Someone was holding his hand.
That was the first thing Wei Wuxian noticed as he drifted in and out of sleep. A single point of contact he had not expected; one that kept his hand warm and his heart – content. There was gentleness to that touch. He felt it in the way those fingers had been interwoven with his own; how safe and familiar and right it was.
And yet his body felt too small, too hot, and he doubted he could move even if he wanted to. Something heavy was lying atop his thighs, but the weight of it was grounding, almost comforting. Thoughts were scattered in his head, sluggish and incoherent just like his flickering awareness. Still, he noticed an aroma that surrounded him, a fragrance that awakened nostalgia after some long-forgotten memory he had never truly parted with. It wafted all around him and seeped into his soul with familiarity he could not explain.
It had been so long since he smelled something other than ashes, blood, and the stale odour of corpses. No matter how hard he tried, it always clung to his robes and skin. He had scraped it raw, once, and even the fresh blood did nothing to hide it. He never tried again, for it would have been foolish to waste time on such futile an action.
Whatever bout of madness spurred his tired mind to conjure all this, the touch and the smell and the grounding weight he could drown under, he knew it was nothing but a dream the moment warm lips pressed a kiss to his temple. There was no one to do that, no one willing to bestow such tenderness upon him—not anymore. And so, amidst the sweetness and warmth, his heart broke a little more.
Funny. He thought he no longer had it.
Next time he woke up, he was drenched in sunlight.
The hand that used to be in his own was gone now, and so was the weight on his legs. In their place only quiet and cold remained, and the faint whisper of water somewhere nearby; close enough to be heard, but not so that he could determine whether it was a waterfall, or perhaps a river.
There was no running water at the Burial Mounds. Neither was there any sunlight.
So now even closed eyelids did nothing to soothe the burn. He pulled the covers over his head—or at least he would have done it, had pain not flared in his abdomen as soon as he moved. It was unexpected enough to tear a whimper from his parched lips and dry throat. He had suffered many injuries in his life; some negligible, others serious enough that he trod on the thin line between life and death. However, even though his memory nowadays was just a chaotic haze of disconnected images and incomprehensible feelings, he recalled no wound, old or new, that could suddenly be acting up like that.
Nothing made sense; neither the sweet smell in the air nor the softness of a pillow under his neck – least of all the warmth and caress he had dreamt about. Urgency and unease had been filling his heart for months now, building up within his body up till they slipped through his fingers when he tried to catch them. The dead always became agitated whenever that happened, and the Stygian Tiger Seal burnt hotter in his palm.
Maybe that was it. Maybe he had finally gone insane and lost himself in things that never happened, and in dreams that could never come true. And wouldn’t that be ironic? The great Yiling Patriarch, reduced to a raging lunatic by fickle cravings of his own heart. Jiang Cheng would have laughed.
A long while had passed before he opened his eyes and an even longer one before he managed to pull himself up into a sitting position. The surroundings were unfamiliar, pristine in a way nothing at the Burial Mounds could ever be. Then he glanced down at his stomach – bandages were wrapped around his torso so tightly he could barely breathe. He wanted to tear them off and see whatever wound was beneath. Maybe then he would remember how and when he had got it.
If it were from a corpse, he had to examine it. He had little time to counteract the possible side-effects otherwise.
Every move he made hurt; every twist of arms around himself, every blind grab for the knot tying the bandages together. He was panting before he even found it, and nearly screaming before he untied it. He let the fabric fall loose to the floor and pool around his feet, and took a deep breath before he dared to look down.
Not many things could scare him; those that terrified him were even fewer – and the three wide, jagged wounds that started at his right hip and spanned the entire stomach only to end near his left armpit did just that. The skin around them was still tender but free of infection. That alone told him he could not have got at the Burial Mounds. It would have been a matter of hours for the infection to settle in, and but a handful of days before it consumed him.
The dead would have probably got to him much sooner, and he was unsure that the Seal could save him. It became unreliable as of late, and worry lingered in his mind.
When he slept, he dreamt of it ripping him in half.
