There is an intruder in Wei Wuxian’s tower.
It sounds absurd when he says it like that. His tower. It’s not his tower at all, really; it belongs to the Jins. Wei Wuxian is only a tenant here. A temporary resident.
(Can a life sentence count as temporary?)
That’s all a technicality, anyways. Wei Wuxian lives here, which makes the tower his. The man — tall and broad-shouldered, a darkening bruise on one sharp cheekbone where Wei Wuxian’s first swing with the iron cooking pan had landed — does not live here, and that makes him an intruder.
He must be strong, Wei Wuxian thinks, torn between admiration and petty irritation — the man had found the exterior trapdoor and kicked it open as easily as he might have poured a cup of tea. Wei Wuxian could barely shift a piece of furniture on a good day, and here this man was not even out of breath when he’d landed, elegant and nimble, onto the wooden planks of the tower floor. Then he’d looked behind him, out of the opening, as if ensuring he had not been followed.
He’d still heard Wei Wuxian coming with the iron cooking pan.
Wei Wuxian had still managed to land a solid hit to the side of the man’s head.
Now the intruder is passed out, face drooping down towards his torso. Wei Wuxian had tied him to the one chair in the tower, fast and nervous, unsure when this strange person would wake up again. He’d brought a sword with him, a proper cultivation sword, and Wei Wuxian would rather not find out how well the man can use it. His own sword was lost to him long ago: as things stand, his hair is the only weapon he has left.
That, and the iron cooking pan. But neither are very useful against a sword.
“D’you think anything is broken?” he asks Xiao Pingguo. The crow, perched on his shoulder, lets out an indifferent caw. “No, it’s only — he’s got such a pretty face, doesn’t he? It would be a shame to ruin those cheekbones.”
Xiao Pingguo blinks beadily at him.
“Aiya, you’re right, I shouldn’t care about that. What should we do now? Push him out the window? He’d really break some bones then.” Wei Wuxian taps his chin and circles the chair once more. The man’s hair is long and dark, a silky river running down his back. Wei Wuxian has a sudden, foolish urge to run his fingers through it. “Wake him up, then? See what he wants?”
“You’re no help,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. He steps closer to the chair.
The intruder is a Lan: the forehead ribbon and the white robes are a dead giveaway. Also, he’s gorgeous. Lans have always been unfairly beautiful, Wei Wuxian thinks. He doesn’t recognize this one, though. A Lan has never come to the tower before, or even to the Burial Mounds. It would be like seeing a fish on land: strange, inappropriate.
Then he feels it — a tug, a familiar thrum of energy. Something from a dream.
Wei Wuxian’s heart freezes in his chest. Half-dazed, as if his body does not belong to him, he reaches into the man’s sleeve, finds a qiankun bag, twists it open. There’s a little silk-wrapped parcel sunk to the bottom. Heavy. When he pulls it out and peels away the fabric, his hands are trembling. His legs have gone weak, boneless. He has to sit down. The floor is all he’s got; the tower only has one chair, and it’s occupied.
“Ah,” he says. It comes out like an exhale, more breath than word. The Stygian Tiger Seal is dark and small and pain-heavy in his palm. “It’s you.”
Wei Wuxian wishes he had some wine. He is too sober for this.
The Jins only bring him wine once in a while, and it’s never good wine. It’s always watery, weak, more fruit-flavored liquid than anything with a kick, and even then he has to beg for it. Wei Wuxian had never been a begging sort of man, but four years spent in a wasteland can change a person, he thinks.
He doesn’t care about the taste of the liquor, really. Not anymore. He cares about what the liquor can do. Wei Wuxian wants the wine to knock him out, dull the pain, make him forget — which he supposes the Jins have guessed, because they never bring him anything that works. This is part of his punishment. He can never forget anything.
The Jins don’t come to the tower often: once a month, perhaps, to bring a meager stockpile of food and to ask Wei Wuxian questions about the Stygian Tiger Seal. At first it had given him a gnawing, seasick sort of feeling in the pit of his stomach to know that he was helping the Jins with whatever terrible thing they were doing — but then the years started to pass, sludgy and molasses-slow, and he is so tired, sometimes aching too much to even leave his sleeping pallet. The seasick feeling has faded into something weaker, diluted. It’s always there at the corner of his eye, hovering just out of reach: anger, fear, a desire to fight back. He has no energy to seize it. He supposes this is intentional, too. In any case, he and the Jins had made a deal, and this was it. Wei Wuxian had known what the terms were. He is simply fulfilling his side of the bargain.
He doesn’t know if the Jins have fulfilled theirs. He’s given up on asking.
It’s terribly boring, here in the tower. The Burial Mounds have never been a popular tourist destination, so the occasional Jins are the only people he’s seen in nearly four years. They never talk to him more than strictly necessary, and he has no idea what has been happening in the outside world. Wei Wuxian is living in a stone prison, isolated from everything except the whisper of wind in skeleton trees.
He tries to keep track of the weeks, the years, but they blur together. There are days and there are nights; there are hours when the Jins are here and many more hours when he is alone. There is one window, too small to sightsee from comfortably, and nothing noteworthy to see outside of it anyways. After one year he’d managed to convince the Jins to allow him some paper and charcoal for drawing. Eleven months after that, he’d stolen some blank joss paper from a younger guard, new to his Yiling Laozu supervision duties and too worried about Wei Wuxian setting some fierce corpses on him to pay attention to his qiankun bag.
Foolish — Wei Wuxian can’t set fierce corpses on anyone. That would be breaking his side of the deal.
It’s nice to have the joss paper, even if there’s no cinnabar and he has to use his own blood. It was a pretty big stack, at the beginning, but it could go down fast if he isn’t careful. He rations it: one piece per week. Talismans keep his mind awake, working. When he can’t use the joss paper, he writes them in his head. That’s a nice exercise, too, to keep himself from going insane.
He might already be there. He doesn’t really know anymore.
He’d befriended a crow, which seems like a favorable piece of evidence for the insanity argument. He’d named it Xiao Pingguo, after the apple he’d been eating at the time. The crow seemed to like apples very much. It kept coming back after that — always the same crow, Wei Wuxian knew, because it was missing a claw on one foot. Damaged. Wei Wuxian knew about being damaged. He took a liking to the crow, and it took a liking to him, and now they are friends. Xiao Pingguo is just small enough to squeeze through the tower window, and it spends most of its time inside with Wei Wuxian now. One-sided conversations, always, but it’s better than talking to himself, Wei Wuxian thinks. He’s wondered, more than once, whether he could invent a talisman to make their communication easier. He’s already invented a corpse-raising seal and has magical hair, so anything is possible.
The Jins don’t know about the hair. No one knows, except Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing and Wen Ning, two people from a previous lifetime. The Before. Wei Wuxian tries very hard to not think about the Before at all. It’s a difficult undertaking when one is alone in a tower with only a crow for company.
If the magical hair had happened to anyone else, he thinks he’d be fascinated, studying and investigating and theorizing with an almost academic curiosity — but it had happened to him, and the thought of making himself into an object of study only makes him nauseous. Just as he doesn’t think about the Before, he doesn’t think about the hair, either. He ties it back with his red ribbon, which is starting to fray after so many years, and he ignores the way it drags behind him on the dusty floor like some sort of unfortunate cape. The king of the Burial Mounds, he could call himself. A throne of corpses. No one else wants this empire.
The Jins have never asked about his hair — why it’s so long, why he no longer tries to cut it. Perhaps they just assume he has become a wild thing.
Wei Wuxian tries to be a human, a not-wild thing. He sketches, and thinks about his talismans, and tells stories to Xiao Pingguo. He talks about Lotus Pier — the lotus blossoms on the lakes, the fireworks in the sky, the marketplace on the docks. He talks about Yunmeng during the Lantern Festival, when the night sky would light up with a thousand burning candles. He wishes, afterwards, that he had not told this story. He had loved the Lantern Festival. He will not see a Lantern Festival, in Yunmeng or elsewhere, ever again.
But Wei Wuxian, now, is used to this sadness. He wears it like a second skin, carries it around like an extra set of bones.
It is all very much the same until the man comes.
Just when the sun has risen high enough to shine its weak rays through the little window, the man wakes up.
Wei Wuxian is waiting for him, the iron cooking pan held tightly in one hand and Xiao Pingguo perched on his shoulder. Crows always look a little menacing, Wei Wuxian thinks — he hopes he cuts an intimidating figure now, with his crow and his cooking pan. He’s too skinny, not as strong as he used to be, and he doesn’t have a sword. But he has the Stygian Tiger Seal, tucked safely into one of his sleeves. He doesn’t need physical strength for that.
Now he adjusts his grip on the pan. “Who are you?” he demands.
The man blinks at him, runs his eyes up and down the length of Wei Wuxian’s body. They’re very pale, almost gold. “My name is Lan Wangji.”
Oh, he has a nice voice. Wei Wuxian squints. Lan — he’d guessed as much, but — “Are you lying?”
“No.” The man sounds almost offended by the accusation. “I do not lie.”
That did sound like something a Lan would say. “And what are you doing in my tower?”
“I assure you,” the supposed-Lan Wangji says dryly, “I do not want to be in your tower.”
Wei Wuxian bristles. The tower is small and cramped, he knows, and the Burial Mounds are not really a desirable neighborhood — but he’s tried to make the room tolerable, plastering his drawings all over the walls with sticking talismans. He hasn’t had a decent visitor in years, and the first interesting person who comes along — accompanied by the Stygian Tiger Seal, no less — is insulting his abode!
He raises the iron pan, preparing to swing it downwards again. “What are you doing in my tower?”
Lan Wangji’s pale eyes focus, unflinching, on Wei Wuxian’s own. “Fleeing.”
“From who?” Wei Wuxian asks, trying to ignore the strange shiver that has shot down his spine.
Lan Wangji is quiet for a moment. “Those who do not share my ideals,” he says at last.
Lans again! Can they never speak simply? Wei Wuxian uses his free hand to pull the Stygian Tiger seal from his sleeve, waving it in front of Lan Wangji’s face like a signal flare. “And why do you have this?”
Lan Wangji’s blinks again, faster. “You…” He glances over to his upturned qiankun bag. “You found it.”
Wei Wuxian nods, runs his thumb over the seal’s edge.
“You…” Lan Wangji repeats, then he closes his eyes briefly. “You do not know what you hold. Give it back.”
“I — no, I know what it is.” Wei Wuxian has an absurd urge to laugh. “Why do you have it? Are you with the Jins?”
If Lan Wangji is surprised that a recluse in the Burial Mounds knows about sect politics and necromancy weapons, he does a very good job of hiding it. “I am not with the Jins.” He falls silent, seems to steel himself. “I am going to destroy it.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart leaps into the base of his throat and he sucks in a breath, hopes it was quiet enough to pass undetected. The seal in his palm weighs barely more than a stone, but it tugs at the fringes of his mind now, a guest pleading for entry. His chest cavity, made vacant by his heart’s journey northward, twists painfully. Destroy it. That’s what Wei Wuxian was going to do with the seal himself, after all, before the Jins got to him and took it for themselves. That means — that means Lan Wangji is an ally, kind of. Could be.
“Destroy it?” he only repeats, his voice impressively steady.
“Yes,” says Lan Wangji, his jaw set. “It has been the cause of too much suffering.”
Wei Wuxian knows this, too. He’s heard the Jins gloating about it when they come by the tower every month, the ways they’ve used the seal to bolster their own power. He’d used the seal himself, for that matter: the dreams are a constant reminder of that. He feels strange, lightheaded. Lan Wangji is…
“So,” Lan Wangji says now, a little stilted. “Give it back.”
“You didn’t say please,” Wei Wuxian tells him — stupidly, foolishly; it’s the first thing that had come to his mind. He’s still rubbing his thumb along the sharp edge of the seal. It might cut him. He half-hopes it will, just to leave behind some physical, tangible evidence that this is happening.
Lan Wangji sighs, a tiny huff of air that might have been cute were his face not so stoic. “Please.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. He can’t tell Lan Wangji that he’s the Yiling Laozu, that he made the seal himself: that much is obvious. But if he gives it back, he also gives back his only chance of getting out of here. Who knows when the next non-Jin visitor will stumble in? It might be another four years. Or more!
“I think something brought you here, Lan Wangji!” Wei Wuxian grins and leans against the wall. “Call it what you will. Fate… destiny…”
“I’ll give it back,” Wei Wuxian says, ignoring him. “On one condition!”
Lan Wangji looks pained. “What is the condition?”
Wei Wuxian points at him with the iron cooking pan. “You take me to Yunmeng for the Lantern Festival.”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian nods. “I haven’t been there in a really long time, Lan Wangji! I miss it.”
“And you…” Lan Wangji hesitates. “You cannot go yourself?”
“Ah,” says Wei Wuxian. “Well. No.”
There is a lingering pause. Wei Wuxian does not elaborate. Lan Wangji might want to destroy the seal, and he might understand if Wei Wuxian says he wants the same — but if he knew that Wei Wuxian was the Yiling Laozu, he certainly would not take him beyond the tower. The Lans had not really agreed with the Yiling Laozu, back then.
If he can just get out of here — well, he can figure it out. Wei Wuxian is adaptable. He’ll think of something.
“Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian says sweetly, and bats his eyelashes. “Please?”
He can practically see Lan Wangji’s brain working, the moment he reaches a conclusion and sighs for the second time. “Very well.”
Wei Wuxian beams. “Then we have a deal!” He steps closer and sticks out his hand. “I’m Wei W— Wei Ying.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. The name sounds so nice in his mouth: warm and rich, a sunrise of a thing. That funny shiver goes down Wei Wuxian’s spine again. “Will you untie me now?”
Lan Wangji leaves the tower the same way he came up. Wei Wuxian, who doesn’t have a sword, has to get creative.
He’d declined Lan Wangji’s offer of a ride on the shiny, white-blue Lan blade. It was very kind of him, Wei Wuxian thought. Very chivalrous. But Wei Wuxian hasn’t done anything for himself in four years except befriend a crow and steal some joss paper, and he’s determined to make it down on his own.
It takes some thinking. Lan Wangji is waiting on the ground the whole time, one hand on his sword and the other fisted neatly behind his back, staring out at the Burial Mounds as if interested by the view.
(It’s not an interesting landscape. Wei Wuxian is an expert on the matter.)
He packs a bag first. He doesn’t have many possessions, but he does have an old qiankun bag, filched off of a young Jin cultivator who hadn’t even noticed the theft. He gathers his sketchbook and ink sticks and brushes, and all of the apples he has for Xiao Pingguo. The seal he keeps in his sleeve, pressed tightly against his skin. Wei Wuxian can feel the resentful energy radiating from it, clinging to him like the sticky sugar on a piece of tanghulu. It’s been four years; it feels like an old friend.
He wishes he still had Chenqing.
After much one-sided discussion with Xiao Pingguo, he settles for slinging the ends of his hair over a hook on the wall, then using it as leverage to lower himself down. He miscalculates, though, and ends up hovering ten feet above the ground, trapped between empty air and a bone-crushing fall.
“Ah, fuck.” He’ll need help after all, if he wants to keep all of his limbs intact. “Hey. Uh, Lan Wangji —”
He looks down, and Lan Wangji is already looking back. He’s standing right beneath the tower, chin slightly raised to meet Wei Wuxian’s gaze. The Burial Mounds are so grey, and Lan Wangji’s robes are so white, and he looks — he looks bright, and brilliant, and even beautiful.
It’s been a long time since Wei Wuxian saw someone who was beautiful. He’s never seen anyone as beautiful as Lan Wangji.
He lets go of his hair.
Wei Wuxian has dreams of falling. Nightmares, really. Always the same one: plummeting from a sword, the cold air rushing past so quickly it drowns his screams. Landing on cold, cold earth. More screams, not his own.
This time, he falls differently. He lands in someone’s arms.
Wei Wuxian blinks. “Lan Wangji?”
“Next time,” says Lan Wangji, “come down properly.”
There will not be a next time. Wei Wuxian just laughs and pokes at Lan Wangji’s chest, a firm wall of muscle. “What a strong man you are, Lan gege! How noble, to catch me when I was so weak and vulnerable!”
“Nonsense,” Lan Wangji says stiffly, and he sets Wei Wuxian down on the dirt. There is a pause. “I have an elder brother.”
“Lan er-gege, then!” Wei Wuxian grins. “You saved my life, Lan er-gege. How shall I repay you? Do you like girls? There are many pretty girls in Yunmeng! I’ll help you get one.”
Lan Wangji is frowning at him.
“Well, think about it!” Wei Wuxian laughs again and throws himself to the ground. It’s just dirt, dry and dusty, but it feels like silk when it falls through his fingertips. It’s earth, alive in his hands. The tower had only given him cold, lifeless things, stone and dead wood.
“Lan Wangji!” He brandishes a fistful of the soil in the other man’s direction. “Look!”
Lan Wangji nods, his face impassive. “It is dirt.”
“I missed dirt,” Wei Wuxian says mournfully. He flops onto his back and looks up at the sky. He hasn’t seen the sky in four years, either. The sky in the Burial Mounds is always grey, but it’s a nice change of pace from the faded ceiling of the tower. “And air. Fresh air, I mean.”
Wei Wuxian turns, rolling over to rest on his stomach and propping his chin up in one hand. “You don’t talk very much, do you?”
“Gusu Lan has a code of conduct.”
