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amateurs at war

Chapter Text

Present-Day, 1947

 

They told you the war was over.

You used to know someone who might laugh at moments like this one, and now that he’s gone you wonder if maybe it was how he kept himself from crying in the dark: how he survived the war until its very end, with shells flying all around you, and corpses brimming with resentful energy climbing out of trenches and rice fields and graves better left undisturbed.

Your brother told you, once, that everyone has a different way of coping.

Every splatter of blood is unique. You don’t ever really get used to it. And you certainly won’t forget it now. This is death, you think, almost tonelessly. You’ve seen it so many times before and you’re still not immune. Somehow you aren’t as surprised as Jiang Wanyin is, staring at Xiao Xingchen’s sword sticking out of Song Lan’s chest. You know it well, death. You spent years on the road, in the trenches, first getting rid of the Japanese and then purging Wen Ruohan’s corruption from the face of what you were promised would be a free China.

Somehow it never goes the way you expect.

You knew someone once with better intuition. Better, and also worse. So much worse.

From the thick of the fight, Jiang Wanyin shouts with single-minded focus, and in his hands Zidian lights up like a firework. “Get him!” He shouts at you, surging into a new wave of bodies, people who had names and faces and who were loved and lost like …

(No. Nobody was like him. He had been unique.)

For you, Song Lan dies out of focus, like a blurry object in the distance. You will mourn him later, maybe, if there is any part of you that still has the capacity for it. Or perhaps Xiao Xingchen will, if you can ever find out what’s turned him into this menace. He will not sit as you do, playing Inquiry until your fingertips ache, nor stir to leap into action — here, where the chaos is, because it reminds you of someone you loved once, but he will find something and you will recognize it, that grief, taste it the way you wake up every morning with memories and regrets. Or you won’t save him; you’ll fail him as you once failed someone else. In either case their last hopes of a republic not informed by centuries of clan politics dies here: loudly, at first, like Jiang Wanyin's shouts and the crack of his whip, but eventually quietly, when the last thought of either of them and the beautiful ideals they once represented escapes anyone’s mind.

“Hanguang-Jun!” Jiang Wanyin is redirecting your attention to the objective, the real assassin, the puppeteer who has eluded you for months and who now controls Xiao Xingchen’s enhanced, puppeted body at a distance you haven’t been able to cut through the bodies to reach.

The rumors have given this man, and his mask, a name: the Stygian Tiger. You have been following breadcrumbs, piecing together a string of deaths dotted from province to province, trying to find the bigger picture behind the senseless violence that has permeated your entire adult life. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are neutral parties in the warlord system, unaligned and independent, the latest and the most high-profile of the targets you’ve seen so far. This is the first time you’ve caught him in the act, so to speak; in the villages they whisper the name the way they tell horror stories of the old demonic cultivators — and more importantly, they say he never leaves witnesses.

Here you are. Witnessing.

He plays a dizi.

You’ve had no taste for the instrument since 1945. Yet now, listening to the melody that propels Xiao Xingchen’s body into further and further malevolence, you are struck by the sound. The notes lodge themselves into you like living splinters, working their way someplace deeper, to hidden parts of you that are kept secret and which are still raw, even two years after the fact.

Something shatters when the realization arrives: this is the precise inverse of a melody you are certain only two people on earth know. “Wei Wuxian,” you whisper, and just the three syllables falling out of your mouth are the explosion of a grenade you swore to swallow when he died.

The end of the line, back then. And you couldn’t save him.

You move with new purpose, flying towards the masked figure, but as Zidian wrangles Xiao Xingchen into submission, the assassin must realize his work is done. You watch as he puts the flute away — yes, there it is, the deft twirl that you know so well, the fingers that still haunt your dreams — takes the pistol out of a holster, fires.

You are left with a hole in your chest, bleeding out on the ground.

It’s surgical work, this shot, the work of a master. But you can already tell you’re going to live.

