Chapter 1: Beginnings
“YAH! WANG YIBO!”
The affronted cry rang out across the water, amplified by the dense walls of forest surrounding them. Wang Yibo pulled away with a cackle, splashing water around him as he waded away from Xiao Zhan’s playful anger. The younger man had just used his prop sword to effectively pee on Xiao Zhan, water shooting from a gap in the hilt right onto his unknowing costar.
Admittedly it was funny, and Xiao Zhan was laughing even as he chased after Wang Yibo, water-sodden robes slowing him down. The pebbled bottom of the springs was slippery beneath Xiao Zhan’s feet, the rocks round and weathered from time, and Xiao Zhan darted an arm out to catch himself from slipping when he finally caught up to Yibo. Wang Yibo did not object to Xiao Zhan clinging to him for balance, helping secure him with one big hand around Xiao Zhan’s wrist.
“Lao Xiao needs to work on his stamina, I was worried you were going to drown back there.”
“Yah! You little - -“ Xiao Zhan dipped his hand down to splash Wang Yibo, water flying everywhere. He managed to semi-drench himself in the process too, making Wang Yibo laugh so hard he fell over backwards.
Giggling at the younger’s antics, Xiao Zhan absentmindedly took a step back, only to gasp as he felt a sudden sharp, stabbing pain on his left heel.
“Shit.” He cursed, knee jerking up reflexively. Wang Yibo turned to him in confusion, the grin freezing on his face when Xiao Zhan bent over, lifting his foot up out of the water and gulped at what he saw. There was a medium sized cut on his heel, blood covering the surrounding skin and dripping down to stain the water below crimson.
“Fuck, Zhan-ge, are you okay? That looks pretty deep.”
Wang Yibo waded quickly towards him, the water splashing noisily around his knees with his haste. Xiao Zhan bit his lip as he prodded gently around the injury, wiping away some of the blood with his finger. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Yibo’s eyes widen, immediately calling out;
“Medic! Zhan-ge hurt his foot!”
“I’m okay, Yibo, it’s not that bad.”
Yibo steadfastly ignored him, face set in stubborn worry as he bent down next to Xiao Zhan, one hand going to gently support Xiao Zhan’s elbow. The other beckoned over one of the staff standing at the edges of the spring. Together they each supported one of Xiao Zhan’s arms, helping him as Xiao Zhan hobbled his way over to the rocks, stepping gingerly to avoid putting more pressure on his foot.
Yibo fussed over him as Xiao Zhan sat down, pushing himself into Xiao Zhan’s space to guide him down and fetching one of the antiseptic wipes, opening it with assured fingers to hand over to Xiao Zhan.
“Yibo, can I have some space please.”
Yibo blinked at him in confusion, taking one small step backwards, then another when Xiao Zhan stared pointedly at him. Eventually he relented and sat down just off to Xiao Zhan’s right side, leaving Xiao Zhan to nurse his injuries in peace.
Luckily the wound wasn’t as bad as it had first appeared. The water had made it look like it had bled more than it actually did, but Xiao Zhan dabbed carefully at the cut with tissues until the bleeding slowed down.
Yibo appeared restless beside him, fidgeting back and forth and flicking his wig over his shoulder whilst the staff milled around them.
“Thank you.” Xiao Zhan thanked the assistant, taking the clean tissue and placing the bloodied one by his side.
“Does it hurt?” Yibo asked him when he turned back round, hands clasped on his knees. Xiao Zhan shook his head, pursing his lips in amusement as a thought came to him.
“What would you do if I said yes? Bandage my foot with your ribbon?” He laughed, swaying towards the younger, one slender hand covering his giggles. To his shock Yibo actually looked to be considering it, tugging experimentally on the long white ribbon that was a staple of his character.
Fortunately Xiao Zhan was given an actual bandaid before Wang Yibo could make his own, and he pressed it on smoothly.
“Good as new.”
“I think we’re gonna take a break for lunch here,” Director Chen announced into his megaphone, a relieved sigh rippling through the staff immediately after. Xiao Zhan shifted closer to Yibo to avoid the bustle of the staff packing up, inhaling sharply when the action caused his foot to knock against the rough rock outcropping beneath his feet. The pain was now shifting from a sharp bite to a dull ache, but was clearly still sensitive if the throbbing in his heel was anything to go by.
“It hurts, doesn't it.”
Xiao Zhan flinched, snapping his head up to see Wang Yibo leaning in close to him, dark eyes intently focused on Xiao Zhan’s expression. Xiao Zhan felt his cheeks flush a little, and he cleared his throat, glancing away.
“Aiyah, why are you worrying so much? I’m fine, Lao Wang.” He grinned, aiming a weak punch at Yibo’s arm that the younger easily avoided, grabbing Xiao Zhan’s wrist instead. Xiao Zhan tried not to squirm when Yibo’s hand closed around his wrist, biting his lip to swallow down any response. Yibo’s fingers were long and cool, soothing on Xiao Zhan’s overheated skin. There was a faint roughness from the callouses that decorated each blunt fingertip, which pressed against Xiao Zhan’s skin when Wang Yibo for some reason began taking his pulse.
“Yibo!” Xiao Zhan laughed incredulously, tugging his hand away. “What are you doing? I hurt my foot, not my heart.”
Wang Yibo grinned back at him, his forehead ribbon slightly crooked. Xiao Zhan’s fingers itched to straighten the fabric. Yibo’s lips were twisted in a matching crooked smirk as he replied, “I’ve got to look after our amazing main actor Xiao Zhan. What would people say if they knew I let you go sick?”
“Wang Yibo you - you’re a main actor too! What kind of nonsense - -“
Wang Yibo’s cackle drowned out the rest of Xiao Zhan’s words.
“Do you think you can walk?” Yibo asked him seriously, after they had finished their little play fight. They were almost all alone now, spare for a few staff loitering about. Director Chen was crouched in between them, looking at Xiao Zhan’s foot with a frown.
“I think it’s best if you rest your foot for a bit before we start filming again, Xiao laoshi.”
Xiao Zhan opened his mouth, ready to protest that he was fine and there was no need to delay filming any longer, but one sharp look from the older man had him deflating rapidly.
“I understand, director.” He tried unsuccessfully to keep the pout out of his voice, head hung low to shield his face. Director Chen laughed good naturedly, clapping him on the shoulder before standing up.
“Take care of A-Zhan, Wang Laoshi. That’s an order.”
Xiao Zhan caught the tail end of the exchange between the two men, director Chen’s features alight with mischief whilst Yibo looked faintly flustered, coughing into his fist twice.
“See you later, director!”
Both Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo watched him go until he was nothing more than a faint blot in the distance, in the end disappearing between a grove of trees.
Finally alone, Xiao Zhan allowed himself to slump, still being mindful of getting any dirt or wrinkles on his costume. Wang Yibo glanced over at him worriedly as Xiao Zhan rolled his neck, the bones grinding in protest. Where they were sat offered at least some semblance of shade, however Xiao Zhan could still feel the extent of the midday heat, oppressive and constant. Sweat beaded from underneath his wig, tinted by the makeup on his face and Xiao Zhan daubed it away carefully, mindful of staining the white sleeves of his robes and facing the costume jiejie’s wrath.
A tissue was thrust into his vision and he took it gratefully, fingers brushing lightly against Yibo’s.
“If you want to go back with the others, I can carry you,” Yibo offered.
“Carry me? Lao Wang, I’m too heavy.”
“Lies. Xiao laoshi is like a fairy, pretty and light- - “ Xiao Zhan made a spluttering sound, “and I have boyfriend strength anyways.”
“Boyfriend strength? Yibo, this is a brotherly drama,” Xiao Zhan rasped, cheeks burning. This heat was affecting Xiao Zhan badly. He kept getting hot flushes randomly, with no obvious cause.
Yibo snorted at that, a distant look in his eyes that had Xiao Zhan swallowing nervously.
They fell into a comfortable silence after that, the gentle sound of wildlife lulling Xiao Zhan into a semi-daze, eyelids blinking sleepily shut. He tugged at the neck of his robes, pulling apart the stiff fabric to try and allow a breeze to reach his sweaty and overheated neck.
Yibo made a low noise beside him, something like a groan, and Xiao Zhan turned with difficulty, his movements sluggish with the kind of fatigue brought on by heat swamped limbs.
Yibo was looking at a point in the centre of the springs, his hands fisting on his thighs. Xiao Zhan followed his gaze, looking longingly at the glittering surface of the pool.
“That looks so refreshing,” Xiao Zhan commented wistfully, fanning his face with the sleeve of his robes. He longed to jump in and submerge himself in the icy depths, a blessed relief from the sticky summer heat. His head swum dizzyingly, the pounding behind his eyes growing words every minute. When he blinked dark spots pulsed in his vision and he swayed lightly, suddenly feeling very faint.
“Woah, Zhan-ge. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Xiao Zhan waved away Yibo’s concern, scooting forwards until his legs dangled over the edge of the boulder they were sitting on and his feet could skim the surface of the water.
“You should get in,” Yibo said jokingly, his familiar croaky laughter filling the air a second later. Xiao Zhan paused, considering, then before Yibo could react he was pushing off the rock and sliding into the springs with a softplop.
“Xiao Zhan!” Yibo’s affronted cry startled several birds nearby, who took into the sky with a series of indignant squawks. Xiao Zhan tuned out the sounds of Yibo’s berating, focusing on wading deeper into the pool until the water brushed the tops of his thighs and he shivered.
“Zhan-ge, what are you doing? You hurt your foot, what if it gets worse?”
Yibo splashed up behind him, scowling.
Xiao Zhan laughed, pushing him playfully on the shoulder. “Lao Wang worries about me too much, I’ll be careful.”
“No.” Yibo shook his head stubbornly. “You could catch a cold. We should go back.”
He reached out to grab Xiao Zhan’s arm but the elder ducked away. Yibo huffed, lunging after Xiao Zhan again, managing to snag a hold of his sleeve and yank the other man towards him. Xiao Zhan stumbled, feet slipping unsteadily on the smooth pebbles. He wobbled dramatically for several moments before ultimately falling against Yibo, sending them both down with an almighty splash.
The shock of being suddenly submerged was an icy slap, freezing all of Xiao Zhan’s movements as he struggled to acclimatise. He forced his eyes open, vision a swirling mass of greens and blues, and caught sight of Yibo’s face staring straight at him.
Distantly he was aware of a tight grip on his wrist, Yibo’s hold, tugging him back up towards the surface. Xiao Zhan kicked his legs, but there was something pulling at him, like his foot was caught between two rocks. He cursed in his head, yanking his leg up harshly, but whatever he was trapped in wouldn’t budge. In fact it seemed to be pulling him back down, an ever growing force sucking him in.
Xiao Zhan felt panic blossom in his chest, bright and terrifying, and he fought down the urge to thrash. By now Yibo had noticed he wasn’t surfacing, and he was tugging insistently at Xiao Zhan’s wrist, his confusion clear in his face.
“What’s wrong?” He mouthed underwater, bubbles streaming from his mouth in a myriad of blues and whites.
“Stuck,” Xiao Zhan mouthed back, his chest tight from anxiety and lack of air. Yibo’s expression stiffened slightly, the yanks on Xiao Zhan’s wrist gaining a sense of desperation. The water made his movements sluggish and heavy, fighting against them even as Wang Yibo tried his hardest to pull them both back up. With one particularly aggressive tug, it happened. In slow motion Wang Yibo’s fingers slipped from where they had been a bar around Xiao Zhan’s wrist, and Xiao Zhan had nothing holding him anymore. The distance between their hands was so minute it was almost comical when Xiao Zhan tried once more, desperately to seize his lifeline, to grab a hold of Yibo, yet missed, and flailing was dragged down.
