and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Lan Sizhui had never seen Jin Ling in a fouler mood.
They had come out of the misty, grim streets of Yi City hours ago, and since then the Jin sect heir had done nothing but spit vitriol at whatever stood in his way. Pebbles on the path, the quality of the food at the inn they went back too. A patch of black-rotted wood on the wall. Lan Jingyi’s insistence to stay with them both rather than lie down and rest.
There was care there, of course—Sizhui was not so blind as not to notice the glaring crush that Jin Ling had sported for Jingyi for years now. But he thought, through his own worry, that the boy’s anger had more to do with other things for once.
Mo Xuanyu had yet to rejoin them, and Hanguang-Jun was nowhere to be found.
Although Lan Sizhui had not seen Lan Wangji in the company of Mo Xuanyu, he had no doubt that the man must be closeby. To leave a kunze unattended was akin to letting a toddler roam, after all, and though Sizhui fully believed Hanguang-Jun had no care at all for those underlying social rules, he did not think his mentor would willingly leave alone the man he had decided to accompany on that mysterious trip of theirs.
Anxiousness ate at his throat and made him look around the street with every blink. Next to him, Jin Ling was furiously monologuing once more.
“I could’ve taken that man,” he seethed. He was sitting close to Lan Jingyi, whom he glanced at periodically in frustration. “That rabid corpse was nothing. Mo Xuanyu can barely be called a cultivator—how dare he order us to leave like that? He’ll be much less arrogant once I tell Little Uncle about what he’s been doing, hah.”
“He knew how to fix the corpse-poisoning,” Jingyi replied in the voice of those at the brink of a yell.
“Anyone knows this!”
“Then why didn’t you?”
And so on.
It would have been entertaining under any other circumstance. As it was, Sizhui could not chase from his mind the sight of that kunze man falling from the blown roof like a demon from the stories: ill-looking, devil-eyed, his blunt and bloody sword in hand. He found very little humor in his juniors’ bickering.
Mo Xuanyu had been bleeding, he could not help but recall. Only a few scratches, a gash on the right hand and a cut over his face, but he had been unarmed. He had only carried that unsightly bamboo flute at his hip, and Sizhui doubted that such an instrument would suffice to face the madman and the fierce corpse accompanying him.
He bit his lips. The skin there was raw already.
The words were out of his mouth before he could help it: “Will he be fine?”
The other two’s spat quieted.
They were the only three to remain out of the group in Yi City; Ouyang Zizhen had led his shidi on the road toward home, and Jin Ling’s fellow disciples were gone, too. It was not difficult to guess why Jin Ling himself had elected to stay behind.
“Are you worried for Mo Xuanyu?” Jingyi asked in surprise.
“I am. I shouldn’t have left him alone…”
But Mo Xuanyu, who had never looked at Lan Sizhui with anything other than dismissive contempt on his face, had trusted him to lead them all to safety. And since meeting him, Sizhui had found himself hoping for the man’s attention and approval.
He could not explain why.
“So what if he dies,” said Jin Ling, although his voice was much less certain now.
“You are such a—”
Lan Jingyi interrupted himself, no doubt haunted by master Qiren’s frequent sermoning.
He turned to Sizhui. With one of his self-assured grins, he told him, “He’ll be fine. He was fine in Mo Village, wasn’t he? And he came out of Dafan mountain without a scratch, according to sect leader Jiang.”
Jin Ling grumbled something along the lines of, Even Uncle cares about this moron. Lan Sizhui smiled feebly at Jingyi and went back to watching the dark road.
Night had come opaque and heavy. Signs of an oncoming storm hovered around the three of them, in the scent of raindrops, in the uncomfortable, humid warmth. Yi City had been cold and dry; the village neighboring it seemed to be sinking into dampness. Lan Sizhui could feel his robes sticking to the skin of his back. Jin Ling had already complained twice about sitting outside the inn rather than within it, where at least the walls would soak up some of the wet air.
Then: “They’re here!” Lan Jingyi exclaimed.
Sizhui was on his feet before even understanding the words.
Hanguang-Jun emerged out of the fog like a ray of moonglow; his uniform spotted with dirt and his hair in disarray, yet still walking with grace and light. Behind him, Mo Xuanyu followed.
He seemed none the worse for wear. Sizhui’s shoulders fell out of a tension he had not even noticed till then.
“Senior Mo,” he called, walking hurriedly toward them. “Are you fine? Are you injured?”
Mo Xuanyu, who had been looking distantly ahead, gave him a brief glance. Next to him, Hanguang-Jun stopped in his steps brusquely.
It was an unusual sight, but not one Lan Sizhui cared to wonder about right then. Instead he let his eyes roam over Mo Xuanyu’s rumpled clothes and looked for a trace of blood or bruising.
“Stop that,” Mo Xuanyu said, waving at his face until Sizhui had to step back and look up. “I’m not any shidi of yours. How’s Lan Jingyi?”
Sizhui bit down the disappointment that Mo Xuanyu’s once-more harsh voice brought out of him. He had thought…
“Jingyi is fine,” he made himself reply. “He’s waiting just back there…”
Without another word—or look—his way, Mo Xuanyu walked past his side in the direction of the inn. In the distance, Lan Sizhui saw him bend over Lan Jingyi and ask him again to stick out his tongue, which Jingyi did after some muttered, angry comment.
Mo Xuanyu knocked at Jingyi’s temple lightly with his knuckles. Jingyi rose from the bench he was sitting on and addressed some unintelligible words of protest to the man, who smiled at him briefly.
Looking from afar, one could have believed them to be siblings, thought Sizhui bitterly. It was as if Mo Xuanyu’s disdainful attitude only lifted in the presence of his shidi.
No, not just his shidi: he was talking to Jin Ling now, who was by all appearances spitting nasty words at his face.
“Sizhui,” came Hanguang-Jun’s soft voice.
Sizhui had to force himself to look away.
Hanguang-Jun was standing next to him in silence, his eyes directed as well toward the group ahead of them; and his face was not the usual mask of composure he showed to all around, but rather a tense and worried one.
There was a crease at his brow. Lan Sizhui had never seen him look like this before.
“Hanguang-Jun?” he called.
Lan Wangji replied only after a moment of silence. “You’ve met him already?” he asked. “That man. Mo Xuanyu.”
“I have. We met during Jingyi’s first hunt in Mo Village. I told you about him, Hanguang-Jun, do you not remember?”
Hanguang-Jun’s lips thinned. He tore his eyes away from the sight before them to stare at Sizhui instead.
“He was the one who thought to use our uniforms to gain some time before you arrived, Hanguang-Jun,” Sizhui told him. “He commented on Jingyi’s talismans too, said the calligraphy wasn’t sure enough. Jingyi has been very grumpy about it.”
It was unlike Hanguang-Jun to simply forget such a thing. Yet he was looking down now in this somber and worried expression, and his hand, Sizhui noticed, was gripping Bichen’s pommel tightly.
“Hanguang-Jun…” Sizhui hazarded. He cleared his throat. “I don’t think he likes me very much, if you are worried about, ah, Jingyi and I being in his company… But he cured Jingyi in Yi City a while ago—Jingyi had caught corpse-poisoning—he’s been helping us, I don’t think he is a bad person…”
His voice faded away. Rather than assuaging Hanguang-Jun’s worries, Sizhui’s words seemed to have made him frown more deeply. He was looking at the front of the inn again, now, that oddly mournful look painting his face once more.
“I know he is a good person,” was all he said.
And he gave Lan Sizhui something like a hesitant grab at the shoulder, which was stronger and shakier than his usual—and rare—displays of affection; and the weight of his gaze was hesitant and sorrowful, in the way one looked at keepsakes of dead loved ones.
Lan Sizhui followed in Hanguang-Jun’s steps as they rejoined the front of the inn, where Jin Ling seemed to be pouting once more and Jingyi’s face looked to have regained color. Mo Xuanyu ignored him entirely; he nodded to Hanguang-Jun, gave Jingyi another knuckle-knock at the temple, and simply stepped into the house, Lan Wangji behind him.
