"Lan Zhan, tell me," Wei Wuxian says, chin propped up on the palm of his hand. He leans forward, hair spilling over his shoulder and onto the table, the ends just barely missing a dunk in his cup of tea. "How did you know it was me?"
Lan Wangji's hand shifts over the table. Wei Wuxian purposefully stays perfectly still, curious to see if Lan Wangji has taken so much offence to his hair splayed all over the place that he'll brush it off. Instead, all Lan Wangji does is move aside Wei Wuxian's teacup before picking up his own and taking a sip. If it tickles when his fingers ghost a little too close to Wei Wuxian's hair, he does not show it.
He levels Wei Wuxian with a simple stare and says, "You do not remember."
It's not a question, but Wei Wuxian still answers. “Ah, no.” Trying to probe Lan Wangji for more information, he’s quick to follow up. “What do you mean?"
"If you remembered, then there would be no need to ask."
Wei Wuxian sits back with a huff. "Come on! Tell me! You know I have a bad memory!" He puts on his best pout and hopes that even in Mo Xuanyu's body it'll come across the way it’s supposed to.
“No,” Lan Wangji answers. “You will remember in due time.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath, wagging his finger under Lan Wangji’s nose. “You’re putting too much faith in me, Lan Zhan. I’ve been dead for over a decade. You can’t expect my memory to be better than what it was before.”
Somewhere in that sentence, Lan Wangji’s brows had twitched, and a burst of something had flashed across his eyes. He composes himself quickly enough, face pulled back into its usual neutral expression with practised ease.
(Wei Wuxian thinks that deep down, he knows what that ‘something’ was. If he tries hard enough, he could put a name to that emotion. But he won’t—he wouldn't dare.)
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. A poised hand lifts the cup of tea to his mouth; he speaks around the swirling steam. “You will remember,” he says again, far too confident for Wei Wuxian’s liking.
“And if I don’t?”
The tea goes down in a few gulps, and somehow even an action as simple as that is so elegant when it’s Lan Wangji doing it. He sets his cup back on the table but his hands stay there for a while, wrapped around the patterned ceramic, holding onto the last dredges of warmth before it dissipates.
“It is late,” Lan Wangji says with a wayward glance at the darkening sky out the window. He rises from the floor and glides over to the bed at the other end of the room.
Wei Wuxian is not tired in the slightest, but once Lan Wangji goes to sleep, he’ll be bored out of his mind. With nothing better to do, he gets up and follows, sighing and dragging his feet to make a show of it. He throws himself onto the bed and gets comfortable on his side. It occurs to him that he’s started to refer to one specific part of the bed as “his” side, and the other as Lan Wangji’s.
Uh oh, brain , Wei Wuxian thinks, that’s a dangerous path you’re heading down.
The innkeeper had offered two rooms for them when they first arrived, but Lan Wangji had instantly rejected the idea. One room would be fine, he insisted. One room, one bed.
And thus, here Wei Wuxian lies, tapping out a rhythm on his thigh as he watches Lan Wangji prepare to sleep. Lan Wangji removes his outer robes and folds them neatly away, before finally settling down next to him.
Wei Wuxian twists so that he’s on his side—the position that offers the best, least obstructed view of Lan Wangji. He stares at him for a while, until Lan Wangji notices and turns his head. Their eyes meet, and in the silence of the night, Wei Wuxian convinces himself that his sudden pounding heart means nothing.
“Tired?” Wei Wuxian asks, aiming for a whisper. Maybe he needs a bit more practice to get used to Mo Xuanyu’s body; the volume at which he speaks is no different than usual.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji answers.
His eyelashes are so long. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure he noticed before. He’d usually stare into Lan Wangji’s eyes, get lost somewhere in between his irises and pupils, his gaze never straying further than that. But now he can’t stop his eyes from roaming all over, just—taking it all in.
It’s been 13 years. Lan Wangji looks so different, has changed so much. Yet he’s somehow exactly the same as Wei Wuxian remembers, his presence just as familiar now as it was back then. Despite his bad memory, that's one thing Wei Wuxian could never forget.
“Me too,” Wei Wuxian lies with a mischievous grin. “Good night then, Lan Zhan.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, his own eyes roaming too. “Good night, Wei Ying.”
Their room is not cold, but Wei Wuxian still shivers. No one ever says his name the way Lan Wangji says it. His name is safe in Lan Wangji’s mouth, poised on the tip of his tongue as if it were something sacred.
Lan Wangji raises a hand, and just like that, the candles go out. Plunged in darkness, he then closes his eyes, chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm.
There were perks to Mo Xuanyu’s supposed craziness, Wei Wuxian thinks. He could sleep on top of Lan Wangji, nestled in his arms like he was sculpted to be held by this man alone, and Lan Wangji was carved as his perfect, second half. With his identity revealed, he no longer has the privilege to act so shamelessly. Deep down, Wei Wuxian wants to try it again. He wants to see if Lan Wangji would indulge him even when he’s like this. Even when he’s just Wei Ying.
But this is fine. This is more than enough. Sleeping next to Lan Wangji, staring at the graceful lines and curves of his face contrasted with the sharpness of his eyes and jaw. His hand itches to reach out and touch. He balls it into a fist instead.
Wei Wuxian rolls onto his back, arms pillowing his head. It’s too early to sleep, so he finds himself breathing in and out in time with Lan Wangji, just to give himself something to do. Sure enough, it eventually lulls him into a deep slumber.
One moment he’s struggling to keep his eyes from closing, and the next they’ve snapped wide open. While sleeping, he’d rolled around a bit too close to Lan Wangji’s side of the bed. Blearily, he runs his hand over the bedding.
It’s cold. The spot next to him has been vacant for a while.
He stirs and makes to sit up when a sound from the other end of the room has him pause. Wei Wuxian looks over, blinking the sleep out of his eyes as he tries to focus his vision.
Lan Wangji sits behind the privacy screen near the window. Soft hues of moonlight illuminate him, bathing his edges in a gentle haze, casting his shadow onto the screen. He’s kneeling on the floor, hunched over, and he’s—
Well, Wei Wuxian can't be too sure what he’s doing. He strains to hear and barely makes out what must be some muffled coughs. The only thing his sleep-addled brain can really focus on is the scent. Prickly, pungent—a similar scent to the cheap perfumes sold down at the market. But there’s something bitter in the air, too. Acrid.
Lan Wangji stays like that for a long time. Eventually, he stands and moves around to the table, where he lifts a jug of water and pours it into his teacup. He drinks, coughs a few more times, and then makes his way back to bed.
Immediately, Wei Wuxian shuts his eyes and evens out his breathing, pretending to be asleep. He senses Lan Wangji’s presence, feels him move and shift around as he tries not to be disruptive.
A hand hovers over Wei Wuxian’s head. That hand hesitates for the longest moment, until Wei Wuxian stretches out, effectively bumping his head right into Lan Wangji’s awaiting palm.
Lan Wangji doesn’t move for a while, content with just keeping his hand in place, before finally stroking Wei Wuxian’s hair. His touch is so soft and gentle that Wei Wuxian almost can’t believe this isn’t a dream.
Just what on earth happened these past 13 years for Lan Wangji to treat him like this?
They were supposed to be enemies. Lan Wangji was supposed to want to kill him. And yet—
Wei Wuxian falls back asleep, Lan Wangji’s fingers still carding through his hair.
Lan Wangji wakes with a tickle in his throat.
He coughs a few times, hands covering the lower half of his face, and fully expects a few petals to tumble out of his mouth. Except, this morning there are none.
Strange. There’s always at least one .
He tries again, forcing a harsh cough in an attempt to dislodge the petal stuck in his throat. He coughs himself raw, tears springing to his eyes as he thumps his chest a few times, but still— nothing .
There’s not much else he can do. With a frown, Lan Wangji decides to leave the petal for the time being and starts to prepare for his day. As per his new morning routine, he lights a stick of incense while he meditates, focusing some spiritual energy into his throat to soothe the discomfort.
Breakfast is a silent affair. Lan Wangji eats slower than usual, each bite chewed thoroughly and swallowed gently so as not to aggravate his throat any further. When they’re done with their meal, Uncle and Xichen chat for a while, until it’s almost time for their daily lessons to begin.
Or rather, the most torturous hours of Lan Wangji’s day.
Sitting next to Wei Wuxian is a feat in and of itself. He is disruptive, rude, churlish, improper—Lan Wangji could go on and on. In all the time Wei Wuxian has been a student at Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji cannot recall a single day where he didn’t cause any trouble. It’s as if he’s made it his mission to break as many of the Lan sect rules as possible during his stay here.
Lan Wangji thought he couldn’t stand Wei Wuxian. Thought that the heat surging in his chest was anger, likened the buzzing in his stomach to rage. He thought he hated Wei Wuxian, until—
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian approaches their classroom with a spring in his step, his hair bouncing left and right. He braces a hand on Jiang Wanyin’s shoulder and uses it as leverage to throw his other hand up high in a wave. “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji’s throat tickles. He turns away to face his brother. “Shameless.”
Xichen watches on, mirth shining in his eyes. “Wangji, it seems you have a friend.”
No, what Lan Wangji has is a complete and utter nuisance.
They all make their way inside the classroom when Uncle finally arrives. Poised in his usual seat, Lan Wangji prepares his paper and writing utensils, when a voice breaks his concentration.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says. “Good morning!” He’s waving again, the same way he was waving just a moment ago. Rather than assuming (rightly so) that he was being ignored, Wei Wuxian seems to think that Lan Wangji hadn’t seen him earlier.
Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes as he settles behind his desk. “He’s obviously ignoring you.”
“No way!” Wei Wuxian sidles up close, to the point where his side is almost completely pressed up against Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan just didn’t notice me. Right? Lan Zhan? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Silence!” From the head of the classroom, Uncle speaks with conviction, glaring over at a certain someone clad in red. “Class is in session. Everyone, take out your notes. We will first revise what we studied yesterday.”
From all the recounts Lan Wangji has heard about the hanahaki disease, he knows just how dilapidating it can be. People often suffer in silence for years, dying a slow and painful death, with no hope of getting better unless the person they’re in love with returns their feelings.
Maybe he should be more concerned about it, but Lan Wangji is sure these feelings will pass. He’s just…never been around anyone like Wei Wuxian before. It’s only natural to be curious about things that are different to what you’re accustomed to, right? Right.
Why bother anyone about this non-issue? If Uncle were to find out, he’d just throw a fit. And if he found out who was making his nephew cough up petals, he might just well have a qi deviation.
So, Lan Wangji hides it. He is good at hiding it.
There’s a basket in his bedroom, placed optimally next to his dressing table, that has the potential to ruin him if anyone were to uncover what he stores in there. He’s inclined to place it somewhere else—under his dresser, under his bed, under the floorboards, under under under , but best kept secrets are always out in the open like this.
The basket is not too big and not too small, coloured a deep brown to match the rest of his furniture. It blends in well, an unassuming, insignificant thing. When he opens it, he’s greeted by various trinkets and knickknacks. A few hair accessories, a comb or two, and many perfumed sachets. Many.
Lan Wangji is aware that many people consider him to be fairly attractive. On any given trip to Caiyi Town, it’s not uncommon for a few young girls to approach him with gifts, and it’s also not uncommon for perfumed sachets to be among the items they bestow unto him, blushes high on their cheeks.
And so, he’s been visiting Caiyi Town more often, usually whenever Xichen suggests they should. It’s important that there is a witness, someone to accompany him on the trip. That way, the perfumed sachets he keeps in his room are just gifts he’s received from girls. Nothing suspicious about it.
Yet if someone were to dig a little deeper into that simple brown basket of his, they’d find that it’s fitted with a fake bottom. Uncovering it would reveal nothing but flower petals, which Lan Wangji diligently dries and stores until it’s safe enough to sneak outside and dispose of them.
He throws them in the forest, buries them, sprinkles them on lakes and ponds—sometimes he even burns a few. He's been doing this for a while now, has grown accustomed to all the new routines in his life to keep this secret of his safe.
To reiterate: Lan Wangji is good at hiding it.
But today, somewhere between Uncle’s second and third lecture of the day, he’s struck with the sudden urge to cough. He’s gotten used to suppressing it at this point, until he remembers that there’s a darn stubborn petal lodged in his throat that he couldn’t cough up earlier. It must be catching up to him.
Wei Wuxian has hardly been paying any attention to the lessons all morning. He passes notes to Nie Huaisang, throws bits of paper at Lan Wangji’s desk, twirls his brush (or ribbon, or clothes, or hair) round and round while staring out the window. Uncle always catches him daydreaming and proceeds to call on him to answer—much to Lan Wangj’s strife since Wei Wuxian answers correctly every single time, and his poor heart doesn’t know what to do with that information.
Despite this, Wei Wuxian leans toward him, voice dipped low in concern. “Lan Zhan? You okay?” He gestures down to Lan Wangji’s lap, where his fingers are digging into his thighs.
Lan Wangji relaxes his grip immediately. He hadn't even noticed.
There’s a sharp clack as Uncle strikes down at Wei Wuxian’s desk.
“Wei Wuxian!” he bellows. “Disturbing the class again? If you have no intention of learning, then get out!”
Uncle has become less and less lenient with him. It’s almost as if he’ll take any old reason as an excuse to expel Wei Wuxian from the class.
“Lan Zhan doesn’t feel well,” Wei Wuxian says. He places a hand over Lan Wangji’s thigh. “I think he might be sick.”
The tickle in Lan Wangji’s throat intensifies. He slaps his hands over his mouth, hunched over his desk in a desperate bid to suppress the onslaught of coughs. His chest burns, throat convulsing as he fights to keep the petals down.
“See?!” Wei Wuxian cries. He starts rubbing along his back, and Lan Wangji shudders.
“Stop that!” Uncle snaps, slapping Wei Wuxian’s hand away with a ruler. “Wangji. Are you alright?”
Breathing in deeply with tears pricking his eyes, Lan Wangji mumbles out a quiet, “May I please be excused?”
He leaves the classroom the instant Uncle says he may do so, briefly meeting eyes with Xichen to let him know he’s alright. His brother’s anxious expression relaxes, but as Uncle calls for the attention of the class, his eyes are still on Lan Wangji’s retreating figure.
Running is forbidden in Cloud Recesses—a rule which Lan Wangji has never felt inclined to break. But right now, with petals threatening to spew from his mouth at any moment, it takes all his restraint not to break out into a sprint. Disciples steer clear of his path, confused at seeing him out and about at this time of day. He appears to be in such a rush that no one stops him or tries to speak with him—one of the perks of having such an intimidating face, although Lan Wangji isn't sure if he's coming off as intimidating or downright insane.
Thankfully, he makes it back home in time. The instant he closes the door to his room, he rushes over to his dresser at the other end. He usually prefers to cough into a bowl, just to make the cleanup process easier, but his chest aches to the point of tears. He gasps, collapses to his knees, and a handful of pink petals fall around him, covering his lap and the hardwood floor. They look about the same as the petals in his basket, except these are more vibrant.
He barely has time to admire them when he starts to cough. More petals tumble out of his mouth and from the gaps in his fingers as he tries to catch them. The coughing shakes his entire body, and by the end of this, he'll have virtually no energy left. Yet he just can't stop coughing, and the petals won't stop coming out.
Their scent is suffocating. Lan Wangji has no idea how he's going to cover it up. The incense he diligently lights each time he meditates isn’t going to be enough. The scent is so oppressive that it hangs in the air, clinging to his clothes. He'll have to change into a fresh set of robes before Uncle and Xichen come to check on him, or else they’ll pick up on the scent as well.
The coughs start to subside, and in the moment of respite, Lan Wangji takes in a sharp breath through his mouth. Maybe he disrupts something in doing so, or maybe it was only a matter of time before it had to be expelled from his lungs, but he can—he can feel something in there. Although he's coughed up so many petals, he's never actually felt the air moving around them as he breathes. Just like that, the urge to cough comes back in full swing, but this time there’s no tickle in his throat, only an odd grating sensation in his chest.
Lan Wangji is thrown into another coughing fit. Tears stream down his face as he hacks like an old man at death's door. Something is moving in his lungs, rattling around like those paper talismans Wei Wuxian likes to play with during class. He brings his hands up to his mouth, gives one last final—violent—cough, and that thing in his lungs dislodges.
He keeps his hands around his mouth. Takes a few grounding breaths. It's over. It's done.
The sudden wave of calmness sedates him. Lan Wangji is so tired, so hurt by all this. He dares to look into the mirror, knowing his reflection won't be a pretty sight. Sure enough, he's entirely correct. His hair is dishevelled, robes in disarray, face smeared with tears and snot and pollen. But he only notices those things for a split second, before his eyes snap over to a dark figure peering at him from his window.
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian calls out, voice laced with shock.
A wave of panic surges over Lan Wangji. It's as if thousands of tiny needles are pricking at his skin, icy cold and searingly hot at the same time.
Wei Wuxian jumps up and over the windowsill, stepping over a talisman by his feet. He may not notice it, but Lan Wangji watches it flutter slightly as Wei Wuxian walks toward him. He can't believe it—the one time he forgets to double-check if his soundproofing talismans are in place, it just had to be Wei Wuxian who overhears his coughing.
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian approaches with caution, the same way he probably would when trying to corner a stray animal. "Are you alright?"
"Wei Ying." Lan Wangji still keeps his hands around his mouth, speaking around the petals. His hands are sweaty, and it's only making the scent of the petals more pungent. "Leave."
It is such an odd sight for Wei Wuxian to appear so serious. He squats down next to Lan Wangji, completely ignoring his request, and casts him a worried frown. "You have hanahaki?"
"Yes," says Lan Wangji. That much is obvious—there’s no use in hiding it when he’s been caught like this.
Wei Wuxian's hand hovers over a petal before picking it up. He rubs it between his fingers and hums to himself. "These petals are really pretty."
It leaves Lan Wangji floored—those petals are covered in saliva and who knows what else, yet Wei Wuxian picks them up without a second thought and calls them pretty .
They should be, Lan Wangji thinks, only slightly bitter. They are yours.
"Why are you here?" he asks, decidedly ignoring Wei Wuxian’s comment.
With more concentration than he’s ever displayed during his time in Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian traces a finger over the edge of one of the petals. "I wanted to check on you, but your uncle wouldn't let me. So…I caused a bit of trouble until he had no choice but to kick me out." He shrugs at that last part, as if it's no big deal to him.
Not for the first time, Lan Wangji wonders why it had to be him of all people.
"Wei Wuxian," Lan Wangji says icily, although it hardly carries any impact when it's said around a handful of pink petals. "Leave."
This request is so shocking to Wei Wuxian that he drops the petals he was admiring. "Lan Zhan!" he says, a hand placed over his chest as he gapes. "How could I possibly leave now? You're sick! I need to look after you!"
It's moments like this, Lan Wangji realises bitterly, that will surely make it difficult for his hanahaki to go away. "Not needed."
Wei Wuxian gives him an unimpressed stare. "Look, you won't even let me see your face. I can barely understand you." (But you still do.) "Come on. There's no use hiding anymore, right?"
Without warning, Wei Wuxian reaches out and tugs on one of Lan Wangji's wrists. Lan Wangji's eyes widen in alarm and he pulls back, but Wei Wuxian is a lot stronger than he lets on. After much struggle, Lan Wangji’s hands are finally removed from his mouth, and a clump of petals fall to the floor.
Except, it's not a group of petals all clumped together. It's a flower. A whole, entire flower. To top it all off—it's a lovely, gorgeous, vibrantly pink lotus flower.
