Lan Wangji woke up to something prodding his face. A blunt, insistent thud that dug into the hollow of his cheek enough times he felt the imprint of its ridged surface line his skin. The slumber it had roused him from was a deep one, so his limbs were heavy, and he didn’t bother swatting the annoyance away. It took him a minute to will his eyelids open and identify whatever it was that had awakened him.
He was greeted with a...shoe. At least, he assumed it was a shoe. It was unlike any sort of shoe Lan Wangji had seen before: bright green and oddly scaly in texture, with thread weaving up the length of the foot and laced into a lopsided bow. It was a low cut, ending just under a slim, tan, exposed ankle.
Lan Wangji looked at the ankle. He looked at the long leg the ankle was attached to. Then he looked up.
The man prodding Lan Wangji’s face with his shoe looked back down at him and smiled. The sky framing his face was a deep orange. Either near sunrise or near sunset, Lan Wangji wasn’t sure. He didn’t know what time it was. The realization concerned him.
“Hey,” the man said, the casual tone of his voice contrasting with the nonsensical nature of his appearance. The attire he was dressed in was almost eerie in its alieness, with the green shoes, patterned puffiness of his black coat akin to the fat rolls of a caterpillar, and tight-fitting trousers that clung to his long, shapely legs.
Perhaps he was an overseas merchant. Not a single one of Lan Wangji’s fellow countrymen would have the courage to go out in public and wear that.
Lan Wangji opened his mouth, then closed it. The man loomed over him, having to tilt his neck down to make eye contact. That meant Lan Wangj was on the ground. He took a quick look around to confirm this.
His surroundings — just like the scaly shoe and the strangely garbed man: oddly familiar yet entirely foreign — were even more pressing. But it would be best to tackle one conundrum at a time.
“I am on the ground,” Lan Wangji said.
“Yeah,” the man said.
“...Why am I on the ground.”
The man squatted down so he was only marginally towering over Lan Wangji’s prone form. His hair curled around his exposed ears, and was the shortest length Lan Wangji had ever seen on a grown man. “I was hoping you’d be able to answer that one.” When Lan Wangji made to stand, he offered him a gloved hand. When Lan Wangji stared at the hand without any intention in taking it, he let it fall back to his side with a nonplussed smile on his face and said, “I’m Wei Ying, by the way. And you are?”
“Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji,” Lan Wangji said, for he was nothing but honest. Then he said, “Wait,” because maybe honesty wasn’t the best policy when waking up on the ground of an unspecified location instead of the jingshi.
Or, no. He hadn’t been in the jingshi. He had been at the Library Pavilion, doing some supplementary research alongside his usual lessons. Today (or yesterday?) had been focused on talismans, more specifically transportation talismans. This type of talisman was infamous for requiring a great deal of spiritual energy to activate, and was mostly used by more experienced cultivators. Lan Wangji could admit that he wasn’t the most experienced with them, being more partial to musical cultivation; he remembered thinking how tedious it was to draw out and prepare them all. But he didn’t remember returning to the jingshi. Heat crept up Lan Wangji’s neck when he realized he must have fallen asleep at the Library Pavilion in the midst of his studies.
Now that he thought about it, Lan Wangji didn’t remember falling asleep, either.
The man — Wei Ying — waited. Lan Wangji pushed himself up and took another more in-depth scan of his surroundings.
Well, this definitely wasn’t the Library Pavilion, nor was it the jingshi. And it couldn’t be the Cloud Recesses. He wasn’t even sure if this was the human realm.
Harsh white and blue lights in all capacities, all directions, nearly blinded him. But no light could hide the wrongness of it all, the alieness, of the world Lan Wangji had woken up to. Gone were the familiar elegant landscape of the Cloud Recesses — as far as he could see were towering edifices that reached higher than mountains, their architecture blocky and uniform. The setting sun reflected against the innumerous panels that lined the entirety of each building’s flat faces, giving them all an orange, eye-watering glow.
And the noise. Gods, the noise. Not even the congested marketplace of Lotus Pier could compare. Piercing through the multitudes of chatter from passersby were blaring horns overlapping each other, and an indescribable hum that never ceased, almost like an energy Lan Wangji could feel crawling across his skin. The chatter and the horns and the hum came from no particular direction other than everywhere, attacking Lan Wangji’s eardrums with each blast of cacophony. He inhaled in an effort to calm himself, but even the sound of his own breathing was lost within the discordant racket.
“Where am I?” Lan Wangji asked Wei Ying. They weren’t alone; a constant stream of people milled around them, breaching past him and the man’s prone figures like the current of a waterfall streaming past a fallen tree trunk. Just like the man, each person was dressed in what Lan Wangji could determine as clothes only in that they wore them, and not because they were any sort of fashion Lan Wangji had seen in his lifetime. No one paid the two any mind, each footstep quick and focused, as if the only thing important to them all at that very moment was the destination they were walking towards.
“Suzhou,” Wei Ying said. His expression caught a touch of concern, then. “You...don’t know that you’re in Suzhou?”
Lan Wangji did not know a place called Suzhou. How could he be in Suzhou when just this afternoon he had been at home? “No. I...I am not sure how I got here,” he said, pushing himself up to his feet.
A wave of dizziness crashed against Lan Wangji’s brain when he stood, making him stumble the second he rose to his full height. Wei Ying hopped up from his squat and balanced him with a hand to his shoulder. “Whoa, you good?” he said as Lan Wangji struggled to overcome a harsh, unprecedented vertigo that made the back of his eyes sting.
Lan Wangji had never been this blindsided before, had never been so out of his element in a matter of seconds. Standing up only brought the unfamiliarity of his surroundings to a resounding clarity. The rectangular buildings, the endless crowd of strangely dressed people, the unbearable discord of noise. It was too much. Lan Wangji wanted to fall to the ground again, close his eyes again and open them to see the comforting walls of the jingshi instead of whatever this was.
He would have, if Wei Ying’s hand hadn’t still been loosely gripping his shoulder.
“So, Lan Zhan — uh, courtesy name Wangji,” Wei Ying said. Lan Wangji had to squint to see him through the dizziness. He was shorter than him, but only barely, and that damn smile was back on his face despite the absolute catastrophe that had started and continued to occur the moment Lan Wangji woke up to a shoe on his face. “You hungry?”
Lan Wangji was hungry. He was also stranded in the future, apparently. At least, if what his and Wei Ying’s subsequent conversation at a restaurant he was taken to was any indication.
“So you’re a time traveler,” Wei Ying stated. The restaurant was warm (surprisingly so, with a blast of comforting heat greeting them as they entered despite the frigid weather and lack of any visible heat source. Heating talismans, perhaps?) and he had taken off his gloves and his caterpillar coat, revealing the black and red long-sleeved garment he wore underneath.
An array of plates Wei Ying had ordered surrounded the centerpiece of their table: a cauldron, manufactured in that sleek, thin, impersonal metal that seemed to be favored in the future (the future!), embedded into the table surface. The waiter had turned a small dial on the table, and the cloudy, disconcertingly red broth boiled in minutes. Wei Ying was using steel tongs to drop the various dishes — beansprouts, mushrooms, thin slices of meat — into the broth, looking at Lan Wangji expectantly as he did so.
