“The Cloud Recesses are burned.” He hears himself saying.
His voice sounds distant. Perhaps it is the echo of the sound on the slick rocks of the xuanwu cave, or his own ringing ears. His own hollow chest filled with fire-crackle and screams.
There is a long pause. Beside him, Wei Wuxian shifts and shivers in his thin inner robes.
They’re a brilliant red, so much like the blood spilled in the clear water of the xuanwu’s pond, so much like wedding robes.
It occurs to Lan Wangji then that this might not be the best place to have this conversation. After all, Wei Wuxian has his own issues to worry about. His slight against Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao will surely be reported to Wen Ruohan, and even if Jiang Wanyin makes it back to Yunmeng in time, the Wen sect will still most likely send troops to indoctrinate them further.
Which is key for “raze to the ground”, of course. Destroy the pulsing, lotus-blossom core of Yunmeng. Make the tenacious stems of lotus pods snap clean into two. Burn and burn and burn until there’s nothing left but ash and charred wood and the faint smell of a drifting home. Just like they did to the Cloud Recesses.
Just like they did to his home. Lan Wangji’s fingers scrabble to find something to grip in the folds of his robes.
“Are your people safe?” Wei Wuxian asks. His voice wavers too, though Lan Wangji can hear him trying to conceal it. He’s scared. Just as scared as Lan Wangji is.
At least they are together in this.
“Your uncle… your brother?”
He takes a breath.
They must be safe. Gusu Lan sect is nothing if not resilient. Their scholarly robes conceal stubborn hearts and iron bones. Lan Wangji’s blood may sing of still reflection ponds and crescent moons dripping on guqin strings but he knows he is a warrior as well.
They must be safe. Lan Wangji won’t allow them to die.
But, to Wei Wuxian, he finds himself saying — “Uncle is badly wounded. Brother is missing.”
Wei Wuxian is a silent, blurry shadow to his right.
He wants to cry.
It’s so dark. And it smells like ash and blood and rock. The entrance to the cave is blocked off and his leg is a dead weight, no matter how much he wills it to heal. The xuanwu guards the underwater exit with all its might.
His eyes are warm and wet and his robes are dirty for the first time in what feels like forever. Distantly, he recalls that during the fire his robes had been dusted with ash and rubble, so much that they appeared grey and dull.
Distantly, he recalls the way his fellow disciples had tried their utmost to save what the Gusu Lan sect treasured. Their writings, their copies of the rulebooks, their brushes and swords and spare robes and pressed flower bookmarks. The way they’d stumbled out of the inner complex with flames scorching their robes, racing along unprotected skin and fine hair.
The way they had seemed more like fierce corpses than dignified Lan cultivators.
The way their forehead ribbons had dissolved into melted fabric and metal.
The way his lungs had filled up that day, choking on smoke and tears and the terrible sounds. The way he’d felt like he was drowning in the storm, except the storm was the conflagrance and there was no escaping it, how the fire had leapt from curved roof to column to tree, how the sun had shot them down that night.
Lan Wangji wants to cry.
“Fuck.” Wei Wuxian says. He’s bringing his hands together. Wringing the water out of his wet outer robes. The drip-drip-drip is incessant and Lan Wangji’s head spins. “Fuck.” He says again.
Cursing is forbidden in the Gusu Lan sect, he wants to tell Wei Wuxian, but they aren’t in Gusu. And the Lan sect —
The Lan sect is half-gone and the old paths he grew up walking would never be the same. The Lan sect is gone.
Lan Wangji should not cry. He should be strong, for his family. He should not show weakness, especially not in front of Wei Wuxian. They still need to find a way to escape. With his flagging strength and Wei Wuxian’s lopsided, anxious grin, because that grin is the strongest weapon they have right now.
“Fuck, Lan Zhan, look at me.”
His leg is a constant throbbing pain that overloads his senses and Wei Wuxian’s voice is the sweetest medicine. There is a knot in his heart and liquid fire torching his tongue.
