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these dreams, like ashes (float away)

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Yiling was different than what Wei Ying had remembered. Situated between the five great sects, Wei Ying had remembered Yiling as a small city with crowded streets crammed with vendors and flowering trees. It was still like that, but...different somehow. Something had changed in the bustle of people moving, the stretch of the buildings towards the sun, the shade of the flower petals.

Maybe he was what was different. Maybe he had changed, not Yiling. Did it feel different because he knew he didn’t belong here anymore? Thirteen years was a long time to be gone. Too long, but Wei Ying had been afraid to go back. No—he was still afraid. The fear was leaping in his heart, making it pound in a fast and terrifying pattern. He took in a breath and closed his eyes, trying to steady himself, but when he did, he saw the flash of paper lanterns floating up into the sky, a sky identical to this one. It opened up an empty hole in his chest, an aching that hurt.

Wei Ying opened his eyes, his knuckles white as he gripped the strap of his duffel bag. The late summer heat was already making his shirt stick to his back. He pushed his bangs off his forehead, letting cool air wash over his face as a breeze whooshed through the air. Yunmeng had smelled like the sea and tasted like salt, but Yiling was only smoke and dust. Oh how Wei Ying longed for Lotus Pier, for the lotus lakes and how he would snap off the pods and eat the seeds, tossing them playfully at Jiang Cheng as Yanli had laughed at the two of them. He missed pretending to shoot the sun. He had always been better at archery after all. 

His phone rang. Wei Ying pulled it out of his pocket and grimaced at the caller ID. It was Wen Qing, which meant that ignoring it was not an option.

“Are you here yet?” She demanded as soon as he slid right to accept the call. 

“Yeah, I just got here.” Wei Ying answered, fanning his shirt away from his skin. It was so hot here. It would be nice to be somewhere in the mountains—since Qishan Wen wasn’t an option, Cloud Recesses it would be. The thought of it made his heart heavy. He could never go there again, not even if he wanted to. 

“I see you.” Wen Qing said and Wei Ying jumped.

“You’re here?” He exclaimed, craning his neck in every direction. His eyes landed on a cherry red convertible, Wen Qing lounging in it with a pair of dark sunglasses on. She had cut her hair short since he had last seen her, but everything else about her was the same, right down to her leather jacket, even in this heat. Wen Qing had an abnormal body temperature; she never got cold or hot. Wei Ying had a running bet that she was a vampire.

“Yeah, so get over here.” She commanded as Wei Ying gave her a wave. He smiled and ended the call, jogging over to the car. He threw his backpack and duffel bag into the back and then hopped into the passenger side seat without bothering to open the door. Wen Qing scanned him up and down, taking in his light wash jeans, the back t-shirt with the stretched out collar, and his beaten down pair of high tops.

“Is that all you brought?” She finally asked. Wei Ying nodded.

“I didn’t really have a lot to begin with.” He said.

Wen Qing rolled her eyes and started the engine, tediously maneuvering her way through the airport parking lot. “I have an apartment set up with six months of rent paid. If the job doesn’t end up working out, you can relax for a while to figure things out. If it does, then it’ll be yours as soon as you’re back on your feet. I put food in the fridge, so you better eat three meals a day Wei Wuxian. None of this starving yourself nonsense.”

“What about you?” Wei Ying teased back. “Have you been eating?” Wen Qing gave him a slight smile. 

“A thank you would have commenced.” She told him.

“Thank you.” He said. He meant it. Wen Qing was the only person who had continued to care after what had happened in Cloud Recesses. She had found him like Wei Ying had found her before; shivering and soaked from the rain, helpless at God’s mercy. She had helped him get out of the country, get himself a life overseas when returning had been uncertain. She had visited him when she could. And now she had helped him come back. Come home. Was this even home anymore? Wei Ying didn’t think he really belonged anywhere anymore.

“How’s Wen Ning?” He asked, changing the subject.

