After Yi City, after the tale is told and the guilty punished and the dead have been left to the dead, after one mystery has been solved and another unburied—after the bright, piercing nostalgia of the market, after wine has been drunk and plans made with courteous bows and wary, sad-eyed smiles, Wei Wuxian turns away and doesn’t watch as Zewu-jun takes his leave. Maybe it’s rude, but he’s had enough of endings for one day.
And so it’s settled. In one month, he will accompany the Twin Jades of Lan to Koi Tower (such exalted company for poor mad Master Mo!) and they will see what there is to be seen.
Wei Wuxian throws himself down at the table with more energy than he actually feels. The candle flame flickers urgently: he may have let his elbow stray a little close. Lan Wangji shoots him a disapproving look, and Wei Wuxian grins back, waggling his unsinged forearm in reassurance. See, Hanguang-jun? Nothing’s on fire that isn’t meant to be.
Lan Wangji settles opposite him, robes rippling and spreading, delicate as a leaf falling onto still water. He watches, face impassive, as Wei Wuxian pours himself another cup of wine and downs it in one go. Some of the wine splashes over the sides and Wei Wuxian makes a show of blotting it away with the back of his hand.
It’s good, of course, to have a plan. Wei Wuxian’s never been much of a planning-ahead kind of guy, but he can appreciate the utility, especially in a case like this and against such an enemy.
Still, it itches at him, the feeling of pause, of momentum lost. Ever since his resurrection he’s been in motion, puzzling through the requirements of Mo-gongzi’s final curse or chasing after the mystery of the sword ghost.
Now, with everything so neatly parcelled and procrastinated, he feels suddenly adrift, vulnerable to every wayward current and shift of tide. He can feel, for the first time in days, the draw of the past in undiminished force.
It’s not the only thing that pulls at him.
—blind eyes, dead eyes, dead and dead and tongueless mouth—
Luckily, there's an easy remedy for too much thinking.
He sets the cup down and reaches for the bottle, but Lan Wangji is quicker, snatching up both cup and bottle before performing the office himself with a delicate tilt of the wrist.
Wei Wuxian breathes out a laugh, his smile relaxing into something more genuine. Something throbs beneath his breastbone, a fondness as much pain as pleasure.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he sighs, accepting the cup. “So good to me. What would I do without you?”
He means it rhetorically, but Lan Wangji answers anyway:
Wei Wuxian blinks, pausing with the cup raised halfway to his lips. “Eh?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes flick downwards and to the side, but his voice—though stiff—is steady.
“The question need not arise.”
For a moment, the world goes soft and round with astonishment. Then Wei Wuxian’s heart kicks into motion like a startled rabbit.
He lets out a nervous giggle. “So bold, Hanguang-jun! But really, you mustn’t say such things. You’ll turn my head!”
He sees Lan Wangji frown, sees him open his mouth, no doubt in preparation for another succinct and shattering pronouncement, and throws up a hand.
“Don’t,” he says, pulse still racing, breathless and too rough. “Don’t make promises.”
He knows about promises, the way they take the flexible stuff of possibility and mould it into something brittle, something that can never bend under pressure but only hold or—eventually, invariably—crack. To make a promise is to invite the inevitability of its breaking.
(He knew two men who made promises once. Their promise was a dream, was a future, was the foundation of a better, juster world. Their promise was together. And look where that got them.
—trembling fingers dancing over the inscription of a dead man’s blade; a shattered saint knelt stricken in the city of corpses and dust— )
He’s not looking at Lan Wangji anymore, but somehow he can still feel the moment he gives in—can sense without seeing the dip of his head, the miniscule easing of his posture.
He stares down at the wine in his hand—rolls his wrist, watching the liquid tilt and swirl—and wonders why he doesn’t feel more relieved.
He puts the cup back on the table.