“Weirdo,” Lan Jingyi mumbled. He was rubbing at his temple as if the playful hit had been enough to hurt him. Sizhui turned away, his cheeks burning with the shame of feeling so jealous over a simple touch. “Why do we keep running into him? I thought he was one of your uncles,” Jingyi was saying now, glaring at Jin Ling. “What is he doing, walking around with Hanguang-Jun?”
“I have enough uncles,” Jin Ling barked at him, “I don’t need this one.”
“Easy to say when two of them are sect leaders…”
Jin Ling blushed to the root of his brown hair. “At least I have uncles,” he spat, and then fell as silent as a tomb.
Lan Jingyi only took a few seconds to recover from what Sizhui knew to be a sensitive topic. After the visible swallow he took to chase away his upset, he sat down on the bench again. He played with the rim of his empty teacup and looked resolutely away.
Next to him, Jin Ling seemed not to know where to look or what to say.
Sizhui sighed. Even his usual annoyance toward the Jin sect heir evaded him whimsically. “You should rest,” he told Jingyi, who was now restraining a yawn. “We have a long trip ahead tomorrow.”
“You’re right,” Lan Jingyi replied.
Jin Ling did have something to say to that. “Why do you agree with him when he says it and not me?” he complained.
“Because Sizhui isn’t an idiot.”
Sizhui looked away tiredly, deciding to let the back-and-forth sparks of voices that followed slide over him unheard.
The inn was deserted as they made their way upstairs. Any guest was long asleep, and there was no tenant in sight to wait on tipsy clients. Sizhui had already taken the keys to the rooms he had bought for the night; he gave one to Jingyi as they reached the end of the creaking hallway of the first floor.
“They must be lovers,” Jin Ling said suddenly.
Jingyi coughed loudly. Sizhui took a moment to understand what Jin Ling had meant, and then turned to face him abruptly, his cheeks burning.
“What are you talking about?” he whispered angrily.
“Mo Xuanyu and Lan Wangji,” Jin Ling replied, shameless. The two men must have rooms of their own somewhere along this same hallway, and yet the boy seemed not to care at all that his voice may be heard. “What?” he let out next, seeing how they were both staring. “Why else would Lan Wangji just walk around with a kunze?”
“Hanguang-Jun,” Lan Jingyi said through his teeth, “would never be so unmannerly. He would make their union proper—”
“You are so old-fashioned—”
“You’re the one who keeps calling senior Mo ‘kunze’ rather than using his name!”
“Whatever you think,” barked Jin Ling, doing away with murmurs altogether. “I’m the one who knows him best. Mo Xuanyu was always acting like a little coward and a sham of a disciple, how else would he get Hanguang-Jun’s attention?”
“Enough,” Sizhui snapped.
He must have been harsher than he meant to. Both boys fell silent at once and looked at him with wide eyes.
Sizhui was not one for moodiness. He was never one to bite out words or raise his voice, and never to Jingyi in particular; but now, in the middle of the shadows, with the past hours’ fatigue pushing down on his back, he could not care anymore for poise.
He only knew that his insides were twisting, hearing Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling discuss Mo Xuanyu’s status behind his back thusly… and remembering in ever-bitter ache that in spite of their rudeness, they were the ones Mo Xuanyu chose to acknowledge.
He shoved away the jealousy. “This isn’t appropriate at all,” he told Jin Ling, who scoffed in irritation and turned his back to him. “None of this is our business. Jingyi, you need rest, let’s go to bed now.”
At least Lan Jingyi showed some shame: he bent the head with high-flushed cheeks and entered his bedroom.
Lan Sizhui did the same without another word.
He washed himself with cold water. The evening’s dampness stuck to him like sap to the bark of an old tree, and no matter how long he rinsed away the sweat at his back and belly, the discomfort remained. He opened the window to try and call in any moving air. He allowed in the moths which came to burn themselves on the oil lamp set on the bedside table.
He lay down on the scratchy bedcover with the smell of their deaths filling his nose, trying to find any comfortable position over the wooden frame. A mattress squeezed between it and his back, barely thicker than two sheets superposed, and his shoulders and neck stung at the awkward bend of the pillow. He watched the blackened ceiling shake in the flame’s flickering light.
Angry, shameful thoughts swarmed through his chest and kept slumber at bay.
He was remembering the three meetings it had taken for Mo Xuanyu to remember his name, his fleeting glances and dismissive words, the sight of his turned back, which Sizhui knew better than that of his face. With a sharp twist in the belly, he heard again the accusations that Mo Xuanyu had leveled against him in that decrepit kitchen.
You think he belongs to you.
At the time, he had not thought of anything more than his righteous indignation. He had never thought of Lan Jingyi in such a way, after all, and never before been accused of it either. Even sect leader Jiang hadn’t thought so lowly of him when he had warned him in Dafan. Now, however, a different sort of anger was coming to a boil.
Wasn’t Mo Xuanyu unfair in his assumptions? It was clear to see that he disliked the presence of any qianyuan; he had shown it without care in that inn in Dafan, and expressed no remorse at all for the death of Mo Ziyuan, after all. His qianyuan aunt and cousin must have tormented him. Sizhui still did not know for sure whether Mo Xuanyu had been forced to live locked up—but he had seen the little shack as he flew away from the village, and Hanguang-Jun next to him had given it a glance as well. It had been built with no windows.
Qianyuan and zhongyong were held in similar disdain in the eyes of Mo Xuanyu. And yet Mo Xuanyu had comforted that qianyuan girl in Yi City, holding her hands and speaking soothingly to her, feeding her the congee he had made for Jingyi. He seemed at ease in Hanguang-Jun’s presence in spite of the unmistakable smell of sandalwood following him. He spoke freely, if sparsely, to Jin Ling. He had answered Ouyang Zizhen’s questions without turning his eyes away.
Envy now rolled up Lan Sizhui’s throat like sickness. He found that swallowing was difficult and painful; he sat up on the bed, sweat once more clinging to his back and armpits, and now the smell of petrichor had overcome that of the burning insects.
Outside of the open window, a bolt of lightning broke apart the covered sky; three seconds later, the growl of thunder shook along the roads and empty fields around.
Sizhui walked out of the bedroom in careful steps. Although the old floor of the inn groaned under his weight, no one around seemed to notice. Only a quaint line of candlelight brushed overwood, coming out of the slit between door and floorboards from another occupied room. He guided himself with it till he reached the uneven stairs, and climbed down the rest of the way with his hands patting the walls blindly.
There was no rain yet when he arrived outside, but the air was thick with the smell of it, and the clouds above ripe with the gods’ furor. They would not be long to tear open. Sizhui made his way far out of the inn and toward the path he had walked on earlier while fleeing from Yi City.
Fleeing, he thought, bitter. Perhaps that was why Mo Xuanyu seemed to despise the sight of him: he had fled and left him behind to face that man alone, and none among the young disciples he had led out of the haunted town had offered to aid him. Even Sizhui had not insisted after the first refusal.
The puerile, exhilarating urge to prove Mo Xuanyu’s trust in him right had overcome the sensible part of him. Lan Sizhui felt more childish as he realized this than he had been the first time master Qiren had chided him.
He scowled at the deserted path before him for a second longer, and then turned on his heels.
And startled at the sight of someone standing a few feet away.
“Ah!” he let out before his brain caught up with his body.
Sizhui breathed in harshly, warm in the cheeks and heart beating wildly. The figure standing in front of him did not seem to mind that he was so flustered; indeed they did not move at all.
They were dressed in black from head to toe. Thick and frayed robes swallowing their arms past the tips of their fingers, a piece of dark cloth wound around the lower half of their face. What little should be seen above it was hidden in the shadow of a straw hat.
There was no way to figure out their age, and Sizhui tried to feel the scent of them to no avail; nothing emerged out of them save for a sudden chill in the air. As if this person were a spirit rather than a human.
For a moment, he wondered if perhaps this was another of the haggard corpses which had pullulated the empty streets of Yi City. But then the shadow—person—moved, an awkward step forward and an awkward step back. The motion seemed too willful to belong to a lost dead body.
Sizhui hesitated; he called, “Hello?”
The figure did not answer.