Wen Qing’s smile faded. “He had a relapse last week.” She said softly. “They’re running more tests on him again.” She laughed bitterly. “I might be the best doctor in the five sects, but I can’t even save my little brother.” The car accelerated forward, swerving through the lanes. “I just feel so useless. All I can do is hold his hand and tell him he’ll be okay or give him some new medicine that never works even though I promise—every single time, I promise—it will. Why bother with getting this career and all those fancy degrees if I can’t help him?”

“I know.” Wei Ying whispered. 

Wen Qing gave him a watery smile. He was the only person she would cry in front of, at night when they would get drunk together. Wen Qing had made a promise to never cry in front of her brother, so she cried to Wei Ying instead. “I guess you of all people would.” That was the other thing about Wen Qing—maybe because she was a doctor—she said things simply, no tiptoeing, while also not overstepping.

Wei Ying thought of his shijie again—his Yanli, his Ah Li. He thought of how the blood had gushed from her neck, how she had fallen silently. Sometimes he wished he could hate her, hate how she had left so easily. But no, he could only hate himself. It was his fault. He was the one who had caused her to die. Murderer murderer murderer. You’re a coward who ran away instead of sticking around to face the consequences. You should have died. You should be dead dead dead, just like them.

“Hey, calling for Wei Ying to return.” Wen Qing knocked him on the head, and Wei Ying flinched away from her like a startled rabbit. Her playful grin slipped off her lips at his response. Wen Qing was one of the only people who called him Wei Ying, when she wanted to at least. Wei Ying, the only thing that remained from his biological parents. His name, the most precious thing one could have. Even his adoptive family had called him ‘Ah Xian’, or with more bitterness, ‘Wei Wuxian!’ Wei Ying’s was Wen Qing’s and his, though Wei Ying doubted that he wanted anything to do with that name anymore.

“Have you gone to therapy yet?” Wen Qing asked quietly, eyes fixated on the road ahead. Wei Ying shook his head.

“I told you, I don’t need it. Besides, it’s expensive.” He caught Wen Qing’s expression. “And, no, I’m not letting you pay for more things! I’m already in enough debt as it is.”

Wen Qing gave a long sigh. “We’re friends, Wei Ying, not creditor or debtor. You never asked me to repay you for anything you did for me and my brother, and I’m not asking you to either. I’m sorry if that’s burdensome, but sometimes you have to accept help as it comes. Don’t bottle all your worries up inside. You can’t move on if you never let go.”

“It’s been thirteen years, Wen Qing. Believe me when I say that was an adequate amount of time to ‘move on’.” Wei Ying told her with a laugh. He was lying. He was see through, a sheet of paper, smiling with his white teeth, trying to act like the person he had once been to her face. Wen Qing knew, but Wei Ying also knew he reminded her of Wen Ning, and Wen Qing had a stubbornly soft spot for people who reminded her of her brother and people Wen Ning liked, so she wouldn’t push the issue anymore.

“This is your apartment building.” Wen Qing announced, pulling to a gliding halt in front of a tall, silver building with a flowering garden out front, a park at the end of the street. “Here are your keys and your room number. You’re on the fourth floor.”

Wei Ying took what he was handed obediently. “The fourth floor? Are you trying to curse me?” He joked. Wen Qing gave him the evil eye, a stare that had been used on Jiang Cheng many a time back in their days at Cloud Recesses together. He couldn’t go five minutes without remembering something, could he? He’d been in Yiling all of an hour and he was already nostalgic for what he had pushed to the back of his mind when overseas.

Returning had not been a good idea.

“I have to get to work.” Wen Qing said. “But I’ll call you later to check in, okay? Don’t forget to set your alarm. If you’re late on your first day of work, I won’t be the only one who wants to kill you. Don’t mess this up, Wei Wuxian, I swear.” She leaned over and placed her hands on either side of his head, stretching up to kiss him lightly on the forehead. Wei Ying felt a lump rise in his throat from the sisterly gesture. If he reminded Wen Qing of her brother, then Wen Qing reminded him of his sister at times.

