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Empathy

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They don’t ask Song Lan what he does with Xue Yang’s corpse, but the last of the sunlight has died and the familiar fog settled around Yi City before he returns to the hut where they’re congregated for dinner. Dark and unnervingly silent, he pauses at the doorway as though hesitant to enter, Fuxue in his hand, and Lan Wangji doesn’t miss the way the younger cultivators shrink from him a little as he passes; even Shizui can’t help but stiffen a little at the sight of his pale face and the dark veins still etched into his neck like Wen Ning’s. 

 

Wei Ying, sensing the apprehension, rises to greet him and invite him inside. Jin Ling even brings him a bowl of congee, mercifully non-spicy. There’s still something vacant in Song Lan’s expression and he eats with the air of someone only slowly getting used to the sensation. Only a few bites and then he stops, staring down at his hands, unmoving and unresponsive. Apart from the scrape of spoons and chopsticks against bowls and the howl of the wind that's picked up outside, the mood in general is subdued. 

 

"It's late," Wangji tells the boys - it's long past 9pm and Jingyi has been trying and failing to hide his exhaustion for the last half hour. "Go to bed."

 

The boys get up without protest, only stopping to make their obeisance. There’s no shortage of abandoned houses in these parts and so rather than sleeping cramped in one room, they’d chosen what appeared to be the abandoned house of a wealthy landowner, with a courtyard and two smaller buildings on either side that would serve as sleeping quarters. Wangji watches them file out, something in him twisting a little at how they simultaneously look much older and yet so, so young.

 

Lan Zhan rises to clear the dishes and Wei Ying follows him into the kitchen. They wash up in silence.

 

“We should take turns to stay with him tonight,” Wei Ying says to Wangji in an undertone, nodding to the room where Song Lan hasn't moved from his position at the table. “He’s been through a lot, and his mind is newly freed. There must be a lot of bad memories."

 

"Okay," Wangji says. 

 

He lets Wei Ying do the work of persuading Song Lan to agree to the arrangement, which is done with a small nod of acquiescence from Song Lan. Wei Ying busies himself with something in the other room so it's up to Wangji to shake out the dusty sleeping mats and bedding for their guest. Song Lan accepts them with a nod of thanks, getting up as though sleepwalking to create a space for himself in the corner of the room. He sits on the bedding, cross legged like in meditation, with Fuxue leaning against his left shoulder and stares into the dying embers of the fire. It's too well practised not to imagine him having done so for weeks, months, years on end but-- no, Wangji doesn't want to think about how long he's been like this because if he does… 

 

“Brother Song,” Wei Ying says, re-entering the room, and Wangji loosens his unconscious death grip on Bichen’s handle. He’s holding a small metal bowl in his hands, filled with something white - some cloth bandages, a skein of water and a dusty bottle of alcohol, Wangji realises. “Let me have a look at your injuries.”

 

Song Lan gives a quick jerk of his head and Wangji’s grip on Bichen’s handle tightens as Wei Ying approaches and kneels in front of Song Lan until they’re eye to eye. Much like he had once seen his brother approach some of the wild dogs that roamed the forests of the Cloud Recesses and had gotten stuck in traps set out for monsters, Wangji thinks, then remembers Wei Ying is terrified of dogs. 

 

More out of reflex and to try and distract Song Lan - who is tensed up as though expecting a strike as Wei Ying reaches out to dab at his hands with a wet cloth - than with any real heat, Wangji asks, “Did you steal that?”

 

Wei Ying lets out a huff and rolls his eyes at Song Lan dramatically. “I borrow a few things from someone’s backroom kitchen and alcohol that probably tastes like cat piss and I’ve broken about ten Lan clan rules. All to help a friend, which surely should cancel out some of the rules I broke but who really knows with the Gusu Lan sect. Such sticks in the muds, the entire lot of them.”

 

The momentary indignation returns some of Wei Wu Xian’s usual fire, and he takes to cleaning the wounds on Song Lan’s arms and legs with renewed vigour, even ushering him to turn around so he can dab the dried blood from the mind control nails out of Song Lan’s hair. Wangji almost objects when he sees Wei Ying approach the wound with the cloth he’s dipped in alcohol but any pain Song Lan feels from that is only visible in a tensing of the shoulders. 