“What, and speaking meagerly is one of them?”
He doesn’t seem to be joking. That’s fine. Wei Wuxian can talk enough for the both of them.
He chatters incessantly as he scatters another fistful of soil, examines a weird-looking rock, peels himself up from the ground. Lan Wangji gives him a judging sort of look, so he dusts his robes off, too. They’re more stitches and patches than cloth at this point and Wei Wuxian thinks it’s a lost cause, but he does it anyway, if only so he can tease Lan Wangji about it. And how do you keep those white robes so pristine, Lan er-gege? Are they a reflection of your chastity? Lan Wangji’s eyes are flinty when they flicker in Wei Wuxian’s direction, and Wei Wuxian laughs and laughs. It feels good to laugh, to mean it. Aiya, Lan Wangji, such a cold gaze! I’m only teasing you!
The Lans have always been a bunch of stick-in-the-muds, in Wei Wuxian’s experience. But Lan Wangji can’t possibly be as dull as the rest — the man had stolen the Stygian Tiger Seal, for fuck’s sake. He’d never said so explicitly, but Wei Wuxian isn’t a complete idiot. He can add two and two.
In any case, he won’t ask. There is an unspoken agreement between them, born out of this strange, reciprocal relationship. Lan Wangji will take Wei Wuxian to Yunmeng; Wei Wuxian will give the seal back to Lan Wangji. They won’t ask any personal questions of one another in the meantime. They are nothing more than a pair of ships passing in the night.
It’s a shame. Wei Wuxian thinks he likes Lan Wangji. Maybe they could have been friends, in another life.
He keeps talking as they weave through the copses of dead trees in the Burial Mounds, spindly branches bowing over their heads like arms on skeletons. He talks about a thunderstorm that had passed through the previous week, about a cut he’d just gotten on his hand from a splintered floorboard, about how clever Xiao Pingguo is. He talks even when he has to stop moving to crouch down and pull his hair free from where it had gotten tangled in a root or loose twig.
Wei Wuxian talks about everything, in fact, except for two things: who he is and why he lives in the tower.
That doesn’t leave much to discuss. He resorts to complaining about the tower itself, how drafty it gets in the evenings and how boring it is inside the walls. All he can do to pass the time is draw. He’s painted everything he can see from the little window, plus many things he can’t see at all. He’s painted his memories and his dreams, the lakes at Lotus Pier and the blossoms unfurling in the water.
“And the food, Lan er-gege!” Wei Wuxian cries, throwing an arm dramatically over his forehead. “I can’t wait to have a proper dinner. The lotus seeds in Yunmeng are the best in the world. The watermelons, too. My shijie used to make fried watermelon rind for me, and pork rib and lotus soup! There was a vendor on the pier who sold spicy buns. Ah, I wonder if he’s still there…”
There is a tightness in his throat, a feeling he’s learned to swallow down like bitter herbs after so many years away from Yunmeng. He can never think too much about the past; he can’t stop thinking about the past. He turns it over in his mind, polishing each memory until it’s smooth like a river-stone. He used to eat watermelon with his shidi and his shijie, sitting on the docks with their feet dangling in the water. His shijie had made pork rib and lotus root soup for him when he’d come to Lotus Pier for the first time, when he was small and sad and lost. The vendor on the pier used to give him those spicy buns for free.
With the sudden alarm of a man who has just burned himself on a fire that was meant to provide only warmth, Wei Wuxian realizes that he really had not thought this escape plan through. What if he goes back to Yunmeng and sees the vendor? What if he sees his shidi, or his shijie, or Jiang-zongzhu? He can’t see them. He has to go back to the tower having seen no one at all. No one can know he’s alive, or the Jins —
His mouth starts moving before he can stop it.
“Lan Wangji, I’m sorry about your face,” he says. “The bruise, I mean.”
Lan Wangji glances at him. “No need. I have a golden core. It will heal quickly.”
“Still.” Wei Wuxian rubs at his neck. “It was, um. Instinct. I wouldn’t have swung so hard if I knew you were trying to destroy the seal, ha!”
“You also wish to destroy it?”
Shit. He has to tread carefully. “I mean, it’s like you said, right? It’s caused a lot of trouble.” He swallows. It feels like a stone is lodged in his windpipe. “A lot of people have died because of it.”
“Yes. It is an unorthodox weapon.” Lan Wangji uses the hilt of his sword to push aside a branch drooping over the path. “But the deeds of a weapon depend upon its wielder.”
“Surely…” Wei Wuxian swallows again. His throat is dry as parched earth. “Surely this one has produced nothing but evil.”
He’s expecting Lan Wangji to agree at once, say something like Indeed, I was jesting. The Stygian Tiger Seal has been nothing but a terror since its creation. But there’s only a pause — a thoughtful one, like Lan Wangji is trying to choose his words carefully.
“Not so,” he says at last. “I did not always agree with the Yiling Laozu or his methods, but the seal was invaluable during the Sunshot Campaign. We could not have defeated Qishan Wen without it.”
“Oh.” The stone in Wei Wuxian’s throat shrinks a little. “But you think it should have been destroyed afterwards? And the Jins are abusing it now?”
Wei Wuxian feels lightheaded. “I think so, too.”
Another pause, only the wind in the trees and the gentle swish of low-hanging branches as Lan Wangji’s sword brushes them aside.
“The Yiling Laozu,” Wei Wuxian starts. He licks his lips, tries to calm his thudding heart. “Where is he now?”
“I do not know,” says Lan Wangji. “He has not been seen for several years.”
Wei Wuxian kicks a pebble, sending it shooting away into the undergrowth. A squirrel scampers up a tree, chittering angrily. Xiao Pingguo, back on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, caws in response.
He’d thought, all these years, that everyone hated the Yiling Laozu. How could they not? He’d left the righteous path; he’d forged a weapon capable of more destruction than anyone had thought possible. He had harnessed resentful energy and used it. The seal was more powerful than Wei Wuxian had intended, and that couldn’t be helped — but it was still him, in the end, who had forged it, who had brought it into the world at all. Without him, it would never have fallen into the Jins’ hands. Without the seal, he might still be in Lotus Pier, eating watermelon on the docks with his shidi and shijie.
Or he might really be dead. The war still would have happened either way, Stygian Tiger Seal or not.
But Lan Wangji — Lan Wangji doesn’t sound like he hates the Yiling Laozu. He almost sounds like he might have agreed with him.
Wei Wuxian can’t ask. That’s sailing too closely towards dangerous waters.
“The seal will be hard to destroy,” he says instead, then — quickly — “from what I’ve heard. Didn’t — has anyone ever tried?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, and he doesn’t say anything more.
Wei Wuxian knows the answer, anyways. He had tried.
He had failed.
The Burial Mounds are a constant reminder of that.
It feels good to leave them, this weight that Wei Wuxian has never quite been able to shed. They’ve been out of the grey, fog-riddled mountains for a while now, emerging into a forest that’s bright green and lush with wildlife. Massive oaks tower above them, and cones from pine trees litter the ground. Lan Wangji studiously avoids them; Wei Wuxian steps on each one he encounters, enjoying the crisp snap under his feet. It feels good to hear sound again, too: the twittering of birds, the shuffling of leaves. Even the crunch of a pinecone. The Burial Mounds had been very, very quiet, especially after Wei Wuxian got better at ignoring the voices clambering inside his head.
It’s lucky that he has a forest symphony to keep him occupied, because Lan Wangji really doesn’t talk much at all. He listens to Wei Wuxian attentively, offering an occasional hum or a nod in response to a story, but he never presses for details. He doesn’t ask why Wei Wuxian is in the tower or why he cannot leave. He doesn’t ask why Wei Wuxian doesn’t carry a sword, either. Maybe he thinks Wei Wuxian is not a cultivator. Fair enough, Wei Wuxian thinks — he isn’t a cultivator, not anymore, not in the way that matters to most people. If someone took him by the wrist, they wouldn’t feel any spiritual energy running through his meridians. Lan Wangji doesn’t even ask why the fuck Wei Wuxian’s hair is so long — which, if it were Wei Wuxian in Lan Wangji’s position, would have been the first thing out of his mouth. Are you cursed, or just lazy?
Lan Wangji does ask one question, though.
“You have a crow,” he says. It’s mid-afternoon; Wei Wuxian is crunching one of his apples, feeding Xiao Pingguo little pieces between bites. “Why?”
“Oh, Xiao Pingguo!” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully, giving the bird an affectionate pat. He nips at his fingers, annoyed at having been cheated out of another apple piece. “Xiao Pingguo is my companion. My lifelong partner, if you will.”
“Your lifelong partner,” Lan Wangji repeats.
“I get lonely in that tower, Lan er-gege,” Wei Wuxian pouts. “Would you deny me a little company?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t answer that. “Do you not get any other company?”
“Sometimes.” Wei Wuxian tosses his apple core into the forest. “But who needs it, when you’ve got a crow?”
There is an abrupt, violent ripping noise from behind him. Wei Wuxian spins around to see Lan Wangji shredding a piece of paper with his hands, obliterating it into scraps that float towards the ground like fallen leaves.
“Eh? What’s that?” Wei Wuxian sidles closer; Lan Wangji sidesteps him neatly. There’s another, identical piece of paper pinned to the tree just over his shoulder. “What’s this secret?”
Lan Wangji slaps his hand out of the way and shoves the second paper into the sleeve of his robe. “Nothing.”
“It doesn’t look like nothing. Aiya, Lan Wangji, let me see,” Wei Wuxian wheedles. “I’ve been so bored in that tower, you know, I deserve some excitement! Who am I going to tell about this? Xiao Pingguo? He’s already seen it! It’s old news to him!”
“It is nothing that concerns you,” Lan Wangji amends. He shakes out his sleeves, smoothing them back into crisp folds. “Come. We should reach Hezhou before nightfall.”
“What’s the rush? We still have a few days.” Wei Wuxian pouts. “I swear, you Lans and your schedules —”
There’s a rustling in the bushes. Wei Wuxian flinches, his heart dropping to his knees — what if it’s the Jins, and they’ve come to catch him? — and he takes an instinctive step backwards. Lan Wangji has tensed, too, his sword half-pulled from its sheath —
A pair of bunnies emerge from the shrubbery.
Wei Wuxian barks out a laugh, too loud and too sharp in the stillness of the forest. “Aiya! Lan er-gege, do you like rabbits?” He taps his nose. “I like them… to eat.” He laughs again, more genuine this time, at the scandalized expression on Lan Wangji’s face. “Kidding! I’m kidding. I am hungry, though.”
The rabbits sniff at the air, then at each other, before hopping back into the undergrowth.
“I have rabbits,” Lan Wangji admits. “At home.”
“The Cloud Recesses?” Wei Wuxian asks, and then immediately regrets it.
Lan Wangji looks at him then. “You know of the Cloud Recesses?”
“Ah, yeah.” Wei Wuxian tugs at a loose thread on his sleeve.
Lan Wangji is still looking at him. His gaze is heavy; it falls on Wei Wuxian like a blanket of snow. “Wei Ying,” he says, slow. “How long have you been in that tower?”
“Long enough,” Wei Wuxian says vaguely. “Lan er-gege, I really am hungry! Can we go somewhere? Get some food?”
A soft sigh, nearly inaudible. “All right.”
There’s a teahouse a few li away, in Yiling proper. The town hasn’t changed much since the last time Wei Wuxian was here: it’s the same dusty road and the same crowded marketplace, the same rickety old bridge spanning the river. The teahouse doesn’t seem to have changed, either — the squeaky stair at the entrance, the chipped red paint on the last character of the sign out front — but he’s always had a terrible memory. Nostalgia, romanticism, reality. Who is he to say which is which?
Inside, it’s full to bursting. Wei Wuxian feels a little dizzy, overwhelmed by the buzz of voices coming from every direction. Crowded is good, he decides. There’s a smaller chance of being recognized this way. He’ll blend in, one face among many. He’s made an irritated Xiao Pingguo wait outside. Wei Wuxian has been away from the cultivation world for a while, but even he knows it would still look a little weird to sit in a teahouse with a crow on his shoulder. The train-length hair is going to be unusual enough.
“Let’s get wine,” he says eagerly.
“I do not drink,” Lan Wangji informs him, nodding to a waiter.
Wei Wuxian pouts. “How boring, Lan er-gege!”
They’re seated at a table near the door. Lan Wangji reels off an order without even looking in Wei Wuxian’s direction — dumplings, some kind of tea, a jar of liquor. Wei Wuxian corrects him to three jars, earning a quietly incredulous sort of look.
Lan Wangji isn’t expressionless, Wei Wuxian thinks to himself, tracing patterns on the tabletop with one finger. He’s just — subdued. Slower to show his emotions. It’s like a puzzle, and Wei Wuxian has always liked puzzles. There’s still time to figure this one out.
He adds the incredulous look to his new mental inventory of Lan Wangji Expressions.
The food arrives quickly. The dumplings are still piping-hot, steam spirling up from the bowl and into Wei Wuxian’s face. His mouth waters. This is real food, dough that had probably been made just this morning and fillings that had been prepared only a few hours ago. The smell alone is almost enough to make him weep.
But first, wine. Wei Wuxian gleefully downs an entire jar in one go, then wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “You really don’t drink?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head, pouring himself a cup of the tea. “It is forbidden.”
“I think you’re missing out,” Wei Wuxian says, and starts on the second jar. “I haven’t had wine in — well, a long time. They don’t — I can’t get any brought up there. It’s been terrible, Lan er-gege! I hope I haven’t lost my tolerance.”
Lan Wangji is looking at him strangely, the same way he had been looking at Wei Wuxian back in the Burial Mounds, and then again in the forest. It makes Wei Wuxian’s heart feel funny, his sternum filled with a swarm of dragonflies. It can’t be the alcohol. Surely he hasn’t really lost his tolerance.
“Ah, don’t look so serious! I’ll be fine. I have a constitution of steel! I could drink six jars and not even feel tipsy.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji starts, careful, as if the name is a vase he does not want to break, “what has happened to you?”
What has happened to you?
It makes Wei Wuxian’s insides jolt, rearrange themselves to curl around the empty space in his torso. It’s not the question — he’s been asking himself the same thing for half a decade, picking at it like a scab he refuses to let heal. It’s the way Lan Wangji says it — like he knows Wei Wuxian. Like he’s noticed something is different, silt upturned from the bottom of a river, and now he’s concerned. What has happened to you? Like he is an old friend.
When he smiles, there might be blood in his teeth. “I’m not special, Lan er-gege. A lot of things have happened to a lot of people! I’m no different.” Wei Wuxian shoves a whole dumpling into his mouth, effectively ending the conversation. “Fuck, this is good. Have you been here before? Or do you just have excellent menu-picking skills?”
“The menu is very small,” Lan Wangji says, which is not an answer to either question.
“Too humble.” Wei Wuxian wags a finger at him. “Learn to brag, Lan er-gege! Have some pride!”
“Excessive pride is forbidden.”
Wei Wuxian was wrong. Lan Wangji is a stick-in-the-mud, too. He pinches another dumpling between his chopsticks; it’s halfway to his mouth when his hands go slack and it falls back into the bowl. “Ah, fuck — I don’t have any money for this.”
“I have enough. I will pay.”
“Aiya,” Wei Wuxian says awkwardly, setting the wine jar back on the table. “I can’t let you do that.”
“Eat,” says Lan Wangji, his voice firm, as he slides the plate of dumplings across the table. “Replenish your strength.”
The funny feeling is back. That swarm of dragonflies. “Okay.”
A comfortable silence descends. Wei Wuxian’s chopsticks clink at the ceramic bowl; he can hear his own throat working noisily as he swallows the wine. It’s not great liquor, really. The old Wei Wuxian would have lamented the quality for fifteen minutes before he drank a single cup. This version of Wei Wuxian, though — he hasn’t had proper alcohol in a lifetime, and this, now, tastes good enough to be served at a deity’s banquet table.
He starts to notice the whispers.
Over there, with the man in black.
A chill is creeping up Wei Wuxian’s spine, tingling like an old scar. He’d been so preoccupied, worrying about the possibility of himself being recognized — he hadn’t even thought —
Lan Wangji has noticed the whispers, too. His shoulders have gone stiff, his fingers wrapped around his teacup so tightly it might shatter at any moment.
“I think,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, setting down his chopsticks and sliding one hand into his sleeve, “we should go.”
There is a pulsating, syrupy-slow pause, just before the talismans activate, during which Wei Wuxian looks across the table and sees the genuine expression of surprise on Lan Wangji’s face.
A loud bang, an outpouring of smoke: the teahouse is filled with it. Customers shout and cough, yelling for their companions to get up and do something, damn it! Wei Wuxian reaches blindly across the table and finds something solid and warm; he seizes Lan Wangji around the wrist and hauls him in the direction of the door. Smoke pours out in their wake. Lan Wangji is just behind him, sword flashing white as it makes contact with someone else’s blade, a harsh clang of metal on metal. Wei Wuxian lingers at the threshold, fingers curling around another talisman and wrangling their options — run seems prudent — while Lan Wangji neatly sidesteps another blow. In a lightning-strike moment he’s at Wei Wuxian’s side again.
