Warnings: descriptions of suicide, injury/blood, Wei Wuxian’s general trauma.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
“I thought I might find you here.”
Wei Wuxian hardly needed to turn around and look to find who had spoken. If not for how deeply hidden the treasure cave had been, then for the subdued reverberation surrounding him and the likewise scent of pine tickling his nostrils.
Meng Yao did not rush to join him near the makeshift altar. Once he was by Wei Wuxian’s side, he simply stood and watched the old table as well. And indeed it was an altar, with no name tablet in sight and only faded writings for offerings, but a sand-filled pot all the same at the corner which was still filled with stubs of long-burned incense sticks.
“I did not think anyone would pay respect to me in death,” Wei Wuxian said. “Especially not here.”
“I think many people do.”
You could’ve added some pastries, he thought, and from the corner of his eyes he saw Meng Yao smile as if he had heard it.
Wei Wuxian thought long and hard about what to say next. The flowers beside the table seemed to emit a light of their own which he could not help but see. It pricked and heated his eyes. The question hung from his lips.
“Meng Yao,” he said.
Meng Yao’s smile widened, pleased. “You are one of two people I would allow to call me by that name,” he replied.
Wei Wuxian could not care now to ask who the other was; he caught Meng Yao’s eyes directly and asked: “Are you one of us?”
“Us…” That forlorn expression he seemed to have for all visage was back. “You could say so,” Meng Yao replied. “But you could also consider me to be on the other side of the current.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is a complex question, with a complex answer.”
No matter how complex that answer could be, Wei Wuxian wanted to have it all the same. He would not leave this place without having it.
Meng Yao moved to stand before the moonless flowers. With one careful hand, he cupped a half-open bud and stroked its petals one by one, as if caressing the head of a newborn. One could have imagined the flower to preen and lift the head and shake around its blurry eyes to make out the face of the one touching it.
“My mother was so very proud to have birthed a qianyuan child,” he murmured. “My early childhood was spent being doted on, given the best toys and clothes she could buy with the meager share of money she earned out of her work.”
“What sort of work?”
“I think you already know.”
Indeed, Wei Wuxian knew. He had broken into one such house before, disguised as a common entertainment house, hidden in plain sight in the midst of the city. The closed room where the kunze courtesans were kept was not, for once, meant to obscure them from the world; but rather for clients to come in without being recognized. These houses were rare, and their inhabitants more often than not stolen in infancy. The owners of such a place would inevitably drown to death in their own wealth. Sometimes, because their wealth.
“She would tell me, again and again, that she would one day leave that place thanks to me.” Meng Yao let the flower bend the neck again. He wiped his hand against the gold-twined cloth of his robes. “Her housemates’ jealousy was such that one of them tried to strangle me to death with rope when I was five years old. If my mother had been any deeper asleep, I would not be speaking to you now.
“She took blow after blow to protect me. She was absolutely certain which of her visitors had sired me, and every day she would ask me to learn how to read alongside the other children of the joy-house. She even bought cultivation books for me,” he laughed then, “but they were of those books sold in the streets which were more akin to fantasy tales and taught me nothing of cultivation. I never told her that. She was so happy despite the danger and the wounds. For thirteen years, she was the happiest kunze on Earth.”
Wei Wuxian kept silent. His own hand found something to touch as he stroked over the table and over the papers written by his own brush more than a decade ago. He recalled the days of his own youth in the Lotus Pier; before his maturity came and even afterwards, when his status started weighing on him and he thought himself so miserable. He didn’t know, at the time, how lucky he was.
“Have you ever questioned the differences between statuses?” Meng Yao suddenly asked.
Wei Wuxian looked up. “Of course,” he replied.
“And what did you think of it?”
This was a complex question, with a complex answer. And perhaps Meng Yao would not leave this place without having it either.
“In my clearer moments,” Wei Wuxian said—it seemed to him that he could have turned the head then and found Wen Qing sitting by the fire at the end of the bloodpool cave, boiling the tea which the villagers would soon come to fetch— “I knew there was none. Our bodies are human bodies, and our souls are human souls.” He hesitated before adding: “A golden core shines the same in a kunze’s body as it does in a qianyuan’s.”
Meng Yao nodded. “And in the darker moments?”
Wei Wuxian laughed briefly. “I don’t remember,” he said. “I think my memory was emptied by half when Mo Xuanyu brought me back.”
“He was never a very good cultivator. I couldn’t understand why he stole so many of your notes before leaving. I still cannot believe he was the one to bring you back.”
“Why did he leave?”
Meng Yao was quiet, looking at him and gauging him. Then, he replied: “I poisoned him.”
Wei Wuxian had no need to ask this time.
“He found this room, like you did. If he had stayed in his place, I would never have hurt him in any way. But he was too curious for his own good,” Meng Yao added as if in justification, although his tone was anything but sorry, “and a life was a small price to pay to protect everything I’ve done.”
“Even a kunze’s life?”
Wei Wuxian could not hide the coldness in his voice. He had spent months now in the body Mo Xuanyu had sacrificed to bring him back; he had not forgotten the blood Mo Xuanyu had shed nor the deep cuts in his forearms, and this was one more life which he would carry forever within him. One more name at the altar of those he had failed.
“Even a kunze’s life,” Meng Yao answered. “No life is too big a price to pay to protect my ambitions.”
“If those ambitions are what I believe they are, then you and I are indeed borne by different currents.”
The sound of Meng Yao’s chuckle echoed again through the smooth guts of the mountains, unbroken even by the tables, shelves, trinkets around. Wei Wuxian felt it envelop him. It grew in length like wet ink accidentally spread by a calligrapher’s weak wrist.
“I didn’t expect you to agree with me,” Meng Yao said before the silence had even come back, “although, your life was not one I would have sacrificed.”
He touched his belt briefly.
“No,” he murmured. “I would not have sacrificed you. I never would have.”
“I killed your brother.”
Those words had come without any thought. Wei Wuxian closed his mouth so sharply that his teeth knocked loudly together.
It was only this place, he told himself with a shiver, making those memories surge. This place where Jin Ling and Jiang Yanli lived, those gardens he had seen for the first time only hours ago and which Jin Zixuan had been so sure he would love. It was only Meng Yao’s scent of pines which so resembled his brother’s.
Meng Yao was looking at him implacably. “Zixuan made mistakes, I gathered,” he said.
“He didn’t. Not truly.”
“I can hardly believe that he meant you harm. His feelings for you were… rather obvious.” Golden robes shone in the flamelight as Meng Yao adjusted his sleeves needlessly. He seemed almost embarrassed, and the sight stayed Wei Wuxian’s speech long enough that he had the time to continue, “But not meaning you harm doesn’t mean that he could not have harmed you.”
Would he ask?
And if he did—if Meng Yao asked the same question as Jiang Yanli—would he be the first person Wei Wuxian would tell?
Wei Wuxian had never uttered the truth of that day of bloodshed to anyone he knew. The only friend whose soul was close enough to his own, who would have understood and perhaps granted him peace of mind, had died before he could meet her again. The only other witness to Jin Zixuan’s murder would never speak of it unless Wei Wuxian himself allowed him. And his own death had muddled him so much that every memory was only lights and shadows.
So much time had passed; what use was there in reopening these old wounds? People had grown and grieved already. How could Wei Wuxian dare to ask for forgiveness or understanding? He did not even want to.
One more name at the altar. Just one name amongst so many. Jin Zixuan could continue existing like this, in the tender memory of those who had loved him, and in the graveyard left behind by the one he had loved.
“I haven’t finished my story,” Meng Yao said suddenly.
Wei Wuxian startled. “Go on,” he answered after a long mud-like silence.
“I grew up in that house. I was allowed outside and inside the kunze’s rooms. I was of no use to the owners, who would have gotten rid of me if my mother had not begged them not to and, after I reached my teenage years, let them keep the money they were supposed to give her. They told her I couldn’t stay once I reached adulthood, but she accepted it. She had already decided that I would leave and seek my father’s protection. I would work hard, long and hard enough to one day redeem her and take her away.