Still. You don’t think he missed.

Your name is Lan Wangji.

“W-Wei … Wuxian,” you say, again, and you tell yourself you’re not going to pass out when Jiang Wanyin's face appears above yours in alarmed triplicate. You are Lan Wangji, Hanguang-Jun, they call you, the soldiers who served with you in the army, who watched you and Wei Wuxian accomplish improbable things at impossible odds. You don’t entirely understand it: the way people look at you as though you could make them feel brave.

Wei Wuxian used to look at you like that, too, as though he never knew he was brave already. Polar opposites, they’d all said; day and night, yin and yang, chaos and order. You know differently. Looking at him had been like looking into a mirror; like the smelting hammer striking a sword: you had only ever come away sharper, refined. He had only made you ever and more yourself.

There’s a sour, coppery taste on your tongue. You tell yourself that you’re going to stay awake. You say that, but the bullet’s been tipped in something, and already the edges of the world are going dark.

You know exactly where he learned to shoot so well. After all, you were there.

Lan Zhan! I’m with you to the end of the line.

 

 

 

Cloud Recesses, 1937

 

You haven’t been sleeping well. Nobody but Xichen notices — well, nobody but Xichen had noticed, until Qinghe Nie, Lanling Jin, and Yunmeng Jiang clans had all responded to your uncle’s suggestion of joint military exercises in Gusu; maneuvers he will claim to be practice for a potential Japanese incursion, should Chief Warlord Wen come asking and bringing with him all of the military might of the Nightless City. Lying is not a becoming trait of a Lan elder, but these are strange times, and it isn’t so much untruth as half-truth.

You struggle to see the difference, and your brother knows it, tries to reassure you. Uncle was alive when the Qing fell. The warlord system is tenuous and the rest of the world’s in turmoil. He’s looking out for your future.

They are a reasonably promising batch of recruits; one of them in particular is especially clever, and worse, and he knows it. He is the younger brother of Jiang Wanyin, always huddling and making mischief with Nie Huaisang, and because you all eat together in the training hall, you can’t help but overhear him one day as he says out loud the very thoughts you’ve kept to yourself, as discourteous as they are to the leader of the Qishan Wen clan. “Chief Warlord,” you hear him snort. “Didn’t we have an Emperor once?" You did, though none of you had been alive in those days, and this sort of talk always makes your elders click their disapproving tongues and shake their heads. "I thought the clans agreed to a Republic?” Wei Wuxian is unintimidated by the threat of the Wen’s might, the army which makes your uncle stroke his beard in his late-night consultations with you and your brother. “I bet Ruohan’s sons are no match for the twin heroes of Yunmeng,” he crows. When Nie Huaisang sends him a blank, quizzical look, he simply thumps his brother on the chest. “The Lan clan has the twin jades,” he says, and looks across the room at you, directly, with a smile that knows you were listening. He reads people well. Too well. “Why not us?”

It is Wei Wuxian you are facing now, Wei Wuxian who has joined your brother in the knowledge of your sleepless nights. Granted, his has only made the discovery because of the face-off you are now holding on a roof. Some part of you knows that both of you need to get off of it; the building is nearly four hundred years old. This place is your heritage and your legacy and here he is, scrambling over its rooftops, creeping around after curfew.

“Lan Zhan,” he whines. He has been here for all of three weeks and already he uses your name like it’s an intimacy you don’t remember affording him. Much as you did not elect to be woken from the shallowest of sleep by the sound of an intruder creeping over the roof, or how you would prefer he no longer possess the uncanny ability to always be standing anyplace you look. Wei Wuxian is balancing a sack of contraband from Caiyi Town; you may pretend otherwise but you know that even the Lan soldiers sneak their shares of magazines, cigarettes, and a peculiar brand of local liquor purporting to owe its origins to a recipe hundreds of years old.