 

Wangji watches, knowing better than to interfere, until the water in the metal bowl is red and Wei Ying lets out a huff of satisfaction, tying the last bandage into place. Between cleaning up A-Qing’s body, preparing the necessary rituals prior to her burial the next morning, finding food and trying to wrangle some semblance of hospitality from this place, even with a bunch of young helping hands, he has no idea when Wei Ying had even slipped out to find these from the half-empty village. And yet he is not surprised. Wei Ying has always managed to wring out his last reserves of energy when it comes to others, just not himself. 

 

Song Lan has sat through the entire process, still and silent and remains so as Wei Ying tidies up all the used fabric and dumps out the bloody water. 

 

“Lan Zhan, what about you?” Wei Ying turns to him and the feeling is like an eggshell cracking to pour warmth through Wangji’s chest. Wei Ying must register the emotion across his face because his expression turns concerned and he hurries forward to start rolling up Wangji’s sleeve. “Are you hurt anywhere?”

 

“I’m fine,” he says, shaking down his sleeve, and Wei Ying subsides, a slight pout on his face. He can feel Song Lan’s attention turn towards them for the first time. “You have had a long day. Just rest.”

 

Wei Ying scrutinises him for a second more and then nods, sitting down next to Wangji and laying his bamboo flute on the low table before resting his face in his hands, propped up by an elbow. "Lan Zhan, can we have some music?" 

 

Perhaps it will help Brother Song sleep, is what he means, and Wangji nods. 

 

He plays Rest for a long time, picking his way through the long, soothing notes until he sees Song Lan's eyes finally close. It's a moment before he registers a warm weight on his shoulder and against his side. His hands pause on the guqin strings, only a moment, but enough that Wei Ying jerks awake. 

 

“Sorry,” Wei Ying says, blinking. 

 

The lamplight accentuates the shadows under Wei Ying’s eyes, the paleness of his face. He has eaten little over the past few days and Wangji can sense Wei Ying’s spiritual power waning with the aftereffects of Empathy - Mo Xuanyu’s body doesn’t have a strong golden core to begin with, and Wei Ying’s truly pushed his spiritual power to the limit with the fight. 

 

“Sleep,” he says to Wei Ying, softly. “I’ll keep watch.” 

 

He can sense Wei Ying opening his mouth to protest and glares him down. It’s a moment before both of them notice Wei Ying’s hand gripping the fabric of Lan Zhan’s sleeve, hard. Wei Ying draws his hand back, embarrassed, but there’s something raw and haunted in his eyes as he looks away, towards Song Lan.

 

Wangji hasn’t asked what he saw in Empathy. He knows Wei Ying will tell them all soon, perhaps even come morning, but the only reason Wangji wants the full details is to take some of the weight off Wei Ying’s shoulders. 

 

He grabs Wei Ying’s wrist gently before the other can move away. It’s still not any easier to try and find the right words, but he’s committed to saying them without regret and so he pushes them out. 

 

“It’s cold tonight,” he says. “Stay here, I’ll watch both of you.”

 

Something softly surprised and pleased flickers across Wei Ying’s face, pursued by something impossibly sad as Wei Ying’s eyes dart, once again, to Song Lan’s corner of the room. 

 

“Okay,” Wei Ying says simply, no quip or spark of mischief that Wangji is used to hearing as a retort. It somehow feels worse , but Wei Ying has already gone over to upend the bedding. He returns with a blanket, only slightly moth-eaten, and places it carefully next to the table, curling up next to where Wangji is sitting. 

 

Wangji swallows down the impulse to touch his cheek. In the fog, the night and in all the fighting, so many faces from the distant past reappeared, he feels uprooted from the regular flow of time, as though anything can happen. Like he could fall asleep and wake up next to the sunny boy Wangji had first met, or Wei Ying could wake up as a stranger to him, cold and incomprehensible like he had felt at the very end of the Sunshot Campaign.

 

He swallows down the sudden burst of fear and shifts his playing, working in a melody for deep sleep before lighting another candle that will burn through the night. Wei Ying deserves a dreamless sleep. And Wangji can handle the rest. 