But there was no dead here, no suffocating dust, and no ancient iron in his hand that gave him power in exchange for his heart and mind; only the rays of sunlight painting their way over the floor, and the rustling of leaves outside the window. Whatever this place was, he saw no immediate danger he would have to face, and if anything, that was the most dangerous thing of them all. He glanced around this space framed by a half-open window and a paper screen that separated it from the rest of the room. There was nothing here but the bed he was sitting on, and neatly folded black and red robes placed at the feet of it. They had to be his, even though he had never seen the swirling pattern sewn along the sleeves before.
Sitting up had been a struggle. How much was it going to hurt to stand up and get dressed?
He crumpled onto the floor the moment he tried to get to his feet. Blood filled his mouth – what he bit, he did not know, for the pain in his abdomen overshadowed everything else – but he let out no scream. The dead and ghosts of the Burial Mounds had been the last to ever hear him scream. He had promised himself then that no one else would ever witness it again. There was no more place for weakness in his life – not when the smallest one could cost him his life.
The air was stifling. His entire body was shaking uncontrollably, and he had to clench his fists and grit his teeth to pretend it did not. Without the golden core and no resentful energy at his disposal, all he could do was sit and watch the blood trickle down his leg, while only one thought rang in his ears over and over again; so loud that he might just as well have said it.
Is this the end?
It was a common occurrence nowadays, to think about that. Sometimes he could not shake off those thoughts even if he tried; even when he put on a smile and pretended nothing had changed; even when he played on Chenqing for hours just to keep the ghosts at bay. But when he wrote pages upon pages of rituals and talismans at night, or when he clawed at his chest to soothe the pain of something that was no longer there – then he sometimes allowed himself to hope for the end. Sometimes, as bloody dawn rose above the Burial Mounds, he allowed himself to think, I’m tired.
So when he heard someone enter the room behind the paper screen, he did not get up. Still, his hand moved quickly, dipping into the blood on his skin and sketching a talisman on the floor right next to him, ready to use as a measure of last resort. His strength was minimal, and the supply of the resentful energy at his disposal was even slimmer, but at least the blood ought to be enough for one last action should he need to defend himself.
The person out there was light on their feet and made barely any sound as they walked towards the paper screen. He saw their silhouette through the paper, a darker lump with no contours. They were holding something in their hands. He tensed, ready to jump, even though crawling was the best he could hope for. And crawl he would; he had once, after all. Hand on the talisman, he let the power flow through him and give it life. All he had to do was call if forth. One swipe of his hand would be enough; one breath and he would know just how much power utmost desperation resulted in.
Then he raised his eyes and looked upon a teenage boy holding a large bowl in his hands. For the longest of seconds neither of them moved, then the boy’s eyes widened and the bowl slipped from his hands. It broke at the contact with the floor; water spilled all over it, darkening the wood and the boy’s white boots.
“Senior Wei!” He was at his side in a blink of an eye and before Wei Wuxian could so much as say a word, he was being pulled back onto the bed. “What were you thinking? You shouldn’t be moving!”
“I,” he started and broke off, as a new wave of pain stole his breath away. The boy was gentle in his movements, but Wei Wuxian’s wounds were deep.
Not for the first time he missed his golden core. It used to make life so much easier.
“Please don’t make any sudden moves. I’ll go get clean bandages and tell—”
He grabbed the boy’s hand before that sentence was finished. “Don’t.” Whoever he was going to talk to, Wei Wuxian would rather not have it. Not in these circumstances. “You—You’re a Lan.”
He watched the boy’s brow furrow. There was something guarded in his face, a sign of unease Wei Wuxian could not decipher. “Yes? I...” He dropped to his knees right next to the bed, uncaring of the water on the floor. His eyes were wide as he gently touched Wei Wuxian’s forehead. “Are you hurt somewhere else? We couldn’t have known, but—”
Wei Wuxian recoiled a moment too late. “You’re a Lan,” he repeated. His voice sounded wrong to his ears; too high, too young. “Then this must be Gusu, am I right?”
The teenager opened his mouth but said nothing. His eyes were wide.
“Is this Gusu?!”
“Of course, where—”
“Damn it all.” Standing up was the last thing he wanted to, but there was no other choice. He pushed himself off the bed, gritting his teeth and hoping for steady legs against all hope. For a second they worked to his liking, keeping him upward and surprisingly steady. He took a deep breath and dared to make a step forward.
The Lan boy was quicker than he anticipated. And having been spared from falling face-first onto the floor one more time, Wei Wuxian deeply appreciated that, even though he would never make it known.