“Are you lost?” Although the person was still once more, and showing no sign at all of aggression or acknowledgement, the beats of Sizhui’s heart remained strong and quick. He told them, “There is a village a little way forward, with an inn… Um, you should not continue in this direction.” He gestured to the path behind him with a weak hand. “The city there is infested with woken corpses…”
But no matter how he broke the silence, the chill would not leave his skin.
The person moved again. A breath escaped them, an oddly sonorous and deep one, wheezing enough to be worrying.
They lifted their head. Under the edge of the straw hat, two pale eyes shone like moons, and the skin surrounding them was as white as undyed silk.
Another breath, and the figure said: “I’m sorry,” in as rough and raspy a voice as their respiration was. As if they had not used their throat and lungs in years.
Before Sizhui could say anything more, the person stepped backwards, and ran out of sight with such speed that they seemed to disappear entirely in the dark and heavy shadows of the night.
If Lan Wangji was tired of holding Wei Wuxian’s hand, he showed no sign of it. He grasped it now with the same kind strength as he had so long ago—hours ago, ages ago, he could not have said—when Wei Wuxian broke into sobs before him.
Wei Wuxian’s palm was clammy now in the damp air of pre-storm. Sliding along Lan Wangji’s skin with every shake of his shoulders, trembling uncontrollably through every breath he took. And yet Lan Wangji never let go of it. He fit to it with the same gentle hold no matter how it moved, and waited patiently, silently, for Wei Wuxian to calm down.
Wei Wuxian was calm now. With the release of his tears had come another relief: an emptiness in the chest and belly. The lifting of a weight so familiar that he had not been able to tell that it was there at all.
He looked up, blinking through the nostalgic haze which followed all sobbing, feeling somehow like a child once more. As if he had just broken something in the Lotus Pier and needed to hide somewhere and shake, preparing himself for Madam Yu’s rage.
Lan Wangji was not looking at him.
The realization was akin to disappointment; why was Lan Wangji not looking at him, but observing their wet hands instead? It was not until the memory of himself asking the man so—Don’t look at me—returned to him that Wei Wuxian’s shoulders loosened up.
“I’m sorry,” he managed to say. “You can—you can look up now.”
Although he was probably an unsightly mess now, with dried blood at his temple and tear tracks over his lips and chin.
Lan Wangji obeyed him. Their eyes met without so much as a sign of distress or embarrassment on the other man’s face; slowly, carefully, he extracted his hand. Wei Wuxian found that he was the one clinging this time. He let go with an odd, palpable reluctance.
“Are you feeling better?” Lan Wangji asked softly.
It did not even sound as if the silence around was broken. The sounds of the young cultivators’ footsteps and mumbled conversation had long died; in the choking stillness around, Lan Wangji’s voice carried like socked feet on a mat-covered floor.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replied.
It was the truth. He had not felt this calm since waking up in Mo Xuanyu’s body so many weeks ago.
“I—Yes,” he said again. His surprise was audible even to his own ears. He gave Lan Wangji a weak smile; and the one he was given back made his chest warm, his heart louder. “I feel much better.”
“You had not allowed yourself to let go yet.”
Those words should have made Wei Wuxian angry. He had no need of anyone dictating how he should feel. Instead they tore a rough laugh out of him. “No,” he replied, “I suppose not.” He rubbed the salt and flecks of blood off of his face, taking a moment to inhale deeply. His right hand was still warm with the touch of another’s skin. “I’m sorry for showing you such a spectacle.”
“No need for apologies,” Lan Wangji said, looking away.
But he did not look embarrassed.
The quiet that followed was oddly soothing. Wei Wuxian’s chest still seemed lighter and freer; each intake of air came more easily than the one previous. He let himself look around for the first time since entering the room, observing the rough bed in the corner, the now-cold tea on the table between them, the black and thick clouds outside hiding the moonlight from their sight.
There were two brown jars by Lan Wangji’s elbow.
“Is that liquor?” he asked.
Lan Wangji nodded.
“Give it to me.”
There were things simmering in him still. Words caught to his palate, words he had not had time to let out before the sobs caught up to him—after he had said, “There was a child in Yiling.”
There was a child in Yiling. There had been a child in Yiling. No matter how many miles he walked through the empty country paths, how many haunted cities he crossed, how many distractions he found on the way; Wei Wuxian could not avoid the truth any longer.
I did not pity you when I learned about that child.
Xue Yang’s desperate voice had not left him for a second.
He opened one of the jars quickly, faintly noticing that his cup was one Lan Wangji had pushed toward him a second before he filled it. He drank it in one gulp, the sour wine in it barely strong enough to be tasted, and poured another one.
This one heated on his tongue. It descended along his throat and chest warmly.
Wei Wuxian clenched his teeth. He tightened his grip on the jar shakily, spilling drops of the wine over the tabletop.
He said, “I’ve never told this to anyone. In this life.”
Lan Wangji watched him. Silent, open, his presence alone as soothing as the sound of a stream traversing lush green woods.
“Maybe not to anyone at all,” he continued. There was a vibration in his mouth now: the words rushing out of him and leaving behind an ache. “Wen Qing knew, but I never had to tell her. She was the one who—”
But those words were not ones he knew how to say yet.
Wei Wuxian swallowed. The languid taste of the wine caught at the back of his tongue. “I must not make sense to you,” he went on tiredly. “I’m sorry.”
No more, no less.
What do you understand? part of him wanted to ask. That I broke the laws in more than simple acts of revolt? That I was as licentious as people accused me of being?
That the child was mine? That I never wanted it, that I abandoned it as soon as it was born?
Wei Wuxian had been guilty of many things throughout his life—whether this one or the first—and this should have been the greatest guilt of them all. The one to obscure all others and truly paint him as a monster. But as he sat in the bloodpool cave for years, as he traveled across the lands and destroyed silken prisons, he had never let it affect him.
There had been no regret. Not even for one day. There would have been no regret, no guilt, even if Wen Qing had left the child to die in the freezing winter as he had hoped she would. He had heard Wen Yuan’s cries of laughter or sorrow, seen him crawl and walk and run like an eternal spot of blindness at the corner of his eyes, and never had it elicited in him anything other than revulsion.
He had wished the child had not lived at all. He still wished so. Yet so many years had passed since he had lost everything, and the child was dead now, but Wei Wuxian could find no relief in this knowledge at all.
Wen Yuan still hovered around him: a glimpse of something ever-evading his gaze, a shrill of laughter over the wind; the smart shine of grey eyes on a stranger’s face.
Wei Wuxian’s laughter was brittle this time. The hand which was still warm from Lan Wangji’s hold came to dig into the skin of his belly, where Mo Xuanyu was much fuller than Wei Wuxian had ever been. “What right do I have to cry about this?” he asked no one at all. “As if I could ever mourn him. As if I wanted to. He is…”
“He’s better off dead,” he finished. “They all are. There was no point in freeing them if I did not have the strength to keep them safe to the end.”
This was the greatest guilt of all.
Here, he thought in expected sorrow, looking once more at Lan Wangji’s face and finding it wrinkled with unease. I knew even you could not remain accepting of such words.
Lan Wangji must know his earlier mistake, now. Wei Wuxian had never been, could never be, of the same spirit as the wonderful Lan Jingyi.
He wanted to lighten the air now and speak of something else, but Lan Wangji beat him to it.
“Wei Ying,” he said.
His lips remained parted for a second in a rare show of hesitance. The crease on his forehead had not smoothened at all.
Lan Wangji closed his mouth. He reached for the scabbard of his sword in an almost-violent way, looking at Wei Wuxian and then away, before releasing it slowly. At last, he said: “Wei Ying, there is something I should…”
He seemed so tense that Wei Wuxian felt the ridiculous urge to reach out with his hand and stroke his cheek with a finger placatingly.
“I…” Lan Wangji struggled so visibly now. The warmth had ebbed out of his face and left only pale skin and a sheen of damp sweat behind. “I… I should tell you…”
“What is it?” Wei Wuxian asked.
He tried to keep his voice soft to ease Lan Wangji’s obvious plight. But, if anything, his words seemed to heighten the man’s anguish.
