It looks like a storm is approaching. Morning has barely begun and the sun refuses to peak through the dark clouds that loom over the whole city. Even from inside his house, Lan Wangji can hear the winds howling. He will need to remind Sizhui to bring an umbrella before he goes to school today.
Heavy rain is not an unusual sight for both Lans. They have only recently moved to Gusu three weeks ago, and the gloomy weather isn't any less different than the rain they're accustomed to back in London. Having been born and brought up there, Sizhui even said he will miss the rain once they leave. Perhaps it is luck the weather decided to follow him here.
“Good morning, Dad.”
Wangji turns away from the window, not surprised to see the fifteen year old boy already dressed and ready for school half an hour before his bus will even arrive. His uniform is, as usual, neat and without a single crease. For a second, Wangji catches a glimpse of the young boy dressed in their Gusu Lan Sect robes before he pushes aside that ancient memory. Sizhui never changes, regardless of what year Wangji finds him in.
“Good morning,” he says, joining the teen at their dining table.
Breakfast is the same as it always is. Sizhui eats the food prepared for him while Wangji drinks his coffee in silence. He never eats breakfast anymore; a bad habit he's gotten over the years.
“Oh yeah.” Sizhui sets down his chopsticks and looks up at him. “I promised one of my teachers I'd help him with a display after school. I'll be home late then; is that okay?”
Wangji nods. “Would you like me to drive you back home?”
“It's okay. I can get the bus.”
“Be sure to bring an umbrella.”
Sizhui nods with a smile, returning to his breakfast. Silence falls between them again; a comfortable silence both welcome everyday. When Sizhui finishes eating, he gets up and washes the dishes without Wangji even needing to tell him.
It brings a small smile on his face. Even without long hair and the disciple's robes, Sizhui is the same. Wangji can only hope he will be happy in this future as well, as he had been in his past lives.
This is not the first time he managed to find the young boy. In past lifetimes, Wangji often came across the child abandoned in the streets or unwanted by his parents. Ten years ago, Wangji saw him in the heart of London city, wrapped up in a thin blanket as he slept in that dark alleyway. Sizhui was five, terrified of strangers and the dark, left by parents too selfish to bring a child into this world.
Without realising it, Wangji found himself looking out for Sizhui in case he needed a home that would take care of him.
Sometimes, he could not find him. Wangji hoped that meant Sizhui had been reincarnated into a life with a loving family. Part of him also wondered if maybe, just maybe, Wei Ying managed to find him before he did.
It was not only Sizhui's incarnations he came across. Over the centuries, Wangji found Wei Ying's adoptive brother, still as easily angered as he originally was. At first, it gave Wangji some hope that Wei Ying was back too—but he never was. He never returned, not after ten years, or fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand. Not even after Wangji played Inquiry for countless centuries, or after he travelled the world, searching other countries for Wei Ying's presence—anything.
“I'm going.” Sizhui's voice pulls him away from his thoughts. Wangji glances up to see him making his way towards the door. “See you later, Dad.”
Wangji nods. “Have a good day.”
Once Sizhui is gone, all Wangji can do is sigh. He washes the mug of coffee that's now empty and looks around the kitchen. Every day is the same.
He remembers a lifetime so long ago it feels like a dream, back when cultivators still roamed the lands. He remembers the ultimate goal of achieving immortality, for if your cultivation was strong enough, if you were worthy enough, then you would be gifted with eternal life.
Both him and his brother were given this honour. The Twin Jades of Lan, achieving what every cultivator wanted. The Twin Jades of Lan, cursed with a life neither wanted.
His eyes flicker to the clock. It is only eight thirty in the morning. He wonders if his brother is awake. Back in London, it is still midnight, but they have long abandoned their routine of sleeping at nine PM and waking at five AM.
He has nothing else to do for now, and it's been too long since he last spoke with his brother. Wangji picks up the phone and dials his number.
Xichen answers after the first ring. “Wangji, is there something the matter?”
He does not sound tired, which would have been fine had it not been for the fact it is after midnight in London. Wangji knows his brother has trouble sleeping, often insisting they will survive without it anyway. Funny how immortality can make someone care less about life, rather than cherish it.
“Nothing is wrong,” Wangji says.
“I'm glad. Are you and Sizhui well?”
There is a smile in Xichen's voice, although it becomes harder and harder over the years to know if his smiles are genuine or not. Wangji knows he still feels guilt over the death of his sworn brothers, that he will never stop blaming himself for their demise no matter how many centuries pass. Sometimes, it feels like his brother's seclusion never ended.
