It’s snowing today.
That in itself is not an unusual occasion — Yiling winters are cold and bitter and if they’re lucky, it only snows. Sometimes it hails and storms. Those winters are the worst. Wei Ying would know. Wei Ying would know, since he spent two consecutive winters huddled in alleyways with nothing but his ragged clothes for comfort, waking up with numb fingers and toes and an empty stomach.
But it’s snowing today, and it’s not even night yet. The snowflakes melt almost as soon as they hit the dusty roads of Yiling’s marketplace, but when Wei Ying stretches his hands out to catch a few, they stay there — glistening, evaporating into the hazy, clouded sunlight.
His breath comes out in small puffs that make the snowflakes melt faster. Soon, there’s nothing but a frosty puddle of water in his hands, steadily dripping through the gaps of his fingers.
It’s only noon. Wei Ying’s hands can afford to be cold right now. Perhaps he’ll steal a bun or, if he’s feeling stupidly brave, a spare scrap of meat. That would be a nice lunch, he doesn’t want to eat potatoes again. He has no room to be picky, but he’s alone, crouching behind an empty stall and listening to the people in heavy robes and winter cloaks barter in the marketplace.
Today, maybe, he can afford to indulge himself. There’s nobody around to judge him but himself, after all. And… the spirits of his parents. But they’d be proud of him for surviving so long, right? They’d still love him no matter what, right?
...Or maybe he can settle for picking up straws and making dolls out of them. He doesn’t want to disappoint his parents. And it’s the dead of winter, his birthday is many weeks past, he has no excuse for indulging himself.
Wei Ying rubs at his cheeks. His fingers come away dirt-smudged and tingling painfully with the warmth of his face. In the winter, this is the only way he knows he’s alive during the long, storming nights — the fleeting warmth of his skin, bringing awareness to his numbing body.
He sighs and darts out from behind the stall. Time to get to work.
Wei Ying sells his scrappy homemade dolls on the street for five copper coins, worth no more than half a bao or a fourth of a jug of water. If he doesn’t lose these coins fighting the street dogs again, he can buy himself something hot to eat or drink. A little reminder that there are things worth living for.
He doesn’t even know how to write “water”. He only knows the characters of his name. It doesn’t matter, what does matter is survival, but Wei Ying can’t help but want more than this.
Maybe one day, far in the golden future when he has a place to stay and silken robes on his skin.
He sits next to the shelter of the food stalls, through the abating snow and the setting sun. The people come and go and at some point they turn into blurs of colors and faces. Wei Ying only remembers the three kind young girls who buy his dolls (he sells them as best as he can, with his raspy voice and accent) and the street performer who compliments his straw-weaving and buys two.
In the end, he stays past the sunset, until the lanterns of the street flicker on and the day-time stalls pack up. Now he has nowhere to hide. The snow is starting to flutter down again, he feels it coating the ends of his hair and chilling his body temperature like cruel frost spirits nipping at his skin.
Wei Ying doesn’t have nearly enough coins to buy a meal for himself yet. So he waits.
And waits. Twilight changes to true night, heavy and velvety darkness rushing through the streets of Yiling.
And waits some more. The fires of the restaurants and houses seem so far away. Only a door separates Wei Ying and the warmth of a roof over his head, but it’s not a door that he dares open. His legs ache from sitting so long, so Wei Ying stretches them out and yelps as snowflakes land on his toes.
He’d seen some cultivators in white and blue winter robes earlier today. They’d gone into the luxurious inn at the end of the market road and he’d not paid any attention to them, because they hadn’t paid him a second glance, but… he wishes he could be with them. They looked strict — but close. And rich. And well-fed.
Wei Ying wraps his arms around his stomach to stop the embarrassing grumble. Stay strong! It’s not that cold tonight. You’ve been through worse. You don’t need that much food, anyways. You can survive. If it comes down to it, he would fight the dogs.
His stomach grumbles again and he flinches when he hears a faraway bark. Logically, he knows that the dog will not come after him. There’s nothing worth taking from Wei Ying’s person right now. But… he can’t help the whimper he lets out.
A flash of white and a flicker of blue, then — the sweet, fresh scent of sandalwood.
At first, Wei Ying thinks a winter spirit has appeared in front of him. The one standing in front of him, slender white hands clenched in his similarly white robes, is certainly as beautiful as a spirit. Or… no, more beautiful, he’s the prettiest person Wei Ying has ever seen. It’s a boy around his age dressed in the same layered white and blue robes he’d seen earlier today, he realizes.
There’s a jade hairpin in the boy’s half-bun, green and white melting into each other in the flickering candlelight. A smooth ribbon wrapped around his forehead, billowing sleeves that swallow the boy whole, and soft golden eyes.