“Are you —” all right, Wei Wuxian starts to say, but Lan Wangji grabs him by the waist and pulls him flush against his own chest and the words dissolve in Wei Wuxian’s mouth, dissipating completely when Lan Wangji lifts him onto that shiny, silvery-blue sword and they shoot upwards towards the clouds, his hair a banner fanning out behind them and Xiao Pingguo soaring at their side. It’s been a long time since Wei Wuxian was last on a sword, and he really should be thinking about important things — like the fact that the entire cultivation world apparently knows Lan Wangji had stolen the Stygian Tiger Seal from the Jins, and now he’s a wanted man because of it — but it’s hard to think about anything when he’s shoved up against Lan Wangji like this, smelling faint traces of sandalwood incense and feeling muscles beneath all those layers of silk.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian shouts, half-drowned by the wind. “Lan Wangji, I’m sorry, I should have realized —”
They should not have gone into a teahouse, had only gone because Wei Wuxian had asked —
“Do not apologize,” Lan Wangji says. His hands are gripping Wei Wuxian’s hip bones. “You asked. I agreed.”
“But you —” Wei Wuxian starts, and then he doesn’t get to finish, because he is suddenly lurching to one side as the sword spins in midair, both of them twisting along with it. He’s facing Lan Wangji now. If he leaned forward one inch more, he could press his head into the space beneath Lan Wangji’s chin.
And then he sees it: the bloom of blood across Lan Wangji’s chest, unfurling like lotus petals. There is an arrow lodged near his ribcage.
“Lan… Lan Wangji?” Wei Wuxian whispers.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. He tilts forward.
Wei Wuxian catches him by the armpits, staggering a little at the weight. He’s not strong; he hasn’t lifted anything heavier than a washtub in years. But the alternative is letting go, and Wei Wuxian can’t do that, will not even consider it as an alternative at all. The sword, though wobbly beneath their feet, is still moving, so Lan Wangji must still be conscious, at least stable enough to still use his spiritual energy.
The sword skims the treetops, comes perilously close to crashing into a massive ginkgo. It skips unsteadily over a river, narrowly avoids another copse of pines, and spits both of them out beside the water’s edge.
Wei Wuxian lands in an awkward half-somersault. His wrist aches from the fall. He can’t feel it as he scrambles across the grass towards Lan Wangji, who is lying crumpled and half-folded, the arrow in his chest rising up into the air like a gruesome flag. The front of his robes is already more red than white.
“Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji!” Wei Wuxian slaps Lan Wangji’s cheeks. They’re getting paler by the second. “Why did you do that, you stupid, foolish man — why did you move when the arrow could have hit me instead!”
Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. His head is lilting to one side, his breath coming in gasps.
“Lan Wangji!” Wei Wuxian shouts again, and he rips off his own outer robe to press it against the spread of blood on Lan Wangji’s chest. Panic is rising in his chest like a tidal wave, threatening to swallow him whole. He’s only just met Lan Wangji, and yet — “You need to stay awake!”
He has to take the arrow out. It doesn’t look deep; it doesn’t look like it’s hit the lungs — but if it’s hit the spine, if it’s lodged between some bones of the ribcage, he might not be able to find the arrowhead at all, and then —
Wei Wuxian grasps the shaft at one end and pulls.
It slides out with an unpleasant squelching noise, gets snagged on the red-stained fabric of Lan Wangji’s robe. The air is slick with the metallic scent of blood. Wei Wuxian digs at Lan Wangji’s collars, trying to get to the skin underneath, cursing the Lan sect’s inane devotion to six layers of clothing all the while. The wound is already mottled an angry purple-red, the arrowhead’s tip still buried in the center. Wei Wuxian yanks that out, too.
He curses again. “Fuck. Fuck!”
He thinks — absently, stupidly — that he wishes Wen Qing were here.
But she is not. Wei Wuxian has only himself, one hand to push his blood-sticky robe back over Lan Wangji’s torso while the other scrambles uselessly in his qiankun bag. He didn’t bring any medicine, doesn’t even have any medicine —
Xiao Pingguo rasps out a caw into the stillness and flicks over another qiankun bag: pale blue, emblazoned with the cloud motif of Gusu Lan. Wei Wuxian scrambles in that one instead, listening to the slow rattle of Lan Wangji’s breath, and finds a neatly organized jar of medicinal herbs. None of them are strong enough.
“Lan Wangji,” he begs. “You can’t die here, you can’t leave me! Lan Wangji!”
“Lan Zhan.” The words are quiet, come out like an exhale.
Wei Wuxian’s hands are shaking, bloody at the palms, where he’s pressing the cloth to the wound. “Lan Zhan?” A stupid tear pearls at his waterline, hot and salty, before running a river down his cheek. “Lan Wangji, Lan Zhan, you need to stay alive! You need to take me to Yunmeng! You promised!”
Lan Wangji lets out a noise from the back of his throat, faint and strangled. “My apologies.”
“No! No sorry! Lan Zhan, you’re still gonna take me. You’re gonna make it. I’ll find some herbs, or I’ll — I’ll use my hair —” My hair. “Fuck. Fuck, Lan Zhan, I’m so stupid! I have magical hair!”
It’s the first time Wei Wuxian has ever told anyone that. The response is underwhelming: Lan Wangji has lost too much blood to have the reaction of a normal person. “Magic… hair?”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, half sobbing and half laughing now. “It has healing properties. Lan Zhan, it has healing properties! Do you have a song you like? Fuck, that doesn’t matter — you can get mad at me later for how bad my voice is, sorry —”
He has to fumble for his hair, and his hands are still trembling when he presses a tangled bundle of it against Lan Zhan’s chest. He’s never used it on an injury this serious — only little scrapes, bruises, most of them on the knees and shins of a child who cried whenever he tripped into the dirt. Wei Wuxian has never used his hair on himself, either — not even on the days when there was so much hurt he would pass out from it, thought he might die from it. If he died, then he died, he would think to himself. Maybe it was better that way. But it never happened.
So now he is here, kneeling in the dirt by a river with bloody hands, pressing the hair to Lan Zhan’s ribcage.
“Stay with me, Lan Zhan, it’s gonna be okay, just a minute more —”
The only songs that Wei Wuxian knows are folk songs, things he remembers from his parents. Too uncouth for Lan Wangji and his Cloud Recesses education, surely, but it’s all he has.
The bright moon rises over the river
It reminds me of my love, deep in the mountains
He is the moon walking across the sky
Do you hear me singing your name by the river?
He’s never gotten used to the weird glowing thing. Wen Qing said it was because the herb was using his hair as a substitute for a golden core, but that was just a guess. That doesn’t matter now, anyways — it only matters that Lan Zhan’s skin is knitting itself back together with every word, and there’s less blood coming up against Wei Wuxian’s hands. Lan Zhan’s face is regaining color, too — he’s pale but not quite so ashen when Wei Wuxian finishes the song and helps him sit up.
“That’s me,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to sound cheerful and failing completely.
“You…” Lan Zhan seems to struggle. “Your hair.”
“Yeah. It’s, um. Really something, huh? I never thought it would come in handy like this, though.” Lan Zhan still looks like he wants to say something, but can’t quite figure out what it is. Wei Wuxian has never seen him look so astonished, not even when he woke up in an isolated tower to find a strange man pointing a cooking pan at him. “Sorry about the song, it’s the only one I could think of.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says instantly. “You have a very nice voice.”
It’s so absurd, the nonchalance of it all — as if Wei Wuxian had simply been singing a song over some laundry, and Lan Zhan had happened to pass by and overhear it. Not like he’s just been pulled back from the brink of death, only to discover that Wei Wuxian had magical hair that glows when he sings. Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Zhan, and something inside of him crumples.
“Ah, fuck it,” says Wei Wuxian. “Lan Zhan, I’m the Yiling Laozu.”
Lan Zhan blinks, just once.
“So, uh. Clearly, he’s not dead. Surprise!” Wei Wuxian grins weakly, his arms raised in a sort of ta-da!
Lan Zhan’s mouth opens, then closes again.
“I know it’s a lot,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “It’s… well, it’s a long story.”
“We have time.”
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian’s grin slides away. “You really want to hear it?”
“If you are willing to tell it,” Lan Zhan says, and arranges his legs into a neat lotus pose. His voice is firm, steady. Fuck, the hair really works. He’s as intimidating as ever.
“You’re the one who just got shot by an arrow, so I guess I owe you a favor.” Wei Wuxian twists the end of his ribbon between his fingers. “You know about what happened at Nightless City.”
“Yeah. Well, before that…” He breathes in: once, slow. He’s never said this aloud before. Wen Qing and Wen Ning are the only other people who know, and they didn’t need to be told. They were there. “There was… an accident.”
Lan Zhan waits. Wei Wuxian should have known he wouldn’t be a vocal audience. It makes everything harder, somehow.
“The Wens got to my br— my shidi, and they took his golden core. It was my fault. I didn’t protect him like I should have. He’s the heir to Yunmeng Jiang, you know, and he — he can’t be without a core. I knew someone, a doctor, and I convinced her to —” He closes his eyes. The words stick in his throat. “Take my core, and give it to him.”
He hears Lan Zhan’s sharp intake of breath, is glad he can’t see the horror on his face that must be accompanying it. “Wei Ying —”
“During the surgery,” Wei Wuxian says, fast, “something went wrong. Wen Qing had never done something like that before, of course. What idiot would want to give away their core? I was the first, and we didn’t really know what would happen. I was barely conscious, but they said I was bleeding a lot.” He twists his ribbon again. It’s cutting off the circulation on his index finger: a dull pain, something to focus on. “Wen Qing gave me some kind of herb. I don’t know what it’s called. I never asked. It’s for really severe injuries. She didn’t know if it would work since I didn’t have a core anymore, but she thought I was gonna die anyways, so there was nothing to lose. But then I woke up, and I had magical hair.” He forces out a laugh. “Crazy, right?”
Lan Zhan doesn’t seem to find the story funny. “You —”
Wei Wuxian cuts him off again. If he stops now, he’ll never be able to finish. “It won’t stop growing, either. If I cut it, it just grows back twice as fast. It’s really inconvenient, Lan Zhan! I get rationed soap up at that tower.”
Lan Zhan waits again, apparently having guessed that anything he says will be interrupted.
“I dunno why it’s like that, really,” Wei Wuxian admits. “Wen Qing didn’t know either, and she was the doctor. She thinks it might be all the resentful energy, now that I don’t have a core to regulate it. Unstoppable hair growth! What a weird side effect. But the healing stuff comes in handy. It needs music to work, though.”
He stops talking, licks his lips, swallows. That’s the most he’s talked about himself… well, ever. It’s exhausting. He needs a solid twelve-hour nap now.
“And…” Lan Zhan hesitates, as if unsure whether Wei Wuxian will allow him to finish the sentence. “The tower?”
“The Jins wanted me to give up the seal.” The end of his ribbon is really fraying now. “I knew it was gonna be bad, Lan Zhan. The way Jin Guangshan was acting… it was gonna be like Qishan Wen all over again. But they ambushed me, and they offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse.”
“A deal,” Lan Zhan repeats. He’s frowning a little.
“The doctor who saved me. Wen Qing. Her and her family, they had nothing to do with Wen Ruohan. They were just doctors. Old people, mostly, and a couple of kids. But they were Wens, and the Jins thought they should die.” He picks at a hangnail now. “If I gave up myself and the seal, the Wens could live. That was the deal.”
“You sacrificed yourself,” Lan Zhan says, his voice strangely cracked.
“Um. Yeah. So I live in the tower now!” Wei Wuxian looks up at last. Lan Zhan is sitting ramrod-straight, his hands clasped in his lap. The bloom of blood is still on the front of his robes, oxidized to a wine-deep red. “And I’m still alive, but I don’t know why. Information, I guess. I know things about the seal that they don’t. Only thing is, I’m not allowed to practice demonic cultivation now. They took Chenqing when they locked me in the tower. I haven’t had a dizi in a really long time. I can still sing, though!” Wei Wuxian chuckles weakly. “Good thing, right?”
“But you…” Lan Zhan’s eyes flicker to the riverbank, where Wei Wuxian’s bag is still laying, upturned and half-emptied of its contents. “The seal.”
Wei Wuxian knows what he’s asking: why did you not fight me, when you saw that I had it? “Because you said that you were going to destroy it,” he says. “And I believe you. I want to destroy it, too.”
“You have tried before.” It’s not a question.
“Yeah.” He fiddles with his sleeve. “Just before — everything. It didn’t work. Obviously.”
“I don’t know what went wrong. I have a guess, but there was no way to test it and find out, once I didn’t have the seal anymore. And no way to destroy the seal, anyways, if I was right. I was alone by then.”
Lan Zhan nods.
“But that doesn’t matter anymore!” Wei Wuxian leans forward eagerly. “You know how to get rid of it?”
“Ah,” says Lan Zhan. “No.”
Wei Wuxian blinks. “No?”
“You… stole the seal,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, “and you don’t even know how to destroy it?”
Lan Zhan has the good sense to look slightly abashed. “I did not know when I’d get another opportunity.”
“Yeah, but…” Wei Wuxian waves his hands. “That’s not how you commit a crime, Lan Zhan! You need to have a plan for after the crime is committed!”
“Forgive me,” Lan Zhan says stiffly. “I am not in the habit of committing crimes.”
“Something that must be corrected!” Wei Wuxian bursts into laughter. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. You’re so easy to tease. Of course it’s a good thing that you are innocent and rule-abiding. Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.”
Now Lan Zhan stares at him, slow and surprised. “We?”
“I can’t let you have all the fun! The seal is my doing, anyways. It’s only right that I share destruction responsibilities with you. Two powerful, clever people such as ourselves should have no trouble at all.”
“Hm,” says Lan Zhan, not sounding entirely convinced about that. “Perhaps.”
“So, tell me.” Wei Wuxian shifts, relieving the crick in his knee. Lan Zhan is being really cool about the whole magical-hair-slash-sort-of-colluding-with-the-Jins thing, and it’s probably best to change the subject before he changes his mind about that. “Your theft! What’s the story, Young Master Lan?”
“There is not much to tell. I disagree with the Jins. I stole the seal.”
“That can’t be all,” Wei Wuxian pouts. “Tell me more! How did you know where it was kept? How did you get in?”
“My brother is close friends with Jin Guangyao,” Lan Zhan admits. “We often visit Koi Tower.”
“Ah. Insider’s intelligence, then.” He stretches out his other leg. “Does your brother know?”
“He will know now.” Lan Zhan avoids his gaze. “We have… discussed this. We do not agree. He thinks Jin Guangyao is honorable, and will prevent any further use of the seal.”
“Hm. Well.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t know a diplomatic way to say that’s a load of shit and your brother is nuts, but maybe it goes without saying. Lan Zhan seems to think as much, even if he’d never phrase it so crudely. “He comes to the tower sometimes — Jin Guangyao, I mean. He’s not as bad as the rest of them, I guess, but I don’t think I’d trust him. What kind of power would he have over his father, anyways? He can’t do shit if Jin Guangshan wants to use the seal for something dishonorable.”
“How bad are the others?”
“You said that Jin Guangyao is not as bad as the others who visit you. What do the others do?”
Lan Zhan’s face is carefully blank, but his mouth is tight, a thin line. He’s angry, Wei Wuxian thinks, surprised, and then — he’s angry on my behalf. Something crackles in his chest, warm and a little unsure, and he tries to shove it down. It’s only Lan Zhan being Lan Zhan, he tells himself — principled and noble, wanting to right wrongs. He is not special.
“That’s all you took from what I said?” Wei Wuxian wishes he could reach out and smooth away the furrow that’s appeared between Lan Zhan’s eyebrows. “It’s nothing to worry about. I’m still in one piece, aren’t I?”
The furrow deepens.
“Anyways, aren’t there Lan precepts against stealing, Lan er-gege?” Wei Wuxian grins, poking Lan Zhan’s arm. “You broke a rule!”
“Morality is the priority,” Lan Zhan says, reluctantly going along with the change in subject. He sounds as if he is reciting from a textbook — which, Wei Wuxian thinks, he probably is. “Uphold the value of justice.”
“Ah, so those cancel out the stealing?”
“You’re tricky, you know,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “You look so proper, like a model disciple. But you’re very good at loopholes. You’d be a good troublemaker, if you tried.”
“Of course I was. You have to ask?”
Lan Zhan nods. “I thought as much.”
Wei Wuxian flicks him once, right in the center of his forehead. “Ruthless,” he says. It comes out sounding fond.
That’s all right. Wei Wuxian is feeling rather fond right now. He remembers this about good wine: the first swallow always sent warmth crawling through his entire body. Being with Lan Zhan is like that.
“Anyways,” he says loudly, as if shouting will make those traitorous little thoughts go away. “You probably want to take me back now.”
“Back?” Lan Zhan repeats. “Back where?”
“To the tower, of course.” Wei Wuxian had thought that would be obvious. He’d almost gotten Lan Zhan killed, after all! Who would want to hang around a liability like that?
“I will not take you back. I promised I would take you to Yunmeng.”
“Yeah, but —”
“I do not lie,” Lan Zhan interrupts.
He doesn’t usually interrupt, either. He must really mean it. Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand it — doesn’t understand Lan Zhan, for that matter — but he’s learned enough by now to know that Lan Zhan is stubborn. There isn’t any use in arguing.
And so Wei Wuxian just smiles at him. The wine-warm feeling is back; it’s easy to do. “Yeah. You told me that before. Aiya, Lan Zhan, you’re too good.”
“Hn.” Lan Zhan stands up, turns away from him. “We will rest here tonight.”