Wei Wuxian scoots closer.
Lan Wangji doesn’t move away.
Wei Wuxian’s breath is shaky as he grabs Lan Wangji’s hand in his.
It’s warm. So warm. So bright. So kind. Fire rushes through his veins at the contact but it’s a different fire. One that gives life. So much like Wei Wuxian.
He squeezes. Gently. Lan Wangji doesn’t squeeze back but apparently he doesn’t need to, since Wei Wuxian giggles softly anyways.
“Lan Zhan, let me help you.”
“You already did.”
“I really want to help you. I know… it hurts when your home is gone. And I know you Gusu Lan sect people are strong, so the Cloud Recesses will still be rebuilt. But you’re sad, aren’t you?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t — can’t — respond. Why is Wei Wuxian trying to comfort him?
“Here, aren’t you cold? Take my robe, it isn’t that wet anymore. And you need it more than me. You have a broken leg, fuck, Lan Zhan — “ Wei Wuxian’s lips tremble. When he speaks again, it’s angry. Angry, on behalf of Lan Wangji. “I can’t believe they’d do that to you. Your family.”
Lan Wangji’s hand tightens in Wei Wuxian’s grip.
He wants to say something.
He doesn’t know what to say.
It hurts so much. His leg is nothing in comparison to the memories of the proud Gusu mountains consumed with flame. His room, the halls, the buildings, the grassy clearings.
“Lan Zhan. Say something. Please.”
The words tumble out and they come in the form of a dry cough. Wei Wuxian is still gripping his hand like it’s the last anchor to the mortal world. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Wei Wuxian feels that way too.
“Nevermind. I won’t make you talk about it. Just… let me be here?”
It’s not a question. It’s a statement. Wei Wuxian is going to stick by his side no matter what, at least in this cave, because they only have each other. The knowledge makes Lan Wangi’s heart beat again, sing its fragile song even with the pain of the fire and burns.
“Heh. Lan Zhan, gimme your other hand?”
He does. Wei Wuxian grabs it eagerly and brings their linked hands to his forehead, whispering something that Lan Wangji can’t hear.
When Wei Wuxian looks up at him, it is with kind eyes. It’s the first glimmer of warmth and light that Lan Wangji has felt in a long, long time. Wei Wuxian’s eyes pierce through the suffocating smoke and call Lan Wangji.
“You don’t have to worry as long as I’m around! Trust me, alright?” Wei Wuxian proclaims loudly. His strong voice bounces around the walls of the cave. It completes the song that Lan Wangji’s heart is dancing along to. “After this is over, you can go back to Gusu, you can go back to avoiding me, but right now — let me be here. Please.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t phrase this like a question, but Lan Wangji can tell it is. No matter how much Wei Wuxian tries to hide, his trembling fingers and fluttering eyelashes betray him.
No matter how much Wei Wuxian tries to hide his fear, his anxious kindness shines through the shadows regardless.
This — this, this warmth, these words, more than anything, they make Lan Wangji’s body seize up with a strange, churning emotion.
He does not notice the first tears, too busy staring at Wei Wuxian’s small, indescribably beautiful smile.
He does not notice until Wei Wuxian’s hands slip free of his and his smile is replaced by a frown, his eyes clouded once more with worry, until Wei Wuxian places a tentative hand on Lan Wangji’s left side and crawls over him.
Not until Wei Wuxian’s body is trapping him against the wall of the cave and his face is hovering close to Lan Wangji’s. His lips are smooth and perfectly curved and so, so distracting.
Lan Wangji’s heart clenches.
“Lan Zhan, oh, Lan Zhan, please don’t cry — no, look at me, look at Xianxian, Lan Zhan, don’t cry, you can’t cry, not now — “
Wei Wuxian is begging him. This fact becomes completely clear to Lan Wangji as Wei Wuxian’s composed expression breaks down, the longer he stays on top of Lan Wangji.