Wei Ying sucks in a breath.
“You will get cold.” The boy says.
“I’m fine!” Wei Ying feels the need to reassure him. He doesn’t want those beautiful clear eyes to cloud with any pity for him. He doesn’t want this person’s pity… the boy is so pristine and graceful. Wei Ying wishes he could be by his side, suddenly. “Do you want to buy a doll?”
His stomach grumbles for the third time. It’s loud enough to float over the noise of the night and the storm.
“Noise is forbidden in the Cloud — “ The boy starts. Then he frowns and steps closer to Wei Ying, who has nowhere to go, caught between the shadowed wall of a restaurant and the pretty boy. “You’re hungry.” He states.
“Aw, come on.” If the boy isn’t going to buy anything, why is he here? Wei Ying doesn’t have time for this, he needs to find a safe place to sleep before the storm picks up again. “Fine. If I give you a doll, can you pretend that you never saw me?”
“But… you’re hungry.” The boy says again. He blinks fiercely, and Wei Ying notices for the first time that a sheer veil protects his face from the snow. “And I want to — you — I… you’re alone.”
“Don’t worry about me. I just need to finish selling these dolls — they’re very good for protection, and they’re pretty nice to look at too, why don’t you buy one?” Wei Ying says quickly. He doesn’t need this boy’s pity. This boy is pretty and elegant and clean and everything Wei Ying is not. They… don’t need to talk. Wei Ying only needs to sell these and then he can rest for the night.
“Only protection talismans can protect oneself.”
“You never know!” Wei Ying grins up at the boy. “Not until you try. So? What do you think? Are my dolls nice?”
“...I think…” The boy starts. He glances from side to side, as if he’s searching for somebody close to Wei Ying (joke’s on him, nobody’s close to Wei Ying). “Here.”
It’s snowing again, the chill of night seeps through the air, and Wei Ying is being handed a rattle drum by this bright, pretty boy. The rattle drum itself is a higher quality than anything Wei Ying has ever seen — lacquered wood that shines in the candlelight, blue flowers engraved in the handle, clouds stitched into the taut fabric of the drum.
“A… drum? Why?”
“You can sell this. Take it.” The boy insists. Is he… giving the drum to Wei Ying? Really? He holds it as if it is important to him, yet he’s willing to give it to a dirty street urchin. “You… won’t take it?”
“No! No, I’ll take it —” Wei Ying scrambles to grab the handle before the boy retracts his hand and clutches it close to his chest. “Thank you!! What’s your name? Do you live around here?”
“Zhan? Just Zhan? Uh… can I call you Zhanzhan then? Do you live far away then? Are you on a trip?” The words won’t stop coming out of Wei Ying’s mouth, but he does take a step back from Zhanzhan to give him enough space. Amazingly, Zhanzhan’s ears flush red through the sheer cloth of the veil and he gasps.
“S-shameless!” Zhanzhan exclaims. But he doesn’t run away from Wei Ying, so Wei Ying is going to go ahead and assume Zhanzhan quite likes his company. “Uncle says — Uncle says to not tell strangers where we live…”
“I’m not a stranger! I’m Wei Ying — now you know my name, you can call me A-Ying — and besides, I’ll probably never see you again anyways.”
Zhanzhan’s eyes flutter under the veil. Finally, quietly, he says, “Gusu.”
“Hm… I’ve never heard of that place before. Is it nice?” Why is he standing here talking with Zhanzhan instead of getting back to selling his wares? The barks are piercing the night again, but somehow, with Zhanzhan, he feels warmer than ever before. An irrepressible smile makes its way onto his face.
Zhanzhan struggles with his words for a moment before deciding on, “We have mountains. And… clouds.”
“Just that? It sounds cold. Is it cold? Is that why you don’t seem cold?”
Gods, Wei Ying, stop asking questions already! Zhanzhan’s probably annoyed by it, he just gave you a precious toy and now you’re attacking him with all these questions!
But Zhanzhan nods slowly. The more Wei Ying talks, the more Zhanzhan seems to open up. Like a winter flower that blooms during the dewy early mornings. Zhanzhan sure is as beautiful as a flower, too — no, more beautiful than any flower he’s seen.
“During the winters it is cold. We have pretty plants too. Forests… and rivers, and animals.”
“Ooh! Animals? What kind? Is it far away from here? Are you here on a trip?”
“Cultivation…” Zhanzhan starts. Then he looks at Wei Ying properly and his tiny fists clench in the soft material of his outer cloak. “Do you… like it? The drum.”