“It’s fine,” he found himself saying now, and although his fingers did not come to cup Lan Wangji’s face, they did seek the man’s hand. He squeezed it. “You don’t have to say anything. I know I was cruel.”
“No,” Lan Wangji replied immediately.
But he took his hand back slowly.
Wei Wuxian nodded. He had expected so. He drank another cup of the liquor, seeking the haze of inebriation to forget all that he had said. All that he had thought. Drink after drink the phantom weight of Wen Yuan dissipated, until Wei Wuxian was dazed enough to forget all manners and lift the second jar toward Lan Wangji in askance.
He was not yet drunk enough that the sight of the man lifting his own cup in return did not surprise him.
He was careful as he poured the wine for him: Lan Wangji welcoming alcohol was such a weird idea that he almost believed himself to be dreaming. But his liquor-weakened hand was shaking a little, and the wine spilled over their fingers coldly, securing the knowledge that he was not asleep.
He watched almost in avidity as Lan Wangji swallowed the wine. Not a drop of it escaped out of his lips or out of the cup, as he was so well-raised in all of his table manners, yet the man rubbed his lips anyway once he was done. He was grimacing.
Wei Wuxian chuckled. “All those rules you tried to engrave in my brain,” he told him, “and here you are. Drinking wine at night in a kunze’s bedroom. I think Lan Qiren would faint of a heart attack if he could see you now.”
“He would be too busy scowling at you,” Lan Wangji replied evenly, and another laugh rippled out of Wei Wuxian in surprise.
He expected Lan Wangji to recoil once he lifted the jar again; but although his cheeks were warmer now, he accepted a second cup and drank it slowly.
This seemed to be his limit in holding liquor. After the third, he started swaying visibly on his knees. His face was entirely flushed; his eyelids fluttered to chase the inescapable pull of sleep. He lowered the cup to the table too forcefully, and the little bowl of undrunk tea before him bent sideways and spilled.
Wei Wuxian smiled when Lan Wangji made as if to take hold of the jar once more. “I think you’ve had enough,” he said, setting the half-empty jar on the floor by his leg. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you are truly full of surprises. You should have let me share the Emperor’s smile with you when we were children.”
Lan Wangji looked as if he had noticed the absence of the jar at all. He was staring at his raised arm in surprise, perhaps wondering foggily what he had meant to reach for at all. He ended up grabbing Wei Wuxian by the wrist slowly and awkwardly, bending over the table and dragging his white sleeve through the spilled tea. He left his hand there. The tense line of his jaw eased.
“I should put you to bed,” Wei Wuxian wondered aloud, allowing the touch without thought. “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
He turned his wrist around to lessen the strain of the hold. All Lan Wangji did was wrap his palm more solidly around it, his thumb brushing over the blue veins there as if to read their pulse.
Wei Wuxian rested his chin over his other hand, his elbow solidly planted on the table, and watched him attentively. Lan Wangji had not touched his hair at all, yet it looked to be in disarray. The white ribbon on his forehead had crooked on one side. It seemed he had not walked out of Yi City with his robes quite as immaculate as they had been at the start of the day: Wei Wuxian was now seeing spots of dirt at his collar, and a few brown streaks of blood on Bichen’s pristine scabbard.
But he still looked beautiful. He was still as ethereal as he had been that day in Lanling, appearing out of the sky like a piece of detached cloud taking the shape of a man. He was always like this, both in Wei Wuxian’s memories and now, drunken under the candle-glow—a painting of a person, outlined by ink-strokes so delicate that to unroll the scroll he was set to should be done with breath withheld; for to damage such an art piece would be a crime of the spirit.
“How can you not be married?” Wei Wuxian asked softly.
This was a former heir of the Gusulan sect. A qianyuan raised by the greatest masters of cultivation. A man so beautiful that Wei Wuxian, who had long let go of his love for painting, wanted to sit in front of him and press the shape of him to paper every time he looked at him.
He should be married already; he should have walked up the sloping path of the Cloud Recesses, dressed in red, his reflection in the koi ponds blinding all guests standing around. He should have bowed thrice in front of his elders. And if not married, then admired and followed, with hoards of lovesick youths walking into his steps in reverence.
Wei Wuxian’s free hand let the weight of his chin go. He lowered it to Lan Wangji’s, still curled around his other wrist, his fingers brushing over the back of it just close enough to feel its warmth.
Then he took hold of it and freed his wrist from Lan Wangji’s grasp. “Come on,” he told him, forcing a smile through the heat suddenly gathered in his chest, “let’s get you to bed.”
Lan Wangji followed him with his eyes as he walked around the table, his wet lips open over heated breathing; he groaned when Wei Wuxian took hold of his elbow and pulled him to his feet. Equilibrium escaped him as he tried to step forward, and Wei Wuxian had to grab him around the waist to keep him upright. He walked the few steps separating the table from the bed like this. The side of his body plastered to Lan Wangji’s felt like a solid flame.
He could not chase off this feeling of disquiet, these hurried beats of the heart, no matter how evenly he breathed. He broke the silence to try and lessen them— “Here you go,” he said, lowering Lan Wangji to the bed—but they never did lessen. He pulled off Lan Wangji’s boots and felt his throat constrict. He chased the man’s hair out of his slack face and felt his fingers burn.
Now Lan Wangji was laid before him, mute and dizzy with alcohol, and Wei Wuxian could do nothing but stand by him and watch.
It was an effort to move and take hold of the blanket folded by Lan Wangji’s feet. He spread it over him, feeling the odd need to stretch and adjust the sheets until no wrinkles showed. After a breath of hesitation, he pulled Lan Wangji’s hands from under the blanket and crossed them across his chest.
Before he could step back, Lan Wangji grasped his hand once more.
The contact came with yet another jolt of Wei Wuxian’s heart. But although Lan Wangji was looking at him and blinking his ink-dark eyelashes, he said nothing. He dragged Wei Wuxian’s hand up and up; until he could push the back of it against the scorching skin of his face.
Then he opened his mouth and whispered, “Cool.”
Wei Wuxian could hardly breathe.
He remembered suddenly the sight of Lan Wangji kneeling before his naked leg, letting his fingers trail over black stains to check for injury. The warm glide of skin on skin, the lifted weight of a limb, as Lan Wangji’s hand fit into the fold of calf and thigh.
And deeper, deeper still, mist and shadow gnawed at his mind. Memories frayed and lost running out of his reach. Cold rain and freezing mud, searing pain through the stomach, the taste of blood and vomit. A still body against his that he could not help but grab onto; and the bone-breaking effort of standing up by leaning his weight on a slippery sword, his legs shaking, his heart broken beyond repair.
Breathlessness and gutlessness, like a fish out of water slowly choking on air.
But try as he might to remember, Wei Wuxian could not. Sight and sound escaped him like tendrils of smoke. He touched with his index the loose side of Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon, and all that he could smell for sure was sandalwood, and all that he could see clearly was orange light glistening on pale skin.
Lan Wangji’s hold tightened in warning.
Wei Wuxian found his voice: “It’s untied,” he said. “Let me fix it for you.”
He thought the man would refuse. Lan Wangji was never one to allow such touches while sober, no matter what liquor brought out of him. But Lan Wangji’s hand loosened its hold around Wei Wuxian’s, and he was the one to lift the head and reach to the back of his skull to tug the ribbon loose entirely.
He folded it in two. He looked at Wei Wuxian again. He grabbed his hand and placed the ribbon in his palm, closing Wei Wuxian’s fingers around it with his own, and said, “Keep it.”
“Aren’t you supposed to wear it at all times?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Lan Wangji closed his eyes and let sleep take him at last. “Keep it,” he repeated with the last dregs of consciousness.
And so Wei Wuxian did.
He could not have told how he found his way to the other room Lan Wangji had reserved. He was now sitting on the rough bed of it, the white ribbon still held in hand, his thoughts all over the place. There was nothing now to light the place for him, as he had not bothered to set the candles aflame. The blackness of outside was the same within. Wei Wuxian’s eyes could barely make out the shape of his own body.
