In the land directly north of Lan Zhan's village, there is a dense and dark forest. Past that forest, there is a castle. They say a cursed prince lives there.
They say he has no heart. He is as cold as ice, for a witch took from it him and once, he was fair and good, but now he cares for nothing and no one.
The villagers say that although this town was not of his kingdom, he was still kind and benevolent to them, and treated them like his own subjects. He was young, and often came to visit as a child. That time is over, and now those who look to the north do so in trepidation, wary of what they will find if they traverse through those woods.
No one knows what this prince looks like anymore, though they say he was handsome beyond compare. The curse has taken his face away from them, and now all that is left is caution.
Lan Zhan does not know any of this of the cursed prince from before. He is new to this village— the villagers found him lying at the edges of the forest five years ago. He does not remember anything from before then except his name, but he knows he must have come from the north. His skin is pale, his accent refined and foreign. North, where that cursed prince resides, and he wonders what lies beyond that.
Lan Zhan does not mind not knowing. There is peace in his mind, a tranquil quality to all he does. Sometimes he feels like he has lost something important, and he knows it is all that was before. But it is alright with him, for his heart still beats, and his breath still comes out steady. He cannot return from whence he came, for the forest and the castle beyond is dark and dangerous, but this village is good.
He feels familiar with it, with the smell of wood burning and marketplace chatter. When the villagers find him, they help him, and give him the position of a hunter. There was once a youth his age that hunted for the village, but he disappeared, or left. No one knows. They give Lan Zhan his old house, all his tools and clothing. It feels odd, to take someone else’s things, but somehow Lan Zhan finds himself not minding.
Everything in this cottage smells faintly reminiscent.
So he hunts, with a bow and arrow and instinct, and his body remembers how to do it for him. He does not know why he knows how to use a bow, but it is not necessarily an uncommon skill, so he simply accepts it and quickly settles into his life. He is good at hunting, so the villagers like him. He brings back small game, sometimes a deer. Lan Zhan rarely goes into the forest, though, and no one expects him to.
It has been like this for five years, with Lan Zhan not knowing and hunting. He spends so much of his time by himself, yet he does not feel alone. There is a warmth in his chest, even when the weather turns cold as seasons pass, and he shivers and his breath comes out in a mist, he feels warm.
Lan Zhan’s thoughts drift back to the cursed prince, and he thinks, what sort of man is he, to have no heart? It must be dreadfully cold.
(How wrong he is, and how wrong they are, of ice and uncaring coldness. Wei WuXian burns.)
It starts when there is a girl who ventures into the northern forest does not come out. Her family grows worried by late afternoon. They ask for anyone, anyone at all. Will anyone help them find their wayward daughter?
“Brown hair, always in braids,” they describe. “A yellow sundress— sure to stand out.” Lan Zhan hears of this in the marketplace. He has never seen this girl before, but the description is good enough. There is no one who ventures into those woods, anyway.
And so he goes, because that is simply the way he is, and he sees no other option but to make sure the girl is found. He takes his horse, his hunting gear, and sets off to the north in a cold wind. It is late winter, and the nights are frosty— would she even be able to survive once the the light disappears?
The forest is half dim in the setting sun. Lan Zhan quickens his pace; it is no good to be caught in darkness. He does not expect to find her, does not expect to find anyone. He is unfamiliar with these areas, for no one goes here unless they must, but if nothing else, he will try.
And then he stumbles upon a figure.
Immediately, his bow is out and drawn. He unmounts, keeps pointing. The cloaked person is too large to be the girl.
The man in the cloak turns, and Lan Zhan finds his breath caught. This is… no one from the village. He is all deep, dark eyes, the same shade of hair. His body is shrouded in shadows, so all he can see is a slender face, set into an alight expression that somehow feels perfect.
“Name,” Lan Zhan demands coldly, for this man is not from the village, and he has been found wandering the forest that no one dares to enter. He either hails from the west, where cities sprawl in technology and innovation, or he is from the north, the forbidden lands. “Why are you here?”
“Wei WuXian,” the strangely alluring man replies, but those words mean nothing to him. He smiles easily, not fazed by the weapon being pointed at him. “I’m looking for a girl.”
Is this perhaps someone else the family has asked? Lan Zhan does not recognize him at all.
“And you,” Wei WuXian widens his smile, “Are Lan Zhan, now of the nameless village by the northern border.”
“We’ve met before,” Lan Zhan asks flatly, a questioning statement that must be true, for this cloaked stranger knows his name and face, and he has never questioned the fact that he is from the north.
There is no answer, but a smile turns to smirk, and Wei WuXian turns around, leaving his back wide open for any attack. “You’re welcome to follow, if you want. The girl has been here recently.”
Lan Zhan knows this, at least. There are signs of broken twigs, displaced pebbles and human interference that trail down an unpaved path. He had thought that they might have been caused by this stranger, but he walks with a hunter’s grace and tracker’s patience.
In another time, perhaps this man would have startled him with his strangeness, but today and now Lan Zhan follows quietly, leading his horse along on foot to match Wei WuXian’s pace.
It is not long before they both stop and stare, for they have reached a clearing.
The clearing is not particularly large, nor is it very brightly lit. The sun is setting quickly, and Wei WuXian exhales a slow sigh and starts to walk forward. “A bear, maybe?” He comments. “I saw a mountain lion once in this forest, a few years ago.”
In the almost-blackness, Lan Zhan can barely make out the torn dress and scattered hair that could, perhaps, once have been a braid. The girl is dead, clearly mauled to death by something. Judging by the increasing mess of her trail, she was being chased.
“What a shame,” the one beside him says, and he has to wonder if Wei WuXian is really talking about her death at all.
The man leans down, and with an easy tear, he pulls away the girl’s dress. Lan Zhan flinches— desecrating the dead, what does he think he is doing? “Stop,” he demands quickly, and Wei WuXian ignores him.
“Or, perhaps it was something supernatural after all,” he continues speaking aloud, and purposefully ignoring Lan Zhan’s glare, he gestures him over, points at the gaping hole where the girl’s left breast should be. “Look. Whatever it was, they took her heart.”
There are many reasons why one would want a heart. A human heart has strange qualities, be it for power, emotion, intelligence, magic. Any creature with the ability to control sorcery would desire human hearts.
Like a witch.
“What a shame,” Wei WuXian repeats, and with that, he grasps at the corpse. He throws it over his shoulder carelessly, and her neck dangles at a sickeningly broken position. “I was hoping that her heart wouldn’t be gone.”
“... Are you a sorcerer?” Lan Zhan raises his bow again. Sorcerers are dangerous beings, and no one has ever met one that has been friendly.
He laughs, “Hardly. I’m hopelessly inept at magic. Don’t worry about me, I’m harmless. And I know those arrows of yours are no bluff— even if I tried something, you would just kill me.” He even lifts his cloak slightly, revealing that he has no weapons besides a small hunting knife.
Lan Zhan catches sight of his clothes, though, and it is not the clothing of common folk. Even when he can barely see it, it is far too well made. “Then who are you?” Where have we met before?
Ignoring him, Wei WuXian looks up as if he has all the time in the world, comments, “It’s beginning to snow.”
It is light, the specks of white falling to the ground in soundless impact. But he looks up to the sky— the sky is almost completely black, and there are no stars or moon. The clouds are thick, which does not bode well.
And it is not that he wants to, for he cannot and will not trust him, but when Wei WuXian says, “Will you be able to return before night? If not, I’m quite willing to take a handsome man like you home,“ he finds himself following after him once again. Wei WuXian’s voice is suggestive, curiously low in the camouflage of night.
Yet, it is strange— the words seem to slip right past him. It is as if both of them know they mean nothing.
And that prompts him to speak. “You say words you do not mean.”
“And how do you know that?” Wei WuXian laughs, and for the life of him, he cannot discern whether the laugh is genuine or false. “I’m simply the way I always am.”
Somehow, that is a lie.
They walk in strange, muted silence again, something that bothers Lan Zhan the longer the quiet continues. He normally does not appreciate incessant chatter, and he finds peace in being able to hear nothing but his own thoughts. Now though, he finds his thinking is far too loud, and his heartbeat is strangely quick.
Lan Zhan steals a quick look at the stranger. Wei WuXian still carries the corpse over his shoulder, the girl’s eyes staring blankly at him in a blind accusation.
“Will you return the body?”
“No, I’ll be using it for fertilizer,” Wei WuXian answers promptly, and the response is so laughably morbid it seems like a bad joke. “What? Why are you looking at me like that? It’s a pity her heart was taken, but at least everything else will be put to good use.”
“Return her to her family,” Lan Zhan snaps immediately, for this is a true disgrace. Fertilizer?! The girl’s parents had been worried sick for their daughter, the least that could be done was to return her corpse for a proper burial.
“Her family?” Wei WuXian continues striding forward. “How could I? I can’t enter that village.”
He cannot? Lan Zhan has no time to wonder when he continues, “I can’t go past this forest. I’m restricted to move within certain boundaries.”
The more they talk, the more the dense rows of trees around them begin to change. It is a slow shift, from cold and plentiful pines, to a stop in the snowfall. Lan Zhan barely notices this, thinking of all the problems and contradictions hide in his statement.