It's all over. Wei Wuxian will take one look and figure out that he's the reason Lan Wangji has been hacking up petals (and now, apparently, flowers). This revelation will disgust him. He will leave Cloud Recesses immediately and never come back—will likely never even dream of returning—and Lan Wangji will never see him again. Wei Wuxian will tell everyone about how disgusting Lan Wangji really is, effectively ruining his entire reputation, and—
"Lan Zhan..." Wei Wuxian's voice is tinged with awe. He slowly picks up the lotus flower and holds it gently in his hands, as if he's cradling something precious. "Are you in love with someone from Lotus Pier?!"
Lan Wangji startles as if he's been thrown into the Cold Ponds. He stares, completely speechless, but Wei Wuxian doesn't notice anything amiss and continues.
"Oh gods," he says. "Don't tell me...you have feelings for Jiang Cheng?"
It takes a while for Lan Wangji to find his voice. "No," he says, oddly calm despite the buzzing in his mind. "I do not have feelings for Jiang Wanyin."
"That's good," Wei Wuxian says, visibly relieved. He shifts his legs until he's properly sitting on the floor, and Lan Wangji's heart sinks at the implication. If Wei Wuxian is moving around to get more comfortable, it means he doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. "Because Jiang Cheng...is a bit of a handful. I mean he's great and all, but he's so," Wei Wuxian makes an odd noise, accompanied by a random hand gesture. "On the other hand, you're so, you know…" yet another strange hand gesture. "I just don't think you two are a match."
"I am not in love with Jiang Wanyin," Lan Wangji repeats, feeling it very important for Wei Wuxian to understand this.
"That's good," Wei Wuxian says with a nod. "Then...who is it?"
"I will not tell you."
"Come on, Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian whines. "Tell me! Please? I promise I'll sort them out for you straight away. I mean, how could anyone not love you back?" He gasps suddenly, a hand flying over his mouth. "What hope is there for the rest of us?"
"Ridiculous," Lan Wangji says with a scoff.
"I'm serious!" Wei Wuxian latches onto his sleeve. "Lan Zhan, if someone like you has hanahaki, what about us normal people? You're handsome, smart, talented, righteous—you're the perfect guy!"
There's a strange, almost poetic nature, to the irony of hearing such compliments from the one person who actually doesn't love you back. Perhaps he lets this odd feeling show on his face for a beat too long, because Wei Wuxian immediately starts to backtrack.
"Are you going to tell them? Maybe you're just so untouchable in their eyes that they can't even imagine you'd ever love them back."
Lan Wangji gazes at the hand that's still latched onto his arm. "I will not tell them."
"That's no fun," Wei Wuxian says with a pout.
"These feelings will pass."
"Fine then," Wei Wuxian concedes, hands thrown up in defeat. "But if not, I'll hunt this person down for you, alright?"
"Mn," Lan Wangji says, just for the sake of agreeing. "Wei Ying?"
"Yeah?" Wei Wuxian's eyes meet his, gaze so earnest that it's disarming.
"Please...do not tell anyone about this."
With an easy smile and a small laugh, Wei Wuxian nods. "Of course, Lan-er-gongzi. Your secret is safe with me."
"Mn. Thank you."
"Oh, by the way, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian holds up the lotus flower, slightly bashful. "Can I keep it?"
When it comes to hanahaki, there's no official documentation going around on what should and shouldn't be done. If such literature were to exist, giving the person you love one of the flowers you coughed up would probably rank fairly high on the list of things to definitely not do.
"...You want to keep it?"
"Of course!" Wei Wuxian gestures wildly to the flower, acting as if Lan Wangji has never seen it before. "It's just so pretty. It's like a nice reminder of home while I'm here, right? Then when I leave at the end of the year, I'll give it back to you. So you can remember me."
Lan Wangji is almost inclined to tell him that he has a whole basket brimming with petals that exist solely for that very reason. Instead, he simply says, "It will not last that long."
"Don't worry about that," Wei Wuxian says dismissively. "We'll think of a way to preserve it. Maybe a talisman could work..." His face twists in concentration, eyes glossing as he mulls it over. Then he shakes his head and says, "Ah, but I don't want to make you uncomfortable. If you'd rather keep it or…throw it away–-"
"Take it," Lan Wangji says.
Even if giving away that flower could lead to a myriad of issues down the line, Lan Wangji finds it hard to care when Wei Wuxian breaks into an ear-splitting grin.
A week later, Wei Wuxian punches Jin Zixuan in the face and is sent back home to Lotus Pier.
On the day of his departure, Lan Wangji does not see him. He enters his bedroom after supper, only to spot something pink in his otherwise monochrome room.
A lotus flower is placed at the centre of his bed. It's in a matching gift box, and beneath the flower there is some sort of talisman.
The flower is not as beautiful as it was when Lan Wangji first coughed it up, nor is it as beautiful as the flowers that have come since then. It's slightly dull, some of the petals drooping or curling at the edges, and it doesn't smell as strongly as it used to either. But it's been a week–-it should be in far worse condition than this. It must have taken a few days for Wei Wuxian to figure out how to preserve it, then.
Lan Wangji should throw this flower away. With Wei Wuxian now out of his life, he'll have time to get over him. Both his feelings and the flowers will all go away. Everything will be back to how it should be.
Instead, Lan Wangji picks out the weaker floorboards, prying a few of them open. The flower, safe in its little box, is then placed below, and then floorboards are swiftly returned to their usual place.
This is a secret, Lan Wangji realises, that could destroy him.
"Good morning Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian saunters over to Lan Wangji, yawing as he stretches his arms up over his head. In his sleep, his clothes had gotten impossibly tangled, and now one of his shoulders is exposed. He leaves it like this on purpose, blinking innocently. "Did you sleep well?"
Lan Wangji sits on a cushion, eyes closed in meditation. There's a stick of incense lit up on the table. Wei Wuxian takes note of it.
Calmly, Lan Wangji opens his eyes and meets Wei Wuxian's enthusiastic stare. For a second, his gaze flashes past the shoulder Wei Wuxian so brazenly leaves exposed. If this were the Lan Wangji that Wei Wuxian knew years ago, he would turn away, perhaps with a blush scorching across his neck and ears, probably calling him shameless or boring . But now, Lan Wangji says nothing, and Wei Wuxian is left baffled once more.
"Mn," he answers simply.
"That's great," Wei Wuxian says, remembering a hunched figure in the dark, remembering the remnant, lingering touch of a hand in his hair. "Me too."
They leave shortly after, heading out on the road once more. "This corpse arm won't investigate itself," Wei Wuxian had said as motivation, in his all-mighty wisdom. As they journey along, he notes something else about Lan Wangji.
"Wouldn't it be faster to travel on Bichen?" Wei Wuxian asks. He spins around to walk backwards, munching on an apple Lan Wangji bought for him when they passed by a produce stall.
"Mn," Lan Wangji agrees.
"Then why don't we?" At Lan Wangji's inquisitive stare, Wei Wuxian waves his hands frantically, his apple almost flying out of his loose grip. "Ah, wait, I don't mean it like—like it's boring for us to travel on foot or anything."
Lan Wangji huffs slightly through his nose—his way of laughing. It's not particularly suspicious, but Wei Wuxian decides to make a note of it as well. For...reasons.
"Do I bore you?"
"Wha—” Wei Wuxian almost trips over his own feet. "Lan Zhan," he whines. "Are you teasing me?"
With a perfectly serious expression, Lan Wangji says, "Mn."
Wei Wuxian gasps in mock shock. He reaches out to swat Lan Wangji's arm, but at the very last second, he hesitates slightly, opting to just catch the ends of his sleeve instead. "How cruel! So this is the true face of the perfect Hanguang-Jun!"
"Mn," Lan Wangji says once more, content to just agree with any nonsense that Wei Wuxian sputters. He places his hands behind his back and walks ahead. With the way his robe flutters around him so elegantly, it appears as if he's just gliding along like some ethereal being.
"Wait for me!" Wei Wuxian calls out. It wouldn't take long for him to catch up, but Lan Wangji slows down for him anyway.
It's only then that he realises—Lan Wangji never answered his question.
They stay at a new inn tonight. It's larger than the previous one, with a bustling restaurant down below and fairly decent rooms upstairs. Wei Wuxian has no qualms with this inn—he did grow up living on the streets for a period of his life, so as long as there's a roof over his head, he can’t complain. But there is one thing that does bother him.
He stands in front of his bedroom for the night, fiddling with the key to get the door open. Next to him, Lan Wangji stands in front of another door, already opened and awaiting his grand presence. And yet he lingers in the hallway, keeping Wei Wuxian company while he struggles with his lock.
Tongue jutted out in concentration, Wei Wuxian turns his wrist sharply. There's a satisfying clack as his door finally swings open. He twirls the key around his finger and beams up at Lan Wangji. "See? Told you I could do it."
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, oddly...fond. "Then I shall see you tomorrow. Good night, Wei Ying."
"Good night, Lan Zhan."
They both stand there for a while, neither of them making a move to enter their rooms. Finally, Lan Wangji nods—more to himself than anyone else—and silently slinks into his room. The door shuts firmly behind him, and Wei Wuxian lets his smile drop.
That's right. Tonight, Lan Wangji requested separate rooms.
Wei Wuxian suspects it has something to do with what he saw last night. Of course, that's the conclusion the rational part of his brain came to. But there’s another part of him that thinks differently, influenced more by his heart than anything else, worried that maybe Lan Wangji still finds him as annoying as he did when they were younger.
No matter. If his hunch is right, then he'll find out the truth soon enough.
He steps inside his room, taking it all in. It's decently sized, with a bed tucked cosily in the corner and various paintings and vases decorating the walls and tables. Wei Wuxian takes in a deep breath, and then—with as much poise as he can muster—stomps around toward his bed.
"I'm so tired tonight!" he bemoans, putting as much weight down onto the creaky floorboards as possible. With his boots still snugly on his feet, he can only imagine how offended the patrons below would be if they could hear him. Thankfully, there's some music playing downstairs, so for them Wei Wuxian's incessant stomping is probably nothing but an extra drum beat.
"I think I'll just go to sleep right away!" Wei Wuxian says loudly. He throws himself onto the bed, then kicks his boots off. They fly through the room, one of them landing fairly close to the opposite wall. And right past that wall lies no other than Lan Wangji.
Aside from moving around violently in his bed, mimicking his usual tossing and turning, Wei Wuxian doesn't speak a word. A good few minutes pass before he carefully sits up, so still and silent that the bed frame doesn't so much as creak. He takes a few blankets and carefully lays them on the floor, stepping on them to muffle his footsteps. He creeps toward the wall carefully and then, when he's close enough, squats down and presses an ear against it.
Ideally, Lan Wangji will assume he's soundly asleep, and won't bother to muffle any sounds that come from his side of the wall. Yet as Wei Wuxian holds his position long enough for his legs to go numb, he still hasn't heard anything. Not a single sound.
It makes no sense. He lays the palm of his hand flat on the floor and feels the slight vibrations of the music and chatter going on downstairs. He can hear them as well; muffled and tinny, but there's at least some sort of sound.
On Lan Wangji's side of the wall, however...there's nothing. No sound, and no vibration dancing along his fingers either. Sure, Lan Wangji at his loudest is probably still significantly quieter than the average person, but this is more like a void that's eaten up all the noise.
That's when it clicks. Soundproofing talismans.
With a frown, Wei Wuxian messes with his hair as he thinks it over. With his level of demonic cultivation, overriding a simple soundproofing talisman is no big deal. But this is Lan Wangji he's spying on–-is it really alright to invade his privacy?
"Sorry, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whispers to himself. "This is for your own good." A plume of black smoke swirls around his palm as he channels a small amount of resentful energy into it. Placing his hand back on the wall, he can finally hear what’s happening on the other side. Rustling, feet padding along the floor, pages turning—nothing out of the ordinary.
Wei Wuxian listens. His feet start to ache but he can't afford to move now lest Lan Wangji sense a shift in the air. He stays locked in that one position for so long, waiting for something, for anything .
That's when he hears it. The unmistakable sound of coughing.
He springs up in alarm, heart racing. Wei Wuxian presses closer, ear flat against the wall, until he remembers the soundproofing talismans. He channels even more resentful energy into his fingers to completely override them.
He hears perfectly now, clear and crisp as Lan Wangji coughs. Even though the soundproofing talismans are essentially nothing more than normal paper at this point, the coughs are still a bit muffled. He can picture it in his head–-Lan Wangji hunched over, pressing his pristine white sleeves over his mouth, petals spilling all around him.
Wei Wuxian rips his fingers away from the wall and scrambles to his feet. He almost trips over the blankets he laid out earlier as he rushes to the door, all but tearing it off its hinges.
He doesn't bother trying to open Lan Wangji's door--if soundproofing talismans are the extent he goes to, there's no doubt that it’ll already be locked. Wasting no time, he channels some energy into the lock until it clicks open.
Lan Wangji’s eyes shoot up in alarm. His body shudders as he clamps a hand over his mouth.
“W-Wei Yin—” he’s interrupted by a burst of coughs, doubled over on the ground, hunched to the point where the ends of his hair trail across the floor.
Wei Wuxian is by his side in an instant, gently pulling his hair up and rubbing circles over his back.
“Shh, Lan Zhan, it’s okay. You’re okay.”
His heart falls to the pit of his stomach as flower petals pool into Lan Wangji’s hands, some slipping through his fingers and cascading onto his lap. The petals are a dark, deep shade of red. Wei Wuxian takes one between his fingers, only to startle slightly when slender digits wrap around his wrist, the grip somehow loose and firm at the same time.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, drawing in a gasping breath. “Don’t.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him, eyes wide. “Don’t what, Lan Zhan?”
Breath slightly ragged, Lan Wangji struggles to contain his coughs. His hand slowly moves upwards, over Wei Wuxian’s wrist until it’s wrapped around his fingers. “Don’t touch,” he says urgently. “It’s dirty.”
“Dirty?” Wei Wuxian laughs lightly. “It’s not dirty if it’s you, Lan Zhan.” He brings his other hand over Lan Wangji’s and slowly pries it off.
If Lan Wangji doesn’t want him to look, then he won’t. If Lan Wangji gives even the slightest hint of resistance, the smallest pull back, the most minuscule twitch, then he’ll stop. But Lan Wangji doesn’t, so Wei Wuxian continues, unfurling his fingers to reveal the lone petal on the palm of his hand.
The petal is such a vibrant, deep red. It matches perfectly with the shade Wei Wuxian wears in his robes and hair. A rose petal, perhaps? He can imagine the flowers would be beautiful—not that he wants Lan Wangji to cough up flowers or anything. But if he did, he knows they would be stunning.
That’s when he notices something strange about the petal. A discolouration, almost. It’s so easy to miss, so easy to overlook. He rubs the petal between his fingers and they come back red.
His heart sinks. “Oh…Lan Zhan…”
“It’s dirty,” Lan Wangji repeats. His own hands are clasped perfectly in his lap, fingers tightly knitted. Now that Wei Wuxian knows what to look for, he spots that same shade of red everywhere. On Lan Wangji’s clothes, on those graceful pale hands…
“Lan Zhan, this is serious,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’re—” he glances back down at the red—at the blood —on the petal. “How long has this been going on?”
Lan Wangji hesitates. “A long time.”
Wei Wuxian frowns at him. “Is this the same person? The one you loved back when we were young?”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes. “Mn.”
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Wuxian is speechless. How could this happen? How could Lan Wangji, of all people, remain in an unrequited love for so long? Wei Wuxian has been dead for less time than Lan Wangji has spent suffering from hanahaki. It’s so illogical, so nonsensical. He wants to laugh. He wants to laugh and roll on the floor and pretend it’s a sick joke. “I don’t understand. Did they—did they reject you? Did you ever tell them how you feel?”
“I did not.”
“Why not?!” Wei Wuxian can’t help it. He’s—he's angry, for some reason. The music from downstairs almost drowns out his cry, so he’s even louder when he says, “This could kill you! You need to move on! Find this person and tell them!”
“I cannot,” Lan Wangji says simply.
“Because they do not want me,” Lan Wangji says. “They have only just returned into my life. I will not burden them with this.”
“How do you know that they don’t love you if you’ve never told them?” Wei Wuxian insists. “You need to tell them, Lan Zhan.”
“They do not love me,” Lan Wangji says simply, without a tinge of disappointment or sadness in his voice. He says it like it’s a fact, like he’s spent hours convincing himself to be able to speak something so grave in such a casual way. “If they did, I would not be unwell to this day.”
“That’s why you should tell them!” Wei Wuxian says. “If you tell them, maybe they’ll feel the same way. You won't know unless you try!”
“If I tell them, I would be influencing their own emotions,” Lan Wangji says. He turns his gaze to Wei Wuxian, his eyes shining in the candlelight. “I want them to be free, Wei Ying.”
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Wuxian startles, shaken by the gravity of those words. “You…” he huffs lightly, smiles fondly. “You’re really stubborn, you know that? Don’t think I’ll let this go so easily, okay? I’ll get it out of you eventually. I’ll find that person myself and bring them here for you!”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. The corners of his lips twitch ever so slightly. “Thank you, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian rubs his back again. He doesn’t even realise he’s doing it until he feels Lan Wangji stiffen beneath the motion. He coughs awkwardly, feigning a yawn as he smoothly stretches his arms over his head.
“How about I get some water for you? Then we can get this all cleaned up.”
“I can clean up myself.”
“No way, Lan Zhan! I’m not letting you go through this alone!” Wei Wuxian wags a finger in warning, walking backwards toward the door. “You stay right there, I’ll be back with some water. Or would tea be better for your throat?” He thinks it over for a minute and then waves a hand. “I’ll just get both.”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji’s eyes are sparkling again. Even though his hair is messy, his clothes in disarray and stained with splotches of blood, he’s so…beautiful. “Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian lingers in the doorway. Allows himself to be selfish and stare. An odd feeling stirs in his stomach, and the longer he fixates on Lan Wangji, the worse it gets. He quells it with a shake of his head and a humourless laugh.
“Don’t thank me, Lan Zhan. What are friends for, right?”
The light in Lan Wangji’s eyes does not dim. It’s still as bright and intense as before, and yet somehow it’s different. Wei Wuxian cannot place it—doesn’t want to place it.
Some things are best left unknown.
There is a scratch in Lan Wangji's throat. He ignores it, stubbornly sitting in an uncomfortable position, rigid from the pain all over his body. When the urge to cough gets too bad, he tries not to show it on his face. Instead, he shifts a little, putting far too much strain on his broken leg. The pain that follows is sharp and gruelling. It’s a welcome distraction.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whines lightly. They've grown accustomed to whispering and talking quietly over the past few days—or in Wei Wuxian's case, as quiet as he could get—to avoid alerting the Tortoise of Slaughter of their presence. The beast has already been slain, yet Wei Wuxian's voice is still so quiet. It's just habit, Lan Wangji convinces himself, even though Wei Wuxian is so weak he can barely keep his eyes open. "Lan Zhan. Who is it?"
Concerned that Wei Wuxian's fever has reached the stage of delirium, Lan Wangji furrows his eyebrows. "There is no one here aside from us."
"No!" Wei Wuxian throws his head back in a laugh...or at least, he tries to. Since he's already laying on the floor, his head just lolls around left and right as he wheezes out a few chuckles. "I meant the person you're in love with. Who is it?"