His fingers stroked the ribbon over and over again. The sour taste of the liquor had gone and left him parched for something that was not wine and not water. He exhaled out the warmth, rubbing his forehead with his clenched fist, letting the ribbon’s length dangle on each side of his wrist.
He stayed like this for what felt like hours, though it must have been a short time—the thick clouds overhead had not yet burst open, despite the lightning bolts sometimes slicing the sky. He could have remained still for hours more, he thought, if not for the sharp sound of something hitting the windowsill.
He let out a surprised hum. Nothing showed when he looked outside, but this told him little—it was so dark now that a whole army could have stood there unseen by him. Another shock of sound came along the crack of splitting wood.
Wei Wuxian traversed the width of the room in a second to pull open the window.
He was immediately struck with the thick smell of petrichor. The air was so still and heavy now that one could have closed an empty fist and felt water glide down their palm. Wei Wuxian pushed aside the disagreeable smell, ignored the slickness now stuck to his neck, and bent the head downward.
A voice came, a breath like lakewater stroked by the wind— “Master.”
Something much heavier than oncoming rain now weighed over Wei Wuxian’s nape. His hand was trembling as he slid the ribbon inside his robes, as he pulled out of the talismans he liked to draw while sitting by firelight. The paper was kindled to life now, shedding light around and flying down the outer wall of the inn until he could see.
He saw him: standing all wrought in black and with a wide straw hat in hand, looking up with eyes as white as snow.
“Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian murmured.
Wen Ning had not had blood to warm him or a heart to beat along with his feelings for a long time, but his mouth stretched anyway into a parody of a smile. The black veins running up his neck and chin looked like knife cuts in the dim light. “Master,” he whispered again.
Wei Wuxian pushed himself back from the window with enough strength to stumble. He made his way out of the room in no better gait—knocking on walls, searching with trembling hands for another of the light-talismans to see the steps of the stairs. He almost fell over the last one, and he ran across the empty dining room without a care for the screeches of the benches he knocked into on his way.
He forced open the door leading outside. The second talisman flew away, rejoining the first, which was now floating sideways over Wen Ning’s still form. And Wen Ning was standing there in his ripped clothes, the black dots in his eyes gone, the wrecked smile on his face lingering.
Wei Wuxian heard himself call him again, “Wen Ning,” but it hardly mattered. He took a step after one another shakily; until this was not enough, and he rushed the rest of the way.
Without letting Wen Ning finish, Wei Wuxian crushed him against his front.
Wen Ning’s body was as cold as ice, yet Wei Wuxian felt as though a hearth was lit within the core of him. It spread warmth along his limbs the longer he stayed there, holding Wen Ning tighter and tighter, so tightly that a living man might have suffocated. Something different than grief was now choking him—and he realized with a gasp that it was joy.
Joy so deep, joy so overwhelming, that he could not even cry.
“Wen Ning,” he sobbed dryly. He pressed his face into Wen Ning’s shoulder and dug his nails into his clothed back, shaking through the body like a man starved for days. He could not find anything else to say: “Wen Ning.”
Wen Ning’s arms closed around him with that same tentativeness he had shown since being brought back to life: he could not control his strength, was always scared of hurting or breaking, and now it was Wei Wuxian he was holding thusly and falling down to his knees with.
“You’re not alone,” he had said years ago, holding Wei Wuxian’s hand in the ruins of his home.
I’m not alone, Wei Wuxian thought now. Held like this, like something breakable and precious, it had never felt truer.
It was a long while later that he forced himself to loosen his embrace. He hardly noticed that he was kneeling now, or just how shaky his breathing was.
He lifted his head. Wen Ning was watching him, and his face was the same as it had always been—like a child looking at the stars for the first time, stunned, untouched by all evil.
Wei Wuxian took Wen Ning’s face in his hands. He was still trembling from head to toe. “You’re here,” he said. “You’ve woken up.”
Wen Ning nodded. His own arms, although no longer wrapped around Wei Wuxian’s back, still hung by Wei Wuxian’s hips.
“You can’t imagine how happy I was to see you in Dafan.” Wei Wuxian had to swallow painfully. “I thought they had burned you,” he choked out. “I thought you were… Oh, Wen Ning…”
“I am fine, Master,” Wen Ning said softly.
“I wanted to kill them all,” Wei Wuxian replied, and it was no more a lie now than it had been then. Had he had Jin Guangshan’s entire army before him now, he would have unleashed hell over them all for having turned Wen Ning to ash. “I wanted to tear them apart for killing you. I thought I’d lost you all—”
He was heaving again. Wen Ning’s hands came up hesitantly to brace his shoulders—and Wei Wuxian relaxed all at once, as if this touch alone were enough to settle his blood and bones.
“Wen Ning,” he let out weakly. “Wen Ning…”
He was bending forward again, his head once more buried into Wen Ning’s shoulder. So great was his relief that he had not even the strength to keep his arms up. His hands dropped from the sides of Wen Ning’s face to brush over the ground.
Wen Ning was the one to help him to his feet after his panting quieted, and though Wei Wuxian’s face was dry—all of his tears were gone now, sucked out as he broke down in front of Lan Wangji—he felt as if he had sobbed again for hours. His heartbeat was bruising the inside of his ribs.
They stood face to face for a silent moment, gathering their thoughts and words.
“Where were you all these years?” Wei Wuxian asked once he was more or less sure that his voice would not waver. “How did you escape?”
Wen Ning bent the head sideways, a habit he had picked up after days of Wen Qing shaking his shoulder in irritation, reprimanding him for being too hard to understand. “I am not sure,” he replied. “I don’t know how much time has passed…”
Wei Wuxian licked his lips and told him, “Thirteen years.”
Wen Ning had no physical way to express shock anymore, but he did not need one.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian said. “For leaving you for so long. I know there’s no excuse. I… I died, and then…”
“First tell me how you found me,” Wei Wuxian said. “Please.”
Wen Ning was silent for a long moment.
“I’m not certain,” he repeated. “I remember going to Lanling after young master Jin died and you were taken away by sect leader Jiang…” Wei Wuxian’s empty hands shook, but Wen Ning did not seem to notice. “Everything after this, I don’t remember. But then I heard—you were playing the flute and calling me. I could feel it. And there were chains around me,” he lifted his arms, now free of the iron which Wei Wuxian had seen around them on Dafan mountain, “but I pulled myself free… and I followed the sound of the dizi, and you were there, Master, but… I couldn’t speak…”
He looked distressed. If he still lived like humans did, his face would no doubt be fraught with guilt. “It’s all right,” Wei Wuxian told him, and he was the one this time to hold him by the shoulders in reassurance. “It’s fine. You could have stayed away from me for a century, and I wouldn’t care, as long as you were alive.”
“I would never stay away from you for so long, Master,” Wen Ning replied.
Wei Wuxian chuckled faintly. “I know.”
Taking his hand back from Wen Ning’s shoulder was as difficult to do now as it had been earlier. Wei Wuxian still felt the inescapable need to hold him, to brace his black-streaked face, to check him all over for injuries that Wen Ning would not even feel. He held himself back. He looked and looked, and each time he blinked came with a tinge of fear: that this was a product of his mind, and Wen Ning would vanish.
“You said you died,” Wen Ning said softly.
Wei Wuxian nodded. He knew what was coming now.
Wen Ning stared at him with these impenetrable eyes, with this innocent air forever etched to his dead skin, and asked: “Where are all the others?”
They’re all dead, he should say.
I don’t know, he should lie.
But Wen Ning was not someone Wei Wuxian could hurt or lie to.
“I’m sorry,” he replied.
The warmth of having held Wen Ning, called his name, heard his own called in return, vanished at last. Now the cloying dampness was on his skin and on his lips like the sticky remains of blood.
Wei Wuxian watched Wen Ning come to the realization by himself and loathed, more than he had ever loathed anything, that he was too much of a coward to say anything else.
He looked aside. The feeble light of the talismans was dimming. It was barely enough now to show the dirt under their feet.
“I was too late,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
This truth was etched into him even through the fog of his last hours on earth—he could remember his shijie’s back splitting open under a corpse’s blade, and he could remember Jin Guangshan fleeing with his bastard in tow, and he felt still the pain of the Stygian Tiger Seal breaking between his hands.
