It’s raining, hot as blood.
“Sizhui!” Wei Wuxian yells, crashing through the dark forest without trying to muffle his footsteps. “Sizhui! Jingyi! Where are you?”
“Wei-qianbei! We’re over here!”
The voice comes from directly ahead of him, as if Jingyi is standing just beyond the next thick tangle of trees. Wei Wuxian skids to a stop, shoes slipping on the rain-wet leaves, and whirls around so he’s running in the exact opposite direction of Jingyi’s terrified voice. He retraces his own steps, his path of torn leaves and snapped twigs and the occasional muddy handprint smeared across a tree trunk.
“Wei-qianbei, please hurry! Sizhui’s hurt!”
He keeps running. The calls fade.
Then, off to the left—
It’s Sizhui’s voice this time.
“Let me guess. Jingyi’s hurt,” Wei Wuxian huffs, and cuts a hard right turn, leaping over a fallen log slick with moss. Rain drips into his eyes, his thin summer robes drenched through and soggy, clinging to his thighs like seaweed.
“Jingyi’s hurt!” Sizhui’s voice comes from behind him, hollow with fear.
“Yeah, yeah. How much blood is there.”
“Please, Wei-qianbei, there’s so much blood!”
“Oh, so much blood,” Wei Wuxian says. “That does sound concerning.” His knuckles when they catch the moonlight are bone-white, his dizi black and sleek as birch-tar. Around him, the peeping frogs—normally so fond of the rain—have gone silent.
The yao resembles a xiezhi, being a goat with black fur and red eyes and a single horn protruding from its forehead. But xiezhi don't attack innocents, only the corrupt, and this yao has killed two villagers and swallowed mouthfuls of their flesh. Tonight, the junior disciples were supposed to track down and destroy it. They left the Cloud Recesses at sundown, and by moonrise had sent up a distress flare. Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan set off on Bichen immediately and found Sizhui, Jingyi, and three other juniors huddled in a forest clearing. One was injured, and Sizhui explained that the yao had the ability to mimic human voices. It had tricked them into separating, hunted them one at a time.
"Take him to the healers," Lan Zhan instructed Sizhui, nodding at the injured disciple. "Wei Ying and I will eliminate the yao."
Found you, Wei Wuxian thinks, ducking behind a tree, and raises his dizi to his lips.
The good thing is he kills the yao.
The less good thing is the yao manages to gore him with its horn, which is coated in some sort of venom. It looks like venom, anyway. It's green and viscous. Wei Wuxian has little faith in green, viscous substances, especially those originating from evil flesh-eating goats, and the wound is already beginning to burn.
"Same. Fucking. Place," he gasps, when Lan Zhan swoops out of the sky like a blue heron, rushing to his side. "Same place as Jiang Cheng. Same place as Jin Ling. Why is it always, always, always—"
"Wei Ying, just hold on," says Lan Zhan grimly, and they're flying.
Doctor Zhen, the senior healer in the Cloud Recesses, takes one look at Wei Wuxian's wound and says, "Hanguang-jun. Did you kill the yao?"
"Wei Ying did," says Lan Zhan. He's got an arm around Wei Wuxian's back.
"Good. I need you to bring me the corpse." Lan Zhan must look reluctant. She adds, "Quickly, Hanguang-jun."
Time slips after that, night hours fading into dawn and daylight like a healing bruise. Wei Wuxian's wound is packed with an herbal salve and bandaged tightly, then Doctor Zhen has him drink something thick and saccharine that drags him into a dreamless sleep. When he next wakes, Lan Zhan is sitting at his bedside and the sky beyond the windows is evening-blue, and his stomach hurts but it takes him a moment to remember why.
Doctor Zhen comes over, silver hair burnished gold in the candlelight. “Here," she says, and presses a small clay pot into Lan Zhan's hands. "This medicine contains the yao’s blood and stomach lining; it will act as an antidote for the venom from its horn. It’s fortunate that you managed to kill it, Wei-gongzi.”
“I live to be helpful,” Wei Wuxian croaks.
“The medicine will cure him?” says Lan Zhan.
Doctor Zhen nods. “He will recover by first light. However, I must warn you that the process will be… unpleasant. The medicine does not purify, neutralize, or otherwise counteract the yao’s venom. It simply purges the venom from Wei-gongzi's body. Considering the venom has already entered his bloodstream….”
“All my blood’s gonna fall out,” says Wei Wuxian, nodding wisely against Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“Ah,” Doctor Zhen says. Her eyes flick between Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan behind him, supporting most of his weight. Possibly Lan Zhan’s face is doing something alarming, because she hurries to clarify, “No, the majority of your blood will remain in your body.”
“The majority,” Lan Zhan says.