Wei WuXian seems to be in the mood to share. “It wasn’t as if I saw her in this forest or in the village. She was standing in front of my house. When I opened the door, she got scared and ran into the woods. I went and followed her, that’s all. Honestly, I don’t think I look that scary; there was no need to run.”
There is no snow on the ground now. The air no longer has the smell of fresh wintry pine— it even begins to feel warm. Unnaturally warm, considering that it is winter and a storm is brewing. The north should only be colder. The trees are no longer as closely packed as before. Have they reached the other side of the forest?
“Where is your home?” Lan Zhan asks, for they have been walking for some time now, and they must be drawing near. He has never ventured this far into the woods. He thinks, why did the girl run away? Wei WuXian does not appear to be lying, but his words have no rhyme or reason behind it.
“Almost there.” Wei WuXian adjusts the corpse so that it isn’t slipping off his shoulder. The bloody body with yellow colored tatters is a striking juxtaposition to his black cloak and fair skin. “Oh, look. There it is.” He points.
It takes just a flash of an instant, just a fraction of a second, just half a flap from a butterfly’s wings, for Lan Zhan to realize that he has been made a fool of. He has been tricked, so completely and thoroughly, that he cannot even be shocked.
Wei WuXian hails from the north, with a home just beyond the northern forest. He was looking for the girl’s heart, yet he is no sorcerer. The girl had run away at the sight of him. Most of all, most importantly, and most essential to all he has learned: Wei WuXian does not mean what he says.
“It’s my house,” the heartless, smiling prince of the north says easily, perhaps enjoying the prank he has just pulled. As if his place of residence is just that, an ordinary house for ordinary people in an ordinary place, he points to the looming castle with its magnificent towers and stone walls. All of its torches and lamps are lit, and through the windows Lan Zhan can see that all the candles indoors are flickering with flame.
“I haven’t had guests in a very long time, though.”
“Open,” Wei WuXian states clearly, and with a rumbling creak, the castle gates and front door unlock themselves. They stand invitingly open, the fires from torchlight blazing.
Lan Zhan regards him flatly.
“What?” Wei WuXian sticks out his tongue in a childish display of maturity. “Are you going to run away from me as well? It’s not as if I’m going to eat you or something. I’m no beast.”
There are a million reasons why he should leave. It would probably be safer to make his way back through the forest. Even the girl had known— stay away from the heartless prince.
He staggers back as if he is wounded at Lan Zhan’s distrusting glare, a perfect picture of offense. “How rude! You do think that! Lan Zhan, I thought you of all people would know not to judge a book by its cover. It’s the inside that counts.” Then he thinks on his words. “... Although, I suppose I am being judged by my insides.” Patting the left side of his chest affectionately, “Can’t be helped. Sometimes you just have to give up a heart or two for a beautiful face.”
“You exchanged your heart for beauty?” Lan Zhan is dumbfounded. The idea is so ridiculous he does not know what to think of it.
“Of course. Look at me, was it not worth it?” Wei WuXian winks, and even blows a kiss, and then Lan Zhan knows he is not being serious. “Now, it is up to you whether you want to stay, but I really am no threat. I’m not interested in your heart, not unless you happen to keel over and die. I have standards, I won’t kill someone for it. If they just happen to die, well, that’s another story.
“Besides, you’ve already followed me so far, might as well go all the way, right? Lan Zhan, for someone you have just met, you’re oddly trusting.”
Wei WuXian points him in the direction of the stables helpfully, throwing the corpse onto the dusty, sandy ground and finally shedding his cloak. In the firelight, Lan Zhan can finally see it— the royal emblem stitched onto his breast, the pure white cloth that seems to shine at night, making the prince oddly glowing.
And perhaps it is just that, he tells himself, as he leads his horse to water and shelter. The way he finds himself inexplicably pleased as he sees the prince in his white, gleaming attire, he must understand that. He will stay just for the night.
Just for the night.
For dinner, Wei WuXian guides him over to a long dining table. In a massive breach of decorum, he seats Lan Zhan at an arbitrary seat and plops down beside him. The prince is supposed to sit at the end of the table, while Lan Zhan faces him from the other end that is closer to the exit.
Instead, the prince scoots their chair together, makes sure their legs make contact before he calls out, in a similar to when he had commanded the gates to open, “Food, please.”
One moment nothing is on the table, and the next, dishes and forks and spoons are laid out, and various platters of food are laid out in front of them. Wei WuXian does not hesitate, and he casually grabs a piece of bread, stuffs it into his mouth. “Well? Aren’t you going to eat?” He asks with his mouth full, and Lan Zhan leans slightly to the left to avoid a spray of crumbs. The prince deliberately laughs at the disgusted look on his face, which forces Lan Zhan to scoot away.
He says, “I suppose you might have some questions. The night is long, and I’m supposed to entertain guests, anyway. Ask me anything, I’ll answer.”
“Who are you?” Lan Zhan asks immediately, just to make sure.
“Wei WuXian. And a prince, for all intents and purposes.”
“Where is your heart?”
“Somewhere,” he answers vaguely. “Not in me, at any rate.”
(It is with the witch, then.)
Lan Zhan takes a moment to seriously stop and consider the man sitting beside him. He is not even sitting in his chair properly. One leg is propped up with an arm resting on it, and the other is tucked underneath him. He seems like… a regular person, not the unfeeling and cold prince he has been told of. But there will be much time to muse on this later, and he asks, “You said you cannot use magic, but this castle is clearly powered by it. And the land it sits on, there is no snow.”
“It’s not just me who is cursed, this entire area is too.” Wei WuXian reaches for some soup, ladles it into his bowl, and the liquid is a shockingly red. Ignoring his spoon, he lifts the bowl off the table and drinks from it directly. “It’s hard to see in the dark, but you’ll see it in the morning. The forest used to be right at my doorstep, but now it’s retreated quite a bit. Nothing can grow here. The soil is sand, the climate is hot and dry. You walk a bit further, and you’re back into the snowy northern forest, but there’s a certain radius around the castle that refuses to let anything live.
“For the castle itself, I suppose it is run by magic, and I control it. However, it’s not as if I was the one who made it like this. It’s always been this way— the castle is controlled by any of a loyal lineage, or anyone they give permission to. It’s a good thing this place has magic, too, otherwise I would have had to hunt my own food everyday.”
“What of your servants? Your retainers?”
Strangely enough, Wei WuXian seems to choose his words carefully before saying, “They all left, not soon after their prince was cursed. That was… five years ago, I think.”
Five years ago. Again, Lan Zhan will have plenty of time to think of this later.
“Why did you bring me here?”
Wei WuXian absentmindedly kicks off his boots, sits criss cross on his chair. “I didn’t. You chose to. A rather sensible choice, since it was already night and below freezing, but your own choice nonetheless. I had nothing to do with it.”
But you wanted me here, Lan Zhan finds himself mouthing the words, before realizing that that the statement is not true at all. Wei WuXian had, not once, ever expressed genuine interest in Lan Zhan. “If you want,” and “You’re quite welcome to.” suggestive phrases that meant nothing, words of fondness not quite fond, affection not quite affectionate. He shuts his mouth, thinking on how the words had come automatically, as if it were something he felt should be true, yet they were not.
He has followed a man to his home, he realizes with confused surreality. Of his own choosing.
“Have you had any of this yet? It’s good,” and suddenly, the prince is leaning over Lan Zhan, and he sticks a spoon into his mouth. It takes all of his willpower not to choke. He realizes now, the red color of the soup was from spiciness. It burns down his throat, and his ears pulse strangely. Yet, the taste is a welcome distraction from the increasing mysteries he has found emerging around him.
Wei WuXian grows amused again by his straight face, for he knows Lan Zhan cannot handle anything beyond mild spiciness.
One last question.
“Why do I not remember you?” Why does he not remember anything?
“Can’t say,” he replies cheerfully. “Why do you not remember me?”
Another untruth. Wei WuXian knows. Lan Zhan finally picks up his salad fork, before belatedly realizing that instead of calling things out in courses, as one usually does during dinners, Wei WuXian has piled all the food, from entrees to appetizers to desserts, out on the table.
The dark-haired prince notices his bemusement. “Are you really going to try and do that whole fork schtick? Honestly, you’re such a stickler for rules. Just use whatever fork you want,” and he casually throws two of Lan Zhan’s forks over his shoulder. They land on the ground with a clatter, and he calls out, “Clean it up!”, to which they disappear in a blink. “You don’t need two plates either, or all these spoons and knives. I’m sure you haven’t been fine dining in that time you’ve spent living at the village; why are you obsessed with all these manners?”
Unimpressed, Lan Zhan ignores him and lays out the dinner napkin on his lap. Wei WuXian has long since used his as a face wipe.
“Am I cursed?” He asks, and Wei WuXian shakes his head.
“Between the two of us, I’m the only one that is cursed.”
But there are other types of magic besides a curse, and Lan Zhan says, “Is there spellwork on me?”
To that, Wei WuXian can only look upon him with whimsical merriment. He cuts himself a slice of cake, eats it in two bites, then licks the plate clean. Lan Zhan is beginning to understand that much of what he is doing is an exaggerated form of entertainment for him.
The prince does not seem to care what Lan Zhan remembers or not. His ambivalency tugs at Lan Zhan like an unwelcome thought. “... How can I break my own spell?”
