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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.”

Chapter Text

Wei Ying woke up with a headache and an unexcused tardy for his first day at his new job. Bad decisions always seemed better when it was midnight and there was alcohol involved. The sunlight was streaming through the curtains, his phone was singing his alarm at him, and Wei Ying was running out the door and taking the stairs in a sad attempt to not be too late. 

He ended up being two hours and twelve minutes late, which was a record even for Wei Ying’s usual tardiness. He liked to make an entrance, not a catastrophe. He stood in the lobby, straightening out the cuffs of his dress shirt, wishing he had more than just jeans to wear. As he looked around, though, he noticed that the other workers seemed to be in casual dress, making him feel a bit less uncomfortable.

The company that Wei Ying had landed a job at was a music company called Sunshot Records. They managed artists, an orchestra, and had a lot more small jobs on the inside, like a music academy for students, a security team, and even more. Wei Ying had applied to join the security team. Somehow, they had accepted him. The fact that he had stretched the truth a little on his resume might have added to that. Wei Ying didn’t really know martial arts, but he could kick someone’s butt if he needed to. He was just badass like that—though Wen Qing was much, much badder, especially when she whipped out her acupuncture needles.

The secretary in the front directed him to the second floor, take a right after two doors, then a left after five, down to the end of the corridor, take a half flight of stairs, through that door, take two more rights in quick succession, and then he would be there.

It took Wei Ying all of five minutes to get lost.

He was so screwed. He had lost this job before he had even started it. 

At least the scenery was nice, he mused to himself as he wandered the hallways aimlessly, taking a turn there and then another, hoping he could find either a map or a familiar space soon. 

Instead, Wei Ying found the concert hall. He opened the doors to a breath of silence, light instead of how oppressive it usually was. The lights were off, but the stage lights were still on, bright white fire dancing in front of his vision. There were instruments in cases on top of chairs. A performance finished? A practice about to begin? The reason they were there was unimportant; no one was there in this moment.

He walked forward, his sneakers soft against the tile floor. He walked noiselessly, hopping up on the stage and basking in the emptiness of it all. Once upon a time, Wei Ying had lived off the crowd’s attention. The cameras had changed him. There’s no fun in being in the limelight when it’s so people can have a better view of where to hit to kill. 

Wei Ying spun on the heels of his shoes and let out a scream. It bounced off the walls and hit him in the face, loud and guttural. There was no one else around to hear it. The realization made him feel giddy with a strange sort of bubbly happiness. Maybe it was the fizzy alcohol still running in his veins, but he suddenly didn’t care. So what if he lost this job? At least he’d been able to come here.

There was a flute case lying open on one of the chairs, a black flute gleaming upwards. Wei Ying stared at it, his laughter catching in his throat. It was staring up at him through the empty holes, as if it had been waiting for him to arrive. Wei Ying walked over, transfixed on the shiny obsidian shade of the flute. It reminded him of Chenqing, his old flute, collecting dust in the bottom of his duffel bag because Wei Ying hadn’t been able to bring himself to play it ever since he had found out he would be returning. 

This flute was not Chenqing—Chenqing was all polished black with the old knife marks at the base from a late night when Wei Ying had been playing with it, his red tassel swinging from it. Yet it felt familiar in Wei Ying’s palms anyways, just as light and hard. He lifted it to his lips, a whisper of a song, and played a few cautious notes, airy and soft sounds. He was out of practice, but his fingers and his lungs had not forgotten quite yet.

He played a few more notes, the tentative beginning of a song. He stretched out his fingers, letting them settle back into position, regulating his breathing to that he was used to slowly and steadily. When he had warmed up, Wei Ying took in a deep breath, letting it out in a whoosh, and then brought the flute back to his mouth, a song unraveling from it sweetly.

As he played, he watched lotus flowers blossom in the pit, water rippling around them. They grew and grew until their creamy pink petals were spreading out against the ceiling, pressed into a twining pattern of gold thread. The melody traveled from his lips and into soft silver strings in the air, twisting into the visualization of the music notes, the rows of concert hall chairs turning into the bar lines. The song was a sad ballad of times long past; of when they had gone into the city in GusuLan and the flower petals rained from the sky in a shower of beauty, and Lan Zhan had smiled, the tiniest hint of a smile when he thought no one was looking.

Lan Zhan. Wei Ying hadn’t let himself think that name in a very long time. Lan Zhan, I miss you. He thought and the lotus petals withered and died with his heart, shriveling up and shrinking back into their roots. Wei Ying focused and played a harder, happier song. The cold water of Cloud Recesses slipped in from under the doors and made a new lake, silver fish flicking in and out, rabbits on the shore.

Sometimes the hallucinations were pretty. Wei Ying liked it better when they were. 

The song died out on his lips, and as Wei Ying let the flute fall to his side to drink in the world his mind had created for him, a slow clapping broke the silence.

The hallucinations dissipated, taking the rabbits and the leftover lotus petals with them. The concert hall was as empty as a gaping black hole once again. Wei Ying looked out and saw a suave woman in a pantsuit applauding him. She was wearing bright red lipstick, her black hair pinned back in a twist, and she was smiling widely at him. 

Wei Ying blinked, hit first by surprise, and then hot humiliation. Someone had been listening to him play the flute when he hadn’t really played it like that in months. He blushed, carefully wiping off the flute on his shirt and replacing it in the case, jumping off the stage with a loud thump.

“Sorry, I...I kind of got lost.” He mumbled, knowing he can’t explain why he went up to the stage and started playing a song with someone else’s random flute. 

The woman was beaming at him. “What team are you from?” She asked.

Wei Ying gaped at her, then quickly answered; “The security team. Today is my first day, but my feet led me here instead of to the room. It’s a lovely concert hall you’ve got here.” He added, hoping that he could sweet talk his way out of what could be a potentially bad situation. 

“Switch to the instrumental production team.” The woman said in a breath. Wei Ying stared.

“The production team?” He asked in puzzlement. “Miss, I’m not sure what you’re saying.” 

“Silly me, I should have introduced myself.” The woman murmured. “My name is Qin Su, CEO of Sunshot Records.” She held out her hand. Wei Ying shook it, transfixed by the powerful woman before him while also cursing himself for messing up in front of the CEO. He was so fired. “Your talent is exactly what the team needs. It’s new,’s what our music has been missing.”

“I’m not a producer.” Wei Ying said, slowly processing the sentences as she said them. “I’ve only composed a couple pieces, and that was just for fun. Plus it’s been so long since I’ve really committed to music…” He scratched the back of his head, shaking his hair out of his eyes. 

Qin Su—CEO Qin—shook her head at his excuses. “I can tell you’re a very fast learner.” She said. “All they need is a new composer who can come up with the melodies. Your melody was breathtaking. If you can take that and put it onto paper to fit a song, you would find yourself with a definite job.” 

“Okay.” Wei Ying agreed, because it sounded like a good deal. And if he failed at it, he could just go back to security and be a bouncer at the door or whatever. He felt like he was walking on clouds, stuck in another hallucination, except his hallucinations were never visual and auditory at the same time.

“Come with me.” Qin Su commanded, and Wei Ying trailed her obediently, walking out of the door and back into the noise and clamor of the hallways. She walked through the halls efficiently, but Wei Ying’s head was spinning again. He couldn’t keep track of all the turns and pivots, all the stairs and elevators that seemed to exist in this one single building.  

Soon they were in front of a heavy wooden door, faint piano drifting out of the crack between the floor and the end of the door. Qin Su knocked, smiling when there was no response. “Forgive them; they get lost in their head occasionally.” She explained. Wei Ying wanted to agree and say that he did, too, but he had a feeling that his type of lost wasn’t the same as the one she meant. Normal people got lost for a moment of creativity and creation. Wei Ying got lost for days in memories and hallucinations, a thought spiral that made the days pass when it felt like a very, very long hour. 

Pushing the door open, Qin Su motioned for Wei Ying to come in. He entered carefully, the music swelling into a crescendo that beat a sharp tune in his heart, the hot metal of knives clanking against his ribs. It burned, but it was a lovely flame all the same. The notes drifted and twisted, fragile and frantic all at once. Wei Ying turned in a slow circle, taking in the small recording booth, the mess of pillows in the middle of the room around a low table, expensive mixing equipment in the corner, before spotting the source of the music.

At a piano on the far back of there room sat a slight figure, body curved as he moved with his song, a song that was filling up every inch of empty space inside of him. He was dressed in a white t-shirt and a pair of light wash jeans, feet bare against the pedals. There was a strip of white cloth tied around his head, starkly contrasting the darkness of his hair. 

As if sensing their entrance, the piano stopped abruptly, the notes vanishing from the air in a hurried flourish of dissipation. He turned, a smile gracing his lips, and rose, walking over. The cloth, Wei Ying saw now, was a bandage around his eyes. 

“Xingchen, I’ve brought someone to help with the production as promised. I believe he’ll fit your standards.” Qin Su in the easy way that came with having worked together for quite a while. Xingchen nodded, glancing at a spot over her head. Qin Su turned to Wei Ying, saying in a hushed voice; “Xingchen is blind, but he’s also my most talented composer.”

“Then why wear a blindfold?” Wei Ying asked, that curiously pricking it’s sharp thorns into someone else’s skin again. 

Xingchen smiles with a benevolent grace in the direction of Wei Ying’s voice. “For some people, it’s a warning sign.” He explained gently. “They do not believe I cannot see because my eyes are open; by wearing a blindfold I show them seeing is physically impossible. It also helps my senses, so I can focus, especially when playing. It is easier to go by ear than to try and strain nonexistent sight.” He laid it out simply, making Wei Ying feel even more sheepish about asking such a stupid question.

“Wei Wuxian, this is Xiao Xingchen, pianist and composer.” Qin Su formally introduced the two.

“Ah, I thought that was your voice I heard.” Xingchen said with another soft smile. Wei Ying’s stomach twisted. He should have checked his horoscope for bad luck before going outside today. How could he have met not one but two old classmates in the span of twenty four hours upon arrival?

“You two know each other?” Qin Su asked.

Xingchen gave a delicate dip of his chin. “We went to Cloud Recesses together back in the day.”

Qin Su’s expression brightened. “I should have known. GusuLan has developed the most brilliant students. It’s no surprise you are both so talented musically.” Wei Ying smiled, but his mind had drifted to Lan Zhan and his old fashioned zither again. It had been his most precious possession, an old heirloom passed down the generations in the Lan clan. He had turned so red when Wei Ying had playfully plucked a string once...and broken it. It had been an accident, but the following week had been Lan Zhan’s icy voice following him down every hallway and in every class. Boring. Pathetic. Useless. Senseless. Shameful.

Wei Ying missed that, Lan Zhan’s stoic expressions and stolid personality. He was such a tsundere, though Wei Ying had to admit he also hadn’t really gotten past that stage of Lan Zhan yet. He could have, he knew he could have, if only that hadn’t happened. If only he hadn’t run away, pulled away from Lan Zhan without a word. Left him to wake up in an empty room.

He thought that he should feel guiltiest towards the dead. Instead he felt the most guilty towards his roommate. 

The door opened again, and a familiar man in wire rimmed glasses entered, a stack of papers in his arms. He blinked at the scene in front of him. “CEO.” His eyes slid past her. “Wei Wuxian?” His name was uttered with a simple puzzlement, but Wei Ying saw the way Song Lan’s eyes darkened. “What’s going on?” He asked.

“Wei Wuxian will be joining us.” Xingchen announced. “CEO Qin says that he will be accompanying me in composing the songs themselves. You know that I’ve been looking for a partner in that matter.”

“I thought I was your partner.” Song Lan said jokingly, but he wasn’t fooling Wei Ying, who heard the hurt that seeped into his voice. At Cloud Recesses Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen had been an inseparable duo. They had been fourth years to Wei Ying’s third, a legend instead of living and breathing human beings. Like everyone else, he had been a bit in awe of them. Xingchen’s skill on the piano went unnoticed by no one, and Song Lan accompanied him on the violin, his protector and his closest friend. Of course, Xingchen hadn’t been blind back then. Wei Ying wondered what had happened—what had changed.

“You are my bosom friend.” Xingchen said. “Wei Ying shall be my musician confidant.” Song Lan sent Wei Ying a subtle glare. Wei Ying looked at his shoes. For all of Xiao Xingchen’s angelic grace, Song Lan had always been there to stop his friend from getting hurt by his own kindness. He had good reason to be wary of Wei Ying—Cloud Recesses took less than one hundred students a year, most from prominent families. They had all come to know each other well.

They had all come to know, and see, what Wei Ying had done.

He remembered the pavement on his back, gritty asphalt digging into his back, blood from a thousand tiny cuts seeping out through his shirt. In that moment Wei Ying had been sure: if he didn’t do something, he was going to die.

And then someone else had died instead.

“There’s an academy reunion in a few days.” Xingchen said. Wei Ying blinked and realized that Qin Su had left the room, leaving him with his two seniors.

“Oh.” He, of course, had not been invited.

“You should come.” Xingchen said, because Xiao Xingchen was one of the few pure of heart people in this world. Wei Ying had only ever known him to have good intentions. “It’s been thirteen years since anyone has last seen you. I’m sure many would love to catch up.” Wei Ying wasn’t sure if Xingchen really believed that everyone was like him, or if he was just trying to be gracious. It was probably a mix. 

No one would want him to come. Wei Ying told Xingchen thank you anyways.

Jingyi threw the file on the table. “Who cuts out people’s tongues and then dumps the body?” He whined. “What kind of sick psychopath would do that?” He rubbed at his temples, which were beginning to ache from all the thick lines of black text he had been poring over. “This is giving me a headache.”

“Do you need medicine?” Sizhui asked immediately, head rising from where he had been buried in a case file. He looked like how Jingyi felt: tired, wane, and mentally stressed out. There were dark circles under his eyes already, and his hair had fallen out of order. Though less than twenty four hours had passed since they had arrived on the scene, they had been in the car for hours before that, and had not stopped working since then. Empty coffee cups made for a sad picture. If one was to stumble across their workspace, they would believe they were looking at the home of several unemployed single men.

If only anyone really knew the work that being a criminal investigator needed...Jingyi swore it was one of the most frustrating jobs to have, but he loved every second of it. Well, except for now, when all they could do was read some files and try and search for something when there was really nothing . At all.

“When is Hanguang-Jun arriving?” He whined, flinging his arms out and letting his head thunk down on the table. Across from him Zizhen’s head shot up. 

“Did something happen while I was asleep?” He asked in muddled confusion, looking every which way. 

“At least you could sleep.” Jingyi muttered in distaste. Though they had all been personally chosen by Hanguang-Jun to be part of his newly formed investigative team, Zizhen had gone to a small university in Ouyang instead of academy in GusuLan like Sizhui and Jingyi had. Also, Jingyi and Sizhui had grown up with Hanguang-Jun—who was really the second son of Lan Qiren, Lan Wangji, but they had to call him by his ‘professional name’ in public since he was technically their senior. He was also Jingyi’s second cousin removed or whatever, as well as being Sizhui’s adopted father. Jingyi still wasn’t sure how that had happened—he had been at an extended Lan clan celebration and found himself being introduced to a seven year old kid that had somehow also become his second cousin removed (or whatever). 

The point was that Jingyi and Sizhui were close, so close that Jingyi could say with authority that he knew more about Lan Sizhui than anyone other person, even Hanguang-Jun. Well, maybe not the last one, but that was the point, alright. And Zizhen, for all his pretty words, was nowhere near as in sync as the two of them were. It was taking a lot of getting used to, working with someone else other than just Sizhui. Jingyi was so used to Sizhui getting what he meant and he understanding when Sizhui was onto something and wouldn’t be able to focus until he had figured it out. 

Zizhen was pouting at him now. Jingyi flipped him off and opened his file back up, trying to concentrate. He last a minute before he threw it back down, groaning.

“I need a food break.” He announced. “Let’s get some food, huh Sizhui?” 

“The dead has been identified.” Sizhui said without preamble, finally looking up. He had learned his seriousness from Hanguang-Jun, and sometimes the semblance between the two was really shocking. 

“Really?” Zizhen said, looking fully awake. Sizhui nodded, motioning the two of them over. Jingyi stood up, feeling all his joints creak painfully. He stretched, feeling numb and tingly all over. As he walked over to Sizhui’s desk, he shook out his body, trying to regain what little feeling he had left.

“Wen Chao.” Sizhui read aloud as Zizhen and Jingyi looked over his shoulders. “The second son of the late Wen Ruohan, successor to the Qishan Wen sect. He was age thirty one, with a spotty record. He graduated from Cloud Recesses in GusuLan, but had many school violence records. According to his older brother, Wen Xu, they went out drinking the night before he died, and he hadn’t seen him since.”

“Ey, if he’s the second brother, why is he the successor?” Jingyi asked.

Sizhui pondered it. “How is that important?”

“Maybe his brother killed him.” Zizhen said in an ominous whisper.

“Grow up.” Jingyi said scornfully. “Is this a drama? Clearly you think this murder is one from a soap opera!”

“He could be right.” Sizhui mused. “Family members usually have the deepest grudges against one another, but we would have to have evidence that would support that fact that Wen Xu would have wanted to kill Wen Chao.”

“Evidence.” Jingyi muttered under his breath. “Well, then we’ll just have to find some.”

Xue Yang was hungry. It was a gnawing pain between his ribs, insistent and consuming. He was used to his stomach aching, but the numb pain was paired with a sharp headache, dizziness making his feet move blurred beneath him. The heat was rising from the pavement, his throat parched, words dry as curled paper when he opened his mouth to make a noise.