“Okay.” Wei Wuxian feels as if he’s run halfway across the country in half a day, and has no objections. They’ll need a fire, though. It probably isn’t wise to make one when you’re two fugitives on the run, one of whom has just been shot at.
“Lan Zhan, do you have any blank joss paper? And cinnabar?”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan pulls them out from his qiankun bag.
Daylight is fading quickly, but it’s still bright enough to see by. Wei Wuxian settles down into the grass and draws the characters on the paper with careful, precise hands. It’s an old talisman, from another life — he hasn’t had the need to use it in the tower. Only in the Before.
Rain dripping down his face, his shaking hands —
Well. That was Before.
“Done!” He stands up, brushes the dirt from his clothes just to have something to do with his arms. His outer robe is still discarded somewhere by the pines, blood-stained from Lan Zhan’s wound. He’ll have to try scrubbing out the stains in the river. “Barrier talismans. Lan Zhan, if I set these, no one will know we’re here. We can sleep without worrying about getting murdered.”
“That sounds practical,” says Lan Zhan, perfectly straight-faced.
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth — to say what, he doesn’t know. You’re funny, maybe, or you’re different than I first thought. But none of the sentences seem quite right, so he shuts his mouth again and goes to set the wards.
They build a fire after that. There are fish from the river, speared onto sticks and cooked over the flames, and handfuls of mushrooms from the forest. It would be nice to have some chili oil, Wei Wuxian thinks, or some peppercorns — but the food is fresh, better than anything he’d eaten in the tower. Better still, because now he has someone else to eat with.
He is not particularly hungry, and he suspects Lan Zhan is not either. They both pick at the fish, stare into the campfire as if it will suddenly rise up to share the secrets of the universe. It’s quiet, save for the crackling of the flames and the occasional hoot of a night-bird. Even Xiao Pingguo, having found an acceptable roost in an oak, is quiet.
It’s almost too much for Wei Wuxian to bear.
“Will you get new clothes?” he asks Lan Zhan. “You still look very bloody.”
“I have extra in the qiankun bag.”
“Of course you do,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “Extra joss paper, extra clothes, extra money. Prepared for everything.”
“I had to be,” says Lan Zhan. His face is half-hidden by shadow, a fusion of light and dark. “I knew I would not be able to go home.”
He picks up a stone, turns it over in one hand.
“How do you feel? Your chest, I mean.”
“Fine,” Lan Zhan says, then corrects himself. “Nearly perfect. I imagine it will not even scar.”
“It had better not,” Wei Wuxian says, a bit peevishly. “What’s the use of having magic hair if it can’t even fix a little scar?”
Lan Zhan looks across the fire at him, his eyes glowing gold in the light of the flames. “Quite useful still, I think. I would certainly be dead otherwise.”
“Ah, don’t say that,” Wei Wuxian mumbles. “I don’t like it. It didn’t happen, did it? So let’s not bring it up anymore.”
A pause. “All right.”
“Good.” Wei Wuxian stares into the fire until he sees spots. “Lan Zhan,” he begins, almost embarrassed. “Why did you do it?”
“You know.” He pokes at a mushroom. “The arrow. You could have let it hit me. It was supposed to hit me.”
“It was very much meant to hit me,” Lan Zhan says, adding another piece of kindling to their fire. “The archer had terrible aim.”
“You know what I mean!”
“Wei Ying.” Why does his name always sound like that when Lan Zhan says it — as if he’s someone who matters? “I could hardly let you die for something I had done.”
“But I’m…” Wei Wuxian gesticulates wildly. “Well, me! I don’t matter. I could have died and no one would have missed me. Fuck, everyone thinks I’m dead already. But you, you’re important. You can’t go around dying whenever you please.”
“I have never been to Yunmeng.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Wei Wuxian wails.
“I am only going to Yunmeng because of you. If you died, I would not go at all. Do not say you don’t matter.”
“You can go to Yunmeng perfectly well on your own!”
“But I would not,” says Lan Zhan, and Wei Wuxian is going to throw himself into the campfire to rest alongside the mushrooms. “You matter.”
“You…” Wei Wuxian falters, then stuffs a piece of fish into his mouth instead of finishing the sentence. The years of solitude have clearly robbed him of his debating prowess. He’s still thinking about this, chewing his food sulkily, when another thought occurs to him.
“Back in the tower. You could have just killed me there.”
Lan Zhan sighs, a clear I thought we had just discussed this.
“No, really!” Wei Wuxian insists. “I don’t even have a core. You had spiritual energy — you had a sword —”
“You are upset that I’ve never taken the opportunity to kill you?”
“It’s not that, it’s just —” Wei Ying bites his lower lip. “Why are you being so good to me? You never had to agree to take me to Yunmeng. You could take the seal back whenever you wanted. I’m not strong enough to fight you.”
“You could use the seal to harm me, too. I do not know how to control it.”
“I would never do that!”
“Then you understand how I feel,” says Lan Zhan, and he returns calmly to his dinner.
Wei Wuxian gapes at him. “You’re ridiculous,” he says, accusingly. “You look so mean on the outside. Do you know that, Lan Zhan? So icy and cold, like your eyes could make water freeze. But you’re just soft on the inside, like a steamed dumpling. You have a dumpling heart.”
“If you say so,” Lan Zhan says.
“I do say so.”
The fire crackles between them.
“You seemed sad,” Lan Zhan says abruptly.
Wei Wuxian startles. “Me? When?”
“In the tower.”
“Ah.” He rubs at his thumb. “Well. I’ve been in there for a while. I guess I am a little sad. Lonely, mostly. Xiao Pingguo is very nice, but crows just aren’t like people.”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan is avoiding Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “And you asked me to take you away from there. It was a small thing, but I could do that. I wanted to help you. So I agreed to your arrangement.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. Lan Zhan looks up at him then.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” Wei Wuxian rests his chin on one hand, smiling. “I just wanted you to look at me. Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m really happy.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes soften at the corners. It’s not a smile, not really, but it's close. “I am glad.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart skips, rabbit-quick, and he stands up so fast that he sees black spots on the edges of his vision. “Let’s sleep, shall we? Don’t you Lans have some terrible schedule to keep?”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan stands up, too. “The wards will hold?”
“Yeah. I’ve used them before.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t ask when or why. Wei Wuxian likes him so much. “All right. Come here.”
The rabbit-skip again, faster this time. “Why?”
“To sleep.” Lan Zhan is pulling something from his qiankun bag. “I have a bedroll.” He looks up, suddenly hesitant. “We will have to share—”
“Oh, I can’t let you do that!” Wei Wuxian flaps his hands. “You were injured! Don’t give up your blankets for me.”
“Do you have blankets in the tower?”
“Some,” Wei Wuxian says lamely. He has one; it’s thin and fraying. The blankets in Lan Zhan’s hands do look very warm.
“Use the blankets, Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan spreads the bedroll onto the ground near the fire.
“Where — where will you sleep, then?” he asks, wavering.
“I do not need a blanket. Or I can meditate.”
“Shit, Lan Zhan, that’s not fair. It’s cold! I can’t take your blankets.”
“Then it seems we are at an impasse.”
Wei Wuxian tries to glare at him. He does, really, but the fire is still flickering and Lan Zhan looks very lovely in its light. Tired, too — there are faint shadows under his eyes. “Ugh. You’re so tricky! Do you know that?”
“We will share, then,” says Lan Zhan, serene, adjusting the blankets on the ground.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. “You win. We can share.”
The bedroll is really too small for two people, let alone two people of their heights. They have to squeeze together, shoulders bumping against one another. Wei Wuxian feels Lan Zhan stiffen a little at the first touch.
“Is this okay?” he whispers, shifting over to the left to put some space between them.
“It is fine.” A pause. “I am not used to touching other people.”
“Me either. It’s been a long time. Lan Zhan, you’re the first person to touch me in four years! Well,” he amends, “the first person to touch me kindly.”
Fuck, he had slipped up, mentioning that again. But Lan Zhan doesn’t press him for details. “You miss it?”
“Being touched? Shit, yeah. I thought I would go crazy at first.”
Another pause. “Come closer, then.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart stutters. “Closer?”
“If you want.” Lan Zhan is very still. “To touch.”
“Oh. That would — that would be nice.” Wei Wuxian scoots closer again, pressing his shoulder against Lan Zhan’s. “Thanks, Lan Zhan.”
Silence descends. Crickets sing their night-song.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian whispers.
There is no response. Wei Wuxian turns his head, slow; Lan Zhan is already asleep, his breathing even and steady. Lan curfew. Wei Wuxian wanted to say — thank you for taking me away. Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for falling asleep next to me. He thinks about whispering now into the dark, when Lan Zhan wouldn’t hear it. It would be easier. It would be cheating, too. Lan Zhan deserves to hear those things.
He shifts again to look at the night sky. The stars still look the same as he remembers, falling in the same constellations. He tries to watch them for a while, tracing patterns with the arm not pressed up against Lan Zhan, but it’s been a very busy day and he is exhausted. Lan Zhan is warm and solid, comforting. He took an arrow for me, Wei Wuxian thinks, still not quite believing it. He protected me.
He wakes up groggy, a twinge in his lower back from sleeping on the ground. Xiao Pingguo is pecking at his shoulder, hard and insistent.
“Fuck off,” he mumbles, swatting at him. “Go get your own food.”
Xiao Pingguo nips at his neck.
“You —” Wei Wuxian sits up, too fast, and his head swims. It’s morning. The sun is shining overhead, and Lan Zhan is no longer next to him.
The blankets are tangled around his legs. He unwraps them, hops over to his qiankun bag by the dead fire, fishes out the last apple. Xiao Pingguo busies himself with trying to drag the entire thing up into a tree.
Lan Zhan is sitting beneath the tree in question, meditating, pristine in a new set of white robes. The bruise on his cheekbone is already gone, healed overnight, just as he’d promised.
“Good morning,” Wei Wuxian calls out.
Lan Zhan hums in response.
“You could have woken me,” Wei Wuxian says awkwardly, ambling over. “Have you been waiting long?”
“It is fine. You were resting,” Lan Zhan says, instead of answering the question. “We should braid your hair.”
Wei Wuxian startles. “We should?”
“It is very long,” says Lan Zhan, patient, as if Wei Wuxian is a child and must be taught that two plus two equals four. “There will be many people in Yunmeng who might step on it.”
“Oh. Yeah, you’re right. Okay.” He thinks about it. “I don’t know how to braid hair.”
“I know how. Sit.”
Wei Wuxian is still so startled that he sits immediately. It’s strange, showing his back to someone. It feels vulnerable, exposed — but it is only Lan Zhan, who is kneeling behind him, taking his hair with cautious fingers. He has known Lan Zhan for one day; he feels as if he has known Lan Zhan for much longer.
The protective wards from the night before are still set, and there is no chance of being disturbed. There is only the quiet ripple of the river, the calls of morning-birds. Lan Zhan’s hands, gentle on Wei Wuxian’s back.
“Who taught you how to braid?” he asks, just for something to say.
“My mother, when I was very young.” Lan Zhan is brushing Wei Wuxian’s hair, too — he can feel the tug of a comb. “Sit properly, Wei Ying. Do not slouch.”
“No one is here to see me but you,” Wei Wuxian complains, but he straightens his spine, wincing at the cracking noise it makes. “That’s nice, though. My shijie is really good at braiding hair, but I never asked her to teach me.”
“You can still learn.”
“Who’s gonna teach me now?” Wei Wuxian laughs, and it sounds hollow even to his own ears. “You?”
“If you’d like.”
“I would, I think,” Wei Wuxian confesses. “Like.”
Lan Zhan hums.
“Can you tell me about what I’ve missed?” He picks at his sleeve again. It’s going to come completely unravelled soon, at this rate. “In Yunmeng, I mean. Is... are Jiang-zongzhu and his family well?”
“They are well,” Lan Zhan says. His fingers brush Wei Wuxian’s nape, the sensitive spot that makes him shiver. “Lotus Pier has been rebuilt. Jin-furen lives in Lanling.”
“Jin-furen?” Wei Wuxian tries to twist around; Lan Zhan just takes his shoulders and steers him back into place. “My shijie married Jin Zixuan?”
“Yes. One year after you disappeared. They have a son.”
“A son?” He turns around again, and Lan Zhan lets him. “Then…. then I’m an uncle?”
Lan Zhan nods.
Wei Wuxian swallows. He doesn’t want Lan Zhan to see him cry, so he faces the river again. “What about Jiang Cheng? Has he gotten married?”
“No.” Lan Zhan resumes his braiding. “I have heard that he is quite unpopular with the matchmakers.”
Wei Wuxian barks out a laugh then, too sharp and a little watery. “That sounds like him. Aiya, Lan Zhan, it’s nice to know that some things don’t change.”
“Mn. Stand up so I can finish the end of the braid.”
“Oh. Okay.” He climbs to his feet. It feels odd, standing, knowing that Lan Zhan is still sitting on the ground behind him. “Sorry I have so much hair.”
“It is not your fault.”
“It kind of is.” He scuffs the toe of his shoe against the sandy dirt at the edge of the riverbank. “It was me who wanted the golden core transfer.”
“That is not a fault. That was loyalty to your sect. Selflessness. I do not know anyone else who would willingly give up their core.”
“Yeah, because it’s kind of a stupid thing to do.”
“So you regret it?”
“No, of course not,” Wei Wuxian says at once. “Jiang Cheng needed a core.”
“Then it was not stupid. Your braid is finished.”
Lan Zhan is good at that: putting an end to things, being definitive in a polite sort of way. Your braid is finished, he’d said, to mean this conversation is finished too. He’s being charitable, Wei Wuxian thinks, to leave things in such a state. Wei Wuxian does not deserve such high opinions, least of all from Lan Zhan. But the braid is finished, and Lan Zhan is standing up now, and Wei Wuxian is curious to see what it looks like.
The answer is a long, thick plait, tied neatly at the end with his old red ribbon.
“Lan Zhan!” He can’t stop the grin from spreading over his face. “This is the best my hair has looked in ages!”
“It is very well-suited for a braid,” Lan Zhan says, instead of your hair is so long that a braid is the only reasonable way to wear it, which is kind of him.
“No, it only looks this good because you did it!” Wei Wuxian beams and skips closer to tug at the ends of Lan Zhan’s hair — straight, silky, the well-kept opposite of Wei Wuxian’s own. “Can I practice on yours?”
“Mn. In Yunmeng,” Lan Zhan says. It sounds like a promise.
He’s much closer than Wei Wuxian had realized. If Wei Wuxian just tipped his head back a bit — leaned in just a little more — he could kiss Lan Zhan on the mouth.
What the fuck.
Wei Wuxian blinks, resists the urge to leap directly into the river. What the fuck. He and Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan and him — it’s almost laughable. Wei Wuxian is a criminal, for fuck’s sake, a prisoner locked away in an abandoned tower. He cannot be thinking about kissing people, least of all about kissing Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, who is virtuous and good and everything Wei Wuxian is not.
Lan Zhan is frowning at him now, a worried little line between his eyebrows. Wei Wuxian can recognize it now, distinguish it from the other possible lines — confused, annoyed. This one is worried.
What the fuck.
“We should go!” Wei Wuxian squeaks, leaping back. “Now that my braid is done! We should get to Yunmeng before dark!”
He starts moving before Lan Zhan can object, scurrying towards the edge of the clearing to take down the wards.
Well. He simply won’t think about it.
They pass through a little village about an hour’s walk out from Yunmeng, where Wei Wuxian sends Xiao Pingguo away and convinces Lan Zhan to stop at the tailor’s for new robes.
“You’re too recognizable in the white,” he’d said sternly. “The forehead ribbon, too! Lan Zhan, you should take it off when we get to Yunmeng.” Lan Zhan had just looked at him, clearly scandalized. “It’s for your own protection! You can’t get shot at again. And if the Jiangs find out that I’m in Yunmeng, we’re gonna be in even more trouble. We need to be anonymous! Just two more people there for the Lantern Festival.”
It was sound logic. Lan Zhan had reluctantly agreed.
So now they are here, in a tiny tailor’s shop.
“Which one do you like?”
Wei Wuxian turns around. Lan Zhan is standing at the counter, bolts of fabric laid out before him— sapphire-blue, brilliant purple, a forest green. “For you? The green is nice,” he says, and then, inexplicably — “it would compliment your eyes, Lan Zhan. You have pretty eyes.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, but his mouth parts, just the tiniest bit, and Wei Wuxian barrels onward.
“Or the blue is nice, too. There’s a lot of blue in Gusu, isn’t there? You must like blue. Anyways, the important thing is to stay away from purple. That’s the Jiang color. You’d just, um. Draw more attention that way.”
He can feel the warmth on his face. Transporting himself back to the tower immediately would not be such a terrible thing right now.
“All right,” Lan Zhan says at last, and gestures to the table. “Which one do you like for yourself?”
“Me? I already said, Lan Zhan, I don’t have any money.”
“I will buy them for you.”
“I can’t let you go around buying me things all the time —“
“It has been one day,” says Lan Zhan, “which can hardly count as all the time.” He turns back to the tailor. “The purple, then.”
“No, no!” Wei Wuxian scrubs a hand over his face. “Fine. Whatever is darkest. Black, blue, anything. As long as it’s dark.”