“Father, please,” he heard somewhere above his ear. “Just... lie back down.”
The world came to a halt. He was held securely in arms that were much stronger than they looked. Turning his head was akin to pulling a muscle, but he did it nonetheless. “What did you just call me?”
The boy’s face went slack and then it shattered, for a blink of an eye bereft of all the composure only GusuLan’s disciples possessed. “I... You said you didn’t—” Wei Wuxian felt the teenager twitch minutely behind him. “Forgive me, senior Wei. Please, return to the bed. You’ll only open your wounds again.”
It was a broken thing, the boy’s voice. Wei Wuxian refused to dwell on the reason for it to be so right now. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Wha—nothing is going on, whatever could be going on?” A hint of frustration found its way into the teenager’s voice. It had been a while since the last time Wei Wuxian managed to anger a Lan. Knowing that he was still able to do that brought him just enough comfort of familiarity to latch onto in this madness surrounding him. “Senior Wei, I insist.”
“Oh,” he said slowly, “you insist.”
“Yes.” The boy’s composure was rock-solid again, and Wei Wuxian would have never believed it was lost even for a moment had he not seen it happen with his own eyes. Perhaps he should have been watching more closely once, too, before another Lan’s annoyance had turned into hatred. Perhaps he could have—
But it was not the time to dwell on what was no longer possible to change, no matter how much he might have missed the unlikely camaraderie of circumstances and occasional moments of laughter.
“Please don’t hurt yourself more than you already are.”
If he stayed here, sooner or later he would end up dead. How much better was that from a little blood and some pain now? It was not like he was not already used to them; to the emptiness and exhaustion tearing at him, and the feeling of life leaking slowly out of him.
“Take me out,” he demanded even though he could barely stand. “I need to... I need—”
“You need to lie down.” The boy’s voice was soft and pleading to his ears. Whatever punishment the future held, right now Wei Wuxian felt safe with him – and was it not the most terrifying thing of them all? “Do you wish to kill yourself?”
He said nothing to that. This nameless Lan boy he did not know was not someone he would pour his heart out to, even if he were able to give words to his late-night frantic thoughts to begin with.
“If I leave you here alone,” the teenager began when it became obvious Wei Wuxian was not going to dignify his previous question with an answer, “can I count on your common sense to remain in bed until I come back?”
Common sense? Wei Wuxian nearly laughed. Was it not a universally acknowledged truth that he had thrown his common sense to the wind a long time ago? There were days when even he himself believed that; days when the sleep was non-existent and the cold tendrils of resentful energy in his body became nigh unbearable. “Who do you think I am, kid?” he asked instead of arguing.
The teenager only sighed at that—heavens above, did it sound familiar—and manoeuvred him gently back onto the bed. Wei Wuxian let him, welcoming the respite from standing on shaking, weak legs. The first few days at the Burial Mounds had been like that, too; only there had been no bed for him to sit on, and no one beside him to help him stand.
“Very well then,” the boy said and sat down next to him, all poise and grace of a GusuLan disciple. There was even a rule about sitting properly, was it not? His stay in Gusu had faded in Wei Wuxian’s memory, becoming nothing but a blur of images. Some things he remembered clearly, others he would never be able to recall in their entirety. He remembered laughter and the sweet taste of Emperor’s Smile, and the amber eyes that looked upon him with disgust—
He would not think about him. Gods only knew he had bigger worries on his mind.
“Would you at least let me dress your wounds properly again?”
Wei Wuxian glanced at the boy beside him. His face remained impassive and his eyes focused on something straight ahead, but the shaking, clenching fists betrayed what his face did not.
“Are you going to sit here with me until one of us dies of boredom?”
The teenager clenched his fists even tighter. “Don’t joke about dying.”
“Why?” Death was something Wei Wuxian expected sooner rather than later. He was not so disillusioned as to hope for a long, happy life. “Life’s too short to take it seriously.”
“Do not joke about dying!”
The vehemence in the boy’s voice was strong enough to quench even Wei Wuxian’s desire to argue. “Fine, fine. I won’t.”
The silence that fell between them was heavy, nearly suffocating. It was typical for the Lans, this ability to fuel his temper with no words until it exploded and consumed him. Lan Wangji used to do the same, back when they had still been speaking to each other. Things had changed between them since then, and the silence gave way to screams and arguments more often than not, but the outcome was always the same.