“I promise I’ll try my best.” He told her as she sat back, looking at him with a mixture of pride and sadness in her face.

“I believe you.” She said.

Wei Ying got out of the car with his keys and his stuff, waving to her as she sped off towards the hospital she worked at. He watched her go until the exhaust had faded out into the wind before finally turning to gaze up at the apartment building. It was similar to the one he had lived in when he had been overseas, but this felt so much more intimidating. This was not him dipping his feet in the water for a quick night at a bar where he got too drunk to think straight. This was calling someplace new home, laying his stake in the soft ground, setting up a place to stay...maybe for a long time.

He pushed open the door to the apartment building, stepping into the lobby and letting the air conditioning wash over him. It felt nice, taking the heat off his body. The inside was as pristine as the inside, all silver tiles and white walls and nice roses in vases. Wei Ying was ruining it with his filthiness, he felt the dirt seeping out of his skin and onto the floor, darkening it to black. When he looked down, it had spread out to the tiles, a wave of black tar. It was dripping from the walls too, 

He needed to take his meds. 

Except Wei Ying recalled pouring it down the sink before he had gotten on the plane. A moment where he hadn’t wanted to explain it to the airport security or whatever. A moment when he had been a little tipsy and had decided that if he was going back home, he was going to be normal, and normal people didn’t need medicine. 

He could easily get another filled prescription from Wen Qing, but that would mean admitting that he had thrown his away. And that would be making Wen Qing worry more about him when she should be focusing wholly on her career and finding a cure for whatever availed Wen Ning. 

So Wei Ying took in a breath and reminded himself that this wasn’t real and walked across the floor, even if his feet were getting stuck in the tar like substance and he was leaving sticky footprints all over the floor. He walked to the elevator and pressed the button, telling himself to not look back, that it would disappear on its own.

The doors slid open. Wei Ying walked inside, turning around to press the button for the fourth floor. The tar was fading away on the floor, his footprints dissipating. This time was a short episode. Usually they were longer, sometimes they would overtake him and last for days, days of lying in his bed and watching blood drip from the ceiling. 

As the doors are closing, an arm appeared, forcing them back open. Wei Ying jumped back in surprise as a dark bundle of a person half fell inside, holding a brown paper grocery store bag in their arms. They gave Wei Ying a short nod of acknowledgement, reaching out to press the floor number, only to realize it had already been pressed. 

The elevator shut, and Wei Ying examined his fellow occupant out of the corner of his eye. It was a male who was a couple years younger than him, shorter by a couple inches and slim, dressed in a pair of skinny black cargo pants, a black hoodie, and black Vans. His dark hair brushed his eyes, his face obscured by a thin silver mask that covered the majority of his upper face. His facial features, excluding his lips and the dark upturned tilt of his eyes, were obscured from Wei Ying’s vision. He had small silver hoops in his ears to match his mask, his skin a lovely bronze shade.

“I like your mask.” Wei Ying said. The other man touched it nervously. He had a silver ring wrapped up his index finger, something that sparked familiarity in Wei Ying. He peered closer at the man, who shrank back against the wall.

“Thank you.” He said quietly; his voice would have gone unheard if they hadn’t been in the closed and silent space of the elevator. Wei Ying smiled, stretching hard against his inner restraints. He had been a happy Wei Wuxian once upon a time, a troublemaker and a fiend with infectious energy and laughter. He could spread that happiness again. He should. He should make people like him. He should pretend, at the very least, that he was still that same seventeen year old. 

When the other didn’t smile back, Wei Ying settled back against the wall and watched the numbers tick up, feeling the stretch of silence thick like taffy in the air. It wasn’t hot, but the elevator was sticky all the same. The doors opened as it the number turned from three to four, and Wei Ying picked up his bags, heading out of the elevator, checking his key card to see what room number he was.

