from fully sinking into a full-bellied darkness, and when he wakes again, voices swim around him, urgent and undefined.
Lan Wangji stirs, consciousness trickling back to him. Sensation presses into him in waves, the more he wakes. He’s never been so weak, so tired, so hungry or thirsty.
“ — er-gongzi,” a harsh voice says, more clearly now, and Lan Wangji rouses further.
When Lan Wangji blinks again, Jiang Cheng’s pinched expression is a blur in front of him. His skin is a bloodless pale, his jaw clenched. The cleanness of him seems odd, for such a setting.
“Lan er-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng says again when their eyes meet, and a strange look flickers across his face, too complicated for Lan Wangji to understand in this reduced state. “I need you to let go of my brother.”
Wei Ying. Lan Wangji is far more alert now, alert enough to realize that he and Wei Ying, at some point during their sleep, must have molded around each other, propped up against the cave wall. Wei Ying is curled up in the circle of his arms, too still and too cold, huddled tightly against his chest. There’s an unfamiliar hand on Lan Wangji’s arm. It’s Jiang Cheng’s, trying to peel his grasp away.
Lan Wangji shoves Jiang Cheng’s hand away, too disoriented to focus on courtesy. Ignoring Jiang Cheng’s indignant sound of protest, Lan Wangji tilts Wei Ying’s jaw toward him, places a shaking hand to the pulse just beneath. His spiritual energy is faint, but still beats; his heartbeat is sluggish but still pulses.
Finally, with this assurance, Lan Wangji loosens his grip, and Jiang Cheng calls for Jin Zixuan’s help over his shoulder. He watches in a daze as Jiang Cheng pulls a slumped Wei Ying out of his arms and to his feet, then as he wraps one of Wei Ying’s limp arms around his shoulders. Jin Zixuan takes up the other side. Wei Ying’s head lolls toward his chest as limp as a child’s doll, his ponytail swinging.
Wei Ying, Lan Wangji tries to say, but cannot.
“Lan er-gongzi, can you walk?” Jiang Cheng asks, fixing him with an unimpressed look, and Lan Wangji tries to move his legs. A stab of pain shimmies up his injured one, but he nods silently to Jiang Cheng’s inquiry. He does not need their help.
“Will he,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is nearly unrecognizable, a small rasp. “Will he live?”
Jiang Cheng flexes his jaw, as if in exasperation, then rolls his eyes. “This dumbass is nearly impossible to kill, believe me. Are you coming or not?”
Lan Wangji pulls himself to his feet, leaning shakily on the cave wall to do so. Once he’s upright, Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan turn without another word, hauling Wei Ying with them. Lan Wangji limps behind as they make their way in the direction of the entrance. He’s so woozy that his knees are shaking, as limp as noodles. The Wens have Bichen, so he will need to walk home. It will be a long and grueling journey on foot — he will be defenseless, should he run into any enemies. He is not sure, in his current state, that he will be able to make it.
Climbing back up the ropes, with his unhealed leg and his fatigue, is a trial for Lan Wangji in and of itself, but it’s even harder for Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan, with an unconscious Wei Ying between them. Eventually, Jiang Cheng grunts and wraps one tight arm around Wei Ying’s middle before levering himself up the cliff face with one arm, Jin Zixuan spotting him on the ropes from below. Their alliance is new to Lan Wangji, but he never pays attention to such matters, anyway. So long as Wei Ying is safe.
The reinforcing Jiang and Jin disciples have unblocked the rock-stuffed entrance, and for the first time in nearly a week, as he hobbles out of the cave, Lan Wangji breathes in fresh air. The assault of sunlight leaves him momentarily blind, and he blinks several times through tears before his sight returns.
Then Lan Wangji watches, a little helplessly, as Jiang Cheng lays Wei Ying down just outside the cave, as he kneels next to his brother to transfer some of his own spiritual energy. Shockingly enough, Jin Zixuan joins him, and as they continue, some of the color returns to Wei Ying’s cheeks and lips, his breaths coming easier.
“Lan er-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng says over his shoulder. “I received word that Zewu-jun has returned to the Cloud Recesses. It may be in your best interest to return there.”
Perhaps it’s not meant as a dismissal, but it certainly feels like one. And Jiang Cheng isn’t wrong to do so, after all: Wei Ying is not his. Lan Wangji has no claim to him or his well-being, besides the thread.
Lan Wangji takes a last look at Wei Ying then turns, in a daze, to limp toward the nearest road, one that will take him southeast.
“Hey, Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng calls after him, and Lan Wangji stops. He doesn’t turn, but rotates his head, just slightly.
Jiang Cheng catches up to him before he stops himself short, as though internally debating something. Then he sighs and grabs Lan Wangji’s wrist. Lan Wangji recoils and tries to yank away, shocked by the unwelcome touch, before he feels a flood of spiritual energy through his meridians, and his core surges with it, soaking it up like a parched plant during a rainfall.
“For your journey,” Jiang Cheng mutters without looking at him. “He’d kill me if anything happened to you.” Then he turns and walks back toward Wei Ying.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Wangji returns to the burned ruins of the Cloud Recesses where his brother and uncle await him — all three of them battered, worse for wear, but alive. They allow a week to mourn the fallen before they begin to focus their efforts on rebuilding what’s been lost.
Not long after that, Wei Ying goes missing.
Following the Wens’ attack on Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji manages to convince his shufu, after weeks of insistence, to let him search for Wei Wuxian and the missing Jiang siblings. He spins it, in a way he thinks would make Wei Ying proud, as a measure of improving inter-sect alliances against the growing aggression of the QishanWen. And anyway, Lan Wangji is hardly contributive to the physical reconstruction that now takes up most of the daily schedule in the Cloud Recesses. Blessedly, xiongzhang and a couple of the elders support his proposition, so finally, shufu relents, and Lan Wangji sets off from Gusu, his leg mostly healed.
It takes nearly three weeks to find Jiang Cheng in Yiling, also searching for Wei Wuxian. He appears to be mostly recovered from the Wens’ attack, and poorly disguised. There has been no sign of Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng tells him — not since they’d agreed to meet at the foot of Baoshan Sanren’s mountain, and his brother never showed.
“This is all I could find,” Jiang Cheng says, a worried line nocked between his eyebrows, and he holds up a bloodied clarity bell, dented on its left side.
Without asking, Lan Wangji takes the bell from him. It is, of course, of Jiang make and model, embossed with a lotus pattern and a violet tassel. If it was Wei Ying’s, and Wei Ying is gone, the blood is likely his. Everything inside Lan Wangji shakes.
He asks to join Jiang Cheng in his search. Jiang Cheng agrees.
◈ ◈ ◈
On the first shared night of their search, Jiang Cheng asks Lan Wangji, anxiously, “What color is the thread?”
He asks as though Lan Wangji hasn’t been checking every moment of his waking hours this past month.
He answers, “Red.” Then, a moment later: “He told you.”
Jiang Cheng nods, his brow hardening into a glare as he pokes at the dying fire with a stick. “Yeah. He wouldn’t shut up about it when he found out. The idiot’s practically obsessed with you.”
Jiang Cheng looks a little sheepish when the words leave him, as though he’s revealed too much, but regardless, the information makes Lan Wangji’s heart skip a beat in his chest, to know that there was a chance Wei Ying had thought of him that summer as much as Lan Wangji had.
He wants to press for more, but of course, he does not.
Jiang Cheng seems to sense this, and adds, “He talked about you all the time, that summer in Lotus Pier. He kept wanting you to come and visit. So ridiculous.”
Oh. Lan Wangji’s chest hurts.
“I would have,” he says quietly, and Jiang Cheng snaps his head up to stare at him with an open-mouthed “Ah?”, then continues to look at Lan Wangji in amazement.
Lan Wangji does not say more, or elaborate. He’s already said too much. Jiang Cheng is practically a stranger; it is only circumstance that brings them together now.
“I thought you couldn’t stand him,” Jiang Cheng presses, a little doubtfully.
“Not true,” Lan Wangji says. If it were, would he be here, traveling toward a war-torn Qishan, sharing a campfire with Wei Ying’s adopted brother?
Jiang Cheng seems to follow the same line of reasoning, because a moment later, he pokes the fire again and asks, “Why are you looking for him, anyway?”
Lan Wangji cannot answer that, so he doesn’t. He remains quiet and stares into the low snap of the flames. He can feel that his silence unnerves Jiang Cheng, but he pushes on anyway.
“I thought it was just because of the soulmate thing,” Jiang Cheng says. “Like...obligation.”
Again, Lan Wangji does not answer. He simply removes his bedroll from his qiankun pouch, unspools it, then removes his hairpiece, readying himself for sleep.
“Not much of a talker, are you,” Jiang Cheng mutters, a little sour but with no detectable malice, then he stamps out the fire and follows Lan Wangji’s example.
Even in the dark, under a night sky studded with stars, it takes Lan Wangji a long time to fall asleep. Over and over, he tugs at the thread, but Wei Ying never answers. The other end is unnaturally still, silent.
Wei Ying, Lan Wangji thinks, as consciousness slides away from him into a muddy dark. Where are you?
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time they finally find Wei Ying, two months later, an odd partnership has formed between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng. It is certainly not intimacy; it is barely even friendship. More an alliance, their relationship defined entirely by a shared and burning drive: Find Wei Ying alive.
For as little as Lan Wangji cares for Jiang Cheng generally, he is certainly a fair match where ambition is concerned.
Between them, they are mostly silent, in those nine weeks. They speak to each other only when necessary. They spend days in and out of towns in Qishan; Jiang Cheng, as aggressive and threatening as he can make himself to be, takes the helm on interrogating Wen soldiers and locals for answers, but Lan Wangji’s silent intimidation certainly does not hurt their cause. They spend long, dusty, hot days traveling, and at night as the earth cools, they eat wordlessly by a fire and go to sleep. They wake up the next morning at mao shi, on Lan Wangji’s schedule, and they set out again.
Word of Wei Ying is rare. It is a thankless quest. When the whispers do come, Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng reject them as though they were never spoken. They all say the same: that Wei Ying had been thrown to the Burial Mounds and had been consumed, body and soul.
The red thread says otherwise. Jiang Cheng checks it with the same manic frequency that Lan Wangji does. Sometimes, when they catch wind of rumors like this, in teahouses or marketplaces, Jiang Cheng grabs Lan Wangji’s wrist, just to make sure. It is the only physical touch from him that Lan Wangji will allow.
Then, at long last, the murmurs grow louder. Mass murders in the Wens’ supervisory offices, unusual cultivation behind it.
At this, Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng share a silent, understanding glance, and follow the sound to Jiangling.
◈ ◈ ◈
When they do find Wei Ying, he and Lan Wangji fight.
It’s the last way that Lan Wangji saw their reunion going, after all these months apart, but the cold emptiness in Wei Ying’s eyes terrifies Lan Wangji into a helpless fury. Harsh tones are the only way he’s learned to express the complicated tangle of his feelings around Wei Ying. Including the slither of wrongness that now creeps through him, looking at Wei Ying across from him. He can’t shake the dreadful sense that something irreparable has been permanently lost.
Wei Ying’s features are the same, but the once-full, boyish lines of his face are hollowed out with hunger and something else nameless, something wolfish. His cheeks and jaw are gaunt. His pupils are dark, his lips pale, tinges of red along his lower lids and in the corners of his eyes. He wears all black and carries a black flute, like a figure from a folktale used to scare children into good behavior.
“Lan Wangji,” Wei Ying calls him, devoid of emotion; almost bemused, a little derisive. There is nothing that remains of the laughing boy that had teased and tormented him in the library, that had tugged at the ends of his forehead ribbon and spoken to him gently in a cave as he bandaged a leg injury.
“Or should I say,” Wei Wuxian amends, and bows his head with a deference that Lan Wangji has never seen from him. “Hanguang-jun.”
He wants to grab Wei Ying by the shoulders and shake him until his features return to life again, to pelt him with desperate questions. Where have you been? What did this to you? What can I do? Please, is there something I can do?
Instead, Lan Wangji says, helpless and misplaced, “Come back to Gusu with me.”
Wei Ying laughs at him, shimmering with scorn and fury.
How can others expect to know my heart? he asks, as though Lan Wangji is a stranger. As though the red thread that still beats between them is of no consequence at all.
The cold terror ices over further in Lan Wangji, long after he leaves Jiangling. He tugs at the thread on his way back to Gusu, a quiet plea, but just like the months before, there is no reply.
◈ ◈ ◈
He does not see Wei Ying again until the end of the Sunshot Campaign. His sect duties keep him busy in the meantime, now that the Cloud Recesses have been almost fully reconstructed, now that his xiongzhang is so involved with Chifeng-zun’s military plans. His thoughts never stray fully from Wei Ying, from the bitter charge of their last encounter.
In that meantime, he hears many odd and worrisome things about Wei Ying. The dark mutters had started with the murders at the supervisory offices and have only increased in fervor since, and they never stray from Wei Ying as their subject: Wei Wuxian had returned after months away from a dark, wretched place, and it had scraped all goodness from him. Wei Wuxian uses a flute rather than a sword, and he plays it to harness the dead. Wei Wuxian reforged the Stygian Tiger Seal to do his dark bidding, and now seeks to gain power over the sects. Wei Wuxian flaunts a complete lack of respect for any authority figure, including his own sect leader and brother. And through it all, Wei Wuxian still bears the red thread on his wrist, tied to some unknown and piteously unfortunate soul.
Despite the storm of intrigue around him, Lan Wangji doesn’t speak to Wei Ying directly in those months — only glimpses his figure from afar, like a red-throated raven. Sometimes, he catches Wei Ying looking back, his gaze cool and his pale face impassive.
All of it slowly drives Lan Wangji into a madness of worry: the distance from him, the unknowns of him — the insidious rumors that he can do nothing to shield Wei Ying from, because despite the wild misjudgments of Wei Ying’s intentions at a power-grab, they are mostly true.
So there’s the distance, and more distance — until Wei Ying is collapsing into his arms at the top of Nightless City, Wen Ruohan’s blood spilling fast across the stone like upturned wine. Meng Yao stands behind him in a daze, his arms shaking and his bloodied saber wobbling.
Distantly, Lan Wangji registers the moment as significant, the slow-building cheers of celebration from below, disbelieving and then triumphant — Wen Ruohan is dead — but Wei Ying is inanimate in his arms, cold even through his layers, his eyelids and lips too pale, and it is all he can think. Resentment curls around Wei Ying, recoiling from Lan Wangji, skittering away from his white sleeves, from his hands that move numbly over Wei Ying. Lan Wangji ignores it, pulls him close.
Their army cheers for victory in blood-soaked throngs, and apart from them, Lan Wangji carries Wei Ying’s limp body down two hundred steps, into the lower levels of Nightless City.
For the next three long, unending days, Wei Ying sleeps.
He’s too pale, too cold. His lips are bloodless, his eyelids sunken. His pulse is too sluggish; his spiritual energy, which had still beat even at their lowest in the Xuanwu Cave, is entirely depleted. He lies prone, unmoving, by every visual indication a corpse. The only sign of life is the shallow, wheezy breath that rattles from him, that whistles through his nose and teeth.
Lan Wangji visits Wei Ying night and day, to play Cleansing for him and to monitor his condition. It gives him a fair amount of time with Wei Ying’s siblings, who seem bemused by his constant presence but allow for it without protest. Lan Wangji tries his best not to be underfoot as they provide for Wei Ying with a symbiotic, almost-practiced ease, moving through rituals of care. They are mostly quiet, which suits Lan Wangji just fine; he has exactly not been pining for the sound of Jiang Cheng’s voice.
Over this short span of days, Lan Wangji finds that he likes Jiang Yanli. He would be inclined to like anyone who cares so openly for Wei Ying, but he does genuinely like her, regardless of that fact. No matter the time of day or the circumstance, Jiang Yanli is always vocally grateful to see Lan Wangji; always at the ready with a soothing word, with a cup of tea or soup that he gently declines. There’s a kindness to her with no contrivance, one he later realizes that he recognizes from Wei Ying.
“Lan er-gongzi, A-Xian told me,” Jiang Yanli says to him, on the second day. They both sit at Wei Ying’s bedside, watchful and comfortably quiet, until now. “About the red thread you share.”
Lan Wangji glances at her sideways, feeling oddly embarrassed. When Jiang Cheng had pointed out their thread, that first night in Qishan, it had been matter-of-fact. Clipped, near-brusque, task-related. With Jiang Yanli, he gets the sense that she understands what Lan Wangji attaches to it — that he has been thoroughly perceived.
Her dark eyes have fallen on him, and they are kind, almost expectant.
Lan Wangji pulls his hand away from where it had crept closer to Wei Ying’s, folded over his chest. This sleeping position is unnatural for him, almost funereal — it reminds Lan Wangji, with a sickening lurch of sense-memory, of kneeling vigil by his father’s body. Wei Ying should be sprawled out and unruly across the bed, his limbs starfished wide, taking up too much space. Snuffling into a pillow or mumbling quiet sounds, active even in his sleep.
The red thread glows between them in a cut of sunlight, an obvious flare of color that mirrors the hues of the room.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, a little carefully. “We are bound.”
Jiang Yanli smiles wider, a dimple pocking one of her cheeks. “I was glad when A-Xian told me. Lan er-gongzi makes him very happy.”
Lan Wangji can’t help the small noise of disbelief that escapes him at this.
Jiang Yanli laughs when she hears it, her eyes warming into crescents. “It’s true, it really is. He may be a little...ah, roundabout in showing it, but he cares for you.” She lowers her eyelashes and shakes her head as Lan Wangji’s heart pounds in his chest, oddly tight. “Ah, I hope he can’t hear us right now. He would be so embarrassed to hear me tell you such things.”
Lan Wangji looks back to Wei Ying’s sleeping face and feels his own soften. He itches to touch, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so in front of Wei Ying’s sister.
When he looks back, Jiang Yanli is watching him, soft and a little knowing.
Lan Wangji swallows.
“Wei Ying...does not always make it easy,” he says, and Jiang Yanli hums a quiet sound, maybe amused by his honesty. “But he will always have me, for as long as he will allow it.”
Jiang Yanli nods, a little fiercely. “Good. He does not always realize...A-Xian, he…” She swallows, blinks away for a moment, then looks at Lan Wangji again, much more severe than a moment ago. Steady, almost arresting, a flash of steel he has not seen before.
“A-Xian would throw himself onto a pyre, if it meant he could keep others warm,” she says. Quiet, but deliberate. “I don’t think he will ever understand that it isn’t something required of him.” Her gaze slides away from him, settles somewhere distant. “It will be...good, to have someone pull him away from the flame. When A-Cheng and I cannot.”
Lan Wangji nods once, emphatic. He knows precisely what she means. “You have my word, Jiang-guniang.”
Jiang Yanli visibly relaxes, the tension easing from her frame. She sags a little, her exhaustion suddenly evident.
“You should rest, Jiang-guniang,” Lan Wangji says quietly. He hopes it isn’t too forward, but thinks it may be allowed, after this conversation. “I will stay with Wei Ying.”
“I shouldn’t,” Jiang Yanli says, worrying her lip with her teeth as she looks anxiously at her brother. “If he needs anything, what if I…”
“If he shows any signs of change, I will fetch you,” Lan Wangji assures her, and Jiang Yanli wilts a little more, then muffles a yawn with the back of her hand.
“Thank you, Lan er-gongzi,” she says, rising and dipping her head. “For everything. For these past few days, and before, and everything that will come after.”
Lan Wangji spends a long time, after Jiang Yanli leaves, staring at Wei Ying, not touching. Wei Ying’s still, unmoving features instill a sick dread in him that he can’t uncoil. Wei Ying should never — look like this. Lan Wangji should never see him this way.
He gives the thread a tug with his spiritual energy, and watches as Wei Ying’s wrist jerks limply in reply.
“Wei Ying,” he says.
Wei Ying does not answer.
“Wei Ying.” Hesitantly at first, then with growing stubbornness, Lan Wangji says, “If you do not wake soon, I...I will bother you every day, like you did me, when we were young.”
He gives another sharp pull to illustrate his point. No response.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji whispers.
Wei Ying sleeps on.
◈ ◈ ◈
Two more days pass, and then:
The following morning, when Lan Wangji arrives for a guqin session, Jiang Yanli ushers him inside and Wei Ying is awake. Not only awake, but sitting up in bed, his hands folded in his lap with strange docility as he pointedly avoids Lan Wangji’s gaze.
Lan Wangji appraises Wei Ying with an intensity he knows will not escape Jiang Yanli’’s notice, as he tries to physically assess the remaining damage, signs of weakness — as he drinks in the movements of Wei Ying animate and alert. The relief that pulses through him is palpable, tangled up with an odd current of anxiety. Why won’t Wei Ying look at him, even now?
Perhaps sensing the peculiar tension between them, Jiang Yanli quietly excuses herself a moment later, leaving the two of them alone with a strangely awkward silence between them.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and his mind promptly blanks. Should he ask how Wei Ying is feeling? Admit he’s glad that Wei Ying is awake? Tell Wei Ying, desperate and raw, Never do that again?
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying replies, and the greeting is oddly empty. Wei Ying offers him a tired, humorless smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“You are awake,” Lan Wangji says, which — is not the best of the options he had been considering, but it is at least to the point.
“I am,” Wei Ying agrees. “I understand I have you to thank for that.”
“The damage to your spiritual core was severe,” Lan Wangji says, pointed enough that Wei Ying flares a look toward him that is suspicious, maybe exasperated.