Lan Wangji only frowned. “Food has been served,” he said. “Do not speak while eating.”
Wei Ying raised an amused eyebrow. He did this alot. Lan Wangji had only known this man for about an hour and had already counted at least five eyebrow raises within this short timeframe. Maybe he thought it made him more attractive?
Well it did, if Lan Wangji was being honest. But it also gave him the air of a complacent prick, which was an archetype of man Lan Wangji was all too familiar with in cultivator society.
“When I wake up random guys in hanfu on the street and take them to my favorite hotpot place,” Wei Ying said, “I at the very least expect good conversation.”
Did he expect Lan Wangji to be grateful? His eye twitched at Wei Ying’s entitlement. “You did not need to.”
“What, do you have anywhere else to be?” Wei Ying’s face was smug, for he already knew the answer; as they’d waited for their food to arrive, Lan Wangji had made it clear that he did not. “So,” he said again when Lan Wangji glowered at him in response, “time traveler, huh?”
Lan Wangji sighed. Perhaps the situation called for some rule breaking. “I am a cultivator,” he corrected. “My arrival here was not intended.”
“An accidental time traveler, then.”
“By definition of the term, yes.”
Wei Ying popped a quail egg into his mouth and spoke while he chewed. “So you fucked up so badly while studying talismans, instead of traveling through distance you traveled through time? Damn. Sounds like me when I took the Gaokao.”
Lan Wangji stood out of his seat in an instant, hands balled into fists at his side. “If you are just going to — insult me — “
“No one’s insulting anybody.” Wei Ying raised his hands in surrender, having the minor decency to look apologetic. “Sorry, this is just a lot to take in. I use humor to cope.”
“But you haven’t said anything funny.”
“I use really bad humor that no one except me finds funny to cope.” he glanced pointedly at the mostly untouched food. “Please, stay and eat. I’m already paying for two.”
Reluctantly, Lan Wangji sat back down. Despite what he said, Wei Ying was taking this sudden information in stride, not once throughout Lan Wangji’s explanation of his current circumstances questioning him or his sanity. Cultivation was a lost art, Wei Ying had told him, and hadn’t been practiced as how Lan Wangji knew it for centuries. But up until now he acted as if Lan Wangji was an old friend instead of a man he found sprawled on the street claiming to be a time-displaced practitioner of a lifestyle long since abandoned.
When I wake up random guys in hanfu on the street and take them to my favorite hotpot place, Wei Ying had said. His wording implied that this was a regular occurrence. Did Wei Ying do this often? Waking up strangers on the street? Offering lost men a warm meal? He must, for what other reasoning could there be for a man to give a wayward stranger such generosity?
If this was truly the case...well. Such simple acts of charity foretold the makings of a man’s character more than any bad joke could.
Perhaps Wei Ying wasn’t as big an idiot as Lan Wangji thought he was.
“You don’t have any idea how you got here?” Wei Ying asked after Lan Wangji resettled himself.
Lan Wangji shook his head. “To my knowledge, there is no talisman that allows its user to travel time. I am just as clueless as you are.”
“Right. And you’re absolutely sure that the talismans were the cause of this. Not, say, something else? Someone with a grudge, like a jealous rival or whatever.” Wei Ying wriggled his eyebrows. “A jilted lover, even?”
“Nothing of the sort.”
“Right. Nothing fun, then.” Wei Ying stirred the cauldron — or, as he’d called it, the hotpot — with his chopsticks, brows furrowed in thought. “What’re you gonna do, then?”
“Research. During my studies, I must have accidentally done something that caused me to end up here.” A wrongly written character, an impure batch of cinnabar — the possibilities of what hours mistake could have been were endless.
“And how will you conduct this research?”
“A library.” Lan Wangji paused. “Are libraries no longer an available resource?”
“Of course they are, thank fuck. I probably spent more time at a library than my own apartment during university. But it’ll probably be hard for you to find the information you’re looking for.”
Lan Wangji winced at the reminder. The thought of cultivation being forgotten throughout the years filled him with inconsolable sorrow. The life he proudly upheld, lost, eventually failing to be passed down to the preceding generations…the greatest fear of any cultivation sect was to be forgotten, and it hadn’t happened to just one sect, but all of them.
Without the knowledge of his predecessors, how would Lan Wangji figure out how to get back home?
“I will find a way,” he told Wei Ying, less confidently than before.
“If you say so.” Wei Ying began to dig into the hotpot, and Lan Wangji reluctantly followed his example. There was a red sheen over the dishes he picked, flecked with chili flakes from the broth. He tentatively brought a piece of watercress to his lips and ate it.
His tongue immediately caught on fire. With a skill honed throughout decades of meditation and self-restraint, his face remained unchanged as his mouth inadvertently became the crater of an active volcano. Across the table, Wei Ying happily munched on, as if the broth he’d ordered hadn’t been pissed out by Zhurong himself.
He would not make a fool out himself. So Lan Wangji willed the tears of pain sprouting at the corners of his eyes to abate. His throat subsequently became molten when he forced himself to swallow.
“You could stay at my place as you figure everything out, I guess,” Wei Ying offered, unaware of Lan Wangji’s near death experience. “I have a really nice couch. Only minimally lumpy and very nice to sleep on.”
Lan Wangji blinked. “I — ” He discreetly coughed, then set his chopsticks down to wipe his now stuffy nose. “That is very kind of you to offer.”
Wei Ying shrugged. “I’d be an asshole leaving you to fend for yourself. You up for it, then?”
Wei Ying’s charitable nature toward strangers truly knew no bounds. How many other poor souls had he offered shelter to before him? With Wei Ying’s easy confidence this past hour, Lan Wangji couldn’t have been the first.
“How can I repay you?” He couldn’t, at least not monetarily. He had luckily arrived with his sword, but not with any coin (nor his guqin, which was unfortunate).
“Never asked for payment.” Wei Ying gestured at him with a sweep of his hand, and Lan Wangji had a feeling that he was, again, being mocked. “Daozhang’s esteemed company is more than enough payment for this lowly servant.”
Lan Wangji grimaced. He had noticed how lax Wei Ying and the other restaurant patrons’ tongues generally were, and had even gotten used to it throughout the meal. But when Wei Ying talked more formally, it oddly didn’t suit him. It sounded...weird. “Please don’t.”
That was the wrong thing to say. “Wangji-xiong?”
Wei Ying paused. “Gege?” he tried.
This made Wei Ying laugh. Loud and boisterous, carrying across the already raucous mayhem of the crowded restaurant. Lan Wangji should’ve found it as annoying, because objectively it was. But he found that he did not.
“Just Lan Zhan, then,” Wei Ying said. The smile on his face now was much less grating than the one he’d adorned for most of the afternoon. This one was softer, somehow, and only then did Lan Wangji notice that Wei Ying’s grin was crooked, one side lifting higher than the other.
Not Lan Zhan, either, Lan Wangji thought indignantly. But any more protests would only fuel Wei Ying’s teasing, so he didn’t reply.
Wei Ying took his silence as confirmation. “Well, Lan Zhan.” he said, returning to their dinner. “Eat up — work was a bitch, and I can’t wait to show you the apartment.”