The last thing he saw was Yibo diving after him, screaming soundlessly.
darkness, water, air, can’t breathe, need air, light, swim, swim, air, swim, almost… there…
Xiao Zhan surfaced with a violent gasp, lungs screaming with exertion. Water spilled from his lips as he coughed and spluttered, clutching a hand to his chest and hacking brutally.
“Yibo?” His voice was hoarse and weak, whisper-thin as he desperately called out the younger’s name. Xiao Zhan’s robes slapped against the water when he stumbled forwards, blindly colliding with something solid and warm.
Suddenly there were rough hands pulling at him, grabbing him into a hug so tight it expelled the little air Xiao Zhan still had in his lungs. Xiao Zhan ignored the momentary discomfort, the relief he felt at finding Yibo okay and unharmed, almost euphoric. He clung to Yibo in return, anchoring himself to broad shoulders and trying to will down the sob building in his throat.
“What happened?” He asked into Yibo’s shoulder, fisting his hands in Yibo’s robes until he was certain that nothing could take him away from Yibo again.
Yibo grunted, words spilling from his mouth so quickly Xiao Zhan struggled to catch them all.
“You…underwater… thought you were drowning… scared… don’t ever… please. “
Yibo’s hold on Xiao Zhan tightened until it was almost painful, and Xiao Zhan didn’t know if it was him or Yibo shaking. Maybe both.
“I - I couldn’t get away, it was like something grabbed me.”
Xiao Zhan’s chest heaved brokenly, heart thudding so heavily he could feel the resounding beat in his ears. The rest of his words fell off into silence, a small sob tumbling from his mouth that Yibo answered with a low painful sound, holding Xiao Zhan even tighter.
Xiao Zhan didn’t know how long he and Yibo stood there, clutching each other, but eventually they calmed enough to let go, taking a few halting steps apart. Even then it was a hesitant thing, the grip of their hands still bruisingly tight.
“Okay?” Yibo murmured, and Xiao Zhan nodded, lifting his chin up to face the sky.
It was then that he noticed something was… different.
“Where is everyone?” His voice still came out scratchy, and he winced at the sound of it.
Something in the air felt inherently different, a growing sense of unease that boiled up and threatened to overspill as Xiao Zhan stood in the centre of the cold springs, water lapping around his calves.
It was quiet, too quiet. Gone was the soft chatter of the staff milling about the shooting location. In its place was only silence, broken only by the faintest hint of birdsong.
“What’s wrong, Zhan-ge?” Yibo reached out for his arm, worried. Xiao Zhan met him halfway, grabbing Yibo’s thumb loosely, but he was distracted.
“Doesn’t this feel different, Yibo? It’s too quiet I - - I don’t know.”
Yibo frowned, tilting his head back and peering at their surroundings. Xiao Zhan watched him, chewing his lower lip nervously. The water splashed around his ankles as he shifted from foot to foot, restless energy stopping him from standing still. After an age Yibo seemed to finish his assessment, turning back to Xiao Zhan. His expression in that moment reminded Xiao Zhan of Lan Wangji, serious and strong, excluding a quiet yet undeniable power.
“Stay here, ge. I’m gonna go look around a bit.”
Xiao Zhan instantly objected.
“What do you mean “stay here”? I’m coming with you Wang Yibo, don’t you dare try and tell me not to.”
Yibo glared at him and Xiao Zhan glared back, winning the impromptu staring contest when Wang Yibo eventually acquiesced, muttering something under his breath about “stupid big doe eyes” that Xiao Zhan chose to ignore.
They stumbled out the springs, drenched robes weighty and cumbersome with water. Several times Xiao Zhan nearly slipped, clinging to Wang Yibo’s biceps, his fingers digging in harshly. His foot ached in protest every time he put it down, but he stifled his sounds of pain, not wanting to worry Yibo further.
When they reached the top of the hill it was undeniably clear that they were not where they had been before, and this wasn’t the same cold springs. There was no one, no bodies, no traces of human life.
“Well,” Yibo stated, and Xiao Zhan could hear the unspoken volumes behind that word, “They’re not all playing a prank on us, are they? Director Chen and the others?”
“But why would they do it during filming?”
Yibo didn’t respond, although the frown on his face grew more severe.
Xiao Zhan pushed off from where he was leaning into Yibo’s side, marching along the main path. There was a beat before he heard Yibo’s surprised grunt, and the subsequent scramble of limbs, the younger rushing to catch up with him.
“Ge! Ge?” Yibo’s voice was shrill with alarm, “Zhan-ge! What are you doing - -“
“Exploring,” Xiao Zhan huffed, bunching his wet robes in one hand and holding them up away from his legs. Yibo made a wheezing sound behind him, and his ears were strangely red when Xiao Zhan threw a look at him over his shoulder.
“You should — you should be careful ge.”
Yibo seemed oddly distracted, gaze fixed pointedly at the ground. Xiao Zhan spared his strange behaviour a single puzzled look before he continued with renewed vigour.
“It’s okay Yibo, it’s not like anything bad could happen - -“
They both froze as a white robed figure came barrelling down the slope, slamming into Xiao Zhan and nearly knocking him to the floor.
“Where have you been? Have you been making trouble again? I told you to stop bothering - - Lan Er Gongzi!!”
It was Wang Zhuo Cheng, yet something about him was different. As Yibo watched he seized Xiao Zhan in a chokehold, pulling him away from Yibo’s side. “A- ah!” Xiao Zhan whimpered against the painful and restricting grip, stumbling.
At once Yibo was spurred into action, surging forwards and grabbing the arm holding the elder man and throwing it away. Xiao Zhan rushed away, rubbing at his neck balefully.
Wang Yibo held back nothing, turning on Wang Zhou Cheng with a sharp glare, hissing, “What are you doing?”
“L- - Lan er gongzi I — what do you mean? Was my brother not annoying you? Did he do anything to you?”
Wang Zhou Cheng made a move as if to grab Xiao Zhan, but Yibo moved in front of the elder, blocking him.
Wang Zhou Cheng visibly faltered, a strange look alighting on his face before a frown overtook his expression.
“What’s wrong, Lan er gongzi?”
Why did Zhou Cheng keep calling him er gongzi?
“A-Cheng, why do you keep calling us that?” Xiao Zhan was frowning, and a sinking, impossible realisation had begun in Yibo’s gut.
“Wei Wuxian! I am being polite! Don’t think I am as shameless as you, calling the Second Jade by his given name.”
The scowl on the man’s face only grew more pronounced. By now Wang Zhoucheng would have folded, dissolving into laughter with the success of pranking the two main leads, yet the man in front of them did nothing but scowl.
A ludicrous thought was brewing in Yibo’s mind, that somehow made no sense and was also the only explanation. Yibo could almost hear Xiao Zhan’s mind whirring, and saw the moment the elder reached the same conclusion as him.
“A-Cheng,” he began slowly, hesitant, “your name, it is …”
“Did you hit your head in those springs? It’s me! Your brother, Jiang Wanyin.” He scoffed, rolling his eyes, and Yibo suddenly felt like he had been punched in the stomach.
“Oh my god.” Xiao Zhan whispered beside him, his tone conveying exactly how Wang Yibo felt.
“We’re in the Cloud Recesses.”
“Tea?” Lan Xichen offered them kindly, a benign smile on his face.
Yibo nodded once, drawing himself up to his full height.
“Yes. Thank you… brother.”
The words tasted strange on his tongue, and for a second Wang Yibo thought he saw Lan Xichen’s expression flicker, contemplating.
Settling down, Wang Yibo couldn’t help but analyse the disjunction in his actions. He fumbled when arranging his sleeves, nearly knocking a cup off the table, and cursed his clumsiness silently. Lan Wangji would never do such a thing.
Xiao Zhan was uncharacteristically quiet beside him, chewing his lip in thought. Yibo found himself drawn to the action, staring at the fullness of Xiao Zhan’s lower lip for a beat longer than he should.
“Mn.” There was an amused twinkle in Lan Xichen’s eyes, and he took a sip of his tea gracefully before continuing, “You seem distracted, Wangji. Did something happen at the cold springs to you and young master Wei?”
Xiao Zhan’s head snapped up.
“Mn, nothing happened.”
Lan Xichen’s gaze drifted over Xiao Zhan, who smiled, his grin blinding and bright and every inch Wei Wuxian, so believable even Wang Yibo was convinced for a second.
“That’s right, Lan Gongzi! Lan Zhan and I were just playing.”
Wang Yibo raised his cup to his lips and took a measured sip, resolutely ignoring his inner turmoil. The way Lan Xichen looked at him made him feel as if he were in a glass closet, the walls of his facade useless in the face of the eldest jade’s knowing looks.
“How have you found the classes, Wei Gongzi? I hope they have been enjoyable?”
Xiao Zhan paused for a beat, before smoothly answering Lan Xichen’s question. They fell into a conversation that Wang Yibo only half listened to, the volume of his thoughts too loud to disregard.
The differences between the Hanshi they were sitting in now and the Hanshi of The Untamed were minute yet unmistakable. Wang Yibo was not one for design, the artistic skills lying primarily with Xiao Zhan, however he could sense that the grounds and buildings here held a certain energy.
Spiritual energy he realised after a moment, fighting back the urge to add a that’s so cool
The place was alive with it, the sensation foreign yet comforting. Yibo registered after a moment that he could feel it in himself, a burning warmth in his gut like a second heart, supplying his body with heat.
He flexed his hands, knuckles standing stark and prominent against the cup, and felt the quiet surge of spiritual power.
“- - I have kept you too long.” The sudden lull in conversation caught Yibo’s attention from where he’d been zoning out, and he realised Xiao Zhan was staring at him.
Lan Xichen looked at them both, still wearing the same gentle smile. Wang Yibo would be comforted if he didn’t feel like a caged lion, clawing at the bars of its cage. There was a hidden depth behind that look, and Yibo didn’t particularly want to stay around and find out how deep it went. The sooner he and Xiao Zhan could get away and discuss privately, the better.
“Mn, thank you brother,” Lan Wangji’s characteristic monosyllabic replies were a blessing here, allowing Wang Yibo the ability to be as non verbal as he wanted without exposing himself.
Finishing his tea, Wang Yibo stood fluidly, Xiao Zhan joining him on his feet a moment later.
They were almost out the door when Lan Xichen spoke, voice soft yet commanding.
“Take care, Wangji and young master Wei. I believe something… strange may happen soon.”
“He knows.” They had barely made it through the sliding doors of Yibo’s —Lan Wangji’s — rooms before the younger man turned to him, frantic.
“He knows we’re not them.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just know, ge. Fuck, this is bad.”
They fell into a tense silence, Yibo pacing across the centre of the room while Xiao Zhan sat on the bed, knee bouncing nervously.
They had barely been alone ten minutes when a harried knock came at the doors of the jingshi. Yibo instantly froze, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling with trepidation.
Xiao Zhan’s eyes were wide and panicked when they met Yibo’s own, and something in it gave Yibo the confidence he needed to go and open the door.
Whatever happened, Xiao Zhan could not be hurt.
The door slid easily open to reveal a Lan disciple, probably of an age similar to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. His clothes were all in disarray, forehead ribbon strewn haphazardly across his forehead. It would be a comical sight, if Yibo were in a humorous mood.