But he cannot stop the tears. It hurts and the fire had been so hot that his blood ran cold, and his home had crumbled before his eyes, and he hadn’t been able to protect them. It hurts and his leg screams and his lungs are stabbed with the swords of the Wens who had killed his family.
It hurts, and Wei Wuxian is here, and maybe his kindness is enough to keep Lan Wangji going.
“Please, Lan Zhan, look at me, I’m here, I’m here,” Wei Wuxian chants, like it’s his own prayer. “No, I don’t mean you can’t cry, but if you cry I’ll cry too and I need to be strong — I have to be strong for you, I need to be strong to support you — Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian says softly.
His hands come up once more to cup Lan Wangji’s face. They’re rough from years of training with the sword and bow, dirty from the cave floor and fighting the xuanwu. They’re the warmest, gentlest things Lan Wangji has ever felt.
“Please.” He says.
Lan Wangji gives a choked, wet sob and lets his eyes flutter shut. He feels the weight of broken bones and burned books and tears slipping off his eyelashes. Wei Wuxian’s fingers are doing this distracting thing where they move smoothly beneath his eyes, the rough pads of his fingertips catching his tears.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji murmurs.
Wei Wuxian giggles lightly. The sound seems too bright for the cave they’re stuck in. Yet Lan Wangji memorizes the cadence of that laugh, the high lilt and fall, and brings it close to his heart. “That’s me! Lan Zhan, you stopped crying. Is it because I comforted you?”
Yes, he wants to say, I cannot cry in front of you because I must be strong to protect you. He thinks, Wei Ying, if you had only kept holding my hand, I would have been happier than any rule permits.
Wei Ying, I know you are only pitying me. There is no reason for Wei Wuxian to actually care about him. Yet he lets Wei Wuxian crawl closer, until he’s seated on Lan Wangji’s lap, a warm soft weight.
“Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji cannot tear his gaze away from Wei Wuxian’s shining eyes. The steady drip of water on cave rocks is incessant in the background and Lan Wangji’s heart feels carved from his chest, far too small to fill the chasm that smolders still at the edges yet steadily thumping still. Wei Wuxian’s warm hands are still moving. Rubbing over the edges of his cheeks. Catching on delicate lashes.
He takes a shaky breath. It tastes like fresh grass and boiling tea. Like Wei Wuxian’s clear, sharp scent.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, hehe!” Wei Wuxian grins and drops his hands to clutch Lan Wangji’s shoulders. Lan Wangji’s own hands creep up to grasp at Wei Wuxian’s slender waist. “Your name is just really nice. I like saying it, can’t I say your name without a reason?”
“...You — “ The rest of Lan Wangji’s words crumble. What is he doing, indulging Wei Wuxian like this? He should be thinking of how to defeat the xuanwu, should be mourning his clan, should be as upstanding and rule-abiding and serious as his status demands. What is he doing, feeling so hopeful? Feeling like all the light in the world is crystallizing in his chest, because Wei Wuxian is perched on his thighs and their hands are on each other and all seems right?
“Lan Zhan. I know I’m not the best company, but… please, allow me to be here for you.”
Lan Wangji bites his lip. He does not allow himself to wish that Wei Wuxian means something more than this temporary, fragile pact. After they escape (because he knows Wei Wuxian’s brilliant mind will find a way) Wei Wuxian will go back to Lotus Pier and he, to the ruined Cloud Recesses.
They are destined to walk different paths, so he cannot allow himself to follow Wei Wuxian wherever he goes. He has duties, after all. To his family, his home. He must mourn and he must rebuild.
But (and there’s always an exception when it comes to Wei Wuxian) he can’t stop the blush creeping up his ears. Nor can he stop the wanting, the yearning, the little voice inside of him that says —
Maybe you could be with him, you want him, don’t you?
Maybe you could help him after this, he doesn’t hate you, right?