“She thought Jin Guangshan would take her as a concubine. She would certainly have been happier and more comfortable here than between the moldy walls of that brothel. Jin Guangshan would have probably accepted her as well. A free kunze, even one old enough to have a fully grown child, was too good an offer to pass. He was always a collector of rare things, and my mother was by far the most beautiful of the courtesans there.”
Wei Wuxian could believe this. Perhaps Jin Guangshan would have added him to his collection as well, given the chance, if only to claim the glory of having captured and tamed the mad kunze of Yiling.
“Then I turned thirteen,” Meng Yao said, meeting Wei Wuxian’s eyes, “and something very strange happened.”
He was looking at Wei Wuxian, yet he seemed not to see him at all. His gaze moved over Wei Wuxian’s face and body, not as they would while observing someone else, but as they would while staring in a mirror.
“I suddenly caught a bad fever which lasted several days,” he said. “No matter who fretted over me, my mother or the physician whom the owners deigned to call, no medicine helped. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the fever vanished, and I was healthy once more.
“At first she thought nothing of it. She was simply glad that her dear child’s life was no longer in danger. But a while later, almost on the clock, another fever came. It was exactly similar to the first. I woke up one day shivering and in terrible pain, and five days later, the illness was gone.”
He gave another curt chuckle. A dry, wry one.
“After that, it was not hard to understand what was going on. What I was suffering from was no illness at all, but a kunze’s fever, the very same which all others in that house suffered as well.
“My mother was devastated. She had thought for years that the strong child she had given birth to was of the highest status. His scent was an unshakable proof of it. There was no mistaking it at all. So how was this possible?”
This question was not rhetorical, but Wei Wuxian had no answer to give him. He was surprised as well.
“You’ve never met another person like me either,” Meng Yao said.
“No,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I did not think that was possible.”
“You said that there was no difference between us all. But I can tell that this is a philosophical answer to a very wide question, and not your true feelings.”
“There is no difference,” Wei Wuxian retorted; “except the ones used as an excuse by those who aim to claim us all. This is the difference. Human bodies are human bodies, fever or not.”
“And this is where our opinions diverge, because to me, this bodily difference means the world. A few days of sickness changed my entire life. My body became another. My world shattered around me, and I was never the same.
“My mother was always arrogant and protective. She never let the other kunze’s vile words touch her. In the span of one day, during that second fever, she went from pride incarnate to the most shameful and pitiful creature. She stopped eating, she stopped sleeping. She could not look at me. When I came too close or touched her, she screamed until her throat bled. Within a month she had become a skeletal shade of herself, incapable of speech, fed watery porridge by force—she would throw it up afterwards.
“Within two months, her despair was too unbearable for her, and she stabbed herself to death.”
In the Burial Mounds, when the village was only the bare bones of what it would become, a kunze had killed himself. He was eighteen years old.
Wei Wuxian had only freed a dozen people at the time, and could recall each of them and how each had decided to follow him. That young man had lived in one of the more spacious kunze houses he had opened thus far, with clothes, pillows, and delicacies abound, and a desk at which one could sit at to write or read. There were no windows, but the roof was built in such a way as to allow in the outside air and allow out the fire smoke.
The young man had seemed healthy at the time, if skittish. Well-fed and clothed. Wei Wuxian had freed other skittish and fearful people and thought nothing of it. He brought him back with him, and for weeks he came and went with new people in tow and only saw that young man sparingly. Each time, he found nothing of note.
Then one morning cries and sobs had echoed over the dead hills; someone had found the young man dead, hanging from a sash made of the same fine clothes he had worn the day of his escape.
He was buried with all the proper respect and grief. Everyone said their farewells to his tomb, including Wei Wuxian, who could hardly make sense of his own feelings over the loss.
“It’s not your fault,” Wen Qing had told him.
“I know,” he had mumbled in answer.
He was, of course, lying.
“He wanted to come with you. You didn’t force him, and you never hurt him.”
“Then who did?”
The opinions varied. Some said he had hurt himself. Some could not forgive him for it. Some simply pitied him and blamed the world.
And Wei Wuxian had thought, after over a year of confusion: He was sick. His sickness is what killed him. It wasn’t his fault either.
I just couldn’t heal him in time.
“Sickness of the heart is sickness all the same,” he found himself speaking out.
“Thank you,” Meng Yao said.
Sweat pearled at Wei Wuxian’s forehead. A chill had come over him. One of his hands trembled as if holding a heavy weight, and the other came to rub the middle of his chest, right under the last of his ribs.
“So,” Meng Yao spoke at last. “Knowing all this, who do you think I am? One of you, or one of them?”
“One of mine,” Wei Wuxian replied without hesitation.
“Yours,” Meng Yao laughed. “Do you think we all belong to you?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “No,” he said. “But I would have taken you with me. I would’ve broken your door and taken you with me.”
Light glimmered in Meng Yao’s eyes like the beginning of tears.
Wei Wuxian turned his gaze back to the table where his keepsakes lay. He touched the compass with one fleeting finger and let his eyes roam over the texts and arrays organized in neat piles, kept in place by jade stones pressing down on them. These must have been written while he was still healthy; his notes, although always messy, were painted with a sure hand.
“I have never let anyone else read these,” Meng Yao said.
Wei Wuxian retorted dryly, “I’ve met Xue Yang.”
“Except Xue Yang. How is he?”
Maddened by loss, his one remaining hand so stained with blood that one would always see it a brilliant scarlet no matter how clean it was. Alone, always alone. A loneliness of his own making.
Wei Wuxian did not think Meng Yao cared much about Xue Yang’s health or whereabouts. “Someone stole one half of the Stygian Tiger Seal,” he said. “Feel free to look for it, if you want, but you’ll find me in your way.”
Meng Yao said nothing of this threat.
After a while longer, Wei Wuxian declared: “I should go.”
Meng Yao did not reply, but he approached the table as well and reached for Suibian. Before Wei Wuxian could speak or move, he found the sword presented to him with a delicateness reserved for imperial decrees. Meng Yao almost looked like he would kneel.
Drowned in discomfort yet unable to stop himself, Wei Wuxian took hold of it. Warmth tickled his fingers and crawled all the way to his shoulders, his chest, his neck. Mo Xuanyu’s feeble core pulsed. The sheath became skin-hot in the span of a second, and Wei Wuxian held his breath.
“This belongs to you,” Meng Yao said.
“Wouldn’t walking around with it be a little conspicuous?” Wei Wuxian asked weakly.
He was answered with a smile: “It’s been thirteen years since anyone saw this sword. It sealed itself after your death; no one has been able to unsheathe it.”
Wei Wuxian pulled on Suibian’s handle. The blade emerged slickly, easily, glinting with the same sharpness as a lifetime ago, not at all blunted by time.
“Some loyalties never lie,” Meng Yao declared, “and they never die either.”
Wei Wuxian’s hand shook once more. He sheathed Suibian quickly and turned away from the makeshift altar, making his way to the ladder, forgetting all about Nie Mingjue’s head sitting sealed behind him. He heard Meng Yao’s tranquil steps following him. Their long way through the rock’s veins was silent. The damp air weighed over their heads in the never-ending darkness. When they reached the first of the derelict stairs leading up from the kunze house, Wei Wuxian felt that he could breathe once more. Suibian, tied to his waist, was a solid line of heat; he could not help but stroke its pommel and follow the smooth lines carved into its wood.
Meng Yao’s rooms were pitch black once they emerged. The candles, long burned out, had left behind only the faintest smell of smoke. Meng Yao seemed not to mind at all as he closed the secret door behind them and made his way to the entrance, guiding Wei Wuxian around the furniture and scattered pieces of art. The long corridor outside was only barely lit. They followed its twists and turns until they reached the grand doors of the manor. Those of the banquet hall were closed. The feast must have ended hours ago.