“Why would I know?” Wei WuXian responds carelessly, but it is not the same as saying ‘I don’t know’, so Lan Zhan waits with patience until finally the prince says, “I really can’t say. You have to understand, Lan Zhan of the nameless village, that I don’t care, nor do I have the ability to tell you what you want to know.”
That unwelcome thought in him shifts unhappily, something akin to envy pokes at him. Lan Zhan does not like those words at all. And he has never minded much, that he cannot remember anything earlier than five years ago. Suddenly, it is the most pressing, prevalent concern on his mind.
(Correction, it is the second. The first is to watch Wei WuXian, and the way he watches Lan Zhan, not nearly as attentively. They examine each other in a strange cycle of questions exchanged, bad table manners, actions meant to provoke.)
“How will you care?” Lan Zhan demands flatly, and then the answer is immediately obvious. How can he care about anything, anything at all?”
“You would have to break my curse,” the prince says. He gives Lan Zhan an assessing look, eyes coal-like and mysterious. He smiles a daring smile, and perhaps it could be handsome (of course it is). “I would need a heart, of course.”
“Oh, it’s simple. Just find a heart for me, or the meet original conditions to the witch’s curse: someone must love me for the way I currently am.” He laughs, showing teeth like a challenge, as if he knows it is an impossible task either way.
Finding a heart is easy. All Lan Zhan needs to do is find anyone, and then he has it. Taking their heart from them, however, is something Lan Zhan cannot do, for the ethical and moral implications behind such an act are beyond him.
… But to fall in love?
Oh, laughable. That is laughably easy. This heartless man, something whispers to Lan Zhan, that will not be so hard.
“What do you say, Lan Zhan?” Wei WuXian asks with nothing but polite whimsicality and surface-level interest. Can you fall in love with a monster?
In short, the answer is no.
An elaboration: it is not easy. It is difficult, impossible even. He fails, and finds himself dreaming instead, of someone else entirely.
This is not a tale of a hunter becoming hopelessly besotted with a prince from foreign lands. This is not a tale of how Lan Zhan falls in love at all, nor is it one of him learning how to care deeply for someone who is not himself.
There will be a day when he leaves the castle alone, on horseback— galloping forwards, and back into the northern forest. He travels away, away from this cursed land, and it is that day when his own heart is in resolved turmoil, for he has done nothing but hurt himself since day one.
Lan Zhan makes a decision to stay, and day one starts like this: a confrontation on a subject that had been pushed aside the night before.
“Technically, I have a claim on it,” Wei WuXian points out mildly. They are both standing outside in the blazing sun, and sweat trickles down the side of his face. “I was the one who found it first. Hunters’ rules apply; if neither of us killed it, finder’s keepers.”
Lan Zhan finds himself slightly sick. He stands on strange, claylike ground. It is almost orange, and yet, in the close distance, he sees the snowy expanse of the snowy woods. The girl’s body has already begun to decompose, and although the stench is not strong, it will be soon.
The prince is correct, he does have a better claim to the girl’s corpse. However, hunters’ rules shouldn’t apply here at all. “This is not an animal,” Lan Zhan responds with steel in his tone. This is a human, and the girl’s family deserves to have their daughter returned to them.
This is the first thing that hurts him. Wei WuXian has his own set of morals that deviate from the rigid line of his path. It is unlikely that their roads intersect very often, if at all, and he walks at a distance from him that is just slightly past the point to which Lan Zhan can tolerate.
“Is it not?” Wei WuXian says facetiously, cocking his head. “A corpse is a corpse, whether it be human or animal. It’s not like if I let you return her body, she would return to life.”
It isn’t a matter of living or dying. It isn’t a matter of practicality, or resources or logic. This is an affair of emotion and family, and if he cannot understand that, then…
Lan Zhan purses his lips, looks away, and loses the fight.
So this is how it starts: a confrontation between a heartless man and one who perhaps has too much heart.
Lan Zhan is not what one would call a particularly emotional man. He keeps his thoughts and feelings hidden, and to himself. There are very few times he feels the need to express his sentiments to anyone, and he has always been content with that. He says what he needs to, and that is all.
That way of thought stops at Wei WuXian.
He finds himself almost violently inclined towards him, in the way he speaks lightly of things that ought to be taken seriously. It’s funny, Wei WuXian seems to say, but it is not. He veers towards a level of apathy that diverges wildly from his expressive actions, playful words. His surface level actions are normal— characteristic, even, of one who wears their heart on the sleeve. But there is nothing there.
He has never compromised on his beliefs before. It makes him nauseous.
“Nothing grows here, but a human body holds power in the fact that it is taboo,” Wei WuXian remarks. “Perhaps I ought to be thanking people like you. The more outrageous an act is considered, the more energy there is in it. Using a human body as fertilizer seems like a suitably ridiculous thing. Perhaps it might just be able to counteract whatever the witch did to this land.”
Outrageous. Ridiculous. It is none of that. It is just pitiful, in the way that a family will never see their daughter again. Lan Zhan swallows that thought, then turns away at the way Wei WuXian looks upon the corpse with the interest of an experimenter, someone entirely brilliant and detestable.
So yes, day one is a detestable day. Lan Zhan is uncharacteristically outspoken. He has to be, otherwise Wei WuXian will do as he wishes.
Oh, you haven’t changed at all, someone says fondly, with an endearing lilt, but that is not what happens. “You haven’t changed at all,” Wei WuXian sighs, looking at his distinctly unhappy face. “Still so stuck in your ways.”
The words are correct— they seem to remind him of a time before… something. Nothing else matches, not the sigh, not the bored expression on the prince’s face. Boredom is not a good look on him. It makes his eyes dull, his lips turn down like someone has pressed them downwards in an unwanted demand.
It was I who made him look like that, and Lan Zhan despises both Wei WuXian and himself.
It is baffling how much it irritates him that the castle is not new. It ought to be a novelty, like the grand palace it is, yet he finds himself easily knowing all of its nooks and crannies. He wanders past books, the servant’s quarters, travels all the way up the south tower, where he scales the roof in a half-remembered step. It is a perilous climb, up a steep slope, yet he finds himself standing at the flagpole in moments.
He sleeps in a guest room. Wei WuXian offers better, and he refuses it. This changes, as well: when he sleeps, it is usually with blankness and necessity. Now, his dreams are restless, something to look forward to.
The first night, he closes his eyes and comes to the scene of a figure in hunting gear, his own hunting attire, standing beside him, with sweat trickling down his face. They are both outside in the blazing sun, and the ground is sandy, cakey, impossible to grow anything.
“You know, Lan Zhan, we have a dead person with us,” Wei WuXian sighs and points at the decomposing girl. “It’s a bit disconcerting to have her keep staring at me. Do you think we should bury her? It seems a bit rude to keep her rotting like this.”
Lan Zhan does not respond, and he huffs. “You keep saying we should give her back, but a corpse really is just a corpse. It doesn’t seem worth the trouble; the family would probably just scream if they saw her like this, and then bury her anyway. Isn’t it a lot easier to just do it now?”
He finds himself moving closer, towards him in a way that he cannot control. Wei WuXian watches him with positive adoration, responds, “Haha, what do you mean? I’m just being sensible. If I was this girl’s father, I would hardly want to remember her like this. Best to just bury her, then just tell her parents what happened, right?”
Then his eyes glance towards the hard and dusty ground, then back at the corpse. He looks thoughtful for a moment, then blinks rapidly at Lan Zhan’s voice.
“Huh? Oh, nothing,” he replies easily. “I just had some strange ideas. It might be something to consider though, if the cursed area spreads considerably, or the world is ending… What? No, you don’t want to know the details, Lan Zhan, you would just be disgusted.”
He ends up saying it anyway, and Wei WuXian snickers at the look on Lan Zhan’s face. “Yes, someone as straight laced as you would definitely disapprove. I’m not saying it’s a good idea. It’s not as if I want to eat plants that were recycled from the nutrients from dead people, but if I had to do it, I’d do it.
“Besides, isn’t it sort of interesting?” He looks down at the corpse with curiosity, no disgust at all. “To die, then be planted underneath a tree, or something of that sort. It’s almost as if you get reborn as a plant. Far more interesting than being buried in a casket. All those stone tombs royalty gets, pssh. I’d take a tree anyday.”
He brushes his hair out of his face. “Ah, it’s hot. Hey, don’t come over, I’m about to explode from the heat! Don’t come over, I say! I can appreciate your face from afar, there’s no need to make the air warmer in my area!”
Wei WuXian’s face splits into a grin as Lan Zhan reaches out to him. “Lan Zhan,” he calls his name again, and the joy in his words coruscates all around. “Lan Zhan, don’t you think it’s time for you to wake up?”
Lan Zhan wakes up right when dawn rises and realizes, that is not what happened.
… It should have been.
Consider a split between a dream and reality.
There is a split between his dreams and reality, and yet the only thing different is Wei WuXian. It is still too early, he has not yet made up his mind on anything. He cannot quite place what exactly the difference is between the two— much of what they say is the same. They share mannerisms, their facial expressions, even their sentence structures.
One thing he knows: when he wakes up, he wants to fall back asleep.
This is what happens.
Wei WuXian in the day is as he always is; a facade of a regular person. He wears white more often than not, is perpetually smiling and joking, making fun of things that ought not to be joked upon.
“So how are you enjoying your stay?” He asks Lan Zhan by the fourth day. “A welcome change from living in that village of yours, right?”