“Yes.” Yibo caught himself glaring unconsciously, belatedly realising when the Lan disciple let out what could only be described as a squeak.
“My apologies, Lan er gongzi. Sect Leader Lan has requested your presence.”
“I — I’m not sure, Lan er gongzi. He only said the matter was urgent, and to fetch you and young master Wei immediately.”
Wang Yibo stepped back from the door, and into Xiao Zhan who had just come up behind him.
“Yi — Zhan ! Lan Zhan!” Xiao Zhan narrowly covered up his slip, grabbing Yibo’s arm to keep from falling over. Yibo quickly secured him, tugging his wrist until the elder was steady on his feet. Xiao Zhan’s pulse was racing underneath Yibo’s grip on his wrist, long fingers encircling the thin bones easily.
“Young master Wei?!”
A rather strangled yelp came from the open door, and Yibo belatedly remembered they had company.
The Lan disciple was staring gobsmacked at Xiao Zhan who paused like a deer in the headlights, mouth agape.
“What are you doing in Lan er gongzi’s private rooms? Have you two been here… alone ??”
He sounded so scandalised. Yibo had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. Xiao Zhan had gone a vibrant red, mouth opening and closing soundlessly for a moment before he finally spluttered out,
“What do you mean?! Nothing happened! I — we… and people call Wei Wuxian — me! myself! — shameless.”
Yibo punched himself in the thigh, hard.
The Lan disciple cast him a fleeting puzzled look, but his healthy respect (fear) of Lan Wangji successfully prevented any further questioning.
“My apologies, young master Wei.” He bowed deeply, hair parting like a dark curtain around his face. “I didn't mean to cause offence. I only wanted to ensure that your chastity was still- -“
“My chastity is perfectly fine, thank you!”
Xiao Zhan’s squawk was so loud it displaced several of the nearby nesting birds, sending them into the sky with a chorus of alarmed screeches.
“Not a word.” Xiao Zhan hissed at Yibo when they were outside, the disciple a safe enough distance away that they could speak freely. Yibo cackled quietly, bumping Xiao Zhan’s shoulder.
“He was fearing for our virtues, ge,” Yibo chortled, thoroughly amused at his own joke.
“Fearing for my virtue! You've read the book Lao Wang, you know how Lan Wangji is.”
Yibo’s grin turned lopsided, and Xiao Zhan suddenly felt the urge to shiver.
“Mn.” The younger hummed, not looking away from Xiao Zhan’s face. “I know.”
Lan Qiren’s rooms were as organised as one would expect from the dignified grouchy-like-an-older-pet-who-had-seen-enough Lan sect leader.
Xiao Zhan stepped in behind Yibo, feeling slightly nervous. Lan Qiren was infamous for his… distaste of Wei Wuxian’s antics, and judging by the tick in the elder man’s brow his fuse was already running short.
Lan Xichen was sat beside him, and he smiled kindly at them when they sat down. Muscle memory from the months they’d spent training for their roles made their salutes almost seamless.
Xiao Zhan’s hair tickled the back of his neck, and he shook his head to try and dispel the uncomfortable feeling, earning a sharp glance from Lan Qiren.
There was an unknown woman sitting on Yibo’s other side, and Xiao Zhan shot her a stealthy look as he readjusted his sitting position, fidgeting on his spot.
The woman appeared to be in her mid twenties, and was obviously not from Gusu Lan. She looked scared, the liquid in her cup shaking slightly despite the stillness of the air.
Xiao Zhan didn’t have time to wonder more, as at that moment Lan Qiren began to speak.
“This is Gu Qiu, from Wu Village. Gusu is the closest sect, so she has come to us to request aid.”
Xiao Zhan felt his heart drop somewhere deep into the pit of his stomach and stay there, dread spreading through his veins with each beat.
The woman spoke in a voice barely more than a whisper, “The village healer is stunned, they say they have never seen anything like it. They say we have been cursed, but for what? We are good people!” She began to cry.
Xiao Zhan ached to comfort her. Yibo looked slightly stunned, and Xiao Zhan could feel the tension in his body where he was pressed against the younger’s side under the table. His feet were beginning to go numb where they were pinned beneath him, and he sagged slightly against the man in white, feeling Lan Qiren’s pointed glare like a laser through his skull, stare turning confused when Yibo made no move to push Xiao Zhan off.
Gu Qiu took a shuddering breath, wiping away the tears from her face angrily. They left red blotchy stains on her cheek, but her voice was determined when she spoke again.
Xiao Zhan listened with rapt interest as she explained the nature of the supposed curse, a chill rolling down his spine at her solemn words, “People are dying, but their bodies do not decay. It is as if they’ve been frozen in the moment of their death, forever unchanged.”
The frown between Lan Qiren’s brows grew more pronounced in the silence that followed.
Xiao Zhan’s robes were rumpled and knotted around his knees where he had been worrying the fabric between his fingers, and for an irrational moment he panicked, thinking about what the costume jiejie’s would say.
Except here there were no costume jiejie’s. Only a cursed village and a world Xiao Zhan had only read about, yet was now a part of.
“Well,” Lan Xichen said, “would anyone like some more tea?”
“We have tried everything to bless the land, yet the curse still remains.”
“Has anyone else fallen victim, or is it only the village head's daughter?”
The ‘so far’ goes unsaid.
“Well, it seems - -“
Xiao Zhan’s fingers drummed a frantic beat on the table, his mind racing with thought. He and Yibo needed to get away somehow, somewhere they could convene and discuss how in the fuck they were going to get out of this situation. The longer they stayed amongst the others, the more likely it was that someone would grow suspicious. Once this meeting was finished he would grab Yibo and feign wanting to show him something in the back meadows, and they could make a semi escape.
As long as nothing unexpected happened, it would all be fine.
“- - we will send someone to investigate.”
“I will go,” Yibo said.
Xiao Zhan’s teacup fell from his fingers and shattered.
“Wangji I —“ Lan Xichen blinked in shock. “Are you sure?”
Wang Yibo swallowed, his lips pressing thin into an all too familiar grimace, and the action was like a block of cement dropping in Xiao Zhan’s stomach and lodging itself in his gut.
“I am sure.”
Xiao Zhan flinched.
“Will you require assistance, Wangji? I can ask for one of the seniors to accompany you.”
Lan Qiren asked, throwing an aggravated glance at Xiao Zhan and the shards of his broken cup that still littered the table.
“I will be —“
“I’ll accompany him!”
Xiao Zhan shocked himself with the vehemence of his declaration, grabbing the table with both hands and leaning forwards until he could stare directly at a stunned Lan Xichen. “Me! Pick me, let me go with him. Please.”
“Young master Wei, I don’t know if it’s quite appropriate…”
Lan Xichen saw what Xiao Zhan couldn’t say, and his eyebrows lifted with a quiet realisation.
“I see. Well, I shall have to send a message to Sect Leader Jiang.”
“He won’t mind! Uncle Jiang won’t mind!”
Xiao Zhan could hear the desperation in his own tone. Wang Yibo’s stare was a physical thing, fixed on the side of face like it could burn him.
Xiao Zhan would let it, if that meant Wang Yibo didn’t go alone.
“Please, Xichen-xiong! I promise I’ll be good!”
Xiao Zhan smiled, even though it felt like his face was cracking in two.
He had always been stubborn. He wasn’t going to change now.
“I’d feel safer with the knowledge that Sect Leader Jiang knows where I am sending his head disciple,” Lan Xichen said, an amused smile pulling at his lips, “however I am happy for you and my brother to travel together. It will be good for both of you, won’t it, Wangji?”
Wang Yibo looked like he was struggling to swallow a mouthful the size of a watermelon, but he nodded jerkily.
The relief that swept Xiao Zhan’s body was almost euphoric, and he sagged over the table, finally releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding.
They’d go together.
Even if Xiao Zhan had to sneak along in Yibo’s Qiankun pouch.
“What the hell was that, Xiao Zhan?!”
“I should be asking you the same, Wang Yibo! What kind of suicidal idea was that, volunteering to go alone on what might as well be a death mission?? Explain that to me!”
Xiao Zhan’s tone raised until he was almost shouting, his vision going blurry with anger. He stalked up the steps of the Jingshi, chest heaving with emotion.
Wang Yibo slammed the sliding doors shut behind him, making them rattle ominously. The jittering sound broke the tension that blanketed the room, thick and suffocating and overwhelming.
As quick as it had come, Xiao Zhan’s anger left.
He breathed in once, deeply, releasing it with a shuddering sigh.
“Look I — I’m sorry. For getting angry at you.”
Xiao Zhan fiddled with a loose string on his sleeve, eyes cast low, and swallowed heavily. “I was just… worried.”
He didn’t need to look to know Wang Yibo was grinning.
“Yes about you, Lao Wang, you little shit. Now stop laughing at me.”
“I’m not laughing at you.” Wang Yibo said, laughing. “It’s just that Xiao laoshi is so cute, I can’t help but smile—“
“Wang Yibo are you human?!”
Wang Yibo’s cackle was still the same, even when Xiao Zhan bared his teeth at him. He sobered up soon though, scooting closer to Xiao Zhan on the bed and placing a warm hand over Xiao Zhan’s knee.
“I’m sorry too, ge. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. I just didn’t expect you to volunteer to come with me.”
“So you thought I’d just let you go alone? Here?”
“Wang Yibo, you aren’t human.”
“That’s cause I’m a cool guy.”
This time Xiao Zhan did get up and walk away.
“Wangji, Young Master Wei… may I speak with you for a moment?” Lan Xichen stood around four steps above them, hand placed neatly behind his back.
He was every inch the Lan sect leader, and Xiao Zhan swallowed his apprehension as he fell into step behind Yibo, face lifting in a smile.
“Zewu-Jun! Have you come to wish us well before our treacherous and danger-filled journey!? Give us some priceless heirloom that will aid us on our travels?”
“Something like that,” Lan Xichen laughed gently. “I wanted to wish you a safe and successful trip.”
He looked at them for a moment, poised with a hand behind his arm, and Xiao Zhan suddenly understood why the Twin Jades were said to be the best of their generation, if not all time.
Lan Xichen’s aura… it was undeniable.
“Take care, both of you. Stay together and help each other. It is a strange world we live in, and you are new to these things.”
“Thank you, Zewu-Jun.” Xiao Zhan saluted with Wang Yibo, both receiving a parting pat on the shoulder.
They descended slowly down the steps, Qiankun pouches full of food and supplies bumping lightly against their hips.
Slowly, the greys and greens of the cloud recesses way to the vibrant colours of Caiyi town, which in turn gave way to the browns and greens of the countryside
until finally, they were alone.
The village was two days away by foot, a revelation that had both Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo cringing. Without the ability to travel by sword, they had to borrow two of the cloud recesses’ horses to help carry their belongings.
Xiao Zhan was immensely grateful for all the time they’d spent learning to ride the animals, meaning that he didn’t make a complete and utter fool of himself in front of the dignified members of the Lan Sect.
In a stroke of fortune, the lack of anything other than dirt roads and greenery gave them the privacy they needed to discuss in depth.
“I mean, it’s not the worst place to have been dumped in. We could have ended up in like, a zombie apocalypse or something.”
“You would have died first,” Xiao Zhan commented off-handedly, digging his heels lightly into his horse's flank.
Yibo made a low, offended noise behind him, pulling up next to Xiao Zhan on his own horse with his mouth already parted to respond.
“I would not.”