The sound of raised voices suddenly brushed over them, coming from the direction of the gardens. Familiar voices. Before Wei Wuxian could recognize them fully, his arm was grabbed and tugged backwards.
“What is it—”
“Young master Wei,” Meng Yao interrupted.
His voice was unlike any he had let out before. Only a wisp, less than a whisper, and this time Wei Wuxian wondered if it was only the light making Meng Yao’s eyes shine so.
“I would have never killed you,” Meng Yao said. “You were one of two people I would never have sacrificed.”
“You said so before—”
Meng Yao raised a slow hand toward his belt, and the sound of something unbuckling cut through the faint echo of shouts coming closer and closer. As he brushed aside the outer layer of cloth covering him, the handle of a sword appeared: he grasped it surely and tugged out of nowhere the length of a soft blade.
It must have always been there. He must have carried it with him through shadow and light, as he slept and as he walked, through any harsh weather that his life had left him to brave.
Wei Wuxian inhaled a shocked, whistling breath as it thrust into his side. he stumbled backwards, pulling Meng Yao alongside him, who had both fists pressed to his chest now that the sword had fully stabbed into him, and his head bent forward till it near-touched Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
“I can’t let you live,” Meng Yao rasped.
For the very first time, the hint of mourning in his voice sounded genuine.
“This world doesn’t need you anymore,” he added mournfully, both of his hands shaking. “I won’t let you destroy everything that I’ve fought for, everything that I’ve managed to build.”
He took a screeching breath, as if he were the one with a blade through the body.
“Forgive me,” he said. He pulled out the sword, now covered in a blood rendered black by the shadows. He gave himself a deep cut along the arm and shouted in a pain faked or true, “Guards!”
Wei Wuxian knocked into a wall, one hand pressed against his gushing wound and another vainly trying to find support on a table or a candle holder. Each breath he took was exhaled with a high song of pain. He slid down to the floor.
“Guards! The Yiling Patriarch is here!”
To Lan Jingyi’s repeated begging, Lan Sizhui agreed to stay with him in the gardens until night had fully come. To neither of their surprise, Jin Ling hovered around them the whole time, looking at them sullenly from the dark shade of a tree. A few bright pink flower petals had been thrown into the wind and landed on his head. Jingyi could not help but snort in laughter every time he saw them, and Jin Ling, heedless, took it to mean he was being made a fool out of in whispers.
“Shut up!” he shouted as Lan Jingyi once again giggled grossly. “Do you think you can just make fun of me while we’re here!?”
“What are you gonna do about it, young master Jin? Call Mo Xuanyu for help again?” Jingyi, looking eminently pleased with himself, added: “You know he won’t do anything against me. I’m his favorite.”
Jin Ling looked away in a rage, his face turning as pink as the flower above it.
Habitual jealousy squeezed Sizhui through the chest at the reminder of Mo Xuanyu’s partiality. He could only thank the darkness for hiding his own no-doubt hot face. “Don’t be rude,” he told Jingyi. “You should call him ‘senior Mo’.”
“He doesn’t mind what I call him.”
Sizhui swallowed back any further words. He did not think he could have said a single one without sounding rueful.
Jin Ling let out a wide yawn; blushing an even darker red, he shoved both of his hands against his mouth. Lan Jingyi, never one to miss a moment of hilarity, laughed once more.
Sizhui held Jingyi by the arm, and Jingyi took the scolding for what it was. He schooled his expression into one more appropriate to their clan and its teachings and stayed silent.
“It’s late, young master Jin,” Sizhui said politely. “You should go to sleep.”
“I’m not a little kid,” Jin Ling retorted, sounding very much like a little kid refusing to go to bed.
“We all need to sleep well if we want to participate in the archery tournament tomorrow morning.”
Jin Ling mumbled something unintelligible. He did rise to his feet, however, and wiped his clothes thoroughly to rid them of any trace of dirt and any blade of grass. The petals fell from his hair. He did not seem to notice them. After one more flustered glance Jingyi’s way, he huffed and walked away like a cat shoved out of its napping spot.
Sizhui walked Jingyi all the way to his room. It took some time, as Jingyi had been told to stay far from all other guests who would spend the night in the Tower. The door there was worn, its joints rusted, and it opened with a loud screech.
“It’s nice here,” Jingyi said, looking around. “Do you want to come in?”
It was not nice at all. The outward wall was so thin that any gust of wind could make it tremble. A winter spent here must be enough to make one deathly ill, Sizhui thought in worry. The bed was hard and the sheets on it were holed. The fresh incense which some servant had thought to burn couldn’t quite hide the smell of dust and stagnant air. Jingyi, however, looked pleased beyond measure to have a room at all in this great cultivation clan’s house, no matter what its members could think or say about it.
He fell onto the bed with a hum of satisfaction, throwing his sword to the side in a display of indiscipline which could have given their clan elders reason to cry. Sizhui stayed near the door, not quite stepping in.
He didn’t want to give anyone reason to cry or whisper about Lan Jingyi.
If Jingyi noticed or understood, he said nothing of it. He only nodded when Sizhui said, “I’ll go, then,” and waved at him tiredly.
Sizhui closed the screeching door. He stilled before it for a moment, caught in his own musings, before taking his leave. Jingyi’s earlier words kept swirling round his ears— “He doesn’t mind what I call him. I’m his favorite.”
Envy made his belly squirm once more. He tried to fit his breathing to the rhythm of his footsteps in a semblance of meditation, to take his mind off the sting of confidence and pride in Jingyi’s voice, but nothing seemed to work. When he reached the door of his own guest room, he felt just as maudlin.
So buried was he in his own bitter thoughts that he failed to notice the shadowed body leaning against the wall; until the body moved and heavier footsteps echoed through the empty hallway. Sizhui stepped back in surprise and watched as the half-dead light of a candle revealed the face of sect leader Jiang Wanyin.
“What are you doing here?” he blurted out.
And he had scolded Jingyi for his rudeness, too. But Jiang Wanyin did not rebuke him as Sizhui had seen him do to disciples of his sect or to Jin Ling. Instead, the man stepped all the way to his side and ordered, “Come with me.”
He took hold of Sizhui’s shoulder and pushed him forward. Sizhui obeyed, wordless, thinking fiercely of anything he might have done or said to anger such a man, but nothing came to his mind.
“Where…” He hesitated for a moment, Jiang Wanyin’s hand still on his shoulder. The hold was not painful at all; in fact, it felt almost gentle. But this bracing palm was still inescapable, and Sizhui kept walking. He swallowed. “Um, where are we going?”
The hold tightened as he faltered in his steps, forcing him back to Jiang Wanyin’s side in a hurry. “Yunmeng?” he repeated. “But—Yunmeng? Now? Why?”
“I’ll explain everything later.”
“Wait,” and this time Sizhui did stop walking to extirpate himself out of this powerful hand. “Sect leader Jiang,” he added, flustered. “I can’t just leave like this! At least let me ask Hanguang-Jun and tell Jingyi…”
Jiang Wanyin grabbed him once more, and he was not gentle this time.
“Your friend is not in danger,” he replied furiously, “and Lan Wangji is the reason I’m taking you away.”
Air itself seemed to boil with each word he spoke. Sizhui could only stare, open-mouthed, and let himself be dragged forward again in utter confusion. He ransacked his own brain searching for anything to say that might quell sect leader Jiang’s wrath, but as he had no idea why the man was angry at all, he came out empty-handed.
There was more light around now that they had left behind the guest quarters. Rather than following the indoor pathways, Jiang Wanyin took a shortcut through the gardens. They came near the peony flower beds; the flowers had closed at sun’s death and were now lit only by the moon. The pale light muddied their colors. Dirt, stalks, leaves and petals looked to be painted of the same grey.
They went around the century-old tree. They passed without pause by greenhouses where the most fragile essences were cultured. Then, as they neared the last courtyard which would open to the great entrance hall, a white shape ran to block their way.