 

---

 

The candle has burnt itself halfway by the time Song Lan stirs. Wangji has been meditating with his eyes closed and he can feel the weight of the other man's eyes on him, senses when they slide over to Wei Ying's sleeping form. 

 

Slowly, gingerly, Song Lan gets to his feet, still favouring the side he had injured, probably in the fight with Wen Ning. Wangji opens his eyes a crack, just in time to see the moonlight glowing through the paper windows catch the edge of Fuxue's blade. 

 

A pause, Song Lan's face shadowed. He lifts his hand as though he’s forgotten how to, staring at the way his wrist and fist, holding Fuxue’s handle, hovers in the air and then turns the sword until he’s reading the inscription, a sort of childlike fascination to him, mingled with weariness that Wangji can feel, even halfway across the room. 

 

And then there’s a creak of the door opening, the sound of Song Lan's robes whipping in the wind outside. The door closes. 

 

Wangji knows that look. He gets up, hand on Bichen, and follows. 

 

---

 

His blast of magic knocks Fuxue away, inches from Song Lan’s neck.

 

Song Lan whips around and it's the blank look of a broken man. Behind him is the full moon, the wind and the rattle of empty lanterns and charms dangling from doorways that had long lost their luck. 

 

He lunges for Fuxue again, a pained spasm of movement, but Wangji has already picked the sword up. It hums angrily in his hand. He ignores it, heading back inside past Wei Ying’s sleeping form and into the adjacent room, probably once a room for entertaining guests. He slides the door open and steps inside. 

 

It had been right to ask Shizui to prepare the room. It’s bare but clean now, with only an altar at the head dedicated to an ancestor that had even been dusted off. Wangji walks over and picks up two of the prayer mats in front of the altar and places them in the centre of the room so they’re visible to Song Lan, still standing next to the table where Wei Ying is sleeping. Wangji sits down on a mat and waits. 

 

Song Lan, after a long, hard pause, follows. 

 

Why, his eyes seem to ask as he takes a seat opposite Wangji. 

 

“Do you,” Wangji feels the words out slowly, “want to show me?”

 

Song Lan tilts his head. Sitting here, in the room devoid of other light, the moonlight casts the scars running across his mouth in sharp relief but it’s the lost expression that is hardest to look at. 

 

Wangji doesn't have Wei Ying's easy way with words and he has only witnessed Wei Ying perform Empathy secondhand, committing the movements to memory. It’s purely theoretical and he’s not sure if it works. To ask Wei Ying to teach him would mean needing to practise with him and that had, somehow, been much more frightening than any demon, ghoul or masked figure. 

 

But he holds out his hand, palm facing up, and waits. 

 

Song Lan exhales, a little shakily. Reaches out with two fingers, a warning in his expression, and touches them to Wangji’s palm. Wangji closes his eyes and hopes it works. 

 

Flashes. Two boys running through a mountain path. A gentle hand on his cheek, a night sky full of stars and the full moon overhanging. Pain and grief and a promise he had rejected. The piercing flash of sunshine and the pain of opening his eyes again. A blind girl dancing down the path with her walking cane. The burst of hope like fireworks in his heart, the promise of redemption replacing all the pain and guilt when she says confidently, ‘I know him.’ Xue Yang appearing out of the alley, a bolt of black against white brick and brown slate. Red, cold and sharp, and then pain, pain, pain. 

 

Darkness. Just darkness, deep, sunken, all-consuming; the ache of moving, of fighting, but never knowing what .

 

A flash of white, a plaintive sob that tears his soul and core to hear. Zichen? Zichen, is that you? 

 

Can anyone please say something?

 

Screaming, fighting, struggling for breath, for the surface and then...silver, white, red, a scream that never made it out of his mouth. 

 

Wangji gasps, jerking back from Song Lan’s hand. He’s shaking, his entire body is shaking like he’d just been plunged into the icy waters of the hidden cave again. The truth of it is awful, awful and his first thought is Wei Ying saw this.   