As he walked down the hallway, the other man a couple of feet behind him, he heard a soft; “You’re Wei Wuxian, right?” Wei Ying froze midstep, slowly turning around to face the other. 

“Who wants to know?” He asked, trying to sound tough, but his voice came out all wavery and weak. 

The man grinned a little, stepping forward with the groceries tight in his arms. He looked like he was only just keeping the bag together, bread and a watermelon peeking out from the top. It looked heavy. Wei Ying would have offered a hand if his own hadn’t been so full. “I’m Mo Xuanyu.” He said. “From Cloud Recesses.” His voice was hesitant, a little louder than before.

“Oh.” Wei Ying said. The lunatic. His brain supplied. Mo Xuanyu had been an infamous character during his time at the academy, and even more when he had left. One of the many illegitimate sons of Lanling Jin’s leader, Jin Guangshan, Mo Xuanyu had tried his best to claw his way up the social ladder of Lanling, only to be shoved out and sent home in disgrace. After that, the word was that he had gone crazy and refused to show his face. Jin Guangyao had hated him especially, with a cruelness that Wei Ying had been unused to seeing, but it made sense considering Wei Ying had heard rumors that Guangyao had accused Xuanyu of sexual harassment. Nothing had been proved, but the rumor and the accusation had stuck. Of course, those events had all occurred during their time at Cloud Recesses and then after Wei Ying had left, facts he had read in passing. 

And now here he was, the legend in the flesh, wearing the silver mask and ring just like everyone said he did. Smiling a little, as if he wasn’t scared of Wei Ying, as if he hadn’t been one of the people who had seen what Wei Ying had done—everyone at Cloud Recesses had seen what Wei Ying had done, there would be no escape from that.    

“I guess we’re neighbors.” He said aloud, gesturing to the door he was in front of. “Or hallmates.” 

“Neighbors.” Xuanyu supplied, nodding to the door he was in front of as he rummaged in his pockets, procuring one very bent key card. “You just moving in today?” 

Wei Ying nodded. “I got off the plane an hour ago.” 

Mo Xuanyu looked him up and down, a long glance. He nodded, once. “Well,” He said. “Just knock on the door if you need anything. I’d invite you in, but…” He hesitantly glanced at his half open door. “It’s a little messy.” He said finally, shifting the groceries to the crook of his elbow. This was the crypticness that made people think he was crazy, though so far Mo Xuanyu seemed as far from crazy as one could be. Wait, no, that would be the Lan sect and their 3000 rules that all meant the same thing: no fun whatsoever. In fact, recalling the rules made Wei Ying recall an infamous Mo Xuanyu moment, where the latter had scratched the stone to pieces over the course of one long night, found asleep there the next morning.

“Thanks.” Wei Ying said, because a little kindness went a long way, even the smallest bit. He hadn’t been offered a hand from someone other than the Wen siblings in such a long time that he was almost touched by the, albeit awkward, gesture. Xuanyu smiled faintly at him and then he, too, disappeared into his apartment. Wei Ying caught the scent of burning candles, something tangy and iron, and then it was gone as the door swung shut.

Shaking his head, Wei Ying opened the door to his own apartment. The interior was in mint condition, neat and arranged in a way that screamed Wen Qing’s taste, all gray and dark red and a touch of black because she knew he liked that little touch to darkness. The kitchen was white, cream white and steel top silver, and the fridge was filled with Tupperware with sticky note labels, all in Chinese, all in Wen Qing’s neat handwriting. He wondered when she had found the time to make it, and suddenly he was crying, tears dripping past his nose, salty on his lips.

Sinking down to his knees, the fridge still open and casting a pale white light on him, Wei Ying let his head fall forward. Tears splashed on the floor as he sobbed, dampening the knees of his jeans, the hem of his shirt. He missed Yanli, he missed the lotus flowers in bloom, the taste of the sea on his lips, sneaking alcohol into Cloud Recesses, teasing Jiang Cheng, his shijie’s lotus root soup, home in a bowl, gossiping with Huaisang, teaching the disciples at Yunmeng how to shoot the sun with only a bow and an arrow.