Wei Ying’s home was located on the 24th floor of one of those tall, rectangular buildings Lan Wangji had gawked at earlier. It was less of a home and more of a cramped closet, tidy yet sparsely decorated, with an off-white couch taking up a good portion of the living room. A large window, paned with a smooth, perfectly translucent glass Lan Wangji couldn’t help but marvel at, took up the entire wall opposite of the front door, overlooking the bustling maze that was, as Wei Ying called it, Suzhou Industrial Park.
“You’ll be sleeping here,” Wei Ying said, pointing at the couch. “Lemme get you some blankets.” He left Lan Wangji in the living room and entered the adjoining bedroom to rummage through a closet, muttering to himself all the while.
Lan Wangji stepped closer to the window. It was dark outside, the sun having long since passed, yet the city was illuminated by thousands of lights on the buildings and streets so bright it might as well have been daytime. From here the crowds of people seemed to be one amorphous mass, like an army of ants crawling out its hill toward an apple on the ground. And from this high up he could see not just the crowds, but the entire city, laid out before him: the reflective buildings, the winding roads littered with those steel, multicolored beasts Wei Ying had called “cars,” the scant patches of green between flat asphalt.
That was it, that was how the future was in Lan Wangji’s eyes: flat. Not at all like the rolling lands he was familiar with; the stirring grace of the Cloud Recesses, the homely charm of Caiyi Town. Yes, this was the same land, the same earth — if he squinted he almost could see, underneath the flattened, industrial plains, the hint of the Gusu he knew. But it was not the same. It was not his. His heart clenched, and despite the crowds of people at his feet and the man muttering to himself in the other room, he felt profoundly lonely.
Lan Wangji did not belong here. He needed to find a way to get back home.
“I just realized something,” Wei Ying said from behind him. Lan Wangji turned around and saw that he had already laid a blanket and what looked to be a lumpy sack of cotton on the couch. In his hands were a pair of folded clothes. “This is — weird, isn’t it? I mean, I know this is weird. But this all must be really weird for you.”
Lan Wangji looked back at the window. “If you had told me this was Gusu,” he said quietly, “on any other day, I would not have believed you.”
“Because it’s not Gusu. Not the Gusu you know, at least.” Wei Ying walked beside him, staring ahead as well. “There’s a Gusu district nearby, though. Lots of historic places there that might be more familiar to you, too. I’ll take you there sometime, if you’d like.”
Lan Wangji glanced at him. The profile of Wei Ying’s face was thoughtful, as if he was trying to see the outside of his window the way Lan Wangji saw it.
“It won’t be the same,” he continued, “but maybe you’ll like it. Maybe it could even help you figure out a way back home.”
He realized that Wei Ying was trying to comfort him. He said, “I would like that. Thank you.”
Wei Ying shrugged off his gratitude. “But we can’t go now. Maybe not even this week; my new job’s been keeping me busy. So I won’t be home a whole lot in the day to keep you company, either.”
“You've already been more than hospitable to me.”
“I don’t wanna just be hospitable to you. I wanna help.” He scratched his head, then turned to Lan Wangji, handing him the clothes. “Here, put these on; they might be too small for you but they’ll do for now, at least until we get something that actually fits. Bathroom’s to the right. Tomorrow I’ll — I have work tomorrow, but after that I’ll teach you how to use the metro. You know, the train we used to get here from the restaurant? Oh — of course you don’t know what a train is, I’m stupid. But it’s the thing we rode on to get here, and you ride it to get to different parts of the city. There’s a library a few stops away, you can start your research or whatever there.”
Lan Wangji took the clothes. They were almost threadbare in their age, worn thin from multiple washes. “Thank you,” he said again, oddly touched at Wei Ying’s earnest offers of help, then began to head toward the room to the right.
“Wait,” Wei Ying said, “before you do that.” There was a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Do me a favor, one that’ll give me peace of mind knowing you’re not bullshitting me.”
Lan Wangji had never bullshitted anyone in his entire life. But Wei Ying couldn’t have known that, so he decided not to be offended at the justified skepticism Wei Ying honestly should have shown from the start. “What do you want to see?” he asked, preemptively reaching at the sword sheathed at his waist.
As expected, Wei Ying pointed at Bichen. “Can you fly on that thing?” he demanded. “According to every xianxia drama ever, you should be able to fly on that thing.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, long suffering.
Lan Wangji glared at him. “Here?”
With a sharp, frustrated exhale, Lan Wangji unsheathed Bichen and demonstrated that yes, his sword could, in fact, fly. When Wei Ying ordered him to step onto his sword, Lan Wangji begrudgingly complied, inwardly considering leaving this place to return to the streets — holding out on the hope that maybe another, more sane bystander may take pity on him and come to his aid. To anyone unfortunate enough to look through Wei Ying’s window at this instant, it must have been a pitiful sight to behold: a gentleman in white, face both impassive and decidedly haughty, levitating a hands-width off the ground on a sword in a shed of an apartment, showcasing this all to some guy whose jaw was dropped in awe, mouth wide enough for a fly to buzz in.
After spitting out said fly, Wei Ying gasped, “Dude. That is so cool.”
Lan Wangji did not know how anything he was currently doing could account as cool.
Unfazed at Lan Wangji’s silence, Wei Ying reached up like a baby wanting to be picked up by its mother, and tugged at Lan Wangji’s robes. “Pull me up, too! Up!”
Lan Wangji flinched out of his grasp in horrified revulsion. “You — how old are you?”
He was beginning to learn that Wei Ying had the innate ability to take anything Lan Wangji said and reply in a way that was the highest degree of offensively stupid. “Xianxian is three years old! Now, up!”
“This is my apartment?”
“Not until I ride that thing!”
Lan Wangji’s profound annoyance at the manchild before him replaced any hint of self-pitying loneliness he’d been wallowing in a few minutes prior. As Wei Ying cackled and Lan Wangji seethed, dodging any and all of Wei Ying’s attempts at climbing up beside him, he absently wondered if that had been Wei Ying’s intentions from the start.
True to his word, Lan Wangji rarely saw Wei Ying in the day. Only when the sun set did his newly minted roommate return to the apartment; he usually went to bed to the sound of Wei Ying fingers tapping on the strange book-adjacent object he called a “laptop,” his face illuminated by its cold blue light as Lan Wangji drifted off to sleep. The time they did share together was spent over hastily made dinners Wei Ying readied as soon as he came home — the single time Lan Wangji attempted to cook a meal as thanks for Wei Ying’s generosity resulted in a scorched ceiling and a lifelong ban from the kitchen.
“The waiter from the hotpot restaurant had made it look deceptively easy,” was Lan Wangji’s defense.
“The knobs of a hotpot are singularly different fucking entities from the knobs of a gas stove,” was Wei Ying’s reply.
Their shared dinners (which, since a brief heart-to-heart about the state of Lan Wangji’s tongue after the hotpot restaurant, had since become much more bearable in spice-level) mostly followed in a similar vein. Life advice must be included in the offerings Wei Ying gave to his charity cases, for he seemed to have taken it upon himself to teach Lan Wangji as much about the future as he could over the course of their evening meal. Taking no heed at Lan Wangji’s disapproving glares, he ate and talked about anything he deemed important for Lan Wangji to know, from cultural references to general yet imperative knowledge any human being would need to know in order to function in the modern world.