Wei Wuxian’s heart in tatters, and a myriad of regrets weighing him down.
He sat straighter despite the throbbing pain of his wounds. At least they finally stopped bleeding. “So...” he started, unsure if he even wanted to push for answers. Some part of him was too weak to care. “If you’re going to stay here with me, then maybe you could at least tell me your name?”
The boy turned to face him so fast Wei Wuxian feared he might have broken his spine. “W-what?”
“Your name,” he repeated and watched terror bloom on the teenager’s face. “What is it?”
Dozens of emotions flickered on his face too quickly for Wei Wuxian to even try to make sense of them. Then they were gone, replaced with a mask of serene detachment. However, no one had ever been able to control their eyes. This Lan junior could not do it either, and Wei Wuxian had to avert his gaze to not gaze upon that boundless anguish. It was too private, too improper to be witnessed by a stranger.
‘Father,’ this boy had called him. He had held him and helped him, and Wei Wuxian did not even know who he was.
He had no children of his own, and the only person who one day might have come to call him ‘father’ was probably already dead. He had hidden him and made him promise the impossible, and then turned to prepare to face the world head-on, for it was the least and only thing he could do.
“Stay here,” the teenager told him in a voice so stern it would make even Lan Qiren envious. “Do not move.”
And then he was gone, pushing the paper screen away and slamming the door behind him in a display of haste and urgency Wei Wuxian would have never expected to see from a GusuLan disciple. The noise was enough to make him wince, but the discomfort eased off as soon as he realised that the rest of the room was perfectly visible now and he no longer had to consider resorting to crawling just to see it.
At first sight, it looked as immaculate as everything in the Cloud Recesses. Bare walls, light wood, and furniture reduced to an absolute functional minimum were what Wei Wuxian had got used during those few months he stayed in Gusu years ago. He had never complained about it – living in the streets had taught him to appreciate having a bed to lie in and a roof over his head, no matter what they looked like.
Then details caught his attention – a long red ribbon dangling from a stack of scrolls, a worn bag thrown haphazardly right next to the door, and a few faint splotches of blood all over the floor. A red tassel attached to something lying on the writing table was swaying slightly in the breeze. A two-sword stand stood right beside the table, and Wei Wuxian swore his heart stopped for a moment when he noticed it.
He knew those swords, both the silver-blue and the black-gold one. The latter was his, after all, and he had looked at the former being pointed at him enough times to remember it.
Had he come after him again? Amidst the fire and smoke, with the screams and wailing of the dead filling his ears, and grounded by the heaviness of the Tiger Seal in his palm, Wei Wuxian could not remember.
He needed to get away. Dignity be damned, he was going to crawl, because the alternative meant facing someone he wished to never see again. There was no point of meeting up, no hope for reconciliation—and no one to hold out a hand towards him. And it was fine.
He had always survived before.
A sudden commotion outside told him it was too late to stand up. He would need long, long minutes to move somewhere in the state he was in, hungry and weak like a newborn child—minutes he did not have. So he straightened his back even though it pulled on the edges of his wounds, and schooled his face into a mask of haughty indifference, for pretences were all he had left. Half-naked and defenceless – that was not the end he had envisioned.
The door burst open and there he was, Lan Wangji, the second young master of the GusuLan Sect. The man who had chased him, the man who had fought him, the man who had hated him ever since they met.
The man who was now looking at him with wide eyes and something indecipherable written all over his usually expressionless face. He was holding onto the door, his grip white-knuckled. Time was generous to him; he had matured in the months that passed since their last meeting, his face now bereft of last remnants of the boyish charm the war had failed to wipe out. Wei Wuxian wondered what he would look like if he smiled—wondered if he had ever smiled at all.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathed out, his voice barely audible over the gentle whisper of the wind outside. It wavered, filled to the brim with emotion that never made its way to his face.
Wei Wuxian was too tired to ponder on it. “Lan Wangji,” he said instead and ah, was that a grimace of hurt that was gone almost as quickly as it appeared on Lan Wangji’s face? Wei Wuxian could never tell with him, but it felt wrong; everything felt wrong. “I see you’ve finally caught me.”