Lan Zhan, are you not coming with me?
Even as the question left his mouth, he already knew the answer.
It’s been little over a month since Wei Wuxian has set out to roam the world, the road stretching out long and endless before him, beckoning with promises of lands hitherto unexplored—yet, despite his best efforts to savor his freedom, he finds that something is missing.
Maybe it’s the way he keeps throwing glances over his shoulder, casting his gaze about for someone who is not there.
Maybe it’s the countless times he’s caught himself waiting for a response as he sings and shouts and laughs.
And maybe—when Wei Wuxian thought of himself crossing every hill and river under the placid blue sky—he imagined another face across the fire. Another shoulder warm against his own.
But Lan Zhan is busy, because someone had to deal with the fallout of the events at Guanyin Temple, and take over as unofficial Gusu Lan sect leader when a despairing and broken-hearted Lan Xichen retreated into seclusion, and someone had to step up as Excellency after Jin Guangyao’s bloody death and ruin. Lan Zhan had a lot on his plate, certainly nowhere near enough time to go gallivanting across the mountains and plains with a demonic cultivator of ill repute.
And Wei Wuxian has spent so much time alone anyway; and even alone, this one-man trek is so much more peaceful compared to his desperate toiling in the grey of the Burial Mounds, or sixteen years spent in the awful, endless dark before being dragged out into a world that despised him and had torn him to pieces and left him to rot, a world that dumped him back on his unwilling feet and set him loose with foam-mouthed, mad-dog revenge snapping at his heels, a world that turned and changed and left him behind—so. It’s fine.
He’s enjoying the peace, and everything is fine.
When he sits by his cracking wood-scrap fire at night, he stares up instead of across, and watches the orange and red embers swirl up higher and higher in the air, buffeted by the night breeze until they wink out in the inky dark. When the morning chill nips a bit too sharply at his exposed skin—rare in the insistent summer that has descended upon the countryside—he pulls his robes tighter around himself and rubs at his arms. And when the road stretches out before him, a bit too long and a bit too endless, he kicks his feet and plays his flute and only thinks about Lan Zhan the tiniest bit.
At the moment, however, he’s willing to admit to himself that he wishes beyond all compare, that his friend was standing by his side—if only for the fact that the commanding, unparalleled Hanguang-jun was also the sole person capable of controlling Wei Wuxian’s stupid, smelly donkey.
“Little Apple, Little Apple, why aren’t you moving? What kind of beast of burden stops in the middle of the road, it’s only been an hour, ah, you horrible, ugly creature, see if I feed you ever again!”
Little Apple snorts her displeasure, big ears twitching and swiveling.
Wei Wuxian switches tactics.
“No," he coos, "I was wrong to say that, you’re not horrible at all! Little Apple is so lovely, such long lashes, such a soft nose! The finest of creatures, our Little Apple! Gege will give you so many crunchy red apples to eat, gege will brush your coat ‘til it shines like silver, so please...ah, just this once, please just do as I say…”
His wheedling washes over Little Apple like a tide. She ignores every tug of her reins, hooves planted solidly in the thin and rocky soil, unmovable as the tallest and most distant of mountains.
Locked in a battle of wills against his stubborn companion, Wei Wuxian nearly forgets about the audience at his back, until a tentative pat on his shoulder draws his attention.
“Wei-gongzi, it’s quite alright!” Her name is Liu Qufeng, if he remembers correctly. “You’ve already been so kind as to help us bring our things all this way! Perhaps what your donkey needs is a break? The sun is very hot today.”
In an instant, Wei Wuxian becomes aware of the way his black robes are plastered against his back, damp with sweat. Liu Qufeng’s lovely face is flushed with the heat, and Wei Wuxian has no doubt that his own is just as red, if not redder.
“Liu-guniang speaks the truth,” he concedes, scratching sheepishly at his nose. Even without his former levels of cultivation, he is still in possession of a strong body, and already he finds the sun, beating down from above, nearly unbearable. It’s a dry heat, the aggressive, feverish kind that scalds bone-deep, nothing like the thick Yunmeng wet of his youth. The women gathered behind him shuffle and tug subtly at their simple, dust-edged robes, drooping a bit where they stand—they must be feeling even worse than him.
“There’s an area with shade just up ahead,” he adds. “Let’s stop there.”
Liu Qufeng gives him another grateful smile, dark eyes crinkling at the corners, and starts ushering the rest of the women towards the clearing.
Wei Wuxian turns back to his donkey, bracing himself to drag her bodily towards the field, and promptly falls on his ass when she moves forward without resistance and trots off to the side of the path.
“Y-you! You horrid beast!” Wei Wuxian clambers to his feet and dusts himself off furiously. He wasn’t exactly fresh and clean before falling, anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing.
