Warnings: vomiting, brief gore, mentions of child death.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
It was pain such that Wei Wuxian had never known. At first he felt none of it; it was the smell, he thought, that was worse than anything. Scorched fabric and then burned flesh, burned meat, replaced any and all scent in his nose. Wang Lingjiao’s acrid wateriness and Jiang Cheng’s faraway sharpness and his shijie’s comforting woodsiness—all faded away, even the stench of the monster, as Wei Wuxian breathed in that sickly smell, as he remembered in a flash of panic the streets of his childhood and the dogs who fought him for a piece of rotted meat.
Then the pain reached him.
The scream he let out seemed to rip apart his throat. Wang Lingjiao dropped the iron in shock, or perhaps because she herself had tripped when he had jumped into her path. It didn’t matter. The burn only worsened when touched by the cave’s miasmic air, so wet was it from the pond and its poisoned water.
Wei Wuxian kneeled, clutching the torn fabric of his clothes right under where he bled. “A-Xian!” Jiang Yanli cried, struggling to stand, and it took more effort than Wei Wuxian had ever spent to look her way and see if she was hurt.
She was. Her left arm was bent an awkward way, and her face was as pale as death.
“Shijie,” he whispered.
The world swam before his eyes in shades of grey and white. He swayed with it, putting a hand on the damp ground to keep himself upright. Bitterness gathered at the back of his tongue and made saliva flood his mouth. His chest burned.
Though Wei Wuxian took little notice of it, his scream and the sight of Wen Chao’s zhongyong mistress harming him pulled the battle into a lull. Wen Chao himself gathered what was left of his clan and grabbed Wang Lingjiao, all of them running toward the exit of the cave. Some followed suit with weapons or their bare hands; some stayed behind to fend off the monster. The tortoise grabbed a corpse lying close to the water’s edge and pulled it along as it sank, water rippling over its shell and making it glow eerily.
Jiang Cheng only seemed to realize what was going on when the monster was gone. He looked around and saw the eyes of all around him turned the same way—he looked and saw Wei Wuxian kneeling on the filthy ground, blood staining the hand he had put over his chest.
He hurried over, as did Jin Zixuan and Nie Huaisang. “I”m fine,” Wei Wuxian gasped at them.
His wound throbbed, but he wasn’t harmed in any critical way. He could walk and fight still, and that was all that mattered.
He rose to his feet, refusing Jiang Yanli or Jiang Cheng’s help. Everyone else was too shy to touch him. Nie Huaisang found the strength to blush bashfully in such a situation, and though Jin Zixuan glowered, he stayed away. “Shijie is hurt,” Wei Wuxian told him without knowing the reason why. “Her arm…”
Jin Zixuan nodded. “I’ll look at it,” he replied.
He walked toward Jiang Yanli, who grimaced but showed him her now-purpling arm. Jiang Cheng stepped closer to Wei Wuxian and tried to pull his hand away to better look at the wound on his chest.
“It’s nothing,” Wei Wuxian said, trying to hold him back.
But it was too late. Wei Wuxian felt too faint to look at himself, but he guessed that through the bleeding, the shape of Qishanwen’s red sun must already show on his skin. Jiang Cheng’s face turned a shade of dark and hateful that Wei Wuxian had never seen before. “She branded you,” he raged.
Whatever else he wanted to say seemed lost under that simple statement. Wei Wuxian watched distantly as anger veiled Jiang Cheng’s muddy face.
Nie Huaisang had told him of the Wen sect’s branding irons before. When Wei Wuxian had first seen it in the hands of Wang Lingjiao and asked what it was, Nie Huaisang had whispered to him with disgust and fear about the magic tool created by Wen Ruohan to brand his slaves. You need no fire to heat it, he had said. It scars the skin forever and can even harm your spiritual energy.
Jiang Cheng must be hung up on anyone from the Wen clan—anyone from any clan—claiming someone as property this way. Wei Wuxian, however, was used to being property. The bell hanging from his waist, no matter how proudly he wore it, was a brand of another kind. So was the lonely house at the Pier that an old man had once died in, alone and unloved.
A burn scar was nothing next to that.
“We need to get out of here,” he said out loud, chasing the thoughts out of his mind. There were better things to worry about now than the anxiety of his idle hours. “Where did those Wen-dogs go?”
His eyes met Lan Wangji’s, who was standing some distance away. He was clutching his thigh with one hand and a sword with the other. He turned his face sideways to avoid Wei Wuxian’s stare.
At that moment, those who had left in pursuit of Wen Chao and his group came back, out of breath and looking desperate. “They sealed the exit!” the Qinghenie qianyuan who had led them to the cave earlier said, her voice shaking with fear. “They cut the ropes and tore the rocks apart, there’s no way out anymore!”
Panic spread around immediately. The youngest of them—some no older than fourteen—fell to their knees or huddled close together, and the older looked no better. Jin Zixuan was done strapping Jiang Yanli’s arm with torn cloth and what looked like a piece of broken bow; she looked at Wei Wuxian, tired and too-thin and frightened most of all.
“Calm down,” Wei Wuxian found himself saying.
He could not stand to see her so afraid.
“Calm down!” he repeated. Some stopped moaning to look at him with wide eyes. He took a deep breath, wincing as the skin of his chest stretched and tugged at the raw wound. “There has to be another exit. Everyone, look around for one.”
“What would you know?” said a young Lanlingjin boy, flushing at his own audacity but still looking angry and desperate. “We wouldn’t be in this much trouble without you—”
“Be quiet,” Jin Zixuan ordered.