“He will make a full recovery,” she says firmly. “It will take about twelve hours for the venom to leave his body. Those hours will likely be excruciatingly painful, and I am sorry for that. But he will live.”
“Twelve hours? Pshhh,” says Wei Wuxian. He doesn’t remember closing his eyes, but he must have. His face is pressed to Lan Zhan’s shoulder, or arm, or maybe chest. Somewhere warm and strong, soft robes and corded muscle and the deep drumbeat of Lan Zhan’s beloved heart, the scent of sandalwood and rain. “That’s nothing. Totally doable, right, Lan Zhan?”
If Lan Zhan responds, he doesn’t hear it. Then there’s a touch to his chin, cool fingers tipping his head back and nudging the rim of a clay pot against his lips, and Lan Zhan’s murmuring, “Swallow, Wei Ying,” and he obeys.
Doctor Zhen advises him to spend the night in one of the seclusion houses deep in the woods outside the Cloud Recesses, so no one can hear him scream. There are children and elders in the Cloud Recesses who need their rest. A silencing talisman can only mask so much.
Lan Zhan is visibly upset about it, in that his mouth tightens and his eyes flash like riverbed mica catching the light and his shoulders stiffen like he’s about to start arguing. Wei Wuxian grasps his wrist. “Lan Zhan. She’s right. It’s better for everyone.”
“You should not have to travel in this state,” Lan Zhan says.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, voice splintering on the second syllable, and that’s all it takes to make Lan Zhan back down.
“Very well,” he says. “Can you fly?”
“Not anymore, you silly man, did you forget?”
“I meant—never mind.” He inclines his chin in Doctor Zhen’s direction. “Zhen-daifu. You have my deepest thanks.”
“Of course, Hanguang-jun,” she says. “Watch over him tonight, and fetch me if you need anything. He’ll be alright.”
The first hour isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s almost nice. Lan Zhan holds him extra tight as they fly on Bichen over the dark forest, and Wei Wuxian’s depth perception is pulsating in and out so it looks like both the treetops and the emerging stars are close enough to touch, like he’s in a boat skimming over shadowy green water, surrounded by fireflies, all the world at his fingertips. Hot and dizzy, he tucks his face into the crook of Lan Zhan’s neck. He can feel the medicine in his belly, imagines it coiling like a snake. Thin, bitter liquid; it tasted like bile and rotten meat. His gore wound is still oozing black blood, soaking through his robes and the latest set of bandages and probably Lan Zhan’s robes, given how close they’re pressed together. When they step off the sword there will probably be a splotchy bloodstain on the left side of Lan Zhan’s lower dantian, the mirror of Wei Wuxian’s wound, black and shiny as spilled ink.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan’s voice comes at some point, low and soft in his ear. “Wei Ying. We’re here. Can you walk?”
“Mm-hm,” says Wei Wuxian. “Yeah, yeah. ‘M so good at walking, Lan Zhan.”
He is lifted. A hand slides down his spine; another briefly cups the back of his head, then moves to his waist, then one side of his body is very warm. One of his arms is slung across Lan Zhan’s broad shoulders, and he can feel his shoes bumping over the ground. We must look so funny , he thinks. Like a giant crab, with all these limbs, our heads the eye-stalks . A door scrapes open and shut, and suddenly the darkness behind Wei Wuxian’s eyelids flushes red and he’s being lowered onto a bamboo sleeping mat.
“This isn’t so bad,” he mumbles. “Doc Zhen made it sound horrible, but really I’m just sleepy.”
“Drink,” says Lan Zhan, somewhere close. A hand under Wei Wuxian’s neck lifts him upright. Water pours into his mouth, down his chin, and the soft brush of a sleeve wipes it away. “Wei Ying. It’s alright if you sleep. I’ll be here with you.”
“Oh, good,” Wei Wuxian says, and falls asleep with a smile.
He wakes up choking on blood.
Wei Wuxian rolls onto his side just in time to vomit blood all over the floorboards, a hot spatter that burns his throat and leaves his stomach cramping, clenching like a fist. “Fuck,” he says, spitting pink bile, and then his stomach’s lurching and he’s vomiting again, somehow even more than before. From the looks of it, nothing but blood. He hasn’t eaten since before he went out after the juniors last night. The contents of his stomach are red, red, red, with dark jellylike clots. Maybe that’s the venom.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and brushes Wei Wuxian’s sweaty bangs out of his eyes. “Wei Ying. Are you—?” He seems to realize the absurdity of the question and switches to, “You’re alright. You’re alright.”