Little Apple turns her head and gives him a contemptuous look, and returns the swat at her hindquarters with an irritated flick of her bristly tail. Wei Wuxian huffs. “You won’t get your way every time, just you wait!”
The women settle down in the shade of the oak trees, easing their baskets and bundles out of their arms to set them on the ground and wipe away their sweat. The heavier packages are tied to Little Apple’s back, each wrapped in rough and faded cloth—she brays plaintively until Wei Wuxian relieves her of her burdens and leads her to a trunk, leaving her there to graze at the softer grass that hides in the shade at the base of the tree.
Wei Wuxian sits down as well, tucking in his limbs and settling into the ground a few feet away. The grass is yellow where the sun touches it, parched dry from the hot and unrelenting summer, and it crunches under his body when he shifts. Stray bits of it cling to the fabric of his robes, caught by the rough fibers. It’s similar to the hay Little Apple turns her nose up at, during the times they chance upon an inn that has an empty room for Wei Wuxian to rest his sore and aching body.
Wei Wuxian picks at the grass slivers idly, sliding out brittle segments from the tangle of his robes and flicking them in Little Apple’s direction. “This is what I should be feeding you, you spoiled monster.”
Little Apple shuffles until her butt is facing him. Alright.
Finished with taunting his donkey, Wei Wuxian leans back, closing his eyes and letting the buzz of the cicadas fill his ears, feeling the prickle of tree bark at his back. There’s a slight tenderness in his shoulders, maybe from his night hunt at the last town, and he can feel the stinging beginnings of a sunburn forming on the back of his neck. His mouth is dry, lips probably cracking. A toe pokes through the hole in his right sock, and he wiggles it absentmindedly—he’ll need to mend that soon, borrow a needle and some thread from a family at whichever village he wanders into next. Maybe try to get a bath too, since it’s been a while since his last proper soak.
It’s something new he’s been doing, this feeling. This sitting back and listening to his body
and its aches, the things it feels and smells and hears. In the absence of an enemy beyond the usual yao, of the fierce corpses that appear every now and then, what Wei Wuxian has now is time to feel. To simply lie back and experience every twitch, every pang, every little throb of pain and pleasure, something he hasn’t had the luxury of doing for a while now—not since the Burial Mounds, pushing down constant fear and exhaustion, and the hunger that never went away. Not since the Sunshot campaign and its dizzying triumphs. And the blood. And the madness.
Not since even earlier, and his attempts to ignore the gaping hole at the center of his being, at the emptiness, the sheer horror of it all. His cold, cold body, knocked off its equilibrium, cracked open and screeching for the return of his golden core.
(Is this body his?)
It’s so hot now, even in the shade. Sweat beads at his temples, meanders down the planes of his face. The cicadas drone on. There’s a particularly loud one in the branches above his head.
If he squeezes his eyes shut harder, lets himself drift further, he can almost feel the cool mountain breeze in his hair, washing away the heat. The sea of clouds swirling at his feet that rises to form mist in the air, damp and soft on his skin, hazy against dark stone and flowing waterfalls. A flash of white—
Wei Wuxian’s eyes snap open, and summer falls back over his body like a shroud.
There’s a small boy crouched at his feet, just a couple steps away, staring curiously into his face. When he sees that Wei Wuxian’s eyes have opened and that he’s looking right back, the child shies away a bit and starts fidgeting with his sleeves.
Wei Wuxian grins, wide and toothy. How cute!
“Yes, gege is at your service!” He says teasingly, and lifts his hands in a bow. “And how might I help this young master?”
No reply is offered. The boy continues to play with his fraying sleeves, chubby hands tugging on a string that grows steadily longer. His little mouth purses in determination, cheeks puffing out, and just as Wei Wuxian is about to reach out and pinch at that darling little face, he receives his answer in the form of a cloth bundle to the face.
The boy then turns on his heel and is off like a shot before he can even respond. His little legs bring him straight to Liu Qufeng. Must be her son, then.
He clings to her skirts even as she scolds him gently and ushers him back closer. “Qing-er, you can’t throw it at him like that!”
For a moment, it’s as if Wei Wuxian was dropped into a memory.
Just for a second, he sees a different little boy, just as full-cheeked and adorable as the one in front of him, hanging onto sky-blue robes. Just for a second, it’s him scolding that boy, chiding him for putting his dirty little fingers into his mouth. He blinks, and the image disappears.
Liu Qufeng has made it all the way to his tree, and she gives Wei Wuxian an apologetic look. “Wei-gongzi, I’m so sorry. Qing-er is still young and a bit shy with strangers.” She attempts to nudge her son forward but the boy presses closer to her thigh, tiny face half hidden. One big eye peers out from where his face is smushed against her leg.
“It’s nothing,” Wei Wuxian laughs, and says without thinking, “My A-Yuan used to be like him too.” Ah. Shit.