Maybe he likes you, even, why would he be doing this otherwise?
“Lan Zhan? Um… Ahaha, I know you don’t like to be touched — “ Wei Wuxian starts scooting back on his thighs, his fingers slipping off Lan Wangji’s shoulders. His hands clutch at the edges of Lan Wangji’s robes before dropping down.
That isn’t it! He wants to say. I, I want you —
He can’t say it. He can’t want Wei Wuxian, because wanting Wei Wuxian means disappointing his family, wanting Wei Wuxian in such a time like this means disrespecting all that his sect has gone through. Means that no matter what happens, he cannot ever stop thinking about Wei Wuxian.
(It means that no matter what happens, his love for Wei Wuxian is unconditional and uncontrollable, and perhaps that is what scares him the most.)
“And, uh, you don’t need my help, I just really wanted to do something for you, ah, I should have known you wouldn’t want my help, you don’t like me very much after all.” Wei Wuxian says ruefully. The comforting weight of Wei Wuxian on his lap disappears as he crawls backwards.
No! No, Wei Ying, that isn’t it — I like you, I like you very much, I just can’t let myself like you right now —
Lan Wangji takes a desperate breath and reaches for Wei Wuxian’s trembling (no, no, this is all wrong, why does Wei Wuxian look so uncertain, is it because of him?) hands.
The campfire hisses. A stick snaps and the sound is eerie and too loud in the cave. Behind Wei Wuxian, the fire roars higher.
Lan Wangji’s hands freeze.
For a moment, Wei Wuxian is still. Then, with no small amount of hesitancy, he reaches again for Lan Wangji’s shoulders and grasps them.
“Lan Zhan?” He says slowly. “Are you… talk to me, Lan Zhan, hey, focus on me — come back to me, I’m waiting right here. I’m here."
Everything is so loud. And hot. And Lan Wangji is burning up again, the heat of his ears as Wei Wuxian’s hands come up to cup his face cannot compare to the heat of his veins as they flutter in the fire, all he can see is trees-walls-scrolls-swords- fire —
He can’t breathe.
He can’t breathe.
Air comes in sporadic bursts and his lungs constrict and Lan Wangji is shutting down, crumbling to ash, limb by organ by limb. Wei Wuxian is saying something, touching his face, squeezing it between his hands and crawling ever closer to Lan Wangji, but he can’t hear.
Can’t hear anything but the crackle of fire consuming branches and rooftops that reached towards the heavens. Can’t hear anything but the slice of sword through skin and paper.
“Lan Zhan. Listen to me. Come back to me. I’m waiting here for you, I’m right in front of you.” Wei Wuxian pleads. Distantly, Lan Wangji registers the dry rasp of his breath and the slow, painful flutter of his lungs expanding. “See, that’s better, you’re getting better, I’m here, don’t let go of me no matter what.”
Is he holding on to Wei Wuxian? Oh. He is. Wei Wuxian’s waist is soft and warm in his grasp. Through the thin, clingy red fabric he can feel the heat of Wei Wuxian’s skin.
They’re so close.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers. His forehead bumps against Lan Wangji’s. Never has Lan Wangji felt so disconnected, from what had grounded him — his lost home, his injured uncle, his missing brother, his duties. Never has he felt so alive. Giddy, he thinks, because there isn’t any other way to describe it. There are so many things he must do and he has never let himself indulge in his all-consuming feelings for Wei Wuxian before, but here, right now…
Here, right now, through the storm and fire, his love for Wei Wuxian is his only anchor and shield.
“Here. I’m here. Right here. Don’t let go.”
Lan Wangji swallows. It tastes like ash. He still wants to cry. But Wei Wuxian is tipping his head forward and his hands are tangling themselves in his hair, and maybe Lan Wangji can let himself get lost in Wei Wuxian. Just this once.
(There is never just this once with Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji knows this.)