He walked down the street, scanning the crowd for an easy target he could lift something from quickly. His fingers were nimble but clumsy at moments like this, when his body remembered what it was like to be starving on the streets again, as if he was ten years old again. The only thing that had kept Xue Yang from reverting back to how he had lived before the Wen’s was his sheer tenacity and cleverness. Except now it too seemed to be on the verge of failing him.

Across the street, Xue Yang spotted him: a man of elegant bearing with a blindfold on. He walked carefully, hands folded in front of him, stepping forward cautiously. Though he could not see, he carried himself like royalty, respect oozing from him even as he walked without acknowledgement of anyone or anything else, sidestepping anything that would get in his way. He was precise with his movement, but Xue Yang had fast fingers that could dip into a pocket and then out in less than a second. It would be easy.

He moved across the street, dancing around the edge of a car that stopped abruptly, yelling something at him that Xue Yang waved off. He grinned, that quicksilver smile that made people wary—it was a good thing, to make people wary, because as wary as they were they were also always interested in him. They found him complex. The naive ones found him alluring. Xue Yang played them all and got what he wanted out of it, not caring what he left behind. He, too, had been left behind once. Since no one had bothered then, he did not bother now. A single heartbreak didn’t take long to get over anyways.

Xue Yang started down the street in the opposite direction of the man moving towards him. As they walked past each other, he made his foot catch on the edge of the curb, stumbling into the man. He reached out to steady himself with one arm, the other slipping in with nimble fingers to catch the edge of a wallet, slipping it out easily into his own pocket.

“Sorry.” He mumbled, all apology and sheepishness, letting go of the arm. “Did I hurt you?” The man inclined his head towards the sound of Xue Yang’s voice, a slight smile gracing his lips. 

“No worries.” The man said. “Are you alright?” Xue Yang nodded, realized he couldn’t see it, and then translated his response into words.

“I’m fine; I just tripped.” He said with a laugh, but he was laughing at how trusting the man was, how easily he had taken his wallet. Xue Yang had been running small cons for years, but the thrill still hadn’t gone away when he successfully got out and was long gone by the time the other had realized they had been fooled. 

He bade goodbye to the man, strolling down the street whistling a quiet tune under his breath. He pulled the wallet out, rifling through it for anything that would be of use. There were a million miniature pictures printed on thin cardstock, which Xue Yang regarded with curiosity. A smiling boy grew into a man, friends turning older as the seasons passed. Xue Yang wondered what it was like to have constants in your life, no matter how hurtful or wonderful they might be. He had grown up in frameshifts, stuttering over into another place, one after another. 

Xue Yang put the pictures back carefully, next to the line of credit cards. There were enough of them for him to think that the man had plenty of money, but few enough for Xue Yang to also think that the owner didn’t like to flaunt having money either. And then, there it was: the bills. There were a lot of them, stuffed in neat rows by value. Xue Yang let his fingers skim across them, wondering how much he should take. Usually he took it all, but he felt slightly guilty when he thought about the fact that he had taken advantage of a blind man and robbed him of his money.

He ended up taking half of it; an assortment of small bills and large ones. It would have raised suspicion if someone who looked like him—ratty jeans and a too big t-shirt with holes in the hem, all disheveled distrust in his every line—paid with a fifty dollar bill. Xue Yang stuffed the money in his pocket, folding the wallet back up as he turned the corner, preparing to drop the wallet on the ground somewhere inconspicuous. 

Xue Yang ran right into another person. He stumbled back, finding himself staring at a pair of neat sneakers. He blinked, looking up, and saw the blindfolded man staring straight at him, or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as the other’s face being turned straight towards Xue Yang’s. 

“Please return my wallet.” The man said. He held out one hand diplomatically, palm up, inviting. Xue Yang kept quiet, glancing around to see if there was somewhere he could slip off to soundlessly. He would have thought it was easy, otherwise, but this man had tracked him down —even without eyesight. 

He moved backwards a few steps, and the man said again; “Please return my possessions to me. I’ve already notified the police. This can all be simple if you would just please give me back my money and my wallet.” His hand was wavering in place, waiting. Xue Yang looked back at the wallet in his hand. He could give it back, keeping the money in his pocket, but that would be admitting that 1) he was actually there despite not speaking and 2) he had taken the wallet, which was incriminating himself, and Xue Yang never incriminated himself. He was a criminal, but a criminal who would never be caught.

Deciding to take the moment, Xue Yang turned and skirted around the edge of the alley, slipping the wallet away—only to find himself met by two stern faced police officers, who promptly grabbed his arms. “Hey!” He yelled, struggling against their tight holds. “What are you doing?”

Behind him, the blind man stepped out of the alley. “I did inform you that I had notified the police.” He said with that same polite tone. “You refused to comply.” He held out his hand again. “If you turn it in, I won’t press charges.”

Xue Yang glanced at him, grinning, even though he knew the other man couldn’t see the expression. “I don’t have your wallet.” He said, only to flinch back as one of the officers patted him down with a rough efficiency. They pulled the man’s wallet out, checking the ID card.

“Are you Mr. Xiao Xingchen?” They asked the man, who nodded his head. The other officer grabbed the wad of money that Xue Yang had tucked away, shaking his head as he rifled through the bills. Xue Yang could see how he was looking at Xue Yang himself, eyeing him up and down with a familiar look in his eyes. It was one that labelled Xue Yang as street riffraff, worthless trash under the heel of his boot. It was one that said of course Xue Yang had been the one who had stolen, judging him with a single look.

“Look, you got your things back.” Xue Yang said, shaking off the officers hands again. They were so grabby, so eager to hold his biceps tightly, leaving fading marks on his skin. “Can I go now?”

The man was quiet, fingering the bills as he put them back in their neat rows. Xue Yang wondered how he knew which bill was what amount; the wallet was perfectly organized. Maybe he wasn’t really blind, Xue Yang decided. Maybe he just wore a blindfold to fool people. Xue Yang had known a little girl on the streets who had used that trick; she had pretended to be blind in order to get free food from pitying passerbys. Of course, it was something that only worked for people with wide, innocent expressions and soft voices, people with kind hands. Xue Yang had never been a soft person. He had too many sharp edges. 

Finally, the man turned to the officers. “You can let him go now.” He said with his soft, soothing voice. “I won’t press charges.” 

The officers stepped away with reluctance. “Are you sure?” One of them said. “You’re probably not the only victim.” Xue Yang focused on his scuffed sneakers, worn out soles coming away, the cheap plastic peeling. The laces had once been white, but now were dirty with grime, just like the rest of him. His shoes were barely holding on, always inches from falling apart. Like him. That was how Xue Yang lived, on the edge of falling. He scraped by day after day. He survived, whether it was through petty stealing to buy a cup of ramen or by bigger, more dangerous jobs that kept him fed and safe for weeks at a time. He never settled down, never let his feet sink into the earth too deep. On his toes, Xue Yang walked the tightrope, putting on a show for the people down below.

And now he had gotten caught. He had made a misstep and fallen when he had no safety net. 

“I’m sure.” The man said placidly. The officers stepped back, giving Xue Yang one last frown, before leaving. Xue Yang glared at their backs, then let it sweep over to land on the man who had brought this reel of misfortune. Xue Yang had been wrong in labelling him as an easy target, it seemed. 

He kicked a crushed can lying on the ground in his direction. It clanged off the metal trash can besides the other man, ‘Mr. Xiao Xingchen’. Xue Yang took vicious pleasure in how the man started slightly, head whipping towards the sound. It faded quickly, however, because although Xue Yang had avoided arrest, he was still short of money, and the hunger was making his stomach hurt.

“You’ve got so much money, you couldn’t bother to share some?” Xue Yang asked aloud, voice sharp and bitter. How easy it was for the rich to forget about their wealth while the poor languished in their sorrow and helplessness. 

“You did not ask me too.” The man replied. He sounded like he pitied Xue Yang and his way of thought. Xue Yang hated it, hated it with a burning passion. He had worked for years to be stronger than everyone thought he would be. To prove the other kids on the streets that he was scrappier, to prove to his adoptive father—though Wen Ruohan hardly deserved the title—that he was more clever and bloodthirsty than the boys who had not been his brothers. 

“Yeah, you’re such a saint.” Xue Yang remarked sarcastically. He felt anger bubbling in his gut, which was gripped with hunger pangs. Dressed in all white with his neat strip of cloth, standing haughty and tall, so clean. Screw you, Xue Yang thought, all hot molten lava inside, but he was so so hungry too.

“There is no need for you to be hurtful with your words.” The other said stiffly, his shoulders rigid. He apparently had picked up on the savageness in Xue Yang’s voice, which the younger had done nothing to mask. There’s no need for you to keep all that money for yourself either. Xue Yang hummed to himself.

“Whatever.” Xue Yang scoffed aloud, turning to leave. As he did, his stomach emitted a loud growl, a moan of emptiness begging to be filled. Xue Yang pressed a hand to it, gritting his teeth. He felt light headed and dizzy all at once, but if he let himself be tired he would sit down to rest and never get back up until he had slept for a hundred days. 

“Are you hungry?” The man asked, so polite and reserved. 

“No.” Xue Yang said through his teeth, but his stomach rolls again, bright bursts of pain flaring in his head. He’s embarrassed now, not only had the other man already caught him red handed, but now he knew that Xue Yang was hungry too.

The man regarded him with an unreadable expression. Expressions were all in the eyes, and since Xue Yang can’t see the other man’s eyes, he had no idea what was running through the man’s head. He was used to tricking people with his eyes, but he was also good at reading other people’s, even what they didn’t know they were exposing. Xue Yang wondered if a blind person’s eyes revealed the same things others did.

“Come with me.” The man said shortly. 

“No way am I going anywhere with you.” Xue Yang said, all snarl. He turned, kicking another can in a burst of impulsive anger. The other man was watching him in a way that made Xue Yang feel uncanny, eyes he couldn’t see that couldn’t see somehow seeing him.

“But you’re hungry, aren’t you?”

They ended up in a dumpling restaurant, one that proclaimed itself the best one in all of Yiling. Xue Yang had traveled to many places. He had bounced around, shifted from frame to frame, from sect to city to clan. He couldn’t really remember where he had been when Wen Ruohan had found him, but he thought it might have been Lanling. He had always had a strange attachment to Lanling, though he had anything but with the Jin clan; their sect leaders had never been fond of him. None of the leaders really were. 

Still, he always had a faint sense of recollection when he journeyed to Lanling. Something about the rolling hills and low lakes, the tall towers, sparked a sense of recognition in himself. As for Qishan Wen...Xue Yang hated the place in a cold part of his heart. Nothing green ever grew up there. Still, it had been Wen Ruohan who had sent him to Lanling Jin when he was fourteen. Xue Yang had hated the reason he was there but had loved to be there all the same, even though his time there had been short.

Yiling was someplace that Xue Yang almost dared to say that he liked. Despite the sweltering heat, it had cool ponds and a comfortable feel. There were many places for Xue Yang to hide and rest, but also places for him to feel close to free, hidden in the trees of the park.

The other man said he would pay. Xue Yang wanted to laugh in the face of his hospitality, but he was too hungry to argue about money and stealing and wealth and riches. The Wen clan had had so many riches. None of it had been his. Xue Yang had lived like he always had, just in fancier clothes with even more expectations to fill himself up with. If revenge was a dish best served cold, then Xue Yang should have been full by now. 

He still wasn’t, yet he ate the dumplings anyways, hardly giving himself enough food to swallow. He knew it was pathetic; he would have been more cautious if his companion hadn’t been blind. 

“The food will not run away.” His companion said, though Xue Yang wouldn’t call him a companion, not really. Xue Yang seemed to be this Good Samaritan's charity case for the day. 

“Are you really blind?” Xue Yang asked snidely. He had seen the stack of pictures in the man’s wallet: he hadn’t been blind in any of them. He had nice eyes, dark ones with lighter brown circles. 

The man nodded slowly, not seeming the least bit fazed by Xue Yang’s blatant question. Xue Yang couldn’t tell if he was just a generally kind person or pretending to be. Xue Yang was an expert of veiling his emotions, but he had never been good at acting either. Instead, he was the him he wished he could be, a built up facade that was a part of him that didn’t tell anyone anything about him at all.

“I am. I have just learned...through experience.” His face hosted a strange smile, as if he the words had made it all twisted up. “I have been this way for many years, as it is.” He touched the blindfold, not in a sad way, but a bittersweet way. The mourning of what was with the knowledge of what is. 

“My name is Xiao Xingchen.” The man continued. “May I know yours?” He talked with an incessant politeness, Xue Yang noted. It was almost annoying, if he wasn’t so kind as to make it sound not condescending. 

“Xue Yang.” He said after a pause. Xue Yang was his birth name, but Xue Yang hated his courtesy name, despite it’s beautiful meaning. Xue Chengmei. Complete, beautiful. Wen Ruohan had given it to him when Xue Yang had turned eighteen, when he had left Qishan Wen. It was a name he had never claimed as his, but it stuck to him anyways, like a heavy coat in summer.

“That’s a lovely name. I’ve never met a Xue before.” Xiao Xingchen said with an amicable smile. He was always smiling in one way or another. It was frustrating to Xue Yang, to meet someone so openly trusting as Xiao Xingchen. He seemed to open himself to being hurt, when Xue Yang had lived his life pretending he lived to get hurt when he had really hated it, every second of it. 

“And I’ve never met a Xiao. I guess we’re both oddities.” The food was settling heavily in his stomach. Xue Yang knew he shouldn’t have eaten so much, so fast, but the hunger overtook him, a beast opening up its gaping jaws. He felt full, but also too full. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he had last eaten so much. Xue Yang was used to a scrap here and there, an apple for breakfast and a glass of water to tide him through the day. This felt satisfying, but it also made him feel sick.

The thought made bile rise in his throat. Xue Yang stood, chair scraping back harshly against the floor. Xiao Xingchen looked up in alarm. “Thanks for the meal.” Xue Yang told him, the words slipping past fast and furious. His stomach was tied in knots, squeezing at his insides. “Try and keep your wallet in a safer place.” He added, a slight sneer in the words. Xiao Xingchen smiled, another version of the same refined one he had been wearing all day. Xue Yang thought it would be tiring, to smile all the time.

Xue Yang left the restaurant, Xiao Xingchen still sitting at the table behind him. As soon as he was outside, he bolted to the alleyway behind the restaurant, heaving into the nearest trash can. He emptied the contents of his stomach until he was only dry heaving continuously, muscles clenching in the pain. 

When the heaving subsided, Xue Yang slid down against the hot metal of the trash can, feeling disgusted and raw. If the Wens could see him now, oh how they would laugh. He had escaped for five years now, but he still felt like the bruised person he had become. He still did things that made him feel even more broken, because his reputation when he had lived with them preceded him. Even if he wasn’t looking, people sought him with cash, and Xue Yang was always desperate to have something to survive on.

It was a painful existence. The most painful thing, perhaps, was how little he had grown to care. Blood was red, but so were roses. If he let his vision blur a little, until everything was fuzzy and unclear, he could do anything. 

Yet, when someone treated him with a little bit of kindness, it was like his body rebelled against it. Xue Yang was the only person who he allowed himself to depend upon. He owed no favors and he didn’t expect any. Even today, he wasn’t able to stomach it. The man’s smile made him physically sick. 

As expected, Xue Yang would always be Xue Chengmei. There was no outrunning that name.

Lan Sizhui found himself in Yiling Hospital, in front of room 203 on the second floor. It was an unsuspecting door, wooden with a metal bar to push it open, a rectangle cut of glass showing the empty tile path to the window. Still, Sizhui’s stomach was knotted with nerves. He took a deep breath, wiping his hands off on his jeans, then opened the door cautiously.

There was a man sitting in the bed, wearing a black sweater over his hospital clothes. He had wavy black hair and a complexion as white as a ghost, his eyes dark, the pupils blending into his irises with only the reflection of the hospital lights in them. He was reading a novel, the pages bent back as he narrowed those eyes in concentration. He looked up at the sound of the door opening, eyes flicking over Sizhui.

“Hello.” He said, closing his book politely. He smiled at Sizhui, and Sizhui felt a pang in his heart. 

“Hello.” He echoed back quietly, the words leaving him in a whisper. He had rehearsed what he would say many times before finding the courage to actually visit the man. The man was his elder by a few years at least; Sizhui had just turned twenty one and the man looked to be in his late twenties, though he had an honest and open expression that made his face look younger.

“My name is Lan Sizhui. I’m from GusuLan’s investigative team one.” Sizhui fumbled for his page, presenting it to the man. He took a few steps closer, so that he was right by the man’s bedside. “You’re Wen Ning—Qionglin, right?”

The man nodded slowly, squinting at Sizhui’s badge. He didn’t know why he had pulled it out. He couldn’t think of what to say. He should have written it on his hand or something. “What brings you to see me, Officer Lan?” He asked, nervousness clear in his voice and expression. Wen Ning really was an open book, his emotions laid out in paragraphs in front of Sizhui, who had been trained by Hanguang-Jun himself on how to read people.

“Um…” Sizhui said, feeling sweat gathering in his palms. He wondered how he looked to the other, a nervous black haired kid in a neat uniform struggling to get his words? He didn’t know how to ask this man if he remembered a child from fifteen years ago. He didn’t know how to ask that, because Sizhui didn’t even really remember anything himself that he could go off of. Only one thing: a name. Wen Yuan. His name, once upon a time. At least he thought it had been his name.

“You’re Wen Chao’s adoptive brother, correct?” He asked instead. Wen Ning blinked in surprise. Sizhui had done extensive research on Wen Ning and his older sister, Wen Qing, before visiting. He knew all about the two of them. Wen Qing was a medical genius, the top of her class and on her way to being the top of her field as well. She searched for a cure for her younger brother, Wen Ning, who had been availed with a mysterious sickness since he was a child. The two had been taken in by Wen Ruohan when they were young, after a sickness had swept through their small mountainside clan. Some people claimed Wen Ruohan had started the spread and then taken pity on the two surviving children, but nobody had cared enough to investigate. Besides, the Wen siblings had lived with the Wen name for most of their lives. 