The boy’s mouth snapped shut. Wei Wuxian shot Jin Zixuan an annoyed glance; he didn’t need others to speak up for him. “This monster must have come in from somewhere,” he said. “We just need to find where.”
“We looked around this cave for hours already!”
“Even if it did, that way might have closed years and years ago.”
Others protested the same way. And then Lan Wangji said, “Maple leaves.”
Wei Wuxian looked at him in askance. Lan Wangji wasn’t staring at any of them, however; instead the sword in his hand pointed toward the deceptively calm waters they had all run away from.
The leaves that Wei Wuxian had noticed when they first came by the pond were still there. A few more seemed to have risen to the surface, even, floating gently around the tortoise’s shimmering shell.
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian muttered. “Remember, we searched through a forest full of maple trees the other day, right below the mountain.” He wiped cold sweat from his brow. “There must be a way out through the water.”
Jiang Cheng caught on immediately, of course. He and Wei Wuxian had spent too many hours in the waters around Yunmeng, swimming and diving and making a mess of themselves for Yu Ziyuan to frown at. However—
“Sister can’t swim,” he said, the smile growing on his face falling immediately. “Her arm is broken.”
“You can help her,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Come, let’s dive and look around.”
Jiang Cheng nodded. His eyes flickered down to Wei Wuxian’s injury, but he stayed silent.
Some were not so easily convinced. “Do you mean to swim in that state?” Jin Zixuan asked, anger shaking through his voice. “What about that monster? You’ll both be killed!”
“It hasn’t moved in a long time,” Wei Wuxian replied, irritated. “With everything it ate earlier, it’s probably asleep.”
“I’m still what?”
He was done playing nice with any of them. He pushed away the hand that Jiang Cheng tried to put over his shoulder and walked toward Jin Zixuan with his head held high. They had once been of a height, but now Wei Wuxian stood an inch or so taller. A flush came over Jin Zixuan’s face at their proximity. He must really be angry.
So was Wei Wuxian. “I’m the fastest swimmer in Yunmeng,” he declared. Any other day and Jiang Cheng would have disputed that claim; now he stood silent behind him, no doubt understanding that this time was not for play. “Do you think status matters now? You’re welcome to try and swim too if you think you have a better chance, brother Jin, but you won’t stop me.”
And then he called, “Jiang Cheng, let’s go.”
He turned away from Jin Zixuan as they both approached the water. On the way there, Wei Wuxian met Lan Wangji’s eyes. He frowned at the man, daring him to interject as Jin Zixuan had, but Lan Wangji only nodded.
Wei Wuxian felt a strange sort of relief.
“You go left,” Jiang Cheng said once they stood at the very edge of the pond. “You’re fast, but you’re hurt. There’s less distance to cover there.”
“Fine by me,” Wei Wuxian replied. “You’re better at holding your breath than I am anyway.”
Jiang Cheng looked at him in surprise. Wei Wuxian smiled and said, “Be careful.”
Then he bent down and breached the water’s surface.
Pain flared in his wound immediately. Wei Wuxian let go of some precious air under the feeling, wasting a second to press futilely against the burn to try and soothe it, but of course it was useless. He knew that putting water on such a deep burn was the worst idea, but there was no choice.
Despite how poisoned it was by death, the pond’s water was crystal-clear. If not for the lack of light, Wei Wuxian thought that he could have seen to the bottom. As it was, the glow of whatever torches were still burning above traversed the surface and lit everything a soft orange. Wei Wuxian followed along the tortoise’s thick shell, looking everywhere for a hole in the rock, feeling ceaselessly for a current, a difference in temperature, anything indicating a way out.
He found nothing. He went up to the surface once to breathe and plunge again, his ears plugged to whatever the other disciples said at the sight of him. Once again he looked, keeping his own fear at bay by focusing his energy on swimming.
He went as deeply as he could. He went deeper than any other could go without the kind of training he possessed, haunted by the idea that the exit may be farther still, open but out of their reach. When he came back up again, he almost passed out, dizzy and exhausted.
He swam carefully back to shore. No one nearby offered to help him up, and Jiang Yanli was standing too far. By the time she had reached him, Wei Wuxian had already pushed himself to his feet.
“A-Xian?” she called anxiously.
He shook his head. At her defeated face, he said, “There’s still Jiang Cheng. I’m sure he’ll find it.”
Right then, the cave trembled again.
Wei Wuxian’s heart dropped to his stomach. He jumped backward, suddenly remembering that he had let go of Wen Chao’s sword and was unarmed again. He watched with growing horror as the blueish shell of the tortoise rose, water running down its smooth sides, until the head of the beast breached the surface of the pond.
He heard shouts behind himself. He pushed Jiang Yanli back so she would run to safety. He saw movement near the beast’s rear, right as Jiang Cheng emerged from the water as well.
All the others had hidden themselves out of the tortoise’s reach. Wei Wuxian looked behind himself with a call for help stuck in his throat, but one look was enough to tell him that no one would come to his aid. No one else had noticed Jiang Cheng trapped in the water.
The tortoise’s great yellow eyes settled on him.
He was only quick enough to avoid its snapping jaw by rolling sideways. Once again, the pain of moving felt unbearable, but Wei Wuxian forced past it, glad for the monster’s attention; Jiang Cheng was still safe. From the corner of his eyes, he saw yellow robes, white robes, even the green of Qinghenie as some finally figured out why Wei Wuxian had not fled.