It is not. It is not, and that answer is as fiercely true as the level Lan Zhan finds himself detesting the man who is facing him. He misses his own home, and the solitude of living on instinct and taking one day after another. This castle is too small, restricted in how he knows every inch of it, and he can never get away from Wei WuXian.
“Oh, that’s no good,” and Wei WuXian seems to know what he is thinking anyway. “Hmm… how about I take you on a tour? You haven’t seen my study yet, have you?”
Wei WuXian, when he is not outside, is often in the north tower, the left wing of the castle. It is also his bedroom, and he leads Lan Zhan into a room filled with various half-finished projects.
He points to a contraption that Lan Zhan recognizes. “A telescope I’m making,” and raps it lightly. “It doesn’t work at all, so don’t bother trying to test it. I used metal from one of the pots in the kitchen, but I’m starting to think that was a bad idea.”
There are also small plants growing in pots, although they look sickly and pale. “Trying to get things to grow has been a very long project of mine. These are flowers from the forest, and soil from there too. They still die. It’s just too warm here, all this northern flora aren’t suited to it.”
Is this what Wei WuXian does everyday? Lan Zhan gestures towards a large hole in the wall. “What is this?”
He points at the stone that lines the hole. “This place, it quite literally is lined with magic and enchantment. Do you see it?”
He can. Quite faintly, something glows at the border. It flickers vaguely, struggling to repair the hole, but the prince quickly jabs his hand in and commands, “Stop.”
Why does he not let it heal itself? Lan Zhan asks, and the prince shrugs vaguely. “It’s a diagram. I imagine this must be what my insides look like. A hole.” He pauses, then picks up a wrench from a bench. “It’s just… a hole. But there are a million things one can do with this, and there are a million things you can put through.” With an easy throw, he flings the wrench through the wall. It skitters to the opposing room, landing on the ground with a piercing clang.
“I feel like it’s easy to think of someone like me as missing something,” he says casually, while Lan Zhan is still caught by the sudden force of something flung into the air. “But I find that it’s often not too bad. I’m still mostly here, and all of a sudden I’m able to do things that used to hurt me. It doesn’t bother me at all anymore, and if it doesn’t hurt me, then I can do it.”
Following this analogy, why would someone want to throw a wrench? He sees no reason in it. The prince sighs, says, “Well, perhaps it’s a bad metaphor.”
Before long, Wei WuXian guides him back out, to the main library of the palace. He has been here before, wandered past in the previous days, but he has never entered the room. “This would be something you like, right? Go ahead, read whatever you want.”
Lan Zhan finds an entire aisle of nothing but fairy tales, and he glances questioningly at the prince, who explains simply, “Research.”
“You know, they say that emotion does not come from the heart at all,” Wei WuXian says just a little while later, and he meanders over to where Lan Zhan is poring over some books on botany. He slumps into a chair, then flops to the side, letting his head casually lean on his shoulder.
Lan Zhan stiffens, for it is rare that anyone touches him at all, but Wei WuXian is not doing this with any regard toward him, whether it be out of fondness or playfulness.
He continues, “Emotion is a series of chemicals. Your brain is what controls its release into your body— how and what to feel. Apparently the heart has nothing to do with it; all it does is pump blood. Of course, if that was truly the case, I would hardly have a problem right now.” He thinks on that, adds jokingly, “Actually, I would definitely have a problem. I would be very dead.”
“... But you believe it,” Lan Zhan points out. Wei WuXian has faith in science, in the way he has built a telescope from nothing but things fallen into disrepair around the castle, in the way he pores over the strange heat surrounding them, dirt samples and dead plants littering his study. In the way he experiments with the magic weaved into the walls— with thoroughness and patience.
“Science is understandable,” Wei WuXian agrees. “You can learn, and you understand. I wasn’t always like this— I used to always hate books. I enjoyed the intangible and the romantic. Those things are lost to me now, so I will stick to what I can do.
“They say you love through your brain. Maybe it could be true, if there was not magic involved.” Wei WuXian touches his pulseless chest with vague curiosity. “I simply have a theory. What the witch took from me was my heart, and any emotion that I feel strongly. The more primal and instinctual a thought or sentiment is, the more I’ve lost it.”
Lan Zhan wonders, what sort of intangible, intuitive thought has he lost? That sort of texture and material, in which the answer slips from his fingers, he finds it again in the soft cloak of night.
This is not what happens.
“Are you just going to stay cooped up in this library?” Wei WuXian complains. He is forever in those clothes, the ones that do not belong to him. “It’s such a nice day. Are you sure you don’t want to go out and run around?”
Lan Zhan considers him, finally shakes his head. He points out that there are plenty of things he could be interested in here, if he bothers to look.
“Like what? Plants?” Wei WuXian picks up his book on botany with disgust. “You can do better than that, Lan Zhan. At least read about something vaguely exciting.”
His frowns, like a small pout. “I can see you, you know. I know you’re laughing at me. But what could plants possibly give you? You would be better off just staring at me for the rest of the day…” He pauses, looks surprised at Lan Zhan’s answer. With wonderful tenderness, “Of course not. Even if all you did everyday was sit and read, I would sit here with you. Why would I want to leave? Haha, alright, alright, recommend me something before I die of boredom.
“Fairy tales? Why would I need to read those? I already know how they all go.” But he does not see Wei WuXian for a long while once he wanders towards the aisle. Lan Zhan grows worried in this lucid dream, and he wanders over to the section.
Wei WuXian is sitting on the floor, curled up, with children’s tales around him, in a scatter around the floor. His face is knitted into a picture of perfect discomfit. Hearing footsteps, he says, “You know, these are really different from those stories they tell you as a kid.”
Of course they are. Witches are real, and magic is real. Fairy tales are cautionary tales for children, but how can they tell such gruesome, miserable tales to them?
“... What do you think it’s like to lose a heart?” He wonders aloud, and he pushes aside his nest of books so Lan Zhan can sit beside him. He leans his head on his shoulder, a comforting weight that makes Lan Zhan wonder why he wants to take the entirety of this man and smother him in an a crushing embrace.
“I think,” he starts slowly, “That if I were the one losing a heart, it might not even be that bad for me. Don’t look so surprised. Just think about it. I’m probably losing something very important, but after I lose it, it’s like I won’t even care anymore. It wouldn’t matter to me.
“But it would be terrible if it were someone else,” and Wei WuXian snakes his arm behind him, grabbing his other side. “I would be absolutely heartbroken, you know? That would be the worst part of losing such a thing— you hurt everyone around you.
“Maybe… maybe losing a heart would be like putting a hole in that wall.” He points at the stone down the aisle. “If you made a hole, then there would be a rip in the enchantments. But, it’s just one broken thing in the castle. Does it really matter? Maybe not. Maybe it would be nice to fix it, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small hole compared to every wall that is still in order. Nothing is going to collapse, the building is still standing.
“But to someone who was living here, and someone who sits and reads in the library all day,” he looks knowingly at Lan Zhan, “It makes a very big difference. There’s a hole in the wall! Relatively speaking, it’s large! Every time you look over there, it’s all you see. It would get awfully drafty and cold, freezing in the winter, and soon you would probably have to stop visiting because it’s just too cold to keep coming. It used to be something you loved, going to the library. Now, that hole makes you feel terrible every time you’re here. Everything can be exactly the same: the books, the pretty shelves, the tables, those really nice high arched ceilings, but it’s too late.
“Or, maybe that’s too strange of an analogy,” and Wei WuXian sighs, picks up another book. “I wonder what I would be like without a heart. A terrible person, I imagine. I’m already a shady individual— no, you can’t argue against that, Lan Zhan, I’m greatly suspect, and I greatly enjoy that reputation— so I can only imagine I would become more bold. I think I would be able to do a lot of things without a heart. If I cared about less things, maybe I would be able to do more with what was left behind. Is that a good thing? Maybe not. There should always be a limit on what one can do. What do you think?”
Lan Zhan pauses, feels a dull ache in his chest as he remembers something from reality, but the words come to him from a dream, words that he only knows true because he finds himself passionately not regretting it.
I would visit anyways, he says to Wei WuXian. That library, I would visit no matter what.
“And I, you,” he responds easily. “But isn’t that the most terrible part? No matter how much you came to the library, read your books and learned everything there is to know, there would still be a hole. You could read everything here, live here, and the situation would not change. You’d be torturing yourself over nothing.”
Then is it not obvious what to do?
“Of course you would say something that,” and he places his hand in Lan Zhan’s. His fingers are burning, and everything about him is overheated. “Lan Zhan, don’t ever change. I like you like this.”
What is Lan Zhan “like this?” He is silent, watchful, careful in the way he observes Wei WuXian, as if he is a bird of exotic roots. His colors are bright, his wings can stretch past what he can reach. If he wanted, he could do anything. Is that “like this?” Moreover, what is this? Why is he dreaming of this, of a Wei WuXian who is not quite real, yet one he is pained for, and one he pines for?
In this dream, Wei WuXian says quietly, out of nowhere, “The magic on you is simple, so simple you probably can’t even call it a spell. You’ve been magicked to forget things, but all you need to do is want, and you will remember. You’re already remembering. This isn’t a memory, nor am I a memory, but I’m something close.”