They don’t talk about it, is the thing. Ever since he came back everything has been noise and urgency and confusion and maybe he thrives in the chaos but he died in it once too, and it’s just… it’s been so easy, with Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji makes it easy. When they first met, Lan Wangji was a rock and Wei Wuxian the stream eager and bubbling around his edges, but now it’s Lan Wangji who shifts and flows and shapes himself to match. Somewhere in the long years of his absence, Lan Wangji has taught himself to be water.
And foolishly, selfishly, Wei Wuxian has let it be easy. Hasn’t questioned how or why a stone might become a river, or how long such a transformation might last. Has let himself fall into step beside Lan Wangji, unthinking, natural as breathing. As if breathing, for him, could ever be natural. As if every breath he takes isn’t air unnaturally gifted from another man’s lungs.
Here is a story: once upon a time there was a man who broke the world and then broke himself and then died. Here is the same story, retold: Wei Wuxian had a home and then he lost it—built another and it was taken from him. You don’t have to be a genius to spot the pattern.
Sometimes he lets himself think that maybe, this time around, things could be different. Maybe one death was punishment enough. Other times…
The point is, they don’t talk about it.
He’s learned over the years to make room in his mouth for the things better left unsaid—has hollowed out a space for them behind his teeth and beneath his tongue. It’s not a comfortable solution, but it works. It’s that, or choke.
Across the table, Lan Wangji is watching him. Lan Wangji is always watching him these days, but Wei Wuxian is watching too, has spent what feels like years trying to learn him, the subtleties of his stillness and his silence. This silence holds a question.
Wei Wuxian lowers his chin and juts out his bottom lip, pouting outrageously.
“Aiyo, a whole month until Koi Tower! That’s such a long time, Lan Zhan! How are you going to entertain me?”
He looks up through his lashes as he speaks. Once, Lan Wangji would have flushed and scowled and turned away. But he’s not so easy to provoke these days; instead, he holds Wei Wuxian’s gaze, saying only, calmly, “How would Wei Ying like to be entertained?”
Now it’s Wei Wuxian who flushes, who breaks eye contact. He folds his arms behind his neck and leans back, staring at the ceiling.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not as picky as I used to be, you know. You can take me back to Gusu—”
That wins him a quiet but audible inhale. Wei Wuxian and the ceiling exchange smirks. Good to know Lan Wangji isn’t entirely immune.
“I’ll even let you play Cleansing for me. Every night, if you like. Before bed.”
“If you like,” Lan Wangji echoes. His voice is still calm but— Is Wei Wuxian imagining things, or has the timbre roughened, just a little?
His heartbeat stutters. This is treading close to dangerous territory. A bath has washed away the dirt of Yi City, but he can still feel it, a thin layer of poison and dust blanketing his skin, his hair, his lips, eyes, teeth and he can’t—
He scrubs a hand over his face, abruptly tired of teasing.
“Or we could play it together,” he suggests, leaning into the fantasy. “You could teach me. And I could help you with the juniors. They’re good kids, I think. Bright. Your uncle would throw a fit if he knew it was me, but he doesn’t, so that’s all right. Oh! And I can take you drinking in Caiyi town—you can finally try Emperor’s Smile!”
“It’s a crime you haven’t tried it yet, really it is. Your lot should make a rule about it: something about appreciating opportunities when they’re— Ah.” All the enthusiasm drains out of him at once. “But of course you’ll have things to do. Hanguang-jun has too many important matters to attend to to chase after the likes of me.”
“Not so,” Lan Wangji protests, and he sounds so serious, so earnest that Wei Wuxian has no choice but to sit up properly to look at him.
“But your reputation, Lan Zhan!” he exclaims, striving for lightness and not quite succeeding. “I may only have been revived two weeks ago, but even I know about the great and noble Hanguang-jun, who goes ‘wherever the chaos is.’ You must help so many people; how could I be selfish enough to deny—”
His throat tightens. When did that happen? His eyes feel hot; he blinks several times rapidly. What is the matter with him?
“I can send the juniors,” Lan Wangji says. “It will be good practice for them. Or…”
His eyes flick away briefly. It’s unlike him to leave a thought unfinished. Lan Wangji doesn’t speak much, but everything he does say has been weighed and planned and considered. Despite himself, Wei Wuxian finds himself leaning forwards.