But the monster must have felt something in the water. Its giant head turned sideways and saw at last that it wasn’t alone.
“No!” Wei Wuxian yelled. “No, look here!”
Terror gripped him as he watched it open its mouth over where Jiang Cheng swam, as fast as he could but not fast enough, wishing for a spell, a tool, anything—
The tortoise had eaten many of the dead left behind their earlier fight, but not all of them. Some were too far out of its reach. Wei Wuxian had seen how deeply the monster was set into the pond, as if fused with its stone floor by the ages. Its long neck could only stretch so far.
There was a body near him wearing the Wen sect’s uniform. Wei Wuxian ran to it and pushed it to its back, tearing apart cloth until, at last, his fingers closed on two fire talismans. He stood again, heart pulsing at his throat, and lit one with as much energy as he could.
Light exploded through the cave.
The beast roared. Its eyes had grown attuned to the dark after so many years, and the sight of such a bright fire must hurt it. It reared its head back, snapping its jaw aimlessly, but the heat and light kept it at bay. Wei Wuxian turned his head aside and screamed to the others, “Help him! The spell won’t last long!”
At least now they listened to him: a few youths ran toward the shore to help Jiang Cheng out of the water and out of the monster’s reach. Jiang Cheng limped toward Wei Wuxian immediately, saying, “I found it! There’s an exit, it’s wide enough for six to swim through at once.”
Elation swelled through Wei Wuxian’s chest. “Those who can swim pair up with those who can’t,” he ordered, “and no one say anything about propriety! This is your life at stake! Follow Jiang Cheng to the exit and go back to your sects as fast as possible.” Then to Jiang Cheng: “I have another talisman, I’ll distract it while you run.”
Jiang Cheng’s face went bloodless. “I can’t leave you—”
“I’ll be fine,” Wei Wuxian snapped. “Your sister is hurt, she needs you to make it through. Just go! I’ll follow as soon as I can.”
Already the others were pairing up. Nie Huaisang clinged to Jin Zixuan’s arm for dear life as they entered the water where it was the shallowest, submerged to the waist and shaking from fear and cold.
Jiang Cheng’s jaw tensed painfully. “You better follow, Wei Wuxian,” he said. “You better follow right behind us.”
Exhausted and filthy as he was, his voice still rang deep and true. In that moment, Wei Wuxian saw him as he would look in the years to come—a true heir, a man and brother and the only leader in the world Wei Wuxian wanted to follow. Not a child anymore. In that moment, Wei Wuxian saw in him his mother’s power and his father’s charisma.
If his hands had not been taken by the half-burned talisman, he would have bowed, and not felt the lesser for it.
Jiang Cheng ran to his sister, grabbing her carefully, ready to dive and lead everyone out. Others pressed after him, afraid of losing him in the dark. Wei Wuxian looked back at the giant tortoise who kept mouthing uselessly at the dimming fire.
Pain shot up his right arm and made him cry out.
He dropped the talisman. Its light flickered out, forever wasted now, as he fell and heaved and cradled his arm against his chest. An arrow was sticking out of it, buried deep in his muscle. Blood was already trickling down his forearm and dripping onto the wet ground.
With another whimper, Wei Wuxian tugged the arrow out. He tried best as he could to stop the blood-flow with his hand. He looked at the group of disciples with hazy eyes, too tired now to even voice his anger. A man wearing Gusulan’s white dropped his bow, his face twisted with fear.
“I, I didn’t,” he stammered, “I only wanted to shoot that monster—”
“You bastard!” Jin Zixuan shouted with surprising lack of control. “What did you do!? What did you do!?”
“I didn’t mean to shoot him!”
Jiang Cheng was already struggling out of the water, fury darkening his eyes and making his hands shake. “I’ll kill you—”
“Just go!” Wei Wuxian roared.
His left hand was all sticky with blood now. He kept back any sound of pain as he took the last talisman and lit it, letting it suck all the spiritual energy out of him to distract the beast once more.
“Go! It’s nothing, I’m fine!”
But all of them hesitated. In their eyes, Wei Wuxian saw some realization, some shame. They must be realizing exactly what it was they were doing now, fleeing for their lives and leaving him behind. Even the one who had called him responsible earlier was red in the face.
Now was no time for politeness. No time to think of status, of propriety, of honor. “Go!” he yelled as loudly as he could.
All of them left at last. Wei Wuxian turned his attention back to the monster now staring past the bright flame and directly at him. It had come from light, after all. Years spent in darkness could only ail it so much when faced with it again. The talisman held strong for a moment longer before burning out, feeding on whatever dust of energy remained in Wei Wuxian’s body. It flickered out with a brief sizzling sound.
Wei Wuxian rose to his feet, and the giant tortoise glared at him, saliva dripping out of its open mouth and making its sharp teeth glisten. The air around the cave once more reeked of malice, stinging at Wei Wuxian’s fingertips, a kind of power he knew not how to grab.
How he wished he knew. How he wished that all this resentful energy could come in handy and allow him to live.
There was no time to run to safety; he had witnessed the beast’s speed and strength enough to know that. So he stood tall as it roared and lunged at him, determined to die as he liked to think his parents did.
Determined to be himself to the end.
Lan Wangji had spent much of his time in Qishan looking at Wei Wuxian.