Everything else was akin to swimming through mud. Each glimpse and feeling he could catch with his fingers slipped away and left behind only grime and pain. He could make sense of none of it.
But he knew this: he had been too late. The Burial Mounds had been empty.
“But…” Wen Ning’s unmoving face was now the last thing bathed in the glow of the talismans, and when he spoke, his open mouth cast a shadow over the crooked lines marring his skin. “I told Sister… They were going to run away…”
Wei Wuxian found that hearing Wen Qing spoken about outside of his own mind was infinitely worse.
He licked his dry lips once, twice, and still the words had to push themselves out of him as if sucked out of their substance. “I’m sorry.”
It did not matter how many times he said it. He could kneel at Wen Ning’s feet and beg, ready to receive the kind forgiveness that the other would surely give him—nothing could expiate this crime.
But rather than accuse or forgive, Wen Ning asked: “And A-Yuan?”
The name alone made Wei Wuxian want to walk away or, worse, let Wen Ning feel the brunt of rage and fear it would always bring out of him. But he had no right for outrage now; and had he not already thought too much of Wen Yuan today, and laid bare all of his faults for Lan Wangji to judge?
He looked Wen Ning in the eyes once more. “I’m sorry.”
Rather than express any sort of sorrow or disappointment, however, Wen Ning seemed confused. “But… I saw…”
Whatever he meant to say faded into silence. He simply watched Wei Wuxian, still and obeissant, as he always would be so long as the link between them remained.
Lighting cut through the heavy clouds. In the rumbling thunder that followed, the first sparse drops of rain touched Wei Wuxian’s brow.
“You must be confused,” he said. There was no point in lingering on those memories any longer; he turned his heart away from them. “I don’t look the same as I used to. A man called Mo Xuanyu brought me back—he used an array I created while we lived in Yiling, one of those I was working on while trying to bring your spirit back.”
“You don’t look different, Master,” Wen Ning replied.
Wei Wuxian frowned. “I do,” he insisted. “Mo Xuanyu doesn’t look anything like me.”
But Wen Ning shook his head. “You look very similar.”
Wei Wuxian wanted to ask him what he meant, but at this moment, the sound of feet digging into moist earth reached them.
“Master,” Wen Ning breathed, but Wei Wuxian lifted a hand to silence him.
Someone was approaching. A spot of pale white against so much darkness.
“Go,” he told Wen Ning, giving his arm a brief press of the hand. He did not know which of them he meant to comfort with it. “I’ll call you later to speak more. Keep following us, but stay out of sight.”
Wen Ning nodded. He let his arm slide out of Wei Wuxian’s grip. He said, “I am happy to see you again,” and all the regret and all the shame dissipated once more.
There was nothing Wei Wuxian could do but smile. “Me too,” he replied, hoping that the affection in his voice stayed true in Wen Ning’s ear.
If Wen Ning had touched Wei Wuxian’s chest now, he could have felt how his heart swelled with it.
The shade of him vanished with inhuman speed. On the other side of the path, the silhouette of one of the Lan disciples emerged, absorbing the low light.
It was the qianyuan junior. Lan Sizhui.
“Senior Mo,” the young man said in surprise.
Wei Wuxian let the silence linger for a moment, listening for any echo of Wen Ning’s steps which could betray his presence. But there was nothing to be heard outside of the quiet pitter-patter of raindrops. Lan Sizhui should not have been able to see or hear anything.
His tension abated. “You’re not sleeping,” he said, glancing at the boy.
The rain was less sparse now. A fatter drop glided down the length of his nose and made him rub it away. Lan Sizhui seemed unbothered by it, although his white uniform was wetting over his shoulders.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Lan Sizhui replied as if admitting a shameful secret.
“That tends to happen after feisty night hunts.”
The boy let out another surprised breath which Wei Wuxian had little care to decipher. He could not help but look in the direction Wen Ning had fled, yearning already for him to be back.
Perhaps he should go back to Lan Wangji’s room, after all, and finish the wine there. He could sit by the man’s bed and let the storm unfold outside, the sound of thunder clearing his mind, the liquor appeasing his body.
“How is Lan Jingyi?” he asked the boy, who had not dared to step closer.
“Ah, he’s fine.” Lan Sizhui gave him a shaky smile. “He was arguing with young master Jin as usual.”
“Birds of a feather, these two,” Wei Wuxian muttered absently. His hand was deep within his sleeve now, brushing the end of the white ribbon.
He turned toward the brown shape of the inn, rubbing the rain out of his eyes, doing his best not to slip over the ground; but then the boy’s voice exclaimed, “Wait!”
He did almost trip then, looking over his shoulder.
Lan Sizhui had gotten rid of whatever fear Mo Xuanyu drew out of him and caught up to Wei Wuxian. He did not go as far as to reach for him bodily—if he did, Wei Wuxian would have no qualms about simply shoving him into the mud—but the intent was clear in his eyes.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Are you… Are you still mad at me?”
He looked so childish, saying this, one would almost expect his face to scrunch like a toddler’s. The thought left Wei Wuxian ill-at-ease for reasons he could not explain. “Why would I be mad at you?” he said wearily.
“For leaving you behind…”
He had to think for a moment before understanding what the boy was referring to.
“I asked you to leave, didn’t I?” he replied. “If I wanted you around, I would have told you.”
Lan Sizhui made a face. Wei Wuxian could not care that his words were harsh, when the whole day had left him as frayed and tender as an open wound.
As Wei Wuxian readied himself to walk again, the boy once more cut him in his tracks: “Then, are you still mad about Jingyi?” he was asking now in a hurried voice.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Wei Wuxian snapped at last.
This at least seemed to shut the Lan disciple up.
Wei Wuxian’s hair was drenched, now, and the stray strands which had escaped out of the tie during the eventful day were sticking to his temple and chin. He dragged them out of his face in irritation. “I’m not mad at you,” he told the boy, who was now as still as a statue. “Even if I was, it’s nothing to worry your clever head about. Get inside before that rain gets worse.”
Lan Sizhui shuddered and moved, but not in the direction of the inn. “You were angry in that kitchen,” he said, taking another step closer.
Ah. That conversation had escaped Wei Wuxian’s mind entirely.
He was so tired, so bone-weary. Now that Lan Wangji slumbered and Wen Ning had left him, he felt the need to sleep until his body turned to dust. There was no room in him now to deal with the anxieties of a child, no matter how polite and well-meaning the child.
But Lan Sizhui looked like the kind to hold on to stubbornness as one pulled on a bowstring. Wei Wuxian thought in dry humor that he must have inherited this attitude from Lan Wangji.
“I was mad,” he admitted. “I’ve seen enough people like you play the part of do-gooders around kunze, I don’t believe any of it for a second.”
In front of him, the boy seemed to shrink in on himself.
Wei Wuxian could have said more, been harsher, but he figured that a moment of kindness was not so much to ask for. Lan Sizhui had called Lan Jingyi a brother. He had never shown anything but honest concern and comfortable friendship that Wei Wuxian had seen.
He sighed. “I’m not angry at you,” he said. Exhaustion threatened to make him yawn, and he held himself back out of pride more than anything else. “Not anymore. As long as you don’t hurt him, you can be as close to him as you want. And you led him to safety, didn’t you? Him and the others.”
It was difficult to see through the rain and dark, but the boy was blushing. “Yes. Yes, I did. They’re all fine.”
“Then I have nothing to be angry about.”
He thought Lan Sizhui might try to lengthen the conversation as he had in Yi City, perhaps to ask what had happened after all the juniors had left, but the boy did not. He followed in Wei Wuxian’s steps silently, rejoining alongside him the relative dryness of the inn and closing the door behind them securely.
He stayed silent as they walked up the stairs. He parted from Wei Wuxian to step along his end of the corridor; but before his hand closed around the handle of his bedroom door, he looked at Wei Wuxian once more.
The lone light-talisman floating between them was all but extinct now. As it breathed out the last of its glow, Lan Sizhui gave him a smile.
His grey eyes were the last thing to shine before the paper fell to dust.