Lan Wangji is once again made aware of the grating in his throat. When he opens his mouth to answer, his voice is a little deeper, a bit rougher as he speaks around all the petals and flowers blooming in his lungs. "Shameless."
"I think I was right the other day," Wei Wuxian says with a slight chortle. "It's definitely Mianmian."
"Not her," Lan Wangji says. He shifts around again, rolling his leg over and over until he has to clench his jaw to keep from crying out. A sheen of sweat covers his brow, and heat pricks at him from head to toe. It hurts. Everything hurts, but he has to keep enduring.
"I'm certain it's her," Wei Wuxian says, forcing his eyes to open again. They're glossy and unfocused; he stares right at Lan Wangji and yet he isn't staring at him but through him. "There's no need to be embarrassed. She's great, isn't she? When did you two first meet?"
"It is not her."
The damp rag—fashioned out of a part of Lan Wangji’s torn robe—on Wei Wuxian's forehead starts to slide down his face, having lost its grip thanks to his inability to lie still. It lands on the ground with a wet splat. Lan Wangji moves in an instant, but before he can drag his aching body over to pick it back up, Wei Wuxian laughs dryly.
"Don't bother, Lan Zhan," he says with a smile. "It's not helping that much anyway."
Lan Wangji ignores him. The light sheen of sweat from a moment ago is now a torrential downpour as he struggles to move. He's practically crawling on the floor, each inch forward more painful than the last.
With a slight groan, Wei Wuxian lifts his arm and swings at random. He hits Lan Wangji square in the chest before his arm drops back down like a dead weight.
"Really, it's fine," Wei Wuxian says. "Don't waste your energy. You're hurt, too."
Lan Wangji swallows thickly. His breathing is already laboured, lungs exacerbated from all the moving around. It's said that fluttering butterflies in your stomach is a sure sign that you're in love. The fluttering in his chest is strangely poignant when he thinks of it like that.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian echoes. Lan Wangji is close enough that Wei Wuxian can comfortably look at him without twisting his neck. And this time, he's looking straight at him, eye to eye. Somehow, Lan Wangji thinks it was better when his eyes were too unfocused to properly look at anything. "You can tell me. I promise I won't spread your secret."
"No," Lan Wangji says. He wants to say more. When it's Wei Wuxian, he always wants to say more. But he doesn't think he can hold back the flowers for much longer, so he bites his bottom lip and stays silent.
"Come on, I might die here, Lan Zhan! You're not so heartless that you'd deny me of my dying wish, are you?"
"You're not dying," Lan Wangji tells him. "Jiang Wanyin will bring help."
"You're right," Wei Wuxian says, voice distant in the echo of the cave.
They've been trapped here for days without any food or clean water. They're exhausted, sick, injured—any other disciple would likely have died already. It's a perilous situation they're in, and it does not escape Lan Wangji's mind that within the realm of possibilities, Wei Wuxian potentially dying here cannot be dismissed so easily.
But Lan Wangji would know. He would...he would feel it, wouldn't he? He'd feel it in his chest, flowers and stems constricting around his lungs and ribs, growing and blooming out through bone and muscle until they breach his skin. His heart would be overgrown with love. Lan Wangji would be consumed by his love, both inside and out.
If Wei Wuxian were to die, the hanahaki would kill him.
It will already kill you , a voice in his head tells him. Wei Ying does not love you.
"You're not dying," Lan Wangji repeats as steadily as he can.
Wei Wuxian's grin is lopsided as he says, "Lan Zhan, the ground isn't comfortable. Can I rest on your lap?"
That’s all it takes for Lan Wangji's chest to burst. He coughs, wide-eyed and horrified as a small gardenia gently tumbles out of his mouth and straight onto the back of Wei Wuxian's hand. He immediately swipes it away, jaw clenched to keep any more petals from coming out.
"Don't hide it around me, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. He winces in pain as he tries to sit, manoeuvring around until his head rests atop Lan Wangji’s thighs. Lan Wangji stays perfectly still, the same way he did as a child when the bunnies in the forest would hop all over him. “It’s just me, right? Let it all out.”
He places his hand against Lan Wangji’s chest and holds it steady. His hand is so warm—even through layers of cloth, Lan Wangji is taken aback by the sheer heat emanating from it. Any warmer and it’d be hot enough to scorch his flowers down into ash.
He coughs once more. A few more gardenias dance around gracefully, landing in Wei Wuxian’s hair. Lan Wangji tries to brush them aside, but he’s interrupted by Wei Wuxian’s laugh. It tinkles like wind chimes, graces Lan Wangji’s ears the same way a beautiful song would.
“They’re pretty,” Wei Wuxian tells him, his eyes starting to droop again. He probably didn’t even get a very good look at them, but Wei Wuxian wouldn’t lie about this. “Leave them be, Lan Zhan. They look nice.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji finds himself saying. He coughs a few more times, head turned away and sleeve covering his mouth to catch as many flowers as he can. But the wind still carries a few stubborn ones toward Wei Wuxian. His eyes are closed now, expression serene, yet he smiles when the gardenias land on his cheeks and tangle in his hair, as soft as the kisses Lan Wangji desperately wants to lavish him with.
His face burns at that last thought. How shameless .
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Wuxian’s voice trails off slightly. “Play a song for me?”
Lan Wangji startles. “I do not have my guqin.”
“Then sing,” Wei Wuxian says simply. “Sing for me.”
The universe is either playing a cruel trick on him or is being particularly benevolent. Lan Wangji can’t be too sure which one it is just yet.
There is a song he’s been wanting to play for Wei Wuxian. A song he wrote after his fifth or sixth sleepless night, tossing and turning and coughing incessantly. The feelings were supposed to go away. They were supposed to follow Wei Wuxian back to Lotus Pier and stay there forever. Instead, those feelings never even left.
Lan Wangji inhales shakily. Then, he starts to hum.
Wangxian —it’s a silly title for a song. Years later when he grows into a proper adult, he’ll probably look back at his young self with embarrassment. But for now, none of that matters. The boy he’s in love with is in his lap, and maybe for a moment, Lan Wangji can let him in—can let him witness the full extent of his feelings.
After all, Wei Wuxian wants to know who Lan Wangji is in love with. He can think of no better way to confess than this.
Walking along the road with a spring in his step, Wei Wuxian whistles a tune that is far too joyful for such an ungodly hour. It’s one of the side effects of being around Lan Wangji so much lately—he’s already grown scarily accustomed to the strict Lan sleeping schedule.
Lan Wangji walks idly beside him, perfectly content and at ease. If it were anyone else next to him, they’d probably be terrified to hear Wei Wuxian, of all people, start to whistle, no matter what kind of tune it is.
They’ve been walking for the better part of two days, stopping only when needed to rest. Their journey would be so much faster on sword, but Lan Wangji makes no suggestion to use Bichen, and Wei Wuxian can’t bring himself to ask about it anymore. It reminds him a little of how he used to act with Suibian. He never liked all the curious stares people would throw his way, let alone the imposing questions on why he’s forgone his sword—Lan Wangji probably wouldn’t like it very much either.
“Ah…” Wei Wuxian says, slowing his pace. Lan Wangji slows down as well, perfectly in sync with his every move. “It looks crowded over there.”
Lan Wangji observes the bustling road up ahead. They must have wandered through a small market without even realising. The side of the road is covered with merchants setting up their stalls and wares. While this poses no issue to Wei Wuxian, for Lan Wangji, crowds must be very uncomfortable.
Ever since they left the inn, Lan Wangji hardly coughs in Wei Wuxian’s presence. But the way he carries himself…it’s just not normal. Sometimes he’s too stiff and rigid, more so than what would be acceptable for a Lan. It’s obvious he’s hiding his pain, holding in his coughs instead of letting them out. If he can’t bring himself to cough when it’s only Wei Wuxian around, a bustling market is probably the worst place for him to pass through.
But of course, Lan Wangji would never admit this. He doesn’t express any concerns with the crowd up ahead and continues onward, unbothered. Wei Wuxian’s brain scrambles for an excuse to get them to take a different path. In his haste, he ends up blurting out, “Wait!”
Lan Wangji swivels around to meet his gaze.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t hesitate to spring into character, shaking slightly as he points frantically down the road. “Lan Zhan! I heard a dog barking!”
Lan Wangji regards him cooly, but his expression softens slightly. “There is no dog.”
“There is!” Wei Wuxian insists. He clings to Lan Wangji’s side, trembling like a leaf caught in a harsh storm. “There’s definitely a dog! Maybe even two!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says gently. “I do not see any dogs.”
“I can’t see them either!” Wei Wuxian wails, now tugging on Lan Wangji’s sleeve. He pouts up at him. “But I heard them! You know I’m terrified of dogs, Lan Zhan. My ears are trained for this.”
Never mind the fact that he’s now in Mo Xuanyu’s body—would such a skill even transfer over? No matter; the deal is already done. Lan Wangji’s resolve weakens, and Wei Wuxian finally delivers the killing blow.
“Let’s go this way instead.” Wei Wuxian steps off the well-worn road and onto the grass, gesturing to a small path that’s barely visible, trees and shrubs having overgrown to the point where they almost completely cover it up.
“This path will take longer to traverse,” Lan Wangji points out, but he still follows after him.
“That’s not an issue for us,” Wei Wuxian says with a grin. “More time spent with Lan Zhan sounds pretty good to me.”
Clearing his throat, Lan Wangji’s hand comes up to his neck. Wei Wuxian expects him to say something, but all that comes out is a soft, “Mn.”
It isn’t until they’ve travelled for a good while that Wei Wuxian realises why this path was so inconspicuous.
The temperature was perfectly warm this morning, yet on this lonesome path, it’s suddenly cold. A harsh breeze picks up every once in a while, and Wei Wuxian squawks in protest whenever his hair gets flung around in his face. The sky darkens rapidly, even though by their estimate it should still be afternoon. Not to mention, the terrain is unsteady, strewn with large rocks and branches that block the way. On more than one instance, they have to head off the path to go around these obstacles (or, if they aren’t too large, step over them, in which case Wei Wuxian pretends to fall and stumble just so that he has an excuse to hold Lan Wangji’s hand).
And then, to make things even worse, they find a corpse.
It sits at the base of a tree, body slumped forward and twisted in all sorts of unnatural ways, limbs tangled and bent at awkward angles. Its clothes are dirty and torn, hair wispy as a harsh, chilling wind starts to blow.
Wei Wuxian approaches to take a closer look. He squats down in front of it, contemplates for a moment, and then turns to Lan Wangji. In a perfectly calm tone, he says, "Lan Zhan, I think we're in a bit of trouble."
With a sickening crack , the corpse's head jolts upwards. Its eyes flash red and it lunges forward with a snarl, aiming right at Wei Wuxian.
Unperturbed, Wei Wuxian barely reacts to the attack, lightly jumping back on his feet to dodge the blow. The corpse staggers to chase after him, but Wei Wuxian evades it easily, side-stepping with such casual ease that it's as if he were taking a leisurely stroll instead of dodging for his life.
Getting nowhere with its feeble attacks, the corpse grows restless, frantically chasing after him.
Wei Wuxian tsks as he calmly ducks to avoid another hit. He swivels around, hands clasped behind his back, then straightens up again. "How rude! I think we should teach it a lesson, Lan Zhan."
"Mn," comes Lan Wangji's response, accompanied by a bright flash. When Bichen's glare dies down, all that’s left of the corpse is a pile of ash.
Coming back to Lan Wangji's side, Wei Wuxian asks, "Are you alright? It didn't hurt you?"
"Mn. I am fine. Wei Ying?"
"I'm fine, Lan Zhan. It'll take more than a fierce corpse to kill me!" He laughs at his own joke, taking it all in jest, until he remembers that he did, actually, die at one point in his life. Lan Wangji's face darkens slightly, and it’s enough to make Wei Wuxian’s laugh awkwardly taper off.
“Enough of that,” Wei Wuxian says, waving his hand about. “Let’s get going—”
He senses it before he hears or sees it. Something lurking in the forest, hiding in a thicket off to their side. Lan Wangji must notice it too; Bichen lashes out in an instant. Wei Wuxian rushes to part the bushes, and lo and behold, finds another corpse reduced to ashes.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, tone urgent. He says nothing else, but he doesn’t have to.
“I know, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says gravely. “We should leave now before—”
He’s cut off by a loud screech in the distance. Then another. And another. And another. Until there’s what sounds like an entire hoard of fierce corpses, crying out like wolves in the dark, hunting for their prey.
Seconds later, Wei Wuxian senses them again. But this time, the resentful energy pours in from all directions. It is thick, strong and oppressive, to the point where Wei Wuxian’s skin starts to crawl. Even Lan Wangji, one of—if not the —strongest cultivators alive isn’t faring all too well, face paling slightly.
Taking out his makeshift flute, Wei Wuxian hurriedly presses it to his lips. He doesn’t tell Lan Wangji what his plan is—he doesn’t have to. They’ve always been seamless like this, always on the exact same wavelength. So when the fierce corpses get closer, their snarls louder and aura stronger, Wei Wuxian takes a breath and starts to play.
The corpses break through trees and foliage, all but driven mad at the sight of their prey. Wei Wuxian plays a frantic melody; at the sheer amount of fierce corpses, it's easier to just give in to their rage than to try and quell it. Riled up by his song, they get driven into such a frenzy that they even start to attack each other. The ones left staggering toward Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, however, get taken out by Bichen.
Lan Wangji hardly moves as Bichen glides through the air, so fast that the corpses don’t stand a chance. One second they're inching closer, and the next they’re dissolving into piles of dust.
The two of them continue on like this, against waves and waves of fierce corpses. Wei Wuxian’s eyes glow red, channelling resentful energy through his body to better control the hoard of corpses. It’s so easy to work next to Lan Wangji like this, back-to-back amid a raging battle.
Just like the Sunshot campaign, Wei Wuxian thinks to himself.
And yet, as the number of corpses starts to dwindle, it takes them longer to die. Bichen slashes two—sometimes even three—times until it deals the finishing blow. At first, it isn’t a big deal, but the corpses come closer and closer, to the point where they're almost surrounded.
One of them hisses, its hair (well…what’s left of it) flailing around in time with its erratic movements. Its claws tear through Wei Wuxian’s robes, drawing a little bit of blood.
Paying it no mind, Wei Wuxian begins dodging again, smoothly evading more attacks. In a blur, Lan Wangji surges past him, Bichen now in hand.
He drives Bichen into the corpse, all the way up to the hilt, showing no mercy. The corpse falls to the ground in a heap. Before it even starts to disintegrate, Lan Wangji strikes the others, flashing by with Bichen at such an inhuman speed that Wei Wuxian can hardly keep up.
Finally, the last fierce corpse falls. The silence that follows is eerie—Wei Wuxian can’t help but shudder a little. He lowers his flute and spins it around before attaching it back to his belt.
“No wonder no one ever uses this path!” he says with a laugh. He’s about to inspect some of the ash left behind, curious to see if there’s anything abnormal about these fierce corpses, when a horrible sound interrupts him. He worries that there’s a corpse still alive, struggling to breathe. But a corpse is already dead—it wouldn't need to breathe in the first place.
He swivels around, heart in his throat. “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji is on the ground, knees covered in dirt and hands digging into the dusty remains of the fierce corpses. He’s coughing again, a slew of roses falling from his mouth, stained darker with his blood. He’s struggling to breathe, shaking and convulsing as he raises a hand and weakly hits his chest.
There are few times Wei Wuxian has felt real, genuine fear in his life. This is one of them.
"Lan Zhan!" He rushes over, hands braced around Lan Wangji, unsure of what to do. He takes care not to step on any of the roses, but the ground around Lan Wangji is saturated in them, to the point where the grass below is no longer visible. It would be rude to step on them, to mar the representation—the manifestation—of Lan Wangji's love. Wei Wuxian ends up brushing some of them away, thinking that maybe the sight of them could trigger a greater urge to cough. His hands come back stained in blood.
As Lan Wangji struggles to breathe, choking around the flowers lodged in his chest, his face turns a worrying shade of blue. Each cough is punctuated by horrible wheezing, and tears stream down his face in rivulets. Wei Wuxian knows he isn't crying; those tears are probably just a natural response to the pain. Yet that does not make it an easy sight to look at.
"Wei...Ying..." Lan Wangji's voice is soft; even the breeze has trouble picking it up. He brings a shaky hand up and touches Wei Wuxian's arm, over the tear in his sleeve. He physically cannot speak any more than that.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, partly in disbelief. "Don't worry about me. It's just a scratch. But you—" He stops for a moment and mulls it over.
Lan Wangji had been fighting fairly normally up until the last wave of fierce corpses. At that point, his attacks were weaker, slower. But then when Wei Wuxian had been injured, he had gone all out, dealing such deadly blows. No doubt he used up a tremendous amount of spiritual energy in this whole ordeal.
Spiritual energy that he didn't use for travel, even though it greatly increased their journey time.
It's no wonder then, how someone could survive hanahaki for well over a decade. If it were anyone other than Lan Wangji, they'd be long dead, choked and strangled to death as the flowers took over their lungs.
"Lan Zhan, you—" Wei Wuxian speaks with urgency, worry tinging his voice. "You've been using spiritual energy to regulate your hanahaki?"
Lan Wangji does not answer verbally, still in the throes of coughing up flowers and struggling to breathe. Wei Wuxian can't stand it anymore–-he takes his pointer and middle fingers and places them on Lan Wangji's wrist, channelling as much spiritual energy into him as he can.
"It's okay," he says, trying to convince himself more than anyone else. "You'll be alright. I'm here with you. If you need something, I’m right here."
Mo Xuanyu's body isn't very strong. His golden core is laughable–-it's barely a core at all. Lan Wangji's cultivation is incomparable. Wei Wuxian could spend the rest of his life, however long that may be, cultivating in this body, and he still wouldn't be able to touch Lan Wangji. The spiritual energy he's desperately pouring into him probably feels like...nothing. For Lan Wangji, it must be negligible. But there's nothing else he can do right now—if the meagre energy he's offering up can help alleviate the slightest of Lan Wangji's pains, it would be worth it.
When Lan Wangji finally comes to himself, it's already dark, gloomy clouds punctuating the night sky.
“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says. He throws all decorum aside and wraps his arms around Lan Wangji’s torso, coaxing him to stand up. “Let’s get you home, yeah?”
“I am…fine,” Lan Wangji says softly. He’s unkempt, clothes covered in dirt and ash, blood stains sticking out spectacularly over the white and blue fabric. “There is no need to go to Cloud Recesses.”
“No need?” Wei Wuxian can barely contain his voice. “Lan Zhan, isn’t lying meant to be forbidden?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t even have the strength to stand, let alone argue. His head droops down in defeat as he finally allows Wei Wuxian to guide him, leaning onto him for support.
“I wish I had Suibian…” Wei Wuxian says wistfully. He has one arm wrapped around Lan Wangji’s back. Their hands are interlocked, and he rubs his thumb over Lan Wangji’s knuckles. “I’d fly us there in no time.”
Lan Wangji tries to laugh, but it comes out as a rush of air through his nose. “Too heavy.”
“I’m stronger than I look!” Wei Wuxian protests. Lan Wangji’s shoulders start to tremble under the strain, so he slows his pace. From where their hands are joined, he channels some spiritual energy through his fingers and into Lan Wangji’s body, even as his own supply rapidly starts to dwindle.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees easily.
Lan Wangji cannot remember the first time he played Inquiry.
He must’ve been quite young—young enough that Uncle still indulged him by letting him sit on his lap while he strummed a song on the guqin, young enough that Uncle was confident Lan Wangji wouldn’t recall that moment of tenderness into adulthood.