“I am.” Wen Ning said slowly, eyes wide and confused as he gazed up at Sizhui. 

Sizhui panicked. “He’s dead.” He blurted out. Wen Ning’s eyes widened into saucers, and Sizhui tried to desperately collect himself. “I’m here,” he started slowly. “To inform you that we found Wen Chao’s body two days ago. Someone stabbed him to death and cut out his tongue, then deposited the body by the lake on the other side of Yiling. The investigative team one from GusuLan was sent to Yiling to investigate this case”

“Wen Chao is dead?” Wen Ning echoed, his gaze drifting down to his hands. They were clasped tightly around his book, knuckles white with tension. “Two nights ago you say?” He added thoughtfully, expression drifting. “Strange.” He murmured. He didn’t seem sad at all. Sizhui wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be worried, concerned, or suspicious about this fact.

“Also,” Sizhui started, trying to gather his bravery. Wen Ning looked back up at him. His face was showing sadness now, but somehow Sizhui didn’t think it was over the death of his older adoptive brother. “I came because I wanted to ask you—” His phone rang, startling both of them. Sizhui took it out and saw that it was Jingyi. “Excuse me.” He murmured to Wen Ning, turning around and answering the call. 

“Big news.” Jingyi said breathlessly as soon as he picked up.

“What is it? I’m busy at the moment.” Sizhui said, annoyance creeping into his voice. He didn’t like to get aggravated at his friends, but Jingyi was someone who constantly pushed the limits. Even Sizhui’s endless patience started to fray at times.

“Yeah, where are you anyways?” Jingyi asked, but seemed to forget about the question as he moved on quickly. “You’ll never guess what just happened. Another body turned up.” Jingyi’s voice was crackling with excitement. Even though he complained about the paperwork cases needed, Sizhui knew his friend loved the thrill of true crime and bringing killers to justice.

“Who is it?” Sizhui asked. “Have they identified them yet?” 

“Not yet.” Jingyi said. “But it looks like Jin Zixun. They’re bringing over the family members to confirm the fact.” Jin Zixun, the eldest son of the Lanling Jin clan. Both he and Wen Chao had been successors to the position of sect leader. They also both had brothers who would have been in line for the position instead if Jin Zixuan hadn’t died and Wen Xu...they weren’t sure about Wen Xu yet. Jin Zixun had also gone to Cloud Recesses, Sizhui recalled. He was about to ask Jingyi about it, when Jingyi said; “And you’ll never guess what.”

He didn’t even wait for Sizhui to ask before announcing; “His tongue was also cut out.”

Chapter Text

Jin Ling’s favorite uncle was in a bad mood again. His Jiujiu was always in grumpy or upset in one way or another, but right now he was tense with anger. Whenever Jin Ling had tried to speak, he had been met with a snappish ‘shut up!’ Of course, he did have reason to be—they had received a call that one of Jin Ling’s other uncles had possibly passed away. It was who he liked to call his third uncle, for the man was related to him by name only. He was also one of the nastiest people Jin Ling knew, and he knew his Jiujiu. Still, his Dashu, who was his third uncle’s younger brother, had been unable to make it to the autopsy room.

“You better not throw up.” His Jiujiu told him tersely. For a grown man, he could be so petty, yet he always yelled when Jin Ling returned some of that bad attitude. 

“Hmph.” Jin Ling said in response, crossing his arms and looking out the window. They pulled up in front of the building, low and slightly foreboding. He tried to pretend that he wasn’t already feeling slightly queasy; this would, after all, be the first dead body he ever saw. He was sure his Jiujiu had seen lots of them, and Jin Ling would not lose face in front of his Jiujiu, who had put so much care into raising him. Not only just raising him, but teaching him how to be strong, like Jin Ling’s father would have done if he had lived to see his son turn one.

“Soon,” his Jiujiu said as they got out of the car. “This will be all yours.” Jin Ling knew what he meant. He had grown up hearing it. He was heir to Lanling Jin and Yunmeng Jiang—insofar as his Jiujiu wasn’t married and certainly didn’t have any children, and once he grew into age he would have Lanling for his own.

“Not unless you finally marry and have kids.” Jin Ling joked. The look his Jiujiu sent him was enough to make Jin Ling regret the teasing words. 

When they entered the building, they were met with a young officer who was doodling on his clipboard, blowing his hair out of his face in annoyance. He straightened at the sight of them, glancing over Jiujiu’s dark violet suit, pressed neatly, his dress shirt black underneath. In his finery Jin Ling’s uncle always looked more intimidating, though he was a force to be reckoned with even when he was dressed in casual. 

“Jiang Wanyin and…” He glanced at Jin Ling in a way that made Jin Ling puff up his chest and try to stand taller. “You must be the nephew.”

“My name is Jin Ling.” Jin Ling muttered under his breath, withering under the glare his Jiujiu directed at him. 

“The body is this way. A medical examiner is in there right now.” The officer said cheerfully. “I’m Officer Lan Jingyi from investigative team one in GusuLan by the way. We’re currently investigating this case.” He motioned for them to follow him down the narrow and dark hallway, the lights flickering. Jin Ling’s expansive knowledge of horror movies had him imagining the bodies in the rooms coming to life, zombie style. They would be trapped here in this hallway, the fluorescent lighting flickering and flickering and flickering out. 

Officer Lan stopped in front of a door at the far end, rapping on it twice in succession before simply pushing the door open. It screeched, metal on metal, and the sound made Jin Ling want to grind his teeth. They were greeted with the smell of iron and antiseptic, reminiscent of a hospital but more sterile. Jin Ling pinched his nose and followed his Jiujiu inside.

His third uncle’s body was half covered by a sheet, his skin gray and blue in death. Jin Ling would have thought he would be more perturbed by the sight of a living, breathing family member reduced to nothing in less than a day, but Jin Ling figured that was just life. He wondered how his mother and father had looked when they died, next to each other. It made his eyes watery, because Jin Ling hadn’t even known what they had looked like before death either. He only had one picture of two teenagers, lives changed by one unlucky kid.

Bent over his third uncle’s body was a female doctor in a white coat over a red shirt and black jeans, her heels clicking on the floor when she moved. She had delicate features but sharp eyes as they studied his uncle, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. She looked up at the loud sound of the door, pulling her face mask down around her chin.

Beside him, Jin Ling’s Jiujiu stopped short. When he looked up, he saw that his uncle’s eyes had widened in surprise. “Wen Qing?” He asked, the words slipping out. The doctor—Wen Qing, apparently, which was enough to make Jin Ling wary of her; the name Wen never came with a good connotation—glanced over at him with a cool expression, though her eyes flickered the tiniest bit.

“That’s Doctor Wen to you.” She said, voice iced over with frost. Jin Ling had never seen his Jiujiu ever be intimidated or caught off guard by someone else, but both of those were the perfect phrases to describe his Jiujiu right now: he was utterly flummoxed, feet glued to the spot where he stood. “You’re here to identify the dead, correct?” She motioned down at Jin Zixun’s lifeless form. “He’s all yours.”

Jin Ling’s Jiujiu leaned over the body with his face scrunched in obvious distaste for the dead man. “That’s Jin Zixun all right.” He said. “What happened to his face?”

Wen Qing spared Jin Ling a brief glance before saying; “His tongue was cut out.” Jin Ling bristled; did she think he couldn’t handle the news?! It was just a tongue, just a dead body. Jin Ling peered closer at his dead uncle and tried not to show the shudder that went through his body at the sight of his third uncle’s unseeing, flat, and very much dead eyes. He didn’t feel sick like his Jiujiu had feared, but rather very much unsettled. 

This wasn’t a horror movie after all. Dead people stayed dead. You couldn’t bring them back to life by visiting their graves or staring at pictures that were thirteen years older or some even older than that. Whatever importance they had to you, you couldn’t bring them back to life by simply wishing they were alive.

Jin Ling knew that fact all too well. 

It was a cloudy day forecasting rain when Wei Ying finally got around to visiting Wen Ning. He didn’t know why he had been pushing it off, but somehow his feet had dragged whenever he thought about visiting the younger. Wei Ying hadn’t seen Wen Ning face to face in thirteen years—though they had video called and FaceTimed often, Wen Ning’s illness prevented him from traveling. Now, standing in front of his hospital door, Wei Ying’s heart was clenching nervously. 

Through the glass he could see Wen Qing sitting dutifully at her brother’s bedside, entertaining him with a book. They were both laughing. Their smiles and laughs were identical to those who knew them—sometimes, it felt, Wei Ying was the only one who had ever bothered to do that—lips pulled back against their teeth, mouth widening into crescents as their eyes scrunched up. 

Wei Ying took a deep breath, breathing in the laughter that leaked through the door, and pushed it open. He was Wei Wuxian, he reminded himself. Full of catty remarks and daring ideas, able to make anyone into an enemy or a friend. Most people couldn’t stand him, but they liked him anyways.

Both turned to the door as it opened, and Wei Ying watched Wen Ning’s face light up, glowing as he exclaimed; “Wei Ying!” He stared to rise, but Wen Qing shoved him back down.

“Doctors orders are that you stay put until you’re fully rested so you can be discharged.” She said firmly. “Consider it your sister’s orders as well.” Wen Ning smiled at her and carefully resituated himself. 

“Hey, A-Ning.” Wei Ying said, coming over to sit next to Wen Qing. “I brought flowers to cheer this dreary place up.” Wen Qing took the colorful bouquet from him, carefully placing it next to Wen Ning’s bedside, the light filtering in from the window catching the color of each individual petal.

Wen Ning looked around. “It’s not too bad here.” He said. “Though I suppose I’m just used to it by now. This place is like a second home.” Though he said it with contentment, Wen Qing was unable to hide the pain on her face at the words. Wei Ying saw it, but when Wen Ning looked at his sister she had hidden it carefully. Sometimes Wen Qing reminded himself of Yanli so much it hurt. Was it the eldest sister curse, to be the strong one for their younger brothers?

“When are you getting out?” Wei Ying asked.

Wen Ning shrugged. “Soon, I think. They finished running tests a couple of days ago and I haven’t felt dizzy or like I’m about to seize in the whole week, so I’m sure the doctor will clear me soon enough.” Wei Ying smiled softly, reaching forward to clasp Wen Ning’s cold palms with his own. Wen Ning has a body temperature and complexion like someone from beyond the grave, which Wen Qing worried constantly was a bad omen—that the dead would take her younger brother sooner rather than later.

“That’s great, A-Ning.” Wei Ying said, squeezing his hands. Wen Ning was so much softer than Jiang Cheng had ever been, but Wei Ying loved them both the same. The Wen siblings were the best friends he could ever ask for, but sometimes Wei Ying saw them and missed his family more than ever. His family from long ago, when they had been the Yunmeng Jiang siblings even if Wei Ying had never truly been accepted as a part of them in the eyes of everyone else. He would see Wen Qing and Wen Ning’s private moments, and remember his shijie, her laugh ringing out in his head. Ah Li, I miss you. He thought.

“A police officer visited me earlier.” Wen Ning said suddenly. Wen Qing jerked her head upwards, frowning.

“When?” She asked. Wei Ying, too, was concerned by this, but trying not to show it. He could feel paranoia creeping into his veins, though it deserved no place there. Thirteen years had passed since his sentence of ten years of no return. Wei Ying had every right to be in Yiling if it came to the law. There should be no way that anyone was still poking around him. He wanted to say that they would have all forgotten, but Wei Ying knew the past did not leave so easily, and it would be foolish to assume it did.

Wen Ning blinked at her peacefully. “He said his name was Officer Lan Sizhui from GusuLan’s investigative team one. He came to tell me that Wen Chao had passed away and they had come to look into his case.”

“Wen Chao is dead?” Wei Ying said breathlessly, feeling the air being sucked out of his lungs. The fact seemed impossible but also a fact that he had expected to see pass one day. In the past, when he was seventeen, he would have been delighted at the news. Now he felt...empty. Wen Chao had deserved the pain he had inflicted on others returned, but nobody deserved to die. 

Wei Ying had figured that out when he had taken a life.

Wen Ning nodded. His voice dropped as he spoke next. “Apparently he was murdered.”

Wen Qing snorted, then immediately straightened her face out. “That’s horrible.” She said, her face slipping into a frown. “As much as I...disliked Wen Chao,” Her face hardened. It was no secret the hatred Wen Qing held for her adoptive brothers, especially considered how they had treated her and Wen Ning, even in the broad daylight of Cloud Recesses. Wei Ying’s hands tightened into fists over Wen Ning’s as he remembered screaming and how his knuckles had dripped blood and Wen Ning was so frightened and Wei Ying had to protect him, no matter the cost.

“Wei Ying.” Wen Qing said softly, her cool hands coming over the top of their clasped ones. Slowly, softly, she ran her thumbs over them, until Wei Ying’s grip loosened. He carefully extracted his hands from Wen Ning’s, the latter who tried to pretend that Wei Ying hadn’t hurt him. 

Even without meaning to, Wei Ying hurt everyone he touched. He had always been like that: careless, blind to his wrongdoings, blind to how doing the right thing was something everyone else saw as selfish. Like Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng had hated his selflessness most of all. “Do you think going against the world makes you a hero?” Jiang Cheng screamed in his mind.

Wei Ying .” Wen Qing said with more urgency, and Wei Ying realized his hands were shaking in his lap, his body trembling with the force of unwelcome and painful memories. 

“I’m sorry.” He whispered, his head dropping down to stare at his lap.

“Don’t be.” Wen Ning said desperately, reaching out to touch his shoulder lightly, the comforting weight of his hand grounding Wei Ying. “Wen Qing and I have never blamed you for anything that happened that night.” He started, his words slow but without a stutter, meaning that he needed Wei Ying to hear this; it was important. “I...I owe you my life, and you are one of the bravest and strongest people I have ever met. Please stop hurting yourself because of the past, Wei Ying.”

Next to him, Wen Qing reached out as well. “Like A-Ning said,” She added. “The past is the past, Wei Ying. No, it’s not something that is easy to forget, but right now? Right now is the present. This is how we, how you , start again, Wei Ying. You fall and we fall and you get back up no matter how long it takes. That’s just what makes you Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying kept his head bent so they couldn’t see the tears gathering in his eyes. “Thanks.” He murmured quietly, shrugging off their hands as gently as possible. When he managed to look up, the Wen siblings were watching him with identical expressions of worry and pride. Pride in the fact that he hadn’t let himself fall too long, land too hard. Pride that he, Wei Wuxian, was an undefeatable force that couldn’t be killed no matter how hard anyone tried. After all, that was what made him Wei Ying, Wen Qing had said.

“That reminds me.” Wen Qing said as the moment of silence passed by on wispy clouds. “Cloud Recesses is hosting a reunion for alumni from our time soon.” She glanced sideways at Wei Ying, gauging his reaction.

“I heard.” Wei Ying said calmly.

“From who?” Wen Qing said sharply, knowing that if Wei Ying had heard the news of the reunion, he would have at least had to have interacted with someone else who had known him during their time at Cloud Recesses.  

“Xiao Xingchen.” Wei Ying said, since there was no point in lying. “We’re going to be working together with Song Lan. Did you know he went blind?” 

Wen Qing and Wen Ning nodded in unison. “Of course we did.” Wen Qing jutted out her chin. “Song Lan was in a bad accident a couple of years ago. Xiao Xingchen gave him his eyes when it appeared that Song Lan’s would be unable to be salvaged.” She laughed. “They fought for so long about that, but I guess they stuck it out.” She shook her head a little. “Must be nice, to be able to stick through the thick and thin together. I would have been so mad if A-Ning had done something like that to me.”

She reached over to brush hair out of her brother’s eyes affectionately. Wen Qing had little to no friends. Besides the fact that her field was highly competitive and left no space for having good relations, Wen Qing kept herself at a distance. It was a stark comparison to Yanli, who had had a smile for everyone, enough soup to spare for a dozen people more she would pull from the corners of the academy or Lotus Pier.

“Don’t worry jie.” Wen Ning said with an equal amount of affection. He looked back over at Wei Ying. “It’s a masked ball of sorts.” He told him, elaborating on Wen Qing’s explanation. “It would be easy enough to blend in with the crowd if, if you wanted to come.” He stuttered out a bit nervously, as if he was afraid Wei Ying would be upset.

“Okay.” Wei Ying said, reaching out to mimic Wen Qing’s gesture. Wen Ning smiled up at him shyly, but remained still as Wei Ying carefully patted down the side of his head. “I’ll think about it. Are you two going?”

Wen Qing and Wen Ning exchanged a look that Wei Ying recognized as the telepathic communication through their eyes that all siblings had some version of. Wen Qing was quiet for a long moment, Wen Ning’s eyes watching her widely. “A-Ning might still be in the hospital then.” She said. “Besides, we...we would not be welcomed there.”

“Neither would I.” Wei Ying pointed out. “But it still sounds like you’re trying to convince me to go.” He was starting to get a faint inkling of why Wen Qing and Wen Ning seemed to want him to go—an inkling that involved him running into someone he had not seen in a very long time. The person he had left behind.

If he really saw the person he had left behind, Wei Ying was not sure if he could face him again. 

“Also, don’t you want to see Jiang Cheng again?” He elbowed Wen Qing in the side, quickly changing the route of the conversation before she or Wen Ning uttered a word about Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, Hanguang-Jun. Wen Qing turned to him, her eyes practically red with rage. Ah, nothing like the mention of his brother—because Jiang Cheng would always be Wei Ying’s brother, no matter how much the other hated him or cut ties with him—to get her fired up.