“Thank you, senior Mo.”
The following morning, Wei Wuxian dragged a bucket full of water up to his room to wash himself with, and spent some time examining his reflection in it.
He could recall looking at Mo Xuanyu’s face after waking up in the kunze house of Mo village. What he had seen at the time was a young man, younger than him, with delicate features over his youthful face. Mo Xuanyu had a thin and curt nose; his brown eyes were wide; the tone of his skin spoke of years spent far from the sun, and his hands were as soft as fox pelt.
What Wei Wuxian saw now was not this pretty man who must have made quite a few heads turn during his life, or at least, not entirely. The dark tan of his skin could be explained by the journey, he supposed. The thinner, rougher shape of his face as well.
But nothing could excuse how wiry his hands were now, or the grey eyes staring back at him.
He could not remember exactly what he had looked like during his first life, as he had not wished to watch himself in any mirror or reflection for years, but…
“This body is changing,” he mumbled.
What else could Mo Xuanyu’s body take the shape of, other than that of the person now inhabiting it?
He broke the smooth surface of the water by plunging his hands in it to rinse himself. For the rest of the time he spent washing, he did not look anywhere that was not a wall or a window.
The sun had been up for a long time already. Wei Wuxian had seen Lan Wangji’s back through the open door of the inn downstairs and found his own steps hurrying to drag the water up, unsettled by the thought of facing him immediately. The three children had been nowhere at all. They must long be on their way home.
When he could not delay any longer without finding himself ridiculous, Wei Wuxian put on his clothes and walked out.
The tempest had lasted for most of the night and left the air behind it agreeably crisp. Sunlight glistened over the wet ground, bending the backs of grass stalks everywhere, and water droplets clung to the bushes and trees as far as the eye could see.
“Good morning,” Wei Wuxian said as he reached Lan Wangji’s side. “Are you feeling sick?”
Lan Wangji, who had turned to face him the second their bodies had been level, shook his head.
Wei Wuxian jeered, “There is probably a rule somewhere saying that the Cloud Recesses forbid hangovers.”
A light blush colored the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears, and Wei Wuxian chuckled.
It was odd to see Lan Wangji without his forehead ribbon, he realized as they sat within the dining room, waiting for food to be served. His forehead looked wider without it, and a line ran across the skin of it in a barely-noticeable shade paler than the rest. The difference was minor, small enough to be dismissed at a glance, and yet…
He looked almost naked without it. Wei Wuxian could feel a flush working its way up his own neck; his right fingers slid into his left sleeve to toy with the hidden end of the ribbon, as he debated whether or not to offer it back.
“Keep it,” Lan Wangji had said.
He could still feel those words, that hot breath, rushing along their linked hands.
As Lan Wangji gave no sign now of wanting it back, Wei Wuxian said nothing of it, and the arrival of soup and tea at their table was a welcome distraction.
“We’ll have to question Nie Huaisang,” he spoke a while later as Lan Wangji drank the last of his tea. “Now that we know whose body our dear friend belongs to.”
“I’ve never visited the Unclean Realm. Not for longer than a night at least. I suppose this is as good an opportunity as any.”
Lan Wangji put down his bowl and replied, “Nie Huaisang will not be in the Unclean Realm.”
They quieted as the tenant came back to collect their empty plates. At the other side of the room, Wei Wuxian spied the presence of the old qianyuan woman who had insulted him the day before and been chased away by Xue Yang.
How unbelievable, to think that only a day had passed since then.
“Why won’t he be in Qinghe?” Wei Wuxian asked after the woman had glared virulently at him and turned away.
“He should be on his way to Lanling now.”
This caught his attention. He faced Lan Wangji once more. “Lanling?”
“The Jin clan hosts a reunion of all well-known sects once a year. It should begin in a few days.”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
Only Qishanwen had ever been arrogant enough to force all sects into rallying before them. Wen Ruohan from atop his blood-red throne, Wen Xu on the back of his famous war-horse, and Wen Chao laid over a palanquin, watching his inferiors tread through mud and ice.
Wei Wuxian should have skinned him then.
Jin Guangshan had been so very quick to take over after Wen Ruohan’s death. Of course the Jin clan had become what they had once sworn to fight during the Sunshot Campaign. The wretched man already had an army of simpering sects gathered up, after all, when Wei Wuxian had arrived at the Nightless City that day.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose we should go to Lanling, then. We’ll never figure out why Chifeng-Zun’s dismembered body is leading us around if we don’t talk to Huaisang.”
Lan Wangji looked at him intently. “There will be many people,” he replied.
“So many acquaintances,” Wei Wuxian agreed, letting a nail catch onto a tiny shard of wood over the tabletop. Scratching at it was a better outlet than breaking apart the table altogether. “So many opportunities for me to be recognized and killed. Or to kill an old enemy or two myself, I suppose.”
He let the noises around distract him for a moment. There were people here now, peasants and traders come to find food and tea—wine, even, for some of them, although it was still so early. The empty inn of the previous night, wrought in thick shadows, had been nothing like this lively room. Wei Wuxian could have dreamed it all. If not for the heartbeat he could feel alongside his own whenever he focused on the bond between him and Wen Ning, he would have believed so. But there was no ignoring Lan Wangji’s naked forehead, or the silk-like touch of the ribbon he kept fiddling with.
He could not stop doing either. Looking at Lan Wangji or touching the ribbon.
“I look like myself now, don’t I,” he said softly.
Lan Wangji met his gaze levelly. He said nothing, and did not nod either, but Wei Wuxian had not been looking for acquiescence anyway.
“I think I still look enough like Mo Xuanyu to fool people who never knew me, but the others…” He huffed. “Those who have not forgotten me, at least.”
“Many remember you,” Lan Wangji replied.
“You’re right. I could hardly believe I’d left such an impression after I woke up in this body. I thought no one would even know my name.”
“Not only your name.”
Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji in askance. The man did not precise what he had meant.
The scrap of wood under his nail finally broke out of the plank, and its edge was now buried in the skin at the tip of Wei Wuxian’s finger. He tugged it out without a care for the faint pinch of pain it left behind. As his hands felt empty once more, itching to find the length of the white ribbon again, he took hold of his own cup and allowed Lan Wangji to pour more tea into it.
He drank it without tasting it at all. “I’ll have to disguise myself,” he declared once the cup was empty. “Some kunze wear would probably be best. And something to mask my face.”
“You can go as you are now,” Lan Wangji replied. “Only your face needs to be disguised.”
Wei Wuxian smiled at him. “I appreciate the concern—” and Lan Wangji flushed once more, he noticed in fondness, his ears a hot red and two pale dustings of pink high on his cheeks, “—but the rumor will be out now of you running around with a kunze. Jiang Cheng could never keep his mouth shut, and Jin Ling seems to have inherited it all from him.”
How odd, he thought distantly; a day before, he could not have so easily spoken his once-shidi’s name.
“My presence will be noticeable enough as it is, and your reputation will suffer for it anyway,” he went on. “I’ll draw less attention and scorn if I act the part.”
Lan Wangji did not say anything more on the topic.
He did accompany Wei Wuxian to the only clothing store of the town, a hut-like shop with barely enough room inside for ten people to fit. Wei Wuxian doubted that it would even hold anything as fancy as kunze wear, but the owner brought some out of a shabby little door at the back, after he was done flushing in embarrassment upon noticing Wei Wuxian’s status.
Embarrassment and more, Wei Wuxian thought through clenched teeth. The man could not stop glancing at him from head to toe. The strong earthscent he emitted itched down Wei Wuxian’s throat like breadcrumbs swallowed the wrong way; he was shivering under the onslaught of resentful energy as he walked out of the shop, the leering man behind him never noticing how close he came to being coldly killed.
He threw the bag of clothes at Lan Wangji with perhaps less courtesy than he should, but if Lan Wangji took note of it, he said nothing at all. He fit the clothes into one of the spelled qiankun pouches hanging from his waist.
He looked at Wei Wuxian and told him, “We should go.”