He does not remember the second, third, fourth or even the fifth time he played Inquiry. Lost count of the times he would hear that song, play it next to Xichen while Uncle paced in front of them, ruler striking down on his palm in a steady rhythm, punctuating each note they misplay and each mistake they make.
Inquiry has always been there. Haunting and melodic, chilling to the very bone. The finer details got lost like sand spilling through cracks between fingers. He’s spent years learning the song, years playing it, years listening to it. After all this time, it’s hard to keep track of one rendition of Inquiry to the next.
But he remembers the very first time he played Inquiry for himself—for his own purpose, and not because it’s in the Lan curriculum or because it’s what their sect is renowned for.
He was older, at that time. Old enough that Uncle didn’t bat an eye when he was called into a sudden meeting and had to leave Lan Wangji home alone while Xichen was still busy with training. The house was so silent and still. Their house was always quiet, but this kind of silence was deafening.
The urge to play didn’t consume Lan Wangji all of a sudden, nor was it an intrusive thought that suddenly screamed louder than all the others in his mind. It was something he thought of often, an idea that crept into his mind in all the quiet, still lulls in his life. He thought of it during the brief respite between lessons, during strict mealtimes, in bed on nights where sleep alluded him.
He rose to his feet and walked over to his guqin. Sat down and folded his robes neatly around him. Lan Wangji’s fingers were still too short to play as well as his uncle and brother, and he’d never played this specific word before, but he still had to try.
He strummed out the note for mother .
He didn’t receive any sort of reply. He strummed a few more times, over and over, pouring out all the emotions he usually kept at bay.
Mother, are you here?
Mother, I miss you.
His fingers were sore by the time Uncle returned home. So caught up in his playing, Lan Wangji forgot to mind the front door. Without ample time to depart to his bedroom, his fingers automatically adjusted over the strings to play a different song. Maybe it was Cleansing, or maybe it was something else entirely. But Uncle walked by and nodded in approval, praising him for a job well done. It was the one time Lan Wangji didn’t want any praise.
He does not remember all the times he played inquiry after that. He’s probably played it hundreds of times by now, to the point where it would be no problem to play it in his sleep. He and Xichen are so adept at it that they’ve even devised an alternate version of Inquiry so they can chat secretly during lessons, ears perked to hear each other’s notes, a response ready at their fingertips.
But just like how he can remember the time he played for his mother so vividly, right now, Lan Wangji is certain he’ll remember the Inquiry he plays for Wei Wuxian for years to come.
He’s in a small town, about a half day’s travel from the spot where Jiang Wanyin last saw Wei Wuxian. It is a rare occasion for him and Jiang Wanyin to see eye to eye on matters. Lan Wangji respects him, as he respects everyone he ever interacts with who he deems worthy of it. He is loathe to admit it but he’s always felt envious of Jiang Wanyin, of the casual way Wei Wuxian interacts with him, that close bond Jiang Wanyin seems to take for granted.
Then one day, a startled, panicked Jiang Wanyin had come to find him and let him know that Wei Wuxian was gone.
“I don’t know where he is,” he had said. “I worry the Wens took him. But I thought maybe since…since he’s so fond of you, you might have seen him?”
Lan Wangji hadn’t seen him. Nobody had seen him. And slowly but surely, the Wei Wuxian search party they amassed dwindled until only the two of them remained.
People said it was a lost cause, but neither of them believed it. Lan Wangji feels it in his chest that Wei Wuxian is alive. He doesn’t relax until his throat starts to itch or his lungs start to burn, and any flower he coughs up has him sighing in relief. Each one of those flowers is a sign—somewhere out there, Wei Wuxian still lives. If he was dead, the hanahaki would worsen, wouldn’t it? But it’s been stagnant all this time, so each flower is a sign of hope, a sign that Lan Wangji desperately clings to. The only change in his hanahaki is the type of flower he coughs up, the usual white gardenias recently being replaced by pink camellias.
Jiang Wanyin feels it too, somehow. Even without hanahaki or anything of the sort, his resolve never wavers. He trusts and believes that Wei Wuxian is still alive, just as strongly as Lan Wangji believes.
Lan Wangji scours the area around the town, from the quaint little houses lining the paved roads to the outskirts of the forest. Nobody has seen any stray wanderers as of late, but his hope does not diminish with this news.
He finds a large tree overlooking a small pond and sits beneath it. The sun is about to set, bathing the water in a hazy glow of red and orange. The weather is fairly mild, but Lan Wangji is so cold. He wants to discard his robes and wade into the golden water, wants those warm colours to seep through his skin and heat him from the inside. He wonders if it would stain his camellias if he did so. Wonders how pretty they’d look, pink petals painted in sun-kissed gradients.
He takes his guqin out carefully and sets it down on the lush grass. His movements are precise and controlled, a testament to the fact that he’s done this for years and years. His fingers glide over the strings but he doesn’t pluck them just yet. He gathers himself, takes a few deep breaths, and then plays a single note.
He waits. It is an agonising wait. Even if he’s convinced that Wei Wuxian is still alive, his heart always races during this moment. In his nightmares, he waits for a long time, until day bleeds into night or dusk bleeds into dawn, only for a single, haunting note to ring out in reply: Lan Zhan?
He plays Wei Wuxian’s name once more, just to be certain, just to be safe. But no one answers, and the sun has long since dipped below the horizon, only a small glimmer of gold still peeking through. It’s only then that Lan Wangji allows himself to breathe, exhaling shakily through his nose. His nostrils and throat start to itch almost immediately. Some pollen must have dislodged from where it lines his lungs.
He steels himself, fingers hovering over the guqin strings before he presses down, plucking out a bittersweet melody that carries with it a question.
Have you seen Wei Ying?
He waits again, but this time, it isn’t long before a myriad of spirits appear before him, hovering over the calm waters of the pond. They light up the sky as they glimmer and glow, fallen stars come to absolve him.
One of the small spirits comes closer, shining in soft hues of blue and white. It floats down to Lan Wangji’s guqin, effortless and weightless, and delivers its response.
Who is Wei Ying?
Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch against the strings. Answers flit through his head, but none of them seem right.
He is someone very important to me.
The spirit almost trembles, the vibration of the guqin strings too powerful for it to resist.
What does your Wei Ying look like?
Lan Wangji positions his fingers automatically to play the note for ‘beautiful’ until he realises that probably won’t help very much.
He is clad in red and black.
The spirit moves up and down, and even some of the spirits behind it inch a little closer. It’s almost as if they’re all conversing with one another.
Sorry, we have not seen anyone like that here.
The disappointment is always bittersweet, even when Lan Wangji expects as much. No news is good in that it gives hope, but no news is also bad for the exact same reason.
He plucks out a simple thank you to the spirits. Most days, the spirits are not nearly as strong as this one, and he often has no choice but to ask simple, direct questions that can be answered with a yes or a no. It’s a pleasant surprise to speak with a spirit who’s capable of fuller sentences.
Lan Wangji lets the note ring out. As the sound gradually fades, so do all the spirits, taking with them the last dredges of light. When they are all gone, Lan Wangji is clouded in darkness, the sun now having set long ago.
Even the moon is missing tonight.
The journey back to Cloud Recesses is long and arduous. Due to Lan Wangji's condition, they are forced to make frequent stops, be it at inns or on the side of the road, to give him time to slowly recover his spiritual energy.
Wei Wuxian offers as much of a helping hand as is allowed of him and tries to channel as much spiritual energy into Lan Wangji as he can, sometimes even trying to do it discreetly by insisting they hold hands as they walk. Lan Wangji lets him do it each time, but unfortunately, Wei Wuxian himself doesn't have all too much energy to give in the first place. The instant that Lan Wangji notices this, he always pulls away, no matter how hard Wei Wuxian tries to convince him otherwise.
It takes them far longer than anticipated to make it to Cloud Recesses. Once they do, Lan Wangji instructs Wei Wuxian to take a few secret paths so that no one sees them. Wei Wuxian doesn't have the heart to tell him that he already knows most of these hidden paths from his short time studying here.
"We finally made it!" Wei Wuxian cries in relief as they stumble into the jingshi. The steep path to get up to Cloud Recesses has taken more of a toll on him than he'd care to admit. What's worse is that it also took a massive toll on Lan Wangji—and that's something Wei Wuxian definitely doesn't want to admit.
Lan Wangji is pale as Wei Wuxian helps him sit on his bed. Yet his face is covered in sweat, leaving his clothes damp. On their way back, Wei Wuxian frequently had to step into inns to request a change of clothes. Thankfully, with Lan Wangji's hefty coin pouch, it was never an issue, but the sheer amount of times Lan Wangji had to change was...concerning. Most of the time, his frequent coughing fits would soil the front of his robes with blood, leaving behind horrible red stains. Even if Lan Wangji was careful enough not to dirty his robes, he'd always sweat right through them, to the point where he'd start to shiver in even the slightest breeze. It wouldn't bode well for him to catch a cold in this condition, hence the need for a fresh set of clothes.
With a slight groan, Wei Wuxian sets a large sack down. It is filled with Lan Wangji's soiled robes—and a fresh set or two as well. Most of the robes are insultingly plain for a man of Lan Wangji's status to even look at, let alone wear. His current set of robes is also one of those horrible plain ones.
Even in such unflattering clothes, Lan Wangji is still painfully handsome. But now that Wei Wuxian takes a good look at him, Lan Wangji is shockingly different to his usual self. Belatedly, Wei Wuxian thinks that maybe all that sneaking around wasn't necessary. Who would recognise their Hanguang-Jun in clothes meant for commoners, dishevelled and covered in dirt and sweat and light splotches of blood?
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian asks softly, with a tone that he'd reserve for an unwell child. "Would you like a bath? I can get it ready for you, if you'd like. I'll go find some food for you, too. While you're bathing."
"I can prepare it," Lan Wangji says stubbornly. He makes a motion to rise out of bed, but before he's even halfway up he's wincing, face contorted in pain as he grips his chest. The cheap material of his new robe wrinkles unpleasantly.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian frantically gets up, rushing over to his side.
Stubborn as ever, Lan Wangji shakes his head, refusing to show even the slightest hint of pain. He takes a few wobbly breaths before he composes himself, sitting back up straight as if nothing happened. "I am fine."
An automatic 'No you're not!' almost makes it out of Wei Wuxian's mouth. He swallows it back and the words taste bitter. Forcing himself to smile, Wei Wuxian rubs Lan Wangji's knee soothingly. Lan Wangji stares down at his hand, muscles tensing automatically.
A little hurt, Wei Wuxian awkwardly pats his leg a few times before retracting his hand. "Let me take care of it, alright? You can rest here in the meantime. Sound good?"
"I would like to do it myself," Lan Wangji insists.
"And I would like to take care of you," Wei Wuxian says. He tilts his head and pouts lightly. "Please, Hanguang-Jun. Indulge me just this once."
Lan Wangji huffs under his breath. A small smile plays on his lips when he finally says, "Just once."
Wei Wuxian fixates on that small, barely-there smile for a long time. He snaps out of it with a shake of his head. "Hanguang-Jun is so kind. I'll have to repay him for this one day." As he speaks, he urges Lan Wangji to lay back properly, fussing with pillows and blankets until Lan Wangji is practically cocooned by them all.
"No," Lan Wangji says softly, as if he's whispering a secret for only himself. "Wei Ying is too kind."
Wei Wuxian's movements come to an abrupt pause. He recovers quickly, playing it off with a small laugh. "Lan Zhan, you're so sweet," he sighs wistfully. He stands and dusts his hands off, just to give himself something to do with them. "Just stay there and relax while I get things ready."
"Mn," Lan Wangji says, complacent for once.
Without any hesitation, Wei Wuxian gets to work. He finds the bathtub behind Lan Wangji's privacy screen in one of the far corners of the jingshi. He checks to make sure it's adequately clean before grabbing a bucket and heading outside.
It’s already dark, meaning it's well past bedtime in Cloud Recesses. Protected by the blanket of night, Wei Wuxian calmly fetches some water without worrying about being seen. It takes numerous trips for the tub to be filled only halfway, at which point he takes some heating talismans out of his sleeves and throws them directly into the water. Standing back up, Wei Wuxian observes his handiwork with a nod, feeling very much like a chef cooking up some soup.
When the tub is finally full, Wei Wuxian dunks his hand in the water to check the temperature. It’s warm enough that he deems it appropriate for Lan Wangji’s use, but just to be safe he takes a few more heating talismans out and arranges them strategically around the tub.
Dusting his hands off with a sigh, Wei Wuxian stands and calls out, “Lan Zhan! Your bath’s ready!”
When no reply comes, Wei Wuxian pads over to Lan Wangji’s side, only to find that he's fallen asleep.
“ Tsk …” Wei Wuxian says to himself, observing the way Lan Wangji’s blanket hardly covers him—he must have tossed and turned a little before sleep overtook him. He starts fussing with it, tucking the blanket tightly around the bed, adjusting the pillows—gently, of course—around Lan Wangji’s head. Thankfully, he doesn’t wake up while Wei Wuxian does all this, a testament to how poorly he must be feeling.
Sitting down on the bed, Wei Wuxian makes sure to perch right on the edge so that he doesn’t accidentally disturb Lan Wangji. For a good while, he just stays there and watches him sleep, following the gentle rise and fall of his chest. It’s entrancing, and Wei Wuxian loses himself for a moment, thoughts wandering into unprecedented areas.
The truth is glaringly simple and downright horrendous. Lan Wangji is in love with someone. Someone who doesn’t love him back—a fact that keeps Wei Wuxian up most nights. Yet Lan Wangji won’t disclose this person's identity to anyone, even when he’s already been reduced to such a weak state.
Wei Wuxian sighs, touching two fingers to Lan Wangji’s wrist to allow some spiritual energy to flow between them. Mo Xuanyu’s body isn’t strong enough to handle losing too much energy at once, and Lan Wangji always keeps a close eye, pushing Wei Wuxian aside the instant he so much as senses any fatigue coming from him. At the very least, now that he’s asleep, Wei Wuxian can channel as much energy into him as he deems necessary.
Whoever Lan Wangji is in love with…must be a very special person. Even with his worsening condition, Lan Wangji still won’t tell anyone about them, as if their existence is something precious and no one else could ever appreciate it as much as he does.
What would it be like, to be loved so fiercely?
What would it be like…to be loved by Lan Wangji?
Wei Wuxian’s whole body jolts. “Oh gods…” he mumbles to himself. He retracts his hand (because he swears he’s starting to feel actual, physical pain over the area that’s in contact with Lan Wangji’s wrist—and no, not on account of his spiritual energy) and slaps his cheeks lightly, willing the strange thoughts to go away.
He should let Lan Wangji rest for now. He should make himself useful and do something productive. Maybe wash the dirty clothes they’ve amassed over their trip, or scour the place for some food.
He decides to work on the clothes. It's unlikely Lan Wangji will ever want to wear the cheap robes they’ve accrued from the numerous inns they’ve visited on the way back to Cloud Recesses, but maybe he’d prefer to wear simpler clothes like this while he’s unwell. Then when (if) he gets better, he can go back to wearing his usual fancier robes.
Wei Wuxian dumps out the entire bag, sorting through the robes to pick apart the ones in the most need of attention. Some have only a few splotches of blood and dirt, while others have entire patches of red littering the front. Wei Wuxian can remember, almost too well, the way each bloodstain came to be. The sleepless night when Lan Wangji coughed himself into unconsciousness, the morning where he couldn’t stop sneezing and tracked rose petals wherever he went...
Speaking of petals, a few of them tumble out of the clothes as Wei Wuxian shakes them around. He picks all the petals up, gathering them in the palm of his hand. He’s aware that Lan Wangji keeps a basket where he hides all the petals, so Wei Wuxian quickly takes them over and dumps them inside. The basket itself isn’t very full. Wei Wuxian hadn’t had the time to open it the first night he stayed here; sometime between then and now, Lan Wangji must have emptied it.
He returns to the pile of clothes and gathers them in his arms; there’s a stream nearby he can use to wash them. He steps back outside in the chilly night air, but before he shuts the door behind himself, he pauses and brings a hand up. A swirl of resentful energy forms around his fingers before it quickly dissolves into nothing—a simple yet effective soundproofing array.
Pleased with his work, Wei Wuxian heads over to the stream. He gets through most of the clothes, although some stains are too severe to completely clean out—especially when the robes are a lighter colour. He scrubs until his fingers are red and raw; even then some of the robes will have to be thrown away. The ones he manages to salvage, however, are wrung out and folded away neatly. It’ll take ages for them to dry inside the jingshi, but if the goal is to remain unseen, there’s little else he can do. Perhaps a few more heating talismans may come in handy.
When Wei Wuxian finally returns to the jingshi, he expects that Lan Wangji will still be asleep. Instead, the instant he steps inside, he freezes in his tracks. Lan Wangji is wide awake, half-naked as he soaks in the tub. Wei Wuxian regrets putting up the soundproofing array. He swallows thickly, water from the wet clothes in his hands dripping down his wrist.
"Ah...Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says with a gulp. His mouth is suddenly way too dry. Maybe he overdid it with the heating talismans. "Sorry to disturb you! I just—just took some of your clothes and washed them. Ah...do you think I can hang them in here to dry or should I leave them outside after all?"
Lan Wangji says nothing. In this position, where he's facing away from Wei Wuxian, the scars littering his back are clearly visible. The skin around those scars is patchy and rough; it must have hurt for them to heal. Wei Wuxian’s eyes trace over those scars, with the same gentleness and care he would reserve for touching them. It startles him a little, when his hands twitch slightly, scrunching the fabric in his grip involuntarily. He wants to touch those scars. They may be all healed up by now, but he wants to tend to them as if they were brand new and aching.
"Wei Ying..." Lan Wangji finally speaks.
"Hm?" Wei Wuxian asks, barely able to keep focused. "What is it?"
The words strike deeper than they ought to. Wei Wuxian snaps out of it, as if a bucket of ice-cold water has been thrown over his head.
“…Right, of course.” He doesn’t know why it upsets him. Maybe the fact that he’s seen Lan Wangji at his most vulnerable, and yet the line is drawn at a simple bath. But Lan Wangji has the right to his privacy. Wei Wuxian just must have…gotten a little carried away. “I won’t be long. I’ll just set these clothes down somewhere.”
Lan Wangji does not turn around. His voice is as calm as the surface of his bathwater when he says, “No need. Please just…leave.”
Setting aside his emotions for a moment, Wei Wuxian quirks an eyebrow. “Lan Zhan, is everything alright?” He does the exact opposite of Lan Wangji’s request and steps closer.
“I am fine,” Lan Wangji says stiffly. “I will be out soon.”
“Okay then…” Wei Wuxian stops a few paces away. He chews on his bottom lip, a growing anxiety gnawing at his stomach. “Is the water too cold? Too hot?”
“The water is fine,” Lan Wangji insists. His constant use of the word ‘fine’ just makes him even more suspicious. The muscles in his back ripple slightly, as if he’s suppressing a shiver.
Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue. “Please—there’s no need to be embarrassed! We were on the road for so long, it’s a wonder you didn’t get sick with a cold! Here, I have some more heating talismans—”
The instant Wei Wuxian steps forward, a loud creak in the floorboards alerts Lan Wangji of his approach.
“No need,” Lan Wangji cuts in again, his voice slightly panicked.