“‘M fine,” Wei Wuxian affirms. He wants to look at Lan Zhan, sweet Lan Zhan hovering at his shoulder, but his head feels so heavy and he can’t stop staring at the pool of blood. His vision is crackling at the edges, scorched and melting like pork fat in a hot pan. “Yeah. Yeah. Sorry about the floor. I hope it didn’t get on your pretty robes. Lan Zhan, I think—”
Wei Wuxian is no stranger to pain. He considers it an old friend; in some ways, the oldest and most constant he’s ever known. He doesn’t like it, not exactly, but there is comfort and relief in familiarity. In the silence of the Burial Mounds it was easy to forget himself, to forget that he was human, or at least the husk of one. Not yet a ghost. Pain was helpful in those days, as it placed him solidly in his body. The wreckage of his body; the abandoned, rotting house. As long as the structure holds, you still have a place to live. Even if it’s falling apart. Even if the walls are crumbling and the roof is peppered with holes, that means there are walls and a roof. A place to inhabit. So he wasn’t one of the ghosts howling over the barren mountain, mingling with the dust. He was bloody and alive. Hurting down to his bones, past his bones to the chasm inside him, the darkness where once there was light.
The point is that he knows pain. They’ve got an understanding. They tolerate each other. At the risk of sounding arrogant, Wei Wuxian’s tolerance is higher than most.
Yet when his veins catch fire, he screams.
Nine months on the road, and here’s the thought that broke him:
If I’d slept with Lan Zhan before I left, I’d be delivering our baby any day now.
Obviously it was a silly, baseless thought. Wei Wuxian, for all his impossibilities, is not actually capable of bearing children—as far as he knows. That thought came because he was drunk and lonely, missing Lan Zhan like lotus lakes and sticky midsummer heat, like honey-colored wood and mosquito bites and a laugh like bells, like wind chimes, high and lovely. Wei Wuxian is a hermit crab. He crawls from one home to the next, curls up in the spiraling halls of someone’s heart and hopes to god he can stay there forever, that they never notice there’s too much of him to fit.
Lan Zhan’s got the biggest heart. The biggest heart. There’s room to grow and then some.
If I’d slept with Lan Zhan before I left—
“But I didn’t,” he said aloud that night, perched on the roof of some inn, in some village, so far from Gusu that the innkeeper hadn’t even heard of the name Hanguang-jun. “I didn’t. I never did.”
“Because he had duties. Because I was leaving. I had to.”
“Because I…. No, because he’s….” He shook the last drops of wine into his mouth, leaned back against the cold, shell-curved tiles of the roof. Above him the stars trembled like dew on a spiderweb, the moon like the white of a rolling eye. Wei Wuxian tried to remember all the reasons he wasn’t in the Jingshi at that moment, across the table from Lan Zhan, pouring his bitter tea and making sure he was well-teased enough to smile. “What if no one’s been teasing him in my absence?” he wondered aloud. “What if it’s been nine months, and no one’s teased him?”
And he started to cry.
The next morning, he collected his donkey and rode slowly east, in the direction of the rising sun.
He only screams once. He takes pride in that.
Doctor Zhen said the medicine would purge the yao’s venom from his body, from his bloodstream. She said it would be excruciating, and she was right. Wei Wuxian can feel the toxic blood in his veins. It alternates between the sensation of a deep itch so intense he tries to claw his own skin off—Lan Zhan has to hold his wrists—and fire. Just fire, burning him alive from the inside out. He keeps expecting to look down and see his skin blistered and peeling, noxious smoke rising from his pores, the flesh melting off his bones like candle wax. He’s curled up in the fetal position on the bamboo mat, shuddering as wave after wave of agony crashes over him, hot and relentless as a boiling ocean.
He’s stopped vomiting, stomach hollowed, but the blood seeks an exit. It finds his eyes, his nostrils, his ears. It oozes down his cheeks, a mixture of oil-slick blood and involuntary tears tasting of rust and salt and snot. It finds the original gore wound in his belly, which weeps black for a long time—minutes, hours, who the fuck knows—then finally red again. Wei Wuxian’s never been so relieved to touch a wound and have his fingers come away red.
Through it all, Lan Zhan clutches his hand. His wrists, when he tries deliriously to scratch down to the vein. Lan Zhan smooths the sweat-soaked hair out of his face, wipes the blood off his cheeks and jaw and lips, his leaking ears, his throat. Lan Zhan, who speaks only when necessary, talks to Wei Wuxian until his voice goes hoarse, then swallows a single mouthful of water and keeps talking. It’s not always clear what he’s saying. Wei Wuxian is sliding in and out of consciousness, sometimes the fire and sometimes the smoke, floating, formless. He dreams Wen Qing is there, her knife on his belly, her hands in his guts. She says, “Wei Ying, it’s almost over. You’re almost done.”