Jiang Wanyin pulled him back so forcefully that Sizhui almost fell. When he regained his senses, he saw Jiang Wanyin standing before him like a tall shield, and in front of them both, the moon-blanched face of Lan Wangji.
“Hanguang-Jun,” Sizhui said needlessly. Lan Wangji was looking directly at him, and when his clear eyes moved to Jiang Wanyin instead, he wore a face full of fury as well.
A crackling sound broke the silence. Sizhui’s breath caught as he saw Zidian’s purple stone glow on Jiang Wanyin’s finger. Already, this light splintered the air with its lightning-shaped sparks.
“Filth of a man,” Jiang Wanyin uttered in a beast’s growl. “Do you put spells on him to know every one of his movements? It’s not enough to steal him away from his family, is it?”
Lan Sizhui had never heard such words come out of Hanguang-Jun’s mouth, not even in a dream, not even as a small child freshly-arrived to the Cloud Recesses and fearful of a stranger’s scolding.
Jiang Wanyin laughed. With one hand, he reached behind himself to grasp Sizhui’s arm once more, and with the other, he spread open his palm. Zidian’s light twirled and grew in length till it took the shape of the infamous whip, and Jiang Wanyin’s fingers clasped around it. On the other side of the path, Lan Wangji called to Bichen; the sword flew out of its sheath and blinded them all with its fierce light.
“S-Sect leader Jiang,” Sizhui stuttered. He tried to squirm out of the man’s grip to no avail. “Please, sir, let’s not—let’s not fight—”
“You have no idea what this man’s done to you,” Jiang Wanyin said.
Zidian whipped through the air; Bichen blocked it, but could move no further. This was no fabric or iron that it could cut.
“Out of my way, Lan Wangji! Not even you can stop me now.”
“Why are you fighting?” Lan Sizhui asked desperately. He twisted and pulled; he grabbed sec leader Jiang’s wrist with his own free hand to try to dislodge him. “Sect leader Jiang, why are you attacking him?”
At last, he managed to free himself. He stumbled backward until his feet left the pebbled path and dug into soft dirt instead. Whatever plant he fell into tore through his uniform with sharp thorns. They felt like a creature’s dart drooling poison into his skin.
Zidian stayed wrapped around Bichen, but Jiang Wanyin turned the head in surprise. His outstretched arm failed to catch Sizhui before the fall, and as Sizhui scratched his hands pushing himself upright, he refused to take it.
Sizhui stared at Hanguang-Jun, desperate for a cue of any kind telling him what to do. But Hanguang-Jun only stared back with a tormented look on his face. He almost seemed to be the one asking for help.
“Sect leader Jiang,” Sizhui begged. “Please, stop fighting. You’ll wake up everyone, if people see you attack another sect leader, they will…”
Perhaps they’d simply separate the two of them, or perhaps it would be seen as an act of provocation and war. Lan Sizhui knew little of the Jiang sect and its disciples; they were not close to Gusu in any way. There had never seemed to be any love lost between Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin in the few times Sizhui had seen them together, and in fact, he often felt that Jiang Wanyin hated Lan Wangji with his entire heart.
But how did this have anything to do with him?
He asked himself these questions until sect leader Jiang pulled on Zidian, lashing it to the side and sending Bichen flying away; then turned to him and said, “This man killed your father.”
Sizhui felt that Hanguang-Jun said something then. Another order for silence perhaps, or simply a whine of pain as it sounded like through the fog in his mind. He looked at him and then back at Jiang Wanyin in incredulity.
He asked, weakly: “What?”
“He killed your father,” Jiang Wanyin repeated. “And then he took you away before you could even know who he was. He took you away thirteen years ago without telling you anything. Your precious Hanguang-Jun has been lying to you all along.”
He was now the one looking lost. The one who seemed like he would cry out in pain any second now.
“I wouldn’t even know,” he said. “I could have lived my whole life without knowing if you didn’t look so much like him.”
Sizhui’s heart beat so fast and so loudly that it deafened every other sound around. Neither Zidian’s crackling nor Bichen’s cleaving the air made any noise that he could hear. The word filled his chest and his throat; a father, a father, a family somewhere; and he stared at Lan Wangji once more for a hint of denial, knowing not whether he hoped for it or not. But there was no denial to be found there. Only a look of such deep sorrow, of such wretched guilt, that Sizhui suddenly wondered if it had been present all along, and he had simply not known how to see it.
“Who do I look like?” he asked. He felt so weak in the knees that a breeze might have been enough to send him falling again into the thorny flower bed.
He saw Lan Wangji move, as quick as the moonlight’s rays themselves, until he was close enough to touch and one of his hands took hold of Sizhui’s arms. On his other side, Jiang Wanyin grabbed him as well.
Then a loud shout came from far in the distance, much louder than all three of them had been. Doors opened along the corridors, the quick footsteps of guardsmen crushing stone, wood and pebbles. New voices came.
And suddenly a chill climbed up Sizhui’s body and made every hair on his skin rise.
Bichen’s glow dimmed and Zidian’s whip vanished. Sizhui finally likened the chill to what he had felt in Yi City—resentful energy, this time in a gust so potent that he felt his own power falter and knew he would not be able to unsheathe his own sword—and before he could move or speak, Hanguang-Jun and Jiang Wanyin both had flown away and left him standing alone.
He gasped, crossing his arms around himself, and felt as though the air had iced and tiny needles were cutting their way down his lungs.
More running steps echoed. More shouts rang through his skull like a headache.
“It’s the Yiling Patriarch!”
“It’s Wei Ying! He’s back from the dead!”
With the same effort one would exert to push over a boulder, Sizhui took a step toward the entrance hall.
He managed to run the last of the distance. A thick crowd had gathered already, and he had to push his way through the goo that each stranger’s body was made of, causing some to fall and others to curse him. At last he broke out of the trees and into the clearing.
Lianfang-Zun stood a few steps away with a blood-soaked sword in hand. A deep slash had cut along the length of his right arm, and Sizhui heard Jin Ling’s voice scream, “Little Uncle!” as the boy’s gold-clad silhouette emerged and rushed to hold the man upright.
Against the wall opposite him, Lan Wangji knelt; and in his arms, Mo Xuanyu was sprawled, blood spurting out of a wound in his side and spreading thickly over the floor, cold air exuding out of him, his unseeing eyes shining crimson.
Sizhui iced over once again. He found that words could not reach his mouth. Around them all, cultivators screamed and pulled out their weapons, pointing them at Mo Xuanyu, calling: “Wei Ying!”
But all he heard was a whisper coming out of Hanguang-Jun’s mouth: “Wei Ying,” he was saying in a rasp of a voice. His hands pressed over the horrid wound. They were already coated in blood.
Mo Xuanyu breathed out, “Cauterize it.”
Hanguang-Jun did not hesitate.
Bichen in one hand and the other still stoppering the bleeding, he closed his eyes and waited until the blade turned a hot red. He tore up the fine kunze robes to expose the wound to light and pressed the flat of the sword against it.
Mo Xuanyu screamed. Sizhui moaned in fear, shaking, and finally made his way to their side. Neither seemed to notice him; but Hanguang-Jun let him help to bend Mo Xuanyu forward so that he could burn the exit wound closed as well.
A rumble came and shook the ground. Still trembling through all his limbs, Sizhui watched as an entire row of people were thrown aside to make way for a newcomer. Covered in dirt from head to toe, grey-skinned and sharp-clawed, the man made a barrier out of his own body before them. He caught the first flying sword with his bare hands and broke it cleanly in half.
New cries came. “The Ghost General!” they said; “It truly is Wei Ying!”
“Let’s go,” said Mo Xuanyu by Sizhui’s side. How could he still be conscious? “Lan Zhan, let’s leave.”
“Yes,” Hanguang-Jun replied softly.
“Wen Ning, don’t hurt them.”
The moving corpse turned the head aside. “Master,” he replied. It sounded like begging.
Mo Xuanyu shook his head. He cried out when Hanguang-Jun lifted him from the ground, making Sizhui’s chest spasm again in worry.