Their trip to Lanling took them almost four days. Two of those were walked across nearly-flat lands and sinuous dirt paths linking villages together. They could always find room to sit and buy food when the time to eat came, no matter where they were; and the nights were spent in closed rooms rather than under open sky.
Most of the fields they saw were growing vegetables, and the people they crossed paths with were all pulling along carts full of muddy daikons and green bitter melon. The storm had soaked Kuizhou and its surroundings thoroughly: the soil was wet under their feet no matter how far they roamed, and Wei Wuxian often found himself thinking, I was right to buy clothes, as he would no doubt be covered in dirt when they arrived. No matter how uncomfortable these clothes would be to wear.
He was no longer seventeen, however, and exhibited for a man twice his age to gauge the price of. This was not fear so much as annoyance.
The last day and a half of the journey took them through the climbing paths and rocky trails of the Lanling mountains. The trek became more tiring, but it was a welcome ache that Wei Wuxian experienced as he and Lan Wangji made camp under the cover of a mountain’s uneven flank. The sweat cooling over his back was oddly satisfying. He slept better over the dirt, with only his robes on him, than he did in all those inns.
He woke up to the buzzing of insects and the warm summer morning sun, and the first breaths he took smelled only of sandalwood. Sitting up over the mossy rock, watching Lan Wangji steep the moonless tea for him, was something he could only describe as serene.
This calm ran away as they tore out of the deserted pathways slitting the mountain range. Golden Carp Tower stood before them in the distance: its ribbon-like stairs glinting around the mountainside like a trail of mother-of-pearl, its wide and golden halls glimmering in the light like a sun of their own.
People milled about every street below them. Travelling merchants, cultivators flying on glowing swords, rich guests clad in colorful clothes. From far up the mountain side, the city looked like an anthill.
“Let’s find somewhere to rest and clean up,” Wei Wuxian said after a moment of silent contemplation.
The winds of this place diffused too much rancor.
Shouts and voices came from all sides as they walked through the city. Not an alley was empty: travelers and salesmen everywhere tried to catch their attention, selling charms and jewelry, showing rolls of painted cloth imported from the south and west, yelling riddles for gathered onlookers to solve. The greasy smells of street food permeated the air. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had to enter three inns before finding a place to stay, and even then, only one room was available.
“We’ll take it,” Wei Wuxian told the tenant, who squinted at him and shrugged.
Lan Wangji made no comment. Wei Wuxian wondered if he found the thought of sharing a room with him bothersome, considering the number of nights they had slept on the hard ground without a wall between them.
The room had a washing space attached to it at least, and a wall did separate it. Wei Wuxian used it first after hot water was brought up. He had no care for how palatable his appearance was to fine society, but he did not want to draw attention or disdain on Lan Wangji by showing up covered in grime. He washed himself in full for the first time in days, going so far as to brush the knots out of his hair and clean it all with oils rather than plain water and soap.
He found the kunze robes just as awkward to put on and move in as he did as a child. The memory of Luo Fanghua came back to him as he struggled to tie the silk belt: she had made clothes for them all for years, and was often seen tailoring them to the new members of their home in the sunny hours of day. She would limp out of the house she so loathed to spend time in, forcing the young and old alike in place to measure their shoulders, their legs, their arms. She would pin needles through fabric as her victim of the day fidgeted, and not care for a second whether their sharp tips caught onto skin by accident.
Wei Wuxian’s hold on the detestable outfit softened. He found himself straightening the wide-open collar in the way he had seen Luo Fanghua do all those years ago.
He did not look at himself as he exited the bathroom, and Lan Wangji’s eyes did not linger on him either in a way different than the usual.
This, too, was a comfort.
Hot sun lashed at their necks and hands when they exited the inn. The afternoon had dredged along slowly and suffocatingly. Wei Wuxian had always thought that the delicate robes kunze wore must be airier on the body, but he was proven wrong: the many layers stuck to one another and stuck to his limbs, as silk was wont to do when the skin was too dry. They made for a solid wall of heat which the wind could not breach. The rough robes he wore were thicker, but they allowed the air to flow between fabric and flesh.
“This is mortifying,” he commented idly as they reached the bottom of the great stairs. He tugged on his wide sleeve for the third time to detach it from his damp skin. “I’m afraid you’ll have to deal with disapproval anyway, Hanguang-Jun. Your kunze has terrible manners.”
A faint smile lifted the corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth. “I am used to disapproval,” he replied.
It made Wei Wuxian smile too.
He took the veil Lan Wangji handed him once they were out of sight—standing behind the corner of a store whose upper floor leaned into the mountain flank and the higher steps of the white stairs. He tied the strings of the veil behind his ears, covering the lower half of his face, twitching the nose once more at the uncomfortable feeling of something keeping the warmth of his breaths in. It was this or a mask, however; and though Wei Wuxian would have dearly enjoyed walking into the throes of high-sect niceties outfitted like a demon, he did promise to keep his head down.
“Shall we?” he asked.
But as he started walking out of the shade, Lan Wangji did not follow.
He was silent but not still: a swaying moved him as if the wind were pushing him around. It was the sort of hesitation brought forth by fear.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian called.
Lan Wangji looked at him, his mouth closed and his bare forehead creased, his thumb shaking slightly over the sheath of his sword.
He let go of it slowly. “Wei Ying,” he said. “After we are done here, I would like to take you somewhere.”
But Lan Wangji said nothing more. He looked past Wei Wuxian’s shoulder with that same air of concern, and Wei Wuxian knew that no probing would make him speak again.
Where? he wondered anyway.
“All right,” he said instead. “We can go wherever you want.”
He would follow Lan Wangji anywhere and without question. It was the sort of trust that this man, this boy, had made him feel since first meeting his eyes over a wall of the Cloud Recesses.
Lan Wangji followed him this time. They started their ascension up the never-ending stairs, and although many of the people they met along the way seemed pained to have to trek up or down their length, Wei Wuxian found peace in the effort. Twice had he had to climb them, and twice had he enjoyed the air and sights of the green-and-grey lands around. The stairs themselves brought no sickening memory with them. Only the golden halls above did, as well as the white arch of stone below, where once twenty corpses had hung over a laughing, drinking crowd.
Wei Wuxian stopped at the same bluff of stone he had once met Lan Wangji on, and he gave the man himself a glance, though he had no inkling of whether he remembered it too. The place far below them where once the encampment of Wen prisoners stood was now a simple enclosure. A few grazing horses were there, heedless of any history.
“Come on,” said Wei Wuxian, after taking in his fill of the landscape.
He turned around to continue his way up, Lan Wangji’s own steps behind him rustling the fine cloth of his robes softly.
Then purple light split open the air like lightning, and Wei Wuxian had no time at all to think before the scent of upturned earth reached him and made him ice over.
Jiang Cheng dismounted his sword with his teeth bared and his fists clenched. He did not sheathe Sandu which shone with what must be the wetness of clouds. The ground under their feet seemed to rumble and growl under the weight of his steps, and he stood now before them with his face twisted in rage.
“You,” he spat with more hatred than Wei Wuxian had ever heard or seen of him.
Wei Wuxian’s mouth opened with the strength of habit, though he knew not what words he could use to tame this kind of fury—but Jiang Cheng took a step forward and raised Sandu’s gleaming end, and Wei Wuxian realized that it was not him Jiang Cheng was addressing.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng said; such violence throbbed in his voice that fright engulfed the mountain whole. “You miserable worm.”
Jiang Cheng burst forward without a care for anything, pushing Wei Wuxian out of the way, letting go of Sandu entirely. The sword hit the rock ground with a clamor and slid down a few steps before settling.
On the stone bluff ahead, Jiang Cheng grabbed Lan Wangji by the collar; and Lan Wangji’s own eyes lifted coldly, threateningly, his hands rising to grasp Jiang Cheng’s wrists with the same unbidden strength.
NOTE: See, I kept my promise… a slow and sweet chapter before Wei Wuxian goes back to The Mortifying Ordeal Of Being Known.
Thank you all so much for the wonderful messages and comments on the last update, it made me so happy! Also, some people were worried that their comments weren’t showing immediately, but that’s normal. I have to approve them first, since I sometimes receive spam. It can take a few days.