He’d just missed it.


After he had finished putting away his sparse belongings and making sure the place looked sufficiently lived in, Wei Ying went for a walk in the park at the end of the street. The heat had cooled off as the sun had started to set, the sky deepening to an orange gold. A breeze was blowing, lifting the late summer leaves off the sidewalk and sending them spinning through the air. Wei Ying caught one, twirling it between his fingers. 

He walked freely through the grass of the park, stopping to smell the occasional flower bush. Mostly he let his thoughts occupy his mind as his feet guided him through the tangle of pathways. He was thinking of everything he could see, the sky and the trees and how he was starting his job tomorrow and how he had turned thirty without any candles to blow out and how thirteen years had been too long and not too enough, oozing by like molasses and then skimming past like stones on the surface of the water.

A dog barked, loud and insistent. Wei Ying halted right where he was, trembling as he slowly turned around. Barreling towards him was a round, black bristled dog with its teeth out, barking loudly as it headed straight for him.

Wei Ying screamed and ran for his life, the world blurring around him as the dog gave chase. Panic was bumping adrenaline into his veins, spurring him on even faster until he slammed head first into a tree, scraping his forehead on a stick. Falling to the ground, he shied away from the approaching dog, clamoring as close to the trunk of the tree as possible. He tried to make himself small, cowering in fear from the animal.

“Who’d you catch this time, Fairy?” An annoying adolescent voice crowed. “That crazy Mo Xuanyu again? You should rip off that ugly mask if it is him.” Peering through his arms, Wei Ying saw a boy who was around fifteen approach the scene, looking very smug and content with himself. The look fell off his face when he saw that he had, in fact, cornered one Wei Wuxian, who was definitely not crazy Mo Xuanyu in his mask. “Who’s this, Fairy?” He asked with a frown. He was wearing a pair of black jeans, expensive brand name sneakers with the big flaps and the little keychains on them or whatever, a white t-shirt, and a Gucci floral patterned silk jacket over it, a gold chain necklace around his neck. His brown hair was parted; Wei Ying could smell his hairspray. 

“Get your crazy dog away from me!” Wei Ying yelled, only for it to transform into a shriek as Fairy barked in his face, jaws snapping.

“He doesn’t bite.” The kid said snidely, crossing his arms and turning up his nose. “Besides, Fairy only comes after bad people. You probably deserve it.” 

Wei Ying edged away from the dog, who had turned to face its master with a wagging tail. He slowly stood up. “ I’m the one who is obviously injured here.” He said, gesturing to the cut on his forehead. It was bleeding quite a lot, but Wei Ying was sure it was only a shallow cut. Head wounds just tended to bleed an awful lot. He made a movement to grab to kid to show him, but the kid surprised him by jumping back and whipping out a pocket knife from his sleeve, pointing it at Wei Ying.

Wei Ying jumped back and crashed into the tree again, startled. “Hey!” He yelled as the dog woofed at him, making him wish he could climb trees. It was one of the only things he hadn’t excelled at. “Put that thing away!”

“No way! I don’t know what you might do to me!” The boy yelled back with all the strength and fury he could muster. There was something vaguely familiar about the pocketknife: a jade and white marble one with a J carved into the handle. It looked a lot sharper than the stick Wei Ying had hurt himself on earlier.

“I’m the victim here!” Wei Ying yelped. “Your dog attacked me and now you’re pointing a knife at me! No matter how rich your parents are, it’s no excuse to raise you like this. Born of a mother but not disciplined by her.” He scoffed to himself.