“Boy, don’t you want to keep living!?”
Sizhui did not immediately understand that these words were meant for him. The Jin sect woman who had shouted them was now grabbing a bow and notching two arrows at once to its string.
“But,” he managed to say, “Mo Xuanyu— he’s—”
“This is not Mo Xuanyu! It’s the Yiling Patriarch!”
Wordless, thoughtless, he could only stand there.
“Get away from us,” a whisper reached him.
His head whipped back.
Mo Xuanyu was looking at him. “Don’t get involved,” he continued. “This has nothing to do with you.”
The strikingly familiar face was drenched in sweat, and he was clenching his jaw to stifle cries of pain. He tore a hand out of Hanguang-Jun’s careful hold and pushed against Sizhui’s torso with an additional spurt of spiritual energy. Sizhui fell back with a shout of surprise; his back hit someone’s solid body, and he was caught before he could collide with the ground.
He looked up. Jiang Wanyin stood there with a dreadfully-white face.
More swords’ glows flashed around them, all of them caught by the Ghost General’s fierce hands. No cut and no arrow stopped him, for he could not feel pain. As Mo Xuanyu had ordered, he made no move to attack and only followed Hanguang-Jun’s fleeing steps to keep him and Mo Xuanyu close behind.
“Wei Wuxian,” a strangled voice came over Sizhui’s shoulder.
A longer distance separated them from the fleeing duo, but the sound carried over anyway. Mo Xuanyu’s eyes came to rest above Sizhui to meet sect leader Jiang’s stare. For a glacial second, the brouhaha of the fight flickered out. The arm which had broken Sizhui’s fall tensed and spasmed.
“You’re,” Jiang Wanyin said.
“Jiang Cheng,” Mo Xuanyu interrupted.
Jiang Wanyin choked audibly.
He was not the only one: in front of them, Mo Xuanyu seemed to have swallowed in lake-water and found himself out of air. Still, he spoke, his words as faint as the lick of a candle being blown out.
“Jiang Cheng,” he repeated, “get him out of here.”
Bichen had returned at last to its usual white color. As soon as it did, Hanguang-Jun ordered it to the ground and stepped on its blade with a loud echo of metal hitting stone, and, holding Mo Xuanyu against him as one would a lover, he took flight.
Screams erupted all around. Wretched words distorted the space of the hallway, losing themselves to the emptiness that the grand doors gave to, falling down the mountainside and dissipating on the wind.
Another glow, coming out of another sword, blinded Sizhui’s eyes. With a gasp of surprise, he was hoisted upon Sandu, Jiang Wanyin’s arm suddenly wrapped around him as solidly as a chain. Only then did he notice just how thick the crowd had become. He and Jiang Wanyin knocked into a dozen crazed cultivators at least, all of them rushing out of the hall and after the fleeing Ghost General. They hardly seemed to notice it.
Sandu lifted them high over the Tower, so high that the pearlescent trail of the stairs below could no longer be seen, and cut through the night to take them both away.
Birdsongs tore Wei Wuxian out of his slumber.
He grabbed onto their melody for lack of anything else. His head was full of a fog he could not do away with even after opening his eyes. His lethargy had dried his mouth and numbed his body. The bitter aftertaste of medicine lingered on his tongue.
His next inhale felt like the first of a very long time spent lacking air, and the next thing to wake him was the sudden pain tearing through his body.
A shout escaped him—or, at least, the breezy excuse for one, as he had no voice at all. After a terrible moment of panting, he rasped out, “I’ve had enough of being stabbed.”
The birds quieted at once.
The fog was dissipating. Daylight broke through the veil of his weakened eyesight. Wei Wuxian blinked away the tears that immediately escaped him and licked his dry lips. He coughed to expel the phlegm gathered down his throat, and regretted it immediately: his side erupted in agony.
He allowed himself to shake until the pain abated, smoothing his quick breaths into deeper and fuller exhales. His head throbbed with the effort. He managed by some miracle to lift an arm and touch his torso as lightly as he could. His fingers brushed over tightly-wound bandages. Greasy ointment had seeped through the cloth placed right above the wound.
“Young master Wei,” said a gentle voice.
Wei Wuxian snapped out of his confusion. He turned his head to the side, almost dislodging the pillow it was laid on, and found the blurry shape of a man dressed in white.
He was sitting cross-legged in front of a low table, in the middle of a room cleaned and organized in a way only the Lan clan cherished. These were not birds Wei Wuxian had heard, he realized, as the man slowly set the xiao he was holding over the table; and this man was not Lan Wangji.
It was Lan Xichen.
Lan Xichen rose to his feet in one elegant move. A window was open so as to cool the room, and his robes fluttered as he passed it by on his way to the bed. He seemed to hesitate as he reached it, wondering perhaps if he should sit on it or kneel by it on the floor. He chose to kneel, and Wei Wuxian thought that he would rather have the man sit, so that their faces did not end up so level and so close.
He started to push himself upright. Lan Xichen lifted a hand to help him, and Wei Wuxian slapped it away.
It was a stupid decision, truly; the agony came back the second he clenched his abdominal muscles. His arms shook under his own weight, his breathing vanished into a voiceless moan. Lan Xichen made no further move to touch him and simply watched, the worried crease of his brow obvious even at the edge of Wei Wuxian’s vision. When Wei Wuxian finally managed to sit up, Lan Xichen was polite enough to wait until his breathing had calmed down before speaking.
“You’ve been asleep for three days,” he said. “You should avoid moving yet.”
Wei Wuxian wanted nothing less than to make small talk with this man. Had he not been as weak as a newborn fawn, he would have expelled him out of the room with all of his power.
“Where am I?” he asked, though he had a good idea.
“The Cloud Recesses. I apologize for being here instead of Wangji. He has been busy keeping sect leader Jiang from destroying our wards, and asked me to keep an eye on you.”
“I don’t need your apologies,” Wei Wuxian spat.
To his credit, Lan Xichen kept his face exempt from the pity he surely felt. Wei Wuxian had no such control over his emotions, and his body seemed to have forgotten physical pain in favor of something much worse.
Snow and silence in a miserable town. Birds’ feet clawing at his skin. The feeling of being emptied out of everything—guts, blood, soul, until all that remained of him was a misshapen sheet of skin awkwardly hanging from his bones.
“Get out of my sight,” he said weakly.
A moment of silence followed, such a limp and stretched-out moment, that Wei Wuxian wondered in a panic if Lan Xichen would refuse. But the man finally rose to his feet again. “There is medicine for you on the table,” he said without anger. “It will help with the pain.”
Wei Wuxian gave no answer, and Lan Xichen left the room without waiting for one.
All the air in his lungs left Wei Wuxian in a hurry. Each of his tense muscles relaxed at once and almost made him fall back. He pressed his hand against his wound until a semblance of calm came back to him and finally looked properly around.
The room he was in was arranged in the Lan clan’s favored way, but it looked strikingly bare even for their standards. When Wei Wuxian had come to the Cloud Recesses as a child, the dorms he occupied were empty save for beds and desks, but there still seemed to be life around. Old half-finished drawings from former classes left to rest in drawers, silver tools oxidized by time, signs of age in the wooden floors and walls. This room, however, was empty, as if no one had ever slept there before him. Whoever had cleaned it had done a hasty job of it: dust remained in corners and over unoccupied surfaces. There was no art to be seen, no ink or inkstone on the desk, no brushes to write with. The incense burner next to the bed looked unused.
The bowl of medicine had been placed on the bedside table. There was food as well—broth, bamboo shoots, no trace of meat or wine. It almost made him smile. He painstakingly dragged the table closer rather than attempt to move his own body.
He forced himself to drink the repulsive medicine, and within a minute, the pain thinned into a bearable line of heat cutting through his front and his back. He could not have eaten meat anyway, even if it were presented to him all roasted and seasoned; as it was, he had a hard time swallowing down the broth and vegetables. Nevertheless, he ate all that was available before standing up.