“Lan Zhan. Talk to me. Tell me something. Anything. I want to be here for you.”
Lan Wangji nudges his head forward the slightest bit to reassure Wei Wuxian. “Fire.” he blurts out.
“Mn. You’re safe now. I’m here.”
“There was fire. And — the Wens. Uncle sent Brother away. I — “ He doesn’t continue. Wei Wuxian doesn’t ask him to.
"Your brother is strong. Gusu Lan sect is strong.” Wei Wuxian’s hands pet his head in a comforting rhythm. “You’re strong.”
Am I really? He wants to ask. Do you think so?
“Not the same.” He murmurs. “Never the same.”
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan.”
He’ll never get tired of how Wei Wuxian says his name.
“You don’t need to look at me. Just… let me be here. Here. Here." Wei Wuxian shivers and moves closer to him. Their chests are pressed up against each other. If Lan Wangji moved just an inch forward, he could kiss Wei Wuxian.
“Here.” Lan Wangji agrees. His head is spinning with Wei Wuxian’s proximity, his sweet lotus scent, the way his fingers tug gently at his hair.
“Let me?” Wei Wuxian says. He tips Lan Wangji’s chin up with deft fingers. “Tell me no if you really — if you really don’t like this. Me. What I want to do.”
Lan Wangji simply lets his eyes flutter shut. He trusts Wei Wuxian, after all. Wei Wuxian is here.
Wei Wuxian kisses him.
It tastes sweet. Wei Wuxian’s lips are slow on his, the slide soft and teasing, and it tastes like cinnamon and spring flowers and love. Wei Wuxian turns his head and lets his tongue dart out, tasting Lan Wangji’s lips for just a second.
Lan Wangji is holding the sun in his heart.
His stomach flips when Wei Wuxian hums, low and sweet, and squirms on his lap to get even closer to Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian’s hands move down to Lan Wangji’s nape, and his lips are a warm, wet pressure on Lan Wangji’s, and he cannot think of anything but Wei Wuxian — the way he kisses Lan Wangji, tender and caring, the way he murmurs praise and love in between the kisses, the way he makes Lan Wangji tremble as he kisses him, as he licks his tongue into Lan Wangji’s mouth and silently demands for more.
Lan Wangji gives it to him. He’d give it all to Wei Wuxian.
So he tightens his grip on Wei Wuxian’s waist, which elicits a low moan from Wei Wuxian that sends trails of lightning down Lan Wangji’s spine. He pulls Wei Wuxian close and kisses him like he’s been yearning to do since his sunlit days in the Library Pavilion with Wei Wuxian, kisses him like there is nothing else in the world, kisses him like he needs him.
Lan Wangji’s tongue makes its way into Wei Wuxian’s mouth and catches on teeth, on lips, sweeping through the consuming heat of Wei Wuxian’s mouth until Wei Wuxian gives a breathy moan. He gasps and shudders and trembles in Lan Wangji’s lap as Lan Wangji deepens the kiss, and the tiny jerking movements of his hips is making Lan Wangji’s heart beat frantically.
When Lan Wangji pushes back tentatively, Wei Wuxian’s hands pull on his hair and Lan Wangji’s head tips back. Wei Wuxian ducks his head down and bites, teeth and tongue scraping on Lan Wangji’s sensitive neck, and Lan Wangji makes the most embarrassing whine. But Wei Wuxian doesn’t stop, no, he licks at the spot he’d bit and presses barely-there kisses along his neck and sucks at the underside of his jaw until Lan Wangji gives him another gasp and a quiet moan.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chants. “I need you — kiss me, now, here — “
Lan Wangji kisses him desperately, because Wei Wuxian is all he has and all he wants and it doesn’t matter if Wei Wuxian is just kissing him out of pity, because he saw Lan Wangji needed comfort and kissed him to take his mind off things. He needs the wet heat of Wei Wuxian’s mouth and Wei Wuxian whimpering in his lap as he kisses and takes and touches. He needs Wei Wuxian.