Then she’s Lan Zhan again, and Wei Wuxian tries to listen through the blood in his ears. At first Lan Zhan was talking about Sizhui, all the night hunts he’s gone on in the months since Wei Wuxian left, his talent and cleverness and unwavering compassion. Then Lan Zhan talked about his time as Chief Cultivator—he stepped down three months ago—and how annoying it was, how boring and frustrating. How much he missed—Wei Wuxian. Night hunting with Wei Wuxian. The road, the ghosts, their backs pressed together, their spines like the horizon ridge, where mountain meets sky.
“Which is which,” Wei Wuxian rasps, nonsensical.
Lan Zhan understands him. “You’re the sky.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes roll back in his head. When he comes to, Lan Zhan is leaning over him, a pale shape against the candlelight and the dark wooden beams arcing across the ceiling. Lan Zhan’s eyes are huge and frightened, his face bloodless. Wei Wuxian’s mind is sharper than it has been all night, the howling pain momentarily silenced, so he says: “Lan Zhan. You should—you should go back to the Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Zhan’s big hand tightens around his own. “Do you need Doctor Zhen?”
He shakes his head. He can sense the next wave coming, and he wants Lan Zhan to leave before it hits. “No. I’m fine. I’m fine, I think the worst is over, so—really, you should go.”
Wei Wuxian forces his eyes open. His throat clicks when he swallows. “Lan Zhan. Go home. Get some rest, come collect me in the morning. I’ll be fine, promise.”
“Not a chance.”
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. “I am not leaving you alone like this. Do not ask that of me. I don’t understand why—” His jaw works. “I don’t understand.”
For the first time, Wei Wuxian notices the bloody handprints all over Lan Zhan’s robes. Smeared finger-trails on his sleeves, his shoulders, the spread of blue fabric over his thighs; some fresh and some dried and flaking. Lan Zhan is kneeling on the bamboo mat, Wei Wuxian’s body curved around his knees. His hair is gathered over one shoulder, his forehead ribbon crooked. Flecks of dried blood on his jaw.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chokes out. “I don’t want you to see this! Not anyone, but especially not you!”
Lan Zhan rears back. On him it is a slight movement, more a twitch than anything else. His expression barely flickers, but Wei Wuxian knows him, his face and his body and the soft meat of his heart, the tenderness within those walls.
“No,” he says. “No, fuck, I didn’t mean it like that—Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan, fuck, sweetheart, this really isn’t how I wanted to do this.” He’s slurring a little. He sounds drunk and panicky, his robes so crusted with blood that it snows when he moves, but so be it. “Hey,” he says. “It’s just—you love me, don’t you?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes flare wider. His lips part, but no sound comes out.
“You love me. This hurts you. If I suffer, you suffer. That’s how it is, right? Right, Lan Zhan?”
Slow and stunned, Lan Zhan nods once. He’s gripping Wei Wuxian’s hand so hard it hurts. In these hours of agony, it’s a good hurt. It’s such a good hurt.
“C’mere.” Wei Wuxian tugs at him. Lan Zhan bends easily, resting their foreheads together. “I’ll get blood on your ribbon,” Wei Wuxian whispers, and Lan Zhan presses closer, doesn’t let him pull away. His scent cuts through the heavy smell of blood. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Me too. Okay? Me too, I love you, I love you, I don’t want to hurt you ever again, I’ve done it enough for—for two lifetimes, haven’t I? Do you get it? Lan Zhan, I don’t want you to hurt. I know—it’s not that easy, I know. But if I can, if I can prevent it, if I can ease it….”
Lan Zhan lets go of his hand only to cup his face, both hands sinking into his stringy wet hair, thumbs brushing the dried blood on his cheeks. They’re so close Wei Ying can hear it when he swallows, can feel it when he lets out a shaky breath. “It would be worse,” Lan Zhan says, “to leave you alone. To not—be here with you, beside you. When you’re hurting. Wei Ying. That is infinitely worse.”
Oh. “Oh,” Wei Wuxian breathes.
His eyes spill over, hot and wet. This time he knows it isn’t blood. Lan Zhan pulls back to look at him, and with a twinge of shock Wei Wuxian sees that he’s crying, too. Silent tears slip down his face, tracing the outline of his jaw. “Wei Ying,” he says, remarkably steady. “I want to be with you.”
The next wave is coming. There is venom left to purge; Wei Wuxian’s not done bleeding yet. He reaches up, catching a tear as it falls from Lan Zhan’s chin. “Love you,” he says. “‘M gonna love you in the morning, when I’m better. Will you stay here with me for the rest of the night and—and then take me home, and draw me a bath? Help get the blood off?”
Lan Zhan gathers Wei Wuxian in his arms and clutches him close, lips brushing the shell of his ear. “Always,” he says. “Always.”
“Keep holding me, okay?”
“Always.” A kiss to the side of his head. “I’ll be here.”
“I know you will. My Lan Zhan’s more stubborn than Little Apple,” says Wei Wuxian, and laughs into Lan Zhan’s shoulder as the wave hits.