“Wei Wuxian!” She cried, smacking his arm. Wei Ying dissolved into laughter, doubling over, letting it ring free and messy, filling up that dull hospital room. Wen Ning smiled, a giggle bubbling up over his lips, Wen Qing yelling at Wei Ying. 

Wei Ying basked in the sunshine their happiness brought, allowing himself a few, precious moments of it. And in those moments, he let himself simply be Wei Ying.

“I found something.” Jingyi said, sitting up so quickly that he fell out of his chair with a clatter, the rolling contraption crashing into another desk and sending papers flying. Their office space had been offered on short notice, and it was a mess to say the least. The local police station had been more than happy to comply, but the only space available was separated by a simple partition, which meant that the three juniors from GusuLan were constantly subjected to hearing the gritty fights that went on day by day.

Zizhen laughed at him, but Sizhui carefully returned his chair, blinking sleepiness from his eyes. They had been catching odd hours, snatches of sleep in between moments of noise, working as they were around the clock so they could have something to show Hanguang-Jun when he arrived. They had to have something ; if they didn’t he would be silently disappointed in them as he always seemed to be, his lips tightening into a faint impression of a frown. 

“What is it that has you so excited?” Sizhui asked, looking considerably more awake as the three crowded around Jingyi’s computer screen, where he had many windows open and little to no organization. He saw Sizhui grimace slightly, but Jingyi couldn’t help it. His workspace often mirrored how his mind was: fast paced, disorganized, and constantly jumping all over the place—and to conclusions.

“Wen Chao and Jin Zixun both attended Cloud Recesses during the same period.” Jingyi said proudly. As he and Sizhui were both from GusuLan and had grown up in Cloud Recesses—and the academy that had the same name—and were well acquainted with the grounds and how it worked. Cloud Recesses was a prestigious academy for only the richest of the rich, young lords and masters, all heirs of some sort to their sects and clans, journeyed from around the area to attend it, desperate to put that name on their resumes. Jingyi and Sizhui had attended with ease because of their surname, but others were not so lucky. Zizhen, for one, had auditioned several times but never made it in. It was only by Hanguang-Jun’s careful eye that he had noticed and then cultivated Zizhen’s talent and silver tongue.

“Is that all?” Zizhen asked him, looking very unimpressed. Jingyi was sure it was an expression he had learned from Hanguang-Jun himself.

Thinning his lips, Jingyi snapped; “No. You guys haven’t let me get to the best part.” He clicked a few keys, glad when the window expanded to fill the screen. “While they were there, two deathes occurred.” He motioned to the screen, which depicted an article described the news with little information. “I plan to dig into it more, but I wanted to let you guys know first.” 

“I came to a similar conclusion.” Sizhui spoke up. Jingyi grinned at his friend, who was always in sync with him even when far apart. “If we’re following similarities, Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan—the two deceased from their time at Cloud Recesses—were also the eldest of their families and heirs to their family’s company. Jin Zixuan was stabbed to death, similar to Wen Chao and Jin Zixun, and Jiang Yanli slit her throat herself.” 

“I don’t really think it’s connected.” Zizhen said with a blink of his eyes. Jingyi glared at him. He was not letting the last few days of work be shot down so easily.

“I’m pretty sure Hanguang-Jun can be the one to decide whether or not it’s connected or not.” Jingyi replied evenly. “What else were you thinking, Sizhui?”

Sizhui studied the article. “Someone from Cloud Recesses should have had a grudge.” He said quietly. “That seems to be the most viable motive, right? Considering that their time at Cloud Recesses thirteen years ago is the only connection Jin Zixun and Wen Chao have.”

“People also said that they have terrible attitudes.” Zizhen cut in. “Everyone knows about the Wen’s reputation, but Jin Zixun had an inferiority complex to his older brother, Jin Zixuan, which he would take out on younger disciples. Nobody liked them much at all. Especially at Cloud Recesses; they were a bother to all the students and caused quite a bit of trouble that got covered up officially.”

“Wei Wuxian.” Sizhui murmured aloud, making Zizhen and Jingyi both turn to look at him in puzzlement. Sizhui looked spaced out, lost in thought once again. “The one who killed Jin Zixuan thirteen years ago.” Sizhui explained. “He fought constantly with the two current deceased during their time at Cloud Recesses. They had a very hate filled relationship, Wei Wuxian also got involved in physical altercations with them that ended very badly.”

“If he wanted to kill them, why wait thirteen years?” Jingyi asked, focusing on Sizhui intently.

“Wei Wuxian only returned to the country this week. He was banned from entering the country for ten years after the accident, in exchange for being charged for manslaughter.” Zizhen said from where he had been tapping away at his laptop. “Wen Chao was murdered on the night of his arrival. Zixun died not soon after that. The dates line up.”

“Must be nice to have a rich family and get out of things like murder.” Jingyi said somewhat wistfully. Sizhui poked him in the arm.

“Well, the Yunmeng Jiang clan cut all ties with him after the trial ended.” Zizhen spoke up. “He was seventeen when he left, and he stayed away for thirteen years. He returned because of a job offer at Sunshot Records.”

“That’s...terrible?, and all, but that doesn’t really make him a suspect.” Jingyi proceeded with caution, unsure of what exactly to do. “Sure, he’s a convicted criminal—well not really convicted I guess, but still—but that doesn’t mean he would come back and start randomly murdering people. It doesn’t really fit.”

Next to him, Sizhui was anxiously biting his nails. Jingyi slapped his hand lightly, and his friend blinked twice, carefully pulling his hand away. “I don’t know.” Sizhui said nervously. Jingyi knew Sizhui was the most stressed of all them about not letting Hanguang-Jun down. He was, after all, Hanguang-Jun’s adoptive son, and Sizhui felt responsibility to live up to the expectations the rest of GusuLan expected from him. After going through such training with high praise, they should, at least, be able to pinpoint a suspect.

“We’ll look into it more.” Jingyi told Sizhui and Zizhen decisively. Technically, Sizhui was the one who was supposed to be in charge, but right now he seemed to be anywhere but the room they were in. Zizhen nodded, and Sizhui nodded too, though it was a vague impression of acknowledgement.

“Now,” Jingyi said, stretching out his poor, tired body. “Let’s get back to work.”

As Wei Ying entered his apartment building, a younger man slammed into him, laughing. Rubbing his bruised shoulder, Wei Ying glared at him and his passing friends, loud and jostling each other as they exited the building. He bit back the sharp words hanging on the tip of his tongue—after all, it was not his job to discipline others children.

Wei Ying didn’t think much of the annoying encounter until he stepped out onto the fourth floor and saw Xuanyu sitting in his open doorway, body curled over himself in an almost protective gesture. Past him, Wei Ying could see the inside of his apartment was even more of a mess than it had been when he had first entered, furniture snapped in two, papers fluttering out into the hallway.

Stepping carefully over to Xuanyu, Wei Ying bent to pick up the talismans and crumpled sheets of paper that had once been careful notes. He stooped silently in front of Xuanyu, holding them out to the person he had begun to tentatively call a friend. 

Xuanyu lifted his head after a long moment. Beneath the silver sheen of his mask, his eyes were red in a way that conveyed misery and anger all at once. His hair was ruffled messily, as if he had been rolling around on the ground, and he sat in an uncomfortable, closed off way, as if trying to take pressure off of something.

“What happened?” Wei Ying asked, picking up more paper. Xuanyu was looking at him blankly, as if he had gone somewhere far away, only his body remaining here in Yiling. 

“My cousin visited me.” Xuanyu said softly, the words a dry whisper that got sucked up into the empty air of his house. Wei Ying remembered the loud man and his friends, their rudeness. His lips flattened out in unhappiness. “It’s not a big deal.” Xuanyu continued, slowly picking himself up off the ground. He was still moving in that awkward way that mimicked how he had been sitting, grimacing slightly. Wei Ying wondered if he was hurt, but he didn’t think Xuanyu would tell him if he asked. “He comes by from time to time because, you know, this life is still owned by my aunt.”

He looked around his apartment with a sad and bitter expression, quietly plucking a sheet of paper out of the air. “So all these things belong to him by default, he says.” Xuanyu smiled, but it was a smile for show, a smile that spoke of the shadows behind it. 

“He can’t do that.” Wei Ying said immediately, feeling righteous anger building inside of him at Xuanyu’s expense.

When Xuanyu turned to look at him, his eyes were cold, ink black frozen over. “Can’t he, though? Do you know how often I’ve tried to get out of this life for the past thirteen years? No, it’s been longer than that. Ever, even before that, ever since…” He shook his head, trying to collect his thoughts from his mess of emotions. “For most of my life, I’ve been trying to get out. But you know what I figured out? Nothing I can do is ever going to change this. LanlingJin has already ruined my reputation. My aunt will always hate me. Besides, I’m crazy, remember? Who will believe what the lunatic says?”

He gave a small, frustrated scream, kicking the paper into the air with a gust of air from the partially open window, paper soaring out into the sky and becoming lost. “Do you honestly think that I haven’t tried?” He said, voice pitiful and small. “No one has listened. The results are only worse for me.” An arm moved over his ribs slowly, hugging them loosely. 

“And they’re right.” Xuanyu said in an even smaller voice. “I’m mental.” 

Wei Ying reached out like he had been reached out to time and time again, and set his hand lightly on Xuanyu’s shoulder, knowing the other would probably try to get away from him if he tried to get any closer through touch. Still, he felt the younger man flinch at his casual touch, as if he had expected Wei Ying to hit him instead. 

“Let’s go on a walk.” Wei Ying suggested.

He led Xuanyu to the park, though not before warily looking around for any dogs before entering. Xuanyu had calmed down considerably, his breathing falling more evenly, and he had flattened out his hair, or at least attempted to, and straightened his mask out. They walked side by side, though Xuanyu always stayed at least a half step behind Wei Ying. 

“You should probably know that I’m a cut sleeve.” Xuanyu said suddenly, filling in the silence between the two of them.

“That’s an old fashioned term.” Wei Ying said. He thought that maybe he had known that fact, but had forgotten. Xuanyu, after all, had been the source of many rumors in his teenage years, which spanned before and after Wei Ying’s exit out of the door that was home. 

Xuanyu flushed. “I think it’s kind of romantic.” He argued, but Wei Ying could see that Xuanyu was glad he hadn’t let silence stretch after his confession. He kicked a loose stone in the path. “You really don’t mind? You aren’t just...saying that?” Ah, Wei Ying thought to himself as he looked at Xuanyu and his cautious, fearful stare. Of course he’s still scared.

Wei Ying shook his head happily. “Swear.” He said. “Haters are the real old fashioned thing.” He held up his pinky jokingly. Xuanyu took it after a long pause, his eyes still disbelieving. 

“Most people assume I’m into them.” He finally said.

Wei Ying snorted. “Don’t worry about that, though I don’t know where you can find someone as good looking as me.” He pretend preened, but the action reminded him of another peacock, which made his smile fade a little. Pushing those thoughts away, Wei Ying looked at the younger man. “Have you had a boyfriend before?”

Xuanyu shook his head somberly, expression closing off. Wei Ying wasn’t sure if it was because of him or because of a memory, a thought, a word. “Also,” He started hesitantly. “If...if you really want to be friends with me, I just...I just want you to know that what they said…” He hesitated again, the words getting stuck in his throat. Wei Ying could see embarrassment and humiliation and shame warring in his voice and his face. 

“I didn’t do anything.” Xuanyu said, voice stronger. “ anyone. I may be a cut sleeve, but I would never, never— .” His voice rose again, but then quieted, cut off. Wei Ying nodded.

“I know.” He said kindly. “I never thought you did.” The younger looked down at his battered shoes, arm still wrapped around his chest protectively. Wei Ying was sure he was injured or at least hurt somewhere, but he wasn’t sure how to bring up the topic and then make sure Xuanyu got treated for whatever it was. 

“Hey, you crazies!” Wei Ying started at the familiar voice and then, following it, the familiar sound of a dog’s bark. He screamed, grabbing Xuanyu’s arm and clinging on tightly, spinning to hide behind his friend. Xuanyu startled in surprise, edging backwards a little. 

The kid who had accosted Wei Ying in the park earlier that week, along with his big and stupid (and scary) dog named Fairy or whatever, like that made it less terrifying to stare down, skidded to a stop a couple of feet from them, wearing his usual expression of scorn.

Xuanyu licked his lips, pressing back against Wei Ying as if Wei Ying wold protect him. They were both screwed if that was the case; Wei Ying was the one who needed to be protected here. 

“Hey, you two lunatics are friends?” The kid said with what would have been an almost sinister smile if he hadn’t obviously been fifteen and a spoiled brat, not a serial killer. Xuanyu gulped, glancing back at Wei Ying, whose death hold on his arm only got tighter the longer Fairy stared them down, panting.

“Young Master Jin.” Xuanyu said, eyes flickering over to Wei Ying. Wei Ying stilled behind him. Young Master Jin? Wei Ying looked at the child in front of him with new eyes: taking in the familiar stance and the jut of his skin, how he had proud eyebrows but soft hair and hands. He had all of his father’s arrogance, but his mother’s softness as well, though it was hidden under his brattiness.

This was Jin Ling. Jin Rulan, the name Wei Ying had gifted him himself even though Jiang Cheng had argued that it was a horrible name. His shijie had loved it, and as much as Jin Zixuan had been a terrible human being, he had loved his son and Wei Ying’s sister very much. And Wei Ying had taken them both from Jin Ling. 

He was short of breath, trying to hold back the gasps that were either a panic attack or about to lead to an onslaught of sobbing again, which Wei Ying was not desperate to repeat.

“Crazy Mo Xuanyu.” Jin Ling echoed back. “Fairy, didn’t I tell you to rip his mask off the next time you saw him?” Xuanyu’s hands edged up to his mask, checking its secureness subconsciously. Fairy barked, loud and long, and Wei Ying sprang back into his hiding position behind Xuanyu. His head still throbbed from the injury he had acquired the last time he had been in this dog’s vicinity. 

“And you!” Jin Ling said, pointing at where Wei Ying was cowering. “What are you doing, hiding behind him?! You two are friends or something?” He looked between the two of them, his eyes starting to narrow in suspicion. As Wei Ying watched, they widened again, this time filled with what he thought was disgust.

“Are you two... involved?” He asked incredulously, and Xuanyu’s eyes widened a fraction behind his mask, carefully stepping away from Wei Ying.

“Watch your mouth.” Xuanyu snapped at Jin Ling, finding the confidence to use his voice for the first time since the initial greeting. Not that Wei Ying could blame him; he, too, had been too afraid to speak up for fear of hearing that awful bark again. Even now, he trembled in the face of Fairy’s black, bristling face.

“I don’t have to listen to you, you cut sleeve!” Jin Ling tossed back, crossing his arms. Xuanyu faltered, and Wei Ying sprang up to his full height, though he still kept his hands clenched around Xuanyu’s sweatshirt sleeve—even in this heat, Xuanyu stubbornly remained in his jeans and a sweatshirt or long sleeved top of some sort.

“Hey!” He said. “Didn’t anyone discipline you? What right do you have to talk to your elders like that?” He yelled at Jin Ling, who almost physically reeled back at his volume, before straightening and looking even more full of himself. 

“Show some respect.” Wei Ying continued. “You’re nothing but a spoiled brat with no manners! Who allowed you to walk around and say whatever you’d like?”

Jin Ling stiffened, flushing in anger. “You’re lucky my uncle’s not here to hear that, or he’d beat you up and cut off your legs!” He yelled back with all the fury of a teenager that Wei Ying had missed. The sentence reeked of Jiang Cheng, who had used the same threat on Wei Ying many times before in their youth. 

“That’s right.” Jin Ling said suddenly, turning back to Mo Xuanyu. “My third uncle died.” He said, a thin delight in his voice as he watched Xuanyu’s expression carefully. Xuanyu looked back at him evenly, giving no reaction. Jin Ling looked almost disappointed as he added; “Aren’t you sad? He was your half brother after all.”

Xuanyu shrugged. “Aren’t you sad?” He pressed back. “He was your third uncle, after all, but you throw his name around so carelessly.” Xuanyu thought for a minute. “Technically, I’m your uncle too.” He pointed out.

Wei Ying hadn’t thought about that. Xuanyu was an illegitimate son like Jin Guangyao, who was Jin Ling’s uncle as well, so technically Xuanyu was Jin Ling’s uncle. And so was Wei Ying, even if it wasn’t by a drop of blood. Even if he was no longer part of the Yunmeng Jiang clan or sect. 

“Hmph!” Jin Ling said. “As if you would ever be allowed into the family! Not under my dashu’s orders!” Behind his mask, Xuanyu’s expression closed , shutting off in a way that Wei Ying recognized—the way you tried to shut down when you didn’t want to think about it or feel anything, when you tried to pretend you weren’t bothered.

Wei Ying grabbed Xuanyu a little tighter, pulling the younger closer to him. He was a few inches shorter than Wei Ying, but so much smaller, like he had lived malnourished and starving for years. It wasn’t just in physical stature—Xuanyu tried to shrink into himself, huddled in his sweatshirts, like he was trying to get as small as he could be, until he turned invisible. Wei Ying thought he knew a little about that too, though he was sure it was nowhere near what Xuanyu had experienced, how he had lived these past years before meeting Wei Ying. How he still lived.

Turning, he started to drag Xuanyu down the path they had been walking on, ignoring Jin Ling’s call of ‘hey!’ 

A moment later, there was a loud bark and then Xuanyu gave a yelp of surprise. Wei Ying and he both turned to see Fairy with his jaws locked around Xuanyu’s ankle, Jin Ling standing shocked a couple of feet behind them.