“And that is why,” Wei Ying said sagely one night over bowls of noodles prepared in the metal box he referred to as a “microwave,” “you never drink water straight from the tap.”
Lan Wangji had nodded solemnly despite his lack of comprehension. It was instances like these where he had to remind himself that he and Wei Ying spoke the same language.
In lieu of the unprecedented wealth of freetime alone he now had, Lan Wangji decided to get to the bottom of what exactly happened that night in the Library Pavilion. Now armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the metro, Lan Wangji traveled to the library Wei Ying recommended, and spent his days searching for a way to get back home. But the time he spent digging through the rows and rows of stiff, impersonally printed tomes yielded nothing of value. This was expected; it seemed like in this age, cultivation was relegated to folk legends and mindless entertainment instead of the way of life Lan Wangji knew it to be. He learned more during dinner with Wei Ying than the hours and hours of reading any library book claiming to regale tales of the cultivators of old.
Some of them did get certain concepts right, such as the basic teachings of cultivation and the general hierarchy of a cultivation sect. He even found a choice few to be entertaining, in that eye-glazing, brain-dead sort of way.
But did the authors and playwrights of the future truly believe the cultivators of old to be so melodramatic? Why did every book Lan Wangji pick up have to have a plot more convoluted than the canopy of a banyan tree? The headaches he had trying to keep track of every character and every relationship and every nonsensical plot contrivance rivaled the intensity of the sun. It certainly didn’t help that protagonists of many novels were all the same: power-hungry, ruthless, and without morals. Lan Wangji knew a good amount of his contemporaries who fit that bill — but there were many others who were principled, or at least tried to be. His brother, for example. Himself, if he were to be bold.
And what was with all the harems? Why did every protagonist fall in love with every girl he met? It was not uncommon for high-ranking individuals to have various lovers, but not all of them.
Is this how the future saw the cultivation world? A messy, hypocritical society full of bravado-soaked, morally reprehensible men in a constant state of near-collapse?
Fair. But still.
Four days after Wei Ying found him unconscious on a sidewalk, Lan Wangji voiced his complaints at dinner, with only a minimal amount of guilt about speaking during meals.
Wei Ying, unsurprisingly, laughed. “Xianxia novels aren’t supposed to be textbooks. They’re entertainment, not historical accounts. Though, to be fair, it seems like you’re more angry about the inherent theatrics of the genre, rather than cultivation representation.”
“What about this is fun?” Lan Wangji sniffed. “Do you think us fools? Easily swayed by emotion? Putting pride before reason? Common sense has existed far longer than you must think.”
“Blame the people buying these books; the author’s just trying to make a living.” Wei Ying set his chopsticks down, a telltale sign that he was about to give him some Future Advice. “Look, Lan Zhan, the future is cutthroat. The internet — I’ve told you about the internet, right? — has made it so you have to directly compete with every damn person in your industry. And I’m sure the xianxia market must be competitive as shit. An author who wants to get their book sold has to write what they know will sell. So what if the popular trend is stupid as all hell? If it works, it works.
“Moral of the story: sometimes, in order to get things done, you gotta suck it up and make shit up. Don’t forget that if you want to survive in this world.”
Lan Wangji glared at him, unimpressed. “I do not want to survive in this world,” he said. “I want to find out a way to get out of it.”
“Hey, advice is just advice. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to take it.” Wei Ying turned back to his food. “And it’s a good thing I’m here to give it to you, right?”
He looked up at Lan Wangji through his lashes, and maybe Lan Wangji would have found Wei Ying’s stare enticing if he wasn’t shoveling fried shrimp in his mouth.
Not at all enticing. But charming?
So Lan Wangji said, “Sure,” if only to appease the man who was allowing him to stay in his apartment for the foreseeable future. But when Wei Ying beamed at his approval, face lighting up like a moon cresting over the Gusu mountains, Lan Wangji hid his answering grin with a bite of shrimp.
On the fifth day of Lan Wangji’s predicament, Wei Ying took him shopping.
“This is not necessary,” Lan Wangji said when they boarded the metro, bodies swaying in tandem as the carriage jerked forward. “You have already done more than enough for me.”
“Have you figured out a way home yet?” When Lan Wangji shook his head, Wei Ying raised his hand in a “there you have it” gesture. “I can’t hang out with you in public with you only wearing my too-small hand-me-downs. People will get the wrong idea.”
What sort of idea? Lan Wangji wanted to ask. But he concluded that the question may bring forth more of Wei Ying’s weird Future Advice, so he wisely kept his mouth shut.
Nevertheless, Lan Wangji mulled over Wei Ying’s reasoning. Did most of Wei Ying’s guests leave his charity before it came to him having to buy them clothes? Had Lan Wangji overstayed his welcome? Wei Ying seemed to at least tolerate him invading his household, and even enjoyed his company at times. Lan Wangji hadn’t gotten any feeling that Wei Ying wanted him to leave.
I just need a little more time, Lan Wangji thought, his grip on the overhanging grab handle tightening as his and Wei Ying’s elbows brushed against each other, and then I will find a way home.
Wei Ying traversed through the endless crowds and sharp corners of this behemoth of a city with the ease of a man born of this sort of unmitigated chaos. Lan Wangji struggled to catch up, enough so for Wei Ying to notice and laugh at him. He grabbed the sleeve of Lan Wangji’s borrowed jacket — too short around his waist, tight around the shoulders — and said with a crooked grin, “So you don’t get lost.” He continued walking forward, dragging him through the masses, and Lan Wangji wasn’t lost anymore.
The marketplace (“It’s a mall,” Wei Ying corrected him. “Suzhou Center Mall, to be exact. Marketplaces are where you buy, like, fish and shit.”) he was led to had the same flashy grandeur Lan Wangji had come to associate with this new world. Each storefront was illuminated with beaming fluorescent lights to an eyecatching degree, and paned with that same impeccable, clear glass Lan Wangji still couldn’t wrap his head around.
“How do they get it so large? And so flat?” he asked Wei Ying, staring entranced at the storefront of what seemed to be a maternity shop.
“You fixate on the weirdest stuff,” Wei Ying mused with a hint of fondness. He tugged Lan Wangji along, his hand having moved from pinching Lan Wangj’s sleeve to a loose grip on his wrist.
The day was spent with Lan Wangji trying on whatever caught Wei Ying’s fancy. Modern clothing still put Lan Wangji off with how unlike they were from the flowing hanfu of he was used to, but he’d at least come to appreciate the tailored fits and creative prioritization of shape and figure that permeated current fashion trends. Each store they ventured into were filled with racks of ready-made garments, different sizes of exact copies of each design at the choosing. Everytime he took out his phone — a small, multi-use tablet Lan Wangji observed to be practically (and perhaps unhealthily) glued to every person’s hand, Wei Ying’s included — to pay for whatever fit, Wei Ying assured Lan Wangji that price wasn’t an issue.
“Fast fashion,” Wei Ying explained. “Convenient and cheap, if not inherently unethical.” At Lan Wangji’s questioning glance, he shook his head. “It’s a long story, I’ll tell you about it later.”