He makes eye contact with Lan Zhan, and his irises are inky and opaque in its solidness. “I don’t want to lose this feeling,” he says, honest and plain, straightforward and painfully romantic. There is a feeling in him that is intangible and forever changing, an enchantment that he does not want to break. It makes him himself, and Wei WuXian whispers, “I don’t want to lose my heart.”
Lan Zhan wakes up feeling cold.
This is not a story of falling in love. The longer Lan Zhan stays, the more he realizes that he is already in love. He is in love with a dream, something that he will never find during the day. He has never found himself entertained the impossible before, and all of a sudden he finds himself wanting an illusion of what should be more than anything else.
Wei WuXian entertains him to his own tune— he finds amusement in Lan Zhan’s agreement to stay here, pay a heartless man company. What are you expecting? He laughs, what do you think will come of this?
Lan Zhan does not know. He keeps his mouth shut, turns away from him. This is no one he knows, and no one he wants to know.
He finds the courage and the need to finally ask, “What were we?”
There are many, many facts that have been loaded onto him, and finally, when he brings himself to say those words, the prince with a coy smile and infuriating wink replies, “What do you think we were?” Two people? Two equals? A prince, and his manservant? A prince and a hunter from another village?
“Is it really so important to you, what was before?” The prince asks. “It’s awfully impractical of you. Shouldn’t you be focusing on what is now?”
Lan Zhan has not forgotten his original goal, to solve a mystery. To solve that mystery, he must fall in love.
That is what happens.
This is not what happens:
Wei WuXian twirls around in a circle foolishly, losing his balance and allowing Lan Zhan to catch him in alarm. In his arms, the prince who is dressed in black and brown, says with passion, “What do you think we were? We were everything and anything you could possibly imagine.” With this man, he speaks of the impossible. Two celestial objects in blank space, running to nowhere and beyond, that was us, he says. We were immaterial, indefinable in words— we were us, Lan Zhan, and we thought the world of each other.
This is not a story of Lan Zhan falling in love, for he has already loved someone. It is someone who no longer exists, but speaks to him anyway, in abstract illusions of the mind, incorporeal matters of the heart.
He finds himself in dreams. Lan Zhan knows this: he has been to this castle before, he knew the prince before. Where are your servants? He asks, and perhaps he was one of them.
The Wei WuXian from a dream replies, “The more you guess and try to know, the more you’ll remember. Keep thinking. This is painful for you, isn’t it? You don’t like it here. You don’t know if you’ll like what lies beyond the horizon. Once you know the whole story, will you wish you never knew? I understand that. You have a choice, Lan Zhan. You can choose to leave here, you don’t have to do this. You were always happy in the village, living a small life. You can go.”
And Lan Zhan speaks a roaring note. “No.”
“No,” he agrees. “I will not leave.”
“But you hate me,” Wei WuXian points out. “The one that you have to wake up and see everyday. You hate me. You don’t think that you’re hiding it, are you? This sort of torture; just what do you think will come out of it?”
“I will break your curse,” Lan Zhan replies evenly, and there is force in his voice, an anger that surprises even himself.
The prince laughs, covers his face with his hand. He responds sadly, “And how will you do that?”
He listens to Lan Zhan’s response, answers, “You haven’t changed at all. You’re still so stuck in your ways. You see everything as white and black, and it makes you so wonderful in your faith in me. I’m not a good person, Lan Zhan. Even me, as the one you see right now, can’t be a good person. Not as good as you, anyway.”
He doesn’t need Wei WuXian to be good. He needs him to be a human, have the potential to be better than he is. He needs him to feel more, care more. He needs…
“A heart,” Wei WuXian finishes. “But you have a conundrum here— in order to break the curse, you must fall in love with a heartless man. Yet, you find that you cannot love him without a heart. What will you do?”
“Then what are you?” Lan Zhan counters. If he is not the Wei WuXian of reality, then who is he? Where is he?
Wei WuXian smiles.
“I’m always with you. I’m the heart you’re looking for.”
And then Lan Zhan gasps, sitting up abruptly from his bed, his own chest thumping wildly, beyond control.
Lan Zhan is given a hand mirror, and this is what happens.
“This mirror lets you see whatever you want to see,” Wei WuXian taps the handle, making a dull clanking noise. “A royal heirloom of sorts. Go ahead, have fun with it.”
Lan Zhan takes it carefully, and it is heavy. He suspects it is made completely out of silver, and the reflective surface has been recently cleaned. There are elaborate designs on the handle, and for a moment the only thing he sees is his own face— a cool stare, a severe frown.
And then it is an image of of Wei WuXian. He is younger, in adolescence. He sits on the railing of the main staircase of the palace, his clothing plain and dirty. “Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! Catch me!” He laughs, topples over.
The Wei WuXian of today looks at the scene with a vague curiosity, while Lan Zhan looks at the one sided scene with shock.
The child that had just fallen of the staircase railing is floating. No, not floating. He is being carried, Lan Zhan realizes. He just cannot see the one who is carrying him.
“What did you ask for?”
Lan Zhan stares at the scene for just a moment longer. Then he speaks.
“I wanted to see the one I am in love with.”
Wei WuXian looks down at the mirror more carefully. The Wei WuXian in the reflection is still laughing. If anything, the prince has only grown in his allure. As a child, he has the boyish charm of a teen. As he is, he looks older, and the boy is already gone. His charm is full of a physical promise now, all smooth expanse of skin.
Wei WuXian looks down at the mirror more carefully, at the boy Lan Zhan apparently loves. His gaze is blank. He hands the mirror back to Lan Zhan. Who is he? The prince in front of him, in the attire of a royal and long lashes, the curve in his lower back, the outline of his collarbone? None of this is something he has not seen. He has seen this all before.
“I was in love with you,” Lan Zhan says. “Before.”
“You were never in love with me,” Wei WuXian disagrees, and he begins to wander away. “You were in love with my heart.”
This is not what happens.
“You already knew all that,” the heart says. “You’re even beginning to remember that day yourself, when I kept sliding down the railings. You got really mad, you know. When we were younger, you were a big stickler for rules. I suppose you still are, but you’re getting better.”
But yes, Lan Zhan had already known all that. He is in love with someone’s heart. He wants to meet that someone again. He asks, “How were you lost?”
He shakes his head. “How does anyone lose their heart? I am not lost, though, nor was I ever lost. Lan Zhan, that is the wrong question.”
He tries again. “Why did the witch take your heart?”
Wei WuXian can only reply, “No one will truly understand witches. No one should try.”
“Why do you appear before me?” He attempts.
“Because I love you. Because you came looking for me. Because I’ll always be here. Once you remember, it will be far easier to understand.”
A heart is a powerful thing. The Wei WuXian of his dreams is intelligent, sentimental, powerful. What he represents is a coveted thing, a heart— something both tangible and intangible.
“You’re not making any progress,” Wei WuXian says. It is not a demeaning statement, but it stings nevertheless. “Lan Zhan, staying here will not help you. I believe in you to not give up, but you’re only inflicting more troubles onto yourself.”
His last day there pushes him to his limit.
“Do you remember the taste of sugar?” The prince asks him. In front of him is a bowl of sweets, rare and priceless to common folk, so priceless that Wei WuXian has the ability to summon it at will. Popping one into his mouth, he muses, “I doubt you do.”
There is nothing much to say to that, so Lan Zhan remains silent, watching Wei WuXian who watches him.
With a straight face, the prince stands up from his seat, walks to him. Wei WuXian comes close, and all of a sudden the taste of the sweet is in Lan Zhan’s mouth. Wei WuXian’s tongue pushes it in with an intrusive and seductive force, and his eyes are open. They stare at Lan Zhan in a heated challenge: What will you do now? He puts an arm around Lan Zhan’s neck, grounding himself, and goes deeper.
He wants to scream.
Instead, Lan Zhan rips their contact apart.
He clenches Wei WuXian’s shoulder in pure instinct, tightening his hold until the prince calls out mildly, “You know, that hurts.”
He lets go, with difficulty. Lan Zhan is not angry. But something close to that blooms out of him when Wei WuXian comments jokingly, “So, I suppose you don’t like the taste?”, as if the kiss was just that, a massive prank. Of course it is, there is nothing else to it.
He smiles, asks, “Lan Zhan, right now, are you in love with me?”
Neither of them are surprised by this, and Wei WuXian says, “I am not in love with you, either. Although, it would be so much easier if I was.”
It would be simpler that way. It would be simpler many ways. It would be simpler if Lan Zhan left, and he left this monster before him to wither and die, like all the trees and flora around them.
It would simple if Lan Zhan could simply say yes.
“Ah, it would be so much easier,” he repeats regretfully and his exaggerations only aim to provoke. “I suppose we’ll just have to work with this.”
(This is not what happens, in dreams or in reality.
Lan Zhan keeps his eyes open as well. Everything is sweet and warm, including the body leaning on him, but he wants to let himself enjoy this feeling. The candy in his mouth tastes like Wei WuXian, and Wei WuXian tastes like Wei WuXian. On fire, he supposes. It tastes like the world is on fire, and he cannot get enough of the burn, tangy flavor.)
“I haven’t danced with anyone in years,” the prince says thoughtfully, and Lan Zhan knows this is, as always, Wei WuXian’s way of entertaining himself, finding humor in his guest’s negative reactions. “Tonight, why don’t we dance after dinner? Borrow some of the clothes here, I’m quite sure you can find something that fits you.”