They leave the tailor’s one hour later. Wei Wuxian is dressed in a new set of midnight-blue robes, certainly much more expensive than anything he has worn since Lotus Pier. To his immense embarrassment, Lan Zhan had chosen the green.
“You didn’t have to listen to me,” he says weakly. “My fashion sense can’t really be called reliable after years of being locked up.”
“I trust you,” Lan Zhan says. He’s already taken off the forehead ribbon. It makes him look younger, somehow — less severe, more vulnerable. He could be anyone. Wei Wuxian could have met him, in another life. During the Before.
For the first time, the After does not seem so bad.
Wei Wuxian can recognize Yunmeng by the air: warm, humid, smelling sweet like lotus blossoms.
It’s nearing late afternoon when he and Lan Zhan reach Yichang, a mid-sized town at the intersection of three lakes. He’d been there once, many years ago, passing through with a Jiang delegation on the way to Lanling, a visit far enough in the past that he is sure no one will recognize him. The streets are too crowded for people-watching, anyways: a Yunmeng city during the Lantern Festival is widely attended and enthusiastically celebrated. The marketplace is packed with spectators and vendors selling food and trinkets; the air is heady with the scent of sugar and fried dough and smoke from firecrackers. Huge lanterns sail above brightly-colored banners: a dragon, a carp, a pair of cranes.
“It’s just like I remember!” Wei Wuxian has to shout to be heard over the commotion of the crowds. “Lan Zhan, are the festivals in Gusu like this?”
“I don’t know,” Lan Zhan says, not bothering to raise his voice at all. Wei Wuxian has to lean in close — very close — to hear him. “I have never been to one.”
“Never? Not once?”
“Attending festivals is forbidden. Having fun is forbidden,” Wei Wuxian says, deepening his voice in his best impression of a Lan elder. “That’s in your code, isn’t it? Tell me I’m right, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan’s mouth is doing something unusual, almost like he’s biting back a laugh. “Not forbidden,” he says, after a moment. “Discouraged.”
“Discouraged!” Wei Wuxian throws up his hands. “You have so much catching up to do! You’re lucky to be in the presence of a festival-attending master, Lan Zhan. You may call me Wei-laoshi today.”
“I will not,” says Lan Zhan.
“Hm, you will,” Wei Wuxian says absently, already skimming the street for their first destination. “Once I’m finished with you. How old are you, anyways? We need to fit a lifetime’s worth of fun into one afternoon. Aiya, don’t answer that, I shouldn’t have asked. It’s very rude to ask a handsome young master to reveal his age.”
He seizes Lan Zhan’s wrist, and Lan Zhan lets him.
They go everywhere, flitting from place to place like a pair of birds. Wei Wuxian takes them to see the acrobatic performances, the magic shows, the stilt-walkers, the opera retellings of myths and legends. The crowds are lively; people talk and laugh and cheer, a now-pleasant cacophony of sound that he thought he would never hear again. He shouts an endless stream of commentary to Lan Zhan, stories and explanations and pieces of trivia. The magician asked for a volunteer one year and I got to be his assistant! I almost tried the stilts on a dare but my shijie said it wasn’t safe. This is really embarrassing, but this play used to make me cry.
“Are you hungry?” Lan Zhan asks him, finally, his mouth up against Wei Wuxian’s ear.
Wei Wuxian jolts a little. They’re still standing at the fringes of the crowd for the opera performance and Lan Zhan’s breath is a warm ghost at his neck, and he smells so good, like sandalwood and pine, even though he’d spent the night sleeping on a forest floor, and Wei Wuxian is certain that no one who does that is allowed to smell good afterwards.
“Yeah,” he says aloud, trying to redirect his brain and realizing that he is very hungry, actually. “Yeah, let’s get some food! What do you want?”
“You can choose,” Lan Zhan says diplomatically. “Since you are the master today.”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, then closes it again. Lan Zhan is looking over at the docks, where firecrackers are being prepared for the evening dances, one hand clasped behind his back. “Lan Zhan,” he says, slow. “Are you teasing me?”
Lan Zhan blinks.
“You are,” Wei Wuxian says, astonished. “You are teasing me!”
“What do you want to eat?” Lan Zhan asks, turning away from the firecrackers.
“Pork buns, but don’t change the subject. Lan Zhan, does everyone really believe that you’re a jade prince with no sense of humor?”
“I think so.”
“That’s sad,” Wei Wuxian says, and then stops to think about it. “Lan Zhan, more people should know that you can be funny.”
“More people should know that you have been alive and mistreated in a tower,” says Lan Zhan.
He winces. “That’s not the same thing.”
“No, it is not,” Lan Zhan agrees, and Wei Wuxian realizes that he has, somehow, lost an argument he hadn’t known they were having. “Come. Let’s eat.”
They find a vendor among the throng of the market. Lan Zhan pays for pork buns and vegetable buns, which they pick at as they continue along the main road. The buns are nice — soft, a little spicy — and having Lan Zhan at his side, eating his mushroom-filled bun in small bites, is nice too. Wei Wuxian has spent years in solitude, having conversations with himself in the suffocating quiet. Quiet with Lan Zhan is different. Comforting.]
“Young masters, young masters! Would you like to try your hand at a few riddles?”
Lan Zhan, busy folding his empty paper wrapping into a neat little square, makes no sign of having heard the man at all, but Wei Wuxian loops their arms together and drags him over to the booth. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, let’s do it! I’m good at riddles. I’ll win you anything you want.”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, using his free hand to tuck the paper into his sleeve.
“Such confidence, young master! I wish you luck,” the riddlemaster cries, beckoning them closer. “I will give you three riddles. Answer all three correctly and a prize is yours.”
“Lan Zhan, look closely and choose what prize you want!”
“Your first puzzle: two white plaster walls, and between them there is a red beauty.”
“Ah, I know this one!” Wei Wuxian beams. “That’s easy. An egg.”
“Hm.” The man thinks for a moment. “There is a big rooster. When it sees someone, it makes a bow.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing his nose. “That’s a new one. Give me a moment.”
“A teapot,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Wuxian turns to gape at him.
The riddlemaster grins. “Correct!”
“Lan Zhan, so heroic!” Wei Wuxian punches his arm lightly. “Saving me in my time of need. Hey, that’s twice in two days now.”
“You also saved me,” says Lan Zhan, and Wei Wuxian’s heart does a funny fluttering thing — funny because they’re just words, and yet when Lan Zhan says them —
“Young master, answers can’t be combined,” the riddlemaster says now, apologetic, an interruption that Wei Wuxian is happy to indulge . “Only one of you can continue.”
“You try it,” he says to Lan Zhan, focusing his gaze on a little ceramic tortoise on the prize shelf. “You’re smarter than me, anyways.”
Lan Zhan shifts in his peripheral vision, as if he wants to argue with that, but the riddlemaster cuts in again.
“When you use it, you throw it away. When you do not use it, you bring it back.”
“An anchor,” Lan Zhan says promptly, and Wei Wuxian forgets all about the tortoise, patting his arm encouragingly.
“Just one more, Lan Zhan!”
“For your final riddle,” the riddlemaster says, “I give you this: a sharp knife cannot cut it. Scissors cannot part it.”
Lan Zhan hums, looks thoughtful. Wei Wuxian likes that look on him: the way Lan Zhan’s clear golden eyes glaze over a bit, the way he worries at the inside of his cheek with his teeth, so subtle you’d miss it if you weren’t looking. The way his whole body goes still, so different from Wei Wuxian’s own restless fidgeting.
“The answer,” Lan Zhan says, slowly, “is water.”
“Correct!” cries the riddlemaster, ringing a bell in celebration, while Wei Wuxian cheers and Lan Zhans stands serenely in the midst of it all. “Congratulations, young master! Which prize will you choose? Perhaps something for a special young lady?”
“The dizi,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian’s mouth falls open. It stays open while Lan Zhan takes the dizi, turns to face him, and holds it out. “For you,” he says, a little awkward. “I know it is not the quality you are used to, but I hope it is an acceptable replacement.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian manages. “You — this — of course it’s acceptable.”
The wood is smooth and cool beneath his fingers. The dizi is made of bamboo — a cheap thing, not even close to the quality that Chenqing had been — but it feels like the nicest wood in the world. Like home.
“Thank you,” he says, his voice an ocean rush in his ears. “Aiya, how am I supposed to pay you back for this?”
“You don’t need to pay me back.” Lan Zhan’s ears look faintly pink. It might only be the sky — the sun is starting to set, pink and orange and gold reflecting on the lake’s surface. It might be the lanterns, glowing red in the dusk. Wei Wuxian might only be imagining it.
“Well, I’ll think of something. I promised I’d help you get a girl, didn’t I? Do you want to? Do you see any girls you like? Yunmeng has many pretty women.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says.
“No, you don’t see any? Or no, you don’t want to?”
Wei Wuxian’s brain spirals through the beginnings of fifty different questions. “Why?”
Lan Zhan takes his elbow and pulls him away from the riddlemaster’s booth; an elderly couple have approached for their turn. “Why what?”
“Why aren’t you interested? You could get any girl here, you know. I mean, you’re…” He waves his hands in Lan Zhan’s general direction. “Just. You. You know?”
“Fuck,” he says, the possibility dawning on him like a tidal wave. “Lan Zhan, are you married?”
“I am not.”
“Well, then!” Wei Wuxian throws up his arms. “Anyone would be lucky to have you! What are you waiting for?”
“Think about it for yourself.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes have a steely sort of look to them — not harsh, exactly. Intense. Like he’s really looking at him. Wei Wuxian’s heart drops, clumsily, to reside somewhere near the base of his throat; he swallows, trying to move it out of the way so he can speak, but Lan Zhan turns away and the moment is lost.
“I have heard that tangyuan is commonly sold at the Lantern Festival,” Lan Zhan says, as if the previous conversation had not happened at all. “Would you like some?”
“Sure,” Wei Wuxian hears himself say. “Let’s get some.”
Nighttime has descended upon Yichang now, and all of the brightly colored lanterns in the marketplace have been lit. They reflect over the dark, still water of the lakes, blue and red and yellow dancing on the glassy surface. In front of the magistrate’s office, dances are beginning. The drums are loud, steady as a heartbeat.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, pulling him to the side of the street. “Forget the tangyuan. Let’s get a lantern.”
Lan Zhan makes a questioning sort of noise.
“Tomorrow, everyone will come back to the lakes and set off their lanterns there,” Wei Wuxian explains. “And you write a wish inside. It’s like…” He bites his lip. “Like asking for good fortune from the gods of the lakes. See, right over there. What do you think of that one? Rabbits, Lan er-gege!”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, the pink dusting on his ears belying the nonchalance of the word. “Very nice.”
“Let’s get it, then!” Wei Wuxian beams and drags him across the street. “One black and one white! Just like us when we first met, huh? Ah, Lan Zhan, if you want this lantern all to yourself, I can find another. I guess it’s really more common for everyone to get their own, so we can do that instead! Usually only couples do one together.”
“One is fine,” Lan Zhan says mildly, already handing over the silver. “It will leave us more money for the inn.”
“The — shit, Lan Zhan, we don’t need an inn. I can sleep anywhere. On the ground, in a tree.”
“A tree would not be safe,” Lan Zhan says. “We will get a room.”
Room, singular. “What if someone recognizes us?”
“They will not,” says Lan Zhan. “We changed our clothes. You prefer the ground to a bed?”
“No, but —”
“Then we will get a room.”
“Well,” says Wei Wuxian, somewhat sourly. Another debate lost — he’s really lost all of his wits since being in that tower! “It’s your money, I suppose.”
“Yes.” Lan Zhan tucks the lantern neatly under one arm. “It is.”
The room at the inn is almost larger than Wei Wuxian’s entire tower. There’s a single bed, looking marginally big enough for two people, and a circular window on the opposite wall. A bathtub, full and steaming, sits behind a privacy screen.
“I thought you would like one,” Lan Zhan says, meaning the bath. He sets the lantern down on the low table in the center of the room.
“Lan Zhan, are you saying I smell?” Wei Wuxian asks him, only half-joking.
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer that, which is probably for the best. “You said you do not get baths often in the tower.”
He had said that, and it was true. “All right, I can take a hint. I’ll get in there now.”
“Take these.” Lan Zhan thrusts a bundle of white clothes in his direction. “For after.”
“I can’t take your sleeping clothes! Aren’t you already suffering enough, sharing a room with me?”
“I am not suffering. I have other clothing.”
“All right,” Wei Wuxian says, slow, and he takes the bundle of fabric. It’s soft, silky; of course Lan Zhan wears expensive robes. “I’ll try to bathe quickly. So you can… um, bathe. Also.”
The privacy screen is thick enough that it divides the room securely in half, not even a shadow flickering through from the opposite side. The bathwater is still steaming, tendrils of heat curling up towards the beams of the ceiling, and Wei Wuxian sheds his robes as quickly as he can. His hand snags in one of the sleeves, heavier than the other.
He’d forgotten about the seal, actually, after everything with Lan Zhan and the arrow and the new robes and the day at the festival. Forgotten that he had it, that the smoke twisting through the meridians has a name, that it was the only thing binding him to Lan Zhan at all. Tomorrow they would release their lantern and leave Yichang, and he would go back to the tower and Lan Zhan would go — somewhere, he supposed, to destroy the seal. And then back to his own life, after that.
No point in thinking those things, Wei Wuxian tells himself. There’s no changing the inevitable.
Wei Wuxian gets into the bath. He takes the braid out of his hair, soaps his body, and does not think about Lan Zhan.
Washing his hair is difficult, even now, after nearly five years of practice. Wen Qing or Wen Ning used to help him with it, in the Before, and then he learned how to do a half-ass job of it on his own in the tower. Wei Wuxian thinks about asking Lan Zhan for help now, thinks that Lan Zhan would say yes if he did. He thinks about how Lan Zhan might kneel behind him on the polished wood floor and run his hands through the tangles and maybe scratch his fingers lightly against Wei Wuxian’s scalp, how good it would feel to go pliant in Lan Zhan’s arms.
Wei Wuxian hasn’t gotten hard in a really long time, hasn’t jerked himself off for even longer. It’s lonely in the tower. There is nothing of interest to look at or read or think about. Letting him have a book of pornography — a page, a picture — would have been a kindness, and the Jins are not kind. His imagination had died somewhere around year two. He’s gotten used to it, this stillness. He’d never had much experience in the Before, anyways, so there wasn’t a lot to miss. Only the familiar routine of it: the coiling heat, the buzzing in his ears, the exquisite fall.
It’s been a long time. He barely registers what’s happening until he looks down: his cock, flushed and hard, curving against his abdomen. One of his hands is already closing around the heat of it. Muscle memory, he thinks dimly. What else could it be? Lan Zhan is right around the privacy screen; Wei Wuxian shoves a fist into his mouth to muffle his gasps. Lan Zhan with his golden eyes, his strong arms. His hands, gentle around Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
He does not ask Lan Zhan for help with his hair. He only gets out of the bath, legs still a little unsteady, and clumsily shoves his limbs into the clothes that Lan Zhan had given him.
Lan Zhan is sitting in the middle of the room, folded into a lotus pose with his eyes closed. They flutter open when Wei Wuxian steps closer.
“Hey,” he says, unable to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes after — that. “Thanks for the bath.”
“There is no need for thanks.” Lan Zhan unfolds himself and stands up. “Is the water still warm?”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, a little puzzled, and then he realizes that Lan Zhan is asking because he wants to take a bath now, in the bathwater that Wei Wuxian had just jerked himself off in and is more full of other fluids than actual water now, probably. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you don’t want to take a bath in that! I was so dirty. You should have clean water.”
“It’s all right.”
“No, it’s really not,” Wei Wuxian says, edging closer towards panic now. “You’ve done so much already! You should have clean water. I insist!”
If Lan Zhan thinks there’s something weird about Wei Wuxian’s voice, he doesn’t say anything. He just nods, a silent acquiescence that sends the air rushing out of Wei Wuxian’s lungs, and leaves the room. To get clean water, presumably.
Wei Wuxian slumps down next to the table and shoves the heels of his palms up against his eyes, hard enough to see the little yellow flecks of stars. That was… a mistake. A foolish mistake. He cannot do that again. First of all because it’s wrong, to do something like that when you’re thinking about someone who is sitting in the same room as you. Doubly wrong, when that person is going to leave you the following day and you will never see them again.
He’s still slouched over like that when Lan Zhan comes back with the innkeeper’s son and a fresh load of hot water. He listens to the sloshing of liquid, the harsh slaps of the old water being poured out the window into the shrubbery below. He hopes the plants don’t mind the quality of it.
Lan Zhan says something to the boy in a low, murmured voice, and then they are alone again.
“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, pulling his head out of his hands and laughing a little. “Baths make me tired.”
“It has been a long day,” Lan Zhan agrees. His hands move up to take down his hair, then hover over his forehead before dropping away, empty.
“You can wear it again someday,” Wei Wuxian tells him, now pillowing his cheek on his knee. “Your ribbon. When this is all over.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan says, soft. He seems like he wants to say something else, but only picks up the second set of sleeping robes and vanishes around the partition.
Wei Wuxian does not mean to snoop. He really doesn’t. But Lan Zhan’s qiankun bag is on the table, still open from when Lan Zhan had taken out their sleeping robes, and there’s a crinkled-up paper just visible beyond the seams, looking a lot like the one Lan Zhan had torn off of the tree in the Yiling forest. Wei Wuxian doesn’t mean to snoop, but suddenly he is holding the paper in his hand and smoothing out the creases.