“Would not. The only reason I would die would be because I was protecting Lao Xiao.”
“Wang Yibo!” Xiao Zhan’s face suddenly felt very hot, “don’t lie.”
“Lying is forbidden in the Lan Sect,” and then Wang Yibo kicked his horse into a trot, leaving Xiao Zhan staring at his retreating back with a warm face and an even warmer feeling in his heart.
When they finally arrived at the inn Xiao Zhan was almost dead on his feet with exhaustion. He slid off his horse, knees buckling on the impact. Yibo caught him by the elbow in time to stop him from falling, but Xiao Zhan could feel the younger’s fatigue in the way Yibo’s body swayed for a moment after catching him.
“Careful,” Yibo muttered, fingers tensing reflexively around Xiao Zhan’s bicep.
Xiao Zhan grunted in response, untying the qiankun pouch from the horse's saddle and slinging it over his shoulder.
A servant from the inn took the horses away to the stables where they would be fed and allowed to rest, and another led Yibo and Xiao into the homely looking building.
“Two rooms, please,” Xiao Zhan asked, fetching the money pouch they had been granted by the Lan Sect.
“Ahh, about that…” the innkeeper coughed nervously, glancing at where Yibo stood just behind Xiao Zhan’s left shoulder, a veritable statue of ice. He almost seemed too silent... “Unfortunately we are fully booked this evening, and only have one room available.”
“That is fine,” Xiao Zhan spoke quickly, watching the relief filter across the woman’s face. Yibo remained silent behind him, and Xiao Zhan was half convinced the younger had fallen asleep where he was standing.
He woke up when Xiao Zhan stood on his foot as he stepped past him, swallowing a curse and nearly choking in the process.
Xiao Zhan giggled to himself the entire time they were led to their rooms, eyes crinkled into half moons of mirth. He was unaware of the curious eyes watching the second Jade of Lan and the head disciple of Yunmeng Jiang as they stepped into a room together.
“How strange a sight.” They muttered amongst themselves, barely disguising interest. “Just what are two people like that doing together?”
If only they knew.
There was only one bed.
Yibo immediately offered to sleep on the floor, glaring at Xiao Zhan when he suggested he do the same.
“Yibo, it’s no matter- -“
Xiao Zhan’s eye twitched. Yibo stared back at Xiao Zhan in silent challenge, as if daring Xiao Zhan to try and get past him.
“Xiao Zhan.” Yibo’s voice was pitched low, lower than Xiao Zhan was used to, and for some reason the sound sent a shiver down his spine. “I’m not gonna say it again. You take the bed.”
“Wang Yibo stop being so ridiculous, I can sleep on the floor- -“
Xiao Zhan took the bed.
“You know, you really are a bully, Wang Yibo.” Xiao Zhan did not attempt to contain his pout, rubbing his arm with a baleful look at Wang Yibo. The younger had unceremoniously manhandled him, Xiao Zhan squawking with indignation, until the elders knees hit the wooden frame of the bed and he fell in a pile of black robes and red trousers, howling in outrage.
Yibo, who in a frankly horrifying display of disregard to the Lan sect rules had his headband tied around his head like a sweatband, simply grinned, triumphant.
“Gotta look after Zhan-Ge’s old bones ~” he teased, flipping his hair back from his face to delve into the Qiankun pouch.
“Old bones ?! Wah, Wang Yibo… you know you are technically older than me right? Lan Wangji is older than Wei Wuxian, and you’re in his body right now.” Xiao Zhan scoffed, leaning back on his forearms. “So really, I should be calling you ‘gege’.”
Yibo had fallen face first onto the floor.
“Yibo! What happened!”
Yibo was unresponsive as Xiao Zhan nearly toppled off the bed, finally letting out a low groan and sitting up straight when Xiao Zhan dropped to his knees beside him. There was a bright red mark on his forehead, and Xiao Zhan reached out to gingerly prod the area, wincing when Wang Yibo hissed in pain.
“What even happened? Did you slip?”
Yibo’s gaze flickered over him, resting somewhere between his shoulder and the wall behind Xiao Zhan.
“I’m good.” Yibo slurred, blinking. Xiao Zhan scooted closer to him, until their thighs brushed and he could lay a nervous palm over the rapidly forming bruise on Yibo’s forehead.
“Are you sure you’re fine?”
Yibo eyes in this light seemed golden, molten fire in the candlelight. Radiating a quiet strength, they emitted a burning warmth, liquid gold and unwaveringly intense in the muted blacks and browns of the room.
Xiao Zhan came to himself with a little jump of surprise when Yibo’s fingers curled around his wrist, guiding Xiao Zhan’s hand off his head.
“Yeah, I just slipped.” Yibo’s ears were strangely red, and he didn’t look at Xiao Zhan, even as he gently released his wrist and stood up, disappearing behind the privacy screen in a flurry of white a moment later.
Xiao Zhan bathed after him, padding softly out from behind the wooden screen to see Yibo already lying on a roll on the floor, hands folded behind his head. His eyes were closed, and Xiao Zhan found himself staring for a long moment at the rise and fall of Yibo’s chest.
“Does Lao-Xiao want my autograph? He’s staring at me like he does. I mean I know I’m handsome…”
Yibo, evidently not asleep, had cracked one eye open and was staring at Xiao Zhan upside down. Xiao Zhan debated throwing his wet towel on Yibo’s face but settled for exhaling heavily, rolling his eyes.
“Of course, Lao Wang is so handsome, the most good looking, especially when he’s dressed like the irrefutable Lan Wangji!”
“Are we starting?” Yibo grinned, gaze following Xiao Zhan around the room. “Because Lao Xiao is without doubt the prettiest - -“
It was odd, for Xiao Zhan had never truly realised how noisy his life was until he found himself lying in a bed where the only sound was Wang Yibo’s breathing on the floor next to him.
Even in the hotel with its soundproof walls, there was always something. The whir of some electrical device or the distant sound of cars and their horns.
But here… nothing.
Xiao Zhan didn't know how he felt about that.
He must have fallen asleep, for when he awoke the sun was streaming in through the windows, a dappled warmth on his face.
Yibo’s voice was deep in the morning, carrying easily across the room. He sat, already dressed, elbows resting on his knees.
Xiao Zhan whined reflexively, never having been much of a morning person. The light aggravated his already sensitive eyes, and many a comparison had been drawn between himself and his cat, Jianguo, by friends and family.
Stretching his sleep-stiff limbs out in bed, he shuddered lightly when his robes gaped with the movement and he felt the cool air of the morning on his bare skin.
He didn’t see the way Wang Yibo’s eyes flashed, hands gripping his knees tightly.
“Did you ah -“ Xiao Zhan yawned, smacking his lips, “did you sleep well, Bo-di?”
“Mn, well enough.” Yibo stood up, walking over to the door and reaching down to grab something Xiao Zhan couldn’t see. When he turned back around there was a tray full of food in his hands, and rather belatedly Yibo revealed, “I got us breakfast.”
Xiao Zhan’s stomach grumbled almost instantly, just as he opened his mouth to say, “I’m not hungry”. He shut it again, flushing lightly. “Thanks.” He said instead, swinging his legs off the bed and standing up.
Yibo had already filled his bowl with meat and mustard greens when Xiao Zhan sat down, mouth watering from the delicious smell. Yibo raised a single eyebrow when Xiao Zhan placed the rogue eggplant or two he found in the younger’s bowl, nose wrinkling delicately in distaste.
“Am I your trashcan or something?”
“I don’t like eggplant.” Xiao Zhan mumbled, a bit petulant, stuffing a spoonful of food in his mouth and chewing slowly. There was a single grain of rice stuck to his lower lip, and Wang Yibo’s fingers twitched around his spoon with the desire to lean across the table and brush it away.
Wang Yibo felt something give way in his heart, overwhelming fondness flooding him until he felt like he could barely speak for fear of revealing how much he liked Xiao Zhan.
“It’s okay, I’ll eat it.”
Xiao Zhan smiled at him then, eyes forming half crescents, and Yibo could only smile back helplessly.
Yibo had rebandaged Xiao Zhan’s foot following their breakfast, careful and meticulous with his wrapping; and Xiao Zhan felt only the barest twinge now.
“What should we do when we reach the village? I mean, it’s not like we know how to deal with any of this stuff.”
“Both Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen said it wasn’t serious, so I guess we just… freestyle.”
“Freestyle. Wang Yibo this isn’t a dance competition.”
“Did you know I competed in this dance competition when I was younger —“
They reached Wu village around midday, the first sighting of wooden houses was a welcome relief from the seemingly unending green scenery.
They dismounted from their horses just before the gate, Yibo going first and lending a hand to Xiao Zhan who took it gratefully.
“Are you ready?” Xiao Zhan asked quietly, and Yibo nodded once, serious.
“Remember, you’re Lan Wangji.”
“I’m Lan Wangji.” Yibo repeated, pulling his shoulders back and standing up straighter. He cut an intimidating figure, tall and leanly muscled, his broad shoulders nicely filling out the white robes and making him seem larger than life. “Cool guy.”
“... we’re screwed.”
The first thing Xiao Zhan noticed when they walked into the village was the smell.
Sweet yet faint and vaguely floral, it lingered in the air even with the rich and spicy scents of cooked meat from the nearby market.
Yibo moved to stand beside him soundlessly, and they strolled through the village together, heading towards the far end where they could see a large manor peaking above the trees.
On the way Xiao Zhan had to politely fend off several aunties, insisting on pulling the pair back to their stools and feeding them.
“Aiyah, just look at you!” One woman cried, pinching Xiao Zhan’s cheek. “You’re all skin and bones! Come, come! You must eat at my stall!” She began to pull Xiao Zhan away, who in a panic turned to Yibo, eyes wide.
“B-but Auntie…!” Yibo stuttered, hurrying after them, “we - - “
“You! Are you not taking care of your cultivation partner?! Just look at him!” She gestured widely at Xiao Zhan who ducked to avoid being swiped in the face. Despite the close call, it was Yibo who looked like he had been smacked in the face by the very wok the woman was cooking in, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly.
“I… we’re not…”
“Auntie! You’ve misunderstood! We’re not cultivation partners, just… friends… yes ! Lan Wangji is my friend!” Xiao Zhan blustered, face flaming.
“Lan Wangji? Of the Gusu Lan clan?” The woman’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Are you here about the curse? Of course, you must be. Come, you need energy to work, and how will you do that if you don’t eat?” By now she had Yibo in an inescapable grip too and, really, what did these aunties eat to get this kind of strength?
It was with a begrudging acceptance that Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo allowed themselves to be frogmarched to the side of the road and ushered into two available seats.
“Stay, the food won’t be long.” The woman’s tone sounded like a warning to a naughty child. Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo nodded obediantly.
During the time it took for their meal to come out, Xiao Zhan scanned their surroundings, assessing. The village people appeared cheery enough, and there didn’t seem to be any lingering anxiety or cautiousness in the way they interacted with one another. In fact, they all seemed just… normal.
“What are you thinking?” Yibo’s question interjected his reflection, and Xiao Zhan paused before smiling gently. “I’m thinking that aunties never change, no matter where, or when, you are.”
The corner of Yibo’s lips twitched in amusement, settling when the stall owner arrived back at their table, arms laden full of steaming dishes.
“Auntie this is too much, you didn’t have to go to do this much effort for us!” Xiao Zhan protested earnestly, shocked. All the woman did was coo however, patting Xiao Zhan’s cheek fondly.
“No need, no need! Just eat it all and break this curse, and then this old woman will be happy!”