Liu Qufeng’s eyes widen, and she beams in delight. “Oh, I hadn’t realized Wei-gongzi was a father! If he takes after you at all, I’m sure your son will grow up to be a wonderful young man.”
Correcting her would necessitate an awkward explanation about how exactly he has a teenage son when he looks so young himself, and Wei Wuxian isn’t in much of a mood to explain the ins and outs of cultivation. Scrambling for a proper response—and pressing down on the voice in his head that chants, your son, your son, your son —he blurts out whatever nonsense comes to mind first, hoping that it will magically re-organize itself into a coherent reply on its way out his mouth.
“Yes! He will grow up well. Because he definitely is still a young child, not at all grown up. Just a baby, my A-Yuan. So small.” Oh, gods.
Liu Qufeng gives him a strange look, but he just pretends that the heat is getting to him, throwing in a little wobble for good measure, and she reaches out in worry, brow creased.
“Wei-gongzi, you must have journeyed far!” She presses him back insistently, surprisingly strong despite her small stature, and unties the cloth bundle to reveal the fuzzy fruits within. “Sit back, sit back. Here, I have so many pantao that it would be a waste not to share them, there are several in there.”
Another young lady hurries over, holding a water gourd in her tanned hands. She shakes it, making the liquid inside slosh against the walls. “Gongzi, you must be thirsty, have some water as well.”
A shout comes from over by the boulders: “Ah! Over here, Xu-jie has extra mantou, would gongzi like some?”
When the bustle of concerned women dies down, Wei Wuxian is left with a freshly filled waterskin, a lap full of pantao, and a mantou in each hand.
He tries the fruit, first.
The skin of the pantao is baby-soft, pink and pale yellow and velvety in his hands. The flat little peach is just the right size to rest in his palm, and he stacks three up like the acrobats in traveling show from the last town, where they did flips and kicks and stood on each other’s shoulders to the banging of drums, loud shouts and ringing and red-blue-gold as he watched from the enraptured crowd.
Wei Wuxian is a bit old to be playing with his food, but the Yiling Patriarch was never normal, so he lets the stack teeter and wobble before they tumble back down into his lap.
When he bites into the yellow flesh, it’s plump and sweet—plucked off the branches at the perfect time, ripe near bursting. The juice gushes against his tongue.
(But is this tongue his? Is this body his? It looks like him, walks like him, talks like him—but something is off. Of all people, Wei Wuxian is intimately familiar with the fact that things are rarely as they appear. His cheeks flush redder, now; the mole under his lip is gone. This flesh, these bones; can he call them his own, or are they just stolen goods, taken from Mo Xuanyu’s body in that awful ritual and twisted in his image? This shuddering heart, to whom does it belong?
He doesn’t remember if peaches tasted like this, in his first life, in his first body. If they were sweeter or not, more tender in his mouth. If the fuzz of their skin felt just like this, under his fingertips.)
When he finishes his fruit, he is left holding the hard, ridged stone from the center, and he sucks it clean before dropping it to his side. The juice on his fingers is licked away.
A soft whinny, from behind. Wei Wuxian turns to look, and a little donkey head is pushed right into his space, foul temper of barely ten minutes ago already forgotten.
Woe is me, her gaze seems to say. Sad little creature that I am, laboring all day in the unforgiving sun, while my master feasts on bountiful plenties and denies me the same pleasure...
“No. No, no, absolutely not, you—you manipulative devil! Look there, look at all the grass you’ve already had! You’re still chewing!”
Little Apple simply scoots closer, shameless despite the incriminating evidence clinging to her endlessly-working jaw. She nibbles gently at his sleeve, sweet as anything.
Oh, the ringing of my empty belly! her eyes cry out. Had I the strength to weep, my tears alone would quench these fields!
“Ah! I can’t believe this!” But even as Wei Wuxian protests, he splits a pantao in two, pushing the stone out with his thumb, and offers it up to the donkey, who lowers her head and gobbles it up eagerly. He rubs his hand across a soft silver nose—wiping the peach juice off his skin on the nearest surface available, most certainly not petting her or anything like that.
Awful thing. One day he’ll show her who’s boss, really.
Even with some of his goods stolen by a sneaky donkey, he still has enough pantao to stretch out over a day or two, so he carefully bundles them back into their cloth wrapping and slips it into his qiankun pouch. It’s a new one, snowy white and embroidered with blue thread, one of several parting gifts from the Cloud Recesses. He keeps it as clean as he can, despite the inevitable dirtiness that comes with traveling.
He turns his attention to the rest of his meal. The mantou are warm from being under the sun. They’re simple—not like the fancy ones he’s had in his youth, fried golden and drizzled with sweet condensed milk, or twisted into spirals and dotted with green onions—but when he rips one in half, it’s still fluffy and soft. Crumbs fall to his lap as he eats, and he alternates bites with sips of lukewarm water.