“We are well,” Wangji says. “He has just left for school. You are still awake?”
From the other line, there is the sound of a book closing. Blankets shuffling. Xichen takes a deep breath he probably hopes Wangji will not hear.
“Can't sleep,” his brother says after a while. “It is not too late, anyway.”
But Wangji knows his brother will stay awake even after it is four AM, perhaps even after the sun rises. He may not have even slept for the past few days, not without Wangji back there in London to insist he gets some rest.
They are both hopeless. Wangji will forget to eat while Xichen cares little for sleep. The Twin Jades of Lan, both shells of who they used to be.
“How is Gusu?” Xichen asks.
“The same, as usual.” More or less, anyway. There is no Wei Ying. It is all empty to Wangji. “Uncle sends his regards.”
That gets Xichen to laugh, at least. Their uncle has been reincarnated, but what is amusing about it is that he's somehow ended up being Lan Jingyi's grandfather. The thought of their rigorously strict uncle being related to that child is too ironic it almost seems cruel. Surely, the original Lan Qiren is rolling in his grave at this.
“Jingyi and Sizhui are in the same school now, are they not?” Xichen says.
Wangji nods even though his brother cannot see him. “Yes. Sizhui is happy he has found a friend here so soon.”
“How sweet.” Xichen yawns, too late to muffle it. "Is there anyone else there in Gusu?”
What he means to ask is if Wei Ying is here. Wangji wants to tell him he's only been back for a few weeks; it is still too early to tell.
However, he is tired and he knows reality is not so kind. It has been over two thousand years and Wei Ying has never returned, not once. Never.
“No,” he says, ignoring the pain in his chest.
Xichen sighs. “I am sorry.”
“Hmm. It's fine.” Wangji struggles to move the conversation along. He looks back at the clock and sees that time is slow, as usual. Not even five minutes has passed. “When will you be coming here?”
“I am not sure... Perhaps in a week?” Xichen yawns again. He is clearly very tired, but refuses to get some rest. Wangji's hand is itching to end the call although he knows that will not stop his brother from staying up.
“I see.” Wangji looks at the clock again. “It is getting late there. You should sleep, Brother.”
“I will in a bit.”
There is a pause. Wangji thinks he should end the call to give his brother some rest, but he misses him. They do not talk as much as they used to, not even when Wangji was in London. Xichen will often disappear for days, simply telling him he needs some space to clear his thoughts—but that's just another way of saying he wants to seclude himself.
“Do you not have any lessons for today?” Xichen says after a while.
“Not today. Uncle made Jingyi start lessons earlier this week.”
Another laugh. “And how is that going?”
Wangji's face shows nothing. The painful memory of trying to patiently teach Jingyi how to play the piano is still ripe in his mind. Without the Cloud Recesses' rules to discipline the child, Jingyi is a force to be reckoned with.
“Slow,” Wangji says. It is the kindest description he can give.
Given his current job as a private music tutor, Wangji's prices are higher than what most people will care to pay for. Thankfully, it means only those serious about music will attend his lessons—but he did not prepare himself for the challenge that is Lan Jingyi. The teenager is easily distracted, his fingers too clumsy to be playing anything close to music. It is a miracle he used to be a Gusu Lan disciple at this rate.
“Give him some time,” Xichen says, amused. “His greatest trait is his enthusiasm after all.”
The problem is that Jingyi's enthusiasm lay more in playing that electronic box he always brought along whenever he visited Sizhui. Wangji cares little for modern technology, hence he can't remember the name of the box, but even Sizhui will be distracted by it as well. He has to admit he is not in favour of whatever that box is.
“He is more interested in...” Wangji pauses to try and remember what it's supposed to be called. “Playing Stations? He plays it with Sizhui.”
“Playstation?” Xichen chuckles. “Has he got a Playstation 4?”
Wangji frowns. “No, he only brings one.”
For some reason, Xichen coughs but it sounds more like he's trying to hide a laugh. Wangji's frown deepens even more.
“I see, I see...” Xichen mumbles. His voice trails off into another yawn.
“You should sleep, Brother,” Wangji says again. “I will go now.”
There is another yawn. Wangji is beginning to wonder just how long Xichen has been awake.
“Thank you for calling, Wangji,” Xichen says. “I have enjoyed talking to you. Please, call whenever.”
“I will. Goodnight, Brother.”