“Thankfully the bite marks aren’t that deep.” The attending nurse said. “Although the dog had all it’s shots, there is still a chance it could get infected. Watch what I do carefully; you’ll need to treat yourself everyday like this for a week.” 

Xuanyu nodded, watching as the nurse laid a clean towel over the injury, stopping the bleeding. The bottom of his jeans had been ruined; soaked with blood and then carefully cut off with sharp scissors. He didn’t mind it that much, but he had few clothing articles to choose from in the first place, so he would have to repair it somehow.

The nurse moved to wash the bite with soap and water, which stung. Xuanyu managed to keep his flinch small, trying not to disrupt her as she applied antibiotic and then a sterile bandage. In the grand scheme of things, this pain was small. He had only been surprised by how sudden it had happened; which was the only reason he had made a noise at all.

As the nurse stood up, Wei Ying called; “He hurt his ribs too, can you check them out?” Xuanyu glanced at his friend—because they were starting to become friends, even if Xuanyu had no knowledge in that department—in surprise and also in slight annoyance. Yes, Ziyuan had kicked him quite brutally in the stomach a couple times, and yes, his ribs didn’t exactly feel right, but it was nothing that needed to be checked out by a professional. It would have just healed on its own.

The nurse looked at him, motioning for him to lift his shirt up. Xuanyu did so timidly, aware that both Jin Ling and Wei Ying were in the room. He probably should have thought about the fact that Wei Ying was, technically, Jin Ling’s uncle before they had stumbled upon the child. The two seemed to have encountered each other before, but as far as Xuanyu could see, Jin Ling had no knowledge of Wei Ying’s real identity.

Xuanyu’s own relationship with Jin Ling was complicated. He had been only a baby when Xuanyu had first been sent to Lanling Jin when he was thirteen, and only a year afterwards Xuanyu had been set to attend Cloud Recesses. After he had unceremoniously left Cloud Recesses at sixteen, he had spent most of his time alone studying and trying to make himself small but useful to the man everyone said was his father. Still, he had tried to make time for his small nephew and his grabby hands.

Then Xuanyu had been eighteen and no one had listened to him and he had left. Now his nephew believed what he wanted to. It hurt to see the sweet four year old who had pulled at his sweatshirt sleeves look at him eleven years later with disgust and cutting words. And he looked so much like his father, like his...his other uncle...Xuanyu swallowed bile back down his throat.

The nurse pressed against his chest and Xuanyu was unable to hold back his wince of pain. He knew the skin of his stomach and back was an awful sight for the eyes: marred with old scars and fading bruises overlapped with ones that were still healing, green to black to purple to yellow. His ribs stuck out from his chest, a hollow, concave thing it was. He could see the narrowed concern in Wei Ying’s eyes in his peripheral vision, and Jin Ling’s own expression, which was one of unsettled curiosity. Xuanyu felt a hot flush of embarrassment as the nurse continued to poke at his ribs.

“It looks like you cracked a couple ribs.” She said finally. “We’d have to take an x-ray to be sure, but—” 

“That’s okay.” Xuanyu said hurriedly, pulling his shirt and sweatshirt back down, feeling the warmth of the protection of it. He didn’t want to stay at his hospital any longer than he had to.

“Well, if you don’t want an x-ray, it will heal on its own.” The nurse said. “You’ll need to put ice on the area and prevent wrapping it tightly with anything. You’ll need to make sure to take deep breaths in order to prevent a possible lung infection. Other than that, any pain medication works fine. I can prescribe you some if you need.”

“That’s okay.” Xuanyu said. He didn’t want to make the hospital bill more expensive than it had to be. He had protested going, but Wei Ying and Jin Ling had dragged him there—Wei Ying out of concern that the dog had somehow put poison into his bloodstream and Jin Ling because he had some notion that Xuanyu would sue him if he did get poisoned. Despite Xuanyu’s assurances that neither of them had anything to worry about, he had ended up here anyways.

 Carefully, Xuanyu stood, slight pain coursing up his leg. The bite was mostly a small ache now, filtering in to add to the pain and discomfort he felt from his cracked ribs. At least they had only been cracked instead of fractured or broken. Those would have come with a multitude of more problems that Xuanyu didn’t want to deal with. 

“Where...where can I pay?” Xuanyu asked the nurse quietly.

“Don’t bother with it.” Jin Ling called, standing up. Xuanyu jumped in surprise. His nephew—though honestly, Xuanyu had considered him a little brother more than anything else, especially considering there were only twelve years difference in age between them—had grown so loud. Xuanyu was not unused to it; he had run into Jin Ling several times before, given that the younger was frequently in Yiling as it was between Lanling and Yunmeng, but it was still startling to see how he had grown up.

“I paid.” Jin Ling said, brushing off his jeans. “We’re even now.” He lifted his chin, as if daring Xuanyu or Wei Ying to contradict the statement. 

“I... I could have.” Xuanyu murmured as they exited the room, Jin Ling striding ahead like he was the leader of them. One day he would be a leader. Xuanyu bet he would be a good one for all his current faults. Faults that Xuanyu himself, of course, had no right to judge, considering the number of faults he himself had. 

Jin Ling snorted. “You have nothing to your name, you lunatic.” He was so harsh, but Xuanyu felt the truth of the words. He had endured so much worse at the hands of lesser and better people, why did it matter if Jin Ling said words like that too? After all, everyone believed what Xuanyu knew to not be true anyways.

“Well,” Jin Ling said as they left the emergency room—why they had chosen to go the ER of all places when Xuanyu hardly called a simple bite an emergency was beyond him. “I’ll need to get home before my uncle starts badgering me about charging something on his credit card.” He caught Xuanyu’s look, one that Wei Ying was mirroring at the mention of Jiang Wanyin. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell him I bought some clothes or whatever. It’s not a big deal, geez.” He rolled his eyes, stomping off to where he had tied Fairy to a tree. Wei Ying edged behind Xuanyu again; Xuanyu had figured out that the older man had a severe fear of dogs.

“So, that is Young Master Jin Ling.” Wei Ying said faintly as they watched Jin Ling storm away, dragging his dog with him. “My...Jin Zixuan’s son.” He licked his lips and Xuanyu gave a faint nod. Wei Ying—it still felt awkward to address the acclaimed Wei Wuxian as simply ‘Wei Ying’, but he had insisted with such feverence, even if they both had been slightly heady, though Xuanyu felt like his head was spinning after one glass and Wei Ying had been ready to drink five more, Xuanyu had heeded his request—nodded slowly.

“Are you going to the academy reunion?” He asked suddenly. Xuanyu felt his body freeze up. The academy reunion was in three days, and he was less than excited about it. He had no obligation to go, and he hadn’t been intending to. There was no one who would welcome him or even be remotely excited to see him. 

“Probably not.” Xuanyu said hoarsely. He would probably be at the academy reunion and Xuanyu knew how his blood would freeze up, how his body would shut down on him, the overwhelming panic that surfaced whenever he so much as thought about his time in Lanling Jin. 

Wei Ying was quiet, looking at the ground as if calculating or mulling something over in his head. Then, aloud, as if affirming a fact to himself, he said with considerable strength in his voice; “I’m going to need to borrow one of your masks.”

Only a couple of blocks away from them, underneath a small bridge, Wang Lingjiao’s dead body washed up on the shore of Yiling’s lake, tongue cut out.

Chapter Text

Three days later, two masked men arrived in front of the sprawling building that had been rented for the Cloud Recesses reunion. The taller man was dressed in a charcoal suit over a dark red dress shirt, the ends held by gold cufflinks. His black hair was swept off his forehead, and a golden mask adorned his face, frilling out into the pattern of flowers that twisted around his ears to hold it in place. Underneath his mask there was a teasing smile that spoke of much mischief and trouble to come. 

His companion was a few inches shorter and held himself with less confidence, sinking into his friend’s shadow. He wore a silver eye mask that covered his cheeks and the bridge of his nose as well, the skin smooth and the color of washed out tea, like he had not seen the sun in years. His hair was a dark black, messy and covering his forehead, and his eyes were sharp obsidian beneath his silver mask, gazing around narrowly. He had dressed less elegantly and flamboyantly than his friend, in a white silk shirt tucked into slim black dress pants, a bandage peeking over the tops of his high topped tennis shoes. 

Wei Ying looked over at Xuanyu, who seemed to be shrinking back the longer they stood in front of the building. He felt a tad bit guilty for dragging the younger man with him, but Wei Ying had selfishly not wanted to go alone. After all, there were so many people who could be here that Wei Ying wasn’t sure he could even see alone. 

Reaching out, Wei Ying pinched Xuanyu’s sleeve between his fingers, taking a few shuffling steps forward. Xuanyu started, peeking at him a bit timidly. “Let’s go in.” He said softly. “Tonight, everyone else is wearing their masks as well. We have nothing to hide in this crowd. You can be anyone you want to be.”

“A mask doesn’t hide as much as you think it does.” Xuanyu said just as quietly. “I know because I’ve been wearing one for years.” No, it hides so much. Wei Ying wanted to tell him. I know because I met you and I still feel like I don’t know anything about you that you haven’t intentionally wanted me to. You hide under your mask. It hides so, so much. 

“Let’s go in.” Wei Ying reiterated. He pulled Xuanyu forward, letting go of the other’s sleeve as they climbed up the steps. They melted into the crowd of people entering; though it was a small group of people, Wei Ying couldn’t recognize them. Most of the students at Cloud Recesses had probably seen each other at least a few times in the past thirteen years—some even more than that—but Wei Ying had missed the changes that had occurred to his fellow classmates.

They stepped through the doors and into a whole new world, crystal chandeliers dripping from above them, the soaring ceilings sending light spiralling out over the adults gathered throughout the room in small groups. Wei Ying could see adults his age and even some older alumni from before his time, as well as a few young and round faces. As he had mentioned before, Cloud Recesses was extremely picky with who they chose to be their students, meaning there were less than twenty kids a year. The total number of people at the reunion probably ranged from two hundred to two hundred fifty in total, including the staff that swarmed like busy bees between the crowded groups of people, offering appetizers and giving directions.

Xuanyu gaped beside him, looking up at the high ceilings and twisted peaks. The floor was so polished that it showed them their own reflections when they looked down, Wei Ying stretching up skinnily from large shoes in his own. He smiled, pulling a face at himself, and felt a little like the teenager he had been. When he glanced over, he saw Xuanyu had offered a small smile at the gesture. Wei Ying was pleased; he was working on Xuanyu expressing his emotions more freely with him.

“Champagne, sirs?” A waiter appeared before them in a flourish, head bent and the tray balanced on the palm of his hand offered. Wei Ying took one of the thin flutes, looking at the golden liquid with a tint of amber in it, swishing it around and watching the bubbles fizz up like happy laughs. Xuanyu shook his head next to him, and the waiter moved on.

“What, no alcohol?” Wei Ying asked, mostly jokingly.

Xuanyu nodded. “My tolerance is...not good, and my experiences with alcohol involved have been...not pleasant.” He was doing the thing where he held back what he really wanted to say, rephrasing it carefully. You wear your mask so well, Mo Xuanyu, and you don’t even know it. Wei Ying thought to himself again. He knew he and Xuanyu weren’t exactly close enough to share dark and personal facts with each other, but he thought it was a bit unfair that Xuanyu knew most of his own dubious past...though, he supposed, he did know the rumors about Xuanyu as well. The truths they knew about each other were really only rumors it seemed. Still, he had a feeling he was the first friend Xuanyu had had in a long time, if ever, and Xuanyu was the first person Wei Ying had learned to start to trust and befriend besides Wen Qing and Wen Ning. 

“Ah, you’re missing out.” Wei Ying said, draining half his glass even though he knew you were supposed to drink champagne with cautious sips, which was boring. Alcohol was made to be consumed, and Wei Ying would consume it in whichever which way he wanted to! He stared into his glass. “If you haven’t figured, I’m a fan of alcohol.”

“I hadn’t.” Xuanyu said drily. Wei Ying frowned at the obvious sarcasm in his tone. 

“Is it obvious?” He asked.

“Back at the academy, you were infamous for getting in trouble because you snuck alcohol into Cloud Recesses.” Xuanyu recounted. “And the first day you met, you did get...quite a bit drunk.” There was the feeling again, that Xuanyu was hiding what he really wanted to say. Wei Ying eyed Xuanyu suspiciously and drained the rest of his glass. 

He tipped his head back and watched the crystals melt slowly from the ceiling, splashing in drops of gold and silver on the floor and then spreading out into slick petals. A shoe stepped in them and left footprints across the floor, a dress hem picking it up and skimming it out in flying raindrops.

“It’s so pretty.” Wei Ying murmured aloud, feeling the alcohol hit his system and start to course through his veins. “It’s like the stars are falling from the ceiling.” Xuanyu tipped his head back up and stared in puzzled confusion. He looked at Wei Ying, turning his head. “I hallucinate sometimes.” Wei Ying said vaguely. “Don’t mind me.” 

He was reminded of the medication he still had not refilled. Wen Qing would be so upset when she found out, and Wei Ying knew he would probably have to eventually go to her for help. She knew all the fancy paperwork that would have to be filled so he could get his prescription in another country. 

His hallucinations had...not been getting worse, but more frequent. Wei Ying knew it was because he hadn’t taken his medicine. He’d close his eyes to sleep and hear a drifting flute melody. He hadn’t had auditory hallucinations in a while, which meant he had definitely been off his meds too long, but still Wei Ying couldn’t help but wonder: what would happen if he pushed his limits, stayed off his medication a little longer?

There was a commotion behind them, and then Xuanyu yanked Wei Ying back by his suit jacket, nearly making him drop the flute still in his hand. He barely caught it, catching it between his index and middle finger. He was turning back to ask Xuanyu what was going on when three figures cut through the crowd like they were parting the sea, and Wei Ying immediately slipped back into the grouped people with Xuanyu, keeping his head down even though he wore a mask that covered his features.

Even with masks, the three sworn brothers were recognizable: Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen, and Jin Guangyao. They walked side by side: Nie Mingjue looking every bit the former cop he was in all black, his muscles showing through his jacket, expression tense and serious as he gazed around beneath the black feathered eye mask he had on; Lan Xichen in a jade and ivory suit with a morning glory on his lapel, hair neat and swept back, wearing a full face mask of dark emerald and white with turquoise and teal gems embedded around his features, his face still soft and open; Jin Guangyao holding himself imperiously, smile stretched wide to show the dimples that seemed sweet at first but now just come off as unnerving to Wei Ying, wearing gold and white, the colors of Lanling Jin, a peony embroidered across his shirt, revealed by his open satin suit jacket, his mask a delicate gold piece that had actual sparks amidst snow peonies sewn in, the petals drifting to the floor every once in a while.

Together, the three looked immortal and invincible all at once. Wei Ying scanned the surrounding crowd, but although he could pick up Jiang Cheng’s violet suit, he didn’t see the light blue and silver that marked Lan Zhan. It appeared that, so far, he hadn’t come. Wei Ying wasn’t sure if it was relief or thinly veiled disappointment that washed over him at the realization. The night was still young; Lan Zhan could still turn up. 

“Coming here was a mistake.” Xuanyu said from behind him. Wei Ying turned to him, and Xuanyu leaned back in a startled reflex, as if he hadn’t meant for anyone to overhear. Wei Ying followed his eyes to where he was watching Jin Guangyao’s form. He remembered, too late, the rumors about Xuanyu and how hard Xuanyu had tried to proclaim his innocence. He wondered what exactly had happened between the two of them during Xuanyu’s time at Lanling Jin that would cause Guangyao to claim that Xuanyu had harassed him. Guangyao was unnerving at times, yes, but Wei Ying still saw a sweet boy underneath those occasional moments.

“We’ll have fun.” Wei Ying said, but he sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than Xuanyu. Through the crowd, he spotted a familiar speck of purple, coming closer as Jiang Cheng chatted with a young woman cultivator who looked vaguely familiar. He grabbed Xuanyu’s wrist, the younger starting at the casual physical contact again.

“Let’s go on an adventure.” Wei Ying said as brightly as possible, Xuanyu staring at him in puzzled confusion as Wei Ying led them away from Jiang Cheng and into the heart of the party.

Across the room, Nie Huaisang was on his way to getting sufficiently drunk. Running a sect was stressful business, and it didn’t help that even though his brother had given up the position when he’d been dishonorably discharged from the police, the whole sect was constantly begging him to come back and mumbling about how ‘things weren’t like this when Chifeng-zun was in charge’. He knew he had the title of ‘head-shaker’ instead of some nice type of lord like Mingjue or Lianfeng-zun, but in Huaisang’s defense, he hadn’t asked to be sect leader at all. The position had been handed to him simply because it was his birthright, but no one had really told him how to run a sect at all. The only thing he could say was ‘I don’t know’ or ‘don’t ask me, I really don’t know’, but they still asked him, continuously.

To make matters worse, his older brother was hardly around for Huaisang to ask him how he’d done it. He had a suspicion that it had something to do with Mingjue’s heirloom sword and his swift sentences. The people liked a practical warlord better than a timid artist who hid behind his fans and enjoyed pretty things more than the color of blood. 

The only person who seemed willing to offer help was Zewu-jun, but he was a busy man. Jiang Cheng, for all the memories they had shared fondly in their school days, was nothing but cold when Huaisang approached him, as if he still saw Huaisang as only Wei Wuxian’s friend still. As for Guangyao...well, Huaisang had liked him better when he had been Meng Yao, only a servant.