Lan Wangji would have preferred to hear the story now, actually. But at that exact moment Wei Ying smoothed out the fabric of the shirt he was trying on with an innocent hand down his shoulder blades, and the words shriveled pathetically in his mouth.
“It looks good on you,” Wei Ying praised as they stared at Lan Wangji’s reflection in the fitting room mirror.
Lan Wangji, unfoundedly flustered, only nodded in reply.
Perhaps it was the inherent nature of people born these days. This unabashed confidence, always eager to talk and to touch. Or maybe it was just Wei Ying.
He ended up putting his new clothes to good use soon after. Wei Ying’s brutal work schedule instilled in him a need to get out of the house, and they spent the next couple of days going to wherever Wei Ying’s phone deemed worth visiting. It turned out that he had only recently moved to Suzhou and was as a stranger to the city as Lan Wangji was. While still massive, being by Wei Ying’s side made the endless crowds and towering skylines a bit more bearable. Lan Wangji was now at least able to appreciate the sights not as completely alien, monstrous commodities, but as feats of engineering and architecture refined over the centuries (possibly even millennia; neither Lan Wangji and Wei Ying were quite sure what time he was from yet) he had skipped.
“This seems...excessive,” he observed, their heads craned up to watch a scrolling scene of dancing underwater sea creatures play out on a large bright screen — like the surface of Wei Ying’s phone, only exponentially bigger — sprawling over the packed walkway of Harmony Times Square.
“Almost seems like someone was compensating for something, hm?” Wei Ying returned. When he turned to find Lan Wangji judging him with withering disgust, he turned back to watch the screen with a self-satisfied grin so large it nearly split his face in half.
Compensating for something, indeed.
Nevertheless, Lan Wangji enjoyed their outings; it almost made him forget about his current status as a displaced time traveler. Boisterous character besides, Wei Ying proved to be nice company. He was quick witted and more than capable of carrying a conversation, even with Lan Wangji. Especially with Lan Wangji. And Lan Wangji couldn’t have predicted it, but he found that he enjoyed talking with him, too.
("You've been having neck pain?" Wei Ying asked as they waited in line for a stall selling handspun malt sugar, this particular day dedicated to gorging themselves with the food of Suzhou’s night street markets. "What, is the pillow I gave you not enough?"
"How is that sack of fluff supposed to be a pillow?" Lan Wangji knew he was being snide, but he thought the stiffness of his neck vindicated his snideness. "Nothing that soft could provide enough head support. I am surprised you future people don't have malformed spines, with how poor your sleeping postures are."
“Oh, so we’re future people, now?” Wei Ying teased. "Well, what did you past people use as pillows, then? Blocks of wood?"
"Ceramic, actually. Its firmness allows the neck to easily align with the spine."
"Sounds comfy." Another one of his crooked smiles. He seemed more amused than concerned.
Buoyed by the assurance that his uncle wasn’t around to see it, Lan Wangji rolled his eyes. "I am glad my sleeping discomfort entertains you."
At Lan Wangji's dry delivery, Wei Ying threw his head back and laughed, and he continued to laugh until it was their turn to order.
Ah, Lan Wangji realized with a belated blink as he watched Wei Ying pay for their food, he has dimples.)
When Wei Ying returned to his regular work schedule after a day of eating meigan braised pork belly and whatever else caught their eye in Eunuch Lane (“Eunuch Lane?” “Yes, Lan Zhan, Eunuch Lane.”), Lan Wangji almost felt a pang of resentment at whoever was taking up Wei Ying’s time that wasn’t him. Almost, because Lan Wangji wasn’t a selfish person, and besides, only tolerated Wei Ying at the best of times.
But after another five days alone at the library, fruitlessly searching for an answer he was only beginning to admit to himself wasn’t there — when Wei Ying came home from work with bags under his eyes and a hopeful lilt to his voice as he asked, “Do you want to go out again tomorrow? There’s this place with the best cracking eel paste I really want you to try,” Lan Wangji settled his heart as it leaped at the prospect of spending another day exploring the maze-like jungle of Suzhou with Wei Ying by his side, and said, “Yes.”
“Who the fuck,” Jiang Cheng asked, his teeth bared like a drenched cat, “is this guy?”
Lan Wangji frowned. Rude. Wei Ying had assured him that he’d informed Jiang Cheng, his adoptive brother, of Lan Wangji’s existence. Perhaps he was being so pissy because of the long transit; the train ride to Suzhou from Wuhan, Jiang Cheng’s city of residence, was five hours.
Only when Wei Ying pulled out a map on his phone (Lan Wangji was beginning to warm up to the thing — it truly did do everything, from being a sort of currency, to offering instant access to what was apparently the entire back catalog of modern day entertainment) did Lan Wangji connect the dots that Wuhan was located in the province he knew as Yunmeng.
From Yunmeng to Gusu in five hours. A non-stop, full speed trip by sword would have taken Lan Wangji at least a few days. Even after nearly two months, there were still times Lan Wangji could only gape in awe at the wonders of the world he was stranded in.
Wei Ying rolled his eyes. “You know who he is!” he accused. “This is my roommate, Lan Zhan. He’s a cultivator who accidentally time traveled here from the past, and he’s been staying at my place until he figures out a way to get back.”
“We have narrowed it down some time during the early Tang Dynasty,” Lan Wangji offered. It was something he’d been researching about on the side, when he wasn’t scouring through countless books about infuriating protagonists and their harems. Only recently did Wei Ying inform him of the future adoption of a foreign calendar over the lunisolar way of timekeeping Lan Wangji was used to.
The entire left side of Jiang Cheng’s face twitched. Still not having the civility to acknowledge Lan Wangji’s presence, he pointed a finger at Wei Ying’s chest and snarled, “Do you hear yourself? A cultivator from the Tang Dynasty? What the fuck is this shit? Wei Ying, he’s obviously grifting you. You’re being scammed. This guy’s a scammer and you’re too stupid to see it because you’re an idiot who’s getting scammed.”
“I am not a scammer,” Lan Wangji said, affronted at the accusation. Maybe it wasn’t the long train ride. Maybe Jiang Cheng was just, as Wei Ying would say, an asshole.
“He’s the real deal, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying said, and Lan Wangji warmed at Wei Ying’s immediate defense. “I made him fly on his sword and he did it. Well, he only really levitated a few centimeters off the ground and he refused to carry me on it...but only because we were in my shitty closet of an apartment. And you know he can’t fly outside. You have to register your drone before flying it around the city — how am I supposed to register a guy on a sword?”
Jiang Cheng threw his hands in the air. “Oh my god, I can’t help you. You’re too far gone. You’re letting a guy with some string wrapped around his forehead squat in your apartment because you think he’s a time travelling magician. What the hell am I gonna tell jiejie?”
“It’s a forehead ribbon, actually,” Wei Ying cheerfully replied. He seemed unphased at his brother’s passive aggressive defeat at the hands of his perceived insanity.
But Lan Wangji wouldn’t have it. “Allow me to show you,” he said, summoning Bichen to his hand.
Alarmed at the sudden appearance of a very real sword, Jiang Cheng’s anger-soaked bravado drained from his face. “What the fuck?” he said, stepping back at the metallic ring of Bichen being unsheathed.