“Auntie is too kind, and beautiful like a jiejie!” Xiao Zhan winked playfully, remembering how playfully Wei Wuxian would interact with people in the novel. He received a gentle swat for his words, and a scolding to eat like the other young master was.
“Other young mast- -“
Xiao Zhan turned and found Yibo with his mouth stuffed full of food, chewing with a stony faced expression.
Wang Yibo chewed harder.
The kind auntie insisted on showing them all the way to the village head's house, chattering all the while. Xiao Zhan half followed along the stream of conversation, his main focus looking anxiously at where Yibo walked a few paces ahead of them, silent.
“That young master drinks vinegar like my husband does wine.” The woman said, and Xiao Zhan nodded absently.
“Mn, he does like vinegar.”
He missed the woman’s heavy sigh.
“Aiyo,” she muttered, shaking her head, “these kids… too oblivious for their own good.”
The village head and his wife met them in the center of the house. They were a kindly looking couple, older, and clearly grieving. Both of them had dark circles around their eyes, and even as they drew themselves up to greet Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, their exhaustion was evident.
“This humble disciple greets you,” Xiao Zhan saluted alongside Wang Yibo, “Wei Wuxian of Yunmeng Jiang Clan.”
“Lan Wangji of Gusu Lan.”
“Welcome, welcome. We thank you for coming to our aid so quickly. I am Wu Zhi, and this is my wife, Wu Xuefeng.”
“Are you the parents of…”
“Xinyue. Yueyue. Yes, we are.” Their voices trembled with grief, and Xiao Zhan’s heart clenched in sympathy.
“I understand that this must be a difficult subject for you. If there is anything we can do to ease your struggle..?” He trailed off, unsure. Wu Xuefeng drew in a shuddering breath, composing herself, then nodded resolutely.
“We will show you her body in two days time. For now though, you must be tired. We can prepare a room for you here, or if you would like there is an inn around two hundred chi back down the path you came up?”
Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo looked at each other, coming to a silent agreement.
“We will stay in the inn, but thank you for your kindness and hospitality. Please, take care.”
They stood up to leave, and after bowing, followed the servants back through the manor and out the front doors.
“What do we do?”
Back in the safety of the inn found Yibo and Xiao Zhan seated at the low table, heads bowed close together. They’d hadn’t moved since they’d returned from the deceased girl's parents house, and by now the light filtering in through the window was the warm colour of sunset.
A lull in the conversation gave a welcome break, and Xiao Zhan groaned, rocking back on his legs to stretch out his sore and cramping muscles. “I’m too old to sit like this.” He complained, sighing in relief as his shoulders popped gently, alleviating the tension which had built up there.
“Nonsense. Xiao laoshi is young and full of energy.”
As if on cue, Xiao Zhan yawned, too tired to do anything except lightly push at Yibo’s shoulder, hoping Yibo would at least consider taking pity on him today and stop their childish games.
“This full of energy Xiao laoshi needs to go to bed.” He sniffed, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. Yibo made a soft sound, stepping quickly to the side to allow Xiao Zhan to pass him.
“Do you… do you need anything?”
Yibo’s features seemed gentler, the sharp line of his nose and strong angle of his jaw softened in the orange light. Despite feeling slightly silly for it, Xiao Zhan couldn’t help but acknowledge the safety it brought him
Xiao Zhan always felt safe when he had Yibo with him.
“Like what?” Xiao Zhan laughed, teasing. “Are you gonna sing me to sleep, Bo-Di?”
“I can.” Yibo swallowed, gaze firmening. “If you want.”
Xiao Zhan had a tight feeling in his chest, a warmth that climbed up from somewhere deep in his belly until it spread across his cheeks and neck, colouring them an endearing pink.
“Yibo I —“ he stuttered, suddenly unsure of what to do in the face of the younger’s quiet confidence. “What are you talking about? Sing me to sleep haha? I was only joking.” Xiao Zhan backed away, unable to tear his eyes away from Yibo’s magnetic gaze. Predatory, it trapped him, keeping him pinned and exposed. “Shit —“ he’d tripped over a stray shoe stranded in the middle of the floor. When Xiao Zhan righted himself with a huff he saw Yibo had moved, one large hand extended out in aid.
“Careful, Xiao Zhan.”
Yibo’s tone was rough with something, tiredness perhaps, and it made Xiao Zhan shiver involuntarily, his body cold and hot all at once.
“I … yes. I’ll be careful. Yibo-ge, don't scold me anymore.”
Something flashed across Wang Yibo’s gaze and he swallowed, looking away.
“Goodnight, Lao Xiao.”
“Night, Lao Wang.”
Xiao Zhan ducked under the barrier separating the road and woodland with a sigh, resting his forehead against his hand. He’d finally managed to escape the crowded town centre, unbearable in the sticky summer heat, but in the process he’d lost track of Yibo and they’d been separated.
A sudden shooting pain across his shoulders had him stopping, leaning heavily on the wall which ran the perimeter of the town.
His back ached something fierce from all the walking around he’d done today, the kind of pain that set itself deep in his muscles, gripping tighter and tighter with each hour that passed. Xiao Zhan itched to get back to the inn and bathe and eat, but first he had to find Wang Yibo.
A task that should be easy enough given how the younger man was the only one dressed in white robes.
Cementing his resolve, Xiao Zhan pushed himself up off the gate, groaning when the action caused his back to twinge painfully.
“Are you alright?”
Xiao Zhan startled, his hair fanning out to frame his face as he spun around.
The voice belonged to a young man standing behind Xiao Zhan, head bowed. He looked up when Xiao Zhan turned around, meeting Xiao Zhan with eyes that Xiao Zhan knew well.
“M..my apologies, young master!” Yu Bin’s face stared back at him, gut-wrenchingly familiar and yet foreign all the same. “I d…didn’t mean to frighten y…you.” He hung his head low once more, the picture of remorse.
Xiao Zhan swallowed, willing down his racing heartbeat. He had not anticipated meeting anyone else whose face he knew after he and Yibo had left Gusu, but it seemed this world had no regard for his feelings.
“It’s okay…” the name “Yubin” nearly slipped off his tongue, an instinctive habit Xiao Zhan had to forcefully bite back. “You didn’t scare me.”
“That… that is a relief.”
Xiao Zhan was quick to introduce himself, taking care to ensure his expression did not betray him when Yu Bin — or Wen Ning, as he should be called — followed suit.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You s…seemed to be holding your back earlier?”
The pair were walking now, Wen Ning having offered to help Xiao Zhan find Wang Yibo. Xiao Zhan balked at the question, turning to face Wen Ning in surprise.
“You noticed? How did you know my back hurt?”
“A…ah! Well, my sister is a doctor, and she has taught me a few things over the years…” Wen Ning trailed off slowly, adorably shy, and Xiao Zhan suddenly understood why he was one of Wei Wuxian’s closest friends. “I c…can take you to see her, if Wei Gongzi would like? She may be able to help heal your back.”
They were at the outskirts of town now, and a little way ahead Xiao Zhan could see the foundations of a small house, built far away from the busy town centre.
“I c…can continue to look for your f…friend? If you’d like?”
Xiao Zhan was uncertain about leaving Wang Yibo behind, but he knew that the Wen siblings were good people, and Wen Ning would have a better chance of finding Wang Yibo in this new town than Xiao Zhan would.
“Alright.” Xiao Zhan smiled, causing Wen Ning to blink, dazzled. “Lead the way.”
The good news was that Wen Qing was indeed as efficient as she was made out to be in the novel.
The bad news was that she was also terrifying.
“How many times have I told you not to approach random cultivators!” Wen Qing hissed at her brother who looked suitably cowed, offering a pitiful, “but jie —“ that was quickly silenced with one sharp look.
Xiao Zhan watched the exchange awkwardly from the bed, swinging his feet a little as if that would dispel the tension.
“I can leave, if this is an inconvenience —“
Xiao Zhan landed with a thump, lips pressed in a tight line. His ass stung slightly with the impact, but he was too afraid to rub the bruised area in front of Wen Qing and so had to just wriggle uncomfortably for a moment.
After sending Wen Ning off to find Wang Yibo, Wen Qing worked with a brief efficiency, prodding and poking at Xiao Zhan who tried not to giggle at the ticklish sensation, fisting his hands in the fabric over his knees.
“Remove your outer robes.”
The command came so suddenly that Xiao Zhan choked, instinctually raising his arms in a cross over his chest.
Wen Qing scoffed, turning away to fetch something from the table. “Not like that, Wei Gongzi. I need to apply that salve directly to your back.” She faced Xiao Zhan again, this time with a large pot in her hands.
Xiao Zhan could smell the medicinal aroma all the way from the bed and flushed, muttering a quiet apology as he stripped off the top half of his robes. He was made to lie down on the bed face down whilst Wen Qing applied the paste all over his shoulders.
“You need to apply this every evening before you sleep. It will help open up your channels and allow your Qi to flow properly, supporting your body's healing process.”
Xiao Zhan hummed, relaxing further into the medical bed as the pain in his muscles finally began to abate. He’d almost fallen asleep, when;
“Where is he?”
The demand was low and furious and promising danger, ripping through the relative peace of the Wen’s house.
Yibo burst through the door a second later, an anxiously fretting Wen Ning at his heels.
Xiao Zhan had half raised himself off the bed in shock, but froze the moment he caught Yibo’s gaze. The younger’s pupils were blown wide in panic, his stare frantic and a little bit frightening as he finally saw Xiao Zhan.
Yibo crossed the room quicker than Xiao Zhan thought possible, long legs carrying him easily over to where Xiao Zhan lay in the medical bed.
“Are you hurt?” Yibo descended on Xiao Zhan in a flurry of white robes and sandalwood scent, brushing warm hands over Xiao Zhan’s back and shoulders.
The fleeting touches were scorching where Xiao Zhan was unclothed.
Xiao Zhan could only stare in shock at Wang Yibo, allowing the younger to continue assessing him meticulously, until a low cough made Yibo straighten, shrugging off his outer coat and laying it over Xiao Zhan’s shoulders before turning around with a glare.
“I… I found Lan Er Gongzi.” Wen Ning offered, rather belatedly. He was still standing somewhere by the door, twisting the straps of his bag. Xiao Zhan smiled thankfully at him, mouthing a “well done” that had Wen Ning’s ears flushing with pride.
Neither man noticed the way Wang Yibo’s mouth tightened after seeing the exchange, moving so Xiao Zhan was more hidden behind his body.
There was, however, someone who saw all of this.
Wen Qing’s eyes widened slightly before narrowing in understanding, a slight smirk playing at her lips.
The same smile remained as she walked over to where her brother stood by the door, patting him affectionately on the head.
“Good job, A-Ning. Don’t mind him, he’s got a terrible problem.
Wen Qing leaned in, whispering conspiratorially, “he’s in love.”
Wen Ning’s mouth dropped.
Following a rather terse introduction in which Xiao Zhan had to subtly stomp Yibo’s foot at least twice to get the younger to stop glaring, all four moved to the main table.
Wang Yibo had self-assigned himself as what might as well be a guard dog, although he looked more like a wounded puppy when Xiao Zhan pinched his arm and hissed at him to stop being so over dramatic, let him drink his tea, it's not poisoned.
Leaving Yibo to brood sulkily over his own drink, Xiao Zhan turned to the Wen siblings, a question poised ready on his tongue.
“If you wanted to ask us about the curse, there isn’t much we can tell you that you don’t already know.”