 

As if sensing his thoughts, Song Lan glances past him, at Wei Ying’s sleeping form in the adjacent room. For a moment, they both look at Wei Wu Xian’s sleeping face, lamplight faintly illuminating his profile and for a moment, filled with the echo of Xiao Xingchen’s pain carved like engravings in Song Lan's, Wangji is sure Wei Ying is about to disappear into the mist outside too. Perhaps, deep down, he had never quite believed that Wei Ying - with his smile, prodigious talent and kindness - could truly have left like that, and Wei Ying had come back. But Xiao Xingchen had been all of that, in Song Lan's memories. It had not been enough, and the world is cruel.  

 

Song Lan’s gaze lingers on Wei Ying and his gaze is disbelieving, just a little hopeful. He is alive?

 

Wangji nods. “Sixteen years,” he says. 

 

Song Lan bows his head. There’s something almost wistful in his expression when he looks up. A long time

 

“If I had-” Wangji says, and the words choke in his throat. It had been the depths of winter when the light never properly warmed the blue shadows, the snow fell like rain in slow motion in the silence of his unanswered Inquiry and Bichen's blade had been cold, inviting, hungry. He has never spoken of this with anyone. 

 

He doesn't have Wei Ying's easy way with words. What he does have is sixteen years of sheathing Bichen's blade again every time. What he has is the impossibility of hearing the sound of the dizi's music ringing across the mountain again. Wei Ying had always been golden in his mind, warmth, light and heat, and the rush of knowing flooding Wangji's veins and his very core in that instant had been fire reborn.

 

He tries again. “If I had, I would have missed him again.”

 

Something flickers in Song Lan's dark eyes at that, like the first tremors of a river breaking free from its riverbank. A spasm crosses his face and the scars around his mouth. This time when he gets up, Wangji, hands gripping both Bichen and Fuxue, lets him go and follows him outside. 

 

Song Lan makes it down the stairs into the dirt of the courtyard before falling to his knees, his robes and hair whipping wildly around him. He raises his face to the moonlight and Wangji sees, finally, the tears. Tears from Xiao Xingchen's eyes, and then great wracking, broken sobs that feel like they're bursting from his throat, torrential, raging, animal in its pain, its regret and in how long it's been waiting to be let out. Wangji's eyes prick with tears. The sound is familiar, terrible, all-encompassing.

 

Xichen had been there for him, during the darkest moments, and then Ah Yuan a long while later when Wangji had finally been ready to face him. Song Lan has the howling wind greedily eating up his cries and just Lan Wangji, useless and wordless, kneeling by his side.

 

A long time passes, maybe forever. A long, long while later, Wangji approaches. Song Lan does not throw his hand off.

 

Wanji offers Fuxue, handle first, to him. 

 

"If he is truly gone, he will wait for you," Wangji says. He takes a deep breath. "Until then..."

 

Song Lan looks up at him, and then accepts Fuxue. There’s a weariness in him, but it’s a different kind of weariness and Wangji finds himself thinking, absurdly, to Wei Ying undressing in front of him the Xuanwu cave, the feeling of choking out blood and watching it spatter across stone. Wei Ying had been right then, and so many times later. Let it out. Once it’s out, it can get better. 

 

“Sleep,” Wangji says, a suggestion this time, and Song Lan accepts the hand he offers to pull himself up.

 

They’ve stepped back inside the room, blessedly still despite the rattling windowframes, and Wangji is closing the door when he senses Fuxue move again, in Wei Ying’s direction.

 

Wangji moves before realising he has. Bichen clangs against the metal, bites in and locks against Fuxue, which had originally been pointing towards Wei Ying. 

 

Wei Ying mumbles and turns over in his sleep. 

 

Song Lan chokes out a wheezing huff of a laugh, husky with disuse. He disengages Fuxue and puts the sword down on the ground in a peace offering and Wangji glares at it for good measure. He's not well-versed in the customs of Song Lan's sect, he has no idea if it had been a gesture of acknowledgment, the start of a spell, or a test of Wangji's own predictability, but he's not taking chances. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light but Song Lan’s gaze is wry when their eyes meet again.

 

No regrets.  

 

“I know,” Wangji says, looking over again at Wei Ying. “I promise.”