“Zhanzhan, of course I like it! You gave it to me, it’s really nice, I can’t even sell it now… And cultivation? The thing those stupid high-and-mighty rich men like to do, right?” Zhanzhan looks like he objects to that description, but Wei Ying continues. “But Zhanzhan isn’t like those men… those men don’t even try to help me. Zhanzhan helped me.”
“It is rig — right — righteous.” Zhanzhan struggles with the complicated word. He looks resolved, almost, the thin line of his brow set as he stares at Wei Ying. “To help people in need.”
“What, is that a rule or something? Or did you truly wanna help me?”
Zhanzhan pauses. Wait, so it is a rule? Wei Ying gives a delighted laugh, ignoring how Zhanzhan’s ears turn redder because of that. It’s probably the cold starting to get to him. Who knew? Maybe… just maybe, he’ll find the place Zhanzhan lives and follow that rule. Most rules suck but Wei Ying thinks he’d follow this one. Just this one.
“Want… wanted to help Wei Ying. I think it is the right thing. Is it not?” Zhanzhan asks him. His voice is small, shy, like he’s so scared of breaking a rule.
Wei Ying doesn’t know why. But… he wants to reassure Zhanzhan. This boy he’s known for less than an hour, just having met him in the heavy snow and lantern-light of the streets — shy, awkward, charming little Zhanzhan.
“It’s okay if you don’t always follow the rules.” He tells Zhanzhan. “Do what your heart says is good! Lemme tell you a secret — the rules aren’t always good. If they were, don’t you think there would be a rule that would help me get a bed and a warm place to stay?”
“But — the rules, Uncle says, everybody says they’re good — if I don’t follow the rules I can’t see Mother — I followed them but Mother is still gone, so that means I broke them — “ Zhanzhan curls into himself. His little body trembles in the snow. Wei Ying wants to hug him, but he’d only get Zhanzhan’s beautiful robes dirty.
So he reaches out and takes Zhanzhan’s hand in his. “People leave sometimes. I’m… I’m sorry, Zhanzhan, but I swear! It’s not because you broke the rules, and even if you did, it’s not your fault!” Wei Ying says. His voice echoes through the street. Zhanzhan’s eyes widen. “Rules this, rules that, do we have to survive by these rules now? If I followed them, I’d be dead by now! Why don’t you live by your heart? After all… I know Zhanzhan’s heart is good!”
Zhanzhan’s hand is warm. It’s so warm. Wei Ying wants to hold it forever.
“A-Ying.” Zhanzhan gasps.
“Ehehe, you called me A-Ying!” Wei Ying says, feeling irrationally happy. “But it’s true, Zhanzhan is good! So trust yourself, okay?”
Wei Ying is just about to laugh and push a doll into Zhanzhan’s hands regardless of what the boy says when he hears an unfamiliar name being called from the end of the street. Zhanzhan startles and tears his hands out of Wei Ying’s grasp. The cold floods back in.
“I have to go.” Zhanzhan says.
“See ya.” Wei Ying responds. He’d say he wouldn’t miss Zhanzhan, but that would be a lie. After all, being with Zhanzhan is warm. Warm in a way that he’d thought he’d lost forever. “Wait, wait, Zhanzhan… do you think we’ll see each other again?”
Zhanzhan gives him a look that Wei Ying doesn’t have the time to decipher right now. The snow is falling faster and Zhanzhan is pulling away from him.
Finally, Zhanzhan settles on — “I… hope so. We will meet again, A-Ying.”
And he’s gone.
Wei Ying settles back onto his mat and sits. And fiddles with the drum. And paces. Without Zhanzhan, the night seems long and colder than ever. In the end, he tucks the drum away and decides to never sell it, so that even if they never meet again, he’ll remember Zhanzhan.
When he sleeps that night, though, he’s warm and dreaming of Zhanzhan.
(A year later, Jiang Fengmian picks up a dirty street urchin from the streets. A year later, Wei Ying learns his courtesy name and becomes a Jiang disciple. A year later, Wei Ying meets Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli.
Seven years later, Wei Ying goes to Gusu. Seven years later, Wei Ying is Wei Wuxian yet he still carries the age-battered drum with him. Seven years later, he still hopes he might meet Zhanzhan in Gusu again, and maybe the elusive Second Young Master Lan Wangji (birth name Lan Zhan, he reminds himself) too.
Seven years later —
“It’s Emperor’s Smile! If I give you a jar, can you pretend that you never saw me?”
“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
Seven years, four months, three weeks and five days later —
“Ah, I brought that old toy to the Library Pavilion — Lan Zhan, will you let me put it back before I copy the rules?”
“...You — A-Ying?”