WANTED, the paper says, large characters printed across the top. LAN WANGJI. REWARD FOR CAPTURE. The seal of Lanling Jin is inked below. By decree of Jin Guangshan.
There’s a drawing beneath it — a man, Wei Wuxian supposes. Certainly no man he’s ever seen before. And yet this drawing is supposed to be…
“Lan Zhan!” he shouts, his voice rippling across the stillness of the room. “This wanted poster is terrible!”
A splash, like something dropped into the bathwater.
“You’re much more handsome than this,” Wei Wuxian complains. He moves away from the table, towards the candle lit at the bedside — the drawing is still awful even in the new lighting. “Has this artist even seen you? They’ve got the nose all wrong. And the eyes, and the chin too. I could do a much better job. Hey, Lan Zhan, can I draw you? I’ve only drawn dead things for years and I’m probably out of practice, but it would be nice to draw a person.”
“If you wish,” Lan Zhan says at last, slightly muffled.
“I do wish,” Wei Wuxian says, already thinking about how he might commit Lan Zhan to paper. The slope of his cheekbones, the sweep of his hair over his shoulder. The curve of his mouth. Lan Zhan has a nice mouth, Wei Wuxian decides. It looks warm. Soft. Like Lan Zhan could kiss well.
Wei Wuxian blinks.
“What the fuck,” he whispers aloud, a little wild, and he drops the paper like it’s burned him. He’d just — he’d thought Lan Zhan and kiss in the same sentence, as in something he’d thought about — again! — Lan Zhan doing, and possibly doing with him —
He startles, pivots to see Lan Zhan standing in front of the privacy screen, his hair wet and a question written on his face.
“I’m all right!” Wei Wuxian says hastily, bending to retrieve the paper. “This picture is really terrifying, you know.”
“It is not accurate,” Lan Zhan says, a cross between sullen and defensive.
“Well, no, it’s — Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian tilts his head. “Are you angry about it?”
Lan Zhan averts his eyes.
“You are!” Wei Wuxian says gleefully. “You’re angry that they’re spreading such an ugly picture around!”
“It is not accurate,” Lan Zhan repeats, still focusing very hard on the wall.
“No, of course it isn’t,” Wei Wuxian says, swallowing a laugh. “They have done you a disservice. Anyone with eyes can see that you are one thousand times prettier than this.”
Lan Zhan looks at him then, quick, his mouth slightly parted. Warm. Soft. Like he could kiss well.
“Let me see your chest,” Wei Wuxian says. “Your wound,” he corrects himself. His face feels hot. Has the room always been this warm? “We should check it. Make sure it’s healing well!”
It’s a stupid thing to say. The arrow wound had been healed with magical hair, and had looked perfectly fine yesterday, and Lan Zhan had just taken a bath, besides, and had surely looked at it himself —
“All right,” Lan Zhan just says, untying the front of his robe and shrugging it over one shoulder.
Wei Wuxian tries very hard to look at Lan Zhan’s face as he steps closer, and not at anything else. It’s not difficult to do. He’d meant what he said: Lan Zhan is very, very pretty. His hair is still damp from the bathwater, a few droplets still clinging to his eyelashes. His eyes are warm in the candlelight, twin pools of honey.
When he was a child, Wei Wuxian had gotten lost in the forest surrounding Lotus Pier, and his shijie had only found him because he’d stopped to watch a hive of honeybees. It must be fun to be a bee, he’d said to his shijie, once they were returning home hand-in-hand, because of all the honey. Food whenever you want it! His shijie had laughed a little. Maybe, she’d said. But sometimes the bees drown in the honey, A-Xian.
He thinks he knows how the bees feel now.
He tears his eyes away from Lan Zhan’s and slides his gaze down — not the mouth, don’t look at the mouth — to the pale column of his throat, the lines of his pectorals, the smooth expanse of his torso. He reaches out a hand, tentative, and brushes it against Lan Zhan’s ribcage, the bones slotting beneath his fingers. Lan Zhan is smooth and warm and very much uninjured. There is nothing, not even a scratch, to indicate that he’d been pierced through with an arrow barely a day earlier.
“Wow.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is several octaves higher than normal. He should fix that. “The hair really works, I guess.”
“Aiya, but did you want a scar? I know some people like them. Evidence of battles won, or whatever. Sorry.”
“It is fine. I have enough scars.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says dumbly. “Okay. Good.”
Neither of them has moved at all. Wei Wuxian can barely breathe.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says suddenly, his voice a low rumble against Wei Wuxian’s fingertips.
“Huh?” He snatches his hand back.
Lan Zhan isn’t looking at Wei Wuxian’s face at all. He’s looking at his chest. Wei Wuxian looks down, too. He hadn’t tied his robe properly after the bath, because of course he hadn’t, and now it’s falling open in the middle, and —
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, tugging the robe closed again. “Old things. Don’t worry about them.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, the hint of a warning in it.
“They don’t hurt anymore.”
“But they once did.”
“Of course they did,” Wei Wuxian says, a little snappish now. “Of course it hurts when someone slices at your skin with a knife or uses a branding iron on you.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything. His expression has shifted from surprise into something like sadness, which is almost worse.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Wei Wuxian tells him, trying to soften his voice. “I can’t handle that.”
“Why did you not…” Lan Zhan looks at Wei Wuxian’s hair, then back at the scars on his chest. “Heal yourself?”
“I dunno.” Wei Wuxian feels, abruptly, very exhausted. “I deserve them?”
A sharp inhale. “Wei Ying. You do not.”
“Who are you to tell me what I do and don’t deserve, Lan Zhan?” The ire is back, licking up his spine like the flick of a whip. “I’ve killed people. I let the Jins take the seal, even when I knew what they were going to do with it. I let it happen. Shit, I made it happen. If I’d just refused —”
“But you did not,” Lan Zhan says, an interruption, and Wei Wuxian is so startled that his mouth stops moving. “You gave it to them. You sacrificed it and yourself to save others. You told me you did not regret what you had done.”
“I don’t regret saving the Wens, but —”
“But you cannot have both. To save the Wens, you had to give up the seal. There was no alternative.”
“I’m sure there could have been something,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, and that’s the root of it, really — the fact that he didn’t try hard enough, didn’t try to find another path. He just gave up. Gave up the seal, and now he’s living comfortably in a tower while the Wens are fuck-knows where — alive, or dead, he doesn’t know —
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and he takes Wei Wuxian’s hands, and Lan Zhan’s hands are large and slightly cool to the touch and Wei Wuxian’s mind whites out for a minute, long enough for Lan Zhan to take the opening and keep talking. “The Jins have the seal. Not you.”
“What the Jins have done with the seal,” Lan Zhan says, slow, as if he’s trying to make sure that Wei Wuxian will not misunderstand, “has nothing to do with you.”
“Nothing to do with me — Lan Zhan, I made it!”
“You made it. You no longer wield it.”
“That’s a technicality.”
“It’s not. A swordsmith makes many swords. Are they blamed for every death caused by a blade of their making?”
“I do not see how it’s different at all.”
“A sword is… a sword!” Wei Wuxian says, frustrated. “How can you compare a sword to a mass-murdering seal?”
“They are both weapons. Each is only as destructive as their wielder allows.”
“Yes, but —”
“Yes, but —”
“Then it is settled,” Lan Zhan says, and he runs his thumb over one of Wei Wuxian’s knuckles. Just once. It’s gentle, a little soothing, and Wei Wuxian feels all of the fight drain from him at once, water through a sieve. He’s exhausted.
“I’m mad at you,” he tells Lan Zhan, but most of the bite has gone out of it. “I used to be really good at winning arguments until you came along.”
Lan Zhan does his almost-smile again, a tiny quirk of the mouth.
“You haven’t convinced me,” Wei Wuxian says, quick, to distract himself from the rapid thumping of his heart against his ribcage.
“But you will think about it?”
“I’ll think about it,” he allows. (He is fairly sure he will not.)
“Good,” Lan Zhan says. He separates their hands. “Which side of the bed do you prefer?”
“The right,” Wei Wuxian says tiredly, picking one at random.
The single bed was a practicality. Cheaper, to get a room with one bed instead of two. Safer, for them to stick together. Wei Wuxian knows this; he knows that Lan Zhan knows this, too, and must have been thinking about it when he secured the room. Wei Wuxian still shivers a little when he slides under the bedcover, his shoulder pressed up against Lan Zhan’s. It’s different from sharing a bedroll, he thinks. That was camping. This is — this is a real bed, a place with a roof. They both have damp hair from a bath, full stomachs from a dinner they had eaten together. A lantern on the table, chosen and purchased as if they were cultivation partners.
He can still feel the ghost of Lan Zhan’s fingers on his hand.
When he wakes, he is alone.
Sunlight is slanting through the circular window, bright and clear. The bed beside him is empty.
Well, Wei Wuxian thinks. That’s the end of that.
It’s not surprising that he is alone, after what happened the previous night. He doesn’t blame Lan Zhan for leaving. Who would want to spend time with him, arrangement or not — Wei Wuxian, who talks too much and asks for too much and takes up too much space, who starts fights that he can’t finish, who had gone and gotten himself locked in a tower because he was a coward.
The seal is gone, too, from its place under his pillow.
“Fuck,” he says aloud. Only the rafters are there to hear him. “Fuck.”
He’ll have to get back to the tower somehow. On foot, obviously, because there’s no other way. Maybe he could borrow a horse — steal a horse, really; there’s no way of returning it. Maybe the Jins won’t even notice he was gone. Maybe he can still forget about Lan Zhan.
The door opens. He sees a pair of hands first, holding a breakfast tray, and then he sees that they’re Lan Zhan’s hands.
“Breakfast,” Lan Zhan says. He’s wearing the green robes again, his hair neatly pinned back.
“You…” Wei Wuxian resists the urge to rub at his eyes. Is he asleep again? Dreaming? “You’re here.”
“Yes.” Lan Zhan sets the tray down.
“I thought…” His voice is rough, charred at the edges. “Never mind.”
Lan Zhan hums, flips his sleeves back, and settles at the table. “I took the seal from your pillow,” he says. “It is heavy with resentful energy. You should not sleep so close to it.”
“Yeah. You’re right. It’s, um. Better that you have it.”
Wei Wuxian drags himself out of the bed and over to the table. He must look like a mess this early in the morning, half of his hair still tangled in the bedsheets and the other half tangled around his face. He’s a mess rather generally, he thinks. He wouldn’t have blamed Lan Zhan for leaving.
“So, uh,” he starts, the words still crackling with sleep. “About last night. I’m really sorry.”
“It is all right.” Lan Zhan is studiously pouring two cups of tea. “Eat.”
“No, it’s not all right!” Wei Wuxian ignores the cup being pushed his way. “Lan Zhan, look at me.”
He does. Even though he’d asked for it, it makes Wei Wuxian feel exposed, stripped down to his bones, all of the ugly parts laid out for anyone to see. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not so terrible, when it’s Lan Zhan.
“It’s all right to be angry,” Lan Zhan says now, gentle. Soothing without being condescending. “You should be angry.”
“Not at you.”
“I know you are not angry at me.”
“But it should never be you.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how to say it. I want to be angry, but I don’t want to be angry at you. Being angry doesn’t feel right, when it’s you.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s eyes are gentle, too. Soft. How had he ever thought them cold? “You are allowed to feel.”
“I know that.”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, and slides a bowl of congee across the table.
“It’s just…” Wei Wuxian clenches his fist, feels the blunt edges of his nails digging into his palms. “It was easier, to not think. Or feel. Before.”
“I was so tired, Lan Zhan.” It comes out quiet, choked. “I was tired of feeling.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan says. Something in Wei Wuxian crumples.
“It’s so much now,” he whispers. “I don’t know what to do with it. Lan Zhan, I’m afraid of what I might do with it.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan says again. His hand is on the table, next to his cup of tea. Wei Wuxian thinks about reaching out and taking it, holding it like an anchor in a storm. He doesn’t do it. “There is still the seal. We will still destroy it. Wei Ying, we will still get you out of the tower.”
We as in something they would do together, still like something they had discussed and agreed upon before. We will still get you out. Like it should have been obvious. Lan Zhan, catching him again.
“Okay,” he just says, deceptively steady. “Okay, Lan Zhan.”
“You do not need to hide from me,” Lan Zhan says, and the crumpled thing in Wei Wuxian’s chest unfurls in reverse, blooming back into something that might be beautiful.
“Will you braid my hair again?” he asks.
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. “If you wish.”
They row out to the center of the lake on a borrowed boat. Most people set off their lanterns from the shoreline; Wei Wuxian has never done it this way, has never celebrated the end of the Lantern Festival in such solitude. He doesn’t mind it. He hadn’t realized, until yesterday, that he’s out of practice with people. Living among them, being in their company. Having so many eyes on him had been exhausting.
He had not said this, but Lan Zhan had taken them out the lake all the same. Maybe he’d guessed; maybe he felt the same.
Now Wei Wuxian is leaning over the boat, trailing one hand through the water and catching it on the blossoms. They’ve already been sitting among the leaves and petals for a while now, the sweet scent enveloping them like the softest silk. He wishes he could capture this moment, fold it up for the darker, sadder days back in the Burial Mounds: the sun on his face, the water in his hand. Lan Zhan sitting across from him, trying not to squint in the brightness.
“Shall we do it?” he asks cheerfully. “I think we’ve missed wu shi, but that’s all right. I’m not one for tradition this year.”
They had written their wishes for the lantern back at the inn, both of them folded around the table. Wei Wuxian had watched Lan Zhan do it, his careful and precise calligraphy sweeping across the page, unintelligible first from the angle Wei Wuxian was sitting at and then from the sweep of Lan Zhan’s arm hiding the words from view. Wei Wuxian’s own handwriting has always been careless at best, and is even worse now that he barely has occasion to write. He’d tried his hardest today, to make it look nice.
To protect the weak, he’d written, and always stand with justice.
It felt almost laughable, writing something like that when he was hardly in a position to protect anyone. It felt almost arrogant, too, writing such a noble thing when most people would call him the opposite, but — well, it was something he’d always wanted for himself, something he thought he had been doing until the seal caught up with him and the Jins stuck him in that tower. Wei Wuxian had contemplated writing something else, something frivolous and self-indulgent and a little embarrassing, something about being able to stay with Lan Zhan — but he wasn’t so arrogant as to think that was something he could have, even with the help of a god. The wish about justice was better, he decided, and it was sort of the same thing, wasn’t it, when Lan Zhan had dedicated himself to the cause, too?
Now Lan Zhan lights the candle inside of the lantern with a flick of his fingers, and they each grasp a side to lift it up into the air. Wei Wuxian watches as it sails away, the outline of the rabbits fading into the sun. One black rabbit, one white rabbit. He wonders, idly, what color bunnies Lan Zhan has back at the Cloud Recesses. He’s never asked; Lan Zhan has never offered. Wei Wuxian knows so little.
“Tell me more about yourself,” he says into the stillness.
Lan Zhan hums. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know exactly when he started noticing that Lan Zhan has different sorts of hums. This one has a question mark at the end of it. “Such as?”
“I don’t know. I never stop talking about myself, and you never start. Tell me a story.”
“I am not good at storytelling,” Lan Zhan says, but he falls quiet, thinking. Then: “I told you that my mother taught me to braid hair.”
“Mmm,” Wei Wuxian says, encouraging.
“She would braid mine,” Lan Zhan says, “when I was very young. Gentians grew outside of her house, and my brother would take me outside to gather them. She would weave them into the braid.” His face is almost too still, a glass mask carefully slotted into place. “I never learned the technique for the flowers.”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, what an idyllic childhood! No wonder you grew up so well.” Wei Wuxian rests his chin on his hand. “Where is she now?”
“She died,” Lan Zhan says. The mask slips, a fissure by his mouth. “Many years ago.”
“Ah.” He straightens up, fights the renewed urge to take Lan Zhan’s hand in the same way Lan Zhan had taken his just the previous night. “I’m sorry.”
“It was long ago,” Lan Zhan says, like that means he is no longer allowed to be sad.
“Still.” Wei Wuxian picks at a hangnail. “My parents died when I was a kid, too. They were friends with Jiang-zongzhu, so that’s how I ended up at Lotus Pier. I was, uh, on the streets for a while first. So the whole tower thing isn’t so bad, right? At least there aren’t dogs in there.” He flashes a smile. “Enough sadness! I’m hungry.”
“We are on a boat,” Lan Zhan says, ever-logical.
“There’s still food,” Wei Wuxian says, reaching out for a lotus seed pod. “You can’t leave Yunmeng without trying lotus seeds, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying, this lake belongs to someone.”
“It is stealing.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, peeling one of the seeds. “And you have never done that before.”
Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches.
“Come on, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian pouts at him. “No one is here to see us. Will you let me go hungry?”
He can practically see Lan Zhan’s resolve crumbling.
“Er-gege is so cruel to me,” Wei Wuxian says pitifully. “Won’t even feed me properly!”
Lan Zhan huffs a small sigh. “Just this once.”
Wei Wuxian beams. “Do you want some, Lan Zhan? They’re the best thing you’ll ever taste.”
“You said that about the buns yesterday.”
“Well, of course. I know that Gusu fare of yours is terrible. The buns were the best thing then. But now you’ll have these, and these are even better.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. “All right.”