“It’s a good thing I’m so resilient, then,” Wei Ying says, and directs a friendly smile at Lan Wangji that somehow still manages to feel chilled. Lan Wangji feels his fists clench at the blasé tone. Does Wei Ying truly not realize how close he was to death?
“The resentment,” Lan Wangji says. He cannot explain to Wei Ying, in words, the feeling of watching him lie lifeless; the haunt of the knowledge that it might happen again, permanently — “Wei Ying. It will only continue to worsen.”
Any openness in Wei Ying’s expression slams shut, an instant shuttering.
“I told you,” Wei Ying says coolly. “I feel fine now. Great, even.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji persists.
“Tell me, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying is detached now, hard-edged. “Are you so fond of meddling with everyone else, or is it just me?”
“Just you,” Lan Wangji snaps, a whip-crack of honesty before he can stop himself, and this does seem to surprise Wei Ying — he blinks, some of the hostility in his expression tempering.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again, a little softer.
“Why did you stop pulling the thread?” Clumsily, too quickly, the question is unearthed before Lan Wangji can bury it again; a knotty root torn from the underground, exposed and bare.
Wei Ying just blinks at him again, his mouth slightly parted.
“What?” he asks, after a beat.
Lan Wangji swallows, tightens one fist until his knuckles hurt. “You stopped pulling the thread, these months,” he says, quietly. “Why?”
Wei Ying tilts his head, appraising Lan Wangji with evident bemusement.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I can’t right now,” Wei Ying says, and holds up his wrist to demonstrate. “No spiritual energy, you see?”
“But before,” Lan Wangji presses.
Wei Ying crosses his arms and observes him with unusual ambivalence. “Maybe I didn’t want to annoy you.”
Lan Wangji does not laugh as a general rule, but he almost does then, out of sheer disbelief. “Since when?”
Wei Ying frowns. “Hey.”
“Tell the truth,” Lan Wangji orders, and he knows he’s — coming on too strongly with his questions, more aggressive than what this subject should require, and Wei Ying responds in turn, sparking up like flint to steel.
“I’ve had other things to think about, Hanguang-jun, in case you haven’t noticed.” The words are bitter venom, his title a hidden knife, and it shouldn’t hurt but it does, and Lan Wangji takes a wavering breath and turns to leave, because — what exactly is he doing here, again? Making Wei Ying hate him more? All of his intentions have misfired, been tangled and warped against him. He can’t say anything he means to.
But before he can, Wei Ying crosses the room in two quick bounds and anchors a hand to his shoulder. It is not harsh.
“Wait,” Wei Ying says, more jaggedly than before. “Wait, Lan Zhan, I. Ah, don’t go, I’m sorry.”
Lan Wangji hesitates — he doesn’t need Wei Ying’s apology, but he hangs on Wei Ying’s next words like a dog starved for meat, desperate for something from him, anything.
“You’re right,” Wei Ying says. He sounds empty, his tone without inflection. He drops his hand. “Of course you’re right. My temper, it’s...I lash out without meaning to, these days, I — you don’t deserve it, you’ve already put up with enough from me, and I…” He trails off, then says quietly, “Don’t leave it like this, not again.”
Lan Wangji finally turns back to him, and Wei Ying’s shoulders, too thin in his inner robe, have sunk into a downward slope. He still looks so tired, despite the days of rest.
“Shijie told me you came and played for me,” Wei Ying continues. He still won’t meet Lan Wangji’s eyes, his gaze lowered to the floor. “I should have led with a thank you.” And he salutes, too formal.
Lan Wangji doesn’t need his gratitude, either. If they were something different to each other, he would tell Wei Ying not to thank him — that this kind of service is a given, something he wants to do, something he needs to do for both of their sakes. But he is not that, not to Wei Ying, not anything. Back in Jiangling, Wei Ying had referred to Lan Wangji as an other, a stranger. This is no different. Nothing has changed.
Then, Wei Ying continues.
“Where I was,” he whispers. His gaze is caught somewhere far away, beyond Lan Wangji, a haunting. “In those months. I could feel it. When you would pull the thread. Sometimes it was the only thing that reminded me I was alive and had something to come back to.”
Lan Wangji takes a breath, unsteady and too loud for the quiet of the room.
“So I suppose I owe you another thank you,” Wei Ying finishes, and his eyes return to Lan Wangji, focused again and too bright.
“Don’t thank me,” Lan Wangji says, finally.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Do you trust me?”
Lan Wangji hesitates. He would trust Wei Ying with his life, but he does not trust that Wei Ying knows what’s best for himself. He’s not sure what that makes his answer.
“I trust your integrity,” he answers eventually. “And your intentions. Do you trust me?”
Wei Ying watches him, his mouth snagging into a half-smile. “I trust your integrity and your intentions.”
Lan Wangji nods. Some of the tension that has wired itself into his shoulders unspools.
Wei Ying pushes out a long breath through his teeth, then runs a hand through his unwashed hair. “This soulmate stuff is hard, huh.”
“I do not think it is always so hard for others,” Lan Wangji observes. Circumstantially, he and Wei Ying are probably very extreme outliers.
Wei Ying inhales, then gives a sharp nod, the curve of his mouth hardening into a flat line, strangely acerbic. Lan Wangji isn’t certain how to read the expression, but has the sinking sense, as he often does these days when speaking with Wei Ying, that he has said the wrong thing.
“Well,” Wei Ying says, his face unreadable. A closed door, locked. “The thread isn’t binding, right? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji stares at him, tracking the shifting cloud cover of his expressions.
“Wei Ying,” he says, and then, because it needs to be said: “This is something I take seriously. It will not always be easy, but you will have me, whether you want me or not. Do you understand?”
Wei Ying’s head snaps up, his eyes rounding like moons. His incredulity, too, is an ache; has Lan Wangji not made this fact clear enough to Wei Ying, until now?
The knot on Wei Ying’s throat bobs, twice, as he swallows. He looks so much younger than a moment ago. “Do you really mean that?”
Lan Wangji’s voice is as firm as he feels. “I do.”
“It’s going to get worse.” Wei Ying huffs out a hollow laugh, then shuts his eyes. “All of it, everything, I can feel it. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. So you should mark your words, Lan Zhan.”
“I will,” Lan Wangji answers, and from Wei Ying, the ghost of a smile — faint, disbelieving, a little hopeful.
◈ ◈ ◈
After the Sunshot Campaign formally concludes, several months pass before Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying again, although he sends letters and continues to pull at the thread. Despite their most recent conversation, Wei Ying never pulls back, so Lan Wangji assumes he must be busy with other more pressing matters.
He too has kept occupied with sect responsibilities, with conferences and assisting his xiongzhang’s leadership, so the trip to Lanling is almost a welcome reprieve, as much as Lan Wangji hates social gatherings, particularly with the gentries. But the Jin sect had formally invited the GusuLan, along with the other major sects, to participate in a hunt and competition at Phoenix Mountain, so he, Lan Xichen, and a bevy of Lan disciples make their way there now, riding quietly through sun-dappled roads and forests.
“A-Yao has put much effort into coordinating everything for today,” Lan Xichen is saying, conversing easily with Lan Wangji’s usual silence as they ride alongside each other. “I have heard the YunmengJiang sect looks especially promising this year.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, noncommittal. He keeps his gaze fixed forward, his hands clenched on the reins of his mare.
From his periphery, Lan Xichen slides him an amused, knowing look. “Perhaps Wei-gongzi will be in attendance?”
Despite himself, Lan Wangji’s heart skips a beat. He keeps his expression impassive.
“It is of no consequence,” he says neutrally, and his xiongzhang just smiles, as though the response has satisfied him.
When he and Lan Xichen ride in for the welcoming ceremony at Phoenix Mountain, tailed by the rest of the GusuLan disciples, they clop their way through a rainfall of white flowers. He can hear the women audibly sighing over him and his xiongzhang as they pass, cooing this and that about their handsome appearances, and he ignores it to the best of his ability. He is accustomed to this kind of treatment, but no more comfortable for it.
“I agree,” he suddenly hears a familiar voice tell one of the women nearby. “They’re both equally handsome, but wouldn’t you say Hanguang-jun is a particular beauty?”
“He is,” the young woman agrees enthusiastically.
“Hear that, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying calls to him with a loud, unbridled laugh while Lan Wangji’s heart pounds away madly in his chest. “You’re the prettiest in all the sects!”
Lan Wangji shakes his head and purses his lips, ignoring the sudden warmth in his ears. He can feel xiongzhang smiling in his direction where he rides alongside him, as close as he ever gets to a smug grin.
Then Wei Ying capers up to trot beside his horse, and Lan Wangji can’t not look at him now, especially when he’s drawing so much obvious attention.
“Wei Wuxian!” he hears Jiang Cheng shout behind them, who sounds as though he’s about to burst an artery.
Wei Ying ignores his brother entirely.
“Lan Zhan,” he says with an exaggerated pout, his eyes sparking with mischief. He easily keeps pace with the horse. “You’re so cruel that you won’t even look at your devoted admirers? All of these lovely young maidens are weeping themselves to sleep at night for the love of Hanguang-jun!”
“Hello, Wei-gongzi,” Lan Xichen says from next to Lan Wangji, with pointed amusement, and Wei Ying hardly looks in his direction, offering a half-hearted salute with his hands as he keeps walking, his eyes fastened to Lan Wangji.
“Zewu-jun,” Wei Ying says, still without looking at Lan Xichen. “Zewu-jun, won’t you tell your Hanguang-jun to spare this humble one a glance?”
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, playing along because he is, evidently, a demon. “Won’t you indulge Wei-gongzi?”
“He does not need more indulging,” Lan Wangji says coolly, then ignores the heart palpitations as Wei Ying laughs with open delight.
“Fine, fine, he’s right,” Wei Ying says gamely, still grinning. “Still, Lan er-gongzi, won’t you accept this token of my affection?”
Lan Wangji’s attention redirects to where Wei Ying is holding a white peony in his hand.
His fingers knot tighter on the reins of his horse. “Ridi—”
“I know, I know, ridiculous, ludicrous, frivolous, shameless, did I get it right?” Wei Ying asks, and Lan Wangji purses his lips and glares down at him.
Wei Ying winks back, then says, “Fine, you won’t accept it? I’ll put it here for safekeeping,” and then tucks it into the front of his own robes, close to his heart. “Now you can come and take it whenever you like. Good luck on the hunt, Lan Zhan!”
And then he scampers away, back to the YunmengJiang formation, leaving Lan Wangji flushing furiously in his wake.
“I think he likes you, didi,” Lan Xichen says, with droll humor.
The archery competition functions as a prelude to the hunt, and it goes relatively quickly. Cultivators from each sect go one after the other, starting with QingheNie and ending with the hosts, LanlingJin.
While the QingheNie cultivators shoot, Wei Ying saunters over to Lan Wangji again, crowding too close into his space, and says, “Hey, Lan Zhan, can I borrow your forehead ribbon for something?”
“Wei-gongzi,” his xiongzhang says with a pained laugh. “Our ribbons...ah, they —”
“Don’t bother, xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says irritably, keeping his gaze fixed forward. “He knows.”
Wei Ying nudges Lan Wangji’s shoulder and grins, close and overconfident and so beautiful that Lan Wangji, before he can stop himself, pictures pinning him to the ground and shutting up that laughing tease of a mouth — of kissing Wei Ying with such force that he can’t breathe, let alone speak.
The urge is — sudden and shocking and involuntary, firework-bright and just as searing. Lan Wangji snaps his head forward, swallowing hard and fixing his expression into one of rigid distaste. It’s not that he hasn’t...imagined that before. Several times. It’s just the first time his impulses have almost bettered him, with Wei Ying so near to him, and so — publicly.
“Fine, fine, Lan er-gongzi, I’ll take a hint,” Wei Ying says with exaggerated offense, then he runs off back to Jiang Cheng’s side, untying the ribbon from his wrist-guard as he goes.
Lan Wangji relaxes, some of the hot tension melting away from him, and resolves to stay away from Wei Ying for the rest of the hunt — lest he do something he regrets, after all these months apart. Their last interaction had ended well, but had been fraught with tension in the leadup, so being confronted with a playful Wei Ying in high spirits, as Lan Wangji had first come to know him, it’s — it’s doing unexpected things to him.
The disciples from other sects perform admirably, as do Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen, but nowhere in the same league as Wei Ying, who swaggers this way and that with a cocksure smile and a black blindfold tied around his head. It’s completely shameless behavior, bordering on tacky, but Lan Wangji finds himself sweating over it regardless, his mouth too dry.
After Wei Ying’s last (flawless) shot, Lan Wangji hears, an undercurrent to the cheers, some low mutters that sweep like a dark wind through the gathered crowds; acidic whispers about Wei Ying’s missing sword, the dark energy that he has been known to call with Chenqing, the horrific nature of deaths in the supervisory offices. Just months ago, they had sung Wei Ying’s praises for bringing Wen Chao so low, when it suited their purposes, Lan Wangji reflects bitterly, keeping his grip on Bichen tight.
“I’ve heard that Wei Wuxian cultivates the ghostly path,” he hears a nearby Jin cultivator murmur to another, and Lan Wangji turns to scowl in their direction until they fall quiet with fearful looks. Lan Xichen also tilts his head toward them, clearly listening even as his face gives nothing away.
It is not the first time Lan Wangji has heard such rumors. They’re not untrue, after all; he had seen it himself at both of their reunions, first in Jiangling and then at Nightless City. And Wei Ying had shown no interest in returning to the orthodox path, both times Lan Wangji had tried to reason with him.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says quietly as they make their way with the rest of the Lan disciples to the starting grounds of the hunt. “Has there ever been a case where...the red thread has been wrong?”
It isn’t that his feelings for Wei Ying have abated. Not even a little. (Clearly.) But the more and more markedly their paths diverge, the more doubt creeps in like a slow-growing ivy. Additionally, Wei Ying’s own...feelings seem to be much more neutral, when it comes to Lan Wangji. Beyond the obvious flirting, which Lan Wangji suspects is more of Wei Ying’s meaningless teasing.
Lan Xichen turns to look at him, pursing his lips with something like pity.
“I’m not sure,” he answers. “But choice is still available to you, Wangji, regardless of the thread. If...if you do not agree with Wei-gongzi’s path, you are not obligated to follow him on it.”
Lan Wangji looks silently ahead into the trees, a tight feeling hardening in his throat. That isn’t what he meant at all, but he thinks articulating that to his brother would be unwise.
“Our family’s luck with the red thread has not been kind,” Lan Xichen continues, soft enough so they won’t be overheard, and Lan Wangji swallows.
Soon after, the hunt starts, and the GusuLan disciples set off in a large group, but Lan Wangji splits off from them with a quiet word to Lan Xichen. He wants the space and the silence to think. He manages to catch a fair amount of prey on his own, but his heart isn’t in it, so he doesn’t perform as well as he would under normal circumstances. His thoughts turn in circles around Wei Ying and only Wei Ying.
When he treks deeper into the woods, further up the mountain, he catches the distant whistle of a dizi floating on the breeze, and by instinct, he follows the sound.
Lan Wangji finds him not long after.
Wei Ying is leaned up against a tree, angled diagonally out of the ground. He looks relaxed, unthreatened, Chenqing twirling deftly in his fingers. Lan Wangji feels a frisson of heat shiver through him, and almost involuntarily, he takes one step closer. Then two.
Lan Wangji does intend to greet him, especially when Wei Ying audibly perks up at the sound of his approach.
But then he...doesn’t, choosing to stay silent for reasons that escape his self-understanding. Curious, maybe, to see how Wei Ying will interact with him when he’s unaware of his identity.
Chenqing stills in Wei Ying’s fingers, although he does not move from the tree, keeping his relaxed pose.
“Here for the hunt?” Wei Ying asks in his direction — unmistakably friendly, even though he has plenty of enemies here that could mean to kill him. As always, Wei Ying’s self-preservation leaves much to be desired.
Wei Ying is still wearing the blindfold from the archery competition, his lips curled up in an eager smirk. Verging on lofty. Still so at ease, one arm propped behind his head. As he makes his way closer, Lan Wangji’s heart starts to pound, picking up on a surge of adrenaline.
“Why so quiet?” Wei Ying teases to Lan Wangji’s silence. “How am I supposed to know if you’re a friend or foe, mystery stranger?”
Later, Lan Wangji isn’t sure which part of himself to blame. His patience and self-restraint finally fraying; the dark hunger that hollows out in his stomach, at the sight of Wei Ying beautiful and lax and oddly vulnerable; the traitorous, selfish part of himself that whispers, This is your only chance. It could be any of those things, and none suffice for excuses. But the truth of it is that, in the moment, Lan Wangji just knows he needs to — touch him, whatever form that may take.
Wei Ying makes a startled sound as Lan Wangji pushes him down harder against the tree, capturing both of his wrists easily in one hand and pinning them. Perceiving an attack now, Wei Ying starts to look faintly alarmed; he struggles and reaches for his talismans, but Lan Wangji pins him harder so he’s immobilized, a thrill coursing through him when Wei Ying gasps and submits to him.
This has already careened wildly out of Lan Wangji’s control, further than he ever intended to take it, but it’s too late to take anything back now, his body moving ahead of his rationality, ahead of his reminders of decorum and sect precepts and —
Wei Ying opens his mouth to — to what? To protest? To call for help? — and Lan Wangji finally gives into the tide of it. He leans in, far too clumsily, and crashes their mouths together.
Beyond the initial flare of sensation — of Wei Ying’s lips against his, sudden and slick and hot — Lan Wangji notices this first: Wei Ying stiffening under him, going rigid with shock. His breathing stops entirely, his lips frozen beneath Lan Wangji’s.
Lan Wangji is shaking so hard that he’s certain Wei Ying can feel it; he’s certain he’s already given himself away, in some way or another. He had known, as he’d initiated, that this would be entirely selfish, a one-sided theft, a taking rather a mutual contract. He had known, and he had still taken, for the sheer fact that he wanted. Selfishly, selfishly, selfishly, he kisses Wei Ying, the silken soft of his mouth even more overwhelming than anything he’d pictured.
Wei Ying is still unmoving, his lips too pliant against his. Letting him take. No, this isn’t at all right. Lan Wangji moves to pull away, an overpowering sense of shame catching up with him like a head rush, and then —
— Wei Ying’s lips move, responding to Lan Wangji’s, and he’s...not resisting. He hadn’t ever resisted, Lan Wangji realizes. Wei Ying makes a small sound against Lan Wangji’s lips, his mouth still parted from before, and almost experimentally, he pushes back into the kiss, a tentative nip to Lan Wangji’s lower lip.
The dark voice from before rushes into Lan Wangji’s ears like a high tide: This is all you will ever have.
Lan Wangji presses Wei Ying harder onto the tree, so hard it creaks beneath their weight, and his tongue slips between the seam of Wei Ying’s parted lips. Wei Ying makes a definite sound to that, a small, hitched moan as Lan Wangji’s tongue fucks into his mouth — Lan Wangji is too desperate for precision, too focused on committing every detail he can to memory so he won’t forget. They’re properly kissing now, the slick sounds of their lips catching, again and again, startling and loud in the forest quiet. Wei Ying twists his head slightly sideways, perhaps trying to catch his breath, but suddenly terrified he’ll break away, Lan Wangji angles his face back, rolls Wei Ying’s lower lip between his teeth in a sharp bite.
Wei Ying kisses him for a moment longer before the movement of his lips becomes more purposeful, shaped around muffled sounds, and Lan Wangji realizes he’s trying to speak.
Lan Wangji pulls back when he realizes, a little confused but mostly terrified as to what he might hear.
“Wait, wait,” Wei Ying is gasping, panting for breath. His mouth, shiny with spit, is a shock of red against the black blindfold. He tilts his head against the bark of the tree, dazed. “Wait, I’m sorry, I can’t, I —”
Lan Wangji keeps his wrists tacked to the tree trunk, frozen to the spot. One wrong move, one breath could give him away, but he waits carefully, regardless, to hear Wei Ying out, as he keeps statue-still.
“I-I’m flattered, I really am,” Wei Ying stammers, “and this was really — ah, nice and all, but I already have — I’m already promised to — someone.”
Lan Wangji stares at him, his gaze flickering over the details of Wei Ying this close — the high pink flush in his cheeks, his throat working, his mouth still parted and panting. Does he mean…?
“You can check my wrist if you don’t believe me,” Wei Ying says, circling his right wrist under Lan Wangji’s tight grasp and wiggling his fingers, and Lan Wangji is suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to bury his face in Wei Ying’s chest.
So he still...so he still —
Wei Ying attempts to move, perhaps uncomfortable with the silence or the position, and Lan Wangji panics — he yanks the peony from the front of Wei Ying’s robes, mounts Bichen, and flees as fast as his cultivation will allow.
◈ ◈ ◈
Unfortunately, Wei Ying finds him not long after, in the middle of enacting violence on a copse of harmless trees.
Of course Wei Ying would find him here, in this state and situation, because Lan Wangji’s luck relating to anything involving Wei Ying is exceptionally poor.
“Whoa! Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying calls when he sees him, then he yelps just as there’s a particularly loud crack and a large branch crashes to the forest floor.
Lan Wangji whirls to glare at him, almost curling his lip. Wei Ying shrinks back from his anger, his eyes wide.
“Go,” Lan Wangji says through his teeth, but Wei Ying steadily ignores the command, frowning as he moves closer.
“Hey, Lan Zhan, what’s wrong with you?” he asks, then makes an exaggerated display of surveying the destruction around them. “What did these poor trees ever do to you?”