Wei Wuxian waves a hand dismissively. “Don’t be so stubborn, Lan Zhan!” He fishes out a few more talismans from his sleeve and fans them in front of his face. In doing so, he’s suddenly hit with a subtle scent. It smells quite nice, like a patch of flowers. Or perhaps a bed of—
The talismans flutter out of his hands, left to fall to the floor along with the damp clothes. They land on the ground with a resounding splat , but the subsequent mess he’s causing is the least of Wei Wuxian’s worries.
He approaches the tub in a rush. The worry in his stomach only grows, sitting like a dead weight and getting heavier by the second. Lan Wangji’s anxiousness also hits a peak; he swivels around, trying to catch Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
It’s too late. The sight before Wei Wuxian knocks the breath right out of him.
Lan Wangji sits in the tub, blood smeared across his lips, a long red trail flowing from his chin and down his neck, dripping onto his chest. The sight is almost macabre, the blood and rose petals swirling around in the water, a picture of beauty and pain all in the same frame.
“Lan Zhan, this…” Wei Wuxian trails off, his voice foreign to his own ears. Everything is so distant, so murky. A part of himself floats above the scene, disconnected from it all, and that part of himself can’t help but wonder when he’ll wake up from this nightmare. But as Wei Wuxian unceremoniously scoops out some of the water, he can’t blame its pink tinge on anything else; not the glare of the candles lit up, or the talismans stuck to the sides of the wood.
The truth is painfully obvious. Lan Wangji has had another coughing fit.
“Wei Ying, please—” Lan Wangji’s hand trembles as he grips Wei Wuxian’s wrist, urging him to spill the dirty water back into the tub.
But Wei Wuxian is still in a state of shock. He dunks his hand back under, only for his body to jolt when his fingers brush against something sharp. He pulls it out.
A lovely rose sits in his hand. A rose with a complete stem and green leaves to match.
A rose riddled with thorns.
The streets of Yunmeng are as lively as usual. People and cultivators mill about, haggling with vendors or strolling around with friends. It's such a contrast to the quiet, serene paths of Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji is out of place, and very much so out of his comfort zone. He doesn't even know why he's here.
...Except, he does know. Excuses whirl around in his mind to the point where he's dizzy, but there is only one reason he'd care to visit Yunmeng.
"Is that...?" A few disciples on the side of the road jostle each other, nodding toward Lan Wangji's direction. Given the fact that he's the only one dressed in white and blue, Lan Wangji stands out spectacularly—the exact opposite of what he had intended to do during this visit.
Immediately, the bustle slows down, everyone stopping to look over at the mysterious figure that's shown up in their humble town. Some disciples recognise him, and they back away to the edge of the street, bowing respectfully. A brave few even manage to mumble out a greeting. Lan Wangji nods at them and continues on his way, hoping to pass through without causing any more fuss—but it's too late for that. Regardless of whether they know who he is or not, everyone else takes heed in how those few disciples revere him, and so they all follow suit, splitting the path wide open as they line the street, waiting for him to walk by.
Lan Wangji is vastly uncomfortable with this situation. People have always treated him and Xichen this exact way ever since they were children (and it registers a bit too late in his mind that that could come off as boasting, which is naturally against the rules). He hastens his pace, eager to get off the street as soon as possible, when something small and fast giggles past him, brushing against his shoulder.
A girl rushes by, a trail of petals tailing her. She spins around to toss some at him, and Lan Wangji acts without thinking, catching one of them before it hits the ground. A small white bud glistens with dew in the palm of his hand, so pure and bright that he could have easily mistaken it for snow if the weather called for it.
He barely has time to admire it when another girl dashes past, throwing more flowers his way. He catches them as they collide with his chest, blue petals scattering about.
Lan Wangji is entirely prepared to write this whole situation off as an odd coincidence when another girl appears, once again throwing flowers his way. This time he catches a small branch dotted with bright red buds, the colour rich and alluring.
From the side of the street, somebody snickers. Lan Wangji himself is a bit tempted to laugh. Here he stands, the untouchable second twin jade, clutching flowers and buds to his chest like a love-stricken maiden. Perhaps if he was still in Gusu, it wouldn't be such a strange scenario. Any trip he makes outside of Cloud Recesses to the local towns always results in a similar event, girls cooing over his beauty and offering him all sorts of gifts—although they’d never throw the gifts at him like this. But here in Yunmeng, most common people don't know who he is, and those who do would never dare pull a stunt like this.
That's when something tickles the side of Lan Wangji’s head. His hand shoots up automatically, and he pulls it back to find a lovely pink peony in his grasp.
"Lan Zhan!" A voice booms from above, so achingly familiar that it sends a fresh wave of pain through Lan Wangji's chest. "Ah, sorry, I meant Hanguang-Jun— what a coincidence to see you here!"
Lan Wangji steels himself, the colourful assortment of flowers shaking slightly in his grasp. He spins around and searches for that voice, seeking its owner out the same way a sunflower would the sun.
Dressed in swathes of red and black, Wei Wuxian lays on the balcony of a tavern, relaxed to the point where one would think he owns the place. He has a jar of wine in one hand, its tassel coiled around his fingers. His grin is charming and relaxed—nobody would think twice when met with that grin, nor would they stop to assess it.
But Lan Wangji does. In his eyes, it’s not a pleasant expression. There is something dark simmering beneath, something ugly and painful. Before him is Wei Wuxian, the one he loves, yet it is not the same Wei Wuxian he once knew.
It keeps him up at night, sometimes. If he lets himself remember that this Wei Wuxian is not the one he fell in love with.
"This was your doing," Lan Wangji says. He does not gesture to the flowers, but Wei Wuxian's eyes still dart down.
"Of course it was me!" Wei Wuxian says, thrusting his jar high into the air, chin tipped upwards towards the sky. Giggles sound from the red curtain behind him, and Lan Wangji spots the three girls from before clamouring around him. "You should come up here and join us. Have a drink!"
The giggling intensifies, and the three girls peer down, waving at him.
"Young Master, please do come up!"
"Join us, Young Master!"
"You better not disappoint us, Young Master!"
The back of Lan Wangji's neck burns. With as much dignity as he can muster while carrying a bunch of flowers, he turns away and heads back down the street. His heart hammers wildly, protesting each step he takes that splits him further and further away from Wei Wuxian. After all...why else did he even come here?
"Aw, you're no fun!" Wei Wuxian calls out after him with a click of his tongue. From his tone of voice, he must have expected this reaction.
When he's far enough away, Lan Wangji comes to a halt. Thankfully, people have started to mill about again, no longer interested in his and Wei Wuxian's interaction. He peers over his shoulder cautiously and finds the balcony to now be empty, robbing him of one last final look at Wei Wuxian.
This is fine. He can carry on now, head back to Cloud Recesses where he won't have to deal with strange women hurling flowers at him under the orders of a demonic cultivator. This is all getting out of hand anyway. His life, the world, his love –-all of it is just spiralling out of control. Lan Wangji's feelings were supposed to fade, the flowers in his chest meant to wilt away into dust. Yet his illness still plagues him, and his feelings persist resolutely.
He never thought he stood a chance with Wei Wuxian. Their friendship in itself was a blessing; it was more than enough for Lan Wangji to be content. Now that Wei Wuxian has returned from the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji knows he can forget it—Wei Wuxian hates him, and it's as simple as that. Any sort of relationship—be it friendship or something more—is now completely out of the question.
And yet, Lan Wangji is weak for him, aches for him. He blinks and he's already at the door to the tavern, alternating between rushing up the stairs and walking at his usual speed. Upon reaching the last few steps, he slows to what he hopes is an appropriate, leisurely pace, parting the curtains and stepping inside.
Wei Wuxian casts him a cool, sly stare, his grin positively disarming. "You decided to join us after all."
Lan Wangji holds out the flowers. "These are yours. Take them back."
"Mine?" Wei Wuxian pretends to be shocked, an action the three girls behind him find hilarious as they attempt to stifle their giggles behind their hands. "But I gave them to you, Lan Zhan. You might as well keep them."
It is difficult to resist the urge to swallow, but Lan Wangji somehow manages. It will do little to alleviate his dry throat anyway. "I am returning them."
"Ah…Sorry about that," Wei Wuxian says, chuckling cruelly. "I forgot you already have plenty of flowers, don't you?"
Nobody knows about Lan Wangji's affliction, and yet he is used to hearing jokes and snide remarks. They may not be directed toward him, but they always hurt. This time, however, the snide remark comes from the one person who does know about his secret. The pain is unlike anything Lan Wangji could have imagined.
"Wei Ying," he says, defeated.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says with a smile, slightly mocking. Be it his title or his name, any form of address toward Lan Wangji is always spoken in that same tone lately. "Forgive me. I crossed a line with that one." His expression is so guarded Lan Wangji can hardly tell if he's being sincere.
"Mn," Lan Wangji says, wishing that he could rewind time a little, that he kept walking through the streets of Yunmeng back to Cloud Recesses.
"I was just curious to see what you'd look like with all those flowers," Wei Wuxian says. He leans forward on the table, chin propped under his palm. In his other hand, he spins the tassel hanging off his jar of wine, crimson wrapping tight around his finger.
"You have already seen that," Lan Wangji says. The thought of those simpler times pains him.
"But that was with your flowers, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says it like it's the most logical thing. "These, however..." he nods toward the flowers, still held out by Lan Wangji's outstretched hands, "are all mine."
In a desperate bid to hide the way they tremble, Lan Wangji retracts his hands. "Wei Ying—”
"Ah!" Wei Wuxian exclaims. "Where are my manners? It's rare to see you in Yunmeng. You must be here for some important business, right? Come, sit down. Have a drink and tell me about it."
The girls in the back stand immediately, one grabbing an empty cup, one a new jar of wine, and the other an extra stool. They bring everything over and set it down in front of Lan Wangji, gesturing for him to take a seat.
Lan Wangji stares at them. They had moved so fast in the street that it was difficult to notice, and even now it's a bit hard to tell. But when the breeze parts the curtains and gives way for sunlight to streak into the room, the bright rays hit them at just the right angle for Lan Wangji to notice that these girls are not human.
He makes no move to sit down or touch his drink. Instead, he levels with Wei Wuxian and says, "It is not healthy to be around inhuman beings."
The pleasant smiles on the girls’ faces slip away, their dead eyes boring into Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian lifts his hand slowly, and the girls all stand down, flitting to the side of the room.
With a heavy sigh, Wei Wuxian shakes his head. For the sake of his sanity, Lan Wangji opts to ignore the fact that he looks as pale as the group of ghost girls.
“Lan Zhan, don’t start this up again.”
“It is not good for your health,” Lan Wangji repeats. “It damages the body and—”
“—and the mind, yes, I know.” Wei Wuxian leans back in his seat, unbothered by the fact that his robe has come a little loose, exposing a good portion of his chest. It would be rude to stare, but the red mark over his heart draws Lan Wangji’s gaze—even if he wants to, he can’t look away. “The Sunshot campaign is over, Lan Zhan. If I didn’t care about it then, why would I suddenly be concerned now?”
“Then you admit it,” Lan Wangji says steadily. “That demonic cultivation is harmful.”
Wei Wuxian's eyes flash briefly before his mouth splits into a sardonic grin. “Now you’re just putting words in my mouth. I didn’t say that at all.”
“Phoenix Mountain,” Lan Wangji reminds him.
Pretending to be bored, Wei Wuxian tilts his head and languidly runs his finger around the rim of his jar. “What about it?” he asks.
“You lost control.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. If you think I lost control because of Jin Zixuan, you’re mistaken. You’ve seen us when we were younger. You know I always get mad whenever he’s around.”
“It’s not the same,” Lan Wangji insists, unwilling to stand down. “Wei Ying. You might not realise but—”
“But what?” Wei Wuxian snaps, his eyes flashing red.
Lan Wangji would think that piercing gaze is directed at him, if not for the fact that he can sense the three ghost girls standing behind him. He chances a glance and sure enough, their own eyes flash red, poised to attack. At Wei Wuxian’s command, they stand back down.
“You see?” Wei Wuxian says. “My control is fine. You’re worrying for no reason.”
“It is not no reason ,” Lan Wangji says, voice overflowing with emotions he cannot even begin to name. “Wei Ying, come back to Gusu with me.”
“And there it is!” Wei Wuxian cries out with a loud, grating laugh, hands thrown up in the air. He stands abruptly, his small stool clattering to the floor. “Really, don’t you think you should give it a rest? You don’t understand a thing about my life, Lan Zhan. If it’s not your business, don’t interfere.”
Lan Wangji thinks he might vomit. Bile rises up in his throat, leaving an acrid taste in his mouth. To make things even worse, that horrible tickle in his throat has evolved into a series of sharp pangs emanating from his chest. Something about this conversation with Wei Wuxian is going to trigger a horrendous coughing fit, and Lan Wangji has no choice but to endure the pain, to hold himself together when the edges are starting to fray.
“I do understand,” he says weakly, afraid that if he speaks any louder, opens his mouth any wider, there would be no going back.
Wei Wuxian mulls this over, stepping around the table to stand right in front of him. “You’re actually right about that, Lan Wangji. You do understand, in your own way. Demonic cultivation isn’t the only thing that’s harmful to the mind and body. But doesn’t that make you a hypocrite? What right do you have to lecture me? If you think I'm self-destructive, what does that make you?”
And then, Wei Wuxian leans forward, plucks a single blue petal from the pile of flowers in Lan Wangji’s hold, and blows it directly at his face.
The petal tickles Lan Wangji’s nose and cheeks before fluttering down to the ground. His entire body thrums in shock and rage, the flower stems in his chest constricting his lungs like vices, digging in so deep that he worries he might die on the spot.
With a blank stare, Wei Wuxian stands there, without a care in the world. As for Lan Wangji, his entire world is toppling over, crashing over him in waves and pulling him into the current.
He wants to say something. He wants to yell and to shout, wants to at least deliver a punctuating sneer of Wei Wuxian’s name, but he doesn’t dare speak. His entire face is hot, breaths deep as he struggles to control himself.
In the end, he leaves without a word, the pretty flowers in his hand dropped to the floor and crushed under his boot as he heads out of the tavern. Wei Wuxian says nothing, does not even taunt him as he makes his exit.
Outside, the cool air is more than welcome as Lan Wangji struggles to regulate his breathing. He mounts Bichen immediately, opting for the quickest route to get back to Cloud Recesses. There are rules against mounting swords in public, crowded areas, but Lan Wangji doesn’t care. Who would dare report him to Uncle for this breach? And even if they did, it’s unlikely Uncle would believe them in the first place.
He rides for a long time, but his heart does not calm down. If he returns to Gusu looking this frazzled, Uncle and Xichen will both have questions, and he would rather they not be privy to the emotional state he’s in.
The discomfort in his chest eventually forces him to dismount. He’s still far from Cloud Recesses, and he’d much rather stay on Bichen for as long as possible, just to get away from Yunmeng as fast as he can, but the pain has already doubled. It isn’t safe for him to keep riding.
Before his feet even touch solid ground, he’s already coughing. His hand flies up to his mouth to catch the flower that he hacks up—strangely enough, he feels better almost immediately. The pain levels out and starts to subside, and he can finally take in a long, deep breath without the chilly air stinging his lungs.
He unfurls his fingers, blood running cold at the sight.
In the palm of his hand sits a pink peony.
Wei Wuxian has never been a fan of studying.
He had largely been glad when he had punched Jin Zixuan in the face all those years ago. Firstly because…well, it was Jin Zixuan. And secondly, it got him out of an entire year at Cloud Recesses, learning (more like suffering) under the strict, eagle-eyed Lan Qiren, all-seeing and all-knowing.
He remembers returning to Yunmeng, sneaking out of his room at night and into the dorms, sitting knee to knee with the other disciples as they ate and drank. They’d ask about what it was like, curious about what they should expect in a year or two when it would be their turn to attend the lessons at Cloud Recesses.
Wei Wuxian had nothing good to say about it. The food was bland, the people more so, everything was so quiet and dull and boring. The lessons were long and harsh, and the time he spent writing out scripts and rules as punishment was pure torture. He’d gladly take a beating or two from Madam Yu before going through that again.
But parting from Lan Wangji so suddenly…that never sat right with him. Deep down, it was the only reason he had wanted to stay.
Wei Wuxian wanders around the Cloud Recesses library, searching for anything—books, scrolls, papers—that mentions hanahaki. He doesn’t pay attention to their content just yet, just sifts through shelves and piles until he’s satisfied with the stack of reading material he’s prepared.
At first, he’s confident in his research endeavours, even going so far as to light a candle. It’s still bright outside, so he doesn’t technically need it, but it’s a good way to keep track of time. He reads through everything, leaving not a single page out in his quest to find something that could help Lan Wangji. The candle flickers by his side, wax slowly eaten away by the small flame. Eventually, that flame dies out. Wei Wuxian lights another.
He goes through three candles and almost all of the material he found. That’s when he starts to worry.
Most of the texts mention hanahaki in passing, dedicating a sentence or two on the subject before moving to other topics. The ones that go into more detail are stories—whether they’re entirely fictional or based on real-life, Wei Wuxian isn’t sure. He doesn’t even want to know considering that most of those stories end up in…a bad way.
Aside from that, there are a lot of poems and songs dedicated to hanahaki. Wei Wuxian had been hopeful that maybe one of the songs could help at least alleviate some of Lan Wangji’s pain, but they all seem to be love songs.
The only text that could maybe be a surefire way to deal with hanahaki is a medical book that talks of a potential surgery. All theoretical, of course, and nothing very concrete on the success rate. But there are more questions than answers—would such a surgery end up removing Lan Wangji's romantic feelings along with the flowers? If so, would Lan Wangji agree to the procedure? Even then, the vague anatomical diagrams make zero sense to Wei Wuxian. Perhaps if Wen Qing were here, she'd be able to shed some light on the matter, maybe even perform the surgery herself...
Wei Wuxian sighs, dropping forward until his head hits the table. Scrolls and papers scatter around him, but he can’t bring himself to care.
Maybe years ago, when Lan Wangji first got hanahaki, he had come to the library just like this. Pulled out these exact books and scrolls, laid them out and sifted through each one. Knowing Lan Wangji, he would probably take out some other reading material as well, something nondescript so he could hide all the hanahaki books in case anyone walked by. He must’ve poured over these notes the same way Wei Wuxian does now.
Then had he also felt the same way? When his search proved to be fruitless?
“Master Mo,” a pleasant voice lilts, cutting through the crisp silence. “It’s a surprise to see you here.”
Wei Wuxian startles slightly—has he been so out of it that he didn’t hear anyone come in? He strains to raise his head. A small piece of paper sticks to his cheek, then gently peels away and flutters back down onto the table.
Lan Xichen stands before him, regal and proper as always. He’s smiling, hands clasped in front of him, the perfect image of a Lan. “Master Mo, to what do I owe this pleasure?” He dips his head down, gesturing to the texts splayed out in front of Wei Wuxian.
“Ah! This…?” Wei Wuxian leans forward, covering up as much of the texts as he can. “This is just some light reading. For my research.”
“Research,” Lan Xichen echoes. “What is the topic of your study?”
“Oh, you know,” Wei Wuxian dismisses, waving his hand. He says nothing further, an awkward silence settling between them as Lan Xichen waits patiently for further explanation. A lesser man who isn’t as thick-skinned as him would crumple in this situation, but Wei Wuxian just stares right back with a charming grin.