The only sounds are the gentle lapping of water against the side of the boat, the shucking of skin from the lotus seeds, Wei Wuxian’s pulse roaring in his ears.
He watches Lan Zhan peel a seed, place the skin in a neat pile. He thinks about how it might feel to feed Lan Zhan, right here, right now — his hand at Lan Zhan’s mouth, his fingers brushing against Lan Zhan’s lips. Warm. Soft. Like he could kiss well. Wei Wuxian feels flushed. It must be the sun, beating down upon them at the center of this crystal-clear lake.
He wants to kiss Lan Zhan.
The realization shoots down his spine, settles like a spark in his lower abdomen. He wants to kiss Lan Zhan. He wants to fling himself across the boat, close the distance between them, throw his arms around Lan Zhan’s shoulders, feel Lan Zhan’s hands on his waist and in his hair and on his jaw —
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Wuxian drops the seed he was holding. Fuck, had he said that? “W-what?”
Lan Zhan is looking down at his hands, his ears flushed pink at the tips. “I have not been entirely honest with you.”
“Oh.” He’s still reeling, trying to slow his heartbeat. “How so?”
“I guessed,” Lan Zhan says, and then he stops. “I guessed that you were the Yiling Laozu before you told me.”
Wei Wuxian freezes. The world is cotton in his ears.
“I also fought during the Sunshot Campaign. I thought I recognized you, but I was not sure until later.”
“Clever of you,” Wei Wuxian says. It’s a compliment. He laughs a little, unsure of what else to do.
“When you told me that the seal would be hard to destroy,” Lan Zhan says, still looking at his hands, “I knew.”
“And you…” Wei Wuxian looks at his hands, too, blurry and hazy as if they’re underwater. “You stayed. You” — the realization is a jolt — “you still took the arrow for me. You didn’t take me back.”
“I had made a promise.”
“A promise to the Yiling Laozu doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does to me,” Lan Zhan says. “Wei Ying, thank you.”
“For what?” Wei Wuxian asks, flabbergasted. “You could have handed me over to the Jins! I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
“There is no need for you to thank me.”
“Well, then you can’t thank me, either,” Wei Wuxian says. “We seem to be doing a lot of that, anyways. How about this — no more thank yous or apologies between us. It’s no longer allowed! Agreed?”
“Okay,” Lan Zhan says, and he smiles a little. It’s such a small smile. Wei Wuxian wants to drown in it.
“You aren’t going to hand me over to the Jins, are you?” he says instead, mostly joking.
“I would not,” Lan Zhan says, instantly, like it should have been obvious. The sky is blue; lotus blossoms grow in lakes. Lan Zhan believes him.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian echoes, smiling back. “That’s good. We still have some destroying to do.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, a shadow falling over his face again. “I do not know how.”
“I know,” Wei Wuxian says, “and I still think you’re ridiculous, stealing something and not even knowing what to do with it afterwards. But I told you before. I think I might know how.”
“It did not work when you tried before.” It’s not an accusation, when Lan Zhan says it. Just a fact.
“Yeah. I think I got the process right — like, in theory, I know what to do. You’ve got to manipulate the resentful energy, bend it back on itself. But I was missing — something.”
“Something,” Lan Zhan echoes.
“A golden core,” Wei Wuxian says, and then he starts laughing. “Isn’t that stupid, Lan Zhan? I only made this thing because I didn’t have one. And now I can’t get rid of it. If I’d just — well. It doesn’t matter anymore. I think we can do it, if you help me.”
“I will help,” says Lan Zhan immediately. “Wei Ying, of course I will help.”
“You don’t even know what I’m going to ask,” Wei Wuxian says, “and you’re already agreeing. Lan Zhan, someone could really take advantage of you someday.”
“Such as me, for instance.”
“You are never taking advantage,” Lan Zhan says, and that spark in Wei Wuxian’s abdomen flickers to life again. “Tell me what I must do.”
“Well, here’s the thing,” he says, twisting his fingers together, evading both the spark and Lan Zhan’s eyes. “I’ve never done this sort of thing before. So I don’t really… know.”
He can hear the confusion in Lan Zhan’s voice. “You said you did.”
“I do! In theory.”
“I think we need to, like…” He struggles to phrase it. “Combine our energies.”
“Yeah. Like, um. Lan Zhan, have you ever heard of dual cultivation?”
There’s a pause, barely two heartbeats long but heavy as a mountain.
“Yeah, so — we don’t have to do that,” Wei Wuxian hastens to say, realizing too late what Lan Zhan must be thinking. “I mean. Unless you want to! But you don’t. So. It’s the same principle, really.”
“I see,” Lan Zhan says at last. “What are you suggesting we do instead?”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, relieved that Lan Zhan has chosen to treat that monologue as a normal one. “We should be able to do it through touch, I think, if we use a talisman spell to help. I was experimenting with those before. I’ll remember how to do it. Don’t worry!”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, definitely looking a little worried. “I trust you.”
He does. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know why. He hasn’t done anything particularly trustworthy in recent years.
“It’s settled, then!” he just says cheerfully. “We should go somewhere quiet. This is gonna be loud.”
“All right.” Lan Zhan reaches into his sleeve, pulling out the seal and passing it across the boat. “You should take it.”
“Me? Why? You should hold on to it, Lan Zhan, you’re the one who did all the work to get it.”
“You made it.”
“That’s not the point,” Wei Wuxian says, flustered.
“Will it be easier to destroy if you hold it?”
“Yeah,” he admits. “Yeah, probably.”
“Then take it.”
Despite the midday heat, the seal is cold in his hands. It has always been this way: the Stygian Tiger Seal is for dead things, lifeless things, and it makes a constant reminder in the endless chill of the metal. Wei Wuxian tucks it into his own sleeve now, where even the warmth of his skin will make no difference.
“Great!” he says, bending his voice into something cheerful. “Let’s get to land and do this.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan starts, and is interrupted by a shimmering white bird at his shoulder.
“Eh?” Wei Wuxian says dumbly, watching the bird flutter around Lan Zhan’s head and land gently in his cupped palms. It’s almost translucent; he can still see the pale expanse of Lan Zhan’s wrist through the feathers. “What is that?”
“A message,” Lan Zhan says, and then falls silent, staring intently down at the bird.
As if that explains anything.
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says then, and the bird dissolves like a shower of rain.
“What was that?” Wei Wuxian asks again.
“A message,” Lan Zhan repeats. “From my brother,” he clarifies.
“He’s here,” Wei Wuxian says, a statement and not a question. His blood has turned cold.
“Mn.” Lan Zhan finally meets Wei Wuxian’s eye. “He wishes to see me.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, faint. “Now?”
Lan Zhan nods. “He would like to hear my intentions for the seal, I assume.”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian swallows. “And you’re going to go?”
“He is my brother,” Lan Zhan says, and then, more quietly, “and my sect leader. I must go.”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, so filial.” He hesitates. “You’ll be all right?”
Lan Zhan correctly interprets this as your brother won’t turn you in?. “I will be fine. My brother is fond of Jin Guangyao, but he will not betray me.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says doubtfully. “Maybe I should come with you. Hang around in the bushes, you know.”
“There is no need.” Lan Zhan stands up and primly smooths out the wrinkles in his robes. He’s still wearing the forest-green ones, his forehead ribbon still tucked away: only his beautiful, jade-carved face betrays him as a Lan. “I will come back as soon as I am able.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says again, trying to smile. It feels tight on his lips. “See you, Lan Zhan.”
“I will come back, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, and then he mounts his sword and vanishes into the trees.
Wei Wuxian waits.
It felt strange, watching Lan Zhan go. Seeing his back, so straight and so tall, after nearly three days of only seeing his face, his side profile, his body subdued and vulnerable in sleep. Lan Zhan walks like he speaks: quiet and sure. That, at least, is a small comfort.
“He’ll come back,” Wei Wuxian says, mostly to himself. There’s no one around to hear him, except maybe some fish in the lake. “He said he would come back! Lan Zhan keeps his promises.”
It would be so easy for Lan Zhan to just… not. To leave with his brother, go back to the Cloud Recesses, pick up the threads of his old life and weave them back together into something whole. He could say that taking the seal was a mistake; he could say that he ran into the Yiling Laozu on the road and lost the seal to him. Then they would come after Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian would sit and take it because it was only what he deserved.
He rows the boat to shore, landing in front of the forest that Lan Zhan had walked into. His arms are not strong anymore; it takes him the better part of twenty minutes, sweating and panting all the while.
He pulls out his dwindling stack of joss paper and sketches the talisman they’ll need for the seal destruction. The strokes come to him easily, even after all this time: he’s seen them in his dreams, taunting him, sinking into his memory. He runs out of ink. He bites his thumb and uses blood for the final copy.
It has been over an hour. Lan Zhan has not come back.
The seedling of fear in Wei Wuxian’s stomach has sprouted into a full-bodied plant.
Something must be wrong, he thinks. Lan Zhan’s brother has taken him back to Gusu forcibly, or they’ve both been ambushed by someone, and Lan Zhan is unconscious on the forest floor somewhere, maybe bleeding, and Wei Wuxian is not there to heal him with his hair —
He breathes in sharply through his nose, lets it out slowly through his mouth. Buries his head in his hands, curling in on himself like he’s trying to make himself small. Lan Zhan is very capable, he tells himself. Lan Zhan has a sword, and he knows how to use it. He had fought his way out of Koi Tower all alone with it. He must be fine. He must just be having a very long, very civil conversation with his brother. Not that Wei Wuxian would know about that — civil conversations with brothers.
A caw splits the air, obnoxiously close to Wei Wuxian’s ear, and he shoots up again.
“Well, look who it is,” he says sullenly to Xiao Pingguo, who is nipping at Wei Wuxian’s sleeve in search of a hidden apple. “Finally remembered me, did you?”
Xiao Pingguo blinks.
“Never mind.” Wei Wuxian sighs, running a hand over the glossy feathers. “There was another bird here earlier. I don’t think it was a real bird, but still. You could have made a friend.” An indignant clacking noise. “Yeah, I know. You’re not interested in friends.” Clacking again, louder this time. “What? I don’t have any apples.”
Xiao Pingguo hops off of Wei Wuxian’s lap and onto the shore, looks meaningfully towards the forest and then back at the boat.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asks again, wary. “I can’t go in there. I have to wait here for Lan Zhan.”
Xiao Pingguo lets out a rattle, deep and throaty, the kind of sound he only makes when he wants something.
“Aiya, you ridiculous thing,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, just to let Xiao Pingguo he’s annoyed about it, but he climbs out of the boat and hops over to the grass at the edge of the woods. “Happy now?”
The answer is clearly no. Xiao Pingguo takes off and disappears between a pair of pines.
“You’re the second person I’ve watched go into there today,” Wei Wuxian calls after him, and then reconsiders it — Xiao Pingguo isn’t a person, really — before trailing after him. This was the way Lan Zhan had gone, after all. If he doesn’t stray too far from the lake, there’s no harm in it. He can always find his way back.
The midday sunlight filters down through the trees, bright enough to catch glimpses of Xiao Pingguo weaving in and out of the dappled branches. It feels silly, following a crow through the forest, but Xiao Pingguo is smart, and Wei Wuxian can’t shake the feeling that he’s being led to a particular destination. The forest thickens; the trees grow closer together, their limbs heavy and tangled, and the sky vanishes into the canopy. It’s darker now, quiet save for the scurrying of small animals in the undergrowth, and Wei Wuxian almost misses the little temple in the clearing.
It’s old: the stones are crumbling, the wooden beams rotting and becoming one with the forest floor. It has clearly been abandoned for quite some time. It seems deserted, more importantly, still and lifeless in its destruction.
Then he hears the voices.
A man’s voice, soft and cordial and reasonable-sounding, like he’s trying to soothe an agitated child. It’s a smiling voice. Pleasant. And then a second person, a single syllable: low, even, rich. Wei Wuxian’s heart leaps into his throat. It has been three days; he knows that voice as well as his own, as well as the heartlines on his hand.
He didn’t leave me, Wei Wuxian thinks dumbly. Then: Fuck.
He hears snippets, half-fragments of sentences that get muffled by the stones and the moss. My father. Stygian. Forgiven. Have, give. No need for violence.
They’re all being said by the owner of the smiling voice, sugar-coated like a rotten hawthorn under a sheen of candy. Wei Wuxian knows that voice, too — has heard it back at the tower, offering him a jar of the good wine with one hand and securing a chain with the other. Jin Guangyao always had been good at switching sides.
They think Lan Zhan has the seal, Wei Wuxian thinks, a little desperate, the words slow and sluggish even in his head. He just gave it to me but they think he has it, and they think he’s lying, and they’re going to kill him. He feels dizzy with the certainty of it all. That pleasant voice can’t stay pleasant for long.
“What do I do?” he whispers to Xiao Pingguo, who just blinks at him unhelpfully.
Well, there’s only one thing to do, and he knows it: he has to get in there and get Lan Zhan.
Wei Wuxian hops from one foot to the other, anxious, chewing his bottom lip while he runs through his options. He has the seal, but he’d rather not use it; it would be too conspicuous, too noticeable, and he needs to sneak in. His hair will not help. He doesn’t have a sword, or even an iron cooking pan. He only has the dizi and a couple of talismans in his sleeves, tucked away next to the seal-destruction spell.
One side of the temple is open to the air, its stones crumbled. It’s left a gaping hole, just large enough for him to squeeze through. He steels himself, clutches the dizi in one hand, activates a smoke talisman with the other, and thrusts it inside.
It goes off with a bang, enough commotion for Wei Wuxian to leap through the opening and squint into the dense fog. He thinks he sees someone tall, with Lan Zhan’s build, and the person is not shouting or flailing, which is further evidence for the person being Lan Zhan. He grabs the person’s shoulder — it’s firm and muscled, familiar.
The smoke clears.
The shoulder beneath Wei Wuxian’s hand is draped in rough-spun cloth. It twists as the shoulder’s owner turns to face him, quick and sharp, as if preparing for an attack, but the tense muscles loosen once he makes eye contact. Lan Zhan seems to be unhurt — there’s no visible blood, and there’s no weird angles to suggest broken bones — but he is not holding his sword. A river of dread, heavy and syrupy, snakes through Wei Wuxian’s body.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes. “You should not have come.”
“You idiot,” Wei Wuxian says thickly. “You really thought I wouldn’t follow you? I can never stay in one place. Lan Zhan, where’s your sword, what’s going on? Where’s your brother?”
“Not my brother.” Lan Zhan’s voice is tight, strained. “He was never here.”
It was a trick.
“I think it would be best if Young Master Wei put down his dizi.” From behind him, Jin Guangyao’s pleasant voice is still pleasant, only an undercurrent of a threat running through it. “It would be a shame if he were to lose a hand.”
“Ah,” says Wei Wuxian, and he crouches down, slow and careful, to place the dizi on the dusty ground. “Young Master Jin speaks so much sense.”
“Hm.” Jin Guangyao is poised and pristine, smiling, the dimple on his cheek deep enough to plant a lotus seed in. “What a pleasure it is to see you outside of your home, Wei Wuxian. I must say, the fresh air has done you good.”
“Maybe you could build me a bigger window in the tower, then,” Wei Wuxian says flippantly. “Hard to get any sort of air in there at all right now.”
“I’m afraid that is quite impossible,” Jin Guangyao says, and if Wei Wuxian didn’t know any better he might say it sounded kind. He looks different than Wei Wuxian remembers — his robes are golder, more layered, the stitching on the front more intricate. “We cannot reward you after such an escape. What kind of precedent would that set? In any case, you’re here now, Young Master Wei, and precisely on time! I was just speaking to Hanguang-jun about you.”
“Hanguang-jun?” Wei Wuxian repeats. “You mean Lan Zhan?”
“Such intimate terms.”
“It’s just a name,” Wei Wuxian says, but he can’t bring himself to look at Lan Zhan when he says it. No one else uses Wei Ying to refer to Wei Wuxian, and probably no one else calls Lan Wangji by his birth name, either. Thinking of it like that — intimate terms — drives a sharp little knife under Wei Wuxian’s skin, part pain and part pleasure, and he doesn’t really want to dwell on it further. So what else can he say?
“Just a name to you, perhaps,” Jin Guangyao says mildly. “I think Hanguang-jun might disagree. He seems very fond of you.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, ignoring the tightening in his throat, “whatever I am to him, he has nothing to do with this. It’s me you should be looking for.”
“But Hanguang-jun has stolen the Stygian Tiger Seal, Young Master Wei!” Jin Guangyao widens his eyes. “In fact, he wishes to destroy it. Does that not bother you? You worked very hard on its invention. It would be a pity for it to go to waste.”
“Would it?” Wei Wuxian says, clenching his teeth so tightly that it sends a shiver of pain through his jaw.
“I’ll need your help to get it back, Young Master Wei, since you know the seal best. Call it a favor or an obligation — whatever makes you happy. Perhaps we can reconsider the window at that time.”
Four years of the tower, four years of prostrating at Jin Guangshan’s feet and swallowing mouthful after mouthful of blood. Wei Wuxian is not a person to them. He is barely a prisoner. He is a resource, one that will someday run dry, and he is tired of it.
“Hanguang-jun doesn’t have the seal.” He is tired. “I do.”