“Stay away from me,” Lan Wangji snaps in his panic — he doesn’t mean it, not really, but if Wei Ying gets too close, he might realize something off with Lan Wangji’s expression. Wei Ying is too bright for both of their own goods; the truth of the situation isn’t hard to guess, given Lan Wangji’s obvious discomposure, his likely-ruined mouth.
“I thought we were past this point,” Wei Ying complains, but stops regardless, appraising Lan Wangji with perplexed concern.
For a long while, they stare at each other. Lan Wangji can feel that his lips are still buzzing with warmth, a little raw and stinging. Although he has been informed endlessly of his own inscrutability, he isn’t sure what his own face gives away — if there’s a blush to match the lingering heat in his cheeks. Wei Ying’s lips are slightly swollen, his chin rubbed red with friction and his eyes tearing up into the sunlight after the blindfold. Lan Wangji can’t stop staring — one, because Wei Ying looks wrecked; two, because he had done that. And three: He wants to do it again, right now, for much longer.
“What?” Wei Ying says, and for a brief moment, he looks uncharacteristically self-conscious. He crosses one of his arms to rub the other. “Lan Zhan?”
“Nothing,” Lan Wangji says, turning away too quickly and stalking off.
Of course, Wei Ying follows him.
“Seriously, what’s the matter?” Wei Ying asks, right on his heels. He grabs at Lan Wangji’s wrist, maybe aiming to check his spiritual energy, but Lan Wangji yanks his hand away. His pulse is still racing, far too quickly to not be suspicious.
“Are you really okay, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks, a frown in his voice as he continues to trail closely behind him.
Wei Ying grabs at Lan Wangji’s arm again to stop him from going further, then yanks hard so that Lan Wangji turns to face him.
“You always say you’re fine,” Wei Ying points out. “Even when you’re clearly not. Listen, we’re — you don’t have to —” Then he sighs and bites his lip, his lashes downcast.
“We’re what?” Lan Wangji says.
“I don’t want to be the one to say it,” Wei Ying mutters, still looking away from him. “Not if you don’t…”
Lan Wangji lowers his voice, more insistent. “Wei Ying.”
“It’s just,” Wei Ying says with another sigh, and finally looks up at him, his mouth firming and his brows pulling together. “What even am I to you? You act like you hate me sometimes, and I wouldn't even blame you, but I can still — I can still feel it when you pull the thread, so I don’t — I don’t get it at all.”
Lan Wangji swallows, his chest clenching. “I do not hate you.”
“Oh, well, I’m glad to hear that,” Wei Ying replies, throwing up one hand in wry exasperation before he wearily pinches the bridge of his nose. “You really know how to sweet-talk a girl, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying, I do not hate you,” Lan Wangji insists, almost pleading. He cannot allow himself to speak the inverse, the truth, not without giving everything of himself away.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says slowly, observing Lan Wangji’s pained expression with a small frown. “I don’t hate you either. So where does that leave us? I still — ” He scuffs his shoe in the dirt, grimacing as though he’s tasted something especially bitter, before he seems to steel himself and continues, “I still take you as my soulmate, you know. Even if you don’t.”
Lan Wangji blinks, then says, emphatic, “I do.”
Wei Ying snaps his head up to look at him, his eyes rounding. “You — oh.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “I —”
He doesn’t get a chance to finish, because voices interrupt them — muffled, but distinctly familiar, not far off at all. A woman’s, soft and appeasing; then a man’s, much harsher, both engaged in a tense conversation.
Wei Ying visibly pales, his head snapping toward the sound. “Shijie.”
Before Lan Wangji can say another word, Wei Ying takes off in the direction of the voices.
Lan Wangji hesitates, and then, of course, he follows.
Six months later
“Huh? Lan Zhan?” Lan Wangji hears Wei Ying before he sees him. His head snaps up, the surrounding crowds thin away, and there he is, directing an incredulous smile at Lan Wangji across the distance between them, so sudden and real that Lan Wangji has to blink a few times to ensure he isn’t a hallucination.
Time slows, honeyed and sweet, as Wei Ying walks toward him, beaming ear to ear. Sound hollows out for a suspended moment.
Then the bawling howls filter back in, as well as the disapproving chatter of the surrounding crowds, and Lan Wangji is pulled back abruptly to the scene at hand, the one that Wei Ying must be witnessing: There’s an unfamiliar child burred to his leg, screaming to the high heavens for his a-die.
“Okay, break it up,” Wei Ying scolds the rubberneckers as he stops in front of Lan Wangji. “Ai, you bunch of vultures. Leave this man to his terrible parenting in peace!”
The crowd mutters darkly at his interference but disperses, leaving just the two of them. Well, three of them. The child will not stop sobbing, full-bodied and shuddering.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, helpless to say anything else. It has been months since he’s seen Wei Ying’s face, listened to the teasing lilt of his voice.
Months since Wei Ying had nearly lost his control in a confrontation with Jin Zixuan and his cousin at the Phoenix Mountain night hunt. (It had taken both Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli to calm him down, and after, Wei Ying had departed without so much as a farewell.)
Months since Wei Ying had rescued Wen refugees from Qiongqi Path, and had settled with them in the Burial Mounds — since he had, more or less, renounced all formal ties to the cultivation world. (Every day, the criticism from the cultivational sects worsens, and every day, Lan Wangji worries.)
It has been months since Lan Wangji had stolen a kiss that did not belong to him. (He has thought of it every day since.)
And — here he is, a little ragged-looking and unkempt, perhaps thinner than they last parted, but still beautifully, wholly Wei Ying. The red thread seems to delight at the proximity, after all this time, because it crystallizes into color in the afternoon sunlight, filling out near-solidly between them.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says in a faux-chiding voice, wagging his finger. His obvious glee at this situation is poorly concealed. “Is this any way to treat your son?”
“He is not mine,” Lan Wangji insists, strangely flustered. The child howls louder.
“Of course he isn’t,” Wei Ying replies, flashing his teeth. “He’s mine.”
Lan Wangji just stares, uncomprehending, as Wei Ying scoops down to pick up the child with soothing sounds.
“A-Yuan, A-Yuan,” Wei Ying tells the child, whose face is a wet mask of snot and tears. “What have I said about running off? What have I said about harassing mean and pretty strangers?”
Lan Wangji watches the two of them, slightly unmoored. An odd, acidic feeling knots in his stomach. Wei Ying has a child? With...someone else? Since when? With whom?
Wei Ying adjusts the boy on his hip when he turns to look at Lan Wangji, as naturally as anything, and a nameless emotion repositions itself inside Lan Wangji at the sight, like a log shifting on a hearth. Odd, tender, strangely longing.
The boy — A-Yuan, as Wei Ying had called him — has quieted somewhat now that Wei Ying is holding him, just the occasional hiccuped sob or sniffle. His tiny hands dig into the front of Wei Ying’s hanfu, twisting the coarse fabric.
“Your face, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says with a soft cackle, his eyes crinkling. “Of course he’s not mine, dummy. Do I look like father material to you?”
Yes, a voice rings out inside Lan Wangji, plaintive and honest.
Wei Ying sets A-Yuan down, taking his hand in one of his and tugging at Lan Wangji’s in the other. They start to walk, Lan Wangji towed along in his wake.
“Lan Zhan, what a coincidence that we should run into each other here,” Wei Ying says, sliding him a curious look sideways. “What brings you to Yiling?”
Lan Wangji had been picking up insignificant night hunts around Yiling for the past month. He had told his shufu and the elders it was to aid the locals of Yiling and the surrounding areas. His true reasons are not so selfless.
“Night hunt,” he says. “Passing through.”
The child is still crying, albeit more softly than before. The brief separation from Wei Ying — either that, or Lan Wangji’s presence — must have deeply upset him.
To make amends, Lan Wangji buys him a toy. Then two, then four, then six as they continue to wander through the packed streets of town. He buys them as much for the boy as he does for Wei Ying, who lights up at each one with a giddy, childlike delight that mirrors A-Yuan’s.
Lan Wangji had grown up cushioned by the ever-present comfort of money, so he and his xiongzhang had never been denied anything, in this regard. Lan Wangji had not been a frivolous child with a need for toys, but his family’s financial capacity had never once been in doubt. Wei Ying, he knows, has never had that material assurance. Each new toy that Lan Wangji gives A-Yuan, Wei Ying reacts as though he’s been given something himself.
No, Lan Wangji was not a materialistic child, but he has a faint memory of walking through a market just like this with his brother’s hand in his, somewhere in Gusu close to the sea. The day was saltwater-blue and they had stopped to buy sweets. He had watched, curious, as Lan Huan discreetly purchased a rattle toy from a nearby stall, then tucked it out of sight into his robes. The reasons behind the odd transaction were unclear to Lan Zhan, but of course he did not remark on it.
Two days later, during their monthly visit to the Gentian House, his mother had given Lan Zhan the rattle toy as a present in the gardens, while his brother had watched behind them, beaming and his hands clasped together. Lan Wangji had kept it until it had burned, along with almost everything else in the jingshi, during the Wens’ attack on the Cloud Recesses.
Perhaps one day, A-Yuan can also remember this, Lan Wangji thinks — a distant comfort he can keep close in a world that has clearly treated him with cruelty, even this early in his young life.
“A-Yuan, what do we say to Rich-gege?” Wei Ying is coaching A-Yuan as they continue to walk.
“Thanks, Rich-gege!” A-Yuan chirps, his eyes shining, and Lan Wangji feels something thaw out in him, a chrysalis of ice he hadn’t even realized was there. In its wake flows that curious yearning he’d experienced earlier, when he’d watched Wei Ying hold A-Yuan on his hip.
Lan Wangji has always liked children, though admittedly he has not been around many. He had never considered marriage or a family until Wei Ying, and even then, up until now, it has felt like some absurd, unattainable fantasy, despite the red thread. Circumstances have always been too extreme, or strained; Wei Ying has always been slightly out of his grasp, dodging too quickly for Lan Wangji to hold him still.
Now that he knows this want, it aches in him dangerously. It beats as wild as hope, thrashes its wings like a pinned sparrow. He wants, wants, wants Wei Ying, he wants a child, this child, he wants the family that he and his brother had never had.
“Lan Zhan, you’re quiet,” Wei Ying observes, appraising him with concern as they continue to wander. “I mean, you know. Quieter than usual.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, afraid to say anything else.
“Hey, listen,” Wei Ying says, and stops them, his fingers encircling Lan Wangji’s wrist again. “How about you throw over your night hunt, huh? I’m familiar with most things going on in the area and trust me, there’s nothing significant enough to need you.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji admonishes, entirely without heat.
Wei Ying sweeps on, undeterred. “So get rid of your night hunt and come eat with us. We can, I don’t know, talk about our old days. My treat.”
Come eat with them? Lan Wangji’s thoughts scramble, both at the notion and at Wei Ying looking at him so openly, so earnestly, and before he can overthink it, his mouth is already moving.
“Okay,” he says, and Wei Ying beams and hauls him away.
◈ ◈ ◈
They’re only halfway into their meal when something goes awry back at the Burial Mounds, and Lan Wangji has to bundle both Wei Ying and A-Yuan up onto his sword and fly them back. As it turns out, Wei Ying’s progress with reanimating Wen Ning had encountered a violent hitch, and it takes the better part of a shichen to settle everything down again.
By the time it does, Wei Ying’s capering high spirits from the marketplace have dissipated. His expression is smooth and hollow, frosted over as he makes the rounds around camp to check wards, to discuss something quietly with Wen Qing. A-Yuan has been whisked away to the elders, where they fuss over him and ply him with radishes on the far side of camp. Lan Wangji stands in the center of camp and waits, as out of place as a pearl in a bed of coal. The Wens regard him with curiosity that’s a little wary, no doubt recognizing him by his clothes and his ribbon, but they keep their distance.
By now, the afternoon has shifted into an early dusk, the brittle soil cooling beneath his feet. Dusk is gray here in the Burial Mounds, watery and colorless.
Wei Ying eventually rejoins him without a word. There’s a lingering redness in his pupils, gathering in the whites of his eyes. Black spindles still cling to his clothes, whispering in his wake as Wei Ying silently leads Lan Wangji into a large cave at the center of camp.
Dozens of candles and a few paper lanterns have been lit across various surfaces, casting the black rock contours of the cave’s interiors to bronze and orange. It is a nice, homey touch, even for such a bleak setting.
“Are you going to tell me why you’re really here, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks coolly, turning on one heel to face him, his arms clasped behind his back.
“As I said,” Lan Wangji answers. “A night hunt.”
“I thought false words were prohibited,” Wei Ying quips with a tilt of his head. Not quite harsh, but cutting nonetheless.
It wasn’t technically a lie. Lan Wangji had picked a small night hunt in Yiling to pursue. It’s just that his purpose behind it had been self-interested.
“They are,” Lan Wangji says, his voice even. “I came for a night hunt.”
“Really,” Wei Ying muses, his eyes flashing. “Not to keep a watchful eye on your resentment-using, fear-mongering, reputation-destroying soulmate?”
Lan Wangji keeps his face still, unmoving. He had, but not for the reasons Wei Ying apparently believes. “No.”
“I’m not sure I believe you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, directing them further into the cave.
Yes, the mood has certainly shifted. Wei Ying always cools in temperature considerably after using large amounts of resentment, but Lan Wangji had noticed the change the moment they’d stepped foot into the Wen camp. It’s something about this place, the Burial Mounds, that carves Wei Ying into this new shape, into a figure resembling what the cultivation world expects from him.
“Thought I’d give you a grand tour of the place,” Wei Ying’s voice echoes out around the cave, dripping with sarcasm.
Lan Wangji simply nods and follows after Wei Ying.
“Here’s all of it,” Wei Ying says with a sweeping, sardonic flap of his tattered sleeve. A few of Wei Ying’s inventions are scattered across the stones. There is a long slab of rock that’s been fashioned into a bed in the far corner, the hard surface overlaid with a straw pallet as a makeshift mattress. At the west edge of the cave sits a pool brimming with a rich, crimson liquid. It exudes a rusted, metallic scent.
“That’s the Blood Pool,” Wei Ying says when he follows Lan Wangji’s questioning gaze. “Yeah, really adds to the ambiance, wouldn’t you say?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, pained. He doesn’t know how to put into words what he’s feeling, but Wei Ying no doubt senses it because he shoots him a flat, humorless smile.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he says, in that vacant and detached tone that Lan Wangji has really come to hate. “It’s not all so bad, is it?”
“No,” Lan Wangji says, because that’s what he imagines he is supposed to say.
“You don’t need to pity me,” Wei Ying adds, with a harder edge.
“I do not,” Lan Wangji responds, and Wei Ying sighs and leads him deeper into the cave, closer to the bed.
Clearly, effort had gone into welcoming Lan Wangji, with the lit candles and Wei Ying’s belongings and clothes tucked out of sight. There are two small cups of water set out on a flat surface that could function as a table. It makes Lan Wangji’s chest ache in a strange, small way.
There are also talismans dangling from various surfaces — protective wards that Lan Wangji recognizes, as well as some of Wei Ying’s more alternative inventions. There are a few others closer to the entrance that are unfamiliar to him.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, more quietly from behind him. “Thank you for today. For the meal, for making A-Yuan happy. For following me to help us here. I feel as though I owe you.”
“You owe me nothing,” Lan Wangji assures him firmly.
“I would give you something in return,” Wei Ying continues, then gives a bleak laugh and waves a weary hand to indicate his surroundings. “But as you can see, there isn’t much.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji insists. He isn’t fully capable of keeping the dismay from his voice. “You owe me nothing.”
A ripple of red flares in Wei Ying’s eyes. Spidery tendrils of resentment curl up from his clothes like black, grasping fingers. “Why? Surely you must have a reason.”
It must be the resentment’s effects speaking. In the market today, they had at the very least been friends.
Perhaps the physical, concrete proof of that tether between them will be enough to remind Wei Ying of their obligation to each other, to settle the twisting reach of resentful energy. So Lan Wangji says, “We have the red thread.”
Wei Ying blinks, his expression going curiously hollow. He stares at Lan Wangji for another unending moment, in which Lan Wangji can read nothing from that emptiness.
“The red thread,” Wei Ying says slowly. “Ah, I see.”
See what? Lan Wangji wonders. He watches uncertainly as, without another word, Wei Ying strides back to the cave’s entrance and begins to pin up talismans to the rock. Lan Wangji follows him and bends over to examine one of the papers, frowning at the unfamiliar lines he finds.
“What are these?” Lan Wangji asks, and suddenly Wei Ying has materialized by his side, leaning close into his space.
“Perimeter talisman that I made,” Wei Ying murmurs, a thrum of sound near his ear. A shiver ghosts across the back of Lan Wangji’s neck, pulling at the hair there. “Keeps people out. And that one’s a silencing talisman. I put them up so the Wens won’t come in and bother us.”
Lan Wangji frowns, his fingers moving away from the inked paper. “Why?”
He turns and finds Wei Ying watching him with a sharp, simmering focus, an expression he has not seen before. There’s a purpose to it that Lan Wangji cannot quite identify, but the energy of it makes a sudden rash of sweat break out along his back, his palms.
“Ah, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s voice is so low, almost a purr, and he takes a step closer. Lan Wangji takes an answering step back. His heart skitters wildly in his chest, then pounds, faster and faster.
“Haven’t you heard the rumors of the Yiling Laozu kidnapping helpless men and maidens to ravish them in his Demon-Slaughtering Cave?” Wei Ying asks with a slow, suggestive tilt of his head. The candlelight sharpens the gaunter angles of his cheeks, burnishes the silver of his eyes to ember.
Inside Lan Wangji, a glow of white heat pulses like a star, flaring outward as Wei Ying advances on him.
“Wei Ying,” he rasps. He can’t really mean to…
Then Wei Ying pushes him — not forcefully, but none too gently, either — against the wall of the cave, and Lan Wangji sucks in a ragged inhale as Wei Ying drops to his knees. Wei Ying’s messy bangs fall in his face as he tilts his chin to look up at Lan Wangji, ambivalent but with undisguised heat.
Lan Wangji stares back at him with wide eyes, his chest heaving. Surely this is another one of Wei Ying’s pranks, pushed to — to completely inappropriate limits.
But Wei Ying doesn’t stop where the line would be, where the moment would arrive to break away laughing, to tease Lan Wangji over his reaction. No, his handsome face is unusually serious, his deft, callused fingers drifting up to work at Lan Wangji’s belt, his multiple white layers. Lan Wangji finds himself frozen, his heartbeat in his mouth as he watches Wei Ying move as though out of body. He can’t make himself stop Wei Ying even if he were to try, as helpless to the effects of Wei Ying’s touch as he is, but surely this is not — this isn’t how it’s supposed to —
Wei Ying doesn’t pull down Lan Wangji’s trousers, once he reaches them under the many layers of cloth. Instead, he hesitates — the first real flash of uncertainty Lan Wangji has seen since he’s started — and then Wei Ying leans forward to mouth at the front of his trousers, sucking gently at the bulge that is rapidly firming by the second. The heat of his mouth, the damp of it, is overwhelming even through the fabric, and Lan Wangji chokes out a scraped sound, his hips canting forward and his head knocking back into the hard rock of the wall.
“Wei Ying,” he gasps out, one hand dropping to the back of Wei Ying’s messy hair, and Wei Ying hums in reply, a pleased sound.
He has to — stop this, Lan Wangji tells himself dizzily. He cannot allow this, no matter how much and for how long he has wanted. He won’t allow Wei Ying to — to service him when Lan Wangji has never been further from knowing Wei Ying’s thoughts. When they haven’t even talked about —
Lan Wangji anchors a hand to Wei Ying’s shoulder; not a rebuke, but a firm surrender.
Wei Ying pulls away, looks up at him through the dark fan of his lashes. His mouth is peony-red, spit-slick.
“Not good?” he asks, sounding apologetic.
Lan Wangji can only blink at him, a little flummoxed by the impossibility of this.
“No,” he manages. “V-very good, I —”
Wei Ying stares up at him from the cave floor, his expression smooth but his brow slightly pinched. Still on his knees, awaiting direction. Lan Wangji could crumble from it.
But. He needs to ask. “Why are you doing this?”
Wei Ying flinches a little as the question lands, as though it’s settled into him somewhere unexpected. Then the corner of his mouth curves up, without mirth. A sudden twist of wrongness that Lan Wangji can feel, sour in his throat.
“Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do?” Wei Ying asks, in this curiously empty voice, and then holds up his wrist in indication.
Lan Wangji recoils as though he’s been slapped — subtly, but he does. He retracts from Wei Ying’s touch, flattening himself further against the wall.
“I’m pretty much useless right now,” Wei Ying continues, in that same awful voice, “as a soulmate or otherwise, but I can do this, at least.”
Lan Wangji steps sideways, away from Wei Ying. He feels, at once, sick to his stomach.
This, the kiss on Phoenix Mountain — it’s all wrong, they’re doing this wrong. This is not at all how Lan Wangji thought it was supposed to go. He cannot force Wei Ying to engineer feelings where they don’t exist, as he has reminded himself painfully so many times before, but Lan Wangji would rather have nothing at all than this: something forced and fabricated, for the sake of humoring him.
He turns away from Wei Ying, flexing his fists in and out. He’s still trembling with lingering adrenaline, and he finds he cannot stop.
Then, after another moment of awful silence, a hand drops on his shoulder, surprisingly light. Nearly gentle.
“Lan Zhan ah,” Wei Ying says quietly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that you’d — that it would upset you so much. Forgive me, okay?”