“What did you say?!” The boy yelled at him, but the hand holding the pocketknife faltered. His stance relaxed, and after a minute he reluctantly put the weapon away, snapping his fingers at his dog, who turned away from Wei Ying immediately. Wei Ying relaxed against the tree, letting out a soft sigh of relief. “Come on, Fairy, let's leave this lunatic alone.” The boy said scornfully, giving Wei Ying one last glare before storming away. 

Finally able to breathe, Wei Ying started back to his apartment. Back to home? His temporary home. An apartment. Home was Lotus Pier and it would only ever be that place, but home was now only a word for Wei Ying. 

He wished it was more than a word.

When the elevator opened, Wei Ying saw Mo Xuanyu sitting in front of his door, earbuds in and legs up in front of him. He looked up at Wei Ying passed by to get to his own apartment and rose to his feet, taking out his earbuds. “What happened to your face?” He asked in alarm. Wei Ying touched his forehead and the dried blood on it.

“Face planted on a tree.” He answered as deadpan as possible. He was tired, jet lag finally kicking in. He wanted to fall onto his bed and fall asleep, suffocating himself on the pillow.

“I can take care of it.” Xuanyu said immediately. “I have first aid.” 

“That’s okay.” Wei Ying said automatically. He was okay, he was fine; that was what he said whenever people started to worry or ask questions.

Xuanyu raised one eyebrow over the top of his mask. “You’re hungry though, right?” He asked slyly.

“I already ate.” Wei Ying said just as his stomach rumbled, as if on cue. He looked down at it with a guilty smile. “I guess I could eat again.” He rephrased as nonchalantly as possible. Xuanyu smiled at him shyly.

“Then come on in.” He said, pushing open his door with an inviting wave of his hand as he disappeared inside of it. We Ying followed after a moment, hesitating at the threshold before entering. 

The inside of Mo Xuanyu’s apartment was dark in the entrance, but as Wei Ying walked in, he saw that the interior was lit by a couple of soft lamps with colored glass in them instead of the regular light bulbs, candles flickering in every nook and cranny. The furniture in the common space had been pushed to the sides, a single luminous circle of space in the middle of the floor. There was paper floating through the air, taped to everything. Wei Ying plucked a piece out of the air, trying to read the messy characters on it but failing to, only making out the character for fire. There were buckets of paint, swatches on the wall. 

Xuanyu turned the light on in the kitchen, which was unusually modern and clean compared to the rest of his living space. There was a pot bubbling on the stove, a delicious smell wafting through the air and making Wei Ying’s mouth water. “Take a seat, I’ll be right back.” Xuanyu called over his shoulder as he padded down the hallway, slipping out of his shoes. Wei Ying followed suit, pulling haphazardly at his laces until they were loose enough for him to kick his high tops off. 

He took a seat on a stool at the breakfast bar area of the counter, spinning back and forth aimlessly, like a little kid. Xuanyu returned with a first aid kit, standing over him. “Hold still.” He commanded, taking out a damp paper towel, ointment, gauze, and a bandage.

“I can do it myself.” Wei Ying murmured, but it was a half hearted attempt at best. Xuanyu rolled his eyes under his mask, sponging at the dried blood with what had to be rubbing alcohol, because it stung so bad that Wei Ying felt his eyes water. He was a person who was exceptionally hard to kill, but the littlest bits of pain caused him the most discomfort. He’d broken a bone without blinking, but cried over getting a tooth pulled and had to be put under anaesthesia. There was probably a word for that out there somewhere, but Wei Ying couldn’t quite grasp the definition enough to look it up.

Xuanyu’s fingers were cool as he brushed the ointment over it, sticking the gauze on and then adding the tape. Wei Ying poked the now concealed wound gingerly, wincing. “Thanks.” He mumbled quietly as Xuanyu cleaned up the kit.

“You like ramen?” Xuanyu called over his shoulder as he walked over to the bubbling pot, turning the heat off. “I improvised it a little, but it’s not bad.” It smelled better than just ‘not bad’. Wei Ying nodded; he was aware of how hungry he was. He hadn’t eaten at all before or during the flight, and though Wen Qing had given him so much food, he hadn’t been able to touch a thing because he had been so overwhelmed with sadness.