Wen Qing finished neatly, her gaze sharp and intelligent when it met Xiao Zhan’s over the table.
“But you do know something.” Yibo set down his tea cup, and Xiao Zhan was momentarily distracted by the way the tendons in Yibo’s hands flexed with the movement.
Xiao Zhan swallowed, suddenly feeling very warm in his robes.
“W-we do know a bit!” Wen Ning leant forwards eagerly, almost knocking the teapot over in his enthusiasm. He caught it, ducking his head bashfully and placing the pot a more safe distance away.
“Wu Xinyue was a nice girl, very sweet. She d-didn’t have any enemies.”
“That anyone knew about at least.” Wen Qing laid a hand on her brother's arm, smiling comfortingly at him when Wen Ning jumped. “A-Ning spoke to her more than I did.”
“Did she seem different at all in the weeks leading up to the curse? Any strange behaviours?” Xiao Zhan linked his fingers, resting his chin on his hands.
“Not that I can recall… the only thing jiejie and I noticed when we were called to examine her body was the peonies.”
“Peonies?” Xiao Zhan was sure his expression must betray his confusion. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“We don’t know. She was found with them though.”
It was much later in the evening when Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo finally excused themselves from the Wen’s house. Twilight had long since fallen, casting long stretching shadows over the grass in a mimicry of spindly fingers reaching for some unseen prize. Xiao Zhan shivered, sticking close to Wang Yibo’s side as they made their way down the path back to the village and their inn.
“We have to help.” Xiao Zhan announced as soon as they were out of earshot. Yibo nodded once, distracted by something.
“Ah…what’s wrong, Yibo?” Xiao Zhan prodded the younger man in the arm, surprised when the only reaction he got was a fleeting side eye.
Yibo coughed, clearing his throat awkwardly. “I don’t like the dark.” He clarified, scratching the back of his neck. Xiao Zhan stared at him for a moment, eyes wide, before smiling gently.
“That’s okay. I guess even cool guys have some weaknesses.”
“Yeah I - - Wait …Hey— !”
Yibo never got the chance to finish his sentence, left breathing in the dust as Xiao Zhan sprinted away, cackling, until only the faintest flash of red ribbon could be seen.
If one was looking, they would see the endeared smile that graced Wang Yibo’s lips, lifting his features into something so very soft, and so very gentle. He waited for a beat, so caught up in watching Xiao Zhan he forgot to chase after him, until a call of;
“Hello? Are you coming or what, er-gege?” Xiao Zhan waved at him, full-bodied, and Yibo quickly broke into a run, all the air escaping his lungs in a single bark of laughter.
They chased each other all the way back to the inn that night.
The afternoon sun beat down hot and heavy, stifling the way it wrapped Xiao Zhan like a blanket. His robes swished loosely around his ankles as he stood, Yibo by his side.
“And you say she has been like this for what, two lunar cycles?”
He stepped closer to the prone figure. Her features were relaxed, yet arranged, with none of the usual colourings of death. It was as if she could be sleeping, she appeared so peaceful.
“Almost three.” The village head said mournfully. His wife clung to his arm, sobbing. Behind him Xiao Zhan heared Wang Yibo make a low disgruntled noise, and he nudged him with his elbow, reminding him of the character he was supposed to be playing.
“Interesting, interesting…” he tapped his nose twice, an instinctive gesture he had found himself doing often now when faced with a puzzling scenario. Yibo shifted behind him, stepping past Xiao Zhan to stand in front of the bereaved couple. They looked at Yibo curiously, necks tilting back in order to facilitate the entirety of his imposing stature.
“Lan er gongzi, is everything alright? What is wrong?”
Yibo’s grip shifted lightning fast on Bichen’s hilt, and a sharp slicing sound echoed a second later. The couple gasped in horror, clambering towards the white robed man who halted them with a single raised hand.
“Listening.” Yibo said, crouching down and gathering something from the floor. He straightened and held out his palm, in which the halved remains of a flower sat.
The petals lay shrivelled, unnaturally white and with a glossy sheen as if they had been dipped in wax. As the stunned couple watched, they crumbled to dust, floating away on the faint summer breeze like ashes.
“What on earth is a peony doing here? No one has seen or visited our Xinyue since she was cursed!”
Xiao Zhan’s lips squeezed into a grim line, and he met Yibo’s gaze across the room, nodding once at the message he received there.
“Shall we return back to the main house? I would like to discuss with you both some more details of your daughter's life, before the incident.”
Xiao Zhan offered what he hoped to be a soothing smile, the action pulling painfully at his worried lip.
“I -“ the village head faltered for a moment, face still turned to Yibo’s now empty palm before his wife nudged him, breaking the man from his daze. “Of course, Wei gongzi. Allow me to lead the way.”
Xiao Zhan turned swiftly to follow the man, welcoming the breeze the action created with a soft sigh. The air lifted the hair plastered to the back of his neck, allowing Xiao Zhan a moment of respite from the summer heat. This evening he would demand the first bath, even if he had to fight Wang Yibo for it.
For now though, he had to find a murderer.
The conversation with Xinyue’s parents proved useful, something Xiao Zhan was infinitely grateful for.
Yibo came into the room around halfway through, sitting down quietly next to Xiao Zhan and immediately pushing the snack bowl in front of him.
“Eat more. You didn’t have breakfast this morning.” Yibo reprimanded him.
Xiao Zhan absentmindedly plucked a peanut from the proffered bowl, nodding along in acknowledgment to the speaking Wu Xuefeng and unaware of the wide eyes watching their exchange.
The Wu parents told them during their meeting that Xinyue often frequented the town and surrounding countryside, unwilling to stay cooped inside like many of her peers preferred.
This was how Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan found themselves ankle-deep in murky lotus pond water.
Yibo was ankle-deep.
Xiao Zhan was safe on shore yelling helpful instructions like; “go left!” “your other left!” “…Wang Yibo, do you even know your lefts and rights??!” whilst Yibo attempted to search for a silver pin Wu Xinyue had supposedly lost in this very pond a few weeks before her death.
Xiao Zhan pushed up to his tippy-toes, craning his neck to look for a flash of silver amidst the rug of green covering the surface of the pond. He was distracted by Yibo falling over with an almighty splash, again, emerging from the obscure depths like some kind of off-brand horror movie monster.
It was an admittedly funny sight however, with the lotus leaf stuck to the side of Yibo’s face. Xiao Zhan teased the younger man about it, propping his chin in his hands as he called out, “Hey, Yibo! Have you ever seen The Ring?”
Yibo flipped him off, the lotus leaf falling off his face at that exact moment with a wet plop.
Xiao Zhan grinned even wider.
“I still can’t believe you actually found it! Lao Wang is truly unmatched, finding such a precious jewel in such challenging circumstances.”
Xiao Zhan skipped happily a couple steps ahead of Wang Yibo, shooting him a double thumbs up for encouragement when Wang Yibo took a step and his shoes squelched wetly.
“You were laughing at me earlier.”
“I was not!” Xiao Zhan faced Yibo head on so that he was walking backwards, levelling the younger with a suitably affronted stare. “I would never laugh at Lao-Wang.”
“You did laugh.” Yibo was unamused, his robes and hair carrying a slightly greenish tinge that made him look a bit like a walking algae. “You didn’t say I was handsome. You said I looked like that ghost from the movie.”
“I was only joking! Come on, Bo-ge. Don’t be mad at me ~”
Yibo seemed to falter for a second, expression blank, before a wide, pleased grin stretched across his face. He mumbled something Xiao Zhan couldn’t catch, but there was a newfound spring in his steps that made Xiao Zhan exhale happily, relieved.
If Xiao Zhan had been facing forwards, he would have seen the rustle in the undergrowth, the sign of something there which shouldn’t have been. However he was distracted, too focused on Yibo’s face to notice the creature creeping out from the bushes, it’s hungry gaze locked on Xiao Zhan’s exposed back.
Yibo saw it though.
Yibo spoke as he moved, throwing himself forwards and unsheathing bichen at the same moment. The sword's icy glare was blinding in the late afternoon light. Xiao Zhan froze in shock as Yibo collided with him, their bodies tumbling to the ground in a mess of limbs. Over the punched out gasp from Yibo as Xiao Zhan landed on his chest, the elder heard late — too late — the low warning growl of whatever it was behind them, a horrible sound that had every single hair on Xiao Zhan’s neck standing up straight, his body going cold.
“Yibo, no —“ Xiao Zhan tried to grab Yibo, move him away, but the younger man was too quick, rolling Xiao Zhan behind him and standing up to face the beast by himself.
The last thing Xiao Zhan saw was the monster's teeth sinking into Yibo’s arm.
It took him a second to realise the guttural scream he could hear was his own.
Another branch gave way beneath Xiao Zhan’s feet, the brittle wood falling apart into a fine dust that floated away on the breeze. Xiao Zhan didn’t stop for a second, pushing through the thick undergrowth with increasing urgency, Yibo’s pained expression the only thing on his mind.
Xiao Zhan had reluctantly left the younger propped against a nearby tree while he went to fetch Wen Qing and Wen Ning. Yibo had been in bad condition, although he tried to hide it, gritting his teeth when Xiao Zhan helped him stand and the movement jostled his injured arm. Blood stained the white fabric of Yibo’s robes a startling crimson, and when Xiao Zhan raised a hand to push back the hair falling in his face he realised there was a streak of it on his palm, a sickening reminder of what had transpired.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Xiao Zhan half mumbled, half sobbed, anger and frustration boiling up in him until he felt like he could scream from the overload of emotion.
Why did Yibo jump in front of him? Why did he sacrifice himself and his safety to protect Xiao Zhan?
Why didn’t Xiao Zhan see the monster first?
Xiao Zhan’s robes snagged on a branch and he tore them free with a grunt, uncaring of the multiple scratches littering his face and hands from his stumbling through the woods.
After too long, the Wen’s house appeared in view. Xiao Zhan accelerated with a burst of energy he didn’t know he had in him, almost crashing through the Wen’s door.
Wen Qing took one look at his frenzied state and understood, calling to her brother in a calm but urgent tone to fetch her medical satchel. Now.
The walk back to Yibo felt infinitely shorter than it did when Xiao Zhan was stumbling his way through the forest alone, and in what felt like no time they reached the clearing where the incident had happened.
Xiao Zhan had explained everything on the way there, and Wen Qing responded with a brisk efficacy, neatly sidestepping the corpse of the yaoguai to crouch by Wang Yibo’s side.
Sweat stained Yibo’s face and neck, his skin waxen and pale with the effects of whatever poison was in the yaoguai’s bite. He still managed to smile though when he met Xiao Zhan’s gaze, mouthing the words “you okay?” as if Xiao Zhan was the one grievously injured.
Xiao Zhan couldn’t bring himself to reply back, fearing what he might say if he did. He settled for just nodding, lips pressed tight, then even tighter when Yibo smiled, innocently happy at Xiao Zhan’s response.
“That’s good.” Yibo said aloud, leaning his head back against the tree trunk and closing his eyes. “I don’t want to see you sad.”
Xiao Zhan could not bear to see Wen Ning’s sympathetic gaze, shutting his eyes tightly as if that way, maybe, the tears wouldn’t come out.
“The wound is mostly superficial, and for a cultivator of your standing you should recover without any lasting damage. Rest tonight, and let your golden core begin the healing process. I’ve given you this medicine to help open up your Qi pathways, but the most important thing is that you don’t try and do anything strenuous.” Wen Qing finished explaining, pressing a glass of something into Xiao Zhan’s palm as she moved past him.