Forgiveness is not a question, but Lan Wangji still takes a moment to respond.
“How could you think,” Lan Wangji says with difficulty, still facing away from him. “How could you think that I would…”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, with a marked increase in concern. Almost panicked. The hand on his shoulder tightens. “Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean it, okay? We can forget that ever happened, let’s just — put it behind us, yeah?”
Lan Wangji turns to face him, and Wei Ying wilts a little when their eyes meet. The hollows under his eyes are stark, sunken.
“I am sorry, alright? I should have known that would — insult you, I just — run my mouth, and.” Wei Ying seems to shrink smaller by degrees with each word, as though he’s unpeeling layer after layer of armor from himself. It is the most tired, the most bare that Lan Wangji has seen him since they reunited.
Then Wei Ying sighs, runs a hand tiredly over his face. Then in a quiet, defeated voice, he says, “I just thought I could make it up to you somehow.”
Lan Wangji stares at him blankly. “Make...it up?”
“You know,” Wei Ying says, then makes a hand gesture that clarifies nothing.
“I do not,” Lan Wangji tells him.
“It’s just that…” Wei Ying blows out a fast, agitated breath, his head cracking sideways. “I mean, we both know the score here, right? You got stuck with me because of this whole stupid thread business and you never asked to be dragged into any of this shit. It isn’t fair to you at all, not when you’re so...you’re so…”
Lan Wangji just stares at Wei Ying, completely at a loss.
“You’re so good,” Wei Ying finishes quietly. He closes his eyes, his jaw still angled away from Lan Wangji. “You deserve the red thread with someone who — I thought that, maybe...the least I could do was —”
“I would choose you,” Lan Wangji says, the words landing between them before he can think through it, and then he rests his tongue behind his teeth. Caught between the relief of having said it and wanting to pull the confession back into him, as Wei Ying blinks.
Wei Ying turns to stare at him. His eyebrows brook together. “What?”
Lan Wangji takes one step closer to Wei Ying, and then another, closing the distance. Ah, he’s still shaking, of course he is, like he had on the mountain. Tentatively, his hand floats up between them, a little aimless before it lands and fits to the shape of Wei Ying’s cheek. Wei Ying’s eyes flare wide at the contact, a burst of shock and a reaction without a name. Almost skittish, like something nocturnal scattering away from the light.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes, then his throat hitches on a little swallow. His voice is nearly gone, but he does not move away. He closes his eyes and leans his cheek into Lan Wangji’s palm, but his eyebrows are crunched together as though the touch pains him. “Can you — don’t, if you don’t — I, ah, please —”
“With or without the thread,” Lan Wangi says, more firmly. The touch is a grounding, the thread a red wire in his periphery. “I would choose Wei Ying.”
There, there it is, breathing out in the open now, the closest to a confession that Lan Wangji can manage. Wei Ying’s eyes fly open, his mouth slightly ajar. His skin is so warm, silken under Lan Wangji’s fingers.
“You don’t mean that,” Wei Ying says. A little hollow, a little hopeful. “Lan Zhan.”
“When have I ever,” Lan Wangji answers, a little impatiently, “said something I do not mean?”
Wei Ying moves then, so quickly that Lan Wangji blinks; he pushes Lan Wangji with a surprising amount of strength, given his current state — or perhaps Lan Wangji is rendered powerless, malleable in his surprise. One minute, Lan Wangji’s hand is on Wei Ying’s face, and the next, Wei Ying is slamming him against the cave wall again. Before the back of Lan Wangji’s head can connect with the stone, Wei Ying’s hand flies up to cushion it — a low hiss that Lan Wangji feels against his lips, to the scrape of his knuckles against the rock, and then Wei Ying is kissing him.
It’s — different from the kiss on the mountain, different to be kissed than to initiate. Different, with Wei Ying unblindfolded, making his own choice. Wei Ying had been tentative then, exploratory and unsure. He kisses Lan Wangji now like he wants to claim him, humming desperate sounds each time their mouths connect, and it’s all Lan Wangji can do not to buckle under the force of it, the heat of it that renders him boneless. Wei Ying kisses him like he wants him in return.
Lan Wangji’s experience is still woefully limited, but he gives it the best he has when he recovers his senses, after the initial shock: his hands in Wei Ying’s hair, his tongue between Wei Ying’s teeth. Some of it is too messy, miscalculated, their noses bumping and their teeth clicking together, but Wei Ying responds like a firestone, alighting further at each touch. They’re both quick studies, and they teach each other as they go, different angles, pressures, applications of tongue to tongue, teeth to lip.
Wei Ying is already talking the moment he pulls away for air, saying, “I should have asked,” through gasps, “just before, and now, Lan Zhan, can I —”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, “yes,” and he does not recognize his voice as his own.
Wei Ying pulls his hand back from Lan Wangji’s hair, a dark smear of blood across his scraped knuckles, and Lan Wangji grips the hand in his, raises it to his mouth, and under Wei Ying’s stunned scrutiny, he licks the blood clean, careful swipes of his tongue as he looks up at Wei Ying through his lashes. Wei Ying’s chest heaves, transfixed as he stares dark-eyed, and Lan Wangji has never felt so — alive. So desired.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes, and they’re kissing again, a coppery taste passed between their open mouths.
There is certainly an aggression that slumbers deep in Lan Wangji. Patient, dark and lurking. It had terrified him when he was younger; it had pushed him over an unforgivable edge at Phoenix Mountain. He has thought of Wei Ying along the lines of this hunger, taking him apart in a hundred ways. But tonight, it’s not what he wants. It’s not what Wei Ying needs from him.
“May I be gentle?” Lan Wangji murmurs, slowing to press the words against Wei Ying’s parted, panting mouth.
Wei Ying pulls back, just slightly, to stare at him in confusion. “I — I guess, what do you mean —”
Lan Wangji tucks a stray straggle of hair behind Wei Ying’s ear, his thumb skimming the apple of his cheek, and he leans in to press a gentle kiss to Wei Ying’s eyebrow, to the corner of his closed eye, the edge of his mouth. He uses one hand to cup the back of Wei Ying’s neck, to angle his head how he wants, and the other to slip down along his back, a long, soothing stroke. Wei Ying’s eyes are closed, his brow creased and his lips parted as though in pain. Lan Wangji nips another kiss to the shell of his ear, then tips Wei Ying’s jaw back with his thumb so he can trail his lips down Wei Ying’s throat, the soft sides of his neck, the carotid artery that beats in a high, wild thrum under his mouth.
Wei Ying’s voice rings out breathlessly next to his ear. “Wait, wait, Lan Zhan, that’s — ah, oh, it’s harder than I thought.”
Lan Wangji pulls back to observe Wei Ying closely, the way he bites his lip and keeps his eyes squeezed shut.
“Harder?” he echoes.
“It’s like it hurts,” Wei Ying whispers, then after another moment, he opens his eyes to peek warily at him, his pupils dilated.
“But I don’t want you to stop,” he adds in a rush. “You...you shouldn’t, even if it seems like I want you to.”
“How will I know when to stop?” Lan Wangji asks. He feels dizzy; he cannot believe his own forwardness, the reality of the situation settling in.
“If I cry,” Wei Ying says, and then offers a shaky smile, like a thin attempt at humor. “If I cry, honestly, you should be mean to me. Just absolutely ruthless, alright? Ah, I really hope I don’t cry.”
Lan Wangji runs a thumb along the high flush along Wei Ying’s cheek, a little awed, and before he can tacitly agree, Wei Ying is moving back in, closing the distance, a bite to Lan Wangji’s lower lip, and Lan Wangji loses the plot. Wei Ying starts to walk them backward with a pull against Lan Wangji’s robes, his hands exploring the heavily layered lines of Lan Wangji’s frame as he goes. Lan Wangji is dimly, peripherally aware that Wei Ying is directing them clumsily toward the bed. Their feet shuffle across the stone floor, stumbling and tripping into each other a few times, but neither of them think to break the kiss, blindly leading each other with mouths and hands.
Wei Ying is making harsh, wounded sounds against Lan Wangji’s mouth, and Lan Wangji wonders when was the last time that Wei Ying had been touched with any care, with any tenderness. Had been touched with anything other than an intent to hurt. So Lan Wangji holds him like water in his hands, and kisses him and kisses him.
Finally, when Wei Ying’s knees hit the back of the stone bed, he tugs Lan Wangji so that they topple backwards onto it. It’s possibly the least comfortable bedding Lan Wangji has ever felt, and it pains him, to think of Wei Ying sleeping here. He hovers over Wei Ying with his hands planted on either side of him, and then Wei Ying palms the back of his neck, pulling him down for another kiss.
The direction of this is becoming increasingly apparent, as Lan Wangji sweats through his multiple layers even in the cool dark of the cave. He’s been achingly hard for several minutes, since Wei Ying had first gone to his knees, and the burn of it festers restlessly under his skin.
“Is this what you really…” Lan Wangji tries to say, and fails to finish the question because Wei Ying is doing something spectacular with his mouth along his collarbone. He needs Wei Ying to tell him this is something he wants. Not what he feels obligated to provide.
Wei Ying reads this from him, murmurs, “Yes,” into the sensitive junction of his neck and collarbone, “God, yes, Lan Zhan, I want you, I’ve wanted you, how could you not tell?”
“Oh.” The sound comes out tiny and choked, only in part because Wei Ying has started to rub a clever thigh against his groin.
Wei Ying wants this. Wants him; at the very least, to have sex with him. For how long has he…?
Wei Ying pulls back to gnaw on his bottom lip, to look up at Lan Zhan with sudden, tenuous uncertainty. “You’re — Lan Zhan, you’re not just...please tell me this isn’t to pity me or to, to — I don’t know, some misplaced sense of chivalry to make me feel okay. Can you tell me if you — I sound stupid, but I need to know if —”
Lan Wangji cannot respond to this (admittedly convoluted) question with full honesty, because he suspects what he wants from Wei Ying far, far exceeds what they’re currently doing.
Nonetheless, he presses an open-mouthed kiss to Wei Ying’s jaw, to his lips, and says, “Want you, have always wanted you. How could Wei Ying not tell?”
“Oh,” Wei Ying says, and it sounds a little like a sob, or maybe a laugh. “Lan Zhan, you really...”
“Too much talking,” Lan Wangji says, kissing him quiet again, and Wei Ying breaks away on another one of those hitched little laughs to thump Lan Wangji’s back and say, with scalding fondness, “Brat.”
If there’s a brat between the two of them, it certainly isn’t Lan Wangji, but he feels benevolent enough not to call Wei Ying on it, at least for the moment. On an unspoken agreement, they work together to peel away Wei Ying’s outer layers, Wei Ying struggling vertically while Lan Wangji helps him along, his pulse drumming in his ears.
Then, once they reach his inner robe, Wei Ying swallows and says, “Can I...do you mind if I leave the rest on?”
Lan Wangji does not think this is a request borne of modesty. Wei Ying had never demonstrated any shyness about stripping down in Cold Spring during their summer together, much to Lan Wangji’s endless anguish. No, modesty is not a Wei Ying trait. It’s something else, perhaps not meant for him to understand just yet, and Lan Wangji will not question it.
“Of course,” he murmurs. “Whatever Wei Ying wants.”
Wei Ying releases a long sound through his teeth, a noise like hhhhh. “Lan Zhan, you can’t just — you can’t say things like that to me, fuck.”
Why can’t I? Lan Wangji wonders. Why can’t he offer Wei Ying everything he has?
“It might take me a while to...” Wei Ying gives a small “hah,” shifts his hips into Lan Wangji’s grip on them. “It’s been so long since I…”
Lan Wangji had assumed as much, given Wei Ying’s puzzling dearth of spiritual energy, given his and the Wens’ slow starvation here. He doesn’t mind being patient or persistent. He would do this all night, into the next.
So the red inner robe remains on, although the collar splits into a wide vee that dips down to Wei Ying’s bare chest, and Lan Wangji tugs it slightly sideways so that he can suck one of Wei Ying’s dark nipples into his mouth, edged with a hint of teeth.
Wei Ying’s hips snap against his as he bucks into the sensation, his hands scrabbling for purchase on Lan Wangji’s shoulders.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes out, near-reedy, “ah, fuck.”
Lan Wangji peels the fabric away from Wei Ying’s other pectoral, the Wen brand a stark reminder of their shared trials, and he traces his tongue along the shape of it while Wei Ying shakes and gasps open-mouthed beneath his touch. The skin of the scar is raised, rough against the tip of his tongue. Wei Ying’s fingers are clenched iron-tight in the backs of Lan Wangji’s robes, scraping through the layers against his skin, his knees locked to either of Lan Wangji’s sides.
Even through the robe, Wei Ying is still so, so thin, his ribs distinct arches through the satin, his belly concave. Maybe that is what he hadn’t wanted Lan Wangji to see. Of course, Wei Ying is beautiful regardless, but the knowledge of it makes Lan Wangji’s chest pulse like a bruise, even as he continues to kiss the skin available to him, gentling his touch as he goes.
Despite what Wei Ying had said earlier, Lan Wangji can feel that he is already hard against the tight spaces where their bodies touch; it presses hot into the skin above Lan Wangji’s navel, insistent and unmistakable. Wei Ying’s hips keep hitching against his, seeking friction.
Lan Wangji thinks one touch could send him burning up into ash. Each of his nerves is awake, alight in a way he has never known, set humming to life at Wei Ying’s touch; the perils of desire, as his sect had once tried so diligently to warn him. He was not built strong enough to resist its pull, as he once imagined he was. Lan Wangji pulls back to look at Wei Ying, gorgeous and flushed and biting his lips, and thinks, no, he never could have resisted this at all.
Lan Wangji’s gaze skims down the length of Wei Ying, down the flushed peek of his chest to where his inner robe splits open across his thighs. The damp fabric of his trousers clings to the head of his cock, jutting against the fabric. Wei Ying won’t stop squirming and making small, hurt sounds in his throat. Lan Wangji can hardly catch his breath.
“You can,” Wei Ying says, nonsensically, “I want you to —” and Lan Wangji realizes that Wei Ying is begging, in his way, and his patience suddenly snaps like a fine string. His fingers fan out on Wei Ying’s waistband, and Wei Ying jerks, whines in anticipation. Lan Wangji realizes, with a sudden lurch like the ground moving beneath him, that he could make Wei Ying beg more, and Wei Ying would likely do it.
But tonight is about need, Lan Wangji knows. No spare room for experimentation, for teasing and play. They don’t have the luxury of time. Tonight is about service, a distraction from pain that Lan Wangji can offer Wei Ying, so without any further preamble, he dips his hand inside Wei Ying’s trousers.
There’s a punch of sound from Wei Ying then, a weak groan low in his throat. It’s not unlike the sound he makes when hurt, and Lan Wangji snaps a quick, assessing look to Wei Ying’s face and finds himself being watched. There’s no trace of pain he can find, simply a dark-eyed hunger reflected back at him. The shadows hang low in the wickering candlelight, scattered along the hollows of the cave; it casts angular, sharp shadows along the distinct lines of Wei Ying’s face, the whites of his eyes gone. There is a desperation there too, a gleam of wetness, but Lan Wangji is more distracted by the hunger he finds, a black center of gravity that pins him in place.
Lan Wangji feels frenzied with want. He wants to swallow Wei Ying’s cock down until he can no longer breathe, like he had imagined so many times in their early days; wants to open Wei Ying on his fingers until he’s crying with need, then to sink into the heat of him. But they’ve set the boundaries already for tonight, and this is what he is offered. He will drink it down greedily, like sipping nectar from a cupped hand.
He’s been staring for too long, Lan Wangji realizes a moment too late. Wei Ying’s cock twitches under the press of his palm; the moment broken, Wei Ying begins to shift on the bed, maybe self-conscious or uncomfortable. Maybe misreading Lan Wangji’s long pause for hesitancy.
Lan Wangji gives another experimental stroke, the way he would with himself, and it quickly becomes apparent it’s not — wet enough, so without a second thought, he pulls his hand out of Wei Ying’s pants, cups it under Wei Ying’s mouth, and says, “Spit.”
“Wh — what,” Wei Ying chokes, although the command was straightforward enough that he can’t have misunderstood. His eyes are huge and night-dark, staring at Lan Wangji like he does not know him, and then his tongue darts out to wet his lips and he obediently spits into Lan Wangji’s palm.
A little perfunctory, impatient now, Lan Wangji spits into his hand as well, adding to the mess. It should be disgusting, unclean, but Wei Ying gives a hitched groan and says, in this small voice, “Ohmygod — Lan Zhan,” so clearly he doesn’t mind.
“Tell me how you like it,” Lan Wangji says, as he slides his hand back into Wei Ying’s waistband. Less patiently, when Wei Ying’s hand flies up to cover his mouth, to muffle his sounds: “Don’t. I want to hear you.”
Wei Ying drags his hand away, his breaths panting open-mouthed, and his knuckles spasm, then curl. “Ah, after so many times with the Silencing Spell, now Hanguang-jun wants me to — ah — ”
That piece of snark had earned him a rougher twist of Lan Wangji’s fist, a new rhythm, and for a brief span of time, Wei Ying falls uncharacteristically quiet, other than a litany of small gasps and moans, other than to occasionally whisper something like, “Yeah, that’s — yeah, Lan Zhan.”
The angle is becoming trickier, the more that Wei Ying fills out — his trousers are threadbare and loose, but the fabric still confines the movements of Lan Wangji’s hand a considerable degree. But he doesn’t want to push anything, to invade Wei Ying’s boundaries, when he had asked him to —
Wei Ying makes the decision for him, reaching down to hook his thumbs in his waistband, to wriggle them down just enough so that his cock is bared to the twilight cool, the fabric bunching below his balls. Most of his upper layers are still sashed on, just that vee of skin brooked open to Lan Wangji’s view, and now —
Lan Wangji slows his hand, letting himself look even as Wei Ying squirms, his cock hardening further under Lan Wangji’s scrutiny. Wei Ying is — wet, pearled wetter than Lan Wangji usually gets at the head, the spit from earlier adding to the mess. Clear trails of it run over the grooves of Lan Wangji’s knuckles, and Lan Wangji is surprised by how much he loves it. He hadn’t been certain, when he’d pored through the collection Wei Ying had given him so long ago, that this part of sex could be erotic, but Lan Wangji likes the mess of it, the raw honesty of it, the truth of desire that Wei Ying’s body can’t deflect or hide away.
Wei Ying is close; Lan Wangji can tell by his staccato breathing, the splotchy flush creeping up his collarbones and his neck, the way his head arches back into the bed. Lan Wangji slows his hand again, and Wei Ying makes a feral sound of protest, and perhaps it is a little cruel to draw it out, it’s just — it’s just that Lan Wangji doesn’t want it to be over, not yet, because when it’s over, it will mean that they...
“Lan Zhan, please,” Wei Ying begs, tilting his hips up into Lan Wangji’s grip. “I need — I need to —” There are tears collecting in the corners of his eyes — Wei Ying had said it was too far, if he cried, he had not wanted to, so Lan Wangji obeys, gives Wei Ying what he wants: a firm hand and a steady rhythm, and Wei Ying comes like that, shaking, a guttural groan clenched between his teeth.
For some reason, despite everything they’ve done up until now, it’s at this moment that the reality of the situation settles into Lan Wangji; the hot, dripping mess between them, the physical evidence of it soaking Lan Wangji’s hand and both of their clothes, Wei Ying’s gradually slowing gasps. He blinks up at Wei Ying, who blinks back down at him, equally dazed.
Oh. So, this was sex. More or less. They had really...
Wei Ying sags back onto the hard bed, closing his eyes, and Lan Wangji takes that moment to politely tuck Wei Ying’s softening cock back into his damp trousers, more than a little sad to see it go.
“You,” Wei Ying tries to say a moment later, out of breath, and then nothing for another handful of moments — for so long that Lan Wangji thinks he may have fallen asleep, and then Wei Ying continues, hoarse and a little accusing, “You’ve practiced that.”
Lan Wangji makes a noncommittal noise, which causes Wei Ying’s eyes to crack open, to appraise him with hazy curiosity.
“The texts you gave me were...informative,” Lan Wangji says, his ears warming. There’s no point in being evasive about it now, not after this.
Wei Ying’s mouth parts in shock, and he stares at Lan Wangji in disbelief for a moment before he rolls his head back and laughs, a running brook of light, high giggles.
“You really,” Wei Ying marvels, gasping through his laughter. “You really kept that cut-sleeve porn? And studied it like — what, like your Lan precepts?”
“Mn,” says Lan Wangji, unabashed. He’s willing to say anything to keep Wei Ying laughing like that.
“Lan er-gongzi, isn’t that too shameless?” Wei Ying teases. His eyes are brighter than Lan Wangji can remember in a long time, a sliver of his old self — uncomplicatedly happy, his defenses and protective barbs forgotten.
“There is no shame in this,” Lan Wangji says evenly, and is surprised to find how much he believes it.
Wei Ying shakes his head as his laughter slows, piecing off into warm, intermittent chuckles. “Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I adore you.”
Lan Wangji freezes; Wei Ying freezes in turn. Then Wei Ying winces and laughs again, more stilted and off-center than before, and keeps talking in a stuttered rush while Lan Wangji’s heart bangs like a door battered by storm, a loud and arrhythmic pounding.