He was not the only one. Just like in Gusu three years ago, just like in the Nightless City when they all competed for glory, eyes followed Wei Wuxian around. Many of them shone with distrust, and many more with disgust. A few, like Jin Zixuan, with an odd sort of longing. He knew some held their breaths when honey sweetened the air, richer now than it had been when Wei Wuxian was still young and Lan Wangji had felt the boy’s arms around his middle.
The decision to stay behind in the cave was not a hard one to make: in the hurry to flee, in the mess of disciples leaning on each other for help so that they could swim to safety, no one paid him any mind. Lan Wangji stood by the edge of the water and watched Wei Wuxian hold strong despite his wounds, his arm still bleeding liberally, his chest red even in the distance. He chose to stay, he told himself, because it was the right thing to do. Because it was better than putting his borrowed sword at the throat of the young man who had dared shoot at Wei Wuxian. Because someone had to make sure that Wei Wuxian too could reach safety.
When the fire talisman burned out and Wei Wuxian did not run from the monster’s approaching mouth, he lost any thought of regretting his choice.
He ran into the attack without a single doubt. His leg had not stopped aching since Wen Xu broke it under his foot, hurting him during the long day hunts and keeping him awake at night in the qianyuan encampment, but he was able to push past it. And even when teeth the size of his fists dug through the leather of his boot and tore up his flesh, he found that this was an easy sacrifice.
He was pulled into the air. The beast swung him around like a cat playing with prey, shaking him this way and that until he had no choice but to cry out from pain; then it threw him upward and opened its wide mouth, ready to swallow him whole.
For the second time in his life, Lan Wangji felt Wei Wuxian’s arms grab him as he fell. He struggled to stay alert, his nose filled with the man’s scent, sweetness spreading over rot and making the weight in his chest heavier.
Wei Wuxian broke their fall at the last moment. Despite his own injuries, he was quick on his feet, unhesitant as he put Lan Wangji’s arm over his shoulder and dragged him to safety. He laid him down slowly against the stony wall and immediately looked at his leg.
“You shouldn’t have done this,” Lan Wangji heard him say through his stupor, “I don’t know if I can save your leg.”
“Be quiet,” he answered raspily.
Wei Wuxian stared at him in incredulity. Strands of ink-black hair had fallen out of the string he tied it with, wet from his earlier swimming, sticking to his neck and shoulders. Some dipped into the blood congealing against his wounded chest. He laughed emptily, looking away, and said: “Lan Zhan, I don’t understand you at all.”
I don’t understand you either, Lan Wangji thought.
He dared not think of how much he wished to.
Wei Wuxian left his side. Lan Wangji’s head turned to follow him, fear once more gripping him as he ventured close to the water. It seemed the monster had gone back under, for only its glossy shell could be seen once more. He saw Wei Wuxian drag some corpses out of its reach and start rummaging through their sleeves and belts.
He should feel outraged at the sight. Sickened, even. All he felt was exhaustion.
Wei Wuxian came back with a handful of sealed pouches and every bow he could find. “Keep the strings,” Lan Wangji mumbled, and Wei Wuxian nodded, giving him the pouches and replying, “See if there’s anything useful in there.”
Lan Wangji obeyed as the other worked to build them a fire. One bag contained money, another some knotted jade for luck. When he opened the third, the smell of herbs reached him. He brought it closer to his face for a better look. “Some of those… can stop bleeding and clear toxins,” he said with some pain.
Fire crackled next to him. Wei Wuxian chuckled. “I knew someone had to have hidden medicine on them,” he declared. “Lan Zhan, can you reach your leg?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replied, though there was no way he could.
Even the thought of bending over made him want to hurl. The weight in his chest pressed closer to his throat; he swallowed back, sweat dripping down his temples.
“You shouldn’t push yourself,” Wei Wuxian said, crouching next to him once more. He grabbed a fistful of powdered herbs from the bag and, looking at him, added: “I know this is all very improper, but please let me tend to your injury.”
“No,” Lan Wangji replied.
Wei Wuxian frowned. “You’ll lose your leg if it’s not treated,” he said. “Stop being so stubborn.”
Wei Wuxian had already saved him and carried him to safety. He had already touched him far beyond what was appropriate, and Lan Wangji could only be grateful that no witnesses were present at the time. Wei Wuxian’s life would be over if there were. Lan Wangji couldn’t ask him to risk more.
But Wei Wuxian did not listen. He bent over Lan Wangji’s bleeding leg and tore up the leather of his boot, wiping away the blood till he could see exactly where exactly the skin was punctured. Lan Wangji felt him do so with only very distant pain; he felt swollen, feverish, as if something were boiling in him and filling up his lungs hotly.
“Wei Ying,” he wheezed.
“I’ll stop as soon as I’m done,” Wei Wuxian answered with a frown. Indeed his hands were quick: as soon as he wiped enough skin clean, he spread the medicine over the gashes, his fingers barely grazing Lan Wangji’s leg. He raised his head when he was done, grinning. “See? No harm done. You can just tell them you did by yourself.”
Lan Wangji did not answer. He did not say what he was thinking—that when people learned of them being trapped in a cave together, it would not matter whether they came out dead or alive.
Wei Wuxian’s torn clothes had dragged down over his chest. The wound there looked as raw as if the iron had just left his skin. Though the bleeding seemed to have stopped, thin strips of flesh hung loosely where they once had been unblemished, leaving what lay underneath glistening and exposed. Clear liquid seeped in fat drops out of Qishanwen’s blackened sun.
Lan Wangji felt sick at the sight. “Your chest,” he said haltedly.