Xuanyu brought the pot over, balancing two bowls and chopsticks in the crook of his arm. “Can you put the newspaper down?” He asked. Wei Ying grabbed it and set it down, scanning the headline. It was about a company scandal, someone from the Lanling Jin clan had gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Wei Ying didn’t bother to read the article. He couldn’t be bothered with Lanling Jin anymore. 

Taking a seat, Xuanyu passed one of the bowls and a pair of chopsticks to Wei Ying, who took it gratefully. He peeked into the pot, seeing the yellow yolk of an egg, green pepper slices situated underneath the noodles with bacon bits, cheese melting over the top. It looked good. He was so, so hungry.

“Do you pray?” Xuanyu asked aloud. Wei Ying shook his head, reaching for the food before realizing he should probably take into accommodation that perhaps Xuanyu prayed, and that was why he had asked. The Jiang family had never been religious, though Madame Yu had loved her rosary beads even if it had been just for the aesthetic really. That was what the Jiang clan did, following their motto of ‘do the impossible’: they laughed in the face of the heavens and proved they were better.

“Do you?” Wei Ying asked, chopsticks hovering. 

Xuanyu shook his head. “I’ve had enough of religion from the rest of my extended family.” He shook back his sweatshirt sleeves and dug in, Wei Ying following suit. As they slurped the ramen noodles, Wei Ying remembered the boy he had met in the park, who thought he was ‘crazy Mo Xuanyu’. 

He should ask him what that was about. Instead, Wei Ying complimented, “You cook well.”

Xuanyu made a sound that was half a laugh, half a scoff. “I’m twenty seven; I sure hope that I cook well.” Wei Ying looked down guiltily. He had learned how to cook, too, but had never been good at it. Maybe it was because no matter how hard he had tried, it had been unable to compare to his shijie’s food. The thought made the noodles hard to swallow.

“I’m thirty.” Wei Ying said by way of response. Xuanyu looked at him cautiously, as if he was expecting Wei Ying to suddenly demand that he be called ‘Wei-ge’ or something like that. He had no need to worry; Wei Ying only wished for a few people to call him something other than Wei Wuxian. 

“Hey, Xuanyu?” Wei Ying asked thoughtfully. 

“Mmm?” Xuanyu said around a mouthful of ramen. It was a strange sight: the masked man in black eating noodles like any normal person would. 

“What’s under your mask?” Wei Ying figured it was better to get the curiosity out before they got any closer. He had a bad habit of ruining relationships with his incessant need to know things. He had run his mouth plenty of times and half of the time it had ended in punishment: sitting in the courtyard of Cloud Recesses without moving, getting hit by a ruler again and again, copying the 3000 rules of GusuLan. 

“Something horrible.” Xuanyu answered stoically, but a smile had curved his lips, enough to know that he wasn’t wrong. Wei Ying also took it as an invitation, an invitation to come closer and be a friend. He had overstepped a boundary, but it had made him more redeemable in Xuanyu’s eyes, it seemed. 

“But, really, what is it? You’ve worn that thing for forever.” Wei Ying said with just as much stoicness, if only slightly tainted by his insistence and impatience. 

Xuanyu set his bowl down on the counter, staring off into space for a long minute. “My curse.” He said finally. “It’s irreversible.” He poked at the ramen with his chopsticks. “Do you want any bread?” He asked suddenly, jumping up and pulling out the loaf Wei Ying had seen earlier, cutting it into thin slices.

Wei Ying laughed, as if he had only been joking, and said that he did indeed want some bread. They ate it, Wei Ying chattering aimlessly about whatever he could think about: the decor, the view, how hot it was, how nice the color black was. Xuanyu added in more quietly, a mouse to Wei Ying’s cat. Fluorescent lighting hurt his eyes, he liked talismans, and the room was messy because his cousin had stopped by unannounced earlier. The view was gorgeous and the reason why he had specifically found a place with a window instead of a wall in the back. It was so hot, so terribly hot, but he looked so great in black that he couldn’t make himself give it up—this was a joke.