“What the fuck,” he said when Lan Wangji made a hand seal to make Bichen levitate horizontally in the air, then lower to his feet.
“What the fuck,” he said again when Lan Wangji stepped on the blade with both hands behind his back, rising until his head bushed the apartment ceiling.
“I told you!” Wei Ying cheered as Jiang Cheng dashed to the space underneath Lan Wangji, waving his hands for something he wouldn’t find.
Jiang Cheng hissed as he fruitlessly searched, “This is — you’re shitting me. No way. You’re playing me, I don’t fucking believe it.”
“Believe it,” Lan Wangji said. Then, as a small treat to himself, summoned a sword glare — only a small one, a weak one, one with barely enough power to painlessly fling Jiang Cheng to the floor.
“WHAT THE FUCK,” Jiang Cheng yelled to the ceilng after regaining the wind knocked out of him, limbs sprawled across the living room floor.
Wei Ying’s preceding cackle was more than worth the trouble.
Jiang Cheng became less abrasive after that, cowed in the face of his false accusations. Wei Ying’s two days off from work was spent the way he and Lan Wangji usually spent it, the only difference being a disgruntled Jiang Cheng shadowing them.
"He does handstands in the living room?" Jiang Cheng spat, so offended Lan Wangji might well had insulted his mother. "Unprompted handstands?"
"They are good for the body," Lan Wangji said with a touch of condescension.
"I can attest to that," Wei Ying said with a wink.
"Ugh," Jiang Cheng said with a groan, "I wanna go home."
Why don’t you? a childish voice in Lan Wangji’s head shot back. He didn’t say it out loud, but the thought nagged at him. It didn’t seem like Jiang Cheng even wanted to be here, and the easy camaraderie he and Wei Ying exhibited was sometimes overshadowed by a tart tenseness that made itself known every time the two of them shared a long enough look.
If you are this ungrateful when gifted Wei Ying’s hospitality and his company, why don’t you just go home?
This was another ridiculous thought. Wei Ying’s attention wasn’t something Lan Wangji was obligated to have.
But he still would have preferred it if Jiang Cheng wasn’t there.
Jiang Cheng left later that weekend with a glower at Lan Wangji and a punch to Wei Ying’s shoulder. “Don’t work yourself too damn hard,” he told him when they saw him off at the metro, and Lan Wangji’s opinion of him slightly unspoiled at how even he could see the toll Wei Ying’s long work hours were weighing on him.
Wei Ying rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
Jiang Cheng shuddered at that. “Nope, not Mom, definitely not Mom. But anyway. I can probably come over again next month. Hopefully with jiejie, too.”
Wei Ying’s eyes brightened at the mention of his adoptive sister. “You think so? I mean, she must be so busy with the restaurant and all…”
“She wants to visit. Trust me.” Jiang Cheng punched Wei Ying in the shoulder again. Lan Wangji observed that maybe violence and general unpleasantry was Jiang Cheng’s way of giving affection.
Lan Wangji thought of his own brother; of his kindness and the easy way he showed his love despite the thousands of rules they followed as members of GusuLan. A pang of longing struck him then, so strong he took a step back from the immaterial yet tangible blow.
When they returned home, Wei Ying immediately turned on him and said, “You don’t like him.”
Lan Wangji huffed but couldn’t bother denying the accusation. “Was it obvious?”
“He’s not the most likable guy, I’ll admit. But we’re brothers.” Wei Ying shrugged. “Things have been kinda rocky between us and we’ve only begun patching things up. So I’d really appreciate it if you guys at least tried to get along? It’d mean a lot to me if you did.”
How long did Wei Ying expect Lan Wangji to stay with him? Enough to forge an adjacent relationship with his annoying adoptive brother, apparently. “I do not understand his hostility,” Lan Wangji replied defensively. “Is he always so suspicious of the people you ward?”
“Ward?” Wei Ying blinked. “People I...ward?”
Lan Wangji also blinked. “Yes?”
“Who are you talking about? What people?”
“The people you help?” This was beginning to become a conservation of questions. “The people you had offered food and shelter to before me?”
Wei Ying stared at him as if Lan Wangji had just unpromptedly began to recite the Zhuangzi. “There wasn’t anyone before you,” he said after a beat.
Now it was Lan Wangji’s turn to stare. “I do not understand.”
“I mean, I’ve donated to, like, charities and stuff. But this? Allowing some random dude to sleep on my couch for two months? No, you’re the first. And last, if we’re being honest.”
“But you said.” Lan Wangji scrambled for words. “You said that you often brought strangers you meet on the street to dinner.”
“What —” Wei Ying’s eyes widened in realization. “Are you talking about what I said at the hotpot place? Lan Zhan that, that was a joke. I was joking. I don’t take out random people to dinner, and I especially don’t bring random people to my apartment and let them crash on my couch for two months. Because that would be weird. Like, this situation is very weird for the both of us, much more so for you than for me. But still.”
“But why, then?” he had to ask. He felt awkward just standing there, so he began to take off his jacket. “If this is so weird, why did you do it for me?”
Wei Ying followed his example and plucked off his gloves, but his attention was still intensely focused on him. “God, I don’t want you to think I did it because I pitied you, but — I kinda did. I mean, you were knocked the hell out in the middle of the sidewalk and dressed in the nicest hanfu I’ve ever seen. So I woke you up, and you were so confused? Like you had no idea where you were? That’s why I brought you to the hotpot restaurant: it looked like you needed the help. And at that point, all the help I was willing to give you was a hot dinner.
“And then you started talking about cultivation and talismans and time travel. That’s some crazy shit. You know that, right? Like, that is some crazy. Shit.”
Wei Ying stared at him almost pleadingly, as if there was a point he was trying very hard to make. So Lan Wangji nodded. Yes, he agreed, Lan Wangji and the cultivation methods he practiced was, to a man whose familiarity with these things came only from flashy xianxia novels and dramas, “crazy shit.”
“You talked about summoning spirits with a magical guqin with the most earnest expression on your face,” Wei Ying said, “and you genuinely believed it. And — and I believed it, too. I mean, you eventually proved to me that you were a cultivator later at the apartment. But even then, at that hotpot restaurant, I believed you.” Wei Ying chuckled as if looking back on a fond memory. “How could I not? You have this air about you, Lan Zhan, and it makes me want to trust you. You don’t look like you've ever told a lie in your life.”
“I have never lied to you,” Lan Wangji murmured.
“So here I was, eating hotpot with a time traveler who didn’t know how to time travel,” Wei Ying continued. “What else was I supposed to do? Leave you there alone? Of course not. So I offered you a place to stay, and you took it, and Lan Zhan, I’m really fucking glad you did. You’re — ” Wei Ying cut himself off, then laughed. “I’m so glad you took it. You’re really great company.”
Well, when he put it like that...Lan Wangji did a quick self-reflection and concluded that his initial reasoning for Wei Ying’s kindness was flimsy at best, but not because of his inability to judge one’s character. Only now did he come to understand why Wei Ying helped him.
Wei Ying did not help Lan Wangji because he ran a homeless shelter out of his apartment for wayward time travelers. Wei Ying helped Lan Wangji because he was weird, and he was too trusting, and he was kind, and he was so, so lovely.