Perhaps Lan Zhan simply would have swallowed and continued, if it had just stopped then.
That night, he dances with the prince of the northern lands, each step coming naturally to him, and he knows where to hold Wei WuXian, right at the curve of his waist and grasping his hand.
Everything is wrong. The longer Lan Zhan stays in this castle, he becomes more and more intimately aware of this.
It is the way he misses the village, and the cottage he has lived in. The home that is not his, yet it stinks of reminiscence and feels more like the place he belongs than anywhere else. He misses the slow life of hunting and living day by day, making his meals from plain bread and game.
It is the way he despises the northern forest, with its dense greenery and ominus darkness that gradually morphs into the barren wasteland that surrounds him. Everything is dying, and Lan Zhan feels like he is dying as well.
It is the way everything is familiar in this castle. To the kitchens, the library. It is the way every step sickens him. He has been here before, in his life. His footsteps echo on the stone floors. Everytime Wei WuXian says something wrong, Lan Zhan grows cold. He grows scared, as if there is something inside him saying, stay away from this beast. He will destroy you.
And most of all, it is the heartless prince that makes him think, everything is wrong.
That night, this is what happens.
A simple is waltz is easy. There is no music, yet somehow Lan Zhan hears the sound of an orchestra anyway. It pulls at him, saying, This is not so bad. This is alright. This feels right, correct.
That thought is broken by the prince himself. Wei WuXian cocks his head at some point, and his feet come to a stop. Lan Zhan halts with him, and they stand there, chest to chest, breath to breath, eye to eye. “Lan Zhan,” he begins, as if what he will say next will not make him want to destroy himself, “Why don’t you come to bed with me tonight?”
With someone as shamelessly direct as him, it can only mean one thing.
It is the wrong answer. He stiffens, immediately finds himself retreating. Wei WuXian follows, refusing to let him go. He asks, “Is this not what you wanted?” He leans in to let Lan Zhan do anything he wishes. “I can be whatever you want tonight. Take me. Put yourself in me, go as hard as you want. Do whatever you want. I don’t care.”
Is that not the problem? Wei WuXian does not care, not about this, not about Lan Zhan. Not even about his continued existence, or his lack of heart.
(The longer he stays, the more he knows things. The way Wei WuXian should be in bed— tears from euphoria and emotion sparking from his every gasp, “Lan Zhan, I— ah—” and it is the way he always has something to say to him, about anything at all.
Wei WuXian is the same as the one before— he looks exactly the same, his hair longer, his face more lovely, perhaps, but the same. Yet, his wrongness pervades in every motion he takes— the way he barely looks at Lan Zhan, the way everything is a bad joke. Keeping Lan Zhan here is a game to him, a brief sexual attraction.)
Tomorrow, he leaves. He travels away, away from this cursed land, and it is that day when his own heart is in resolved turmoil, for he has done nothing but hurt himself since day one.
You hate me, a Wei WuXian from a dream states, and he cannot deny it. Yet, what he hates is not that this heartless man is evil, or a psychopath. He is not twisted and unforgivable. It would be simple if this were the case, if Wei WuXian were completely inhuman and unfeeling.
But he is not, he still has his mind and science. He still talks aloud, muttering on and on of things Lan Zhan can understand, although he should not. How do plants function? How do humans breathe?
Because Wei WuXian is like this: he is a heartless prince in a dying, empty castle. He ought to live a life of misery and total apathy. But he is still alive, and although there is no heartbeat in him, he breathes and has the potential to do good, even if he does not love and is not inherently good.
Lan Zhan finds him mindlessly dusting furniture, making faces as he clears clutter from abandoned ballrooms. He makes his situation liveable, and although he is missing something essential from his life, he still lives. He retains his character of playfulness, continues on. His values have been slightly skewed, his words are colder, but this is still Wei WuXian.
He still lives, and he is not someone to pity.
It is selfish, the reason why he cannot love him. Lan Zhan could spend days trying to convince himself what the reason is. He can say, I cannot love him because he does not adhere to my moral principles. I cannot love him because of this, or that.
Here is the truth: I cannot love him because I am selfish. He holds no care for me, and I want all of him. I want his heart.
Lan Zhan dances with the prince of the northern lands, each step coming naturally to him, and he knows where to hold Wei WuXian, at the curve of his waist and grasping his hand. He is perfect, a perfect fit in this puzzle of limbs and waltzing framework. This is not the first time they have done this.
Yet, Wei WuXian cocks his head at some point, and his feet come to a stop. Lan Zhan halts with him, and they stand there, chest to chest, breath to breath, eye to eye.
The prince proposes his proposal, and Lan Zhan has reached his limit.
“You’re crying,” Wei WuXian notes, and he reaches out to touch Lan Zhan’s face. And indeed he is. Lan Zhan feels an unfamiliar burn at the corner of his eyes, as if they are being set on fire. Then through the spark, water that blurs his vision. It feels strange. It is an emotion that he rarely ever feels that comes from his breast.
It is soft, like the way silk feels when worn (when has he ever worn, so much as touched such a thing?). When someone gets too close, far too close, and they reach for something. He gives it to them, willingly, without coercion, only to realize that it is a mistake. A soft, silken, tender mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.
“Why are you crying?” The prince asks, and he does not sound concerned. He cannot, for he cannot feel that sort of emotion. Instead, he is just curious, and that curiosity hurts.
These are not his tears. Lan Zhan’s chest burns, and he takes a deep, shaky breath. Water rolls down his cheek. These are not tears for him, but he cries them anyway, for the one who these belong to one who cannot cry.
Despite the rising anguish in him, he manages to state in a level tone, “I am leaving.”
Wei WuXian does not even try to ask him to stay. “Are you going home?” Has Lan Zhan finally had enough of this castle, this dry and hot land?
Has he finally gotten tired of this heartless prince?
Wei WuXian’s fingers are slender and warm, and they flick away salt and a chemical release. Despite anything, Lan Zhan takes pleasure in that small touch.
All he needs to do is love him, and all this will be over. Perhaps he could, if things had been different.
Only now, it is the way things are, and he cannot help but see Wei WuXian as he could be, whole and fully feeling. He has seen that before, hasn’t he? A younger, freer him, with an altruism that has dissipated. If nothing else, he knows this was something that was once true.
And he says sadly, for he truly regrets. If he truly cannot fall in love with this prince, then there is only one option left.
“I am going east.”
There is only one thing that lies to the east, in the Unknown.
Only fools go there, those who have nothing to lose and everything to earn. There is only one thing of note in the Unknown, and that is the residence of the witch.
Lan Zhan leaves the castle in the north, and he takes his horse east. He is looking for the witch. He is looking for a heart.
He tells Wei WuXian this, who looks at him with strangeness. “The witch, you say? What have you to bargain?”
Anything. Lan Zhan would bargain anything for this.
Wei WuXian looks at him thoughtfully, and although he does not ask, Lan Zhan can see it in his expression. Is he truly worth it? Wei WuXian holds no feelings of affection towards Lan Zhan. If it were him, he would never do such a thing.
I know that, he wants to say. I know you would not. Is that not the reason he has to do this? It is not right, to leave Wei WuXian like this, in a half state of feeling. He could be a good man, and he could be someone who Lan Zhan aches for, in the confines of his own heart.
“Take anything you want from here,” and Wei WuXian carelessly gestures at the weaponry, the kitchens, his private quarters, the library. “It’s best that I don’t send you to your death; it would be a rather rude thing to do as your host.”
Lan Zhan does not take any weapons. He simply hefts his bow and arrow, something Wei WuXian looks sharply at. He also takes some bread, a change of clothing. New boots, and a map from the bottom shelves.
Before he leaves, he gestures toward Wei WuXian. Smiling, the man walks toward him. “What is it now?”
Lan Zhan grips him tightly, slumps slightly so that his chin rests on Wei WuXian’s shoulder. Wait for me, he wants to say. I will save you. There is still heartache in him, in the way his heart pounds and Wei WuXian’s does not.
The Unknown is a dangerous place. No one knows what it contains, no one knows what it is, in its essence. Its landscape is forever changing, and it is impossible to navigate without a map.
The map Lan Zhan takes from the castle guides him east, down a twisting road. The dead and dry land slowly turns to the snowy border of the forest, and then out into a grassy plain. He has never been this far before.
Past the prairie, he finds the Unknown. There is no distinct difference between it and the grasslands, but one minute he is riding through flat plains and the next, he is not. He looks back, and there is no grass in sight. There are dense trees with fungi and humid air, and then there is an underground tunnel of mineral and rocky caverns. Water drips, and everything is silent. Lan Zhan stays on the road, looks at his map, which guides him through with a glow. This is no ordinary guide, and this is no ordinary land.
The Unknown shifts, finally, to a clearing and a cottage. It is his cottage, Lan Zhan realizes, the one in the village by the northern border.
Unmounting, he finds a trough of water and hay set out. There is smoke sifting through the chimney in unfurling plumes. Someone is living here, and there is only one person who lives in the Unknown.
Lan Zhan grabs his quiver and bow. He walks up to the front steps, and knocks on the door three times.
“Come in,” someone says, and before Lan Zhan can do so, he finds that he has already done it.