“Oh, it’s Nie Huaisang.” A voice said, filled with what seemed to be delight. Huaisang turned, alcohol singing in his veins, and found himself face to face with Wen Xu, the elder man gazing at him with amusement. His mask was barely a mask at all, but rather he had drawn on his face with makeup and marker. Around his shimmering eyelids and dark eyeliner were two raccoon circles of color, with a line across the bridge of his nose to connect the messily drawn things. He had dressed casually too, in torn up black jeans and a ripped up leather jacket over a rumpled red shirt—Wen colors. His overly longish black hair was pulled back into a messy half bun, half ponytail with a crimson colored ribbon. 

“Hello, Wen Xu.” Huaisang said cautiously. “I’m sorry to hear about your brother.” Wen Xu shot him a puzzled look, languidly refilling his alcohol glass. Huaisang watched him expectantly.

“It’s okay.” Wen Xu said after a minute. “Wen Chao and I weren’t close like you and your brother were.”

“We’re not that close anymore either.” Huaisang murmured into the rim of his glass. It wasn’t like he and Mingjue had ever really been close; his brother more like a second father than anything else, but for all his overbearance, he had always looked out for his weaker, more frivolous younger brother. 

“For Wen Chao it was always about the competition.” Wen Xu said with a drag of a cigarette Huaisang hadn’t noticed he had in his hand. “I didn’t have an interest in inheriting the company and that was the only thing he wanted.” He let the smoke trail out into the air. “So we didn’t get along, especially after that absolute mess at Cloud Recesses.” He shook his head slowly, taking a sip of his alcohol. Huaisang wasn’t sure if alcohol and nicotine were really a good combination, but it wasn’t his place to judge.  

“Still, it’s not easy to lose someone.” Huaisang said, floundering as to not have made an absolute fool of himself.

Wen Xu glanced at him with almost patronizing amusement. “Maybe for some people.” He finally said. “You didn’t grow up in Qishan Wen.” Huaisang would have argued that Qinghe Nie was an almost military state as well, but he hadn’t been involved in any of that business either. Their reputation had been declining the longer Huaisang remained as sect leader. It seemed that all anyone wanted to talk about now was the past.

“Are you going to inherit the company now?” Huaisang asked, unsure of what else to say that wouldn’t come off as completely non-sequitur.

The older man laughed sharply. “I’ve never been interested in that. Besides, my father wrote me out of his will a long time ago. I have no idea if my father or Wen Chao even named a successor to the company. Personally, I would recommend Wen Qing, but like me, she knew what was good for her and caught away.” Wen Xu let out a long sigh.

“Still…” Huaisang said timidly, losing his nerve slowly. “You’re the oldest?”

“You’re right.” Wen Xu declared, stabbing out his cigarette on the tablecloth. It left a smoldering hole. “I am the oldest, which means I was either the gem of my parents eyes or whatever that saying is, or a big disappointment that none of the younger ones want to become. Let me tell you, I’m thirty two right now and have already gone through several mid life crisis’; it’s definitely the latter. If only mother and father dear were still around to see how their ‘beloved’ son turned out.” His voice dripped sarcasm. Huaisang felt a bit in awe of how casually he talked about himself and his family.

In Cloud Recesses, Huaisang hadn’t garnered much of an opinion on the eldest Wen son. He had been just as snappish and violent as his younger brother, but only when he had too be—in instances when he was provoked, told to, or especially after the holidays. There had been two different reactions to the students after they had returned from their holidays at home: the ones who studied even harder because they had been scolded, like Huaisang, and the ones who came back even angrier from having to go home (the rest of the school it seemed).

Through the parting crowd, Huaisang spotted his brother, with Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen again. He felt his eyes narrow even at the sight, trying not to blink when Minjue turned over and spotted his baby brother talking to a Wen of all people. Wen Xu was continuing to talk in his uncanny voice about something or another, but Huaisang focused on his brother’s eyes and held them, daring him to come over and cause a scene. 

They had been silently disagreeing for years. Perhaps it had started when Huaisang befriended Wei Wuxian back at Cloud Recesses. Nie Mingjue was very clear about who he disliked, especially considering he had been a police cop full of righteous indignation and the need to dole out his own justice. Huaisang could not remember a time when he had been brave enough to go directly against his brother’s opinions or thoughts, but the rift had grown with their grievances all the same. And now Huaisang had deliberately provoked his brother by taking action.

Next to his brother strolled Guangyao, his dimples deep as he smiled around genuinely. Or at least it seemed to be genuine—all these years later and Huaisang still wasn’t sure if Guangyao had ever truly been his friend, ever really been happy with him. Now Huaisang felt a shiver unnervingly slide up his spine at the sight of him. He was fake; at least Huaisang was honest about himself.

He didn’t understand how Lan Xichen had quite got himself involved with the two men; he was a kind soul, his only downfall the people he chose to associate with. Of course, that seemed to be the way of the Lan brothers—Lan Wangji’s one flaw, too, had been the people, or person, that he had chosen to associate with.

The three of them dissolved back into the crowd and Huaisang dropped his gaze, looking into the amber tinted liquid of his glass. Alcohol had been so much easier on him when he was young. Back then he had got drunk to have fun. Now he got drunk to try and avoid his life problems and still ended up whining about them. 

Wen Xu was drinking what looked like a new glass, but his eyes were still sharp. Like Wei Wuxian, he seemed to be anything but a lightweight. Huaisang has a particular habit of making friends (or something) with people who had better drinking habits than he did.

Huaisang sighed and took a long sip of the fancy champagne. It was like bubbles, tickling his throat in such a way that made him let out a giggle, escaping from his lips quickly. Wen Xu looked at him in amusement, but at least it was less patronizing now. Huaisang shrugged and took another, keeping his laughter at the feeling inside this time around.

He people watched for anyone of interest, skimming the crowd and their masked faces. Since it was a masquerade, anyone could show up if they wanted, with invitation at least. And everyone who attended academy had been given an invitation whether or not they had been liked or not.

Besides, there could be a murderer in this crowd. As a sect leader, Huaisang had been informed of the events that were occurring currently. Wen Chao and Jin Zixun, one right after the other. Two unpleasant people who had met unfortunate ends. Still, their high status had Huaisang concerned. Who was to say that an unassuming, idiotic sect leader like him wouldn’t be taken out next? The paranoia was keeping him awake at night, and the lack of sleep had been taking a toll on him.

Cutting through the crowd towards them was a group of three young men who looked too young to have attended Cloud Recesses during Huaisang’s time there. Still, two of them wore the colors of the Lan clan, masks carved of pearl adorning their youthful faces. The third one was wearing red and orange with a black mask, looking around constantly. As they drew closer, Huaisang realized that they weren’t coming to talk to him, but rather MianMian, who was now known as Lou Qingyang since she had caused an uproar and left the Lanling Jin sect thirteen years ago.

Huaisang idled a bit closer, pretending to be immersed in his glass, not too close but close enough to hear their conversation. 

The three approached Qingyang, the one in the lead pulling an ID card out of his suit pocket and flashing it to her. “I’m Officer Lan Jingyi from GusuLan’s investigative team one. This is Officer Lan Sizhui and Officer Ouyang Zizhen. We have some questions to ask you regarding Wei Wuxian.” Now that piqued Huaisang’s interest. He had never heard Wei Wuxian’s voice uttered so boldly in years. His old friend was a topic most of them kept hush about, unless it was to speak badly of him.

“Wei Wuxian?” Qingyang asked hesitantly. “Why would you be asking me about him?” She glanced around the celebration furtively, as if afraid someone would see her.

“Did you not think highly of him?” Officer Lan Sizhui interjected from the side, face full of curiosity rather than harassment.

After a long moment, Luo Qingyang gave a short nod. “I owe him my life.” She explained quietly. “You probably already know this, but Wang LingJiao tried to brand me during my time at the academy because of my closeness with the late Jin Zixuan. Wei Wuxian kindly took the blow and stood up for me.” She smiles faintly. Qingyang was kind hearted, but her fiery sense of justice was stronger—if she believed in something, she would stand for it until the end. It was the reason she had left Lanling Jin.

“So, you would say that Wei Wuxian disliked Wang LingJiao, correct?” Officer Ouyang said, taking out a notepad and scribbling something on it. Qingyang noticed the action and her eyes narrowed slightly.

“I wouldn’t say that he liked her. The feeling was mutual, besides. She was Wen Chao’s girlfriend after all.” Qingyang said darkly. “They bullied him all the time, you know, because he was the only one who would stand up to them.” She straightened, drawing herself to a formidable height. “Personally,” She said, voice taking on a frosty tone. “I’ve never met anyone braver.”

“Hmm.” Officer Lan Jingyi said. “So would you say that Wei Wuxian held a grudge against Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao? Can you tell me who else was in that group of people he fought with often?”

Qingyang thought about it for a minute, though Huaisang could name them all in an instant. Wen Chao’s group had terrorized all of the weaker disciples they hadn’t liked at Cloud Recesses right under Lan Qiren’s imperiously high nose. 

“It was the Wen group so...Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu, Wang Lingjiao, some younger disciples of the sect who came with them, Jin Zixun, Jin Zixuan...though the Jin brothers worked more together with Wen Chao than for him...Lanling Jin and Qishan Wen were similar to each other back then anyways, so I assume they kept close for political reasons.”

“Is Wen Zhuliu here tonight?” Officer Lan Sizhui asked suddenly, turning to murmur something to his two partners with a concerned expression on his face. 

Qingyang glanced around the room. “Who can say?” She said finally. “We’re all wearing masks tonight. It would be impossible to find him in this crowd.” Huaisang touched his own mask, a delicate black and silver thing he had found in his brother’s old closet. He was sure Mingjue recognized it, but the fact that he hadn’t ripped it off his face said enough about the matter.

“May I ask why you need to know?” Luo Qingyang asked finally, looking back at the three officers with unveiled suspicion. The three young men glanced between each other, before Lan Jingyi carefully said; 

“Wang Lingjiao passed away recently. We’ve been looking into it.” Huaisang raised his eyebrows, though he kept looking down. 

“Interesting.” Wen Xu said next to him, the word curling around Huaisang’s ear, and the younger man jumped back a little. Wen Xu glanced down at him; he was very tall. “Carry on eavesdropping.” He murmured. “I thought that was what we were doing?”

Huaisang nodded feebly, looking out among the crowd once again as the officers did as well, as if trying to spot this Wen Zhuliu. His eyes caught on a silver mask that tinged a faint familiarity in him, as well as an uncomfortable feeling. His gaze followed the silver, taking in the young gentleman wearing it and his companion, dressed in red and black that would make people assume he was a Wen, for no one by the Wens wore the color combination so boldly. 

Well, there had been one other person.

Huaisang looked back over to the officers, who were still standing a few meters away with Luo Qingyang, studying the crowd as they tried to find who they were looking for. Any minute now their eyes would land on the two masked men and would be attracted to those red and black clothes. 

He looked down at the glass in his hand and then downed it, slamming the glass flute down on the table behind him. Wen Xu stared as Huaisang wiped his mouth boldly on his sleeve, summoning every bit of courage and scheming he had in him.

It was time to make a scene.

As soon as Xuanyu had seen Guangyao, he had known that coming to the reunion, even on Wei Ying’s behalf, had been a mistake. He was twenty seven now, not eighteen, it had been nine years—but then again, it had been thirteen years and Wei Ying wasn’t better either, at least Xuanyu didn’t think he was for all the lies the older man had told him. 

Xuanyu had spent two years at Cloud Recesses before Jin Guangshan had pulled him back. At that time, Guangyao had been starting his own climb up the social ladder after graduating two years earlier, stepping into his new name with the support of Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, the latter who had been a powerful cop and sect leader at the time and the former who was still a sect leader now. They had both been illegitimate children and hated by Jin Guangshan, but Xuanyu had been inexplicably chosen while Guangyao had had to fight for everything he got.

Xuanyu thought that maybe that was where Guangyao’s resentment towards him had started, when Xuanyu had not asked for his father to come find him at all. Xuanyu had kept quiet, too, and worked hard. He had been smart and clever, but never on par with Guangyao, though his older half brother had seemed to think differently. Somehow, Xuanyu had been a threat to Jin Guangyao despite never taking on the Jin name, being kicked out of the clan...after all that had happened to him, Xuanyu nearly laughed at the jealousy of their young adult hearts if only he didn’t think about what it had led to occur between the two of them.

And Xuanyu watched Guangyao walk in draped in gold and sparks amidst snow, living life as an elegant sect leader, all dimples as he looked around. Most people would say that Guangyao had a sweet smile, but to Xuanyu it was a criminal’s mask. Yet everyone who saw the two of them would say that Xuanyu was the one who wore a criminal’s mask, etched in silver around his eyes.

He reached up and touched his mask, checking its security. To others, the mask was just another symbol of Mo Xuanyu’s lunacy. To Mo Xuanyu himself, the mask was a thousand things. It was his protection. With his mask on, Xuanyu hid himself. He became someone else, someone other than crazy-Mo-Xuanyu-illegitimate-son-criminal-disgrace-unwanted. He hid who he was and he hid what he had, underneath that mask, surrounding his eyes. 

“This pretty face of yours gets many compliments.” The voice whispered in his brain, invasive and unwanted and enough to make Xuanyu feel like he was already crumbling. “Don’t ever think you’re better than me because of a few nice words.” 

He was crumbling, and then Wei Ying had grabbed his hand and dragged him off ‘to have an adventure’ that had ended in Wei Ying drinking more alcohol and start to move on the path to being drunk. Xuanyu declined, too embarrassed to admit that drinking with Wei Ying on the night he first arrived had been the first time Xuanyu had drunk alcohol in a long time. He knew Wei Ying had just used the adventure as an excuse to get away from Jiang Wanyin, who was formidable even to Xuanyu.

Now Wei Ying had drifted out into the celebration, bright in his red and black. Xuanyu had forgotten how much Wei Ying had liked the colors, but it was fitting considering how much Wei Ying had liked the Wens in general. He had become close with Wen Qing and Wen Ning, despite the hatred between him and Wen Chao’s group back in their Cloud Recesses days.

Xuanyu stayed on the sidelines, as always, watching his friend dance to a song with an uncertain melody, drifting through the air like light footsteps. The crowd in front of him was a mass of masked figurines, dancing with one another even if they didn’t know the other’s identity. In a masquerade, you became whoever you wanted to be for the night. In the morning, the memories would be stored away, but for now the Cloud Recesses alumni enjoyed themselves and remembered only the good and fun things about their time at the academy.

No one, especially not Wei Ying, thought about that one specific night where the pavement had been painted red and police sirens had wailed through the usually quiet and tranquil Cloud Recesses, illuminating the students faces in blue and red neon, the terror and shock stark and clear.

Xuanyu looked into the glass he was holding idyllically, admiring the aesthetic of the glass rim and the crystals from the chandelier reflecting in it, as well as his own reflection wavering in the liquid. He felt almost peaceful, the noise of the celebration enveloping him. As much as Xuanyu loved the silence where no one else could bother and touch him, it got lonely living all alone, loved by no one.

Watching his friend spin across the dance floor for a minute longer, Wei Ying having given up all fears of being discovered in this nameless mixture, Xuanyu finally tore his eyes away and turned away, taking a few steps into the crowd and—and Guangyao was there, so suddenly that Xuanyu nearly collided with him.

The glass fell from Xuanyu’s hand, hitting the ground and exploding out into a million shards, fractured color caught in the individual pieces.

Jin Guangyao stared at him, eyes black and gold behind that beautiful golden mask of his, a stray peony petal floating into Xuanyu’s hair and getting tangled there. He couldn’t make himself reach up and shake it out. He was paralyzed to the spot, his tennis shoes inches from Jin Guangyao’s polished ones, stuck at eye level with him, both of their faces cloaked by their masks yet every emotion readable.

“Mo Xuanyu.” Guangyao said every syllable carefully, the hatred seeping out through his tone, resentment strong. It was enough to make Xuanyu’s hands start to tremble. He fisted them, wishing he could make his mouth move, or at least his feet to carry him out of this building and somewhere far, far away. He thought: A-Yao. 

“What right do you have to be here?” Guangyao continued, talking in the careful way that made his dimples show with every turn, enunciating each word with precision. Xuanyu recognized that voice, the one that made people feel weak and powerless, small. He remembered the nights he had spent curled in the corner of his room or bed, feeling so helpless, so left behind, so broken up.

Xuanyu shuffled back a step, but Guangyao only stepped in closer, glass crunching under their shoes. “How dare you come back in front of me?” He asked, slowly, softly, and Xuanyu was afraid. He was a stuttering screen, unsure of what to do. “After everything that has passed between the two of us, you still have the nerve to act like you’re a decent human being? Like you belong here?” His voice was raising with every word, attracting attention. Xuanyu could hear the whispers starting, the recognition as people saw his signature silver mask and then Guangyao. The crowd only saw two people with a bad history standing off, not Guangyao intimidating Xuanyu with his every movement.

“After everything you’ve done…” Guangyao’s voice quivered and he was shaking slightly. Ah, so he had noticed they had an audience as well. Xuanyu could see how he had won the world. He acted so demure, polite, and subservient. He, the victim. Xuanyu, the perpetrator. No matter what had actually happened—but, no, that thinking was wrong as well, wasn’t it? After all, this had all happened because of Xuanyu. It was all his own fault. He had brought it upon himself, as much as he knew he hadn’t done anything, every other part of him screamed that he had. 

“I—.” Xuanyu tried, but the words got stuck in his throat, a lump that would turn into a sob if he pushed himself to talk anymore. 

Guangyao’s eyes hardened and he stepped forward again. “You hide behind your mask again.” He whispered, but the words echoed anyways. The hall was falling quiet even though the space was so large, how could it possibly be silenced? Xuanyu, on the other hand, was so small it was no wonder how easily pushed he had been to silence.