Adore, adore, adore. Maybe he hadn’t meant it, maybe it had been the floating comedown from orgasm, but adore, Wei Ying had said, so fond, Lan Zhan, I adore you —
“I really thought you destroyed those,” Wei Ying is rambling. “You were so mad that I thought you were going to hunt me down and kill me, and meanwhile, all this time...” He pauses thoughtfully, then mutters, with soft vindication and narrowed eyes, “I knew you weren’t just some little prude.”
“I was,” Lan Wangji corrects him, pulled from the circular spiral of his thoughts. “Until Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying makes a pleased sound that sounds suspiciously like “eheheh.”
“Well, well,” Wei Ying says, affecting a scholarly nod, a wide smile still dimpling his cheeks. “Top marks from this shifu, Lan er-gongzi. The student has outclassed the master.”
“What mastery?” Lan Wangji wonders. “You did not last long.”
Wei Ying gasps like he’s taken a genuine hit, then kicks Lan Wangji’s shoulder with his bare foot. “Lan Zhan! That’s so fucking mean!”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, dodging the foot.
In a sudden, surprising display of energy, Wei Ying levers himself up, still only half-dressed, and launches himself at Lan Wangji, wrangling him with a grip of his bony knees so their positions are flipped. Lan Wangji could put up more of a fight — he has an impressively low center of gravity — but he allows it, feeling the threat of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Wei Ying hovers over him, his messy tangle of hair dangling around his face, and just — stares at Lan Wangji for a moment, and then his thumb comes up to rest on the corner of Lan Wangji’s lips.
“You’re smiling,” he says then, with quiet wonder.
He is, Lan Wangji realizes, so he stops, though the warm, buttery feeling that knocks around in his chest remains.
“Nooo,” Wei Ying protests with genuine dismay. Both of his thumbs pull at the edges of Lan Wangji’s mouth, as if he’s trying to coax it back into shape. “Lan Zhan, do it again, I barely got to see it.”
“Do something to make me,” Lan Wangji suggests, and Wei Ying pauses, hitches his breath, raises his eyebrows. A subterranean ripple between them, a tectonic shift, and just like that, the mood darkens again, ripening like a blackberry, rich and sweet. Like a mouthful of chocolate, or the reddest wine.
Wei Ying lowers himself, so slowly, and kisses Lan Wangji this way, purposeful and heady. Easy, Lan Wangji’s lower lip caught between both of Wei Ying’s. Wei Ying pulls back an increment, still so close that their eyelashes tangle; still so close that Wei Ying fills his field of vision, central and entire. Lan Wangji allows the separation for a moment more, allows for the tender tension of two people sharing warm breath between them, before his impatience wins out and he chases after the kiss, capturing Wei Ying’s lips with renewed force. Wei Ying hums a warm, amused sound against his mouth, the shape curving up into a smile, and it’s enough for Lan Wangji to know he’d done exactly what Wei Ying wanted from him, a tease then a playful pursuit.
Wei Ying is bracketed between his thighs, his hips grinding down in slow, rolling movements against Lan Wangji’s; each one sends sparks scattering through him. Before their conversation had distracted him, Lan Wangji had been hard to the point of pain, and kissing Wei Ying again, the floodplain of arousal returns in a white rush. He had teased Wei Ying for his lack of stamina, but he knows his own will be pathetic by comparison, however Wei Ying will have him.
Wei Ying must sense Lan Wangji’s growing discomfort, the desperation that he’s failing to stifle, because he pulls away from the kiss and starts to peel open layer after layer of Lan Wangji’s clothes, complaining under his breath about the Lan dress code the entire way. He keeps going until Lan Wangji’s skin is finally bared to his observation. Wei Ying licks his lips, runs a hand down the planes of his chest, of his abdominal muscles while Lan Wangji trembles under the touch. His robes are still half-on, hanging off his shoulders and elbows in various states of disarray, and it somehow feels more wanton than if he were fully naked.
Wei Ying murmurs a low curse, then rubs one of his thumbs over one of Lan Wangji’s nipples. The jolt of feeling from it is startling, and Lan Wangji jerks involuntarily with a gasp.
“God, look at you,” Wei Ying says lowly with a disbelieving shake of his head, and that same core of heat from earlier tightens behind Lan Wangji’s navel, spreads rapidly.
“No one else gets to have this?” Wei Ying continues, a quiet mutter — a little doubtful, a little awed. Mostly self-directed, Lan Wangji thinks.
He responds anyway.
“Say it like you mean it,” Lan Wangji says. Low and with heat.
Wei Ying’s eyes snap up to his, his cheeks dark. Then there’s a flash of his teeth as he smiles, the sharp jut of a canine. Lan Wangji might be imagining the flare of red in his pupils.
“No one else gets to have this,” Wei Ying says, throaty and emphatic, and all of Lan Wangji’s breath shakes out of him. Ah, so this is what it’s like to feel — claimed. He is leaking through his trousers.
Wei Ying licks his lips with intention as he drops lower, his gaze hungry and eager on the shape of Lan Wangji’s dick through the fabric. He settles almost languidly between Lan Wangji’s legs, his purpose clear.
“I’m going to suck you off again,” Wei Ying says anyway, then darts a look up to Lan Wangji, a little sheepish. “Ah...properly, this time.”
“Only if you want to,” Lan Wangji says, a little apprehensive from their last conversation, and Wei Ying’s mouth curves up into a smirk.
“Believe me,” he says. “I really, really want to.”
A thrill of nerves jangles in Lan Wangji’s stomach, rattling like a box of nails as Wei Ying rolls down his trousers, already soaked through. He’s never had his pleasure so at the mercy of another. It feels like relinquishing control, submitting to vulnerability.
Wei Ying makes a low noise in his throat. Lan Wangji’s cock is flushed dark against the pale cradle of his hips. There’s already a mess of precome over his belly and thighs.
“Ah, pretty, just like the rest of you,” Wei Ying murmurs, and Lan Wangji feels himself flush helplessly from his chest to his ears, a dark-red heat.
“I knew you’d be big,” Wei Ying adds, sounding deeply satisfied and matter-of-fact about it, and before Lan Wangji can even begin to question the implications of that, Wei Ying leans forward and laps at the head of his cock.
Lan Wangji lasts no time at all, and it’s humiliating. It’s only been a handful of seconds of the most experimental touches of Wei Ying’s lips and tongue before he finishes, and it goes like this: Wei Ying flattens his tongue along the underside of Lan Wangji’s cock. He keeps his mouth wide open as he looks up at Lan Wangji from under his lashes and winks, and the coyness of it, the shamelessness of it is such an echo of their earliest days, of library teasing and rooftop sparring, that Lan Wangji comes with a soft, punched sound, his teeth digging into his knuckles. The first string of it hits Wei Ying’s cheek, and Wei Ying flinches in surprise before he hurries to catch the rest in his mouth.
Lan Wangji’s hand comes down to Wei Ying’s cheek, cupping around the jutting shape of himself as he rasps, “Quick, spit it out,” but Wei Ying patiently pushes his hand away, his eyes still closed as he continues to swallow eagerly, noisily. The feeling of his throat working around him wrenches another wave of pleasure out of Lan Wangji, and his knees go spongy, his eyes rolling back and his head falling back against the bed.
His thoughts go white and noiseless for several moments, and an embarrassing span of time passes before he returns to his body fully and realizes Wei Ying is staring at him, maybe fond and maybe expectant.
“Sorry,” Lan Wangji whispers. He’s still trembling. His thumb sweeps along Wei Ying’s cheek to wipe away the mess, but Wei Ying just hums and grabs Lan Wangji’s wrist, sucking his dirtied thumb into his mouth and hollowing his cheeks. Something seismic ripples through Lan Wangji as he stares at Wei Ying.
“You…” he manages.
“Lan Zhan tasted too good to waste,” Wei Ying explains, then flashes a winning smile. Lan Wangji keeps staring, completely speechless.
He closes his eyes, then at last goes limp against the bed. There’s still a hum under his skin, a low-simmering haze.
His eyes fly open in shock when he feels the wet heat of Wei Ying’s mouth close around him again, and he jerks himself up onto his elbows.
“What are you —” he begins, a little wildly.
Wei Ying blinks up at him, his cheeks hollowed out, before he pulls off with a wet sound and explains, with immense patience, “You’re still hard.”
“You do not need to —” Lan Wangji tries again, blushing so hard he can barely speak.
“I want to,” Wei Ying says, plainly honest.
Lan Wangji blinks at him.
“I like it,” Wei Ying adds, then slides his gaze away, down to Lan Wangji’s thigh. Pink glows in his cheeks. “It’s like. It’s like, uh, when I was doing...that, all of the noise in my head went away.”
Lan Wangji swallows, the revelation of this settling over him. Tonight is about providing Wei Ying care, distraction, a loving touch, he reminds himself. Perhaps he had...miscalculated what that looks like, for Wei Ying. This, too, is something he can provide.
“Then continue,” Lan Wangji says. Soft, but the command non-negotiable.
Wei Ying’s gaze widens at him, then blackens, his mouth falling slightly open. Then Lan Wangji watches as something slides away behind his eyes; like sharper edges are retracting, smoothing over into a faraway focus that’s more relaxed, more settled.
When Wei Ying starts again, Lan Wangji, mercifully, has a greater degree of control over himself; it feels as good as before, but he can focus now that the painful edge is off. Lan Wangji slides his hand into Wei Ying’s hair, guiding him where it feels best with gentle but firm one-word directions. It’s a near-comical illusion of assuredness, given Lan Wangji’s complete lack of experience. This is...a role he’s filling, like he’s play-acting, but it’s one he slips into naturally — so naturally that he has to take a moment to acknowledge that there may be several things he does not yet know about himself. About Wei Ying, either. This configuration of them is entirely new, an uncharted terrain, each step blind and exploratory.
“Slower, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji instructs, and Wei Ying obeys, bobbing his head more carefully. Ah, so he likes a firm hand. “Good.”
Wei Ying gives a tiny, stifled moan around his cock. The thrum of it zips up Lan Wangji’s spine.
That is interesting. And informative. It is certainly something Lan Wangji is happy to provide, now that he knows he is permitted to.
He waits a little before he does it again, so that Wei Ying can’t come to expect it; he waits until a particularly deep slide that makes his toes tingle, then, a little experimental, he murmurs, “Good, Wei Ying,” and Wei Ying makes that sound again, low and whimpering and desperate.
He really is so good, Lan Wangji thinks with a desolate pang of adoration. Wei Ying can’t take Lan Wangji’s cock completely, but he tries his hardest, working his mouth in an eager, messy rhythm. The sounds of it should be mortifying, slick and lewd and echoing too loudly around the cave, but all of this, every part of it, feels incendiary. Wei Ying stops only to occasionally choke, or to catch his breath. The second time this happens, tears leak out of the corners of Wei Ying’s eyes, and Lan Wangji reaches down to thumb them away as he tells him, again, “Good.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whines, evidently having caught on to Lan Wangji’s game. He pulls off and strokes Lan Wangji’s dick in his hand, a wet slide up and down while he talks. “You’re doing that on purpose.” His chin is shiny with spit and precome, his lips swollen dark.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replies.
Wei Ying stares at him, his pupils blown with either shock or heat. Maybe a bit of both.
Lan Wangji lowers his voice. “You like it. When I tell you how good you are.”
Wei Ying swallows, his eyes still huge. Maybe he hadn’t expected Lan Wangji to say it so directly, or he hadn’t expected to be so thoroughly seen.
Then, a little trance-like, he gives a small, slow nod.
“Then keep going,” Lan Wangji rasps. “Take what you need from me, Wei Ying.”
“And what about what Lan Zhan needs?” Wei Ying asks, his brows cresting together into a small frown.
“It’s this,” Lan Wangji assures him.
Wei Ying shudders out a small sound, then drops his forehead to rest against Lan Wangji’s upper thigh. He takes a hidden moment there to compose himself while Lan Wangji waits patiently, runs fingers through strands of his soft hair.
“Ugh, you’re too much,” Wei Ying mumbles into his skin, then pops his head back up. “Alright, attempting the impossible again.” And he resumes his earlier task, swallowing Lan Wangji down easier than before, and the renewed sensation makes Lan Wangji choke on a fast breath, his back arching up against the hard bed. Wei Ying watches him up the length of Lan Wangji’s body as he continues, and Lan Wangji’s breath stutters to a halt in his chest when their eyes meet.
This is really Wei Ying, the love of his life. They’re really here and doing this. Even if they’re doing this for different reasons; even if they’re...taking different things from this shared experience. The reality of it scatters over Lan Wangji like a shower of sparks, and he starts to fuck Wei Ying’s mouth in earnest as pleasure concentrates to a single point, tingles along his skin. Wei Ying lets him — relaxes his mouth and his neck and lets Lan Wangji take from him before he suddenly drags in Lan Wangji closer, down to the root with a choked sound, and gives a vicious swallow, and Lan Wangji’s second orgasm hits like a crack of lightning. He’s loud through it, louder than he thought he could be.
Wei Ying drinks him down as dutifully as before, a dreamy smile curling at the edges of his lips.
Lan Wangji collapses back against the bed, his chest heaving. He can feel sweat pooled in the dip of his navel, along the grooves of his chest, collecting damp under his hairline. His thoughts have never been so quiet, so far away.
Then Wei Ying is climbing up so that he’s straddling Lan Wangji’s hips, his hands planted to the slick expanse of his abdomen.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes. His mouth and chin are still wet, his gaze glassed and dark from whatever new state he’s underwater to. He gives a slight roll of his hips, perhaps involuntary.
Then, strangely vulnerable, like a wolf flashing its underbelly, Wei Ying whispers, “Was it...good?”
Lan Wangji pushes himself up onto an elbow, using his free hand to grind the heel of his palm against Wei Ying’s lap. Wei Ying cries out, a spasm rolling through him as he bows his head and pushes his hips into Lan Wangji’s hand, his mouth fallen open.
“Perfect,” Lan Wangji says, with total, breathless honesty. “Wei Ying is perfect,” and Wei Ying gasps and gasps and shakes apart over him, his fingers clenching into Lan Wangji’s skin hard enough to mark, rocking up into Lan Wangji’s palm until there’s a new spread of wet, an ellipse of heat between them as they sink down into each other, down and down.
◈ ◈ ◈
Afterward — as they lay side by side and catch their breath, field their thoughts — Wei Ying murmurs, tracing an unknown pattern on his shoulder, “It was you, wasn’t it.”
“Mm?” Lan Wangji asks, halfway to asleep.
“On Phoenix Mountain.” Wei Ying’s voice is smooth and without inflection, empty of any anger or blame, but Lan Wangji tenses regardless, at once wide awake.
Lying is forbidden, he reminds himself. His throat works as he tries to respond, but he gets no sense that Wei Ying is waiting for an answer or an explanation — he had spoken with a quiet, assured conviction. As though it’s a courtesy to Lan Wangji, to let him know what he already knows.
“I’m sorry,” Lan Wangji says. The sudden acidity of his shame is an uncomfortable clench in his stomach. “It was...wrong.”
“No, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says softly. The traced patterns on his shoulder have not stopped, but Lan Wangji cannot relax.
“When did you know?” Lan Wangji asks. He feels — sheepish, to be caught doing something so unprincipled, so indecent.
“I thought...maybe, after it happened,” Wei Ying answers. “There was a — ah, I don’t know, your scent. Your presence, something that felt familiar. I wrote it off as wishful thinking, of course. And then, tonight...that, aha, thing you do with your tongue. It was the same.”
Lan Wangji realizes he’s holding his breath.
“But mostly,” Wei Ying continues, softer, more reflective, “it’s that. No one touches me like you do.”
Lan Wangji lets his breath go, closes his eyes.
“I’m really glad it was you,” Wei Ying whispers, and drops a kiss on his shoulder.
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time they wake up, Wei Ying has reassembled his armor, the precarious openness of the night before tucked away into some hidden nook. He keeps his expressions still and cool, never looking at Lan Wangji for too long as he leads him out of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.
Wen Qing awaits them as Wei Ying briefly excuses himself to retrieve something from the cave, leaving the two of them in a somewhat awkward silence.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Wen-guniang,” Lan Wangji says with a polite bow, for lack of something better to say.
Wen Qing’s gaze drops to Lan Wangji’s neck, where the love-bite Wei Ying had sucked into his skin last night is no doubt as visible as a brand, and the corner of her mouth twitches, not quite a smirk.
“Wen-daifu,” she corrects, not unkindly. “Thank you for your visit, Hanguang-jun.” She hesitates, then says, “It has been a long time since I’ve seen Wei Wuxian in such high spirits.”
Lan Wangji remains silent, a small ache taking root in his chest.
“I wish there was something more I could do to help,” he says after a moment, with all the sincerity he can muster.
Wen Qing raises her eyebrows. “Do you mean that?”
“Of course,” Lan Wangji says.
“Very well, then,” Wen Qing says, just as Wei Ying rejoins them. “I will send a list of the medical supplies that we most need.”
“I would be glad to oblige,” Lan Wangji says earnestly, just as Wei Ying complains, “Aiyo, Wen Qing, I leave for two minutes and you’re already trying to steal Lan Zhan’s money?”
“Hanguang-jun offered,” Wen Qing says, primly.
“I did,” Lan Wangji submits.
Wei Ying narrows his eyes between the two of them. “Hmm. I don’t trust this new partnership.”
Wen Qing rolls her eyes at him, and then courteously bows to Lan Wangji. “Safe travels, Hanguang-jun. We hope to see you here again sometime.”
“Rich-gege!” The cry is distant at first, then quickly comes closer, A-Yuan’s voice bouncing with his stumbling steps.
The next thing Lan Wangji knows, there’s a solid weight around his thigh, and he’s blinking down into A-Yuan’s sleepy, cherubic face.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying scolds, belied by the fond curl of his lips, the soft warmth in his eyes. “How is Rich-gege supposed to walk like that?”
“Wanna come,” A-Yuan says stubbornly, and Wei Ying sighs and looks to Lan Wangji with something like an apology, and Lan Wangji murmurs, “Let him, I don’t mind,” and Wei Ying gazes at him now with a complicated expression, appraising and rapidly softening.
“Fine,” Wei Ying allows, then huffs ai-yaa as he bends down to prise A-Yuan off of Lan Wangji’s leg. A-Yuan’s tiny hands dig into the lacy folds, clinging stubbornly against Wei Ying’s hold as he’s peeled away. “A-Yuan, you’re getting too big for this. Xian-gege is an old man whose back hurts now.”
They set off down the trail, away from the camp, with A-Yuan gripping onto both of their hands.
“You know, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says conversationally. “You can say no sometimes. No need to be so good and upstanding all the time.”
Lan Wangji knows he’s referring to his offer to Wen Qing. It must be troubling him more than Lan Wangji had initially thought.
“I offered,” Lan Wangji echoes from earlier. “And I want to.”
Wei Ying gazes at him sideways, expressionless. “I already owe you so much money. I was supposed to treat yesterday, remember?”
“Wei Ying owes me nothing,” Lan Wangji says, and hopes he will not have to say it again. Wei Ying sighs.
They continue on in silence until they’re some ways down the path, the tangle of spiny gray trees growing thicker around them. In the quiet, the imminence of their farewell settles palpably between them.
Somehow, they reach an unspoken agreement on where to stop, because they both pause in their steps at the same time, turning to regard each other. Sense-memory of the previous evening floods back to Lan Wangji, looking at Wei Ying directly, and warmth balloons in his chest.
Wei Ying also looks a little pink before he visibly takes a breath, then looks away, his expression shuttering. “Well. Hanguang-jun has a long journey ahead of him. I won’t keep you.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says quietly.
“I’ll be fine, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, almost dismissively. A-Yuan pulls at his hand, over and over. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
But I do, Lan Wangji thinks. I always do.
For the fifth time this morning, he entertains the idea of just — staying. Helping the Wens build a life here, buying things for A-Yuan, sleeping each night with Wei Ying in his arms. The impossibility of it is almost absurd, of imagining himself living in such a place, but still. He aches.
There are several things Lan Wangji could say, looking at Wei Ying across from him. He wants to beg Wei Ying, one last time, to stop using resentment, to see more clearly the ways it’s whittling him down day by day. He wants to plead with him, ridiculously and against all possibility, to come home with him. He wants to kiss him, again and again.
“I will go,” Lan Wangji says softly, and turns to leave. He feels Wei Ying watch him the entire way.
“Where is Rich-gege going?” he hears A-Yuan’s tiny voice, floating through the trees. “Will he come back?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t hear Wei Ying’s reply. A tremor shakes in his chest, all the way back to Gusu.
When he returns, Lan Wangji is made to kneel in punishment for hours. Shufu berates him for an entire shichen, reminding him of his father’s marriage, of the curse of the black thread. Lan Wangji listens, but spends the lecture thinking about Wei Ying’s tongue in his mouth, the subtle taste of him that still remains in the oddest of places. Behind his teeth, when he licks his lips.
The punishment goes beyond kneeling: Lan Wangji is ordered not to leave Gusu until he is permitted to, with the exception of cultivation conferences. It’s an especially draconian sentence, given Lan Wangji’s position within his sect — never before has his mobility been so forcibly restricted.
Lan Wangji knows that, embedded under the explosive anger, his shufu is terrified for him. He had watched it glitter wildly in his eyes during the lecture, and despite their differences on this stance, Lan Wangji does understand his reasons.
So, that year, Lan Wangji does what he’s told. He stays in Gusu, and dreams of Wei Ying.