“Do you understand now?” Wei Ying asked him. He seemed oddly nervous. Ridiculous. As if Lan Wangji’s opinion of him could change because of a silly miscommunication that wasn’t even his fault. “There’s no one else. There never has been. Just you, Lan Zhan, it’s only ever been you.”
“I understand,” Lan Wangji said, because he did. Despite the unabashed cold weather they had walked through outside, his body was steeped in a blazing heat. “I apologize for the misunderstanding.”
Wei Ying waved off the apology. “You don’t need to say sorry. Not to me. And I know you still haven’t figured out how to time travel on purpose yet, so don’t take this as me trying to kick you out or anything. You can stay as long as you need to.”
Lan Wangji’s mood, which had been as high as a skyscraper, plummeted. “Ah. Yes.”
Misinterpreting Lan Wangji’s reaction, Wei Ying patted him on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t worry about it. You’ll find a way back home, I know you will.”
But that is the problem, Lan Wangji thought but didn’t say. Somehow, after two months stranded on a familiar yet foreign land millennia away from the Cloud Recesses, living in a closet of an apartment hundreds of li in the air with an annoyingly exhilarating boy, Lan Wangji found that he didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to leave at all. Not if it meant leaving this behind. Leaving him.
Pingjiang Road was in the historic part of Gusu District, running along a canal through the old town. It branched off to dozens of smaller alleys populated with businesses of all sorts, from foreign bakeries to a tea shop where customers drank beverages in the company of cats. The bare branches of willows arched across the canal, framing boats that drifted from dock to dock, their passengers pointing their phones at the flashy lights of the walkway of storefronts Lan Wangji and Wei Ying ambled across.
“The general architecture of the houses dates back from the Southern Song Dynasty,” Wei Ying said, looking down at his phone. “So a little after your time. But it should be a little familiar, right?”
Lan Wangji nodded. It was impossible to ignore the obvious signs of modern technology mixed in with the supposed ancient authenticity of the restored houses and alleyways: the people, dressed in their puffy jackets and slim trousers; the flashing cameras of boat passengers; the infinitely long wires draped at the tops of tall, evenly spaced wooden poles. Present still was that frenetic thrumming that sawed at Lan Wangji’s nerves, an intangible energy he had long since determined came in hand with the electricity that gave the future lights such an eye-watering brightness. Yet after spending so long traversing between buildings that reached the heavens, Pingjiang’s humble skyline made Lan Wangji feel like he was staring at the sky for the first time in months.
It was not the same. But when compared to everything else about the future, Lan Wangji could almost trick himself into believing this strip of road was Caiyi Town.
The afternoon was spent doing whatever caught their fancy. They indulged in street food, dodging honking mopeds clattering over the stone walkway. They drank tea with cats. The winter season had just passed its zenith, yet the weather was still cold enough for a puff of mist to appear everytime Wei Ying exhaled.
“Like, I get that a job’s a job,” Wei Ying said as they followed the flow of the crowd onto a stone bridge arching across the canal's frigid waters. “I mean, how many people get their dream job straight out of college? So I can’t complain.”
“You are complaining right now,” Lan Wangji said, though not unkindly.
Wei Ying lips quirked into a half-hearted smile. “Yeah, I guess I am. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working at the lab, it’s all very fulfilling. But — sometimes I need a fucking break, y’know?”
“You are overworked.” Lan Wangji said this as a statement; Wei Ying’s long work hours and the bags under his eyes were answers enough.
“I guess.” They stood side by side at the edge of the bridge, staring down at the boats drifting underneath their feet. “I feel like such an ungrateful asshole, though, whining about something I should be grateful for.”
“Feel free to whine,” Lan Wangji told him. “I will not tell anyone.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” After a beat, Wei Ying nudged Lan Wangji’s shoulder with his own, and Lan Wangji could tell that he was about to turn the tide of the conversation away from himself. What a shame; more often than not their conversations focused on Lan Wangji’s background and Wei Ying’s Future Advice, not Wei Ying himself. Lan Wangji loved it when Wei Ying talked about himself. The more the better, really. It was oddly thrilling, how much Lan Wangji wanted to learn. Not about Suzhou, and not about the future. It was him, Lan Wangji wanted to learn about him.
“So tell me,” Wei Ying conspired, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets. “What’s one thing you’re gonna miss when you get back home?”
You, Lan Wangji’s mind supplied, the desperation of the thought making him flush. But saying that was too dangerous. So he answered with the next best thing:
“Plumbing.” Truly a feat of human achievement worth missing.
Wei Ying snickered, and Lan Wangji thrilled. “God, a life without plumbing. No running water? Air conditioning? Toilets that flush? What a fucking travesty. I can hardly imagine it.”
“I can,” Lan Wangji said, making Wei Ying snort. But an afternoon of cobbled streets and willowed canals had made the yearning for the Gusu he knew the strongest it had been in months. So he added, “But it is not a travesty. Far from it.”
“Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t. Isn’t. Sorry, bad joke.” When Lan Wangji waved off the apology, Wei Ying said, “The way you talk about it, the Cloud Recesses...a place like that, it doesn’t seem real.”
Lan Wangji stared ahead. Hints of the industrial district’s towering skyline loomed over the barren willow peaks. Far away, yet unforgettable in their overwhelming presence. How could he have even compared this pale imitation to the homely bustle of Caiyi Town?
“It is — quiet,” he said. “Tranquil. You may think that you know true stillness, but you do not. Not how the Cloud Recesses bears it.”
“I’m picturing, like, Hogwarts but for cultivation.”
“Ah. Nothing you need to worry about.”
Nearly three months of Wei Ying’s insistent cultural reference crash course, and Lan Wangji was still just as in the dark as he had been since the beginning.
“But really though,” Wei Ying said. “It sounds really cool. Kinda makes me wish I could see it for myself.”
Lan Wangji said, “I would take you if I could,” before he could stop himself. His own brazenness surprised him, and his ears heated against the crisp winter air.
But what a coward and a liar he would be if he were to take back the words he had just spoken. “It is only fair,” he said, eyes determinedly following a boat listing under their bridge, “after all you have done for me.”
What a sight Wei Ying at the Cloud Recesses would be, now that the thought was at the forefront of his mind. What would the others think of him? His uncle would certainly find his inability to stay still or silent unforgivable, but maybe Lan Xichen would find him charming. And his uncle’s ire would be worth it, to have Wei Ying with him, reading a book at the Library Pavilion, or tending to the gentians surrounding his mother’s cabin.
Lan Wangji could play the guqin for him. Something Wei Ying would like. The song of Rest, perhaps. Or even Inquiry. Or maybe something new.
An amused huff. “What, you want to bring me around to show all your friends just how weird people in the future turn out to be?”
What was Lan Wangji if not truthful? “You certainly are weird,” he agreed, “but I would want to bring you not to show you off, but merely to return the favor.”
“What favor?” Lan Wangji could almost hear Wei Ying roll his eyes. “I told you, Lan Zhan, you don’t owe me anything.”
Lan Wangji took a moment to figure out how to say what he wanted to say. “You make me feel at home,” he decided. “In a world I do not belong in, you make me feel like I do. One day I would like to make you feel at home, too.”