Next to him, Lan Zhan takes a half-step forward, angling his body to push Wei Wuxian behind him. Wei Wuxian ducks out of it, avoiding Lan Zhan’s gaze.
“It’s all right, Lan Zhan. It was meant to be this way.”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun, do be careful. Your spiritual energy is sealed, after all.” Jin Guangyao’s eyes are glittering. “But how interesting.” He’s not as bad as the rest of them, Wei Wuxian had said. Maybe he should recalculate. “Have you forgotten our deal, Young Master Wei? Should I remind you? The deal was your life for theirs, and without the Stygian Tiger Seal, there is no use for you at all. The Wens…” He smiles again. “A little boy, wasn’t there? The last I heard, he was doing very well. It would be terrible if that were to be cut short.”
The resentful energy in Wei Wuxian’s chest coils around his ribcage, black ropes cutting off his circulation. It floods his meridians, wraps around his lungs, rises into his mouth to leave a bitter taste. Digs its claws in, a familiar sensation that’s been dulled by years of isolation. It’s almost too easy to slide back into it: a homecoming. Black at the edges of his vision, his fingers reaching for something in his sleeve —
“Wei Ying,” a voice comes, distant and far away. “Wei Ying.”
Lan Zhan. Wei Wuxian blinks, comes back to himself — the dilapidated little room, the gritty walls. It’s just a name, he’d said. Lan Zhan is in front of him, real and solid, a worried line between his eyebrows and his green robes almost blending in with the moss climbing up to the ceiling. Jin Guangyao’s shadowy figure is visible a few paces away, his hat casting a darkness over his face. He’s holding two swords in his hands. One must be his own, gilded and pearl-studded; the other has a white hilt, a silvery-blue blade. Lan Zhan’s sword. A renewed shiver of anger shoots down Wei Wuxian’s spine, and he breathes in, deep, to calm it.
“Very good, Young Master Wei,” Jin Guangyao says, smiling at him. “If you cannot practice restraint, I’ll be forced to remind you of your place.”
Lan Zhan jerks forward again and Jin Guangyao aims the gilded sword at him. “Manners, Hanguang-jun.” He pauses, tilts his head. Considering. “Perhaps this is a teaching opportunity for both of you. Such impolite behavior should not be tolerated in front of a clan leader. You’re lucky that I am such a merciful one.”
“You?” Wei Wuxian points at him. “Jin-zongzhu? How funny. Jin Guangshan looks very different than I remember.”
“My father is dead,” Jin Guangyao says casually. He’s still smiling, which does not bode well for the situation. “A tragic accident. My brother is doing well, but…” A shrug. “One never knows what may happen.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart drops to his feet. If Jin Guangshan is dead, then the current Jin-zongzhu must be Jin Zixuan, and Jin Guangyao is going to kill him. Wei Wuxian does not really care for Jin Zixuan, but Jin Zixuan is married to his shijie, and then there’s shijie’s son —
“Do not listen to him, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says suddenly. He’s looking at Jin Guangyao, not at Wei Wuxian, his face a piece of flint before the spark. “He is misleading you.”
“Misleading him? Hanguang-jun, you wound me. Everything I have said is the truth.”
“So you killed Jin Guangshan,” Wei Wuxian says aloud. He taps his chin thoughtfully. “To be honest, I don’t have any sympathy to offer. But please do tell me — how did you do it? I don’t suppose it was the seal, since Lan Zhan had already taken it by then. Too conspicuous, too. Is that right?”
They need a plan. They need to buy time until Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy comes back. Wei Wuxian wishes he could reach out, tap a message onto Lan Zhan’s palm. Are you all right? How much longer? Patience, he thinks. Lan Zhan is nothing if not precise. When he is able to fight, he will.
“You truly are perceptive, Young Master Wei,” Jin Guangyao says, nonchalant, like he’s merely discussing the specifics of a night-hunt. “No, I did not use it. I didn’t need to. My father had his own vices, you see. I merely took advantage of them.”
Keep him talking. Wei Wuxian can do that. He’s good at it.
“Ah. Of course, everyone knows that. You’re perceptive too, Young Master Jin.”
Jin Guangyao seems bolstered by the compliment. “My father didn’t use the seal to its full advantage, and now A-Xuan does not wish to use it at all! A waste, I think. So much lost potential. It’s a shame that Lanling Jin has used the seal so rarely since you kindly placed it in our possession. Credit where credit is due — it is a stunning object.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. It resounds, hollow and grating, throughout the little room. “I’m not interested in your praise. Where was this generosity when your father was coming after me, or when I was being branded in your tower? It’s only now, when I have something you want, that you can be polite.” He pauses, thinks about it. “But your politeness is very strange, Young Master Jin, since you’ve also threatened to kill me.”
“You expected something else? Young Master Wei, don’t forget that you belong to us. The cultivation world doesn’t need you anymore. Your family has forgotten you. For what purpose are you alive? I know this is something you’ve always wanted — to be useful. To be valued. You are valued with me, Young Master Wei. Help me with the seal.” Jin Guangyao takes a step closer. “What is the Yiling Laozu without his weapon? Nothing.”
“Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says forcefully. When Wei Wuxian glances over, he sees that Lan Zhan’s hands are fisted into his robes, white at the knuckles. “He has not been forgotten. He is needed.”
“By who, Hanguang-jun? You?”
“Yes,” says Lan Zhan.
You matter, Lan Zhan had said. Was it only yesterday? Even the boat on the lake, the perfume of lotus blossoms and the warm glare of the sun, seems as if it had happened a hundred years ago.
“Maybe you’re right,” Wei Wuxian says, shrugging. The words don’t sting as much as Jin Guangyao must have intended — many things don’t, not when Wei Wuxian is in the habit of telling them to himself. “I don’t know if there’s a place for me after this. But you’re forgetting — I’m not without my weapon. I have it.”
The seal is still in his sleeve, the resentful energy tugging at the edges of his mind. Enticing, this time, like a warm bed beckoning in a storm. Maybe there’s still a way to destroy it — if he dies, too, maybe, a life for a life. That would be worth it. Paying his debt, of a sort, one that’s long overdue. He’d always known his time would run out eventually. He only wishes it would not have happened here, where Lan Zhan will have to see it.
“I forgot to mention, Hanguang-jun,” Jin Guangyao says now, turning to Lan Zhan, the air of one who has just remembered something critically important. “Zewu-jun is quite well, safe and sound in Lanling. Still, I fear he doesn’t know what unpleasant company his younger brother has been keeping. Wouldn’t it be terrible for another accident to befall another sect leader in such a short time?”
“Jin Guangyao,” Lan Zhan snaps. Wei Wuxian has never heard him like this, such wild unrestraint in his voice. “Remember yourself.”
“I could say the same to you,” Jin Guangyao returns smoothly. “Hanguang-jun, always such a paragon of virtue and integrity, lowering yourself to associate with a criminal. He cultivates the crooked path, raises corpses from the dead and sets them upon those he once called friends! Does that align with your morals?”
Lan Zhan’s mouth is a thin line, his words frosty. “Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” he says again.
“I won’t give it back,” Wei Wuxian says roughly. Every time he tries to look at Lan Zhan, his spiritual energy sealed, speaking more harshly and more fiercely than Wei Wuxian has ever heard, his lungs feel as though they’re on the verge of collapsing. He focuses on the seal instead, held so tightly in his palm that it’s setting grooves into his skin. Lan Zhan, you shouldn’t be defending me. “You’ll have to pry it out of my dead hands.”
“Remember you asked for it,” Jin Guangyao says, and he strides forward — the sound of steel scraping against a scabbard, his sword being drawn. Foolish, Wei Wuxian thinks, almost delirious with how stupid this whole thing is.
“My apologies,” he says, dipping his head in an abbreviated bow, just to be contrary, “but I have no intentions of being killed by you.”
He darts to the side, too quick for the outstretched blade, and reaches into his sleeve. Xiao Pingguo soars into the temple, clicking madly, and swoops for Jin Guangyao, who wheels away from the attacking claws, dropping Lan Zhan’s sword in the process. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to wrap his fingers around the seal before he sees, in his peripheral vision, a blur speeding towards him. He steels for an impact —
— and it never comes.
Instead there’s a choked sound, a sharp gasp of pain; Wei Wuxian blinks and Jin Guangyao is staggering backwards, clutching at his abdomen. Lan Zhan is standing beside him, his sword outstretched and glistening with blood. Jin Guangyao spits out a mouthful of blood, lunges again — Lan Zhan’s blade flashes blue-white and there’s a clean snapping sound, the other sword falling to the ground in two neat pieces.
Lan Zhan, meticulous even in destruction.
“Lan Zhan, I thought — I thought your energy was sealed,” Wei Wuxian says dumbly.
“It was,” says Lan Zhan, not lowering his blade. He’s pale, a single drop of sweat clinging to his temple.
“You shouldn’t have broken it by force!” Wei Wuxian says, alarmed, reaching for his arm. “Your qi —”
“Doesn’t matter. Wei Ying, are you all right?”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says, then — “I was supposed to be saving you, Lan Zhan, what are you doing taking away my opportunity by saving me instead?”
“You have already saved me,” Lan Zhan says. “Several times over.”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to answer — that’s not how it’s supposed to work — but he is suddenly shunted to one side, slamming against the damp moss of the wall, his sense of equilibrium tilted.
“Can you save him again?” Jin Guangyao asks.
He’s standing behind Lan Zhan, and there is a translucent string held tightly against Lan Zhan’s neck.
The resentful energy unfurls again in Wei Wuxian’s chest cavity, reading its head like a snake poised to strike, and he jerks forward — not this, you can’t take this —
“Don’t be hasty, Young Master Wei,” Jin Guangyao says sweetly. There’s a drop of blood on his chin, delicate as a fleck of ink. “You would not want my hand to slip.”
“Do not move, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, the string tightening against his throat as he speaks. His sword is still in his hand, limp, its point aimed at the ground.
Wei Wuxian swallows, as if that can push down the darkness now climbing into his throat, beckoning him. We can help you. Let us help you.
“You want this seal so badly,” he says aloud, drowning out the whispering in his head, “that you’re willing to kill innocent people for it? How can you say I’m the unscrupulous one here?”
“Young Master Wei, I know you are clever. You should have realized by now — even history favors the diplomatic. You have been unorthodox at best and unflinchingly arrogant at worst. It is not difficult to make enemies that way. It isn’t about what you are — it’s about what people believe.”
Let us help you.
“Now,” Jin Guangyao says. “The seal, if you please.”
Let us help you.
Wei Wuxian squeezes his hand around the Stygian Tiger Seal, feels the cool crush of the iron. The energy, thrumming against his skin.
Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan is already looking back. Something inside of him clicks, the pieces of a puzzle box falling into place. He can almost hear Lan Zhan’s voice in his ear. I trust you.
His free hand moves to grasp the blood-drawn talisman and he lunges — not for Jin Guangyao, but for Lan Zhan, a moment blurry with risk and adrenaline. Lan Zhan’s own hand is there, waiting, an open invitation for Wei Wuxian to take, and then they’re palm to palm, the talisman a thin paper barrier between them, and then —
It all happens very quickly.
Wei Wuxian reaches down inside of himself, searching. His lower dantian is empty, has been for long enough that he’s gotten used to the hollowness — but a golden core is not what he needs. Lan Zhan has a core. Wei Wuxian has resentful energy. It’s not hard to find: it’s twined around his bones, wrapped around his sternum, waiting to be brought to the surface again.
Then there’s warmth, spiritual energy flooding his meridians — Wei Wuxian is hot, thrumming with it — he could float or fly or be torn apart —
When Wei Wuxian blinks himself back into consciousness, the temple is no longer a temple. It no longer has a roof, or even a wall. It’s all crumbled down around them, a pile of rubble and ash. A beam is smoldering quietly. Jin Guangyao has collapsed to the ground, unconscious, a red gash bisecting the cinnabar dot on his forehead.
The temple is quiet, only the settling of broken timber to punctuate the stillness.
“It’s gone.” Wei Wuxian’s whole body feels lighter, like the Stygian Tiger Seal had been a mountain range resting on his shoulders, pressing down upon his lungs. “It’s over.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and — oh. Lan Zhan. “You did it.”
“What are you talking about?” Wei Wuxian squeezes his eyes shut, tries to contain the silly, irrational tears trying to roll their way out. “Me? I’m the one who got everyone into this whole mess. It was your core, Lan Zhan, I couldn’t have done any of this without you helping me.”
“It was your idea,” Lan Zhan insists, stubborn, and god, Wei Wuxian loves him.
“I didn’t know if it would work,” he confesses. Now he feels like he could laugh, and keep laughing until he can no longer breathe. “What would we have done then?”
“Figured it out,” says Lan Zhan.
He has a streak of dirt across one cheek, almost in precisely the same spot where Wei Wuxian had hit him with the cooking pan just two days earlier. His hair is falling out of its topknot, just a little, the loose strands framing his face like wisps of smoke. The ruined temple is very dark, and his eyes are very gold.
Wei Wuxian looks at that soft, warm mouth, and he thinks about kissing it. And then, because the Stygian Tiger Seal is gone and everything might be all right, somehow, he thinks oh, fuck it, and he does.
He isn’t thinking about the execution of it, really; he doesn’t have a plan for what he’ll do after they touch. He thinks, dimly, that Lan Zhan might pull away — but then they’re kissing, and Lan Zhan’s mouth is just as lovely as it looks, and Wei Wuxian can’t think at all. There’s a muted thump, Lan Zhan dropping his sword to the ground — Wei Wuxian barely registers it — and then Lan Zhan’s hand is on Wei Wuxian’s lower back, pulling him closer, and Wei Wuxian tilts his head back and lets out an involuntary noise from the back of his throat, caught halfway between a whine and a moan. It is his first kiss, and Lan Zhan is so good at this. Wei Wuxian is burning, a bonfire in the dark, sparks shooting up his spine and through his meridians. He’s starving, greedy for more, wanting to be so close to Lan Zhan that they fuse together and become one person, their energies and their souls twined together like the branches of an ancient tree.
They break apart. Lan Zhan’s face is flushed, his lips pink and kiss-bitten. There’s a wild sort of look in his eyes. Hunger. Wei Wuxian knows the feeling well.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian breathes. He’s floating, his body detached and drifting through the ether. “Wow.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, a little hoarse, like that’s the only thing that matters — Wei Wuxian’s name in his mouth.
Wei Wuxian likes that. His name has so often been a curse. But he feels safe here, if Lan Zhan is the one saying it. If Lan Zhan is the one holding him.
“Lan Zhan,” he says back, just for the sake of saying it, of having that name in his mouth. He’s grinning; he can’t stop. “You’re so good.”
Lan Zhan is running his thumb across Wei Wuxian’s jaw, his mouth, the tender skin beneath his eye. Feather-light, like Wei Wuxian is the most precious thing he has ever touched.
“I like you so much,” Wei Wuxian says helplessly. “Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, Hanguang-jun. It’s embarrassing how much I like you.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says, and kisses him again — just once, the corner of his mouth. “Not embarrassing if I like you, too.”
“You barely know me.” This is a dream. It has to be. “I’m terrible.”
“You are Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says simply, as if that uncomplicates everything.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chokes out. He wants to cover his face, but that would mean letting go of Lan Zhan, and that is a sacrifice he is not willing to make. “You need to warn me before saying such romantic things.”
“All right,” Lan Zhan agrees. “I will warn you. Next time.”
There’s a sharp sort of glitter in his eyes, like a promise. Next time. Wei Wuxian thinks he might melt into the dirt if it happens again. He wants it to happen again, wants there to be a hundred next times. A thousand. Wei Wuxian feels a tug in his lower dantian, warm and pleased.
It happens again: hesitant and a little unsteady, but there. Like a spark leaping from a flintstone onto kindling.
“I…” he starts, trails off. “This is…”
“I think,” Wei Wuxian starts again. He licks his lips. “A core?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widen and he takes a step forward — a small step, as far as he can manage without standing directly on top of Wei Wuxian’s shoes. “Now?”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian breathes. He laughs, bright and clear, a ringing sound in the silence of the woods. “I just felt it. I haven’t felt it since —” He doesn’t finish, doesn’t need to. Since I gave mine away, and Lan Zhan already knows that story. He hopes he can tell other stories to Lan Zhan, in the future, and hear other stories from Lan Zhan too, even though Lan Zhan thinks he is not a good storyteller. Wei Wuxian thinks Lan Zhan is very good at it. “The talisman. When you shared your energy with me!”
“The hand-holding,” Lan Zhan says.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says again. He wants to keep laughing; there’s a golden core inside of him, small and fragile but there, sending warm pulses of energy through his meridians. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, look what you did!”
“Or the kiss,” Lan Zhan suggests, a slight tilt to his mouth, almost smug. He raises their hands: still clasped together, the talisman sweat-sticky between them. “More intimate. More powerful.”
Wei Wuxian blushes. He can feel it rising up on his cheeks, trailing down his neck. “Lan Zhan,” he says, a little wildly, “you were supposed to warn me!”
“Hm,” says Lan Zhan, and he smiles. It’s a real one this time, his mouth a curving moon. “We can train your core.”
“Oh." Wei Wuxian has gone breathless at that smile. His lungs are working very hard right now. “Okay.”
“You can come back to Gusu with me.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says. He laughs and lets himself fall forward, into the warm circle of Lan Zhan’s arms. “Lan Zhan. Let’s go back to Gusu.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, and then they do.