Wei Wuxian shook his head, though he didn’t look down. Lan Wangji wondered if he had even looked at the burn. “It’s nothing,” he replied, and someone else would have probably believed him. “I got so angry when I saw that woman attack shijie. If she’d been branded like a slave, her life would be over.”
“The scar on your body will stay forever too,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian was the one branded like a slave.
Wei Wuxian laughed dryly. “I’m unmarriageable now, I suppose” he replied. “I don’t find that so bothersome.”
He looked away after that, as if he had not meant to say it.
Lan Wangji sat still for a second longer. Then he set the pouch onto the ground, grabbed some of the powder, and pushed it against Wei Wuxian’s chest.
Wei Wuxian cried out, rearing back immediately at the pain, but his eyes were very wide. His open mouth seemed for once at a loss for words.
“If you know it will hurt,” Lan Wangji rasped, “then don’t act so rashly next time.”
His hand ached to be pulled away. As always when in the presence of Wei Wuxian, it seemed that Lan Qiren’s voice lectured close to his ear. You mustn’t touch a kunze not yours under any circumstances. Not to hurt, not to own, not unless you are married.
Lan Wangji bit his lip. The swelling in his chest rested closer to his throat, flooding his mouth with acrid saliva. He made sure to spread the medicine evenly over Wei Wuxian’s burned flesh.
In the end Wei Wuxian was the one to break contact. He pushed Lan Wangji’s hand away with his wrist, saying, “There’s not much powder left now. You shouldn’t waste it.”
“My injuries are nothing. Your leg needs to be tended to properly.”
There was no time for any other protest. Wei Wuxian looked around himself briefly; then he unlaced the braces around his forearms, wincing when he moved the arm that the arrow had pierced, and threw them to the floor. He tore up the fabric of his sleeve with his teeth. Without asking for Lan Wangji’s permission, he then carefully grabbed his injured leg and proceeded to strap the braces to it.
“You’re so stubborn, Lan Zhan,” he muttered as he did it. “Now both of us are trapped and injured. You should have fled and gone back to Gusu.”
Lan Wangji’s heart ached. “There is nowhere to return to,” he replied.
Only ashes blackening the mountainside and the bare bones of Gusulan’s ancestral hall. Even the kunze house at the summit stood empty.
Wei Wuxian’s face showed no surprise at the news. “Is everyone all right?” he asked softly.
“My father is dying. My brother… is missing.”
Lan Wangji did not know what pushed him into saying it. Perhaps the heavy feeling of sorrow that had followed him since he and his uncle reached the house after the fire, or perhaps it was guilt, laid so thickly under his skin at the sight of the brandmark on Wei Wuxian’s chest. “The kunze,” he said, throat suddenly clogged. He grunted, metal and salt on his tongue. “We couldn’t—we couldn’t save them.”
Wei Wuxian looked at him in confusion.
Lan Wangji grabbed the fabric of his own collar with one shaking hand and said, “They choked on the smoke. They couldn’t get out.”
And suddenly he was the one choking.
It was as if he were back at the Cloud Recesses and watching men and women dressed in sun-embroidered clothes set fire everywhere. As if he were laid underneath Wen Xu’s foot, unable to move as his leg was broken, his brother gone and his father bleeding next to him. His uncle restrained at his back and mourning in plain sight.
They had trekked so slowly up the side of the mountain after all was over, Lan Qiren berating him for moving without the heart to actually stop him. Lan Wangji knew he had to see for himself.
He had never met the two kunze living in the blossom-scented house. He had never even seen them from afar. At all times of the day, the curtains at the windows were drawn, and only rarely could he glimpse firesmoke above the roof, proving that someone did live there. He saw them for the first time on the floor of that little house, embracing each other, almost peaceful-looking. One old woman, her face wrinkled and brown-dotted with age. One little girl in her arms with tear tracks on her soot-stained cheeks.
“—Zhan, Lan Wangji, breathe!”
I’m sorry, Lan Wangji thought over and over. He hadn’t stopped thinking it since watching his uncle kneel by the two bodies and cover their faces. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
There were hands on him, tugging open the collar of his uniform and pressing against his upper chest. Lan Wangji reeled back and grabbed Wei Wuxian’s wrists. “What are you doing?” he rasped, blood so thick on his tongue that there was no hope of swallowing it back now.
Wei Wuxian frowned at him. “You need to breathe,” he replied. He pressed his hands to Lan Wangji’s chest again, his warm fingers digging here and there on his skin to try and ease the way for air.
Lan Wangji felt cold all throughout. “Wei Ying,” he warned.
Then he coughed, and blood sprayed between the both of them, staining the white of his robes and flecking Wei Wuxian’s hands with red.
Wei Wuxian immediately drew back. Lan Wangji dropped his wrists and, for the first time in weeks, breathed in fully.
“There,” Wei Wuxian said. “The bad blood is out.”
Lan Wangji would have answered, if air had not felt so heavenly after so long inhaling smoke. His lungs swallowed mouthful after mouthful of it as if they had been starved for it all along.
Wei Wuxian smiled at him. “I’m sorry for touching you,” he said, and he sounded perfectly sincere. “I know you don’t like it. I will not embarrass you further.”
And for the rest of their time in that cave, Lan Wangji felt no embarrassment for being by his side.
Not for those days of darkness; not for the rest of their lives either.