“You could come with me. Help people with me.”
Wei Wuxian releases his breath in a rush. The room goes lenticular and soft again, washed in the tender pink sunrise of surprise. Really, he should be past the point of being surprised by what Lan Wangji is willing to do for him but—
“You would want me? Me, with my crafty tricks and lousy reputation? Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re not thinking things through.”
Except that’s not right, because Lan Wangji always thinks things through. But— He knows how Lan Wangji feels about his cultivation, so why—
“It would be an honour,” Lan Wangji says steadily, “to nighthunt alongside Wei Ying again.”
There’s a way he gets to feeling with Lan Zhan sometimes, more and more often these days—a giddy, air-starved lightness, like he’s standing at the foot of something: a cloud-tipped mountain, a well whose depths he has yet to plumb, a—
The memory slams into him without warning:
Eight characters carved into the dirt, the flash of a blade the tongue in a dead man’s mouth: Travel the world with Shuanghua. Exorcise evil alongside Xingchen.
He snatches up the cup and knocks it back, then reaches for the bottle. One drop falls into the empty cup. Two.
“Ah. Damn.” He laughs weakly. “That went fast, huh?”
Lan Wangji is staring at him again. Wei Wuxian ducks his head, avoiding his eye.
In one, graceful movement, Lan Wangji rises to his feet.
“I will ask the innkeeper for another jug.”
And then he’s turning, white robes flowing out behind him as he goes—
—a snowy figure and a dark one, upright and proud, side by side as they vanished into the distance—
—a broken man in dusty blacks, trudging down the winding path into the unknown—
(—white robes, red blood—a clifftop at the end of the world—a pale face rent with agony and then there was only darkness and the fall—)
He doesn’t stop to think, lunging sideways, grabbing at those pristine and retreating robes. But he’s failed to factor in the alcohol, the way it hits him now without a golden core to mitigate the effects—
The world lurches and lists. He flails, throws out a hand. There’s a jarring pain in his shoulder, and then he’s blinking up into Lan Wangji’s worried face.
“Ah. Ahaha. Uh. Whoops?”
Wei Wuxian takes stock of his situation. He’s sprawled on his side, one arm twisted awkwardly under him, the other hand resting on the edge of Lan Wangji’s pooling outer robe. His legs are lost somewhere amidst the tangle of the stool and his own robes.
This… would really be very humiliating for someone with a thinner face. Good thing Wei Wuxian is so shameless.
He lets his hand close around textured silk, and for this one, singular moment allows himself no regrets.
Lan Wangji is on his knees, ignoring Wei Wuxian’s objections in favour of easing him up off his protesting shoulder, holding his weight as he kicks his legs free, guiding him upright into lotus position. His touch feels impossibly soothing, somehow cool and warm all at—
“Lan Zhan!” he scolds, releasing his grip on Lan Wangji’s robes to bat the offending hand aside. “So rude! Do you really think I’m that fragile?”
Lan Wangji’s jaw is mulish, his fingertips still faintly aglow with spiritual energy.
“I was merely ascertaining the extent of your injuries,” he says.
“You could’ve asked.”
After a moment’s consideration, this wins him a grudging nod. Wei Wuxian shakes his head, filled with a familiar, fond exasperation.
“Well,” he says, dusting his hands on his thighs and beginning to rise, “as you’ve probably seen, I’m fine. Just a little tumble. Guess I’ve had enough to drink for this evening, huh?”
So there’s no need to go to the innkeeper, he doesn’t say. So there’s no need to go at all.
Fussily, he twitches his robes back into place, tugs back the hair that has begun to fall from his ponytail.
Lan Wangji has lingered on his knees.
“You wanted to say something to me,” he says quietly. “You asked me to wait.”
Wei Wuxian’s hands still.
Now there’s a question.
Was there something he wanted to say? He remembers only the swell of panic, sharp and sudden, as in response to an immediate threat. And beneath the panic, a muddle: the sense of timelines merging, of histories echoed and blurred. As if Lan Wangji might have walked out of the room and into a story already written.