They hang up and Wangji is left alone once again. It is only quarter to nine. He has no lessons for today, meaning there's nothing to distract him from the slow process of time. For a second, he contemplates leaving the house and finding something to do, but immediately discards that idea. When you have lived for almost a thousand years, there is nothing left to do. All the days merge together, the memories are mistaken for dreams, and life itself turns black and white.
He used to wonder why he is still here. Immortality granted upon cultivators is only a state of the body. They can heal faster and will never die from illness or diseases, but that will not stop them from being able to die if they are murdered—or if enough physical harm is placed on their bodies, enough so that not even their high level of cultivation will heal them in time.
He remembers, back when despair clung onto every thought he had, that the idea of ending it all seemed like the only thing he could resort to. Just a swift blade to his heart and this endless void would cease. Perhaps, if the heavens are kind enough, they will reunite him with Wei Ying in the afterlife.
For many years, he entertained that thought. He knew Xichen had similar ideas although neither of them voiced it out loud. Sometimes, he still hates himself for being unable to comfort his brother as much as Xichen is able to comfort him. Xichen hides everything behind a smile, a mask that tells the world he is fine, he is well, but Wangji can see the lie. He sees the dark bags under Xichen's eyes and knows he is hounded by nightmares of his sworn brothers.
And yet, they continue to live through life as ghosts.
The truth is that Wangji is a stubborn fool. Even after these endless years, he cannot give up on Wei Ying. He has little hope left but that does not stop him from longing to see his face once again.
As the years passed, Wangji's memory fades. The pain, however, remains.
“Wei Wuxian is dead.”
Every night, the same words plague his mind. He can remember the shock he felt, the way the world crumbled under his own feet as he ran to find answers of his own. He can remember ignoring the wounds still on his back, focusing instead on finding him. He can remember the ruin that was the Burial Mounds, reeking of death and loss now with Wei Ying no longer there to bring life into the place.
He can remember the sickening panic; a feeling he had never felt to that degree before. He can remember everything he felt; from sorrow to anguish, anger to desperation. He remembers every feeling because he has never stopped feeling them, not after fifty or a hundred years, two hundred, five hundred—one thousand, two thousand. The years are nothing. They're only numbers that hold no meaning to him by now.
The thing he hates the most, however, is that Wei Ying's face is a distant memory. Not even his dreams can conjure a clear image of him now.
Sometimes, when Sizhui smiles, Wangji has to wonder if that is the same smile Wei Ying used to give. Perhaps not.
He sighs and glances back up at the clock. Nine o'clock. Time really is too slow.
With nothing else to do, Wangji grabs a book from one of their shelves. He settles down in the living room and reads the words he's read a thousand times. He will need to buy new books at this rate; he has lost count of the amount of times he's read this one.
Not that it matters. Most stories are the same. Nothing ever changes, both in fiction and in reality.
- x -
As he expected, a storm eventually rages over the city. It tears his attention away from the book he's reading. Wangji closes it, wondering why Sizhui is not home yet when it is already quite late in the afternoon.
Then again, didn't he say he would be staying in school for a bit? Wangji sighs and averts his eyes back to the book, scanning over the page to see where he had left off. He listens to the harsh pattering of the rain against the windows, a sound he's grown to find calming.
And then, his phone rings.
Wangji sits up, rooting through his pockets. Sizhui's name is flashing on the screen.
“Dad!” Sizhui says from the other line as soon as he picks up. “Sorry about this, but I forgot my wallet in my room... I don't have money for the bus.”
Wangji resists the urge to sigh. “I will drive you home then.”
“Thank you, Dad. Sorry again.”
“It is fine. I will be there shortly.”
At least it will pass the time. He's lost interest in the book, anyway. Leaving the house for a few minutes ought to be a good distraction.
Because of the storm, it takes him longer to drive to Sizhui's school. There are too many people rushing home, eager to get out of the rain. He sees a few running around the city, hiding under any form of shelter because they did not bother to bring an umbrella with them. Wangji taps against the driving wheel, eyes fixed on the traffic lights that refuse to change colour. Life will be easier if he could freely use his sword here. He will never understand why swords were abandoned, replaced instead with vehicles that only congested the roads.
When he finally arrives, Sizhui is nowhere to be seen. He tries to call him but there is barely any signal because of the weather.
Tired, Wangji grabs an umbrella and leaves the car. He has actually never set foot in Sizhui's school, but walking through it now, he cannot help compare it to the Cloud Recesses. Both places had nothing in common with each other; Sizhui's current school felt too cluttered, too colourful for Wangji's tastes. It didn't have the grace and peaceful atmosphere the Cloud Recesses was known for—although that is to be expected. After all, the Cloud Recesses was secluded atop the clouds. Right now, they are in the heart of the city, surrounded with skyscrapers, not mountains and mist.