“You are a coward who tries to hide behind that hideous thing.” Guangyao said, the ‘hideous’ a hiss. He, of course, knew that underneath Xuanyu’s mask was the most hideous thing of all, the marred tissue and unhealed scars that were still red and raised instead of fading to white like they should have. “What right do you have to hide yourself? Do you think you can escape your misdeeds with it?” He stepped closer. Xuanyu had stopped being able to step back.

“I should just rip it off, expose the scum you really are.” Guangyao said. Scum, Xuanyu turned the word over in his mind. If only exposure were really that easy, if only people believed the truth and not the lies. Why was the situation like this? Why did nothing change no matter the years that passed? Why was Xuanyu old enough to kick away on his own and still he was trapped, trapped by his family, his mind, his memories?

Guangyao reached out, a sudden, startling movement, towards Xuanyu’s face. Xuanyu threw out his arms and Guangyao stumbled back even though their skin hadn’t even made contact. Xuanyu stared at the elder man, breathing coming in short, rapid bursts of fear and anger and confusion. Next to Guangyao, Lan Xichen had rushed over at the sight of the younger man falling back, Sect Leader Jiang following to see what the commotion was about. He caught his sworn brother and straightened him, calming him with gentle gestures.

Xuanyu watched his kind gaze sharpen into one of anger as he turned to look at Xuanyu. “How dare you show up again in front of our A-Yao.” He said, tone livid with every word. “You have no idea the pain and suffering you put him through these past years.” Xuanyu would have laughed if it wouldn't have made him seem just as crazy as everyone thought. He wanted to tell Lan Xichen that his precious A-Yao was far from innocent, but the man wouldn’t believe his words anyways, so why bother?

“You as the perpetrator have guts to show up in front of me, the victim.” Guangyao spoke, making a show of bravely forcing the words out despite his fear. If only they knew how Xuanyu felt, how the utter terror coursing through him preventing him from saying anything at all. If only he was braver—but no, they had kicked the bravery out of him, forced it out of him in exchange for his silence, and Xuanyu had lost it all.

“I…” The words were a whisper, lost in Xuanyu’s mouth before they left it. Around him the crowd whispered he can’t even deny it and Xuanyu wanted to choke, wanted to scream that he had been seventeen the first time, it just hadn’t been an issue until he’d turned eighteen and everything had turned against him. He wanted to scream that Guangyao was four years older than him, twenty one that first time. But even if Xuanyu had survived, his silence had suffocated him.

“Mo Xuanyu.” Lan Xichen said steadily, but there was anger in his voice as well. Xuanyu wondered how Guangyao had fooled him, but it wasn’t really something he needed to wonder, because he, too, had been fooled by Guangyao. Jin Guangyao had fooled the world. 

“Who would believe you?” The words echoed in Xuanyu’s head, sending a piercing ache through him. He nearly stumbled, nearly let it show much much everything was hurting, but he kept his balance and looked for escape. There was only the blur of masked faces, blurring, blurring, blurring and he was breaking, breaking, breaking into pieces.

“Please leave before this becomes an issue.” Lan Xichen continued evenly. Even in anger he was polite. Maybe that was a skill it took to become a sect leader. “You’ve caused Guangyao a lot of trouble throughout your youth and continue to do so. Even if you have no remorse or regret, please have the decency and respect to leave and never show your face again.”

I already don’t show my face. Xuanyu wanted to say. I already live in seclusion, far away from anyone else. I don’t go out, I don’t raise my voice, I don’t utter a word, I let myself be beaten, I already take everything that I deserve even though it’s miserable, it’s making me so miserable I want to die.

“What more do you want from me?” The question fell on thick silence, and Xuanyu realized a moment too late that his crowded thoughts had slipped out of his mouth instead of staying in his brain. He looked out over the mass of adults surrounding him, all gaping at him as if they couldn’t believe his audacity. Guangyao, looking at him darkly, enough to make Xuanyu remember , hands on his skin, everywhere he didn’t want them to be, dark eyes and—.

“Mo Xuanyu!” A familiar voice called and Xuanyu turned his head slowly, not sure how to feel as he watched Wei Ying break through the crowd, a diamond in the rough in all his ruby black. He moved like a breeze, effortlessly grabbing Xuanyu’s wrist between loosely clasped fingers, as if he had known that Xuanyu wouldn’t be able to handle skin on skin right now, as if he could see right through his fragile boundaries. Xuanyu hadn’t quite believed Wei Ying when he had said that gentle ‘I know’ in the park, because he had known that Guangyao had fooled Wei Ying too all those years ago. He had known that Wei Ying still thought that Xuanyu was lying, at least about something, about the whole truth. 

Xuanyu hadn’t been able to correct his way of thinking, because Mo Xuanyu’s truth was a twisted, complicated thing. It was a flower obscured by thorns that pricked anyone who tried to pick it, even himself. His hands, his wrists, his whole body was covered in the scars that came from that truth: some of it from what others knew or thought they knew about him, the rest from what Xuanyu knew as his truth and how he hated it.

But now...Xuanyu thought that maybe it didn’t matter what Wei Ying believed, or how quickly he would leave for his old friends, or any of the other worries that had been lightning strikes in Xuanyu’s brain since they had met. He thought that right now Wei Ying would stand by him because that was the kind of person Wei Ying was—he was brave and kind where Xuanyu was not, he was bold in what he believed and loyal and protective of the people he believed in. And even if he did not entirely believe Xuanyu, Xuanyu thought that Wei Ying at least would protect him even without the full truth. 

Wei Ying looked across to where Guangyao and Xichen stood, eyes narrowing as he took in the situation. Every shift of footsteps was audible as they crunched over the glass shards, shattering even smaller with every bit of pressure. Guangyao straightened, silently, and whispered so quietly that only they could hear; “Wei Wuxian.”

A little ways behind him Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes widened and then narrowed. He stepped forward, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

In Xuanyu’s ear, Wei Ying whispered; “Sorry that this adventure wasn’t a fun one, A-Yu.” He tried out the nickname with little effort, but it made Xuanyu feel cold all over.

“Please.” Xuanyu said back shakily. “Just call me Xuanyu.”

Wei Ying smiled, bright and brilliant all at once, and turned, dragging Xuanyu through the crowd all over again, away from the past and into the future. As he looked back, smiling, tearing through the crowd that parted for him like a waterfall, Xuanyu said, the words getting lost in the crowd between them, silent words on his lips; thank you, Wei Ying.

Chapter Text


Xue Yang scrambled around the corner of the street so sharply that he nearly slipped and fell, slamming into the brick wall. He cast a look backwards, seeing that for the moment he had lost the people who had been following him, chasing him, ready for their revenge. Xue Yang would let them have it, one day. But only when he was ready to die.

Today was not a day for dying. Xue Yang refused to. 

He slowed down, catching his breath while he could. He could feel the sweat dripping down his back. When he went to rest his hands on his knees, he saw that his pinky was altered a bit out of the careful cast he had built for it. Cursing, Xue Yang gritted his teeth and straightened it back out, now numb to the pain. It had never healed properly. When a bone was shattered completely, it was impossible for it to heal as perfectly as it had been. Add in the fact that he had never gone to a doctor to make sure it at least healed as well as it could; well, now his pinky would never work again, always standing straight up in the little half black glove he had fashioned for it.

Wandering down the street, Xue Yang became aware of excess noise spilling down the steps of a large building, the sounds of a party drifting out to taunt the poor. Xue Yang halted and tilted his head up to take it all in, the sprawling steps curving upward into a lit building of cream and gold, skirts swirling across the floor, masks obscuring their faces. A masquerade of some sorts for expensive people.

Xue Yang entertained the thought of taking a mask, slipping in—but no, he would he stand out in his blue jeans and black t-shirt, dirty from falling and pushing himself back up time and time again. His palms were scraped, his pinky throbbed in tune with his ankle, which he had landed hard on as well. Let them ache and throb; it would all fade away soon enough.

He turned his head, away from the bright lights and noise, and saw that he was not alone in the shadows of what was beautiful. Sitting curled in the alcove under the magnificent steps was a small form, balancing on the heels of his feet, face buried in his knees. Xue Yang tilted his head, stepping forward cautiously. It wasn’t like him to worry, and he wouldn’t say that he was, but the other forlorn, enough that Xue Yang could feel the emotion wafting off in waves to him, the only other person around.

He hid, too, from the brightness up above. Xue Yang entertained the notion that they were looking up at Heaven, stuck down here, unable to cross the gates. He thought that Heaven was a home for the rich and perfect only; it looked like a celebration for anyone but him. For all his sneaking, Xue Yang would not belong anywhere he did not, no matter how chameleon he made himself be.

The person he had been watching lifted his head suddenly, eyes fixed on Xue Yang, and Xue Yang halted, inches away. The man looked up at him, eyes brimming with so much emotion that Xue Yang couldn’t distinguish one from the other, a merge of anger and sadness and pain and shame, stacked up and then falling apart.

He was lovely, a gradient of fading bronze shaded skin as the light hit him in intervals, slicing across his sharp profile. Messy black hair brushed over a delicately carved silver mask that hid the upper part of his faces, curved eyes the only thing visible under the intricate details of his mask, as if made by a careful hand. He was dressed in silver silk and ink black, paired with sloppily tied tennis shoes with an ace bandage wrapped around his ankle, disappearing into the hem of his pants. He was a swan, a ballerina, elegance and softness, a flower petal caught in his hair even though there were no trees around here. It must have fallen from the sky. Lovely, Xue Yang thought, and strangely familiar, like a dream that he had forgotten when he had woken up.

Xue Yang looked at himself and saw the mess that he was: a young man in his early twenties, ratty old black shirt with holes peppered over it, light blue jeans that were now faded from age and time and darkened again by dirt and grime, tennis shoes with the flaps falling apart and the laces having been replaced a hundred times, black hair falling over his eyes, a face that nobody trusted, a face that said he was going to steal your money, your reputation, whatever it was you valued the most.

The man sat very still and looked at him, but Xue Yang couldn’t bring himself to move away. He felt like he had been caught in a spell, a spiderweb of ethereal beauty and grace. He thought Xiao Xingchen had been elegant but this man was beautiful in a way that only stars were, in an infinite and expanding universe where they didn’t yet fill up the sky. 

“Hey, its that punk!” Xue Yang turned on his heels, feeling like he was a minute too late to wherever it was he was supposed to have been, and remembered why he had been breathless minutes before. Today was not a day for dying, but everyday was a day for pain and hurt, enough to make him remember. Xue Yang supposed he was a bit of a masochist for always getting himself into situations that ended up with him hurt, but he didn’t know how to live without it. He didn’t know how to survive normally, on caffeine like others did. He didn’t know how to exist in a world where he was not the enemy to everyone else, where he could go through a day safely and happily, have actual human relationships. He would be lost there in that happiness, and so Xue Yang had forbidden himself from even coming close to have it. Pain and hurt—to him or to other people—were old friends he recognized. He could live a life with him until he grew old, but he also knew that he wouldn’t grow old; those old friends would claim him one day soon.

Next to him, the other man rose to his feet in a slow bewilderment. Too late, Xue Yang realized that he shouldn’t be there, implicating the other man. The men ground to a halt in front of him, angry, panting, ready with their baseball bats and weapons. The sad thing was that Xue Yang couldn’t even remember what he had done to them. All the jobs blurred together in the end, red or white or whatever color stuck on his eyelids like sandpaper.

They stared him down, menacingly, a semi circle forming around him slowly. Xue Yang touched his pinky, not to comfort himself, but to remind himself. This was what the powerful did to the powerless. This was the ruthlessness he had learned to claim as his own. Xue Yang reasoned he could grab his unwilling companion and drag them into the party and cause a scene, but for some reason the idea made him uncomfortable. Besides, it was obvious where the other man had come from based on his mask, and Xue Yang got the feeling that he was unwilling to return.

“What’s going on over here?” A familiar voice that Xue Yang had hoped he would not hear again asked, soft like a river. He turned to see Xiao Xingchen approaching in saint white, an angel with dark hair. Behind him followed a man who must have been his friend in thin wireframes, a sullen expression on his face as he gazed at the scene. Xue Yang could feel the judgement coming off of him in waves.

The thugs turned in a wave of anger, taking in the slim man and his blindfold. One of them spit on the ground. Xiao Xingchen stepped carefully back, avoiding the traction of it. “I ask that you please don’t cause any trouble.” He said politely, face turned in the direction that the men were. 

“What’s it to you?” The leader of them sneered, stepping up, and Xiao Xingchen’s friend stepped forward, drawing himself up intimidatingly.

“You don’t want to make this an issue, gentlemen.” He said softly, pushing his glasses up on his nose. The thugs sauntered up to him, dragging their bats on the ground. Xue Yang was tense and wired, ready to throw himself into a fight, but the adrenaline singing in his veins was also telling him to stay back and let it play out first.

The man didn’t look the least bit intimidated. “If I can’t convince you to say away, one of our friends there might.” He gestured to the masked ball occurring above them. Xue Yang tipped his head back and looked into the gates of Heaven. It was losing its luster. “And I don’t think you would want to disturb them.” The man continued, scoffing a little at the idiocy of the group of men. “They’re some very powerful people. For instance...does the name Nie Mingjue ring a bell? Or Lan Xichen?”

Xue Yang stilled, an almost imperceptible movement. Nie Mingjue...Lan Xichen? Cloud Recesses. The academy reunion. How had he forgotten it was tonight? How had it not come to his mind as he had seen the golden palace in front of him? Though Xue Yang had never actually been to GusuLan—he’d been just about everywhere else, strangely enough—he had heard the stories, and he had grown up half a Wen, too.

The first man spit on the ground again, but they turned reluctantly, eyes finding Xue Yang and holding the promise of later . They would get him later in an alley when no one was around, but Xue Yang could avoid them until them. He was fast and clever and nimble at scaling walls and running across rooftops. He had a large variety of talents for running and hiding from people.

As they left, the man with the glasses turned to Xiao Xingchen. “You shouldn’t have gotten involved with that.” He murmured quietly, but Xiao Xingchen shook his head with that same gentle smile he seemed to permanently wear.

“It is our duty to help friends in need.” He said, turning his head in the direction where Xue Yang stood, still feeling a little frozen as he mulled over how he could have ended up in front of the Cloud Recesses reunion. He didn’t know who he would see; he didn’t know anyone from Cloud Recesses but Xue Yang also knew enough about them too.

“A-Yang? Are you okay?” Xiao Xingchen asked pleasantly. It took Xue Yang a moment to realize the question was directed at him.

“It’s Xue Yang.” He corrected curtly. He detested nicknames, especially to be given a term of endearment so casually from the older man and his nice, disgusting smile. “And we’re not friends, so it’s not your business.” 

“You know this…” His friend trailed off, biting back whatever word he would have used to label Xue Yang. Xue Yang smiled at him, mirth dancing across his face. He wanted to ask which title it would have been this time. Street riff raff? Delinquent? Criminal? Something a thousand times more pointed, a thousand times worse? It wouldn’t have bothered him, just added scissors to his smile.

“Zichen.” Xiao Xingchen chided. “Do not be the evil we wish to eliminate in this world.” Xue Yang narrowed his eyes at the strange phase. Were these two some sort of pacifist, bring world peace type of people? He had thought Xiao Xingchen was a musician, based on his calloused by pretty fingers. Maybe they were both.

His friend, Zichen, made a hum of agreement, eyes sliding past Xue Yang to the masked man behind him. “Mo Xuanyu, are you not going in?” He asked, and Xue Yang looked back to his somewhat of a companion, a bell of familiarity ringing in his head again, that forgotten dream slowly rising to the surface of his memory. Mo Xuanyu, Mo Xuanyu, where have I known you before? 

Mo Xuanyu shook his head, a short and quick motion. “I’m waiting for a friend.” He said, his voice hoarse from disuse, or from something like crying, for instance. He looked unwilling to say more, looking back down at his tennis shoes. They were worn, but pristine compared to Xue Yang’s own pair.

“We should be entering.” Zichen murmured to Xiao Xingchen, carefully taking his friend’s arm. Xiao Xingchen nodded, bidding Xue Yang goodbye, though Xue Yang only scuffed his shoes against the concrete and didn’t say anything yet. He was lost in the thought of Mo Xuanyu and why the name was starting to sound more and more like a name he should know, not one from a dream.

Behind him, Mo Xuanyu stepped back falteringly. Xue Yang could feel his conflicted eyes pinned on him, taking him in, apprehensive. He scrunched his brows together and thought as long and hard as he could, traveling back through the years and then—.

“Lanling Jin.” Xue Yang said, turning around on his heel to face the other man, who had started to slowly retreat away a few feet, putting an adequate amount of distance between the two of them. Mo Xuanyu froze, glancing up at him, eyes widening a fraction behind his silver mask.

“We met at Lanling Jin a couple of times before, right?” Xue Yang asked. He didn’t know why he needed to know the answer so desperately, to hear Mo Xuanyu confirm the words with his mouth, but his throat had been itching with the urge to spit the words out anyways. Maybe it was because Lanling Jin had been a reprieve in his life even with how uncomfortable the people there had made him. He had been able to train freely, to run through the forest and go on night hunts, picture growing up normal. He wondered if that was how it would have been to have gone to Cloud Recesses and graduated. 

Mo Xuanyu. When he had gone to Lanling Jin at fourteen, Mo Xuanyu had already been eighteen and different, or so people had said when they talked about him. Xue Yang had only seen him a handful of times, but they had been precious times. Mo Xuanyu had been kind for all his tremulous smiles and shaky hands and fearful glances, the way he had made himself so small...still, he made himself small, nine years after being forced to leave so abruptly. 

Mo Xuanyu nodded, opening his mouth as if to say something, but was cut off by a loud and vibrant; “Xuanyu!” Xue Yang and Mo Xuanyu both turned to see a man jogging across the streets, a bag swinging at his side. He was also wearing a mask, but it was pulled up onto his forehead. Xue Yang felt the air get sucked out of him at the sudden arrival of a face that he recognized.