Don’t go, he might have said—might have meant to say. Stay with me. Don’t leave.
Because they don’t talk about it, they don’t, they don’t talk about it but the day has left him bloodied and raw and now he’s drunk and choking on a sorrow only partly his own and he just wants—
It scares me sometimes, he might have said, how much I need you—how much I’ve grown to need you. Does it scare you? It should.
Sometimes you’ll leave the room or turn the corner and I can’t see you and I’ll know, then, that I really am dead, and all of this is just a dream. I think I dreamed, when I was dead. If I concentrate hard enough I can almost remember. There were… voices, I think. Yes. When I was dead I dreamed there were voices.
Sometimes I’ll pick something up, and even now, Lan Zhan, even now it shocks me. I keep thinking my fingers will pass through. But only when you’re gone. Never when you’re there.
I don’t really belong in this world. Not anymore. But you— I could belong with you, I think. I could belong to you. If you wanted. If you—
He curls the fingers of his right hand—the one Lan Wangji can’t see—until nails bite into his palm, and forces a grin.
“Oh, that. Just a whim! You know how impulsive I am, especially when I’ve been drinking.”
Lan Wangji is frowning. Wei Wuxian wants to reach down and thumb away the faint lines between his brow. Instead, he forces himself to hold his smile as dark eyes rake across his face, searching.
Finally, Lan Wangji nods, rising to his feet—not believing the lie, but accepting it. Shouldering it. Another weight added to the pile.
There’s a prickling in Wei Wuxian’s throat. He wishes he knew how to be less of a burden, when it comes to Lan Wangji—how to give more than he takes.
Lan Wangji has turned away. His back is straight but his robes flare out behind him, a gentle curve, like the first brush stroke in the character for resignation. And it’s intolerable—obscene—that Lan Wangji should be standing there so stiff and silent and hurting and all because of him, but at the same time, what can Wei Wuxian do? He won’t lie to him, but he can’t tell him— so many things, and what’s worse is that he could, right now, because he’s drunk enough and desperate enough and the words sit loose and jumbled on his tongue, and that just makes it more imperative than ever that he not, that he stay in control—surely he must’ve kept these secrets for a reason—
“I can’t stop thinking about them,” he hears himself blurt, and his heart stops.
It begins, sluggishly, to beat again a moment later when he’s actually had time to process what he’s said. It’s more than he meant to say, but less than he feared. And then, because he’s already said it, and because, though Lan Wangji must know who he’s talking about (who else could it be after such a day?), it seems somehow important to speak the names aloud: “Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen.”
It’s like sketching in the last lines of a spell: for a moment he’s sixteen again and wind blows sweet through the summer grasses as he watches two men bow together on a dusty mountain pass. They are young, for all their accomplishments—not so many years older than Wei Wuxian himself. They have their whole lives ahead of them, as Wei Wuxian too has his whole life ahead of him, and the way they move together is the mirrored grace of an object and its reflection, the conversation between light and shadow. Wei Wuxian watches them and feels the presence of Lan Wangji beside him and it feels like drawing open the doors to the world, like stepping out from thick forest to the vastness of open sky…
Here, now, between the close and weary walls of their hired rooms, there is only silence, drawing out so long that Wei Wuxian begins to wonder if it was a mistake to mention it at all. Then:
“I also,” Lan Wangji says.
Well, yes. Of course, yes.
Wei Wuxian rubs his nose and exhales a laugh, mostly out of reflex.
“Right. Right, yeah, I mean, how could you not? I guess we’re all going to be thinking about it for a while, huh? Such a terrible tragedy. The juniors were especially cut up about it, weren’t they? Poor kids.”
Ugh. He sounds like a marketplace gossip, clucking and trotting out lines of hackneyed sympathy.
He wonders if Wen Ning is still lurking outside the inn; if there’s some way to fob Lan Wangji off long enough to slip out and join him. The night has always opened itself to him. The night has never asked of him more than he could give.