It takes him a while to find Sizhui's class. Thankfully, the receptionist directed him upstairs, telling him they spotted the teenager making his way there earlier. He receives a strange look from the woman as she explains the directions. Most likely, she is shocked at how long his hair is. He knows the custom of keeping your hair long is no longer practised by most men in this age, but Wangji and Xichen never bothered to adapt to modern fashion and styles. They abandoned their robes and switched to other formal wear, such as suits or shirts and ties, although the long hair remained. The forehead ribbons, however, went as well.
On most days, Wangji will tie his hair back into a low bun if he does not need to leave the house. Today, his hair is in a ponytail that sweeps over one shoulder.
He pays no mind to the gawking woman and leaves to find Sizhui.
Considering there is only one room with the lights still on in the corridor he's been directed to, Wangji guesses this is where Sizhui is. He glances at his watch, surprised to find he has been walking around this school for almost half an hour, trying to find the right class. How troublesome.
He knocks on the door before slowly opening it. The first thing he sees is Sizhui sitting by his desk, watching the window with a bored expression. Even with the lights on, the class looks dark and bleak, apart from one corner where there are colourful paintings hung on the wall. Wangji's eyes flicker to the front of the room.
His eyes widen.
There is a lone person hunched over the teacher's desk. He is writing something on a notebook before he notices the door has opened. He looks up.
Wangji cannot breathe. He stands there; the seconds are frozen but everything else is spinning. All of the faded memories are alive, rushing back into colour and pumping his heart with a feeling he thought he would never feel again. The storm outside is forgotten and he's brought back to memories where they were in the Cloud Recesses, sunlight making his smile brighter than it already was. All these centuries of longing for a face he can barely remember, a voice he can never hear; it is right in front of him and all Wangji can do is stand there and stare, and stare.
It is there, in that classroom, that time stops—only to rush again. Wangji stays where he is, gripping the door handle, and watches as he frowns, tilting his head slightly. He looks the same as he did before when he was still the infamous Yiling Patriarch—yet everything is different. There is no vengeance in his eyes, and no Chenqing by his side. His hair is shorter, no longer trailing down to his waist and instead cropped around his jaw. There are still unruly locks that curl around his face and his bangs are falling about his grey eyes. When he looks up, he tucks a strand behind his ear, only for it to escape again once he moves.
Wei Ying. Wei Ying. Wei Ying.
He rises. He's not as tall as he used to be, but he's still clothed in black. Instead of the robes, he wears a loose woollen cardigan with sleeves that are too long. He pulls one of the sleeves up, wringing it around his hands before turning to Sizhui.
“Sizhui, is this your dad?”
The joy of hearing him again is short lived. Wangji flinches at the lack of recognition both on his face and in his voice.
It is to be expected. This has happened with every incarnation he has come across. That doesn't make it any less difficult to ignore the fact Wei Ying does not know him at all.
“We're already familiar with each other, aren't we?”
They were. They were, a lifetime ago.
Sizhui stands from his seat, beaming. “Yes. Thank you for waiting with me, Teacher Wei.”
Wei Ying shakes his head. “Oh no, I should be thanking you for staying behind and helping me with the art display. You didn't have to.”
He grins. Wangji is unable to do anything but stay by the door. Part of him wonders if this is a cruel hallucination. He still hasn't taken a single step. If he moves, he is afraid Wei Ying will disappear and he will hate himself even more for allowing such a moment of madness.
“Dad...?” Sizhui's awkwardly looks between him and his teacher.
Now, Wei Ying is frowning too. He raises an eyebrow and scratches the back of his head.
“Sorry for keeping your son, Mr. Lan,” he says. “Sizhui is a good boy.”
The young teenager gives a bashful laugh and fiddles with the strap of his bag. Wangji has to stop himself from telling him fiddling is not allowed. So many years have passed and he still has the Cloud Recesses' rules memorised.
Wangji clears his throat and finally finds his voice. His hand loosens around the door handle.
“It... It is fine.”
Wei Ying's frown disappears, replaced by a quick smile. He turns away before Wangji can react, gathering his things scattered around his desk.
“Great weather outside,” Wei Ying mutters when he glances outside the window. The rain has gotten heavier and there's a deep rumbling of thunder in the distance.
“Are you staying here for long, Teacher Wei?” Sizhui asks.
“Nah. I'll get the bus home now.”