Wei Wuxian chews steadily, enjoying the simple pleasure of his belly being filled.
When he finishes eating, Wei Wuxian spares a glance at the forgotten peach stones in the dirt at his side. If he put them in the soil, would one grow?
In his mind’s eye, a tree bursts out from the yellow grass, fresh buds sprouting. A shower of pink petals in the spring, plump fruit on dark branches in the summer.
It hasn’t rained in months. The soil here is too dry and thin to nourish something so young.
(He buries them anyway.)
As he sits in the shade, sated and slightly drowsy, a high, young voice draws his attention.
“A-niang, someone sat on the peaches! They’re all squished!”
Qing-er, one tree over, stands aghast with a half-open sack of pantao clutched in his tiny hands. His mother hurries over.
“Qing-er, that’s how pantao are supposed to look.” A pause, then the muffled thud of something soft hitting the ground. “Wait, let niang hold it, don’t bruise them!”
The sack of fruit saved from an untimely end and her son’s hands occupied with a half-eaten bun, Liu Qufeng swings the little child into her lap. Wei Wuxian winces, unable to imagine the heat of another sweaty body in this already-blazing summer. Ah, the strength of a mother.
Even eating, Qing-er persists. “A-niang, why are the pantao flat?”
Liu Qufeng smiles indulgently. “When Qing-er bites a peach, the juice goes down his chin and all over his hands, doesn’t it?” she says, bouncing him gently. “Your mouth is so small, it can’t fit the whole thing!”
Qing-er nods seriously, and opens his jaw to demonstrate just how small his mouth is. Wei Wuxian hides a snicker behind his hands when a bite of half-chewed mantou falls out as well.
Liu Qufeng cleans it up with swift hands, and when the boy reaches his grubby little baby hands out, she passes him a pantao.
“Well,” she continues, “the Heavens saw Qing-er running around with peach juice all over, and they exclaimed ‘Oh, skies above! Never before has there been such a sticky little boy!’”
Here, the woman tickles his round tummy, and he squeals with laughter, kicking short legs and almost dropping his fruit on the dusty ground.
“Careful, Qing-er, hold it well. This pantao was made by the Heavens, just for you! They made it small and flat like this, perfect for fitting into little mouths, so that you would have no trouble eating it, and they sent it down to you and knew you would like it!”
Qing-er’s mouth makes a little o-shape, and big dark eyes go even wider. “They made it special just for me?”
Liu Qufeng holds back a smile. “Of course! And Qing-er, you must treasure this special gift, and eat it carefully and neatly, because the Heavens would be very sad if they saw their special pantao still creating a mess when they spent so much time making it a special, un-sticky peach.”
By now, Qing-er is squirming, practically in raptures at the thought of a fruit made just for him. When he finally tucks into his pantao, he takes small, painstaking bites, careful not to get the juice on his clothes. It’s awfully cute.
In the privacy of his own mind, Wei Wuxian thinks that a dribble of peach juice hardly does much to worsen the inherent stickiness of a toddler.
Then again—he recalls the ordeal of cleaning A-Yuan’s stringy drool off of Chenqing. The exasperation that came when the saliva would also leak and dribble onto A-Yuan’s clothes, even though they were always slightly frayed and stained anyway. His continued insistence that A-Yuan remain as happy, plump, and clean as possible, despite the hanging fog of resentful energy and the gnawing at their empty bellies and the unrelenting dirt of the Burial grounds, clinging on to everything and everyone and never quite washing off.
Truly, every bit matters, he thinks, when it comes to one’s son.
Later, as the scorching day cools into a slightly less scorching afternoon, they steel themselves, heave their packages in their arms, and head back onto the road.
Later yet, after Liu Qufeng’s family bullies him into staying the night for helping carry packages—he’s refusing as politely as he can before little Qing-er tugs shyly at his robe, and then, well, he has no choice but to accept—Wei Wuxian sits down at their table, shadow cast long and thin by the candle that spots the rough wooden surface with thick drops of beeswax.
Blanketed by the midnight dark, haloed by the flickering flame, he begins to write a letter.
Just as the mountains stand unchanging and the green rivers flow ceaselessly, we will meet again — and between then and now, you cannot hope to avoid my letters, either! Haha! Lan Zhan, I’ve seen so many things and met so many people, and it’s only been a month!
I miss you already
It’s so hot that I find myself missing the wind in Gusu’s mountains.
Your poor Wei Ying is I’m melting away, Lan Zhan...
I’m realizing now, sixteen years is a long time to be away — the world is vast, and quite a bit different than I remembered. And in sixteen years, a child can also grow up into a man! It’s your job to catch me up on A-Yuan’s fun childhood stories! I do remember hearing something about a pile of rabbits...