“It… is a tragedy,” Lan Wangji agrees. He sounds… not quite hesitant, but like he’s choosing his words with even more care than usual. “But. That is not the reason I have been thinking of it,” and he catches and holds Wei Wuxian’s eye.
Of course. Of course Lan Wangji—who everyone calls unfeeling but who Wei Wuxian knows is anything but—couldn’t fail to notice the similarities. The way the jagged blade of horror was sharpened still further by that likeness. The fractures, unhealed; the misunderstandings, unresolved—the needless cruelty of their ending…
It could so easily have been him and Lan Zhan. Watching the tragedy of Yi City unfold through a blind girl’s eyes, he felt the ache of every wound like something remembered. Watching Song Lan, the caress of his fingers over the lid of his friend’s coffin—as though even now, a hand’s width away in his still and quiescent death, Xiao Xingchen remained unreachable, infinitely removed from the possibility of touch— it felt— it felt like it was—
Emotions flicker across Lan Wangji’s face like fish darting below the surface of murky water, and Wei Wuxian is a fool. Of course it felt like it was them. Of course it did. Because it was them; it has been them.
Until a few scant weeks ago, it was them. It was them for sixteen years.
The scope of it hits him all at once. He feels blindsided; he can’t compass it. It could as easily have been a century. More than half Wei Wuxian’s lifetime: Lan Wangji knew Wei Wuxian for less than a quarter of the time he took to mourn him.
Did you spend all those years looking for me? he asked, and Lan Wangji didn’t admit it outright, but the way he ducked his head and looked to the side…
Wei Wuxian sees the stretch of it in the downward cast of Lan Wangji’s eyes, the remittent tremor of his lip, and suddenly, containing within him that fathomless well of time, Lan Wangji seems to him just as huge and as unknowable.
He doesn’t understand. What could he have done to deserve a devotion like that? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing he’s ever done, singly or in sum, could possibly have earned it. But he was given it, all the same. Part of him wants to protest, to make Lan Wangji see that he’s not worth it, that Lan Wangji should bestow all that loyalty on a worthier object. But it’s far, far too late for that. He can’t take back those years of grief, anymore than he can unmake the choices that led to them, and he won’t insult Lan Wangji by trying.
He doesn’t want to try.
Didn’t he swear once to live without regrets?
He’s wasted so much time. Not just the years of his death, but the years of his life. And here Lan Wangji is before him now, still and lovely as a jade statue, yes, but Wei Wuxian knows the truth of him. He’s seen the blood that runs redly through his veins.
What a thing it is, to bleed. What a thing, to know life only in the losing of it.
They could die tomorrow, either of them. Both. Their enemy is clever and powerful; strong as they are, they can’t really hope to survive if the whole cultivation world turns against them. He’s never feared death, not for himself, but the image of Song Lan turning away, dwindling into the distance with everything left unsaid and gone to dust…
That is something to fear.
Something must have shifted in his expression, because the way Lan Wangji is looking at him, the slight inward draw of his brows, the questioning part of his lips…
Wei Wuxian wants to wipe that look away. To cut a finger and write himself into the blank spaces of Lan Wangji’s face.
And yet, when he opens his mouth, no sound comes out. How strange that now, of all times, his words should finally fail him.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji’s eyes are narrowed in concern.
Wei Wuxian huffs out a laugh, wiping his palms on the skirt of his robes. Idiot. Now you’re worrying him. Just spit it out already; it’s not like it’s ever been a problem for you before.
“Do you think,” he begins, and he can already tell his voice is too bright, grating, like a note played too loud and out of key, “do you think they were—” He falters. “Ah. You know.”
A blink. An infinitesimal shake of the head. Lan Wangji doesn’t know. Lan Wangji hasn’t got a clue what he’s talking about.
“Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. You know. Were they…?” He makes a crude but illustrative gesture.
Lan Wangji goes—and it hardly seems possible, but that’s Lan Zhan for you, always outpacing even your highest expectations—even more still. His face is perfectly blank but the tips of his ears have gone pink. Wei Wuxian wants to map the path of that blush with his tongue, to traverse the nautilus curve of his ear.