Sizhui's eyebrows furrow together. “Waiting for the bus in this weather?”
Wei Ying gives a laugh that looks like a grimace instead. He brings a finger to his lips and winks. “Don't tell anyone but I just failed my driving test for the third time in a row. I'm starting to give up.”
Wangji's pulse quickens. He's speaking before he realises it. “Come with us.”
That carefree smile on Wei Ying's face is gone in seconds. He's back to raising his eyebrows, folding his arms. “Excuse me?”
Words fail to form in his head. Wangji looks away and narrows his eyes at a wall, despising how, even after all this time, he can't say the right words in front of Wei Ying.
“I will... get you home,” he says eventually.
In the back of his mind, he recalls asking Wei Ying to come back to Gusu with him, time and time again. They're already in Gusu now but the distance between them is larger, more impossible. Wangji doesn't know where to start.
Wei Ying lets out a laugh that doesn't quite sound like the ones he used to give. “You don't have to offer, but thank you—”
“No, Teacher Wei! Please come with us!” Sizhui stands up straighter. The smile on his face is enough to get rid of the storm outside. “Waiting for the bus in this rain isn't good! Besides, didn't you tell us earlier that you were broke?”
Wei Ying actually flinches. “Yes, I did, but you don't need to remind me!”
In the end, he looks between Sizhui and Wangji, as if weighing his options. He casts one more glance at the storm outside and shrugs to himself.
“Okay, okay, if you both insist,” he says.
Wangji finds it hard to pay attention to the storm, or anything else in general. All he can see is Wei Ying in the corner of his eyes, alive, here. As Wei Ying follows them to his car, he's hounded by thoughts of stealing him away, making sure he will never leave his side, that he will be safe in this lifetime.
He clenches his fists. No. No. He will never resort to that.
Wei Ying is alive, and for now, that is enough for him.
- x -
“Well, this is where I live.”
Wangji stops the car, his eyes narrowing at the dreary apartments in front of them. They are in the outskirts of the city, usually the areas rumoured to be crawling with gangs and accidents that perhaps weren't accidents to begin with. The dark clouds do not make this place look any better, but Wangji is sure not even sunshine will improve the state of the building.
It reminds him of the Burial Mounds. He wishes Wei Ying will stop living in such places.
“Thanks for the ride, Mr. Lan,” Wei Ying says, already getting his things. Wangji has to grip the driving wheel tighter to stop himself from grabbing him.
“You are welcome,” he says, a bit stiffly.
“And thanks again for the help today, Sizhui.”
Wei Ying cranes around the car to wave at the teenager on the back seat. His hair brushes Wangji's shoulder and he catches the faint scent of lotus flowers and mint. He stiffens and takes a deep, deep breath.
“See you on Monday, Teacher Wei!” Sizhui says.
Wangji watches as Wei Ying smiles one last time before leaving the car. Once he's gone, he can breathe properly again and the hold he has around the wheel loosens. His eyes are still on Wei Ying as he walks around the puddles and disappears into the building.
His heart will not stop pounding against his ribs and Wangji doesn't know how to calm it down. He cannot name the feeling he has, or the feelings, and he can't decide what to do now that the one person he has always longed for is back.
Wei Ying is back, after all this time. Wei Ying is back.
“Dad, are you okay?”
Sizhui's voice is barely audible.
Wangji manages to nod. “Yes.”
He does not know how he does it, but he manages to start driving again. It hurts to put distance between him and Wei Ying. He can't ignore that panic that he will disappear again come the next morning. He wants nothing more than to run into that apartment and keep Wei Ying by his side. He wants him to laugh at him again, tease him like he used to an eternity ago.
The desire is there and it is nothing like Wangji has ever felt before. All these centuries of feeling so empty, and now he cannot think at the intensity of his wishes.
But he cannot. Wei Ying does not know who he is. To him, he is nothing but a stranger. They are not lovers, they are not friends. They are not even acquaintances. To him, he is the father of one of Wei Ying's students, another face he will see in this life. He may know who Wei Ying used to be, but he knows nothing about his life now.
He hates that. He hates how greedy he feels, how much this longing is already driving him insane.
All Wangji can do is return home. He needs to gather his thoughts. He needs to think, somehow.
It is only now he notices the rain has stopped. Sunlight finally begins to peak through the grey clouds, casting a light that's been unseen here in the city for the past few days. He drives past strangers who are peeking out from their umbrellas, hands outstretched to check if the rain truly is gone.
Lan Wangji spares a moment to breathe.
The storm, it seems, has finally ended.