He had been changed into a plain white robe, doubtlessly by Lan Jingyi. Traces of sweet berryscent were threaded into the fabric. The silver ribbon Lan Wangji had gifted him and which was now wrapped around his wrist, however… He did not think Jingyi was responsible for that.
Wei Wuxian made his way out of the room slowly, keeping his back as straight as possible in order to avoid pulling on either side of the wound, and finally looked outside.
The Cloud Recesses of Gusu were as splendid now as they had been almost two decades ago. The white sunlight drew upon each twisting path and each running stream like masterful lines of white ink, making a painting out of the sights no matter which way one looked. And Wei Wuxian looked every which way. He stood at the threshold of the empty room for what felt like an hour and did nothing but look.
This was the place where he first recognized himself as different; where he was first recognized as different. He had experienced his first vile stares, his first heavy whispers, in the midst of all this water and rock.
But this was also the place where he had first met Lan Wangji.
He still recalled the way to the wall he had climbed up and down at night, fetching liquor, offering it to the silent boy who had caught him. He knew which path to follow to reach the cold pool where he had breached mores and virtue in the worst way yet, watching Lan Wangji bathe, feeling his heart quiver, thinking the forbidden thought of bathing with him.
Wei Wuxian had no desire to see Jiang Cheng now, so he made his way up the mountain instead of down. The path became thinner and less flat, the stream ceased to be followed by white stone walls carved with the teachings of the clan. Wei Wuxian kicked into stray rocks as he walked, startling birds away. The flapping of their wings hit the branches and trunks of trees and caused green leaves to fall. In the distance, he saw a white rabbit slowly jumping its way into the low foliage. He silently walked into its steps until a space widened, welcoming in sun rays, and there sprawled a dozen more white rabbits dazedly eating the grass.
Wei Wuxian looked to the side.
Lan Sizhui was sitting down in the grass as well with a rabbit in his lap, feeding it by hand. As soon as Wei Wuxian met his eyes, the boy jumped to his feet, causing the creature to run off in a fright. He seemed not to care at all.
“Senior Mo!” he repeated, smiling widely. Before he had taken two steps toward Wei Wuxian, however, he stopped. “I mean, um…”
“You can call me whatever you want,” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t care.”
“Then… Senior Wei?”
Wei Wuxian nodded. Rather than looking horrified at the confirmation of harmless Mo Xuanyu turning out to be the fearsome Yiling Patriarch, Lan Sizhui smiled and came to stand by him. “When did you wake up, senior Wei?” he asked. “How is your wound?”
“It’s fine. What happened?”
Lan Sizhui answered him as they walked up and up, following him without asking where they were going at all. Wei Wuxian had no idea anyway; he only wanted to avoid going down the mountain and facing the disaster that Jiang Cheng’s presence was sure to bring. Some of what the boy told him, he remembered: Meng Yao shouting his name until a hundred people and more had gathered and started attacking him, Lan Wangji burning his wounds closed with sobs shaking his chest, Jiang Cheng…
He did not want to think about Jiang Cheng.
“Hanguang-Jun let you sleep in the jingshi so that you wouldn’t be bothered,” Lan Sizhui said. “Most people aren’t allowed to come near. He wouldn’t even let Jingyi and I visit you.”
That word made memories ripple in him.
“Isn’t that Lan Zhan’s bedroom?” he asked.
Lan Sizhui looked confused. “Hanguang-Jun doesn’t live in the jingshi,” he replied.
“He did back when we were…”
Wei Wuxian did not finish these words. Lan Sizhui almost ran into him, so suddenly had he stopped, yet he barely noticed.
With the forest’s edge a few steps behind them and the midday sun bright above, the very top of the mountain was open to their view. But Wei Wuxian cared very little for the breathtaking sights of white rock flanks catching clouds as they flew, nor did he pay any mind to the wide-open world below stretching farther than one could see.
There was a little house perched at the end of the near-extinct path. A house with no windows; a house closed with a red door.
The medicine’s effect must have started waning, or else the trek had been too much too soon after such a deep wound, for pain was ringing again through Wei Wuxian’s entire side. He ignored it and kept walking, speeding his steps, until he stood before that door. Behind him, Lan Sizhui called his name a second time.
He found that the door opened easily. Whatever lock had once been there had been removed or destroyed. Wei Wuxian stared at the smoke-licked inner walls of the cabin, the dust-free floor, the paper-strewn table.
The clean beddings. The smell of freshly-burned incense.
“Why is this place lived in?” he asked.
“I said,” he repeated heavily, seeing Lan Sizhui’s smile fade and not caring at all, “Why is this place furnished? Who lives here?”
He took a step toward Lan Sizhui. The boy took a step back.
“Is it Lan Jingyi?” he snarled. “Are you people making him stay in a kunze house?”
“W-What kunze house?” Lan Sizhui stuttered.
“What do you think?”
He kicked into the door with enough strength to make its hinges rumble. A terrible ache spread through him, pulling at his burned skin, unfastening the bandages wound all around him, but it did not matter. Nothing mattered more than this.
“I was stupid,” he said in a mere breath; “I was so stupid to think things had changed. And I believed—I didn’t see, I didn’t notice—”
Betrayal gouged him out. He felt close to retching, and what would come out of him would not be vomit or bile, but blood—a hundred and twenty-seven lost lives’ worth of blood. And for months he had roamed with this new life he never deserved, for months, looking at this boy and not noticing anything.
He heaved. The ribbon tied to his wrist now seemed to be cutting into his skin.
As he started tugging at it with all his strength, fury and guilt screaming at him to tear it to shreds, Lan Sizhui exclaimed: “Jingyi doesn’t live here!”
Wei Wuxian stilled.
Lan Sizhui’s hands pulled at his, carefully guiding him out of the house. Wei Wuxian let go of the ribbon. The skin there was already chafed: minuscule spots of blood were appearing, ready to burst through and drip.
“Senior Wei, I don’t know why you’re so upset,” Lan Sizhui said—and he looked upset as well. “But Jingyi’s bedroom is near mine, next to the main classrooms. Only Hanguang-Jun lives here.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him. “Lan Zhan lives here?” he asked faintly.
“Yes,” the boy replied, wide-eyed, nodding fiercely.
There were no words left in him.
Why would Lan Wangji live in a half-burned kunze house? What could he possibly gain out of isolating himself in such a place, by choice, without anyone to lock him up by force and separate him from the world?
He looked at the house once more. Through the still-open door, what could be seen was only the bare essentials of living, as if Lan Wangji wished to cut himself out of all human comforts and desires. The lone room was only slightly more vivid than the jingshi Wei Wuxian had slept in.
He breathed in deeply. The left side of his torso throbbed.
“Let’s go back,” he muttered. “It smells like rain.”
In spite of the clear weather, the disagreeable scent seemed to have thickened out of nowhere and invaded his nose. Wet earth and wet grass. He turned around without waiting for Lan Sizhui to speak and took his first steps down the dirt path leading to the forest.
The way down the mountain felt infinitely longer than the way up did, perhaps due to the growing pain. Wei Wuxian took no break this time around to observe the rabbits hopping around his feet. Cold sweat started sticking to his back and his nape before he even reached the jingshi. He felt the urge to go inside once more; there was no sign of his clothes, not even the blood-smeared silk he had worn in the Jin clan’s manor.
Suibian was standing next to the bed, however. He took it in hand weakly.
Lan Sizhui stared at the sword in wonder when Wei Wuxian came out. It must have become a war relic of sorts in the minds of those who remembered his name—and many did, contrary to what he had believed. So many. Hardly any of those who had attacked him in the Tower had needed his name to be shouted around for their faces to twist in recognition and rage.
Good, he thought in a burst of terrible wrath. Let them remember. Let them hate me. Let them live haunted by all the lives they took on that day painted with blood.
People only appeared as they reached the bottom of the domain where the ward-heavy gate opened. They went unnoticed at first, for all clan disciples and seniors had their attention caught by the gate itself. When the first person turned their head and saw him, a loud and frightened yell escaped them and made others look around.