For three days they saw neither head nor tail of the beast they lived with. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian practiced inedia, unwilling to approach the water for drinking or eating. Too much death had poisoned it. Much of that time was spent in silence, which Lan Wangji knew Wei Wuxian found tiring. He saw him walk around from the corner of his eyes. He saw him yawn, and lie down, and sit up, never still for more than two hours. Lan Wangji fell asleep at night with Wei Wuxian sitting some way; he woke up in the morning to find him somewhere else, in a different position, boredom painted over his face.
They seldom talked. Despite his wounds, Lan Wangji felt calmer than he had in a month. He focused his energy on healing his leg as quickly as he could, refusing at first to reapply the medicine until Wei Wuxian threatened to do it himself. On the other man’s chest, the brand stayed red and leaking.
Every hour of every day, honey covered the stench of the pond.
“I heard a tale,” Lan Wangji told Wei Wuxian, “of a monstrous tortoise who killed hundreds of cultivators. It hid in Qishan’s mountains and was never found again.”
“It’s just our luck,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning, “that we should be trapped here with the Xuanwu of Slaughter.”
Nothing seemed to deter his mood. Not his injuries, not the almost-certainty of death, not the knowledge that if word ever got out of he and Lan Wangji being locked together here, his reputation would suffer. Wei Wuxian smiled and hummed at odd hours of the day and night. He crafted fine objects out of broken bows and the dead’s torn clothes, showing the same eye for detail that he had once while painting Lan Wangji’s portrait.
If Lan Wangji closed his eyes and listened only to his voice, he could think himself back to those days in Gusu. He could feel the clean air of the Recesses wash over him. Light shivered on his skin from the library pavilion’s windows and spread goosebumps over his arms as Wei Wuxian brought down his certainties day after day.
He managed to walk on the second day, though he was limping badly. Without a word, he picked up the bowstrings that Wei Wuxian had preserved and tied them together end-to-end. When all of them were one string, he used one of his clan’s deadliest techniques to cut through stone.
Wei Wuxian applauded him. He sat for longer than usual after that, drawing figures into the ground and mumbling under his breath. Eventually, he shared a plan with Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji thought it incredibly dangerous; but he looked at the edge of despair in Wei Wuxian’s eyes, at his hands which spasmed by his sides in his hurry to move, and could not find the heart to refuse. They would die if they did nothing. They might as well die doing something.
He didn’t want Wei Wuxian to be unable to get out, too.
He woke up on the third day to an unfamiliar scent. Something earthly and incredibly strong that he had never smelled before, either on someone or in nature. He moved his head aside and blinked sleep out of his eyes; Wei Wuxian was sitting by the dying fire, a small pouch open in his hand, looking at it with a strange face.
He closed it when he noticed Lan Wangji looking. “Lan Zhan,” he greeted, putting the pouch inside his belt. Sweet honey once more came to Lan Wangji’s nostrils, making him breathe deeper and easier. “Today is our last day of waiting.”
“It is,” Lan Wangji replied, sitting up.
So they waited. Hour after hour stretched in the silence of the cave, only broken by a crackling ember or some ripple in the water. Wei Wuxian sat very still for once, blinking slowly from time to time, massaging his own neck. He looked as if he had not slept.
Finally, their time came. Wei Wuxian stood with awkward movements, wincing from some ache or another that Lan Wangji did not ask about. Silently, he took the long string that Lan Wangji had made out of the bows and approached the water. Lan Wangji could only watch as he climbed to the roof of the cave and prepared the trap that they had fashioned together. The whole time Wangji held his breath, afraid of seeing the other’s foot slip on the rock, of watching him fall to the water.
Wei Wuxian’s agility did not betray him. He jumped back to shore and rubbed his hands free of dirt, before grinning at Lan Wangji. “I’ll lure it out,” he called. “The formation is all ready.”
Lan Wangji nodded and replied, “Be careful.”
Wei Wuxian barely made a ripple when he dived into the pond.
From high up on his own rocky bluff, Lan Wanji waited. It seemed to him that he had never waited so long before; not when Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng had swam around looking for an exit days ago, and not either when his brother had run into the burning pavilion and never come out again. Only moments must have passed before the Xuanwu’s shell started shaking in the water, but to him, they felt like eons.
The tortoise did not emerge immediately. Some battle must be underway in the depths that Lan Wangji had no way of seeing, and his heart thrummed wildly in his chest as he imagined the worst. When the head of the beast broke out of the surface, roaring and shaking fiercely, there was no sign of Wei Wuxian.
He called his name again and again. With each time his hope seemed to fall even lower, and he was persuaded, as he ran to the edge of the cliff-like rock, that Wei Wuxian was dead. That his body must have sunk into the depth of the pool never to rise again. But then the Xuanwu growled, and something came out of the soft scale under its jaw. Red light poured from its wide-open mouth.
It was a kind of energy Lan Wangji had never felt before. Malicious and darker than night, it shrouded the cave and made its air unbreathable. For a moment he choked and thought himself back to the burning Recesses, afraid of opening his eyes and seeing Wen Xu’s cruel face looming over him. He forced himself to watch and recognize the gleaming blade in the tortoise’s neck for what it was.
“Wei Ying,” he let out.
The monster was too loud for him to listen for any answer, but it mattered very little. He knew who the hand gripping that sword’s handle from within the Xuanwu’s throat belonged to.
Lan Wangji set fire to the string. The Xuanwu roared, as afraid of the light now as it had been when Wei Wuxian held it at bay. It thrashed and screamed and tangled itself deeper in the trap that the both of them had set up. Lan Wangji pulled on the string till his fingers bled, tightening it round the monster’s throat right where the blade pierced its scales.