He is standing in the center of the room, and there is a various clutters of trinkets lying around, emerald jewels and magnificent swords and bottles of glowing light. Sitting in a chair across from him is a figure, their face cloaked. Lan Zhan does not need to see their face, he knows who it is.
The witch says, “I don’t usually get such a handsome man coming to visit, much less one who has already crossed paths with me. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I know what you want,” she says.
Lan Zhan states anyway, “The prince’s heart.” He finds himself taking a sip of warm liquid from the cup in his hands. He does not remember having taken the cup, nor had he wanted any tea.
The witch pauses at his words. “If you want the prince’s heart,” she says slowly, and it almost seems as if she is amused by his words, “It will come for a price.”
No one can claim to understand how witches think. This is the witch of the Unknown, the one who had stolen away the heart of Wei WuXian in the first place. With just a payment, how is she willing to give up such a thing?
Then she says, “A heart is a powerful thing,” and pours more tea into his empty cup. “It is not something I would normally give away, much less this one. But, for you… I will give a discount.”
“There is a creature in the Unknown that takes the form of anything you have fought before. The Animal steals skins of your previous fights— ones you have lost. Three in total. All you need to do is find each skin’s weakness. Defeat it, and give me its liver,” and the witch looks thoughtfully at his physique, then at his arrows.
“That ought to be simple enough.”
Depending on one’s perspective on simplicity, the task and price Lan Zhan pays for Wei WuXian’s heart is incredibly cheap, or excruciatingly difficult.
The Animal is an easy fight. He does not think much on it— he finds it miles away, barely a three minute’s walk from the witch’s house, but a twelve hour trek back. It splashes in a deep lagoon, flippers and fins, and before Lan Zhan can do anything he is detected. It looks up, head turning sharply.
Then the lagoon disappears, and the Animal changes as well. An aquatic creature to one that walks on land, bounds on all fours in large distances, a wild cat of some sorts. Lan Zhan straightens, readies his bow. With perfect accuracy, he takes aim and shoots.
It hits, right in the head. The Animal slumps, and then, as if shedding a skin, the four legged feline melts off, and there is something Lan Zhan has never seen before, but he remembers its name from books— dragon. The size of it forces him to retreat, and the Animal roars, spreading flame.
But dragon’s weak point have always been their eyes. Lan Zhan scrambles for higher ground, trying to avoid the spreading fire. The landscape shifts to a dry and hot desert, not dissimilar to the area around the northern castle.
The Animal takes flight, the dragon form following Lan Zhan. It flies upward, and he squints in the blinding sun as it blocks his view.
He knows what it will do— it will fly straight down while he cannot see and attack. He cannot outrun it, so Lan Zhan will simply put his faith in his aim.
(Here is the thing— it was easy. The Animal takes the skins of beasts, but it does not necessarily have their strength. Somehow, Lan Zhan knows that with just a perfectly aimed arrow, he will be able to defeat them. His aim is good— he does not remember a time he has ever missed.)
Straight into the sun he points, towards the sound of roaring and wings beating. He closes his eyes, lets the arrow fly.
He only knows that he has hit when he hears it bellow, and then he opens his eyes in a flash. He is no longer in a desert, and the sun is obscured by a night sky, a cool breeze blowing gently. There is not a sound in sight, and he has lost the Animal.
He pulls out another arrow. There is a sudden rustling behind him, and he whirls around.
His breath catches.
He is all deep, dark eyes, the same shade of hair. His body is shrouded in shadows, so all he can see is a slender face, set into an alight expression that somehow feels perfect.
This Wei WuXian smiles brilliantly, glowing with something heartbreakingly gone. It is an expression Lan Zhan has never seen on his face.
The Animal murmurs lovingly, “Lan Zhan,” and holds out his arms invitingly.
But Lan Zhan already knows. He does not flinch from this illusion, and he already has his last arrow aimed at Wei WuXian’s weakness, at any man's weakness. Before the Animal can say more, hurt him more, he releases it.
It goes piercing through the air, and in such close range it meets its mark with no difficulty. Wei WuXian gasps and clutches his heart, his eyes sharp with shock and betrayal. The Animal falls to the ground, no more skins left to change into.
It had been frighteningly inexpensive, yet excruciatingly difficult.
Lan Zhan sets his bow down. He lets himself stand numbly in the middle of the Unknown for a moment, feels strangely like crying again.
This is not what happens.
He does not return to the witch before he grows tired, takes a short rest.
Wei WuXian stands in front of him, in the dark forest, and one of Lan Zhan’s arrows sticking right through his chest. “You’re so close,” he says. “You almost remember.”
“No, don’t come closer,” and this time Lan Zhan follows the request. Wei WuXian looks down at the arrow with uncharacteristic annoyance. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. Although, have you ever had an arrow sticking out of your torso before? It’s terrible.”
Did I do this to you? Lan Zhan wants to ask in alarm, but already, he is shaking his head.
“I did it to myself. You’re already remembering things, but the answers you are looking for are from five years ago, when you forgot and I lost my heart. Everything is connected, I think I can say that now. What happened then, it was no one’s fault.”
Carefully, Wei WuXian pulls out the arrow that has stabbed his heart. Once it is done, he points at the long since healed wound. Whatever Lan Zhan had done five years ago has long since healed.“What a fitting metaphor,” he comments thoughtfully. “It wasn’t as if I was actually shot at by an arrow, you know. Lan Zhan, can I see your bow?”
Once it is given to him, he raises the weapon with familiarity, an ease that implies that he has done this for years. He takes aim, shoots a low hanging fruit off its branch. “Do you remember?” He asks. “When we were children. You and I made deal.”
His next words will not make sense.
”It is dead,” Lan Zhan says once his feet are planted on the wooden boards of the witch’s cottage again. He holds out the innards of the Animal, all bloody and cold.
“The Animal is not dead,” she disagrees and takes the bloody thing. “Indeed, you have given me what I wanted, but the Animal will never truly die. It will reform again, the next time someone needs it to.”
When someone needs it? That implies that it depends on people for existence.
“Oh, it does,” she says. “Something curious about it— the difficulty in killing the Animal is not in physical prowess. It lies in psychological soundness. Facing something you have already lost to before, would you be able to do it again? But someone like you, who very rarely has qualms such as those, had no trouble at all.”
She sighs, and the liver in her hand glows. It disappears off to who knows where, and Lan Zhan once again acknowledges how much of a discount he has a received.
“Quite right,” she comments on his unspoken thoughts. “So, you wanted the prince’s heart? A deal is a deal. Follow me.” She stands, walks to the door, and Lan Zhan finds himself following.
He finds himself in a garden that had not existed before, with a bright and sunny sky, plants and flowers of all types growing from pots, soil, on the walls of some sort of invisible greenhouse. As they walk, the witch begins to speak.
“A heart is something both tangible and intangible. Every man’s heart looks different. Some are smaller, some are bigger. Some are more brilliant, some are dull. It all depends on how many things they keep close to themselves. The more precious their thoughts are, it brightens their heart further. This is not to say one who has a larger heart is a better person than one with a smaller one, but rather, that they have less things deeply tied to them.”
The more they travel inwards, the larger the plants become. Lan Zhan thinks of Wei WuXian, and what type of heart he could have.
“There it is,” she says suddenly, coming to a halt. “The prince’s heart.”
Lan Zhan jerks his head to look in the direction she is pointing.
There is a rose.
It is large and glowing, and he notes it is pulsing with a heartbeat. There are many words Lan Zhan can use to describe it, the strangeness of its being. All he can focus on, however, is the horrifying feeling of realization.
“This is not Wei Ying’s,” he states, the unfamiliar-yet-familiar name slipping out of him, and somehow that word only reinforces his fears. He feels a painful skip of a beat in his chest as the witch cackles. Now he knows why she had laughed at him so when he had arrived.
You’re asking the wrong questions, Wei WuXian had said.
“Of course not,” she says, and reaches to pluck the blue rose with its sharp thorns, places it in Lan Zhan’s hands. “I never had his heart to begin with.”
“Do you really think,” the witch asks, “That you are the only one who has come here to strike a deal, Lan WangJi?”
Lan WangJi. Lan WangJi is a name he does not remember. Lan Zhan keeps his expression flat and unimpressed. He waits for the witch to say more.
“This is the prince’s heart, not the heart of that boy of yours,” the witch laughs. “The one you know as Wei WuXian came to me, five years ago. He was an intelligent little thing, that one. I was expecting him to say, ‘Give me back the prince’s heart.’ Of course, the price would have been too high for that. There was no way he was going to be able to pay.”
It is such an innocuous statement, only there are a million implications behind it, and he feels a weight crash down upon him, threatening to submerge him thoughts he has no wish to think of. Lan Zhan already knows what she is going to say. He already understands. Every piece fits together in a horrible, terrifying path, and he does not want her to say more. Yet he must, for he must hear it himself.
“But then, he said, ‘I want you to give my heart to the heartless prince.’ And oh, what a rascal, that boy. How could I refuse him?”
He knows enough. He remembers his last dream, when Wei WuXian had said, “Do you remember our deal as children? If I taught you how to use the bow and arrow, then you would teach me how to read and write.”
“I live on tragedy, you see, and I asked him, ‘Is he really worth it, boy? This Lan WangJi, prince of the northern lands?’”