As the months creep along, Lan Wangji sends what he can to Wei Ying: letters, robes for him and the other Wens, medical supplies, food and liquor and even two chickens. He has no doubt that Wei Ying and the Wens will see these gifts as a lacking attempt at courting, and they wouldn’t exactly...be wrong. Lan Wangji isn’t not courting Wei Ying, though he would send the gifts regardless of whether he was or was not. For courting, it’s a shameful display, given Lan Wangji’s status and his means, given what Wei Ying deserves.
If he was allowed, if circumstances were different, Lan Wangji could travel to Lotus Pier to court Wei Ying in full. He would be accompanied by his uncle and brother, to present Wei Ying and his remaining family with the most lavish of gifts. It would be a public affair; the entire cultivation world would know they belonged to each other.
But as it is, Lan Wangji sends what he can when he can slip away from surveillance, when he can make day trips to Caiyi.
He hears from Wei Ying once in their year apart, nearly halfway through it.
It’s an especially frigid winter morning when he does. Heavy snows had blown in over the mountains the night before, and an unbroken blanket of white swallows the Cloud Recesses, the deposits of snow whipped into rigid, crystalline shapes by the strong winds. Lan Wangji is in the middle of attempting to warm his hands — the cold had left his fingers too stiff for his morning guqin practice — when the package arrives to the jingshi.
“For Hanguang-jun,” the younger disciple says, taking care to remain outside the doorway, before he leaves.
The package is crudely wrapped, the scrawl on the front a familiar scribble of Lan Zhan. Lan Wangji’s pulse picks up into a frenzy; he has reviewed that irredeemable handwriting too many times to not recognize it.
He finds two gifts when he opens the package.
The first is a red hair-ribbon.
Lan Wangji’s heart pounds, pounds, pounds as he runs the silk through his fingers. He can imagine Wei Ying’s teasing laughter, demanding faux-seriously that Lan Wangji wear it in his hair, if only to give the elders a near-death scare.
“Cheeky,” he murmurs to himself. He feels like he could burst from fondness.
He sets the ribbon aside and reaches to unwrap the other gift. When he does, he feels his breath stutter.
It’s a white jade comb. Its material and craftsmanship are not of the same caliber as those that he and xiongzhang use, but it is still beautifully made, and something that Lan Wangji cannot understand how Wei Ying afforded.
Engraved along the spine of the comb is a finely detailed cloud, much like the filigree on his forehead ribbon.
Lan Wangji feels, suddenly, sick with love; a painful twist in his stomach, his pulse too fast and his palms sweaty. He misses Wei Ying always, but in this moment with a feral fervor.
Lastly, he finds a note tucked away at the bottom, inked messily onto cheap paper.
Let me begin by apologizing for my silence these months. We have been keeping very busy through the winter! But please know every single gift has been appreciated by everyone here. Wen Qing wanted me to thank you especially for the medicinal herbs; it is very hard to grow such things in a terrain like this, and we cannot afford most of what we need. A-Yuan adores the chickens.
Let me explain the gifts. I know your birthday is this month, and wanted to ensure they did not arrive late, so hopefully they have come early!
The hair-ribbon is a selfish gift, I admit. But when have I not been self-indulgent? So what if I want Lan Zhan to think of me in our time apart? I wish I could have seen your face as you opened it. I can hear you say “ridiculous” in my head so clearly. Ahaha, Lan Zhan, I miss you.
You’ll have to forgive the lacking quality of the comb, as I know it’s nowhere near fit for a Jade of Gusu. But I thought of you when I saw it in Yiling, and knew I had to get it for you, so I sold one of my inventions for a handsome price. (Just a small one, nothing too earth-shaking, so don’t look at me like that.)
Lan Zhan, thank you again for the gifts, for your letters. For even caring at all. It is very lonely here, even with the Wens, and whenever I get something from you, my entire month is brighter. I don’t know what I did in a past life to deserve a red thread with you.
Hopefully it won’t be so long before we see each other again, and know that I am thinking of you.
Lan Wangji reads the letter four times, each time more carefully than the last, before he crosses over to his bed and lays down on top of the covers to stare at the ceiling in abject despair, suddenly useless to do anything else. The warmth in his face, a small sun that pulses in his chest, will not recede, no matter how sternly he tries to reassert control over his body. What would his younger self say, to see himself reduced to such silliness? From the effects of Wei Wuxian, no less? Lan Wangji did not read much fiction as a child, but he had always scoffed whenever he encountered romance in texts, the ridiculous and exaggerated fictions of the bodily reactions. The overwrought prose was so frivolous, he’d thought then, so far-fetched.
He could fill scrolls and scrolls with this feeling, pages upon pages. He thinks if he unspooled it to its full length, it might reach the moon.
Ridiculous, Lan Wangji tells himself, a little desperately, so ridiculous, and it is. It is ridiculous, to be rendered so brainless by sentiment, by a single letter from Wei Ying after months of silence, but perhaps it is fate, after all, to feel this way.
Lan Wangji moves through his morning rituals diligently, but his thoughts couldn’t be further from his tasks.
Mostly, he unpicks the gnarled knots of their situation, snagging on the same setbacks again and again. There is no middle ground for them to meet; Wei Ying certainly cannot come here, and he would never abandon the Wens. Nor would Lan Wangji ask him to, or want him to. Lan Wangji cannot go to the Burial Mounds, not with his responsibilities to his sect, not with the increasingly fraught politics of the cultivation sects starting to shake under their feet.
A dark, feral instinct sometimes itches in Lan Wangji — whispers to him that he could take Wei Ying to the Cloud Recesses anyway, keep him here where no one could hurt him, where he would always be within reach, but he recognizes the temptation as his father’s curse. He hears the warning in his shufu’s voice.
To keep Wei Ying here like a penned animal, to watch his spirit dwindle until his mother’s emptiness settles inside him — the mere imagining makes Lan Wangji sick. Wei Ying would be safe, but miserable, and Lan Wangji would die first before seeing Wei Ying miserable, or changed.
Still, he has faith. The red thread was given to them for a reason, and fate does not lie — they are destined to be at each other’s side, Lan Wangji constantly reminds himself. He takes assurance in the objective, externally-determined proof of this fact. Perhaps this period is important as a personal trial, a ritual of fire to change him so that he is suitable to belong to Wei Ying; he is already a markedly different person than when they first met, after all. Perhaps the road to find each other is convoluted, rocky and strange, but Lan Wangji clings onto conviction: that he and Wei Ying will be together at the end, having weathered all.
◈ ◈ ◈
The letter is the last Lan Wangji hears from Wei Ying before Jin Rulan’s one-month celebration. Before the bloodbath at Qiongqi Path, the rapid acceleration of events thereafter. How quickly everything crumbles, how quickly the ground beneath them gives way.
When he first hears of Jin Zixuan’s death, of Wei Ying’s implication in it, Lan Wangji flies to Jinlintai, his unofficial confinement to the Cloud Recesses be damned. He finds the place curiously empty as he strides from hall to hall, the polished gold and blue interiors draped in solemn, funereal-white banners.
“You are too late,” one of the Jin cultivators finally tells him.
It feels prophetic.
“Our soldiers, the rest of the sects,” the cultivator says. “They have already gone to Nightless City.”
In the years after, it will be a long time before Lan Wangji can fully recall the events of Nightless City. Usually his memory is unfailing, unerring, but for several reasons, his recollections of this night are as evasive as shadows, slippery in his grasp.
He remembers the rooftop, pleading with Wei Ying, bargaining with the cold and alien emptiness of his eyes, the resentment that spills out from his skin.
He remembers the death of Jiang Yanli, the flowers of blood spreading fast on her mourning robe, how Wei Ying’s screams shatter out from him and ring and ring and ring in his ears. He mostly remembers when the Stygian Tiger Seal breaks, but after that, only a haze of blood and viscera, as he fights and fights to reach Wei Ying, until his energy nearly fails him, until his legs nearly give out.
In that pandemonium, he eventually finds Wei Ying crumpled against a broken column, guarded by a protective ring of fierce corpses. Lan Wangji slashes his way through, cuts down each one like stalks of corn until he reaches Wei Ying, until he finally puts his shaking, bloodied hands on his face, so cold and milk-pale, his lips nearly blue. Touching him for the first time since that night, over a year ago, in the Burial Mounds, a different lifetime. A check to Wei Ying’s wrist reveals that his spiritual energy is gone. The red thread pulses weakly between them, a heart trying to beat.
Lan Wangji bundles him up with his left arm onto Bichen. His right one is useless, having been slashed to ribbons.
Through the din of battle, Lan Wangji hears his xiongzhang scream out his name, but he does not look back. He pulls Wei Ying’s limp body onto Bichen, and he takes him from Nightless City.
◈ ◈ ◈
They don’t make it to the Burial Mounds. They’re both too weak to finish the trip on sword — Wei Ying from qi depletion, Lan Wangji from carrying them through the night and his own blood loss.
When his sword finally falters, somewhere over Yiling, and nearly sends them tumbling from the sky, Lan Wangji lands them and drags Wei Ying’s unconscious body until he finds a small cave.
For two days, without food or water, that’s where they stay.
Most of the time, Wei Ying stares off into something unseen, his eyes faraway, witnessing horrors invisible to Lan Wangji. Black coils of resentment wreath around his hands, his chest. Tears streak silently down his cheeks, clearing thin tracks through the blood and grime. In the rare moments of lucidity, Wei Ying looks at Lan Wangji as though he does not recognize him, as though he is someone strange and unwelcome. Sometimes, a whip-crack of anger breaks through the numbness; he shoves at Lan Wangji, a maelstrom of fury and terror, as though Lan Wangji’s gentle touch scalds his skin.
Lan Wangji grips onto Wei Ying’s hands regardless, and continues to pass him spiritual energy until he loses any track of time. He can feel the slow drain of the energy’s depletion under his skin, a heavy and creeping exhaustion, but his efforts seem to have no effect on Wei Ying. Like a wall that cannot be breached.
Lan Wangji murmurs to him all the while; dabs at the blood dribbling from his lips, the tears that won’t stop falling, the worst of the grime with his blood-crusted sleeves.
The entire time, Wei Ying weeps, expressionless and silent.
◈ ◈ ◈
“I love you, I love you,” Lan Wangji whispers, once, in the darkest hour of one of their two shared nights. “Wei Ying. I fell in love with you before we even met. If we survive this, I will love you for the rest of our days. Wei Ying, please.”
Wei Ying looks at him with a deep-sea emptiness. His gaze a dark and unfamiliar void.
“Get lost,” he says, hoarsely.
◈ ◈ ◈
His family and the elders find them after two days. They find him while he’s passing energy to Wei Ying, in the middle of murmuring senseless consolations, his fingers encircled around Wei Ying’s wrists.
“Wangji!” he hears his shufu’s horrified shout. “Get away from him!”
“Restrain him,” one of the elders tells the others. He is talking about Wei Ying. “Take him to Nightless City. Make sure he is unharmed; they want him alive. He will answer for his crimes there. Hanguang-jun will return to the Cloud Recesses at once.”
Three of the elders move toward him to reach for Wei Ying, who still stares off into nothing, resentment pulsing out of him in thick, hateful waves.
Lan Wangji bloodies all three of them.
“Wangji!” his xiongzhang screams, his eyes wide with terror and gleaming white.
“Wangji,” his shufu shouts, all the blood in his face having drained.
“Hanguang-jun, the Yiling Laozu has infected you with evil,” one of the elders tries to reason with him. He too is pale, his lips tight. “Please consider what you are doing.”
“None of you will touch him,” Lan Wangji grits out, keeping Bichen extended. Blood drips from the blade. Something wild bucks in him, a cornered and heaving beast. Amidst it all, he can feel the weight of his brother’s fear.
“Lan Wangji,” one of the other elders says, a rising threat rumbling in his voice. “Do not force our hand.”
“We do not want to harm you,” another elder pleads. “Give over Wei Wuxian, and come back to us.”
“If he goes, I go with him,” Lan Wangji replies. His hands are shaking uncontrollably; his energy is entirely gone. His sleeve is still matted with dried blood, the fabric growing wet again as his wound from the battle reopens.
A ripple of shocked dismay passes through the elders like a wind over a grass-field.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen whispers. Tears glitter in his eyes. “Please.”
“Wangji,” shufu says in a choked voice. He is clutching his chest, as though he’s struggling to breathe. “Remember all I have taught you. This is not the way.”
“Wei Wuxian has poisoned the mind of Hanguang-jun,” one of the elders cries. “How truly evil he must be!”
“Do not make us fight you, Lan Wangji!” another elder yells. “We will spare you no mercy.”
Lan Wangji is not counting on mercy. If Wei Ying is going to die here, then he plans to as well. The red thread is nearly invisible in the midnight black of the cave, with Wei Ying’s energy fading and fading. But he still can still feel it, a tether to each other, unbroken and defiant.
“If he goes,” Lan Wangji repeats, enunciating so every word rings out and can be heard. “I go with him.”
And then, the bloodshed.
◈ ◈ ◈
The disciple who whips him is named Lan Sizheng. When the boy was younger, Lan Wangji had mentored him for some time; had taught him how to correctly hold a bow and arrow, had corrected his footwork on the more advanced Lan sword forms.
He is told that Lan Sizheng volunteered.
They first strip Lan Wangji of his layers, leaving his top bare to a frost-chilled autumn morning. Then his headpieces, so his hair spills loose over his shoulders. They have him kneel in front of the yashi, as he had alongside Wei Ying so many years ago.
Lan Sizheng whips him, and the rest of his sect watches on, silent. Really, it should be one of the elders who does this honor, but Lan Wangji imagines this is a lesson, perhaps a warning, to the younger disciples watching.
There are few sounds to break the morning quiet: the measured crack of the whip splitting into skin and muscle. The involuntary sounds torn from Lan Wangji’s throat, at the impact, harsh in the silence. The hush and occasional hum of the wind through the trees.
His family is also in attendance, toward the front of the gathered crowd. His xiongzhang’s chin angles downward and sidelong, his expression contorted with pain, as though he cannot bear to look. Shufu, by contrast, forces himself to watch, visibly trembling with the effort of doing so — his eyes watery, his wispy beard bobbing with the flex of his jaw. As if, in so doing, he is eliciting his own punishment.
Lan Wangji inclines his head, the fall of his unbound hair eclipsing them from view. With the agonizing shock of the whip having settled into his body, over and over, the pain has gradually become more comprehensible. The first few strokes had been the worst. Halfway, now; he has counted each lash. More than the pain, he can feel the cold sting of autumn air on his open wounds, the wet flow of blood down his back and sides. The reality of his destroyed body, of his skin’s permanent ruination, has not yet set in.
He grits his teeth, and braces in the stillness.
Lan Sizheng pauses, as though for dramatic effect. Lan Wangji patiently waits.
Then, Lan Sizheng speaks.
“Hanguang-jun, Lan Wangji, do you condemn the behavior of the Yiling Laozu, Wei Wuxian?” he demands. “Do you repent for your association with evil and your misconduct of GusuLan’s disciplines?”
Ah, so they expect a public flagellation beyond flesh. Lan Wangji keeps his head bowed as he answers.
“He is my soulmate,” he says, the words thick through a coppery mouthful of blood. Low, but loud enough to be ring clear to every Lan in attendance, the sea of eyes that watch him take his punishment with undisguised amazement and disgust.
At these words, the quiet ripple of disapproval is tangible. At last, shufu looks away.
Lan Wangji does not care. That mere fact, its conviction, is beautiful and blinding. With the blows, he at last feels free, his love for Wei Ying an uncaged bird sky-bound. The whip is a punishment he welcomes — not for breaching his sect rules, but for not realizing what he would do for Wei Ying sooner. Until it was too late.
“Whatever he has done, right or wrong, I will shoulder the consequences with him,” Lan Wangji says to the wintry silence of his peers.
The red of his thread pulses in him like a heartbeat. Again, the whip cracks down.
◈ ◈ ◈
An undefined span of time after, Lan Wangji wakes.
He has woken a handful of times, since the whipping, but never for too long. Usually, he is alone, or Lan-daifu hovers over him silently, tending to him without a word. When he wakes now, an undefined span of time after his whipping, his xiongzhang is seated at his bedside, watching him. His expression is grim, worn into faded lines of exhaustion.
He rubs his eyes when he sees Lan Wangji is awake and says, roughly, “Wangji.”
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji whispers through dry lips, and tries to blink through the white haze that gauzes the corners of his vision. Right now, the pain of his whipping wounds is subdued. He has been immobile for several shichen, which helps keep the split skin closed, and Lan-daifu’s needles have taken their full effect. He blinks again at Lan Xichen, wondering at the strange expression on his face.
Something is...not right. He can sense it in the careful way his brother is looking at him, like he is fragile. Like he is porcelain, one crack from shattering.
Dread hardens into a bezoar in Lan Wangji’s stomach.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen whispers, his shoulders sagging. “I am...so sorry.”
“No,” Lan Wangji says. The response doesn’t make any sense; his xiongzhang hasn’t said anything yet. Dizzy, hazy with narcotics and the muffled pain arcing through his every nerve, it’s all he’s able to say. “No.”
Lan Wangji watches his brother’s mouth move soundlessly, shaped around familiar syllables, the sound muted like they’re underwater. It is what Lan Wangji has dreaded, for months, that he would hear.
“Wei Wuxian.” Lan Xichen’s lips move, noiseless. “He… ”
“No,” Lan Wangji says again, firmly. He sounds like a child throwing a tantrum, but he doesn’t care. The sear of his conviction pierces through the herbs that have kept him, for weeks, floating in and out of unconsciousness. What about Wei Ying, he tries to ask. Wei Ying is okay. Wei Ying is always okay, Wei Ying is under his protection.
Lan Xichen reaches out and steels a hand to Lan Wangji’s shoulder, his fingers careful to avoid the uppermost tips of his wounds. Lan Wangji looks up at him, uncomprehending, his eyes swimming with exhaustion.
His xiongzhang studies his expression with his brows pinched, then takes a sharp breath, as though to brace himself.
No. No, no, no, no no nonono —
“Wangji,” his brother says, worn with emotion but as steady as he’s always been, since their boyhood. A crag at sea, weathering the lash of a storm’s fury. “Wei Wuxian is dead.”
“No,” Lan Wangji says, again. He hears it as though hollowed down a long tunnel, from somewhere far away. Wei Ying, bright and beautiful and summer incarnate, flashes of a crimson hair ribbon and big, toothy smiles, crinkled eyes and warm waterfalls of words; Wei Ying, not alive, is an impossibility. It won’t catch in his mind; it slides off him like water, edgeless.
Lan Wangji starts to struggle, pushing against Lan Xichen’s hand. The unhealed wounds, still torn open, flare on his back with an agony that makes sweat pour off his temples. He has been bedridden up to this point, hardly conscious, but his cultivation is still strong enough to make it to the Burial Mounds. He will find Wei Ying, take him away again, hide him somewhere, in another cave or in a secluded corner of Gusu or off the edges of the known world, if he needs to. He will prove his brother wrong.
“Wangji ah,” Lan Xichen says, his voice breaking. His brother does not cry. “Please, Wangji, you are sick. Lay back and rest, and we can talk more when you are lucid, A-Zhan.”
Lan Wangji slaps his brother’s hand away, suddenly furious. Who is his brother to try and stop him? Wei Ying is waiting for him, Wei Ying is —
The motion of the slap brings his wrist into focus, and he blinks, unseeing, then says, “No,” again, softer. Almost a question.
“No,” he says, louder. Uncomprehending. “No.”
Is that all his wretched, drug-addled mind can say? It’s the only thing he can feel, its own emotion through the shock of numb cold that spreads through him like an ice-melt.
He’s dreaming, or — hallucinating, from the drugs. The black thread is not meant for him. It was his father’s curse, not meant for him or Wei Ying.
For a long time, Lan Wangji stares at the limp, black string on his wrist while his brother waits with his breath held. He can hear his own breathing, panicked and noisy in his ears, as though it’s apart from himself. There’s something beginning to howl in him, frenzied and wild.
“Didi,” xiongzhang says, when the silence stretches on and on.
The urgent press of nausea in Lan Wangji’s stomach causes him to bend over, despite the spasm of anguish across his back, and he vomits into the basin next to his bed. He hasn’t eaten anything in days, but he keeps retching bile and water until there is nothing left inside him. His xiongzhang can’t touch his back, his burning, rent-open mess of flesh, so he presses a cool hand to the back of Lan Wangji’s neck and squeezes, over and over.
There is no grief, not yet; like the suspended moment between a cut and his nerves registering pain. He floats in this space, frozen and numb.
He only has one clear thought that rings out inside him, like the peal of a clarity bell, as his brother’s white robes, the healing pavilion begin to fade around the edges.
For the first time since he was eight years old, Lan Wangji is entirely alone in the world.
Over the course of thirteen years, Hanguang-jun cuts an impressive figure in the collective imaginary of the cultivation world.
They say Hanguang-jun wears all white to mourn his dead soulmate even as the years creep on; that his soul had once been tied to the Yiling Patriarch’s with the red string. Can you imagine, it’s murmured, Yue Lao binding two such opposites? Light and dark, day and night, justice and chaos, good and evil, yin and yang. Some say Hanguang-jun’s soul had passed on with Wei Wuxian’s when it had left this world — how else to account for the cold deadness in his gaze, as empty as the arctic north?
There are other, odder rumors too.
That Hanguang-jun had adopted a wild Wen child and raised him Lan.
That over the years, night hunts in the smallest, most forgotten villages are cleaned up overnight. Sometimes, locals claim to catch a whisk of moon-pale robes, a gleam of a silver sword. A silent and faceless vigilante.