By the time Mo Xuanyu turned to look at him, Xue Yang was already gone, disappearing into the shadows once again.

“Mo Xuanyu, Mo Xuanyu, Mo Xuanyu.” Jin Guangyao recited three times as he gazed into the bathroom mirror, as if uttering the man’s name would summon him into Guangyao’s reflection. “Why did you have to show up?” His gold mask shimmered back at him, the peonies starting to wilt from all the light and vivid air. 

He was annoyed, to say the least. Annoyed that Mo Xuanyu, who hadn’t had a spine for years, had shown up at a reunion for a school he’d been pulled out of. Annoyed that he had to put on his acting face again and play the victim. Guangyao didn’t mind it, exactly, but it grew tiring. After all, he wore a smile every single day. He had sucked up to his pathetic mess of a father, wormed his way into Nie Mingjue’s good graces again, fought hard to get Xichen to fully trust him. He wouldn’t have that work be undone by anyone, especially not someone as small and timid as Mo Xuanyu certainly was.

Guangyao supposed he had Wei Wuxian to blame for Mo Xuanyu’s sudden bravery. Ah, it was bothersome that the other man had chosen now of all times to show up. Now, when Guangyao had finally found himself on stable ground, secure in his position and his power. When the earthquake of ups and down had finally stopped shaking whenever he tried to move a step.

He had thought he could stop keeping tabs on Wei Wuxian when his ten years limit had passed and the man had not yet returned. Guangyao had let himself become lax with the feeling of comfort. He had grown too warm, enough to forget about the cold, cold world outside. And now the two people Guangyao disliked the most had shown up in front of him again. 

Ah, he had used to like the two of them, before Wei Wuxian had caused such an uproar and killed Jin Zixuan. Technically, Guangyao was grateful towards Wei Wuxian for removing the eldest brother, leaving a paved path ready for Guangyao to walk on. Still, it was a sticky and dangerous business, dealing with Wei Wuxian. He had left quite a mess. 

Mo Xuanyu, on the other hand, had been a sweet boy who was a tad too clever for his own good. He had started out as young and innocent and Guangyao had falsely believed he would be susceptible. He had been partially right. Xuanyu was susceptible, but only in the way that he was good at keeping quiet, keeping his silence. Guangyao had judged him wrong, but Xuanyu had been willing to pay the price for both of them, the fool. Still, if Guangyao thought about poor, poor Mo Xuanyu for too long and the life he lived in secret now, he almost felt bad, so Guangyao tried not to think about it.

“A-Yao?” Xichen poked his head around the door. Guangyao turned, quickly switching the water on and running it over his hands. He plastered on his smile, hoping it came off as a true one, pushing his dimples into position. Xichen’s expression softened and he slipped into the bathroom, closing the door. He was still wearing his mask, crafted specifically for his face. Xichen was pale perfection, as if the gods had crafted him from marble into a statue that had come alive, so chiseled and prominent in every inch of his body.

“What’s wrong, Er-ge?” Guangyao asked as Xichen walked over to him, eyes soft and welcoming. He pulled Guangyao into a hug, startling the younger man. 

“I just...I know it must have been difficult for you to see Mo Xuanyu, and I wanted to make sure you weren’t hurting yourself or anything like that. I want you to be okay, A-Yao.” Guangyao felt a mix of embarrassment and happiness at the gesture. He was still unused to how easily Xichen gave away his love once he had deemed someone as worthy of it. He was still unused to how kind Xichen was, especially to him, how he called him ‘A-Yao’ so nicely. (Mo Xuanyu had called him A-Yao, too, and so had Jin Zixuan, but Guangyao told himself that it wasn’t the same ).

“I’m okay, Er-ge.” Guangyao said gently, hiding his anger and annoyance under the mask of his smile, saving it for another time. Consequences would be dealt with, but the time was not now. “I’m sorry to have worried you.”

“No, no, don’t be sorry.” Xichen said, petting his hair gently, an almost brotherly gesture. Guangyao had many brothers that shared a fraction of his blood with him, but they could not compare to his first and second sworn brothers. No, no one could compare to Xichen, not even Mingjue and how easily manipulated his unstable mind had been, the only thing that Guangyao had managed to salvage after his Da-ge had gotten suspicious.

“Okay.” Guangyao whispered, banishing Mo Xuanyu and Wei Wuxian to the back of his mind. He would deal with them another day. 

Jin Ling’s Jiujiu came home in a bad mood. Jin Ling watched him tear his mask off and hurl it across the ground violently, letting out a loud curse. From his position on the couch, Jin Ling leaned forward nervously.

“Jiujiu?” He asked. “Is something wrong?” His Jiujiu turned to him, eyes hot and angry. Jin Ling saw the emotion fade out of them slowly at the realization that his nephew was still awake and worried for him.

“Nothing, A-Ling.” He said softly. “I just saw someone I didn't think I would ever again.” Jin Ling thought about that for a long moment. His uncle hated one type of person, and that was anyone who reminded him of Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling remembered when he had still been a child, crying for his parents when he still hadn’t really realized what death was, how his Jiujiu had whispered a promise in his ears: I’ll kill who killed them one day, don’t you worry A-Ling.

Jin Ling was fifteen now. He knew that there were serious consequences for killing someone, but he also knew that the man who had killed his parents had gotten away practically scot-free. He didn’t deserve to be free and breathing in a life he had chosen. Jin Ling was old enough to know how to do research, so he had searched for Wei Wuxian and found every old record he could. His Jiujiu didn’t have to whisper false promises in his ears anymore; Jin Ling himself would make them come true when he got his chance.

“That reminds me.” His Jiujiu said, loosening his tie. “Why did you charge that amount to my account a couple of days ago?” 

“Fairy destroyed some of my clothes.” Jin Ling lied smoothly. “I replaced them. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal.”

His Jiujiu narrowed his eyes. “If you have time to buy clothes, then you should be studying more.” Jin Ling nodded timidly, hoping his Jiujiu would give up on a lecture and simply go to sleep. “And that dog! I know he’s a gift from Jin—your other uncle—but you need to train him better so he doesn’t eat your clothes. What good is that dog if it can’t even properly protect you?”

Jin Ling frowned. “Hey, don’t insult Fairy!” Or my Dashu. He added in his head. He didn’t quite know why his Jiujiu disliked his Dashu, especially considering the fact that they were both Sect Leaders and should, theoretically, be on good terms with one another. Their dislike for one another made Jin Ling uncomfortable—his Jiujiu had raised him well despite his harsh parenting, and his Dashu had always been there for him when Jin Ling felt lonely and isolated.

“I’m studying right now.” He added, holding up the notebook in his hand in proof. “You go to sleep.” He ordered his Jiujiu imperiously, flopping back down.

“Alright, you brat.” His uncle said affectionately, ruffling his hair. His Jiujiu was short with his displays of love or emotion, but Jin Ling treasured every bit that he got. He knew his uncles just wanted the best for him, especially since he’d had no mother or father to raise him. Even if his Jiujiu was a bit harsh with him and his Dashu was distant and busy, Jin Ling loved his uncles.

Speaking of uncles...he looked back down at the notebook in his hand. He was studying, just not the math he should have been. Instead, Jin Ling had been making notes of everything he knew and remembered about Mo Xuanyu, his obscure, youngest uncle. He had hardly seen the adult since he had left Lanling when Jin Ling had been only six, the rumors following him out and all the way to Yiling.

Jin Ling had run into him a few times before in the city, since they traveled and stayed in Yiling frequently. He remembered Mo Xuanyu as a timid soul with a nice smile and a kind heart for the little, bratty kid he had been. He remembered gentle hands and patience, yet the world seemed to remember things differently. Mo Xuanyu was crazy, a lunatic, a harasser, a dirty, filthy cut-sleeve, and he had...he had seemed like it, with his mask and how he acted now, how his family hardly allowed him out because he always caused a scene but…

Jin Ling couldn’t stop thinking about his stomach and his back, with all the scars and bruises in varying levels of healing and how he had flushed in shame when he had seen them looking. How upset his uncle—though it was only by blood at this point; Jin Ling didn’t really think he should have to call Mo Xuanyu his uncle considering he got kicked out of Lanling Jin, and the reason why Mo Xuanyu had been forced to leave Lanling Jin, a fact Jin Ling hadn’t understood until he was older—had been when Jin Ling had assumed that he was dating the other man he had been with.

Mo Xuanyu was different now. No longer was he the kind and quiet teenager with a thirst for learning. He was all hard edges and something else, something that kept bothering Jin Ling with an incessant need, as if there was something prickling at the back of his mind that he should remember, should know, but couldn’t. It was almost enough to make Jin Ling feel almost bad for going along with everyone who hated Mo Xuanyu…

He slammed the notebook closed. It was obviously too late at night if Jin Ling was starting to feel sorry for that lunatic. He was crazy, that was all! Plain crazy, that was why Jin Ling was so bothered by him. Not because he was worried for the older man or concerned about what had happened in these past twelve years.

Mo Xuanyu was a crazy lunatic and he didn’t deserve an inkling of Jin Ling’s time or attention.  

The phone was ringing. None of them wanted to pick it up, but it was Sizhui who caved first, reaching in and answering with a cheerful; “Ah, Hanguang-Jun! Yes, we were out investigating when you called earlier—Jingyi is very sure that we’ll have a suspect ready and waiting for you when you arrive!”

Jingyi elbowed Sizhui sharply in the back. Why did he have to be the one who was thrown under the bus? Hanguang-Jun would of course blame him if they had nothing, or had guessed incorrectly, because Sizhui, his precious son, couldn’t have been the one to make a mistake. How frustrating.

Sizhui held a finger to his lips, frowning at Jingyi angrily as he listened, a slow smile spreading across his face once again. “Oh, you’ll be arriving soon? How soon do you think?”  He listened to Hanguang-Jun some more, Zizhen and Jingyi leaning in to try and catch the news as well. “Oh, you think you’ll be in by tomorrow night? That’s so soon.”

Jingyi cursed quite audibly, enough to make Sizhui turn a fiery glare on him that would have melted the Earth's core. “Ah, that was just Jingyi, he found something so he was very excited. No, don’t worry, we can handle it! We’ve already found several leads and are making progress on preparing to apprehend and question a possible suspect. Haha, it’s a secret! Yeah, then we all bid you a good night, Hanguang-Jun.”

Sizhui hung up and let out a breath. “We’re screwed.” He said softly, burying his head in his arms.

“Hey that’s my line.” Jingyi said jokingly. Sizhui shook his head, massaging his temples. “So, he’ll be here by tomorrow night, meaning we have twenty four hours to figure this out.” Jingyi clapped twice. “Then we should get down to work.”

Zizhen raised his hand from where he was balancing on a spare desk, clicking away on his silver laptop. “The arrest warrant has been approved.” He said without preamble when he saw that he had the two Lan’s attention. “I requested for it when we left the masquerade reunion. The Yiling government says the evidence seems sufficient enough, which is why they approved it. However, when we arrest him, he can’t be held overnight or anything like that.” 

“Do we want to arrest him?” Jingyi asked, cupping his chin in the palm of his hand. “Do we really think he’s the culprit?” He was met with a stony silence. When he looked over to Sizhui, who was usually the voice of reason, he saw the other was tapping away at his computer screen, pulling up cameras.

“On the fourth floor where Wei Wuxian lives in his apartment building, there is a blind spot right in front of the elevator and stairway, so you can’t see anyone coming or going. Technically, it can’t be proved where he was. Plus, he frequents the park near his house and the lake where the bodies have shown up. Security cameras have spotted him there numerous times since his arrival earlier this month, meaning that he probably knows the layout of the park and the surrounding area very well.” Sizhui summarized.

He leaned back in his chair, looking at the revolving set of videos in front of him. “I think we can arrest him.” He finally said defiantly. “Even if we don’t have concrete evidence that proves him to be the murderer, but rather a lack of alibi and a strong motive are reason enough to at least question him.”

Zizhen stopped tapping at his computer, thinking into the air. “Think about it.” He said softly. “We’re calling him the murderer for three cases, meaning that these cases are most definitely a serial killing. We have a freaking serial killer on our hands. I think we need to at least try and figure out if he’s guilty or not. If he is, then we’ve stopped a serial killer from doing any more harm.”

“And if he’s not?” Jingyi asked, feeling rather childish in the moment. He didn’t particularly want to be defending Wei Wuxian and all the crimes he had committed, but he also felt like being the devil’s advocate on a fine day such as this one. Plus, he was upset about the masquerade. They had gotten interesting information and witnessed what had seemed like a serious matter occurring a little ways away, only for one of the participant's friends to pull him away from the crowd when his eyes had connected with Jingyi’s and seen the badges still dangling around their necks on lanyards.

“Well,” Sizhui said, completely ignoring Jingyi’s question. He could definitely tell that Jingyi was simply being petty and giving them a hard time. “If we plan on arresting him tomorrow, we should get a good night’s rest tonight. You guys have both worked hard.” He smiled at both of them in turn.

Zizhen yawned and stretched. “Sounds good to me.” He mumbled, setting his laptop down and promptly walking over to flop facedown on the one couch in their quarters. A moment later his breathing had deepened out into even breaths. Sizhui smiled and stood, dragging a blanket across their friend’s forlorn form.

Jingyi waiting until he had come back, shutting down their machines, before he raised a question that had been on his mind in recent times; “Hey, Sizhui? Is something else going on with you?” Sizhui turned to him with a faint smile, questioningly. “I don’t know, but lately it feels you’ve been hiding something from me.” Jingyi confessed, looking down at his hands. “And there was that time you randomly left the office and you didn’t come back for a while, too.”

Since before they had come to Yiling, Jingyi had got the feeling that Sizhui had been looking into something else, or that something had happened. His friend had suddenly been preoccupied whilst they had been in the middle of a conversation, and then, when they had arrived in Yiling, Jingyi had started to get the feeling that the murder cases weren’t the only thing Lan Sizhui was investigating.

“Oh, so you caught on.” Sizhui said softly. He sat down on the floor comfortably, patting for Jingyi to sit across from him, like they were little kids again. Jingyi complied, settling down. He was tired, but never too tired to hear Sizhui’s truths, whatever those may be.

“Do you remember how I got adopted into the family?” Sizhui started. He was twisting his hands together tightly, a sigh he was nervous. A sign that he had thought about this and struggled with it a lot before now. Jingyi nodded. “How Zewu-Jun found me on his doorstep when I was seven or eight? And instead of him adopting me, Hanguang-Jun ended up being the one who took me in and raised me even though he was so young himself?” Jingyi nodded. Sizhui’s story of acceptance into the Lan clan was a bit of a legend within the sect. 

“The other day, a couple of weeks ago, I remembered a name.” Sizhui told him shakily. “I think...I think it used to be my name. You know how I had a high fever and forgot most of my memories from that time?” Jingyi nodded, wondering if he should reach out towards his friend. 

“What was the name?” He asked, because he got the feeling Sizhui wanted him to ask that instead of Sizhui just saying it.  

“Wen Yuan.” The name was a whisper, a simple gust of wind, spreading out and filling up the empty space they had to themselves.

Jingyi licked his lips, unsure of what his reaction should be. He couldn’t picture docile and obedient Lan Sizhui as a Wen of all people, harsh and militaristic. “That’s a lovely name.” He told his friend, who gave him a watery smile.

Sizhui continued onwards, determined to finish his tale. “So I did some research without telling anyone. I know I should have told at least you or Hanguang-Jun, but I...I don’t know. And I discovered, or at least I think, that I used to be a part of the Wen clan that Wen Qing and Wen Ning were from. You know that story right?” Jingyi had, yes, but he had thought it to be just a story. “So I think that...not like brother or sister but cousins of some sort? Anyways, those two would be the only living family I have left—real family that is.”

It was rare to see Sizhui, who usually talked so well and respectfully, to speak in stutters. That was how Jingyi knew his friend was stressed about this. He squeezed Sizhui’s trembling hands, trying to express that he was there for his friend, his companion, even without the knowledge of how to put it into words for once. 

“That time I left was to visit Wen Ning in the hospital. I was going to ask him about Wen Yuan, me, but I ended up telling him about Wen Chao instead and then practically ran away.” Sizhui slumped back, rubbing his hands over his face. “I didn’t know how to ask him. I don’t even know if that was really my name. I found a birth certificate but nothing else. Nothing about a death or anything. That could mean that I really am Wen Yuan.”

He let out a long sigh. “But a Wen? I’ve been a Lan for most of my life. I don’t want Hanguang-Jun to think that I’m unhappy to have him as my father or that I don’t like the life I have. Yet I also need to know the answers to all these questions I suddenly have.”

Jingyi smiled at his wayward friend. “I know you, and I know Hanguang-Jun.” He said. “And you will always be Hanguang-Jun’s beloved son whether or not that is as Lan Sizhui or Wen Yuan or Wen Sizhui or Lan Yuan, whatever it is you end up wanting to be called. And so what if you were a Wen? I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty hardcore. Plus, that means you survived your clans plague or whatever it was.” Sizhui winced. “Too soon to make jokes?” Jingyi asked and Sizhui hit him lightly on the shoulder. 

“It was bad enough when you tried to come up with a million name combinations.” He said, though Jingyi knew he was seriously thinking about some of them. “I’m always going to be Lan Sizhui, even if my name is really Wen Yuan. But’s a nice name, right? A nice birth name, like Lan Huan or Lan Zhan.” Sizhui blushed as soon as he uttered his leader’s real names, glancing around as if they could hear him.

Jingyi grinned. “Lan Yuan.” He said. “I like it.”