More yells, more murmurs, grew in their trail. Wei Wuxian saw a few of the elderly clansmen stumble back, and gathered that they must have been alive to see him go mad in the last days of his first life. They didn’t approach him, but even if they had, it would not have mattered.
The gate was within view. The spells protecting it shone a weak blue: the color of damaged wards. And Wei Wuxian had only ever met one person who carried the power to crush through spiritual shields.
Jiang Cheng must have been here for days.
Wei Wuxian crossed the stone arch of the gate until, at last, the noise beyond could reach his ears.
He saw Lan Xichen standing next to his brother, reeling with spiritual energy, both of them facing Jiang Cheng and—Wei Wuxian’s heart leapt up his throat—Jiang Yanli.
There was no avoiding this anymore. In truth, there had never been.
He walked around Lan Wangji’s side and ignored the sudden exhale that carried his name in worry. He could not gather enough courage to come within touching distance of Jiang Cheng, however, and slowed his tracks after only a few steps.
Jiang Cheng held Sandu in hand. The purple blade still stung after cutting into the wards, and grey spots had soiled the rush of power it carried.
His sword in hand, his face betraying a soul-deep turmoil, Jiang Cheng met his eyes.
“Wei Wuxian,” he said.
Whatever emotion his voice carried, Wei Wuxian could not decipher. It might have been anger or it might have been joy. It could be sorrow, it could be fear, it could be all of them twined together in one never-ending rope.
Wei Wuxian’s throat tightened and ached. “Are you done?” he pushed out of his empty lungs. “Or is destroying century-old magic your new hobby?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng repeated.
Sandu sheathed itself, and he closed the distance between them in a mere second, before Wei Wuxian could even make a move to avoid him, until both of his hands were wrapped tightly around Wei Wuxian’s upper arms as if to bind him in place.
Wei Wuxian could not have moved even if he had been free. His memories of Jiang Cheng had never shown him to be so sensitive in front of a crowd, and yet, in this instant, it was as though everyone but them had disappeared. Jiang Cheng did not look anywhere but into Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
He held Wei Wuxian by the arms until his grip became painful; his eyes watered, his breath shattered, and suddenly he pulled Wei Wuxian forward and crushed him against his front.
His entire body shook—with sobs, loud moans, and his tears leaking down Wei Wuxian’s neck and collar like stream-water.
Wei Wuxian tried to push him away. Jiang Cheng did not let him. It felt like being tied front-first to a stone pylon, and Wei Wuxian’s mouth would not, could not, utter any plea to be let go of. Stone at his front and the weight of longing at his back kept him frozen out of time, hapless, no longer a master of his own will and body.
Thirteen years ago, such an embrace would have destroyed him. The qianyuan-scent filling his nose and the forced immobility would have cut through this precious bond of theirs, no matter that Jiang Cheng was family and had never thought of him as anything but a friend and brother.
But the taste of dirt never came. No phantom hands appeared to choke his neck as he was humiliated, no hot breath against his ear nor any chill running down his naked back. Slowly, as the seconds crawled around them, Wei Wuxian felt himself let go of fear. His arms moved to hold Jiang Cheng back; and Jiang Cheng, shaken through the core, dragged one hand up his nape and into his untied hair.
Wei Wuxian didn’t cry, as Jiang Cheng was crying enough for the both of them. He gazed over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder at the green moss cloaking the trees around and let himself breathe.
It lasted forever. It lasted only long enough for him to blink once, light and dark and light again. When Jiang Cheng finally pulled away, Wei Wuxian was the one who almost dragged him back in.
The sounds and presence of their public reappeared, and Jiang Cheng croaked out, “It’s really you.”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“How? I saw you, I saw your body in the Burial Mounds…”
Wei Wuxian glanced at the Lan clan members around him and shook his head. “It’s a long story,” he said, hoping Jiang Cheng would understand.
Whether or not he did, Jiang Cheng asked no more on the topic. He looked to be caught again in a disbelieving haze, and kept staring up and down Wei Wuxian’s body as if unwilling to trust his own eyes.
Wei Wuxian gave an awkward smile. “It’s really me,” he said again. “Unfortunately for you.”
His attempt at a joke fell entirely flat.
At Wei Wuxian’s back, light footsteps brushed the earth, and he heard Lan Sizhui’s voice murmur something to one or both of the Lan brother. His nose bristled again at the heavy smell of rain, and he rubbed it forcefully.
He was about to speak again—any word that could break this silence between Jiang Cheng and himself would be welcome and allow him to feel a little less like a gust of wind about to be blown away—but Jiang Cheng’s eyes suddenly snapped aside, and his face once more broke into those incomprehensible shades of grief.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he suddenly asked, terribly pained. “I could’ve helped you. Did I—”
He shivered visibly. At his side, Jiang Yanli, whose presence Wei Wuxian had entirely forgotten, put a hand on his shoulder.
“Did I become so unworthy of your trust?” he went on. “What did I do to make you so distant?”
He suddenly stopped himself.
“No,” he whispered. “I know what I did. I’m so—”
“What are you talking about?” Wei Wuxian cut in.
The sweat along his back had suddenly become slimy, sirupy, as thick as the smell of rain that turned him light-headed. All he knew at that moment was that he could not stand to hear any apology.
He regretted asking. He didn’t want to know. His wound was a long spear of agony radiating through all of him, and words came to him unbidden out of the mist of his past life: I feel like a gutted fish.
Gutted, eviscerated, only a sheet of skin enveloping brittle bones.
“About the child,” Jiang Cheng said. He had whispered it so as not to be heard, taking a step closer, his eyes eager and remorseful.
Wei Wuxian saw only white.
“What child,” he breathed out.
He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know—
“Lan Yuan,” Jiang Cheng replied.
Wei Wuxian didn’t move, but he felt that others did. Sandalwoodscent slipped by his side, harsh words shooting out of its body like arrows. It demanded Jiang Cheng stay silent like it did on the white stairs a few days ago. A slick cry of metal hitting metal tore the air in two. Someone hit the ground and another stepped forth, and only when hands took hold of his shoulders again did Wei Wuxian recognize their owner.
“I could’ve helped you,” Jiang Cheng begged; “I spent so long thinking about it, but I only realized when I met him… I could’ve helped you. I would’ve helped you! You didn’t have to estrange yourself from us because of it, I wouldn’t have let you raise him on your own!”
Wei Wuxian’s legs became weak.
Next to them, someone else approached, shorter and swifter. The horrible smell strangled Wei Wuxian like a rope around the neck.
“Sect leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui said. His voice had become a little child’s plea. “What are you saying?”
“He thought we would reject him for giving birth to you…”
Jiang Cheng said more, but Wei Wuxian heard none of it.
The cloud of his body slipped out of Jiang Cheng’s hold. He thought he felt his name be called somewhere beyond the edges of the mist. But he could hear nothing and see nothing save for Lan Sizhui’s face turned toward him, tearing his self apart with one look of his grey eyes. Choking him to death with his scent of petrichor.
Grey eyes which had wept a toddler’s thick tears after breaking a pot of seeds in the dark of the bloodpool cave. A quick, dimpled mouth which had laughed after being discovered hidden in a carriage on the way out of Yiling.
“Lan Yuan,” Wei Wuxian said. “Wen Yuan.”
Hope made Wen Yuan’s face glow like the sun.
Suibian slid out of its sheath like water out of a spilled glass. Wei Wuxian stepped on it, stumbling with pain and exhausting Mo Xuanyu’s atrophied golden core, and flew into the open air.
He flew as high and as far as he could. Cold seeped into his bones, numbing his fingers and toes, crystallizing the breath coming out of his nose, but he did not slow.
He could tell that he was being followed. Lan Wangji’s voice called his name ceaselessly, flying close to him, not quite daring to reach for him. Wei Wuxian felt the burn on his torso tear open and weep through the white robes.