“Master Mo,” Lan Xichen starts, lips attempting to curl in amusement as he fights to keep his expression level. “I hope you’re aware that aside from Wangji and Uncle, there are few people who know this library better than I do. I have almost all of our material memorised. You do realise I could simply walk around and see what’s missing to find out which texts you picked out?”
Wei Wuxian almost falls out of his seat—and that's saying something since he’s sitting on the floor. “Zewu-Jun, this disciple is hopeful that you wouldn’t pry around in his personal matters. Someone as dignified as yourself would never stoop to such lows!”
“Mn,” Lan Xichen hums. “You have too much confidence in me, Master Mo. Especially considering that your research involves Wangji—how could I not pry?”
Wei Wuxian laughs nervously, trying to mask his anxiousness. “Lan Zhan isn’t involved in this. I’m just researching my own stuff. Nothing to do with him at all. He couldn’t be less interested.” He’s rambling and he knows it, but his damn mouth just won’t shut up.
“I see,” Lan Xichen says seriously. “And how is Wangji? Your return to Gusu was quite sudden. I haven’t had the time to greet him yet.”
“Ah, yes…we had to return with great haste. For my research.” Wei Wuxian shuffles around some of the papers, making sure to angle them all in such a way that Lan Xichen can’t see what’s written on any of them. “It was a very pressing matter.”
“That sounds quite serious,” Lan Xichen says. “Have you gotten very far yet? If you need any assistance, do let me know.”
“It’s fine,” Wei Wuxian lies easily. “It’s just progressing a little slower than I thought it would. But thank you for the offer, Zewu-Jun.”
“I will leave you to it then.” Lan Xichen smiles pleasantly, turning slightly toward the exit. “Is Wangji in the jingshi? I’ll go greet him.”
“Ah…” Wei Wuxian scratches his cheek, unsure how to proceed. If Lan Xichen somehow found out that they’ve returned, then what about Lan Qiren? The last thing Lan Wangji needs is a family reunion while he’s bedridden and coughing up floral arrangements. “He’s busy right now. You should probably see him later. And uh…Zewu-Jun…does anyone else know that we’ve come back? Since I’m doing some private research. I wouldn’t want any Lan disciples to stumble here and see me, you know, for their own benefit. Wouldn’t want anyone to have a qi deviation.”
“Worry not, Master Mo. The only reason I know is because I’m quite attuned to Wangji—I already knew the two of you would be coming back.”
Wei Wuxian furrows his brows. “You knew?”
"Yes." Lan Xichen smiles pleasantly. "I know Wangji better than anyone. I even know you better than you think I do, Master Mo ."
Laughing nervously, Wei Wuxian rubs his nose. Figures the Twin Jades, of all people, would be amongst the first to uncover his true identity. "Ah, as expected of Zewu-Jun...nothing can ever get past you."
"Be at ease, Wei Wuxian," Lan Xichen's smile turns into something gentle. "I am glad to see you back, alive and well. Especially since you are the only person who can help Wangji."
Lan Xichen comes back around to Wei Wuxian’s table. Wei Wuxian stiffens, trying to act casual as he splays himself over the papers to hide them more than he already is—he might as well just lay down on the table at this point—but Lan Xichen makes no move to pry. Instead, he smiles a little sadly.
“How is Wangji’s hanahaki?”
Wei Wuxian jolts back upright. His mouth falls open and he flinches, as if the betrayal physically hurts. “You knew about that too?!"
“Of course. Wei Wuxian, this is Wangji we are talking about. He’s my brother. How could I not know?”
“But…but Lan Zhan thinks I’m the only one that knows…”
Lan Xichen’s expression saddens slightly. “The fact that you know about it and yet you’ve still had to return to Gusu…I take it that he’s not fairing very well.”
“Lan Zhan has hidden it for a long time,” Wei Wuxian says. He fiddles around with a scroll, curling the paper up and then letting it fall loose. “I accidentally found out years ago, and now that I’ve come back…I had my suspicions that Lan Zhan still had it. I just don’t understand why he’s being so stubborn! His life is at risk but he doesn’t seem bothered at all!”
Lan Xichen speaks quietly, but his tone still carries the severity of the situation. “Wangji knows what it is like to live without the love of his life. He has gone through it and suffered great grief. In a way…I think this is his way of punishing himself. If he couldn’t save the person that means the most to him, then he probably feels that he doesn’t deserve their love.”
“That’s—that’s just—” Wei Wuxian cuts himself off, eyes wide as the full impact of Lan Xichen’s words hit him. “You know who it is.”
Lan Xichen gives him a grave stare. “I do.”
It’s completely unjustified for the anger to bubble up in his stomach. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure why it’s there, isn’t even sure if it’s anger or just jealousy. It’s not like Lan Wangji sat down and told his brother who he’s in love with, which means Lan Xichen just…just knows. Lan Xichen took a look at Lan Wangji and was able to figure it out, while Wei Wuxian has known about the hanahaki for years and still has no idea who it could be.
“Who is it?” Wei Wuxian jumps up, barely restraining himself from grabbing Lan Xichen by the collar and shaking the answer out of him.
Lan Xichen smiles sadly. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you. Wangji would not want you to find out like this.”
Wei Wuxian is close to tears of frustration. He grips his hair and tugs, groaning in annoyance. “If I know who it is, I’d find them and bring them here for Lan Zhan! That would solve everything, wouldn’t it? Please…tell me who it is.”
“Master Wei,” Lan Xichen says, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Aren't you curious as to why I’ve known for years and never did anything about it? I could have brought this person to Wangji as well. I could have interfered in so many ways…in far more ways than I already have.”
“Then why didn’t you?” Wei Wuxian asks, trying hard to keep the accusatory tone out of his voice.
Lan Xichen smiles, the hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder comforting. “I have faith in this person. I know they’ll come to Wangji themselves. They just need some time to realise their own feelings.”
“You…Zewu-Jun, isn’t that too risky? This person seems like a real moron—no offence to them or Lan Zhan, of course. Do you really think that after all this time, they’ll just suddenly have an epiphany and realise how they feel?”
“Yes,” Lan Xichen says, stifling a laugh.
Wei Wuxian has no idea why he finds this whole scenario funny—his brother's life hangs by a thread, in the hands of some idiot who (if Wei Wuxian is being entirely honest) probably isn’t even good enough for someone like Lan Zhan.
“Alright then…” Wei Wuxian concedes. “Then I’ll trust them as well. But…” he leans forward and lowers his voice, despite the fact that the library is empty save for the two of them. “It would really be faster if you’d let me persuade them.”
“Persuade?” Lan Xichen asks, looking about a second or two away from bursting into hysterical laughter. “Please do elaborate, Master Wei.”
“You know…” Wei Wuxian shakes his head from side to side, smiling innocently. “ Persuade .”
“Your offer is appreciated, but there is no need. Some people just need time to process these things.” He smiles again, eyes shaped into crescent moons from the force of his grin. “Be it a few months or a few years…over a decade, perhaps…”
“Okay, okay, I’ll save the persuasion for some other time,” Wei Wuxian says, hands raised in defeat. He stares down at all of his notes and sighs. “Guess this was all for nothing.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to say that.” Lan Xichen bends down to pick up the material, glancing at each book and scroll in equal measure before nodding to himself. “You might have some luck in the music section.”
“I tried looking there already.” Wei Wuxian slumps to the floor. “There wasn’t anything useful.”
“Hm, yes, our collection of songs is quite vast—I’m sure it’s overwhelming. But…but there might be a song that could help you. A song that will make all the pieces fall into place.”
Wei Wuxian thinks this over. What song could possibly help slow the onset of hanahaki? Especially in a condition as severe as Lan Wangji’s?
“I will look over the songs again, Zewu-Jun. Thank you for the guidance.” He follows with a serious bow.
Lan Xichen nods back. “I shall leave you to it, Master Wei.” He starts to leave but lingers near the door. “I have a small favour to ask.”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian says, head tilted in curiosity.
“I already said that I have full confidence that the person Lan Wangji is in love with will realise their feelings soon, however…if something ends up happening…”
“I will let you know,” Wei Wuxian says. He knows, after all, the pain of losing a sibling. “If Lan Zhan’s condition reaches that stage, I…will let you know.”
With yet another nod, Lan Xichen takes his leave, walking away just as silently as he had when coming in. With him out of the library, a tightness in Wei Wuxian’s chest uncoils slightly.
Lan Xichen’s words had been reassuring, but Wei Wuxian isn’t so easily swayed. How could he be when he’s seen first-hand the effects of hanahaki? If ( when , his brain corrects automatically) Lan Wangji survives all this and no longer has to hack up flowers on a daily basis, Wei Wuxian is certain that these memories will haunt him for years to come. It’s already hard to fall asleep at night, and with the added image of blood and thorns sticking out of Lan Wangji’s mouth, sleep will elude him for a long time.
Snapping out of it, Wei Wuxian begins the arduous task of putting away all his research material. Lan Xichen may be confident in the person Lan Wangji’s in love with, but if there’s even the tiniest, most minuscule chance that things will go awry, Wei Wuxian isn’t going to sit back and let it happen.
With all the material neatly shelved, he goes back to the music section to try his luck there…again. If there’s no song specifically composed around hanahaki, what else could help?
Wei Wuxian removes an entire stack of sheet music, rifling through each one. Songs like Cleansing wouldn’t work—hanahaki isn’t a result of resentful energy. Although, if you think about it, it does seem like it would be...Who wouldn’t be resentful if the person they love doesn’t feel the same way? And yet there’s not a single part of Lan Wangji that resents.
Wei Wuxian wishes he could say the same thing. If this mysterious person does come along to profess their love to Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian will definitely have a little chat with them.
The thin papers crinkle beneath his deft fingers as he sorts through him, eyes scanning each line of notes with such speed he almost goes cross-eyed. Nothing stands out to him, nothing that could help in the slightest, until…
He pauses on a page. The sheet music for Inquiry.
“Wangji, I could have let myself in,” Lan Xichen says, smiling pleasantly as he crosses the threshold of the jingshi. “You should be resting in bed.”
Lan Wangji walks silently in front of his brother, guiding him to the table on the other side of his room. He forgets himself for a moment—has forgotten himself for a while now, actually—and doesn’t invite Lan Xichen to sit first, instead rigidly dropping his knees down to one of the cushions he keeps next to the table.
“I would rather not rest,” Lan Wangji says, blunt and to the point. Lying is forbidden, so why bother to mask the ugly truth.
Thankfully, Xichen does not comment on his behaviour and sits down opposite him. “Wangji, please, don’t overexert yourself for my sa—” he pauses as his eyes rake over the sight before him.
There are flowers on the table. White as snow and oh-so delicate looking, thin as paper and fragile as glass, arranged expertly in a red vase. White lilies—the choice flower for funerals.
Pursing his lips, Lan Xichen struggles to keep his decorum. “Wangji, these flowers…”
“Mn?” Lan Wangji does not bother to elaborate. He is angry. He is hurt. He’s tired of having to explain himself.
“…they are beautiful,” Lan Xichen says after much internal struggle. He’s trying hard to be sincere—Lan Wangji can tell.
“Mn.” They match our sect robes, he almost says, but that would perhaps be a bit much for Xichen to handle.
“I…” Lan Xichen swallows thickly, his composure rapidly returning as he assumes his usual brotherly role. “I wanted to update you on that little boy. Wen Yuan.”
Lan Wangji meets his brother’s gaze icily. “His surname is Lan.”
“Right.” Xichen gives a stiff smile and an even stiffer nod. “ Lan Yuan is recovering nicely. He’s more and more active each day. He’s eating well, too. The doctors have said that if you are willing, he should be able to visit you soon.”
“Does he…” Lan Wangji trails off, his hands balled into tight fists, searching for something sturdy to hold onto when the ground is inevitably ripped from under him, yet finding that there is nothing that will save him now.
“His memory has not returned,” Xichen says gently. But no matter how soft his tone, it does not go unnoticed how carefully he chooses his words. Amnesia can be a devastating thing, and yet Lan Xichen did not say unfortunately or sadly.
Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to feel. A-Yuan was one of the last people to ever see Wei Wuxian before—before…
No. He is being selfish. A-Yuan deserves this second chance at life. He may not remember, but that is…alright. Lan Wangji will remember. He will remember the good and the bad, and he will be haunted by the ghost of the man he didn’t save. It will feel like tumbling through a dark, deep abyss. He will reach out and grab nothing, cry even though nobody will hear him, fall far enough for no one to notice. Lan Wangji did not save him , and the pain will ensure he never forgets.
“I see,” Lan Wangji says. Xichen must expect him to say something else, but there is nothing worth saying.
“Will you be well enough for Lan Yuan to visit?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says.
“The wounds are healing,” Lan Wangji says, tone clipped, impatient.
“The doctors have told me you haven’t allowed them to redress your wounds.”
Lan Xichen’s eyebrows pinch together. It’s shocking for him to so openly display his concern—it’s usually hidden under a carefully crafted smile. Part of Lan Wangji is glad to see his brother like this. Because he is hurting; he wants the whole world to hurt, too.
“You need to look after yourself,” Lan Xichen tells him, almost begging. “This isn’t healthy. Think of your A-Yuan—”
Lan Wangji isn’t sure what it is that triggers him. Maybe it’s the fact that A-Yuan is now his son when he never should have been in the first place. Or maybe it’s hearing Xichen call A-Yuan in such a familiar way, as if they all haven’t had some kind of involvement in massacring his family.
“Do not call him that,” Lan Wangji says in a low hiss. His lips are trembling, barely able to suppress the words and flowers that so desperately want to come out.
He’s being irrational. Lan Xichen is now A-Yuan’s uncle, and this whole time that Lan Wangji has been in seclusion, Xichen was the one to keep an eye on the child and take care of him.
But Lan Wangji is angry. He is mad at Xichen, and at Uncle, and at the crisscrossing wounds on his back that kept him bedridden while the love of his life was killed. He is mad at his entire sect, questioning that damn wall of rules, trying to find loopholes even though it’s too late to save anyone. He is mad at the whole world.
He is mad at himself.
“Wangji—” Xichen is clearly alarmed, reaching out for his brother’s hand.
“Leave.” It’s probably the rudest thing Lan Wangji has ever said to anyone, let alone his brother. He intends to add a please in there somewhere, but his jaw remains clamped shut, paying no heed to the voice of reason in his head scolding him for being so churlish.
Face crumpled and despondent, Lan Xichen stands on stiff legs, trying to think of what to say. Lan Wangji keeps his gaze straight ahead, not bothering to crane his neck up to look his brother in the eye.
“Take care then, Wangji. I…shall bring Lan Yuan to see you sometime.”
Xichen briskly walks away, taking his leave quietly. Lan Wangji sits for a while, adjusting to the hollow pocket of silence left behind by his brother’s absence.
He stands up with little care for the wounds on his back. Truth be told, the injuries have reopened on more than one occasion, and he often wakes to bedsheets soiled in red. Even now as he heads for his guqin and sinks to his knees in front of it, every single motion is marked with a searing flash of pain all over his back. Warm blood seeps through the bandages, but it is a welcome pain. Lan Wangji deserves the pain. It serves as a reminder of what he failed to protect.
His fingers move automatically. Inquiry is the only thing he allows himself to play these days. He torments himself with it, plucking out the same note over and over, waiting for an answer, caught between the hope and anguish of not receiving any response.
He becomes all too aware of the dryness in his throat. He doesn’t bother to cover his mouth when he coughs—doesn’t even bother to stop playing. It’s only when white flowers tumble out of his mouth and catch on the guqin strings that his fingers pause, careful not to damage the delicate petals.
He coughs, doubled over in pain as they wrack through his entire body. If any wounds on his back weren’t yet split open, they certainly are now. His throat is ravaged by the onslaught of flowers that spill from his lungs, petals grating over his tongue as they fall over his guqin one after the other.
Lan Wangji coughs for so long that his vision starts to fade at the edges, bright splotches of light flashing in perfect rhythm with each shake and tremor of his coughing fit.
He doesn’t stop until both his lap and guqin are covered in white flowers and petals. He’s shaking, supporting his entire upper body on weak arms, bent so low that it’s almost like he’s bowing in forgiveness. He struggles to inhale, lungs burning around the roots buried deep in his chest, waiting for the slow ebb of pain to lessen enough for him to come to his senses. No matter how much oxygen he breathes in, these days it’s never enough.
When he finally has the strength to sit back up, the saliva and mucus on the flowers have already dried up, and the back of his robe is cold, wet and sticky with blood. He sifts through the flowers, picking out the largest and most lovely ones.
Lan Wangji takes care in cleaning them, diligently wiping them with any dry portion of cloth he can find on his robes. The flowers glow under his gentle touch, flourishing and blooming into something truly spectacular. After all, they are his flowers, crafted from Lan Wangji’s most pure and ardent feelings. How could they be anything less than stellar?
Once satisfied with their cleanliness, Lan Wangji carefully gathers them and rises to his feet. The skin on his back strains and pulls under the motion, his entire body thrumming with a sharp, hot spike of pain. Lan Wangji does not ignore the pain, but he also does nothing to abate it.
He sets the flowers down on the table, lays them out neatly as if they were pieces to a puzzle. And then, Lan Wangji gets to work, arranging them next to the other white lilies he keeps in his red vase.
A soft, gentle melody sounds from Wei Wuxian’s flute, the notes rising and falling with a graceful lull. He’s perched on a tree branch, one foot dangling over the edge while the other taps out a steady rhythm on the coarse bark beneath his boot.
In the canopy above, birds titter about, curious and entranced by the song. Wei Wuxian’s chest is warm, his whole body tingling from head to toe. He knows it’s time, so he makes an effort to pry his eyes open.
Specks of light dance around before him, some right in front of his face while the shy ones keep to the edge of his peripheral vision. As he continues to play, the orbs of light come closer, and it’s only then that he can truly appreciate their colours. Some are blue, some are white, some are a mix of the two. Each one is unique, and each one is beautiful.
Wei Wuxian’s heart beats louder in anticipation, almost completely in time with the steady thumps of his foot. Bright blue and blinding white shapes inch closer and closer, the birds chirp louder and louder, everything falling into place so perfectly, unlike the other million times Wei Wuxian tried to play this exact piece.
And then, that lovely equilibrium shatters. On his next note, Wei Wuxian’s flute—a cheap thing he fashioned out of a small branch—produces a sound so shrill it almost deafens him. The birds chirp in alarm, wings flapping and leaves shuddering as they fly away in fright. And those soft glowing orbs, much in the same fashion, shirk away as if struck, their light dimming as they dissipate from Wei Wuxian’s sight.
It was going so well this time. It was perfect. Wei Wuxian almost had it, but he still couldn’t perform Inquiry well enough for the spirits to stay. For heaven's sake, he can’t even get them to stay long enough to hear his question.
He sighs in dejection, slumping against the trunk of the tree. The wind picks up slightly, weaving through the branches with its own trill. Wei Wuxian can’t decide if it’s comforting or mocking—maybe it’s a little of both.
He stares down at the flute in his hand. Over the last few days, he’s been sneaking out of the jingshi whenever Lan Wangji is asleep, trying to teach himself to play Inquiry. If no one will tell him who Lan Wangji is in love with, then surely the spirits will, won’t they?
But it’s easier said than done. For starters, he hardly has the time to properly learn since he’s sneaking around all over the place. He has no choice but to come to the forest to play so that no one will see—or hear—him, because nobody (aside from Lan Xichen) knows that he and Lan Wangji are back in Cloud Recesses. What makes things even more difficult is the fact that the sheet music for Inquiry is downright… odd. The song isn’t so much a song as it is a language, and Wei Wuxian has wasted hours trying to decipher what it all means. To top things off, he only knows how to play a flute, whereas the song was composed for a guqin.