“How long will he need to rest for?” Xiao Zhan asked Wen Ning.
“O-one…” Wen Ning stumbled over the word, suddenly looking very unsure. “Two?…uh….no… three days.” Wen Ning’s eyebrows were knitted tight, and he kept glancing over Xiao Zhan’s shoulder, where Yibo was supposed to be resting.
Puzzled, Xiao Zhan turned around to look at Wang Yibo who was lowering his good arm with a pleased smile.
“Let’s go home, Wei Ying.”
Yibo’s fingers brushed against Xiao Zhan’s as he came to stand by the elders' side, and Xiao Zhan had a sudden absurd urge to grab Yibo’s hand.
It must be the remnants of hysteria still lingering in his system from the earlier scare. That would explain why he wanted to bury himself in Yibo’s arms and never let go.
Xiao Zhan exhaled lightly, smiling at Yibo.
“Mm, okay Lan Zhan. Let’s go home.”
Yibo was awfully spritely for someone who had just suffered what could have been a fatal attack, practically bouncing up to Xiao Zhan with a cheerful “Zhan-ge~~~”
Xiao Zhan smiled instinctively, baring his teeth with a playful growl when Yibo went to smack his backside with his sleeves.
“Lao Wang bullies me!”
It had been three days now since Yibo had been bitten, although you wouldn’t have guessed it from how much energy the younger man had. It was a stark difference from the pale-faced Yibo whom Xiao Zhan had left propped against a tree, clutching his bloody arm to his chest.
The first night had been spent near sleeplessly. Yibo had been laid on the bed by Wen Ning (who was surprisingly strong for his size), and Xiao Zhan had tended to him all night whilst Yibo sweated the worst of the yaoguai poison out. Xiao Zhan didn’t know what time it was when he finally fell asleep, exhausted. Light had begun filtering into the inn room when he closed his eyes, his body awkwardly propped half on the bed, hands clutching Yibo’s sleeve.
Xiao Zhan still couldn’t think back on that memory without his heart feeling like it was about to tear itself from his chest, his hands shaking and breath quickening until it came out in short pants.
“Ge?” Yibo laid a palm on Xiao Zhan’s forearm, his big hands a warm anchor to the present. Xiao Zhan shook himself, breathing slowly and indulging in Yibo’s comfort for a few more precious seconds before he moved away to the inn door.
“I’m gonna go get some more snacks from the market. I won’t be long.”
After a quick promise to be safe, Xiao Zhan descended down the narrow flight of stairs, greeting the inn auntie with a smile and a wave as he passed by.
Stepping out into the busy high-street, Xiao Zhan could almost delude himself into thinking he was back in his time if he closed his eyes. The sounds were the same, the lively thrum of a marketplace full of people selling their produce, calling out to friends and greeting others.
Breathing in deep the delicious scent of cooking meat, Xiao Zhan set off with a spring in his step, headed for where he knew the uncle who sold an assortment of dried snacks to be.
On the way he greeted several of the aunties he had become familiar with, accepting the food thrust into his hands with a happy grin and grateful bow.
His arms were laden when finally he made it to the dried-snacks uncle, a veritable mountain of food swaying unsteadily in front of his face. Xiao Zhan couldn’t even see past it it was so tall, and he waved the best he could with his hands full.
The uncle at the store chuckled heartily for several long moments, pottering out from around the table to lend Xiao Zhan a helping hand.
“Aiyah, my boy, what have you been doing? I thought my eyes were tricking me when I saw you. My lunch walking up to me? Impossible!” He laughed again, clapping Xiao Zhan’s shoulder. Xiao Zhan ducked his head, grinning.
“Sorry, uncle. The aunties got to me.”
“Those women,” the man tsked playfully, laying down an armful of food on the table. “They’re teamed with the seamstress, I’m sure. Determined to make us all need an extra inch or two on our robes just so we can breathe! Not that you need it my boy, with all the running around you do all day solving mysteries for us. Speaking of, where is your friend? I would have thought he’d be here carrying everything.”
“Ah, he’s resting.” Xiao Zhan answered truthfully, crouching down to get a better look at the produce on the table.
“I knew there had to be a reason. When that handsome young man is around it’s like you don’t have hands, my boy! He does everything for you!”
Xiao Zhan flushed red whilst the snack uncle laughed, thoroughly amused at successfully teasing Xiao Zhan.
“Uncle~!” Xiao Zhan whined, refusing to look him in the eyes. “Why do you say these things? What if someone hears?”
“Then they’d agree with me.”
“Aiyo, so touchy! Alright, alright, I’ll stop! What can I interest the young master in today, then?” He swept his arms wide, proudly displaying the table full of goods. Xiao Zhan considered for a moment, one finger idly flicking his nose before he decided.
“Ten of your favourite snacks, uncle, and five huamei!”
“Coming right up!”
While the older man packaged the food, Xiao Zhan wandered away briefly to examine a nearby stall. One of the jewellery pieces had caught his eye.
A small jade ornament shaped like a bunny lay amongst the many hairpins and necklaces, unremarkable in the face of the glittering jewels, however try as he might Xiao Zhan could not look away. Transfixed, he walked closer until his thighs bumped against the edge of the table and he was forced to stop.
“See anything you like, young master?”
The seller levels him with a keen look, clearly eager to find a new customer.
“We have a range of lovely jewellery, if you were looking for a gift—“
“How much is this?”
He plucked up the bunny pendant, the smooth jade surface cool against his fingertips.
“Ah, that. Well, the truth is that little bunny actually comes as part of a set. See here - -“
The seller reached across the table, digging around in the mound of stones for a moment until he found what he was searching for. “Aha!” He pulled out the thing with a flourish, revealing another jade pendant like the one in Xiao Zhan’s hand, except this one took the shape of a dragon.
“Wow,” Xiao Zhan exhaled softly, stretching out a palm to receive the dragon pendant. “It’s beautiful.”
“Isn’t it just! Made of the finest jade, these pendants are a perfect fit for any man or woman! A good buy if you ask me, young master, and quick to sell out!”
With a considerably lighter money pouch but a fuller heart and stomach, Xiao Zhan bounded happily back down the street to the inn. (technically it was Yibo (or Lan Wangji’s) money anyway)
The small pouch containing the two jade pendants bounced against his hip where he’d secured the strings to his belt, and Xiao Zhan smiled a little bit brighter with every bump. He couldn’t wait to show Yibo what he’d bought, already imagining the younger man’s reaction.
“A dragon, ge? Woah, that’s so cool! Do you think I’m like a dragon then? Xiao-laoshi is definitely a bunny, cute and soft and warm —“
So caught up in his daydream, Xiao Zhan almost fell to the floor when something suddenly crashed into his chest. His qiankun pouch flew from his fingers to land in the dirt a way away, and Xiao Zhan scrambled after it, panting.
The person he’d collided with was somewhere behind him, and after securing the safety of his and Yibo’s food Xiao Zhan whirled around, already half in a bow.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry I didn’t look where I was going - -“
“Hey, hey. It’s okay!” The speaker was a man who looked to be around Wang Yibo’s age, maybe a bit older. He had a cheerful face, the kind which made you feel happy just looking at it. He came forward at the same time Xiao Zhan did, extending a hand. “I wasn’t looking where I was going either. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
“No, no. I’m fine.” Xiao Zhan reassured him hurriedly, conscious of getting back to Yibo. It had already been an hour since he’d left their inn room, and the last thing he wanted was Yibo getting worried and coming out to look for him whilst he was still recovering.
“I’m glad.” The young man smiled again, patting Xiao Zhan’s shoulder. “Take care, then.”
Xiao Zhan bowed one final time before he turned and began to walk away. He’d made it around two meters when the same voice called out behind him; “Excuse me! You dropped this!”
Xiao Zhan looked back over his shoulder to see the man he’d bumped into jogging up to him, something held in his hand.
“Here.” Slightly stunned, Xiao Zhan took the object, realising with shock that it was the pouch containing his and Yibo’s trinkets.
“What? Where did you — where did you get this?” Xiao Zhan’s head snapped up, disbelief and confusion etched on his every feature. The young man blustered, holding his palms out in surrender.
“It was just lying on the floor I promise! I didn’t take it.”
The panic in his voice brought Xiao Zhan back to his senses and he shook his head, already feeling a little guilty for his outburst.
“No, I mean — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to blame you. Thank you, is what I should say.” Xiao Zhan bowed, grateful, clutching the pouch protectively to his chest.
“It’s no worry.” The man smiled sunnily at him once more before waving a cheerful goodbye, departing down the street with both hands clasped behind his back.
By the time Xiao Zhan had one foot in the door of the inn he’d already forgotten the entire encounter, pushing it easily to the back of his mind.
“Yibo!” He cried out happily as he burst through the door, “guess what I just bought!”
The water of the bath sloshed around Xiao Zhan’s body as he washed away himself, the faint scent of sandalwood emitting from his skin like Wang Yibo had imprinted on him in some way.
Xiao Zhan ran his fingers through his sopping wet hair, hissing when they caught on a knot. “I still need to dry my hair.”
The offer came unexpectedly, and Xiao Zhan blinked at Wang Yibo, stunned.
“Let me dry your hair.” Wang Yibo repeated himself more firmly this time, a little bit obsessed with the way Xiao Zhan’s eyes always grew bigger every time Yibo said something bold or daring.
Wang Yibo’s hands, for all the callouses they bore, were exceedingly soft, carding gently through Xiao Zhan’s hair. Xiao Zhan soon found himself dozing off, his eyelids growing heavier with each barely perceptible tug on his hair.
“So you think I’m like a dragon, huh?” Yibo’s voice, undeniably smug, filtered into Xiao Zhan’s ears as if from a distance. Xiao Zhan had to take a moment to recollect his thoughts, his words dying on the tip of his tongue whenever he tried to verbalise them.
He finally settled for a, “yeah,” the corner of his lip twitching at Yibo’s subsequent sigh when Xiao Zhan failed to elaborate and praise the younger man. “I mean, there was a pig but — ow!”
Xiao Zhan tipped his head all the way back, a scowl ready on his face.
“You did that on purpose.”
“I did not.” Wang Yibo made a face at him, subtly discarding the single strand of hair he’d plucked from Xiao Zhan’s head.
Xiao Zhan thought about retorting, but abruptly realised that in leaning back he’d inadvertently placed his head directly on Wang Yibo’s lap, a position that to an outsider's perspective would look incredibly intimate.
He huffed instead, leaning forwards and crossing his arms across his chest.
“Lao Wang bullies me.”
Yibo snorted behind him, his hands finding a place on Xiao Zhan’s shoulders and pulling him backwards to lean against Yibo’s shins again.
“Lao Xiao called me a pig, he started it.”
“Hey, pigs are cute!”
“I’m not cute,” Yibo said in a voice that sounded like he was pouting, “I’m cool. Like a panther. Or a dragon.”
Xiao Zhan could only smile at the ground, endearment filling his chest and heart until he thought he could feel it spilling off him in waves. It countered the growing pain in his temples, a headache that had begun someway through dinner and persisted until now.
“Whatever you say, Lao Wang. Whatever you say.”
Xiao Zhan retired to bed early that night. Wang Yibo watched him shuffle slowly past, worried, even though the elder insisted he was just tired.
Yibo’s half-serious offer of a head massage had been gently but firmly rebuked. Xiao Zhan had laid one delicate hand on Yibo’s arm, pouting at him until Yibo forgot the last ten years of his life, all his memories replaced instead with images of Xiao Zhan’s face.