That the Yiling Patriarch had never died at all; that Hanguang-jun keeps him tucked away deep in the mountain caves of Gusu, feeding him the blood and flesh he needs to survive.
That during even the most unforgiving winters, Hanguang-jun roams the Burial Mounds with a qin strapped to his back, playing for the long-lost soul of his lover. (We can hear the guqin singing at night, far up in the mountains, the Yiling locals have said in hushed voices.)
Then there are other facts beyond rumor, ascertained by anyone who glimpses Hanguang-jun on the street of various towns, passing by.
In a visible shock of color on his wrist, layered over the black thread, he wears a crimson hair-ribbon, knotted tight.
◈ ◈ ◈
In some ways, the first year is the easiest, because Lan Wangji spends so much of it unconscious. After branding himself in a drunken stupor, after his fevered flight to the Burial Mounds to seek out Wei Ying and his return with a dying A-Yuan, his body crumples into the fatigue of his new physical existence. Days, sometimes weeks, pass by outside of his awareness. As soon as Lan Wangji is accustomed to one season, a glance out the jingshi’s window shows the world has steadily moved on into the next.
The second year is harder, when he is more lucid. His xiongzhang visits for longer periods of time in the second year, which means Lan Wangji is required to dress beyond his inner robe, to sit upright until the muscles of his back spasm with pain, to pretend to engage in conversation even as he sweats and bleeds through his layers.
Shufu visits him three times, perhaps out of obligation, but each one is briefer than the last. Lan Wangji doesn’t know if it’s too painful to see his nephew this way — immobile, shaking with fatigue, almost entirely devoid of life — or if the disappointment and shame of his failure are still simply too much to stomach.
Lan Wangji has bled through nearly every pair of inner robes he owns. The scars pull open with the barest of movements, weeping watery blood and pus. It’s worse in the winters and during the rainy season; on the worst of those days, he is entirely bedridden, his teeth rattling and grinding as he makes himself rigid against the pain. Sometimes his muscles lock up completely, spasm so that he cannot move for hours. Not that he would, anyway.
Sleeping is difficult, at first. Not solely from the pain, or the nightmares. After a lifetime of learning to sleep on his back, trying to sleep on his stomach is uncomfortable, unnatural.
The physical pain is a welcome reprieve, in some ways. The sharpness, the loudness of it is a distraction from the much deeper agony, the one that cuts marrow-deep.
Sometimes in Lan Wangji’s dreams, his mind plays out, in lurid detail, the various and grisly scenarios in which Wei Ying must have died — blood-soaked and half-crazed with resentment and utterly alone. Ripped to pieces by fierce corpses, impaled on a sword, his body broken and beaten.
He has heard it said that Jiang Wanyin himself had led the final siege of the Burial Mounds, that Wei Ying had died by his hand. Perhaps Wei Ying had spent his last breath looking into the blaze of Jiang Wanyin’s hatred, had died knowing he was spurned by one of the last people alive that he still loved.
In even more of his dreams, Wei Ying is still alive, a preserved shard of those early summer days of Gusu. Lan Wangji dreams of Wei Ying running through the bamboo forest on the back mountain and laughing, looking over his shoulder and calling teasingly for Lan Wangji to catch up. As hard as he tries, Lan Wangji never can. He runs his fastest, tries his hardest, even stretches out a hand to grab at his black robes, but each time, Wei Ying is too far ahead, smiling and silent out of his reach.
The dreams that hurt the most are those in which the least happens. These dreams are quiet. Wei Ying is in the jingshi, calling him husband and baobei and Lan Zhan, dear, bundled up in his bed or running a bath or making tea. From these dreams, Lan Wangji wakes with tears already dried to his cheeks, as though his body had known the truth before his mind could catch up.
Every new day that he wakes up into a world without Wei Ying is an ugly shock that never dulls, a loop of reliving to remind him of all that’s transpired.
Each morning, Lan Wangji looks at the black thread, dead and limp on his wrist, and thinks of the days when it had glowed red, of every day that he had taken for granted.
◈ ◈ ◈
His third year of seclusion is when his shufu brings the doctor into the jingshi.
At first, Lan Wangji suspects nothing amiss. Doctors often come to see him, to treat his wounds and provide him pain medication or ointments, and it isn’t so unusual that shufu would bring a doctor from another sect, perhaps to offer an alternative remedy, apart from GusuLan medicine.
The doctor is named Shi Jianyu. He is older, bearded and dressed in green robes, and there’s a strange, cat-like glow to his violet eyes. He watches Lan Wangji with an incisive assessment, as though silently diagnosing him, before his gaze flits to the black thread around Lan Wangji’s wrist and settles there.
“Shufu,” Lan Wangji says, and blinks tiredly. “Wangji apologizes that he cannot formally receive you and our guest.”
He’s simply too exhausted today. It had rained the previous night, and the humidity is wreaking hell on his back.
“No need,” his shufu replies. “Wangji may be familiar with Shi-daifu’s line of work.”
Lan Wangji waits, uncomprehending.
“I specialize in surgery of spirit,” Shi Jianyu says with a dip of his head.
“I have thoroughly reviewed his credentials,” shufu adds. “Shi-daifu has performed countless operations, and his success rate is very high.”
The signs, in retrospect, are all there, but Lan Wangji is still not following. Pain medication tends to dull his mental acuity, often leaving him steps behind in a conversation.
“Surgery,” Lan Wangji echoes Shi Jianyu. “What surgery is necessary?”
“Lan-xiansheng has told me of your soulmate’s death,” Shi Jianyu says, as matter-of-factly as a weather report, and Lan Wangji recoils at the unexpected blow of it. “Black threads are actually the easiest to remove, if Hanguang-jun can believe, because there is no risk of damaging the other party.”
All at once, too late, Lan Wangji understands, a horrible nausea rising fast in his throat.
“Shufu,” he whispers. The betrayal he feels is so stunning that he momentarily cannot say anything beyond that.
“Wangji,” shufu answers, steady and unrepentant. “I know the black thread pains you, as it did my brother. Shi-daifu can offer relief from your burden, if you will allow him.”
Lan Wangji can feel himself start to shake. It makes the wounds pull tighter, twinges of agony.
“Thank you for Shi-daifu’s visit,” Lan Wangji finally says, when he finds he is able to speak again, “as I am sure he has traveled long, but his trip has been in vain. I have no need of this service.”
“Wangji,” shufu says, more harshly, while Shi Jianyu blinks in surprise.
“Black threads can be an impediment to negotiating future partnerships, as I’m sure Hanguang-jun can understand,” Shi Jianyu says, earnestly, as though there’s a chance Lan Wangji can be persuaded. “I can promise that the removal is painless, and I have never received a complaint after an operation.”
“It will not be necessary,” Lan Wangji says, past formality. His tone is so cold, so teeth-clenched that the doctor flinches in surprise.
“Wangji,” shufu says, raising his voice. “Shi-daifu has come all this way.”
“The black thread,” Shi Jianyu interjects, “it can be a nuisance to —”
“It is all I have left of him.” The words rip out of him before he can stop himself, a raw scrape of his throat, and the immediate silence that follows is sharper, somehow, louder.
All of the blood has drained from shufu’s face. He stares at Lan Wangji as though he does not know him, with a strange sort of horror.
The awful silence stretches on and on, before Shi Jianyu says, perhaps in an attempt at mollification, “I...can see there has been a misunderstanding, and that Jianyu has been misinformed of the situation. Please forgive this one’s imposition, Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t say a word as shufu and the doctor leave. He does not stop shaking for several minutes after.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Wangji is silent that evening after his meal with xiongzhang. He is always quiet, but he knows the arctic tone of this silence will not go unmissed.
Even more so than angry, Lan Wangji feels betrayed. Lan Xichen had known of shufu’s intentions and had not forewarned him, had allowed that doctor into a space he has dedicated to grieving Wei Ying. Though they do not speak of it, his xiongzhang is perhaps the only person on earth that Lan Wangji thought would understand him, in at least this matter. After everything witnessed.
Despite Lan Wangji’s cold silence, Lan Xichen talks in an upbeat cadence for several moments as though nothing is amiss. He fills the silence with news of A-Yuan, the friends he’s slowly making among his peers, and of other sect news, a marriage here and there, a birth, the death of a smaller sect leader.
Finally, Lan Xichen sets down his tea and says, in the same neutral tone of voice, “I’m sure that Wangji knows shufu will not apologize for bringing Shi-daifu to visit. Nonetheless, he is apologetic. He knows now that it was too soon.”
Lan Wangji feels a sting of cold that aches down to his nerves.
“Too soon,” he echoes, woodenly. They are the first words he’s uttered all evening.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, more gently. He puts a hand on the table, almost as if to reach out to him, but Lan Wangji’s knuckles curl inward, an infinitesimal recoiling. Lan Xichen pulls his hand back.
When Lan Wangji looks up at him, his brother’s eyes are kind and deeply sad. He looks more tired than Lan Wangji has ever seen him.
“Wangji,” xiongzhang says quietly. “I understand.”
How could he possibly understand? Lan Wangji wonders. His xiongzhang’s thread still glimmers on his wrist, as silver and bright as a river current. His xiongzhang visits with Jin Guangyao once a month to commiserate about the trials of sect leadership, to laugh and gossip and warmly share tea. He has the assurance of his person in the world. Lan Xichen could never understand. No one can.
Lan Xichen takes a deep breath, and Lan Wangji knows this means he is treading carefully for his next step. It means the subject matter of conversation will be fraught.
Sure enough, Lan Xichen says, “I know you are still...mourning.” There’s an unspoken agreement between them to never speak Wei Ying’s name aloud. It flays open another wound in Lan Wangji each time, a gaping lash more painful than his scars. “But once you emerge from seclusion, there will be certain...expectations.”
Lan Wangji knows very well what his brother means. Lan Wangji is twenty-four years old, the second master of his sect and a well-known cultivator, and now free of his ties to Wei Wuxian, apart from the thread on his wrist. The cultivation world will not only expect him to marry, but will watch keenly for his public dissociation from Wei Ying. They will look for a quiet denouncement, for repentance, for a humble acknowledgement of error, for reparations through an advantageous and palatable marriage.
They will not find it. Any of it. Lan Wangji is shaking, from all of it: the exhaustion, the pain, the anger.
“Wangji,” xiongzhang says. He’s watching Lan Wangji closely, no doubt observing this conviction in the stiff set of Lan Wangji’s shoulders, the rigid tightness of his jaw. “Keeping the black thread, with your status and with its previous...attachment. It will ensure that you never marry.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t care. The idea of being married to anyone else besides Wei Ying makes him ill to the point of nausea. It reminds him of his childhood convictions, that stubborn but desperate no that rings around and around in him. That he would share himself with anyone else, his raw, bloody patchwork of scars and memory and grief, is unthinkable. Even if he were to marry another, he would spend every waking moment cast in the shadow of Wei Ying’s death. For the rest of his life, he will spend his days loving someone who he will never see again, who will never again share this world with him.
At once, Lan Wangji is drained; beyond anger, beyond grief, a state of numbness, total depletion.
“I am tired,” Lan Wangji rasps, suddenly unable to contain his weariness. “I must ask xiongzhang to excuse me for the evening.”
It’s a rude dismissal, especially by Lan Wangji’s standards. He will need to apologize to his brother. For tonight, he has no spare room inside himself to care.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, softly, and then nothing else. He takes his cue and leaves.
◈ ◈ ◈
After this third year, Lan Wangji is allowed limited visits with A-Yuan. The interactions quickly become the best part of Lan Wangji’s weeks, one of the only things he finds himself looking forward to.
A-Yuan has grown quickly in those three years, and he is quieter than he once was; no longer a wild toddler tearing around a bustling campsite, among seniors who were far too busy with other tasks to mind his behavior. It’s a small shock to see him clean and groomed, so well-mannered and reserved, dressed in the white robes Lan Wangji remembers wearing as a boy.
Lan Xichen already told Lan Wangji, some time ago, that A-Yuan has forgotten the Burial Mounds, everything before his life at the Cloud Recesses. The fever had effectively burned a hole right through his memory. Nonetheless, the boy does remember Lan Wangji, and asks for him every so often.
Lan Xichen brings A-Yuan to the jingshi on the first day, a green summer morning gummy with humidity. It is strange for Lan Wangji to see him interacting with A-Yuan; strange to think, that in these years of seclusion, his xiongzhang has come to know Wei Ying’s child better than he does.
“Good morning, Han-guang-jun,” A-Yuan says with careful enunciation, and Lan Xichen smiles and pats his head as if to commend him.
The title almost feels too formal, coming from A-Yuan, and Lan Wangji almost opens his mouth to gently correct him, but blanks at an alternative. What can he ask A-Yuan to call him? Lan-gege? Baba? A-Yuan had tearfully called him “a-die” once, but that would not be appropriate or correct. No, nothing else fits.
“I will leave you two to enjoy your time together,” Lan Xichen says, in pleasant tones, and he slips away.
Lan Wangji keeps A-Yuan’s small hand in his as they make their way slowly toward the back mountain. Though he rarely leaves the jingshi, this outing has a purpose. He had begged his xiongzhang to care for the rabbits while he was bedridden, and though his disapproval had been clear, Lan Xichen had agreed, and had instructed a few of the juniors to feed the rabbits every day and to not question this singular exception of the rules.
It is slow going, though. It isn’t often Lan Wangji travels beyond the jingshi, and every few moments, he has to stop and gasp through the pain, through the throb of his scars as A-Yuan waits patiently, gripping onto his hand.
“Zewu-jun says gege hurt his back,” A-Yuan says, watching him with a bright, careful curiosity.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji manages, and gently tugs A-Yuan forward again so they can walk together. “Some days, it hurts more than others.”
A-Yuan seems to reflect on that for a moment, before he asks, “Walking hurts it?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji admits.
“Then we sit?” A-Yuan suggests.
“Soon, we will,” Lan Wangji answers.
The rabbits have grown, both in size and population. There are at least twenty-five now when he and A-Yuan reach them, picking among the grasses. A-Yuan’s eyes widen with shocked delight when he sees them. He turns his face up to Lan Wangji with a fierce but dubious hope, as though he’s uncertain of what he’s allowed.
“Have you ever seen these rabbits before, A-Yuan?” Lan Wangji asks him, and A-Yuan shakes his head, chewing on one of his fingers as he turns back to watch the rabbits with wide eyes.
Lan Wangji guides them forward, and the rabbits don’t scatter at their arrival. No doubt the juniors have spoiled them into a lazy indulgence, to where they’ve lost their more primal instincts and can welcome the presence of humans.
Despite the twist of pain in his back, a scream of it that leaves him shaking and sweating, Lan Wangji gently hefts A-Yuan up to deposit him in the fluffy pile of rabbits. A-Yuan shrieks with overjoyed laughter, wiggling and flailing among the rabbits as they skitter away, spooked by the shrill noises and by the introduction of a small child into their peaceful existence.
Lan Wangji’s face aches, and he realizes he is smiling for the first time in three years.
He teaches A-Yuan how to gentle his voice, how to be as quiet as possible so the rabbits will trust him and come near, to eat carrots out of his tiny hands. Then, exhausted, he sits on the nearest grassy incline, content to watch A-Yuan play with the rabbits and feed them in silence.
After a while of this, A-Yuan approaches him a little shyly, interested in his attention.
“Han-guang-jun,” A-Yuan says, still careful with the syllables. He reaches out to touch the headband, and on reflex, Lan Wangji flinches. “Zewu-jun has a pretty one too. What is it, gege?”
Ah, so A-Yuan is still too young to have been taught this. Lan Wangji is strangely pleased to be the one to explain it.
“Forehead ribbon,” he answers. “One day, you will also have one. But you can never touch any headband that is not your own.”
A-Yuan obediently retracts his hand.
“Why?” he asks.
How to explain this to a child? How had it been explained to him? Lan Wangji hesitates, then answers, “The headband means to regulate yourself. It is only for your family to touch.” He swallows around a jagged-glass feeling in his throat before he concludes, “And your soulmate.”
“Soul-mate,” A-Yuan echoes, enunciating it carefully. “What’s that?”
Ah, Lan Wangji has missed being around children. It has been so, so long. He has a special fondness for their endless questions, and he can tell, even this young, that A-Yuan is exceptionally bright for his age. Wei Ying would be so proud to see him, he thinks, with a shudder of anguish.
“A soulmate is a special person who is meant for you in this world,” Lan Wangji says. His voice sounds rough even to his own ears, and A-Yuan seems to track the emotion, observing it like he would an insect trapped in a jar.
“What’s this, gege?” A-Yuan asks in the same tone as before, and this time, he reaches for Lan Wangji’s wrist.
Too abruptly for the situation, too harshly for a child’s understanding, Lan Wangji rips his hand away, and A-Yuan freezes, as if stunned. He stares at Lan Wangji with big eyes, his lower lip starting to wobble.
“I am not angry,” Lan Wangji assures him before any tears can fall. “Shh, A-Yuan, shh. I am not angry. This is another thing not to be touched.”
A-Yuan sniffles wetly, but seems appeased by the soft tones, to know Lan Wangji is not upset with him. In a thick voice, he asks, “Why?”
“The thread is also for your soulmate,” Lan Wangji says. This, he truly is too exhausted to explain. “You will know when you’re older.”
A-Yuan frowns, his lower lip jutting. “Zewu-jun always says that.” Then he adds, “Zewu-jun has one too. How come Hanguang-jun’s is a different color?”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes, breathes through his nose. Then he says, “A black thread means your soulmate is gone.”
“Gone,” A-Yuan repeats, his brows furrowing into a tiny frown. “Why is gege’s soulmate gone?”
Lan Wangji swallows at this question, the pain of it stabbing into his chest like a sharp object embedded there, like gravel or a broken tooth. The reason, he wants to tell this child, is senseless. There is no reason at all for why Wei Ying shouldn’t still be alive in the world, raising A-Yuan himself, watching him grow older and more brilliant each day. No reason at all, other than that Lan Wangji had failed him.
“When you are older,” he says, gently, and A-Yuan fully pouts at him, his lower lip sticking out. Surely he has been told not to pout by his seniors, but the expression is so Wei Ying that Lan Wangji cannot chide him. He feels his heart sink painfully in his chest, then soar like a kite caught on a breeze.
For a long time, Lan Wangji had thought the black thread was all that he had left of Wei Ying. He has forgotten, in his seclusion away from A-Yuan, that there is one other person, alive in this world, who Wei Ying had shaped before he’d gone. Who had known what it was to love him. His throat feels as tight as a drum.
“Oh,” A-Yuan says softly, and reaches out to put a hand on Lan Wangji’s cheek. “Why is gege crying?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Wangji watches A-Yuan play quietly among the rabbits until he can take the sitting no longer, and he walks A-Yuan back to the jingshi on shaky legs. They are quiet the whole way, and when they return, Lan Xichen is waiting for them on the porch with a small smile and his hands clasped behind his back. Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan goodbye, and his xiongzhang leads him away by the hand.
“Gege, can I come back to play with the rabbits again?” he hears A-Yuan ask Lan Xichen as they go.
Later that night, after their evening meal, Lan Xichen tells him, “Wangji, you seem happy.”
His eyes are bright, more so than Lan Wangji has seen from him in a long time. He looks hopeful.
“Spending time with A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji answers, carefully. “It was...good.”
“I’m glad,” Lan Xichen says. “I think you will both be good for each other. I know he has missed you.”
“Twice a week,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “If you can arrange it. If I can see him...twice a week, that would be better.”
Lan Xichen takes a deep, measured breath. Lan Wangji knows that arranging even a weekly meeting with A-Yuan had likely been a carefully negotiated battle with shufu, but he is too desperate not to ask.
“I will need to ensure it does not interfere with his studies,” Lan Xichen says slowly. “A-Yuan is nearly old enough to begin regular classes. Shufu will not like it. Neither will the elders.”
“I know,” Lan Wangji says.
“But I will try,” Lan Xichen says, and Lan Wangji lowers his head in thanks.
◈ ◈ ◈
Slowly, slowly, like the melt of a glacier, Lan Wangji’s wounds heal.
If only it were so easy, so automatic to heal beyond flesh, he thinks often. He thinks about the steady internal motions of his body, its organic rhythms continuing outside his awareness. The miracle of skin knitting itself back together, scabbing over and ripping and scabbing over again. He thinks of the unconscious churn of his heart, which keeps beating even as his more proverbial one has long gone from this world. He thinks of his qi, which requires more conscious focus to cultivate, but nonetheless flows within him as a natural bloodstream.
Everything else heals, except Wei Ying’s absence. It remains a ragged, gaping, bloody hole inside him that skin and bone cannot graft over. He is not sure he wants it to. Other than the thread and A-Yuan, his grief is all he has left of Wei Ying. To close that wound, he thinks, would be to lose him entirely, so he keeps it flayed open.
The moment his imprisonment is lifted, Lan Wangji returns to the Burial Mounds a final time to seek answers — for remains, a response through Inquiry, anything at all that could inform him of what had happened to Wei Ying in those final days. To live, not knowing, is a more agonizing burden than whatever ugly truth could be revealed.
But Lan Wangji finds nothing but ash and the bones of strangers, the seething resentment of the dead, and, when he plays Inquiry, an empty and ringing silence.
He does not know why he had dared to hope, but there is no sign of Wei Ying.
The end of his seclusion and the eventual healing of his wounds mark his reentry into the cultivation world. Staggered at first, and then more steadily, Lan Xichen hands Lan Wangji tasks and assignments to aid with sect leadership. Once he can move without his wounds reopening, without needing to pause to reel and gasp for breath, Lan Wangji takes on night hunts with a renewed fervor. Night hunts are wholly distracting; they are purposeful.