He did not stop until exhaustion forced him to.
He would have fallen to his death if Lan Wangji had not caught him. Another gut-wrenching memory broke into him as he was held—Jin Zixuan holding him much the same, falling down with his arms around him.
Wei Wuxian hit the ground painfully. He stayed still and silent, looking down at Suibian lying powerless next to him.
When Lan Wangji tried to touch him, he pushed him away. He was so weak that Lan Wangji could have withstood the blow without even moving, but all that the man did was leaning back.
“You’re bleeding,” he spoke.
Wei Wuxian touched the left side of his chest. His hand became stained and moist. He wiped it on his knee, spreading more of the blood onto the borrowed clothes. He felt no pain now, although he could barely move a muscle anymore. The deserted valley they had landed in cushioned the wind’s whistle and the birds’ cries.
“You kept him.”
His voice lacked any texture, as his throat had taken cold.
“You kept him,” he said, looking at Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji stayed silent.
He almost felt like laughing. Nothing made sense to him anymore. It all felt like a dream he was meant to endure wide awake.
“Oh, Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji. Savior of the orphan and the widow. Did it make you feel proud? Feel righteous?”
No answer yet again. Lan Wangji remained as still as ice.
But Wei Wuxian was the one who truly felt like ice melting out of existence with every passing second.
“Do you even know who he is,” he said.
“I do,” Lan Wangji whispered.
Wei Wuxian buried his face in his hands and clawed into the skin of his forehead, heaving, trembling.
“You told me,” Lan Wangji replied, hearing the wordless question as he could hear everything else that Wei Wuxian did not say during each day that they spent together.
“I don’t remember telling you,” Wei Wuxian said.
But this meant nothing either. Wei Wuxian could barely remember his past life. When the fancy took him to try, his mind seemed to collide with an endless and slippery surface.
“When were you going to tell me?” he asked.
Lan Wangji answered, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” Wei Wuxian chuckled. “Isn’t that a fine answer, Lan Zhan. A scholar’s answer.”
At his periphery, he saw Lan Wangji’s hands press onto the ground as if he meant to bow at some deity’s altar to ask for forgiveness.
Don’t you dare, Wei Wuxian raged.
“Were you waiting for me to become close to him?” Oh, how bitter he felt, more bitter than the medicine, more bitter than ever before. “Did you think all would go well as long as I started to like him?”
Lan Wangji hurried to say, “No,” but Wei Wuxian had no wish to hear it.
“How disappointed you must be in me,” he went on. “I haven’t changed at all and I never will. The sight of him will always make me sick, and if he were to drown in a lake in front of me, I would not swim to his aid.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji called softly.
“I’m still the same monster I was thirteen years ago,” Wei Wuxian said. “There is nothing between me and that child other than sharing the same blood. And even this bond means nothing to me, because the other blood he shares has tainted him irremediably.”
Him and I both, he thought; and he rose to his feet with all the strength left in him to avoid seeing Lan Wangji’s face.
He looked down at him only when he was sure that he could bear it. Still, it hurt, more than anything had ever hurt, this betrayal and these lies which Lan Wangji had let gape and fester under his very eyes.
“This is where we part ways,” Wei Wuxian declared.
Lan Wangji looked up at him, a whimper leaving his throat, and grabbed the hem of Wei Wuxian’s robes.
“Please,” he said. “Not yet, not now. Please let me—let me show you something first.”
Wei Wuxian laughed coldly. “What else is there to show?” he asked, spiteful. “Another thing I forgot? Did I have another child without noticing?”
His own words made him want to retch. He swallowed back the sickness burning up his chest and throat.
“I know I don’t deserve your trust,” Lan Wangji pleaded. “But, just once… Just one last time. If you—”
He gasped, grabbing his own chest, and the picture that he made then had Wei Wuxian glimpsing other fleeting images of another fleeting time.
Lan Wangji spoke again before he could understand what they were. “If you still wish to go your own way,” he said, “I will not stop you. I will never stop you. But please… trust me, just one more time.”
He wanted to.
There had never been a person Wei Wuxian wanted to trust more than this man. Even now, with his wound torn open by the flight and his heart wrecked by the knowledge that the child had been by his side all along. Even with the clear evidence of Lan Wangji’s lies, he wanted to trust him. He ached at the thought of leaving him and never seeing him again. His body felt pulled four different ways as if being quartered, and still, he wanted to stay. He bled at the very thought of a life spent without that white ribbon at his wrist.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll trust you one last time.”
One last time.
He had to stop his own arm from reaching forward to help Lan Wangji to his feet.
They walked for two days and one night.
Wei Wuxian had no idea where they were heading. He spent those long hours advancing slowly, forcing Lan Wangji to adapt to his pace, trying not to think about the end of the journey and the promise of separation. He spoke no word at all during that time; after a handful of attempts to talk to him, Lan Wangji remained silent as well.
They marched north around the mountains. Burned fields met them one after the other, with sparse houses grown out of the soil here and there. None seemed inhabited: rusted cropping tools had been left in heaps on thresholds or hanged from thick nails buried deep in the walls.
Whenever they stopped to rest, Lan Wangji did not offer to help Wei Wuxian tend to his wounds. As the only torn one was at his front, Wei Wuxian could reach it well enough to apply the ointments Lan Wangji apparently kept on himself wherever he went. He wound bandages around himself clumsily. He never asked for a hand.
At dusk on the second day, they were met with a deep and dark forest, whose trees were so tall and closely gathered that they looked to be a sea waving with each whisper of wind. Nothing there seemed to be of notice: the landscape was as deserted as all others had been on their way, but Lan Wangji walked into the forest without stopping at all, and so Wei Wuxian followed.
He heard no cry and no shuffle from any animal, not even the buzz of insects. The forest seemed to have swallowed all life that once roamed there and left the land dead and silent. For hours they wandered without any path to lead them. Twilight blackened over their heads until they saw nothing at all. Lan Wangji lit a fire talisman to show the way.
Then, after an endless and lifeless trek, something became different.
It was the warm caress of spiritual energy coming from right ahead: powerful wards glinting redly in the light of the flame, giving a semblance of life to the deathly forest.
Lan Wangji reached into his sleeve and pulled out a wooden tile. He presented it forward, and Wei Wuxian glimpsed the thin strokes of an array painted on it, before white light grew out of the shields and forced him to close his eyes.
He felt a hand slip into his and tug him forward slowly.
The crossing of the wards was akin to walking into a grotto hidden by a thin waterfall. And as soon as the sheet of warmth was behind him, Wei Wuxian heard what he had expected to hear all along: mice running through lush bushes, insects flying next to his ear, the loud snort of a fox somewhere ahead.
A soft breeze swept into his clothes and warmed up his skin. The fresh scent of foliage and tree-sap filled his nose. Under his feet now lay a path clearly drawn by human hand and leading gently uphead.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Lan Wangji let go of his hand without answering.
As he gave no sign of moving anywhere, Wei Wuxian stayed still as well. They waited like this for a short span of time, until at last a light appeared at the other end of the road.
The person holding it kept a tranquil pace, as if nothing around was surprising or strange at all. The lantern they held blurred their silhouette too much for the eye to discern, but Wei Wuxian felt his heartbeats grow in speed and his eyes wet with tears before the newcomer even spoke.
“Bringing another one, Hanguang-Jun?” asked the brisk, familiar voice. “It has been a while.”
Light flickered over the snake-shaped tassel hanging from her belt. Pepperscent overcame any smell he could have possibly looked for. She lifted her arm to spread the lantern’s glow around so that they could all see better; and, as she heard the sob spill out of Wei Wuxian’s scorched lips, Wen Qing turned to face him; her face bathed in moonlight, her beloved eyes meeting his after an eternity of loneliness.
AN: Happy new year! : )
I had to proofread this in a hurry because I’m going to London tomorrow, so please forgive me for any mistake left! Also: I made a new playlist for this fic! Sorry to all these great artists for using your music for omegaverse fanfiction.