“You worry too much, Bo-di!” Xiao Zhan had called out fondly from the bed, already yawning tiredly. “I swear sometimes it’s like I’m the didi, and you’re my gege.”
Yibo didn’t trust himself to speak, a pleased flush sitting high on his cheeks.
Xiao Zhan giggled softly at his own joke, wriggling around like a bunny trying to get comfortable before settling, curled in a little ball facing Yibo.
Xiao Zhan was always beautiful, Yibo knew that, but like this, looking up at Yibo through sleep heavy lashes, with a gaze that seemed to hold all the trust in the world, all for Yibo…
He was ethereal.
“Goodnight, Xiao Zhan. Sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The next morning came, and Xiao Zhan never woke up.
“He is still alive, Lan Gongzi. Please remember that.”
Wang Yibo does not respond, barely acknowledging Wen Qing’s look of concern or the brush of her hand on his arm.
He has not moved from his place for… he doesn’t know how long.
He knows distantly that it has been enough time that his muscles have begun to cramp, stiffness setting in and holding him rigid. He can’t feel his hands and feet, a dull emptiness at the ends of his limbs like he has been cut short, something in him incomplete.
“His golden core is still fine, it is only his physical body that’s been affected. It seems like he is simply… sleeping.”
“That’s …” Wang Yibo speaks for the first time in hours.
His voice is gravelly, rough to his own ears. It’s a testament to the way he screamed for help when he arrived at the Wen’s door, Xiao Zhan’s unconscious body lifeless in his arms.
Wang Yibo’s hands tighten into fists over his robes, and he swallows twice.
“That is good news.” He finishes at last, the sentiment sounding false even to his own ears.
Yibo closes his eyes.
He does not want to see their sympathetic looks.
He does not want to see how pale Xiao Zhan is.
He does not want to look, and see that nothing has changed, and that Xiao Zhan is still gone somewhere Yibo can’t follow.
The Wen’s stay for hours, gathered around Xiao Zhan’s bed. At first Yibo hadn’t let them touch his Xiao Zhan, snarling like something possessed when Wen Ning tried to take the elders' pulse.
It had taken nine of Wen Qing’s needles to subdue him, screaming and thrashing and threatening the worst violence if they had dared lay a single finger on Xiao Zhan.
He stopped struggling. Eventually.
Now, Yibo sat alone on his bed, watching, just watching, and hoping distantly that this was all some terrible nightmare, and he would wake up and see Xiao Zhan’s smiling face and everything would be alright again.
“Lan Er Gongzi?” Wen Ning sounds as if he’s speaking to a caged animal, like if he makes one wrong move Yibo will bite his head off. Yibo might. “We have to go now. Jiejie knows of a plant that may help Young master Wei, but it is far away, and she needs my help to retrieve it. Unless you would rather go yourself—“
“I’m not leaving him.”
With a quiet shuffling of robes Wen Ning moves away, approaching his sister where she stands by Xiao Zhan’s bedside. They duck their heads together, conversing quietly, and Wen Qing pats her brother's shoulder once in sympathy, her expression full of sorrow.
“You have done your best, A-Ning. That’s all you can do.”
They gather their things silently, pausing only to bid farewell to Wang Yibo. Yibo listens to their murmurs and the gentle sounds of footfall as they grow steadily fainter, until finally they disappear.
It is only when he is sure he is alone that Yibo allows himself to cry.
For twelve days and twelve nights Xiao Zhan slept.
Yibo has taken to talking to him, until his voice runs hoarse and he cannot do anything more than rasp out stories he’s told before yet will tell again, Xiao Zhan’s cold hands clasped between his own.
“The doctors said I couldn’t dance anymore, ge, but I asked my mama if I could still go to Korea and she said only if I do well in my school exams. So I did. I’m pretty sure I came first in my school. My grandparents were so proud of me, ge, I swear. Nainai kept telling everyone about how smart her grandson was… all the aunties began to recognise me because of what she said. It was so crazy, ge.” Yibo finishes his sentence, slightly out of breath. His mouth is dry from where he hasn’t drunk any water in the past hour, and he smacks his lips together dryly for a moment, searching for more words to finish his story.
“Anyways, I made it. I went to Korea and I debuted, but I’m sure you knew that, ge. My dad called me just before our first group showcase and told me the entire neighbourhood was squashed into our living room, watching me on the TV, and I remember just thinking “don’t fall over. You can’t fall over, Wang Jie” Oh yeah, I don’t know if I told you that, ge, but my nickname is Wang Jie.”
Yibo rubs his thumb over the back of Xiao Zhan’s hand, feeling the way the delicate bones jut out. He and the Wen’s have tried their best to keep Xiao Zhan fed during This, but it is hard, and Xiao Zhan has still lost some weight.
He is still beautiful though. He is always beautiful in Yibo’s eyes.
Yibo takes care to ensure Xiao Zhan is comfortable, wiping his face with a cloth and tucking him under the blankets he had Wen Ning buy from the market. He brushes back the stray hairs from Xiao Zhan’s face, leaning over the elders body to lay a gentle kiss on his forehead.
His skin is still warm.
Yibo keeps himself sane with that.
“Lan Er Gongzi!”
Wen Ning’s normally timid voice was fraught with tension, and he nearly slammed the door open with the force of his entry.
Wang Yibo snapped his head around to look at him, taking in the heaving chest and flushed cheeks of the youngest Wen.
“What happened?” He asked urgently, standing up from Xiao Zhan’s bedside and sending the stool he’d been sitting on crashing to the floor. Wen Ning panted for breath, clutching the bag in his hand to his chest protectively.
“It’s jie, s-she’s asked to see you. S-something about the curse on Young mistress Wu,” Wen Ning’s gaze flickered behind Yibo, “a-and young master W-Wei. She said she thinks she knows who it is.”
Yibo sucked in a sharp breath, his grip tightening on Xiao Zhan’s hand, so small in his own. He’d neglected their investigation for the most part, too concerned for Xiao Zhan to care much about anything else. The Wens had continued though, diligently searching the village for any shred of evidence as to who might be behind all of this. Wang Yibo had helped where he could, although he’d been unwilling to leave Xiao Zhan for more than half an hour at a time for the first few days.
Whatever medicine Wen Qing had been giving was working though. Xiao Zhan’s cheeks now held more colour, and several times Wang Yibo swore he’d seen Xiao Zhan’s pinky twitch in the middle of Wang Yibo’s storytelling, a sign of life Wang Yibo clung to like a man starved for a decade.
“He has to want to come back, Lan Er Gongzi.” Wen Qing had told him one evening, finished with her daily checks on Xiao Zhan’s condition. “I can give him the best medicines, known or unknown. I have given him them. Now it’s up to him.”
“He’ll come back.”
“How do you know?”
Wen Qing watched as Wang Yibo paused, his lips forming a small line. There was a weariness that seemed too old for his age, a stress which carried itself on the lines of his youthful features and gave them a feeling of a deep rooted sadness, that had something in Wen Qing turning over in echoing sorrow.
“I don’t.” Wang Yibo answered truthfully, his tongue darting out momentarily to wetten his dry and chapped lips. “I just have hope. That he’ll come back to me.”
Wen Qing does not reply.
Wang Yibo thinks back on that moment as he hurries through the undergrowth, heading towards the Wen's home. There is a drumming in his ears that grows louder with each step further he goes from Xiao Zhan, until all he can hear is the sound of his own heartbeat.
Wen Qing opens the door with a brisk, “you’re late,” that Wang Yibo ignores, glancing behind himself once before he steps into the house.
“Your brother said you had something to tell me.”
“Yes,” Wang Yibo followed Wen Qing as she walked further into the house, the by-now familiar scent of medicinal herbs greeting him like a slap in the sinuses.
“My brother and I have been searching around the area where young mistress Wu lost her pin, and we found an old farmer there. He said he had seen her often, but she wasn’t ever alone.”
There was a pregnant pause as Wen Qing bent down to retrieve something from the floor, placing it in her satchel.
“Young mistress Wu had a secret lover.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Because I didn’t know it before, silly!” Wen Qings thwacked Wang Yibo upside the head with a rolled up piece of paper, making him jerk in surprise. “God, do men ever think before they speak? The things I have to deal with…” she continued muttering under her breath as she bustled around the room, grabbing things which Yibo couldn’t make sense of but figured must be important anyway.
Yibo couldn’t help but rub his head with a scowl, the area where he’d been struck stinging even five minutes later. He had a new found respect for Wen Ning if he had to endure this regularly — the eldest Wen had a deceptively wicked smack hidden up her sleeves.
“Stop pouting. You look like a pig.”
“I —“ Wang Yibo choked in outrage. How dare she? Just because she could neutralise a grown man with a single needle, she thought she could insult Wang Yibo and get away it? No way was Wang Yibo going to let this slide.
“Excuse me, what did you — ah!”
Wen Qing appeared from behind him like a ghost, nonchalantly waving a hand in which glittered four needles, right under Wang Yibo’s nose.
“What were you going to say, hm?” She smiled innocently, and Wang Yibo shivered, an instant chill going down his spine. He gulped, stuttering out a shaky “n-nothing,” that had Wen Qing’s eyes narrowing slightly, an amused smirk tugging at the corner of her lips.
“That’s what I thought.”
Wang Yibo felt like his palms were sweating as Wen Qing walked away, and he wiped them discreetly on his robes, letting out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding.
Terrifying. Utterly terrifying. Without Xiao Zhan here to diffuse her anger, Wang Yibo felt like he was one side-eye away from a needle in the backside.
Overly cautious now, Wang Yibo made sure to give Wen Qing a wide berth as she finished up her rounds around the kitchen, even offering to carry her bag for her at one point.
“I’m sure I can manage, Lan Er Gongzi.” She commented dryly, easily hoisting a massive hamper of… something… under her arm, along with the bag already slung around her shoulders. Wang Yibo followed her at a distance, respectfully cowed into silence.
They didn’t make it as far as the door.
With his head bowed, Wang Yibo couldn’t see the moment when Wen Qing all of a sudden stopped and so nearly bumped into the stern woman. Catching himself at the last minute, Wang Yibo narrowly managed to sidestep Wen Qing. Smoothening himself out, he turned his head to see what she had been staring at.
It couldn’t be.
Xiao Zhan, alive and well and awake, stepped in through the open doorway, aided by an anxiously fretting Wen Ning. He gave the young man a grateful smile before looking at Yibo once again, and smiling softly.
Yibo didn’t know what came over him, he only knew that he couldn’t stay still anymore. He’d die if he had to stay still whilst Xiao Zhan was there in front of him, within reach.
He was moving before he even knew it, slow steps that turned into quick steps that turned into runs, until he crossed the distance that separated him and a still smiling Xiao Zhan.
Yibo didn’t think as he reached a hand out to cup the side of Xiao Zhan’s face. His pinky rested on the side of Xiao Zhan’s neck, and he felt Xiao Zhan’s heart rate jump as Yibo wound an arm around his waist, pulling Xiao Zhan into his body, and god, Xiao Zhan fit so perfectly in his arms, like he was meant to be there. Xiao Zhan’s skin was so warm, so unbelievably warm, Yibo couldn’t let go, he didn't want to let go, ever again.
Xiao Zhan giggled softly as Yibo stared at him in a daze.
“Have I got something on my face?” He asked, eyes crinkling into crescent moons of joy as he waited for Yibo’s answer.
And what did Yibo do?
He leant forward and kissed him.