If he had access to a proper flute, rather than a stray twig he poked some holes into, he thinks he could do it. No, scratch that—there’s no thinking invoked when this is something he has to do. Wei Wuxian could do it, no doubt, if his flute was of better quality. But where could he find one? He can’t take one from Cloud Recesses, even though their library and classrooms must be full of instruments. If he’s seen in the act, people will question why he needs one, and since he has a bit of a…reputation…when it comes to using a flute, it would probably lead to more drama.
Then again, this is Lan Wangji’s life at stake here…as much as Lan Wangji dislikes unnecessary drama, he probably dislikes being on the brink of death much more, right?
Wei Wuxian hops off the tree, landing with a slight wince as his ankle protests. He’ll make a quick trip to Caiyi Town and hopefully buy a flute there. If they still don’t have one, he’ll just have to take the risk of borrowing one from Cloud Recesses’ vast collection.
Wei Wuxian saunters into Caiyi town with far too much confidence for someone who should be trying to lie low. He hums to himself while strolling around, nodding at vendors as they wave him over from their stalls. He’s come here a few times ever since returning to Cloud Recesses to look for some medication. But even the crushed up herbs a kind elderly woman sold him, stating that it’s a sure way to slow the progress of hanahaki, did little to help Lan Wangji’s condition.
He walks over to a stall at random. A kind woman selling fruit greets him.
“What would you like, Young Master?”
It would be rude to just ask her for directions without buying anything, so Wei Wuxian picks out a few apples. “Just these for today.”
After he pays, he leans forward and smiles. “Miss, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could buy a flute around here, would you? I’ve misplaced my usual one and it’s a bit of an emergency.”
The woman purses her lips as she thinks. She points down the road and says, “There are a few stores down there that might have some.”
Wei Wuxian thanks her and sets off, taking out one of his apples and biting into it. The sweet juice is welcome as it spills into his mouth, and he savours the taste as he chews thoughtfully.
A commotion at a store up ahead has him slowing in his tracks, curiously glancing over. The people of Caiyi Town are far more dignified than he is—most of them keep their heads rigidly trained straight ahead, purposefully avoiding sneaking a glance over to see what’s going on. Some of them dare to dart their eyes over for a peek, but none are quite as brazen as Wei Wuxian, who tosses his apple casually as he leans against an empty cart to observe.
Three young boys stand before a rather confused old man. Behind the man is a small store lined with bookshelves, the space between each one so narrow that Wei Wuxian doubts he’d be able to turn around comfortably if he entered. One of the three boys holds a book out to the man—likely the owner of the quaint little bookstore. The funny thing is, that young boy who shakily beseeches the man to take the book is…is crying .
His wobbly voice carries all the way to the other side of the road. Wei Wuxian hears him loud and clear as if he were standing right next to him.
“Please—” the poor boy starts. It’s the only word Wei Wuxian understands before his breath hitches and he chokes on a sob, “—I…can’t this…it’s just…I’m never—I don’t—” he sniffs loudly, wiping at his wet cheeks with his sleeve. “Al…alright?”
The old man sighs heavily, squinting at the boy. “I have no idea what you just said, boy. Stop your crying and speak properly.”
That does it—the boy’s lip warbles dangerously, eyes filling with tears anew at being scolded. Panic-stricken, he thrusts his hands out, fast enough that the old man almost staggers back, and shakes the book in his hand.
One of the other boys pinches the bridge of his nose. Rolling his eyes, he snatches the book and holds it out to the old man. “Sir, my friend bought this book from you last week. He just finished reading it today and he…well…”
The third boy, easily the most well-mannered of the three, gently pipes up. “He isn't a big fan of this book.”
“I hate it!” The crying boy sniffles. He covers his mouth with his hands and shakes his head, much the same way a young widow would when recalling their late partner.
“Yeah,” the other boy repeats. “He hates it. He’d like to return it.” He nudges the book at the old man, urging him to take it back.
The man huffs but concedes, finally taking the book from the boy. He turns it around, opening it to rifle through the pages. He mutters to himself, softly humphs every once in a while, before snapping it shut.
“You all look like respectable young men,” he says flatly. “Judging from your clothes, you young masters must be cultivators. Surely your sects haven’t failed you to this extent that you’d come to me to return a book when it's in such horrible condition.”
“Horrible? How is it horrible?” The well-mannered boy asks, genuinely concerned.
“Look at it!” The man fumes as he points at the cover. “It’s full of marks and small tears! Were you all just—just throwing it around to get it damaged like this?”
“You see, Zizhen,” the not-so-well-mannered boy says, rolling his eyes. “I told you not to throw it.”
“What else was I supposed to do?! It made me sad! I throw all of my sad books at least once!”
The old man levels them with an unimpressed stare. With little decorum, he carelessly hurls the book at the floor. “Take your business elsewhere. Else I’ll have to report your behaviour to your sects.”
The well-mannered boy is the one to pick it up, dusting it off with a slight frown. “Is there nothing that can be done, sir? My friend is just a little emotional"—not-well-mannered boy snorts at this—"and got carried away. He meant no ill intent toward you. Nor to this book.”
“Sorry,” the man says, arms crossed firmly. “Now go away. Who knows how many customers I’ve lost while dealing with the three of you.” He waves them away, then turns around to hobble to a small stool at the end of his store, leaving the poor boys alone.
“That damn old piece of—"
“Jingyi,” the well-mannered boy interjects firmly. He smiles lightly, then turns to his sniffling friend and says, “Come, let’s go find something to eat. You’ll feel better with a full stomach.”
The three boys start to leave, heading right toward Wei Wuxian’s direction. It isn’t until they come a little closer that he realises who they are.
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, pushing himself off the cart and stepping closer. “It’s you two!”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes light up in recognition. “Young Master Mo,” he says kindly. “It is a pleasure to see you.”
“Oh…” Lan Jingyi says, unimpressed. “It’s you.”
Their companion says nothing, wildly wiping at his face to regain some composure. But no matter how hard he scrubs the tears and snot away, his cheeks are still ruddy, eyes still puffy. “H-hello,” he greets weakly. He’s so far out of it that he doesn’t even remember to bow. “I’m Ouyang Zizhen. Nice—nice to meet you.”
“Is he alright?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Good gods,” Jingyi whispers, eyes wide in alarm. He looks more scared now than he did dealing with the monsters at Mo Manor. “Don’t say that! Shut up before he—”
“It’s this stupid book!” Zizhen cries, snatching it from Sizhui’s hands and shoving it at Wei Wuxian. “I—I got it because everyone has been recommending it, but I didn’t realise it was going to be so tragic!”
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian scratches his nose. “You’re upset. Because of a book.”
Jingyi groans and buries his face in his hands. Even Sizhui, who keeps his smile perfectly in place, seems to want to sink into the ground.
“Yes! It’s a waste of money to keep it around! Why would I want to put myself through this misery again?!”
“It can’t be that bad—”
“Shh!” Jingyi snaps, waving his hands wildly. “Shut up for once, won’t you?!”
“Jingyi,” Sizhui warns again, although his expression grows a little tense.
“It is that bad,” Zizhen laments. “It’s a story of two lovers, a man and a woman, born into rival sects. Their sects have been at war for so long that neither can remember why they’re even fighting! And the two lovers are both heirs to their respective sects, so when they first meet, it goes horribly. They both think they hate each other, but in truth, they’re in love and don’t even know it! They just assume since they don’t have hanahaki, it means they’re not in love!”
“Okay then…” Wei Wuxian says, careful not to set him off. “That does sound sad.”
“What do you mean?” Zizhen wipes at his red eyes with a frown. “I’m not done yet.”
Jingyi slaps his forehead hard enough to leave a mark.
“As I was saying, neither of them have hanahaki, and for years they live their lives thinking they hate each other. They even get forced into arranged marriages and spend time with other suitors, but their love still doesn’t waver, even if they don’t realise it.”
“Huh…” Wei Wuxian says. “That’s…interesting.”
“And then!” Zizhen exclaims, all but pouncing on the spot. “Their sects get thrown into another war! The thought of fighting each other makes them both feel sick, and so the woman decides not to go into battle. One morning, she wakes up to flowers covering her bed, and finally realises her feelings. But since she has hanahaki, she just assumes that the man doesn’t feel the same way. She swears that she’ll kill him and that she hates him, and ends up going into battle after all, coughing and getting sicker the whole time…”
Zizhen stops here, taking a shaky breath like he personally lived through the whole ordeal. As someone who always found reading to be quite the hassle, Wei Wuxian can’t help but be impressed at his enthusiasm.
“You don’t have to go on,” Wei Wuxian tells him.
“Yeah,” Jingyi says, nodding furiously. “Please don’t go on. Please. This is the 100th time Sizhui and I have heard about this.”
Zizhen ignores them both completely. His eyes glisten slightly as he goes on. “She goes into battle with the intention of killing him but…but she realises she’s too late. He already died. Her own disciples killed the love of her life. She thinks to herself, maybe if she had gone into battle sooner…she could have stopped it. Then to make things even worse, she gets a visitor one day. The new heir of the rival sect—her lover’s younger brother. The brother comes to tell her the truth…that his brother was in love with her for years. That’s when she realises that the reason she never had hanahaki before was because this whole time, he loved her too…”
“Then that means that she didn’t get sick until he was killed?” Wei Wuxian asks.
Zizhen sniffs pathetically. “Yes. It’s just…it’s so tragic. Why would anyone write a book like this?!”
Wei Wuxian laughs, ruffling his hair. “Calm down, calm down. It’s just a book! It’s all made up. Here, take some of these and cheer up.” He hands off the rest of his apples to the poor boy.
“Made up or not, it’s horrible ,” Zizhen says, staring down at the apples with a tired expression, unsure what to do with them. Thankfully, Sizhui swoops in and takes them from him, nodding and bowing in thanks toward Wei Wuxian.
“He has a point.” Jingyi nods toward the book, barely hiding his contempt. “That book is so unrealistic. Why bother getting so worked up over something fake?”
“But books are inspired by real-life!” Zizhen protests.
“I doubt hanahaki even exists,” Jingyi says. “Go on, name one person you know who's had it.”
“I—um…” Zizhen bites his lip in thought.
“See?” Jingyi argues. “It’s just made-up nonsense.”
“You cannot say that with certainty,” Sizhui says. “I’ve heard many accounts of the hanahaki illness.”
“History is all made up, too,” Jingyi says with a shrug. “I just find it hard to believe. It sounds so dumb. Who would be pathetic enough to even get hanahaki? If it is real, that’s why no one has it—no one is that stupid.”
“That’s quite presumptuous, don’t you think?” Wei Wuxian interjects. “Not to mention, incredibly insensitive.”
Eyes narrowed in suspicion, Jingyi quips, “What? Do you know someone who has it?”
Zizhen gasps out loud and clamps a hand over his mouth. “Do you have it?!”
Wei Wuxian smiles at the boys. He misses having this childish naivety—maybe if he hadn’t found out Lan Wangji’s secret, he’d have a similar train of thought to Lan Jingyi. He doesn’t answer their questions directly, instead just says, “You haven’t seen what it’s like. When someone has hanahaki…it’s terrifying. You definitely wouldn’t be calling anyone who had it stupid if you saw what they go through.”
“Young Master Mo…” Sizhui frowns at him, eyes brimming with concern. “Then you are acquainted with someone who has hanahaki?”
“Knowing him, he’s the one that has it,” Jingyi mutters under his breath.
“I do know someone,” Wei Wuxian says, chuckling to himself. “From a long time ago. They are one of the bravest people I’ve ever met.”
The boys’ faces pale slightly. There’s a certain implication, after all, to saying ‘a long time ago’ in this context.
But Jingyi, steadfast as always, is the first to recover. “If they were so brave, then they wouldn’t have the illness in the first place, right?”
“Jingyi!” Sizhui snaps, face aghast.
Amused, Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “It takes a lot of bravery to love someone. Sometimes it’s not a matter of being desirable enough or being confident enough to confess. Sometimes, it’s just…bad timing. Or a myriad of other issues that keep you apart. Don’t be so quick to judge, Jingyi.”
“Yeah!” Zizhen agrees. He comes around to stand next to Wei Wuxian, pointing angrily at Jingyi. “Didn’t you just say you heard me talk about my book for the 100th time , but you still didn’t get the moral of the story? Were you even listening?!”
“How do you expect me to listen when you keep going on and on?!”
Sizhui quickly steps in between the two of them, trying to quell the argument. Wei Wuxian watches until a tickle in his nose distracts him. He brings his arm up and sneezes into his hand, nose tingling slightly in the aftermath.
With a sniff, he wipes his hand on his sleeve, but something catches his eye. He turns over his palm and finds a small blue flower stuck to his skin.
How odd. He’s never seen a flower like this in Caiyi Town.
There’s another tickle in his nose. He sneezes again, only for a matching flower to appear on his palm.
His heart sinks into the pit of his stomach. Could this be…?
The world lurches beneath his feet. One name pops into his mind, and he breaks out into a cold sweat.
Wei Wuxian leaves the three juniors behind, sprinting back to Cloud Recesses.
Throwing all caution to the wind, Wei Wuxian runs like his life depends on it. Because…well, he’s slowly coming to the startling conclusion that it kind of does . He forgoes all the usual hidden paths he takes to sneak around and instead opts for the quickest route, even if it means running into a bunch of Lan disciples. They cry out in alarm as he passes them by, knocking their scrolls and papers out of their hands, making a few of them trip over their own feet. Wei Wuxian doesn’t bother calling out behind him to say sorry , doesn’t bother wasting his breath with such trivialities.
His arms and legs ache with each step, lungs burning as he pants wildly. With the jingshi finally in sight, he uses up all his remaining strength to push on. He has to hurry up. He has to make it back before—before...
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian bursts inside, barely keeping himself from falling to the floor as he trips over the landing. He scans the room frantically, splotches of light dotting his vision. He groans in frustration, wiping furiously at his eyes, before squinting and searching through the jingshi again. “Lan Zhan?!”
He rushes over to Lan Wangji’s bed, falling to his knees. But the sheets and blankets are arranged neatly, and the bed itself is empty.
The panic sets in like a slow poison, searing through his veins, coldly pricking at his skin. He can barely see, can barely hear as the blood rushes through his ears.
The voice stuns him into a sharp gasp. Wei Wuxian snaps his head back and takes in his salvation.
Lan Wangji stands a few paces away. His hair is loose but neat, and the extra layers of robes he wears indicate he must have stepped outside for a moment. There are other signs that allude to the same thing—the slight redness in his cheeks from the biting chill, the tips of his boots peeking out from the hem of his robe, and the jug in his hands filled to the brim with water. Wei Wuxian must have forgotten to refill it before he left.
Without thinking twice, Wei Wuxian launches himself into the air, charging directly at Lan Wangji, heart racing in shock, in relief . It registers a little too late that he shouldn’t be throwing himself at Lan Wangji when he’s unwell, but he can’t slow himself now. Arms outstretched in an awaiting embrace, Wei Wuxian fully expects them both to fall to the ground. Gods, he wouldn’t even be shocked if Lan Wangji were to step aside to dodge him, gently reminding Wei Wuxian that he’s too unwell to catch a grown man like that.
But none of that happens. Instead, Wei Wuxian collides with something solid. Something sturdy .
Even in this condition, Lan Wangji hardly reacts, his arms easily wrapping around Wei Wuxian, fully returning the embrace. “Wei Ying?”
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Wuxian buries his face into the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck. He breathes in the scent of incense and sandalwood and roses; it grounds him. This is the scent of home, he thinks. The scent of love.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats, but he doesn’t sound annoyed or pained. His tone is light, and impossibly fond.
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Wuxian whispers the name into Lan Wangji’s skin. “You’re here, Lan Zhan.” His arms tighten, but he quickly reminds himself to loosen his grip a little.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “I am here.”
Tears prick at Wei Wuxian’s eyes. “I was scared. I was worried that you…” he can’t bring himself to say it. “That you left somewhere. Without telling me.”
“I was outside,” Lan Wangji says. He rests his cheek against Wei Wuxian’s hair and warmth floods throughout Wei Wuxian’s entire body. “Getting more water.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Wei Wuxian laughs, blinking away the moisture in his eyes. He wonders if his eyelashes tickle as they brush along Lan Wangji’s neck. He hopes they do. “Don’t move around so much, alright? You should be resting.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “I am alright, Wei Ying.”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, a little breathless as his heart starts to calm down. “You’re alright. You’re here.” He makes no inclination of moving away from the embrace until he becomes aware of a sudden coldness all over his front. “Lan Zhan, I think I made you spill that water jug, didn’t I?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, but he dares not move either.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “We need to get you changed. You’ll get a cold if your clothes are wet.”
“Mn.” When Lan Wangji hums, Wei Wuxian feels the vibrations in his own chest. “You should change too”.
“Alright then. Let’s go pick out some new clothes.”
Despite their words, neither of them makes any indication of moving. Wei Wuxian’s eyes slip shut as he melds into Lan Wangji’s hold. The cold barely has time to set in before the warmth of the embrace chases it all away. And somehow, miraculously, Lan Wangji allows him to be selfish like this.
He’s far too kind. Wei Wuxian doesn’t deserve him.
“Alright, Lan Zhan, let’s get changed for real this time.” With great hesitation, Wei Wuxian slowly pries himself away. The cold settles in much too quickly, but he doesn’t let it show. He gestures vaguely to the spilled water. “I’ll clean this up and you can get changed first. Sound good?”
Lan Wangji cards his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair. His touch is so soft that Wei Wuxian doesn’t believe it’s even there in the first place.
“There was a flower,” Lan Wangji says quietly, showing the small blue flower in his hand.
“Oh…” Wei Wuxian rubs the back of his neck, trying to stifle the sudden urge to cough. “Thanks, Lan Zhan.”
There’s something impossibly beautiful about the sight of Lan Wangji holding that tiny flower. His hands are so large, so much bigger and stronger than that delicate bloom. Yet Lan Wangji holds it so carefully, as if he’s aware that it’s more than just a flower. Wei Wuxian goes a bit dizzy at the thought.
“Mn.” Lan Wangji dusts his hands off, and the flower gently dances through the air. He then turns around in search of some dry clothes, leaving Wei Wuxian to handle the wet puddle on the floor.
Wei Wuxian’s skin buzzes all over. He sheds his damp outer robe and unceremoniously drops it to the floor, squatting down to wipe the spilled water. He tries to focus on the task, but his eyes drift over to the corner of the room. He can see the vague outline of Lan Wangji’s figure through the privacy screen, hears the soft sound of fabric rustling. He clenches his jaw and turns back to the floor, wiping at it until his fingers start to ache.
When Lan Wangji is finally dressed in a clean new robe, he heads over to the bed and sits down on the edge. Wei Wuxian stands, kicking his wet robe aside and coming around to Lan Wangji’s side.
“Are you alright, Lan Zhan?” he asks. “Can I get you anything?”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. “I am fine. You should get changed as well.”
“Oh, this is nothing!” Wei Wuxian says with a chuckle. Although his outer robe absorbed most of the water, his inner robe is still a little wet here and there. He brushes over the fabric with the back of his hand, as if that will magically get it to dry, before smiling in reassurance. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll dry up in no time.”
“Mn. If you insist.”
It doesn’t bode well for him to think about it, but in this quiet, peaceful moment, Wei Wuxian does. He had been too afraid to admit it to anyone—especially to himself—but…he loves this man. He is in love with Lan Wangji.