Lan Zhan goes east to the witch, and Lan WangJi returns west, out of the Unknown and back to the civilization of men. Gripped in his right hand is the stem of his own heart, and a rose of unearthly quality.
Past the grasslands, past the northern forest, back to where the sun beats hot and dry on the castle. His castle.
His castle, his rooms, his library, his books, his . They were always his, and Lan WangJi strides to the front door. “Open,” he states, and the doors oblige.
Up the staircase, to the left wing where Wei WuXian sleeps in his room. His room, his study.
Before he reaches the tower, he hears him.
“You’re back,” Wei WuXian greets, and steps out of the shadows. He still wears the clothes of royalty. His clothes. His shirt, his trousers, his boots of white.“Did you find what you were looking for?”
They both know that this is a question with too many meanings. Lan WangJi’s heart pulses more strongly, both in and out of him. Seeing this, Wei WuXian glances curiously at the flower in his hand.
“I want you to have it,” Lan WangJi states, and he holds up the blue and cool rose to him.
The witch continues, “Wei WuXian smiled, told me, ‘Well, he already has my heart in all the way it matters; I’m just here to make it official. And of course he’s worth it— I’ll lose my heart, maybe, but at least it will be for someone who wants it, and who needs it.
“‘Besides, I know Lan Zhan. He’s a chivalrous prince, and he takes that very seriously. When I lose my heart, he will definitely come and save me.’”
I am here to save you. Lan WangJi places Wei WuXian’s burning fingers on the rose, so that they gently caress the soft petals. “I want you to have my heart.”
“I love him,” Wei WuXian from five years ago tells the witch, and she cackles and roars with laughter. What a charming boy!
“Then, how about I make it easier for you?” She offers Wei WuXian another deal. “You amuse me. You want to take his place, yes? Then I will help you take his position: you will become the heartless prince of the northern lands, and he will become the hunter of a nameless village, and he will take your heart.
“If your prince comes to me for a deal and tries to save you, I will lower all my prices for him, and they will be easily within his abilities to pay. In exchange, though, he will not remember you. He will not remember anything at all, and you will not be able to tell him. If you are so confident that his love is true, then does it matter what he remembers?”
Wei WuXian, in the rightful arrogance and faith of one in love, replies, “I accept.”
“You know what to do, yes?” The witch eyes him coyly, and the precious, living thing in his hands. “When that boy agreed to this deal, I really did not think you would come, Lan WangJi of the northern lands. I cursed you on a whim, because your heart was powerful and good. I have never seen one quite as magnificent, and I wanted it. You are a creature guided by your heart, more so than anyone I have ever seen. Without it, you were nothing.
“When the boy came to me, I extracted his heart for him. His was not bad, but there were fractures and facets to it that were new and recent. Any more and it could have shattered, and there would have been nothing left. All hearts are fragile, and his had endured something painful.
“It is not like now,” And she gestures and Lan Zhan’s chest, at something safe and pounding inside him. “You have taken good care of it. But you were the one who cracked it before, and Wei WuXian saved your life, turned you from nothing to everything.”
Five years ago, Wei Ying of the village by the northern forest travels to the castle in the north, where a prince as cold as ice resides. He has no passion, he is dumbstruck in his own frigity. He cares for nothing and no one, but he was not always like this.
Before, he was quiet and calm, and he followed Wei Ying everywhere. He learned to hunt so Wei Ying would not be alone, and he visited the nameless village by the edges of his kingdom often. He was an ever constant, ever calming presence in Wei Ying’s mind, and that safety of his being became a fondness in adolescence, and then a love beyond.
He was a creature guided by instinct and his own intelligence. And then a witch cursed him, and he lost his drive. He retained all his knowledge, but he lost what made him peaceful, instinctual in his sentimentality. His thoughts were too deep, and his emotions were too tied to something that had been stolen away.
Lan WangJi without a heart is nothing— his entire being is one who regards things with gravity and seriousness. He holds his feelings on everything too close to him, never sharing. So in one simple blow, the witch takes everything from him.
Wei Ying reaches the castle in the north, and it is surrounded a blizzard and eternal frost. Nothing grows, for the ground is perpetually frozen, and the prince does not welcome him. He does not send him away. He simply does not care, and that hurts Wei Ying more than any anger. He cannot make himself stay to see this Lan WangJi he does not understand. He cannot love a monster without a heart.
He does not let this hurt injure him beyond saving. So, Wei Ying acts. He visits the witch to the east, and he strikes a deal.
“Take it,” he offers to the prince. In his hands is a red sculpture of glass, beautiful in the way it screams, You are loved, you deserve to be loved. It is fragile, as all hearts are, reflects in the light of candles, and all he can see is a thousand reflections of Lan WangJi on every cut facet.
Wei Ying wonders what this prince’s heart looks like, if it is brilliant and shining the way Lan Zhan is, if his own can even compare.
The prince takes it. He has no reason not to— it is beautiful, he thinks, and Lan WangJi has no qualms now to stop him.
And then Wei Ying becomes Wei WuXian, the heartless prince of the north, and Lan WangJi, with a warmth fluttering in him, becomes Lan Zhan, the hunter from the village at the edge of the forest.
He wonders if the prince of the north is ever cold.
Then is then, and now is now. Now, Lan WangJi stands at the end of a fairy tale, ready to break a curse he has already been saved from.
Wei WuXian regards him with unreadable eyes, and he says, “So you remember.”
But Lan Zhan is tired of hearing this one talk, talk and talk until his ears ache from the indifference and vague amusement. He is tired of mysteries and looking for an answer. The rose is in Wei WuXian’s grip, and that is enough.
“ Take it, ” he commands, and then it begins.
It smells of summer magic.
There is an unknown power pressing on both of them, the sharp smell of something unnatural in the air. There is a brilliant blue, and a surreal sight of burning fire and ceaseless water that does not exist in anywhere but his own mindscape. He is forced to cover his eyes as everything becomes too intense. A hot and windy breeze whips past him, and in it, Lan WangJi hears a delighted laugh.
His hand, which was gripping Wei WuXian’s, is suddenly gripped back with force. The opposing hand fits each finger between Lan WangJi’s, interlocking them together.
He has never seen magic truly at work, and he wants uncover his face and witness this— a fundamental transformation of the man in front of him, but instead he simply hears the infectious, crescendoing laughing that gets closer and closer to him, and then, through that wonderful sound…
There is a breath on his face.
“Lan Zhan, those clothes look really good on you,” someone says. It is not someone— there is only one person it could be.
Lan WangJi slowly lets his eyes open, removes the hand blocking the view. He looks down at his attire. It is, as it has been, hunter’s clothing from the village— Wei WuXian’s old outfit.
He looks up. Holding his hand is the man himself, clear eyed and exactly the same, only the rose is gone, and his cheeks are red from the whipping breeze and his hair is windswept and wild. He continues, still giggling, “Have you been wearing my clothes all these years?”
Lan WangJi inclines his head, gestures slightly at Wei WuXian’s own attire. “... Well, you’ve got me there,” and he looks down at the fine white cloth. “I can’t say I wear this better than you, though.”
With that, Lan WangJi cannot wait anymore. He pulls the other closer, closer and closer, until he can bend down, press his ear to his chest and hear what he wants to hear. Wei WuXian’s hands cup his head, leading him to the dull, reassuring thump of something that had not been there just a moment before.
“I waited for you,” he says, and it sounds of a satisfaction of a promise he has fulfilled. “I knew you would come find me again. Although, you definitely took your time. Do you know how boring it is in this dumb castle of yours? There was nothing to do but read, read, and read! Gosh, I was about die from the dullness. I resorted to cleaning for fun!”
“Thank you,” Lan WangJi says, as sincerely as he can. Five years ago, he had been given a heart— something so precious and sought after, and Wei WuXian had suffered for it. They have taken the long road here, and now that they have reached a destination, he can finally say that.
“Shouldn’t I be the one who’s saying that?” Lan WangJi feels fingers playing with his hair, a touching sort of affection he has not felt in years. “You saved me. Like in those fairytales, when a dashing prince saves a locked up princess. Haha, you really are the perfect, textbook prince!”
The comparison to a Wei WuXian as a helpless princess makes sentiment laugh in him, say, if so, then he is a brilliant one.
There are million things they must say to each other, but for now, all he wants to hold this man forever, the way he has wanted to from the beginning. There will be no more of lost hearts and curses, no more magic. They have hurt each other in these past few years, but not now. Not now, when Wei WuXian answers his last question.
Why did you do it?
“Sometimes you just have to give up a heart or two for a beautiful face,” Wei WuXian whispers. He has said it before. Now he is not joking, and it feels as if his eyes hold all the answers Lan Zhan has ever needed. They sparkle with impish, genuine amorousness, all dark and bright.
Indeed, he is correct. Lan WangJi feels a heart in him, pulsing. It beats in time with Wei WuXian’s. They hold each other’s hearts with protective closeness, until it becomes their own. Wei WuXian’s heart is his now, and Lan WangJi’s will always, always be Wei WuXian’s.
There is magic in a heart— magic in its power to feel, its ability to defeat even the strongest of men, yet succumb to the smallest of forces.
I’ll fall for you, Wei WuXian says. Around a downwards spiral, towards whatever lies at the end of my life, I’ll keep falling for you.
Because no matter where he lands, no matter how fast he free falls, Lan WangJi will always be there, at a velocity that matches his own.