“Here.” Lan Wangji pants. “Wei Ying. I’m here.”
"Silly Lan Zhan, I’m — ahh, Lan Zhan, please — I’m the one who should be saying that!” Wei Wuxian pecks the corner of his mouth and drags his hips forward slowly, deliberately, making Lan Wangji’s blood boil.
Perhaps because his head is still spinning from the touch of Wei Wuxian’s lips on his, perhaps because Lan Wangji feels a hundred shades of reckless and breathless and giddy, he asks, “Why?”
“Why what?” Wei Wuxian asks in between kisses.
“Why should you say that?”
“Because…” Wei Wuxian pulls back. “Because you… you’re sad. I want to be here for you. I don't want you to be sad, so...”
Lan Wangji’s thoughts shatter at that.
Maybe it does matter. Oh, who is he kidding — of course it matters that Wei Wuxian is only kissing him out of pity. Of course he’d known. That Wei Wuxian could never really love him, that these kisses and touches and moans were all to take his mind off the fire. But… he can’t let this happen. He can’t have Wei Wuxian kissing him because he thinks it’ll make Lan Wangji feel better.
The tingling kisses sour in his mouth. He doesn’t want Wei Wuxian’s pity. He doesn’t want Wei Wuxian if Wei Wuxian isn’t kissing him of his own accord.
So he recoils from Wei Wuxian’s gentle (far too gentle) touch and pushes Wei Wuxian away.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian whispers. His voice sounds broken, curling in on itself. Lan Wangji tells himself it’s all part of his imagination. After all, it’s clear already, Wei Wuxian practically said it himself. It’s only pity. “Why — oh. Right. You don’t like… right. I know. Sorry, sorry, that was my mistake, huh?”
Lan Wangji only turns his head away from Wei Wuxian.
“Ah… you know what, let’s just — can you forget this happened? I don’t want to burden you with bad memories.” Wei Wuxian says.
They aren’t bad, Lan Wangji says. I love you. I love them. But you don’t love me. I won’t have you kiss me when you don’t want to.
Lan Wangji nods. Wei Wuxian sucks in a shaky breath and pastes on a tiny, rueful smile. It hurts to know that Wei Wuxian really doesn’t want him. It hurts to know that Wei Wuxian regrets kissing him, even, that… Wei Wuxian had probably been uncomfortable with touching him.
He should stay away from Wei Wuxian. For Wei Wuxian’s sake. For his own sake.
“I’ll… go gather stuff.” Wei Wuxian says. “For, uh, killing the xuanwu. And things. You know.” It’s a shoddy excuse, but Lan Wangji lets him go anyways. Obviously, Wei Wuxian can’t even stand being around Lan Wangji right now.
The fire goes out and Lan Wangji slumps down, made of nothing but burnt memories and smoky, hazy touches.
Eventually, they do kill the xuanwu together. Wei Wuxian does not look him in the eye, but Lan Wangji sings their song anyways.
Eventually, they go their own separate paths, as Lan Wangji always knew they would. But he cannot stop the way his heart yearns to follow Wei Wuxian back to Yunmeng, the way his heart hurts when he hears Wei Wuxian is missing, that Yunmeng Jiang has fallen. The way he wants, even knowing Wei Wuxian cannot stand being around him, to reach out. To tell Wei Wuxian how he feels.
(Come back to Gusu with me, he ends up saying. I’m here for you, please, I know you hate me, I know I make you uncomfortable, but let me be here for you —
Wei Wuxian glares at him and turns away. No more look at me, Lan Zhan! No more I’m here, Lan Zhan. Only silence.)
Eventually, Lan Wangji learns to accept that despite how much he wants it, Wei Wuxian will never allow him to be there.
(Eventually, there is nobody for Lan Wangji to say I’m here to anymore.)
But nonetheless, Lan Wangji waits to say those words again.