How long has he felt this way? Since the beginning, maybe. How long has he known it? Always. Never, until this moment. Never, until it was too late.
No, not that. They’re here. They’re together. They’re alive.
“I could not say,” Lan Wangji says stiffly.
Which, really, what else was Wei Wuxian expecting?
He pulls a face. “I mean, obviously you don’t know, no one knows . Except Song Lan, I guess, and he’s not going to be telling anytime soon. I just— What do you think?”
His fingers clench and unclench, crushing the fabric of his outer robe.
Lan Wangji lowers his eyes. His lips part in thought. Wei Wuxian watches, silent, burning.
“I do not think they were lovers,” he says at last.
Wei Wuxian exhales all on a rush. “Yeah.”
Hearing the word in Lan Wangji’s Gusu lilt… It’s too much. Really, it’s too much! He might not even survive this conversation if things keep on like that, and where would that leave Lan Zhan? Widowed twice over through Wei Wuxian’s idiocy. And Wei Wuxian himself: how embarrassing, to die twice without ever having once been kissed…
“Do you think they wanted to be?”
Another step. Another question which, once asked, cannot be unspoken. He feels like he felt in those last days of his first life, like he’s dancing ever closer to the edge of something, the path behind him vanishing as he goes.
Only this time, he wants to fall.
Lan Wangji raises his eyes to Wei Wuxian’s face, searching, like a man looking for answers in the night sky. No one else has ever looked at Wei Wuxian like that, like he’s that vast and complex and worthy of contemplation.
“Why are you asking?” he says, and then, seeming to correct himself: “What are you asking?”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian begins, because the name always steadies him, “what do you—” want with me, he can’t say. “Do you want—” he tries again, and bites down, frustrated.
Lan Wangji swallows. Wei Wuxian’s eyes drop, helpless, to track the working of his throat.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian’s breath catches. He feels distant, dizzy, removed from the ordinary flow of time. “Yes?”
“I want,” Lan Wangji says, and his voice is hoarse.
He says it like a confession, like the mere fact of desire is almost too big of a thing to be spoken. Maybe it is, for a Lan. He knew Lan Wangji cared about him—how could he doubt it? sixteen years— but there’s caring and then there’s… something else. The thought that under all that poise, those pristine robes, there might burn a flame to match Wei Wuxian’s own...
Wei Wuxian squeezes his eyes shut.
When was the last time he allowed himself to want, and to seek out what he wanted? Not potatoes over radishes. Something that mattered, something big and urgent and real, something like—
He chances a peek. Lan Wangji’s eyes are wide, dark and limpid. He is so beautiful Wei Wuxian can hardly bear to look at him, like the gleam of sunlight off of snow.
“You have to tell me if I’ve got this wrong. Promise you’ll tell, Lan Zhan, otherwise it’s no good.”
Lan Wangji hardly seems to be breathing. Did his jaw tremble just then, or was it only a flicker of the candlelight?
Wei Wuxian takes a step closer, half-drunk on hope and daring and the novelty—after so many years living and dying with his back to the wall—the incredible novelty of choosing.
“Lan Zhan. Promise me.”
And maybe it’s unfair, because Lan Zhan, in this new life, has denied him nothing, but Lan Wangji swallows once more, and says, “I promise.”
Wei Wuxian surges forward. He grabs the front of Lan Wangji’s robes, even as Lan Wangji catches him at the shoulder and the waist, stopping him—
No. Steadying him.
There’s barely three fingers of distance between them now. Wei Wuxian’s pulse is hammering in his ears; he’s never felt so aware of his own heartbeat, not since he first awoke on the floor of Mo Manor in a body that was and was not his own.
His name is little more than breath; he feels the passage of it against his lips. Lan Wangji’s voice is soft and lost and yearning. Shipwrecked.
Please, Wei Wuxian thinks, and then, because he doesn’t want to die a coward (not again), he leans in and closes the distance.