He is in love with a dying man.
It should bother him, but it doesn’t. He could never regret loving Lan Wangji, even if it ends up killing him, too. In fact, it would be an honour to die like that, with flower stems and sharp thorns digging into his lungs, stealing away his breath the same way the sight of Lan Wangji always does.
Lan Wangji’s expression is one of concern. He can’t stand it, so Wei Wuxian clears his throat to try and distract himself.
“Say, Lan Zhan, how about I comb your hair?” He gives no room for Lan Wangji to disagree, immediately grabbing the comb from his dresser. Returning to Lan Wangji’s side, he waves his fingers in a circle, and Lan Wangji diligently turns around for him.
In this position, Wei Wuxian can breathe a bit easier. He’s combed Lan Wangji’s hair before, but this time, with all this new knowledge in his head and small flowers budding in his chest, it’s—different. His movements are slow, savouring the moment as he runs the comb from the roots of Lan Wangji’s silky hair down to the tips. Then when he’s done, he simply pretends as if he isn’t and continues like nothing is amiss. It’s entirely unnecessary, but Lan Wangji lets him do it anyway.
“Your hair is so nice,” he says absently. It’s the same thing he always says, but his voice is softer now. He wonders if Lan Wangji can notice the difference.
“So is yours,” Lan Wangji counters.
Wei Wuxian huffs. “Aw, Lan Zhan, won’t you just let me compliment you for once?” Each time he cards the comb through Lan Wangji’s hair, his fingers get awfully close to his blue forehead ribbon. If he accidentally brushes against it once in a while…well, it’s no one’s secret but his own.
“You always compliment me,” Lan Wangji says steadily.
“It’s not enough.” Wei Wuxian sighs, a little wistful. “Hey, Lan Zhan, can you do me a favour?”
Lan Wangji’s answer is automatic. “Mn.”
Wei Wuxian snickers a little. “You didn’t even hear what it is yet!”
“I will do it.”
It’s things like this, the things that Lan Wangji says with such ease, that tear at Wei Wuxian’s heart.
“Alright then. Would the noble Hanguang-Jun be so kind as to play a song for this humble disciple?”
Lan Wangji shifts slightly, his hands clenching at his side. “A song?”
“Yes. Any song will do. Only if you feel well enough to do it.”
“Shall I retrieve my guqin?”
As nice as it would be to hear Lan Wangji’s masterful skills at playing the guqin, it would mean that they’d have to get up, and Wei Wuxian would have to stop combing his hair. It doesn’t sit very well with him.
“You can hum for me,” Wei Wuxian says. “While I comb your hair.”
Softly, Lan Wangji starts to hum. The melody isn’t a song that Wei Wuxian knows. It's a beautiful song, so emotive yet gentle at the same time. Somehow, it perfectly encapsulates all of his emotions in the present moment, all of his pain and love condensed into a few notes.
But as he listens, the comb in his hand slows to a stop. This song…he’s heard it before. Where has he heard it? When has Lan Wangji sung this song for him?
The memory flashes through his mind. It’s a fragile thing, hazy at the edges and fading in and out of focus. He doesn’t so much as see the memory as he does feel it—hands in his hair, head resting on a comfortable lap, smiling as flowers tickle his cheeks. Lan Wangji humming a song, lulling him to sleep. The same song he’s humming right now.
It is a revelation that destroys him. Leaves him shaken more than he's ever been in his whole life.
He would never dare entertain the idea, and in the rare, fragile moments he did, he’d find the notion laughable. The object of Lan Wangji’s affections, as mysterious as they were, always came with a certain image in Wei Wuxian’s mind. Someone stunningly beautiful, intelligent, hardworking and diligent, a real stickler for rules…someone whose personality couldn’t be further from Wei Wuxian’s own.
But now, that one notion he always brushed aside has risen to the surface. There’s no more running away from it.
Lan Wangji is…is in love with him? Has been in love with him for years, apparently. Has been ill for years, all because Wei Wuxian was too stupid to realise his own feelings, too scared to face the rejection he was so certain of.
The instant Lan Wangji notices that Wei Wuxian’s hands have stilled, he stops humming. “You have finished?”
“…Huh?” Wei Wuxian snaps out of it, his heart racing.
Lan Wangji is in love with him. With him. Which means that he can fix this.
“Actually…Lan Zhan…there’s one more thing I need to do.”
Wei Wuxian steps around, dropping down to his knees in front of Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian rests his hands on his thighs, wiping the sweat away vigorously. He shouldn’t be nervous—why is he so nervous? “Tell me when to stop and I’ll stop. Alright?”
Brows pinching slightly in confusion, Lan Wangji nods slowly. “Mn.”
“Okay.” Wei Wuxian nods to himself, and lifts his head to meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. Slowly, he brings his hands up and touches the crown of Lan Wangji’s head, smoothing the hair down.
He doesn’t stop there. His hands drift down to Lan Wangji’s ears, tucking a few strands of hair behind them. He continues like this, hands skirting all over Lan Wangji’s face and hair, leaving soft touches in their wake.
“Just tell me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers. “If you want me to stop.”
Lan Wangji remains silent. He stares at Wei Wuxian, entranced by him. And when Wei Wuxian’s hands start to slowly, carefully inch back up toward his forehead, his breath hitches in his throat.
Wei Wuxian’s breath hitches too. He bites his lip as his pointer fingers hover over the side of Lan Wangji’s temple, right above the sleek blue ribbon he wears so proudly. It had been so easy to touch it when he was younger, when the full weight of what that ribbon represents wasn’t on his shoulders. Now, he knows what it means. He finally knows it all.
With wide, unblinking eyes, Lan Wangji stares at him. It’s almost as if he’s begging—no, not begging, but… hoping. Then finally, Wei Wuxian brings his fingers down and touches the ribbon.
Lan Wangji inhales shakily. He braces his hands behind himself, and they tremble as well. Wei Wuxian waits to hear him say something, to tell him to stop or push him away like when they were in their teenage years, but Lan Wangji does nothing.
Gently, Wei Wuxian runs his fingers over the ribbon, all the way around until he finds the neat knot tied at the back. This position puts his face agonisingly close to Lan Wangji’s. With bated breath, Wei Wuxian stares into his eyes, pulled in by the vulnerability swimming in those irises. He grabs onto the end of the ribbon and gives it a slow but firm tug. It loosens under his touch, unfurling from Lan Wangji’s forehead like a cascading waterfall.
With the ribbon completely off, Wei Wuxian pulls back. He doesn’t know what to do with it, so he carefully lays it on the bed next to Lan Wangji, who still stares at Wei Wuxian intensely, his body trembling.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian croaks. His voice comes out like he’s been crying.
Mouth slightly parted in disbelief, Lan Wangji does nothing.
Wei Wuxian can’t hold back any longer and cradles Lan Wangji’s head in his hands, careful as if he were touching the finest jade. “I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan. I made you wait so long and…there’s just no excuse. I’m truly sorry.”
He rubs slow circles into Lan Wangji’s skin. But then, Lan Wangji’s eyes well up, and when he blinks, two drops of tears fall down his cheeks.
“Oh, no, Lan Zhan, don’t cry,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “Please, please don’t cry.” He brushes the tears away with his thumbs. “I know you…must be upset and mad at me, but I really do love you. I love you, Lan Zhan. So much. I’ve loved you for a long time and just never—I never realised it.”
Lan Wangji exhales a shuddering breath. “Wei Ying…”
“I love you,” Wei Wuxian repeats. It's freeing to be able to admit it out loud like this. He can't stop himself from saying it over and over. "I love you, Lan Zhan."
"Who..." Lan Wangji gulps, his voice no louder than a whisper, afraid to shatter the delicate moment. "Did somebody tell you?"
Wei Wuxian laughs a little. "Ah, Lan Zhan, how could anyone else tell me when you never told anyone in the first place?"
"I never told anyone," Lan Wangji confirms, his eyes flitting to Wei Wuxian's hands as they cradle his face. "But...but Brother still knew."
At first, Wei Wuxian doesn't think much of the question. But he recalls his conversation with Lan Wangji from days ago, recalls the meeting with Lan Xichen in the library, and realises what it is that Lan Wangji is worried about.
I want them to be free, Wei Ying.
"Lan Zhan..." Wei Wuxian's voice breaks a little, but he tries his best to mask it. After all, he made Lan Wangji wait this long, made Lan Wangji think he was unlovable. It would be unreasonable to expect Lan Wangji to believe him so easily. "You don't believe me?"
Lan Wangji does not confirm or deny his question. All he does is utter a simple, broken, "Maybe you are confused."
He speaks with such surety, such conviction. It kills Wei Wuxian, knowing that he did this. He doesn't shirk away from the pain, instead letting it wash over him. It seeps into his skin and buries itself in his heart, where it twists and writhes and hurts . Because Lan Wangji has been hurting, too.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian starts gently, rising up so his face is only a breath away from Lan Wangji's. "If I was confused, would I have this?" He runs his tongue around his mouth before sticking it out. Right at the centre sits a small, blue flower.
Lan Wangji's eyes widen at the sight. He brings a hand up, slowly, as if in disbelief, and sets it carefully beneath Wei Wuxian's chin. Wei Wuxian hums in approval and pokes his tongue out further.
"Wow, Hanguang-Jun," Wei Wuxian says teasingly. "Taking such a strong interest in my tongue. Don't worry, I can put it to good use later."
Lan Wangji blushes beautifully. His cheeks turn as red as his roses, warming spectacularly beneath Wei Wuxian's fingers. "Shameless."
"I am shameless," Wei Wuxian says. He leans even closer, pressing his forehead to Lan Wangji's. "Your shameless Wei Ying."
"Mn. My Wei Ying," Lan Wangji echoes, mesmerised.
"Do you believe me now?" Wei Wuxian whispers, his breath fanning across Lan Wangji’s lips. “Or maybe I have to prove it.”
“Prove it?” Lan Wangji asks breathlessly. His eyes burn in a silent challenge. “How?”
“Maybe…something like this...”
Wei Wuxian closes the minuscule distance between them, pressing his lips to Lan Wangji’s own. The kiss is soft, almost shy, neither of them really knowing what they’re doing. Wei Wuxian’s hands drop down to Lan Wangji’s neck, a racing pulse right at the tips of his fingers, fluttering wildly like a bird flapping its wings. He has wondered, sometimes, what it would be like to kiss someone. He’s seen Nie Huaisang’s special reading material before, has seen images depicting the act, and so he vaguely knows that his eyes should slip shut to truly savour the moment. But Wei Wuxian finds himself slowly opening his eyes—barely, negligibly—just to see the expression on Lan Wangji’s face, to put it away somewhere so he can think back on it over and over for the rest of his life.
When they finally pull apart for air, Wei Wuxian makes sure to savour the sight before him.
Lan Wangji is beautiful. He is always so devastatingly beautiful, but the way his long eyelashes ghost over his rosy cheeks, his breath stuttering and heart racing, lips glossy and swollen—Wei Wuxian just can’t get over it.
He runs his tongue over his own lips subconsciously, but Lan Wangji’s eyes follow that motion, his blush now spreading over to his ears.
That’s when Wei Wuxian notices. “Oh,” he says, then sticks his tongue back out with a wink. “I think the flower is gone now.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, his voice almost a groan.
“Do you believe me now?” Wei Wuxian tilts his head teasingly. “Or maybe—”
Lan Wangji does not allow him to finish. He wraps his hands around Wei Wuxian’s waist and yanks him forward, crushing their lips into another searing kiss.
Wei Wuxian yelps in surprise, taken aback by Lan Wangji’s sudden boldness. Whereas their first kiss was timid and shy, this one is fiery and full of passion. Lan Wangji’s hands roam all over, and soon Wei Wuxian joins in, eager to map out every curve and line of Lan Wangji with his fingers.
When Lan Wangji pulls back slightly, Wei Wuxian chases after him, unwilling to stop so soon. He’s warm all over, but his chest in particular feels as if it’s been set alight. His hanahaki is minor, nothing but a few small blooms, yet he knows they’re already burning to ash in his chest, seared away by Lan Wangji’s love.
Wei Wuxian wants to burn away Lan Wangji’s flowers too. He presses even closer, his body flush against Lan Wangji’s, hands dancing over his chest and tangling in his hair. He kisses him with purpose, to raze the vines and thorns binding Lan Wangji’s heart into nothing, to free him from the pain—to heal him.
They part with a gasp, panting as they come down from the high. Wei Wuxian’s whole body buzzes in delight, his heart burning with emotions too great to even list out.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says softly, breaking the silence, gaze impossibly full of love. “I believe you.”
“I think that’s everything,” Wei Wuxian says, hauling Lan Wangji’s basket up and resting it against his hip. “Unless you have some more hidden somewhere?”
“No,” Lan Wangji says, staring rather intently at the basket. “There are no more.”
“Great!” When Lan Wangji tries to take the basket from him, Wei Wuxian easily sidesteps and swats him lightly. “No, Lan Zhan,” he scolds. “Let me carry it for you.”
He half expects Lan Wangji to argue, but instead, what he gets in response is a small smile. “Mn. Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian blinks back the shock before smiling too. He unabashedly takes Lan Wangji’s hand in his and marches off. “Let’s go then, Lan Zhan. Before everyone else wakes up!”
Waking up so early shouldn’t agree with him, but if it’s for Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian can make an exception. Besides, today marks the last time Lan Wangji will have to dispose of his flowers. It had been Wei Wuxian’s idea that they do it together, to mark the end of one era and the start of another.
When they arrive at the river, Wei Wuxian sets down the basket and turns to Lan Wangji expectantly. “This was one of your usual spots?”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji stares at the slow running water, reminiscent.
Wei Wuxian gives him a slight nudge. “What are you thinking about?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji responds distantly, before looking down at him with fond eyes. “It is nothing. Let us prepare the flowers.”
They sit down on the grass, open the basket, and then take handfuls of flowers and throw them into the water.
It had taken a short time for the flowers in Wei Wuxian’s chest to wilt away. Not even an entire day—maybe only half—and he finally stopped getting flowers stuck to his tongue and the inside of his cheeks.
For Lan Wangji, it had taken longer. He didn’t stop coughing up bloody roses for three whole days, and even in the subsequent days, he’d often wake in the night to a coughing fit. It terrified Wei Wuxian each time. Perhaps it meant that his love wasn’t enough, after all? Or perhaps now that Lan Wangji does have him, he realises that Wei Wuxian wasn’t really worth the wait.
But of course, Lan Wangji has dealt with hanahaki for years. The flowers and vines growing in his chest need time to die. Maybe it’ll take a few weeks, or a few months. Or maybe in a few years he’ll still cough up a rose petal once in a while, and Wei Wuxian will have a moment of panic before he laughs, and he’ll pluck it from Lan Wangji’s lap and place it somewhere in his hair, calling him pretty.
Until then, they have time to figure it out. And for now, Lan Wangji wants to get rid of any old petals and flowers. Maybe this is the perfect send off to the illness that has plagued him for the majority of his life. A silent way to bid farewell, and yet still pay homage to the fact that it had happened.
Soon the river is covered in red, roses—some dried, some fresh—carried downstream. Lan Wangji’s expression is peaceful as he watches, taking handfuls of flowers and throwing them into the water.
Wei Wuxian reaches blindly into the basket but comes up empty-handed. “That was the last of them?”
Lan Wangji extends his fingers, setting the last few petals free. "There is one more."
"One more?" Wei Wuxian quirks his eyebrow. He peers into the basket where a light floral scent still lingers, but it's completely empty save for a few dried up leaves stuck in the seams. "There's nothing else in here, Lan Zhan." To further prove his point, Wei Wuxian carefully flips the basket upside down and lightly shakes it.
With an amused huff, Lan Wangji pulls out a dull box from the many layers of his robes, handing it over to Wei Wuxian. "Open it."
Wei Wuxian does as told, setting the box in his lap and running a finger along the lid. Its edges are turning white from old age, and when he tries to open it, it doesn’t budge. He carefully works the lid open little by little, worried about damaging whatever is inside. When it finally opens, his eyes widen in shock at the sight.
A lovely lotus flower sits inside the box, nestled between countless talismans, most of which are yellow with age. The flower itself looks barely over a week old, only showing the smallest hints of wear and tear. Wei Wuxian grabs a handful of talismans and finds all of them to be in varying stages of ageing; if he were to lay them all out in front of him, he'd have a nice gradient from browns and yellows to dull whites and creams. Lan Wangji's neat scrawl covers most of them. All except one, that is.
It’s easy enough to recognise his own handwriting. "Lan Zhan..." Wei Wuxian says, awed. "You kept this?"
The sun isn't warm enough to cause the red tinge that spreads over Lan Wangji's cheeks. "Mn."
"But this..." Wei Wuxian laughs in disbelief, hands hovering over the lotus, worried that if he were to pick it up it would fall apart. "This was from years ago...and you still looked after it, too..."
"It was my first flower," Lan Wangji says.
"You gave it to me." Wei Wuxian lowers a finger, ghosts it right above one of the petals, but doesn't dare press down any closer. "It was a gift. A wonderful gift."
"Mn. I coughed up many lotus flowers. This one was always my favourite."
"Lan Zhan—" A small sense of panic strikes Wei Wuxian, and he clumsily takes the lid and covers the lotus back up. "You don't have to get rid of this one if you don't want to. You—it clearly meant a lot to you, didn't it? You even made more talismans to preserve it..."
Lan Wangji shakes his head, taking the lid off with conviction. "There is no need for this flower." His eyes bore into Wei Wuxian's, golden irises glimmering as he says, "Now I have you."
Perhaps Wei Wuxian was wrong earlier—the sun is definitely warm today. "Lan Zhan!" he whines. "You can't just say something like that without warning me!"
Lan Wangji sits back, face blank but clearly very pleased with himself. "Wei Ying."
With a small pout and a racing heart, Wei Wuxian answers, "Yeah?"
"Please," Lan Wangji gestures to the lotus, then to the river. "Take out the flower."
Biting his lip in concentration, Wei Wuxian wonders how to best go about it. "If I remove it from the box, it won't last very long in the open air. Even less so in water. Should I attach a new talisman to it?"
"No more talismans," Lan Wangji says. He stares down at the lotus fondly, as if saying goodbye to a close friend. "It has done enough."
Drawing in a sharp breath, Wei Wuxian decides to just go for it. He scoops the flower up, wincing when a few of its petals already start to break off.
"It is okay," Lan Wangji assures, encouraging him to continue.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry..." Wei Wuxian mutters to the lotus, leaning forward to place it in the river. He sinks his hands into the cold water and then lets it go.
The lotus joins the other flowers as they all flow downstream, swept away by the languid waters. Wei Wuxian forgets that his hands are still wet when he reaches out to clasp Lan Wangji's. But with the way Lan Wangji holds on so tightly, maybe he forgot, too.
"It's really beautiful, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says softly.
The poor lotus won't have very much time before it'll wilt. It's been preserved for far too long, its beauty suspended, stretched out over eternity. Without any talismans attached to it, who knows how much time it has before its petals wither. It could be a matter of seconds or minutes—or maybe if it's lucky, a few hours. It's sad to think that the flower Lan Wangji held onto for so long could meet its end so swiftly.
But Lan Wangji had been right earlier. There is no need for any more flowers.
"Mn," Lan Wangji agrees. He brings Wei Wuxian's hand up and places a chaste kiss on his knuckles. "Because it was yours."