“There’s no drinking in Cloud Recesses,” you tell him, stone-faced and unblinking. According to some, the rules of Gusu Lan Clan are nearly a thousand years old, and misfortune has put the responsibility for ensuring they make it a thousand years more onto your brother’s shoulders too soon. This is what keeps you awake: your mother’s face, wan with illness; the incense you light in your parents’ memory now; the hushed tones with which you, your uncle, and your brother discuss the southern rebellions and the way Wen Ruohan cracks down on them with an iron fist when nobody is watching you. Gusu Lan lies sandwiched between two impossible threats: the imperialists across the sea, and one ambitious warlord at home, constantly consolidating his power in the name of national security.

“Lan er-gege,” Wei Wuxian says, taking an experimental step down the pagoda. You step with him, mindful of the tiles, and when he doesn’t stop, you call Bichen to your hand. He flashes you a nervous smile, and it probably means something that you can recognize the moment that it turns impish: the way the dimple in his cheek deepens just-so, and the subtle twinkle of his eyes.

Fighting him is like fighting yourself: his technique is different, of course; in it you detect what must be Jiang Fengmian’s steady hand and Yu Ziyuan’s ferocious strikes. Even Jiang Wanyin's quick temper is written into his swordplay. Still, he moves with you readily, a shadow, an inverse, and you hate it so much that you smash his smuggled liquor on the courtyard tiles when you win. Sweat gathers in the hollow of his throat as he swallows against the blade of your sword. “Alright, Lan Zhan,” he says, defeated, and pouting the way he did in class last week when Lan Qiren accused him of taking the kinds of lazy shortcuts that had resulted in the downfall of the demonic cultivators of old, “you’ve won.”

This close, you can smell the alcohol on his breath. “Why do you do it?” You want to know. Wei Wuxian is an orphan that Jiang Fengmian picked up off of the streets, and yet he will someday be Jiang Wanyin's right hand man when Jiang Wanyin takes his father’s place as a warlord. You have watched him run laps around his peers in the military tactics class your uncle teaches, and you suspect that if he hadn’t been drinking in Caiyi the fight might’ve had a different outcome.

“Break the rules?” He asks. Last week, your uncle made him run six extra miles for questioning whether or not ancient cultivation rites could possibly be sufficient in an era of chemical weapons and trench warfare. Sure, we can purify the air, placate the corpses, but what good is it to farmers whose land gets poisoned by the chemicals? How much resentful energy do you think gets generated by a falling bomb? Some people say it’s a compulsion, that Wei Wuxian can’t do anything but show off, but Lan principles have taught you that showmanship is an idiot’s game, and there’s a spark of intellect that glimmers too sharp in his eyes which always belies his actions.

When he looks at you it’s tinged with the same awe others hold; your name precedes you.

Unlike everyone else, he never looks away.

Fearless, you think, and almost scoff. People call you fearless because they don’t know any better: you are afraid of ten thousand things. Your rabbit heart beats even now, threatening to leap out of its cage.

“Drink,” you clarify. No one is truly fearless.

“Ah,” he says, and then shakes his head, and that open-book smile he has shifts again, mercurial, remorseful. “I don’t sleep very well,” Wei Wuxian admits. “Do you sleep well, Lan Zhan?”

It's a personal question, another one of those ways he ignores every boundary, and so you simply make a noncommittal sound.

“All this talk of another war,” he says, and looks at you with that way he has, like you know each other.

You don’t.

Like you’re made of the same stuff. You aren’t. “I’m not sure we’re meant to sleep well.”

You've wondered that yourself, before. But instead of admitting to it you simply tell him that you're obligated to report him.

He smiles an elusive, cheshire smile that reminds you of moonlight. “You’ll have to admit you were out past curfew too,” Wei Wuxian points out. Like he already knows that he will see you in the library, later, copying military manuals until your hands threaten to cramp. “Goodnight, Lan Zhan.”

It sounds like see you later.

It sounds like sleep well.

“… Mn. Goodnight.”