For hours he held on, and tugged and pulled until the skin of his hands was torn every way. He wrapped his fingers in cloth so that his blood may not slicken his hold, digging inch by inch into the beast’s neck, watching Wei Wuxian stab again and again from inside the monster.
Scales made way to muscles. Muscles made way to bones. Lan Wangji cut into the tortoise’s trachea with all the power left in him, voicing his own effort as he had never done before. He thought he must look as mad as tales said the Nie heirline did, choked by the resentful energy flooding the cave, edging far too close to qi deviation. With one last scream, he cut off the beast’s head.
It fell into the water with a deep splatter. Lan Wangji’s knees hit the ground and made his injured leg spasm with agony. He breathed as deeply as he could, sweat dripping down every inch of his skin, barely able to keep his eyes open.
Wei Wuxian did not surface.
“Wei Ying,” he said, dragging himself closer to shore. He gasped and swallowed and repeated, “Wei Ying!”
There was no sign of him anywhere. Lan Wangji found that despite his exhaustion and pain, he had room still in himself for fear; in a last stretch of energy, he jumped into the water.
It was so dark. So very cold and unwelcoming. Even with the beast’s death guaranteeing safety, the very touch of the pool around him was evil and unnatural. He felt something bright in his chest shiver, some last hint of warmth and life shriveling up and trying to pull away. He realized that it was his own golden core reeling from such darkness.
Finally, he saw him.
Wei Wuxian floated in the midst of diluted blood. His long hair flew every way around him. His eyes were closed. His open mouth let out no air.
Lan Wangji swam as fast as he could toward him.
He was so very heavy when Lan Wangji pulled him out of the water. So very still. There was no thought at all in his head to flee when he brought him close to the fire they had camped around all those days, no worry for propriety or status as he pushed him to his side and dug his fingers into the man’s back to try and expel all the water he must have swallowed.
It seemed an eternity later that Wei Wuxian coughed, an entire lifetime before he choked and vomited wetly onto the ground, his limp hair sticking to him, his eyes opening at last. Every breath out of his mouth came as a gargle. He shook from the cold like a wounded animal.
Lan Wangji sat him up against the rocky wall and took his hands back as if they had been burned. He saw that his own blood had stained Wei Wuxian’s clothes everywhere he had touched him, but he could only worry about Wei Wuxian’s half-awareness.
“Wei Ying,” he called. “Wei Ying—”
“I’m here,” Wei Wuxian said.
His voice was only a whisper, yet relief flooded Lan Wangji at the sound of it. “Do not sleep,” he ordered.
Wei Wuxian shuddered and mumbled, “Cold.”
There was nothing to keep him warm besides the fire. Lan Wangji crawled to the closest dead body, ignoring both the smell of rot and his own misgivings, and took the coat off of its back. Wei Wuxian only gazed distantly at him as he laid it over his shivering form.
“You mustn’t sleep,” Lan Wangji said again.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He seemed so tired. His scent was stronger as well, sweeter somehow, almost sickly so.
Before Lan Wangji could say anything, Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and murmured, “I’m sorry. I found no exit. It must have closed while that monster fought us.”
“Don’t apologize,” Lan Wangji replied.
Wei Wuxian smiled at him. The look of him was softer now than ever before; while drying, some of his hair curled around his lips, bleeding all of his rough edges away, drawing vulnerability out of him with every word. “I must inconvenience you again, Lan Zhan,” he said. “I’m truly sorry. I wanted us to escape before it happened.”
Lan Wangji did not understand what he meant. Wei Wuxian shivered, yet he was not pale anymore. Blood flushed his face and made sweat mix with the water still clinging to him. His hand trembled as it held onto the stolen coat. His next exhale came shakily.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I know you don’t want to see this. I don’t want you to see it either.”
He grunted softly, painfully.
Lan Wangji sat very still onto the cave floor. A memory from his childhood came unbidden to him: Lan Qiren gathering him and Lan Xichen from a spring day spent reading and telling them to get ready for departure. The soft warm wind on his face and hands as they traveled to Lanling, a banquet laid out before them where for the first time he met Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli. She had been holding her brother by the hand. Jiang Cheng was very small then.
“Welcome,” Jin Guangshan had greeted, “to the ceremony.”
A young man draped with silk and jewels sitting quietly by his clan leader’s side, admired by all, his sweet scent washing over the assembly. Men and women lined up before Jin Guangshan to admire him and make offers.
Lan Wangji’s hands settled onto his thighs. He resisted the urge to clutch them till his fingers dug through fabric and scratched blood out of his skin. He didn’t know what to say. He barely dared to breathe for fear of smelling Wei Wuxian—for fear of bringing him more shame.
What do you need? he should ask, but there was nothing he could give.
I will leave you, he should promise, but there was no way out.
“Don’t look at me,” Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji crawled backwards till his back hit a wall. He turned around to face it, feeling very distant from his own self. His leg hurt from his kneeling, yet he couldn’t bring himself to sit any other way. He feared that any movement from him would make Wei Wuxian look more afraid than he already did.
From time to time he heard a sigh, a whisper of discomfort. From time to time he forgot to breathe out of his mouth and felt honey on his tongue, as sweet and cloying as if he were eating it. Lan Wangji did not turn around no matter what he heard. He let Wei Wuxian fall into fever with warmth crawling up his own neck and sorrow filling his heart. He knew he should walk away; he knew he should find another nook of the cave to hide in, to guarantee Wei Wuxian privacy, but he found no heart to move, and to do so would not have lessened the damage.