They are also a means to keep a pulse on odd events and occurrences. Demonic cultivation had not died with Wei Ying, and has in fact flourished from his legacy. Lan Wangji takes dozens of hunts involving demonic cultivation, and they are never Wei Ying, but each time, the grief wound howls with a hope he cannot stamp out, no matter his rationalizations.
◈ ◈ ◈
It’s on one of these night hunts in Jiangling, six years and two hundred and seven days after Wei Ying’s death, that Lan Wangji has the misfortune of encountering Jiang Wanyin for the first time.
It is not unusual that cultivators from different sects overlap on night hunts; it is even less unusual that Lan Wangji would run into Jiang Wanyin during a hunt so close to Lotus Pier. Still, it’s an unpleasant shock to see that particular face, its familiar scowl and sharp lines that have only hardened with the passing years.
The last time Lan Wangji had seen Jiang Wanyin, it had been on a battlefield. His face had been contorted beyond recognition as he had screamed threats at Wei Ying, clutching his dead sister. He had screamed that he would kill Wei Wuxian for what he’d done.
Lan Wangji has heard various news of Jiang Wanyin over the years, the more he reacclimates to life in the cultivation world — the usual whispers of his involvement in the death of the Yiling Patriarch, but also his current endeavors to ensure, in the case Wei Wuxian returns, that he stay dead.
That evening, Lan Wangji should have foreseen, by the cluster of familiar purple hanfus outside the inn, that there would be danger, but he had not. He had walked in despite this observation, and his eyes had landed immediately on the sharp-edged figure of Jiang Wanyin, drinking a jar of liquor alone at one of the tables.
Before Lan Wangji can slip away, up to his rooms undetected as he would prefer, Jiang Wanyin’s eyes land on his and snap wide. His face hardens before a harsh, mirthless smirk curls up against his cheek, the curve of a knife.
Lan Wangji certainly can’t leave now that Jiang Wanyin has seen him and intends to make a confrontation of this. He holds his head high, rooted to his place as Jiang Wanyin stalks across the inn toward him, his violet cloak billowing behind him with each thundering step.
“Lan er-gongzi,” Jiang Wanyin says as he approaches, and does not bother to salute him. “What an unhappy surprise to see you here.”
“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji replies, then nothing else. He does not trust himself to speak. Jiang Wanyin’s proximity has brought a long-banked rage bubbling to the surface, a simmer low in his throat. He is unsure yet what it will prompt him to do.
“What an honor that Yunmeng is blessed with Hanguang-jun’s presence,” Jiang Wanyin says through his teeth. “What has our lowly Jiangling done to deserve such grace?”
Lan Wangji hates him. He does not hate many people, assuming an indifference toward most, but this buzzing scorch of loathing suddenly chokes him, almost frightening in its fervor. Frightening, because he could kill this man where he stands and feel no compunction for it. He could kill this man where he stands and enjoy it.
“Night-hunt,” Lan Wangji says, his lips hardly moving. He keeps his expression entirely still, each facial muscle frozen. “Passing through.”
“Such few words for an old friend?” Jiang Wanyin mocks. “Lan er-gongzi, you used to be so chatty! I thought we could have a drink together, reminisce about our old days.”
The words are an unintentional echo of those Wei Ying had said to him so long ago, earnest and sweet, upon their reunion in Yiling, and there’s an ache in Lan Wangji’s jaw, the crunch of his teeth grinding in his ears. He holds his tongue. He just needs to weather Jiang Wanyin, like an acid rain, and then it will be over.
“I hear interesting things about Hanguang-jun these days,” Jiang Wanyin says, baring his teeth into a sneer. “How he appears in the middle of chaos, even in the most remote of places. Could it be that he’s searching for someone in particular?”
“I too have heard interesting news of Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji replies, a venomous strike before he can stop himself. “That he hunts, captures, and murders anyone who resembles his former sect brother. Tell me — was killing him once not enough?”
Lan Wangji hears Jiang Wanyin’s teeth snap together at the same time Zidian crackles to life, a vicious thrum between them. Some of the patrons nearby scatter away from them with sounds of alarm.
“Ah, so Hanguang-jun is chatty today,” Jiang Wanyin spits out. “Very well.”
Lan Wangji does not move at the threat, just keeps his hand sealed tight to Bichen. He has no fear of Zidian, and even less of Jiang Wanyin.
Jiang Wanyin’s gaze falls to Bichen, then catches on the red ribbon around his wrist. His expression cycles abruptly through several emotions: disbelief, then a white-hot fury, then a slow, cold scorn.
“So it is true,” Jiang Wanyin says with an ugly laugh. “That you wear the fucking hair ribbon. I thought it was some insipid rumor that bored maidens had spun up.”
Lan Wangji tightens his hand over Bichen, holds steady. Jiang Wanyin will attempt to strike where it hurts the most, as is his way, but Lan Wangji has long been impervious to such blows. He curls around the claim to his grief as armor, as possessive as a wolf with its young. He clings to it with a teeth-bared animalism.
“I suppose you think he belonged to you,” Jiang Wanyin continues, dripping with scorn, with contempt. “Given you were soulmates and all.”
Lan Wangji holds his head high, tamping down on the tremors of rage that threaten to show on his face, in his hands. He will not let Jiang Wanyin, this broken, petty, bitter child of a man, provoke him into discomposure; to ever make Wei Ying out to be less to him than he was. He has long been mocked, derided, judged, punished for his loyalty to Wei Ying, by nearly everyone he can think of. This is no different.
However, if Lan Wangji has a sensibility of words that can cut Jiang Wanyin to bone, his ability is well-matched. Like the practiced slip of a blade, neat between two ribs, Jiang Wanyin says then, with a curl of his lip, “I don’t know why you still wear white, when he died before he ever loved you.”
Lan Wangji does not move consciously. He only knows that one moment he’s motionless, and the next, the whetted tip of Bichen is digging into the beating point of Jiang Wanyin’s jugular, a red aura clinging to the corners of his vision.
A wild light dances in Jiang Wanyin’s eyes as his chest heaves with adrenaline, his features lit a ghoulish violet by the crackling glow of Zidian. His mouth curves open into a joyless, fervent laugh. “ Good ! I’ve always wanted a real fight with you! Go on, then, Lan er-gongzi — kill me.”
Lan Wangji feels his own lip curl as he fumes, Jiang Wanyin at the end of his blade. It would be so easy to end this man. To avenge Wei Ying’s every hurt by Jiang Wanyin’s hand.
The moment stretches on and on, interminable.
“No,” Lan Wangji says at last. He withdraws his sword, ignoring the bizarre flash of disappointment that twists across Jiang Wanyin’s features as he does. “I think you should live, Jiang-zongzhu.”
In his words is an unspoken sentencing that Lan Wangji knows will not go unmissed. Sure enough, Jiang Wanyin’s face twists, a rigid mask of rage as Lan Wangji turns to leave.
“Who are you to pass judgment on me, Lan Wangji?” Jiang Wanyin screams at his retreating back. “He was never yours!”
As if Lan Wangji needs reminding. Although he knows it was Jiang Wanyin’s very intention, those words nestle under his skin and remain, ringing in his ears for the rest of the night.
◈ ◈ ◈
The earth turns, season by season and year by year, and Lan Wangji follows, as he must.
The world without Wei Ying is the same as before, it seems, for everyone except Lan Wangji. He sees Wei Ying’s absence in everything, every day, as the rhythms of life whir on without him. For example: Sunlight remains, but its warmth is gone. The springs and summers in the mountains hum with greenery and vibrance, but Lan Wangji feels nothing but perpetual winter, a curious and austere deadness. The fact that the world can maintain its cadence of life without Wei Ying seems strangely absurd. The fact that Lan Wangji is expected, also, to live in the world without him, is even stranger.
But he does live, due to lack of alternative. He raises A-Yuan, teaches disciples, continues to lead night hunts, and maintains his relationship with his uncle and brother.
The black thread on Lan Wangji’s wrist is his only remaining tether to Wei Ying. The only physical proof that he had existed and been loved at all.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Wangji’s sense of timekeeping over those years relies primarily on Sizhui. His triumphs, his tears; the progress of his lessons, his first friends who become his best friends, his successes and his scraped knees alike. Perhaps to compensate for his own parents’ absence, Lan Wangji firmly ensures his presence in Sizhui’s life is never in question. He is not a smothering person by nature, nor an openly demonstrative one, but he nonetheless involves himself in each sphere of Sizhui’s life: his cultivation training, his guqin lessons, his swordplay. Eventually, his shufu gives up on visibly airing out his disapproval about it, and lets Lan Wangji do with the child what he will.
After a few years of A-Yuan’s peerless education, the murmurs and rumors abate entirely, and A-Yuan’s Wen surname disappears from the Lan sect’s intrigue like a mist. Only Lan Wangji, his xiongzhang, and shufu know the truth.
When he is fifteen, Lan Yuan takes the courtesy name Sizhui, as well as his sword and jade key. He leads his first night hunt, a small yaoguai case close to home, and then two. Then ten.
By the time they receive a report of a dark presence at the manor of a non-cultivational sect in Qishan, Sizhui has led more than twenty hunts without help from Lan Wangji.
“Be careful,” Lan Wangji tells him before Sizhui and the rest of the juniors set off. “Do not take risks. If you find trouble, set off the flare and I will come.”
Sizhui nods along to each word with an unresentful patience, although they both know he has no need of Lan Wangji’s advice. Lan Wangji does not need to give it, but finds himself compelled to anyway, based on a deep and simmering feeling of...anxiety, for lack of a better word. He of course trusts Sizhui’s abilities implicitly — he is the most skilled of his peers — but the concern never abates. This, Lan Wangji has discovered many times over, is fatherhood.
“Go,” Lan Wangji tells Sizhui gently. “Do well.”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui replies with a quick bow, and with the rest of the juniors in tow, he sets off for Mo Manor.
◈ ◈ ◈
Sizhui and the rest of the juniors keep the situation under control admirably for the first couple of days, but it quickly becomes evident that the haunting at Mo Manor is work for a more experienced cultivator, so Lan Wangji steps in to help after Sizhui summons him with the flare.
Sizhui is luckily intact after this tangle, as are the other juniors, though the same cannot be said for the Mo family.
Sizhui provides a full report to him afterward as they make their way toward Fojiao Village through the surrounding woods.
“It is strange, Hanguang-jun,” he tells Lan Wangji. “There was a man at the manor named Mo Xuanyu who disappeared after the fight. When we were trying to suppress the hand and the other puppets, he used a cultivation technique to help us I have never seen before. He knew all of our materials too; most others don’t recognize them.”
Hope flares bright in Lan Wangji, inexorable and fierce like a dying star, and with a weary practice, he flattens it under his heel.
After all, he has heard the name Mo Xuanyu before. The young man has a reputation in the cultivation world as a Jin bastard, a lunatic, a demonic cultivator and, perhaps most egregiously, a cut-sleeve.
“That was demonic cultivation,” Lan Wangji says to Sizhui. “I am sure you guessed.”
“I assumed it was,” Sizhui says with a thoughtful nod. “Well, I hope Mo-qianbei is alright. His family was quite cruel to him, from what we saw.”
They are shortly interrupted by an unfortunate encounter with Lan Wangji’s least favorite person, and his least favorite person’s nephew. The exchange between the two is mutually venomous — that is to say, Jiang Wanyin airs out verbal abuse while Lan Wangji maintains an impenetrable silence. He has no words for this man, now or ever.
Their juniors watch the conversation mutely from the side, as does a young man who Lan Wangji assumes must be the aforementioned Mo Xuanyu. The younger man and his donkey had somehow become embroiled in the inter-sect squabble over spirit nets, and he watches Lan Wangji the entire time with wide eyes. Lan Wangji is far used to being uncomfortably stared at, so he gives the man a cursory nod of acknowledgement, and Mo Xuanyu nods back, then tilts his head and smiles at him, curiously sweet and oddly familiar.
Lan Wangji stamps down that old, old feeling again, and heads off with the juniors to finish the hunt.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lan Wangji is examining spirit nets when, not long after that unpleasant encounter, he hears the distant rumblings, the far-off screams, that suggest his help may be needed again.
Hardly a quarter-shichen before, he had split off from the juniors and entrusted them with the ability to finish the night hunt. It should be a simple solve, especially with the Jiang and Jin sects’ involvement, but perhaps there had been an element Lan Wangji had been unaware of. The ground pitches beneath his feet as though from an earthquake, a rumbling that judders through the mountain.
He abandons the spirit net and begins to walk at a quick pace, heading back to where he had last left Sizhui.
It’s then that Lan Wangji hears the flute, a sweet whistling that carries on the mountain wind.
He freezes in his steps as though paralyzed — certain, so certain that he must be mistaken. But his ear follows the familiar array of notes, a melody he had only given to one other person in this world — years and years ago, a different lifetime, a boy holding the boy he loved as they lay dying in a cold prison under the earth, a boy in love holding on to the other until life returned to them.
Lan Wangji’s heart is running, running, running.
With a precarious disbelief, he raises one trembling hand. He blinks, blinks twice — his vision is blurred, prismed by tears.
He stares, uncomprehending of the sight after so many years of the same view.
On Lan Wangji’s wrist, the black string remains, but another has joined alongside it: a thread that is faintly but unmistakably red. It beats as surely as a heart.
Lan Wangji turns toward the music. His cheeks are wet and he cannot stop shaking. For the first time in thirteen years, the howling inside him falls utterly, utterly silent. There is only the dizi, and that old, old song of his heart.
With steady steps, Lan Wangji follows the sound until he is home.
When Lan Wangji wakes, it is from a nightmare.
This is not unusual for him, but still highly unpleasant.
He cannot recall the contents, now that he’s awake, as he rarely can. He only knows that Wei Ying had been there; there had been lots of blood; the stitched-up puncture of his grief wound had been howling like a ghost. Usually, those are the three constants of his nightmares, whether he happens to recollect them or not.
For a long moment, Lan Wangji stares up at the jingshi ceiling, his heart thundering around the acidic, sludgy feeling in his chest. After a moment, he holds up his wrist in the low dawn light, where the red and black threads wrap around his wrist, twins to each other.
Like his scars, he reflects, the black thread is a permanent physical reminder of the loss that preceded this current life of his. While he would, in a heartbeat, take back the years Wei Ying had been gone from the world, he does not regret either of these markings of that period of loss.
His xiongzhang, now in seclusion, also carries the black thread as he mourns Jin Guangyao. Perhaps this grief, the weight of this love, is the Lan curse, passed on from father to sons.
Fortunately, Lan Wangji thinks, as he turns to press a sleepy kiss to the top of Wei Ying’s head, his had not lasted.
It still sometimes feels like a false reality, one precarious breath away from shattering: waking up to Wei Ying tangled up in his arms, or splayed out across his chest and lightly snoring. Right now, Wei Ying is sprawled out naked on top of the covers, the top half of his body a crescent curve toward Lan Wangji. His mouth is slightly ajar, his face slack, lost in a fierce and deep sleep. It is one of Lan Wangji’s favorite assurances, to see Wei Ying resting with such intensity.
Wei Ying’s sexual preferences tend to veer rougher, as do Lan Wangji’s, and tonight’s everyday had been no exception, perhaps lending to Wei Ying’s deep sleep state. Dark marks from Lan Wangji’s teeth are a scattered purple mottling across Wei Ying’s skin in the low gray light. For a moment, Lan Wangji lies there with a hand to Wei Ying’s hair, observing the perfect slim curve of his waist, the endearing dip of his navel, the soft, dark curve of his cock against his thigh. This new body is slightly different than the one he had initially loved, but as equally beautiful as the previous, simply for the fact that it’s a home to Wei Ying.
Lan Wangji leans down to kiss Wei Ying’s collarbone, and Wei Ying makes a snuffling sound as his lips smack a few times, and then he rolls over to burrow closer into Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji extricates himself with much difficulty, too restless to lie still anymore. His scars twinge, the tight skin pulling as he shrugs on an outer robe — they sometimes do first thing in the morning, stiff after the hours of lying still. Some days, he feels them hardly at all, and some days, they are agonizing — swollen or itchy or tingling, or all at once. Wei Ying never hesitates to offer a massage on the worst of these days, to knead healing ointment or soothing oils into his ridged skin with a gentle and careful attention.
The first time Wei Ying had fucked him — properly fucked him on his cock, not just with his deft fingers and defter mouth — he had kissed along the ruined expanse of Lan Wangji’s back, devoting careful attention to each ugly lash. Thirty-three brushstrokes of his mouth while Lan Wangji had rested his forehead on his forearms and shook apart and choked down tears. He couldn’t feel some of the touches, the nerve damage too complete. Lan Wangji had never thought this part of him could be submitted to any form of loving touch; it was almost beyond his imagining. When Wei Ying slid inside him after, he had never felt...more full. More loved, more fiercely joyful to be alive.
“I thought you would hate them,” Lan Wangji had murmured to Wei Ying, in the flushed and breathless after. He doesn’t simply mean their appearance, but their meaning.
“Ah, you know me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying had said, a hand floating up to brush hair off of Lan Wangji’s forehead. “I think scars are hot.”
Then, to Lan Wangji’s wry huff of laughter, more seriously, with a thumb fitted to the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth: “I’m in love with every part of you.”
An autumn chill has settled across the jingshi like a cold dew. Lan Wangji moves another log on the fire, then crosses back to the bed to wrap Wei Ying in blankets more securely. Wei Ying snuffs, shifts a little, but otherwise doesn’t stir, his mouth still fallen open.
Lan Wangji slips out to the front porch, leaving the jingshi’s sliding door open a crack behind him. There, he silently inhales, watches his breath leave him in a thin cloud. He lets the cold settle into the deepest places of his lungs as the world slowly rustles awake around him.
The flowers he and Wei Ying had gardened over the summer have started to die from the early frosts, but the lotus pond that they have painstakingly cultivated is in proper season. Soon, there will be seeds to harvest, to shell and to feed each other with their hands. Soon, the mountain winter will slither in from the north and freeze the pond solid, and then the spring rains will thaw it, and then summer will return again, where Wei Ying will roll up his trousers and stick his feet into the cool muddy water and beam at Lan Wangji on the porch with a sunlit and carefree joy. It is all ahead of them.
Suddenly there’s a press of warmth against his back, two arms slipping around his waist to hug his front. Wei Ying hooks his chin onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder, sighing sleepily into his neck.
Lan Wangji closes his eyes and murmurs, “It is early,” even as his own arms drift up to hug Wei Ying’s closer.
“Not tired,” Wei Ying says around an obvious yawn, the pop of his jawbone against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “Wanna spend the morning with you.”
Lan Wangji rubs his thumbs in circles on Wei Ying’s hands. “You should sleep, love.”
“I’m all good, I promise,” Wei Ying says stubbornly, and kisses the side of Lan Wangji’s neck. “What good is a bed without Lan Zhan in it, anyway?”
For a long time, they remain silent in this position, swaying lightly in place as ashen light breaks apart into color over the mountain. It’s possible Wei Ying has fallen asleep standing up, but his body warmth is a welcome shield against the dawn chill.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs into his skin. Ah, so he is awake. “You know how much I love you, right?”
A thick emotion gathers in Lan Wangji’s throat. Wei Ying has said it countless times by now, since that first time in Guanyin Temple — he has shown it in countless ways, in countless contexts, spoken and unspoken, but each time seems to flatten him anew.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, suddenly afraid to say more.
“Okay, well, it bears repeating,” Wei Ying says. “So: I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Lan Wangji brings Wei Ying’s knuckles up to his mouth to brush his lips against them before he turns and buries his cold nose into Wei Ying’s neck. Since they married three years ago, they are often open with physical affection like this, but Lan Wangji is not usually so demonstratively...demanding about it. Wei Ying takes the cue as though nothing is unusual, bundling him up tight in his arms and breathing out a contented little sigh.
Again, they remain like this for some time, until the rising sun grows warm against Lan Wangji’s back, the taut skin around his scars untensing. Wei Ying breathes into his hair with his eyes closed, then after another long moment, kisses Lan Wangji’s temple.
“I’m going to fight whatever is in your dreams,” he says, so serious and threatening about it that it almost startles a puff of laughter from Lan Wangji. “I mean it. I can find a way.”
“Will not be necessary,” Lan Wangji says, and then, for the sole purpose of flustering his husband, finishes, “Wei Ying is in my dreams.”
“Sweet talker,” Wei Ying grumbles even as he pinks and hugs Lan Wangji tighter. “And anyway, you say that as if I wouldn’t fight myself.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says.
“Although two Wei Yings fighting each other probably would be a certain dream of Hanguang-jun’s, eh?” Wei Ying teases, apparently awake enough to flirt.
Lan Wangji lightly thumps Wei Ying’s back but doesn’t deny it, warming into the sound of Wei Ying’s delighted laughter against his ear. To think he had ever gone without it, and for so long, is unfathomable; it feels like a life that happened to someone else.
But this is his life, now. His and Wei Ying’s — as it was always meant to be, since the day the red thread first appeared on their wrists.
He thinks they deserve it, after everything.
“Okay, sweetheart,” Wei Ying says with a sleepy sound, and pulls Lan Wangji back toward the jingshi with a tug of their thread. It catches the dawn light as fervidly as a lit coal. “Let’s get ready for the day, yeah?”
Softly, Lan Wangji says, “Okay,” and he tugs back. After another moment, he follows Wei Ying inside.