They laughed and talked together and then some liquor came out and they talked and laughed even more. Wei Ying let himself bask in this warm and fuzzy feeling, his mind a little blurry around the edges but not too much, Xuanyu with the hood of his sweatshirt hood up. Wei Ying remembered some point where he had begged Xuanyu to address him by his birth name because they were friends now and Xuanyu became very nervous as he had cautiously tried it out. Wei Ying got the feeling that this was the first time the two of them had been happy in a very, very long time. It made him sad, so he drank some more alcohol—he had work tomorrow but he ignored that fact in favor of this moment. It wouldn’t be tomorrow for a while.

Right now, he only had today.

On the other side of Yiling, a white car pulled up behind a succession of flashing red and blue lights, parking haphazardly alongside the police cars. Three young men in their early and mid twenties exited the car, walking over to the edge of the lake, which also served as the crime scene. 

“Disgusting.” Lan Jingyi said distastefully as his brand new boots splashed in the muddy sediment. “Couldn’t they have dumped the body elsewhere?” His childhood friend and fellow police academy graduate, Lan Sizhui—he wasn’t really a Lan, but no one was quite sure what he really was anyways—shook his head at him sadly. 

They walked up the lines of caution tape. Sizhui stepped in front of Jingyi to flash his badge at the police officer on duty. “Investigative team 1 from GusuLan. We’ll be taking over this case.” With a nod, the three of them bent under the tape. Emerging on the other side, they found themselves right in front of a body, cameras snapping.

Zizhen gagged next to Jingyi, who shoved him. “If you’re going to throw up, you better do it on those bushes, not me.” Zizhen pressed his lips together with a grimace, but seemed to get a hold of himself. Sizhui stepped up, crouching by the body. The other two followed suit, though the stench was really quite awful, a mix of lake water and decay.

“The cause of death looks like a stab wound. Several of them.” Sizhui said, leaning forward to examine the body. “Did you find anything nearby?” He asked, turning to the forensics team, who shook their heads. 

“There was only the body here. Not even the grass was crushed. This looks like a carefully premeditated body drop off; it’s not the scene of the crime. They probably thought the body would drown in the lake, but it was washed up instead.”

Jingyi laughed. “Even idiots know that bodies float when they die.” 

“You’re right.” Sizhui said suddenly, startling him. 

“What do you mean I’m right?” Jingyi asked him in confusion.

“The culprit must have known that the lake wasn’t a safe place to cover up a dead body.” Sizhui said excitedly. “Which means that they probably left the body here hoping it would be found. Maybe even planning on it being found.”    

“Right!” Zizhen chimed in. Sizhui leaned in and studied the face of the dead man. He looked vaguely familiar, but the body had already been transformed from the water, even though it had only been a few hours since he had died. 

“What’s wrong with his mouth?” Jingyi asked.

“Whoever killed him cut out his tongue.” The forensics officer told them grimly. Zizhen stood up and ran over to the bushes, where he promptly threw up. The guy could sweet talk the answers out in an interrogation but hurled up his guts when he had to so much hear about a dead body. Jingyi didn’t get it. 

“Who did this?” Sizhui wondered aloud. He sighed. “I wish Hanguang Jun was here. When is he coming again?” Jingyi shrugged. As much as he respected their team leader, who was also his Uncle or second cousin or whatever he was, the Lan family was quite extended, they didn’t have time to wait for their Light Bearing Lord to return from traveling. He had told Sizhui to bring the team to the crime scene and start investigating in preparation for when he got there as soon as possible.

“Well,” Jingyi said, standing off and brushing off his jeans. His boots were long beyond hope. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”