He heard the sound of cloth a few hours later, a pained wheeze, a body hitting ground. Lan Wangji’s head turned sideways without thought, but Wei Wuxian snapped, “Don’t look at me.”
“Not looking,” Lan Wangji replied, facing the wall once more.
There was a silence. Then Wei Wuxian laughed, tense and foolish at once, as he always was.
Lan Wangji could not understand how he had ever thought this man to be carefree.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian called sleepily. “I can’t stay awake.”
“Do not sleep,” Lan Wangji ordered.
“You won’t do anything while I sleep, will you.”
There was such precaution in those words; such distrust, such evidence that Wei Wuxian believed he would not be listened to.
Lan Wangji bit his lip. His eyes heated and stung. “Don’t sleep,” he repeated.
Another silence, heavier than the first. Wei Wuxian sighed and said, “Then play me a song.”
There was nothing to play a song with. No guqin, no flute, no bamboo to carve out or deerskin to drum on. Lan Wangji still took the bloodstained length of bowstring out of his sleeve and stretched it between his belt and his cut-up fingers. They ached when he strummed it, and the sound was almost inaudible for lack of a body to echo in.
He played anyway.
Singing along helped him chase away the pain. His fingertips bled again within a few seconds, but Lan Wangji did not stop. He played and sang a melody he had started working on the night before Gusu had burned and any trace of it had turned to ash. He found that he still recalled enough of it to make it anew. To make it better.
Wei Wuxian sang along with him when he caught on to the tune. His voice was clear and elegant despite how tired and pained he was. Sometimes he simply followed Lan Wangji’s voice; sometimes he went away on his own, turning the song into something entirely new.
There was no sound inside the cave aside from them. Only the dripping water, the quiet noise of the strings, and their voices mingling till Wei Wuxian lost consciousness.
Jiang Fengmian found them four days later.
With every day that passed, Wei Wuxian’s state had gotten worse. Lan Wangji could hear him cough, dehydrated and fevered, every few minutes. At first he woke from time to time and requested a song; after the third day came, he did not wake at all.
Lan Wangji understood for the first time in his life what helplessness felt like.
He was still looking at the same piece of wall when the sound of shattering rocks came to him. He had not moved from that place except to keep the fire going, exhausting all the talismans he could find on the dead bodies around them for the sake of keeping Wei Wuxian warm. Not once did he look at him directly. Not once did he touch him, even to check on the fever. The sound of his continued breathing would have to be enough.
The body of the beast had started rotting too by the time a way in was cleared. Lan Wangji was too tired to move and help; instead he watched torchlight bounce off of the Xuanwu’s shell, and shadows move deeper through the gallery, until Jiang Fangmian and his son appeared before his eyes.
They coughed at the stench and put their sleeves over their noses. They looked wildly around, strikingly similar in their manners. They found Lan Wangji kneeling by the wall and looking at them quietly, and Jiang Cheng’s face lit up at the sight of him.
He approached and started, “Where is—” before stopping abruptly.
He must have smelled it too.
His face turned pale, then red, then pale again. The eyes which had brightened with hope at the sight of Lan Wangji now burned with outrage.
“You,” he seethed, wordless in his anger. “You—”
Lan Wangji said nothing. He deserved any insult, any punishment they chose to impart upon him.
Jiang Fengmian was silent. He walked carefully toward where Wei Wuxian lay, crouching by his side, no doubt checking over his state. Lan Wangji dared not look for fear of seeing Wei Wuxian’s face and betraying his word.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Fengmian called, “bring young master Lan back to the Cloud Recesses. Make sure his wounds are tended on the way.”
Jiang Cheng looked as though he had been stabbed. “Father!” he exclaimed. “Father, you can’t just let him go!”
Jiang Fengmian met Lan Wangji’s eyes, then. He was still crouching over the ground; still holding one hand over Wei Wuxian’s blanketed form.
“Lan Wangji,” he said. “You will go home, and you will speak of this to no one. Not your uncle, not your brother when he is found. My son will also keep quiet and not harm you. This must stay between the four of us.” He hesitated for a second before nodding his head, one hand pressed over his heart. “If you do this, consider me in your debt.”
Jiang Cheng’s shock was almost palpable. He dared not protest while his father was bowing, however.
Lan Wangji found the strength to nod back. He put a hand over his own chest; the scabs on his fingers itched and ached when he spread them.
There was no gentleness to Jiang Cheng when he picked Lan Wangji up from the ground. No bigger contrast could be made between how he held Lan Wangji and how his father held Wei Wuxian, cradling him as gently as one would porcelain. Lan Wangji followed him out of the cave silently, accepting Jiang Fengmian’s help in climbing out before putting one arm around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders for support. Jiang Cheng gripped his waist and wrist harshly.
“I won’t forget this,” he promised lowly—too lowly for his father to hear. “You are indebted to us, Lan Wangji. You will never approach Wei Wuxian again.”
Then he looked back toward his father. Lan Wangji followed his gaze tiredly.
Jiang Fengmian’s sword was unsheathed. It was hard to discern his scent against the backdrop of forest and winter, but Lan Wangji thought he could find it anyway. Too earthly and too wet. Like the aftermath of a storm.
With careful hands, the man held Wei Wuxian against him and stepped onto the blade. Purple light glowed out of the metal as they rose; without another word, they both disappeared high above the mountain.
Of Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji only saw black hair flowing from the crook of the man’s arm.