Saying that was dangerous, too. Ah, no matter. What was done was done.
Wei Ying, for once, was quiet beside him. Then he replied, voice uncharacteristically tender, “I’d like that. I mean, you gotta figure out how to get yourself back there first. But after that, then — yeah. I’d like that.”
Lan Wangji’s failure to do just that hung over them both, inwardly acknowledged yet outwardly ignored. Around the two month mark he fully conceded that he wouldn’t find the secret to intentional time travel through means of the modern day library. Nowadays he rarely visited them, not after Wei Ying taught him how to use the laptop to conveniently access, curate, and read those mindlessly entertaining cultivation novels he, somewhere along the way, came to unabashedly enjoy.
So he would find another way. One way or another he would return to his Gusu, his Cloud Recesses. He would return to a world where cultivation was practiced, where people traveled on horse-drawn carriages and swords instead of metal beasts and the metro. He would finally revel in true silence. He would visit the Library Pavilion, teach in the lanshi, and sleep in the jingshi. He would see his family and his sect again.
But for now he’d selfishly prefer if it were to happen later rather than sooner.
Lan Wangji plucked his courage and glanced to his side. Wei Ying stared back, eyes contemplative and somehow searching, as if seeing something for the first time.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji tentatively asked, for what else could he say?
Wei Ying blinked. “It’s nothing. Just — “ he laughed, almost in disbelief, and placed a hand on the junction where Lan Wangji’s shoulder met his neck. “You — God, Lan Zhan, you’re like the fucking meteor that killed the goddamn dinosaurs.”
Lan Wangji looked at him with confused pity. “Wei Ying,” he said in a condoling yet fond tone that was becoming increasingly familiar, especially in times such as these. “I do not understand what any word in that sentence means.”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to dinosaurs one day; then you’ll realize just how profound I was being.” Wei Ying’s eyes crinkled when he smiled, and Lan Wangji had long since stopped thinking it was annoying. Anytime he got Wei Ying’s face to light up now, it filled him with a fierce, self-satisfied pleasure. “I’m just...really glad you fucked up with those talismans.”
Wei Ying’s hand, warm where it clasped Lan Wangji’s shoulder, trailed down his arm. Their fingers brushed before he fully pulled away.
Lan Wangji’s skin simmered underneath the sleeve of his jacket and the ghost sensation of Wei Ying’s touch.
“I am, too,” he said softly.
Something had changed between them after their shared afternoon in Pingjiang Road. Shared looks have become softer between them. Wei Ying still touched him, but his touches now tended to linger. Lan Wangji may have been imagining it. But he certainly hoped he wasn’t.
Lan Wangji tried to touch back. A hand at Wei Ying’s back as they passed each other in the hallway, or leaning against him as they sat next to each other on the metro. He often went to bed mentally cataloguing the places where his and Wei Ying’s skin touched that day. The habit developed after Wei Ying slung an arm around his shoulder as they exited a western-style restaurant, and only let go when they stepped into the elevator to his apartment; Lan Wangji fell asleep giddy at the implications of it.
Gods, how pathetic does that sound?
After spending another night on Wei Ying’s couch, Lan Wangji woke up eager with anticipation. Wei Ying had the day off and he had promised to take him to the Suzhou Museum. “Woah, really?” Wei Ying had asked when Lan Wangji suggested it after a cursory Baidu search for nearby museums. “I mean, sure. But won’t it be...weird for you?”
“Perhaps,” was Lan Wangji’s response. “But I may find some answers there, regarding my current situation.”
Flimsy reasoning, he knew. The truth was too embarrassing to say out loud, but he really just wanted to go to a museum with Wei Ying. The day before he had watched a movie on Wei Ying’s iQIYI account where the main couple went on a museum date, and Lan Wangji thought the idea was cute.
But the sight that awaited him that morning was not the flat white ceiling of Wei Ying’s living room; it was the flat wooden surface of a desk, cool against his cheek. He sat up from where his head was pillowed within his folded arms and blinked away his tiredness, looking up.
He was greeted with the hallowed bookcases of the Library Pavilion and the relieved face of his brother.
“Wangi,” Lan Xichen breathed, dropping to his knees with a heavy thud without his innate elegance.
“Brother,” Lan Wangji said stupidly. He blinked, then blinked again, his sleep-addled brain still processing the scene before him. “I am back.”
“You are.” Lan Xichen placed a hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. He was still dressed in one of Wei Ying’s old, threadbare sweaters he had stolen from his drawers. “It’s so good to see you. It has been — how long has it been for you? How long have you been away from home?”
Lan Wangji hadn’t noticed how stifling the Suzhou air was until now. How dense it had been, compared to the crisp mountain air of Gusu. He inhaled it, letting his lungs expand with it, breathing in the familiar scent of books and ink. “Nearly four months,” he replied, surprised at how steady his voice sounded despite the rapidly increasing beat of his heart.
“Four months. So it’s around the same, then.” Lan Xichen let his hand drop, and he frowned. “I am so sorry, Wangji. At first we had thought you had left for a night hunt and thought nothing of your sudden disappearance. But as days passed without a word…” He pursed his lips, shame flickering on his face. “It took me far too long to realize what had actually happened. I’m so sorry. Please, let me fetch Uncle so I may relay the good news of your return.”
“Wait.” Lan Wangji breathed again. In. Out. “How did you bring me back?”
“Well, I first had to figure out how you left in the first place.” Lan Xichen gestured to the desk Lan Wangji had been slumped against before waking. There was an array of books sprawled on every available flat surface, as well as piles of talismans scribbled on with Lan Xichen’s careful script. “It took me months of research and trial and error to reverse engineer your discovery. A talisman to travel through time instead of distance...truly unprecedented. You’ve outdone yourself, Wangji.”
But he didn’t invent it; Lan Wangji discovered the secret to time travel purely by accident. It occurred to him that Lan Xichen must believe that he must have intended to travel to the future, his only mistake being that he hadn’t figured out a way to return to the correct timeline before doing so. But that wasn’t important enough to correct, not now.
“So you figured it out?” he asked, watching as Lan Xichen’s expression changed from weary relief to confusion at the urgency in his voice. “You know how to prepare the time travel talisman, as well as the talisman to return to the present?”
“I do, yes.” Lan Xichen searched through the piles before choosing one and holding it up with two fingers for Lan Wangji to see. “Right here.”
Lan Wangji nodded. “That is good. Because I must go back.”
That was not the answer Lan Xichen was expecting. He gawked, as if Lan Wangji had just announced his defection to the QishanWen Sect. “You must go back? Whatever for? Where were you?” Only now did Lan Xichen seem to take in Lan Wangji’s current state of dress: his stolen sweater, as well as the baby blue bunny-printed pajama pants Wei Ying had bought for him as a joke at a flea market. “Or rather, when were you?”
“About a thousand years or so in the future,” Lan Wangji answered, making Lan Xichen elegantly choke on his own spit. “I will tell you about it later. It is quite different from our Gusu.” He took the talisman from his brother and studied it, already reaching for a blank talisman paper with his other hand. “I met someone there. His name is Wei Ying, and I am in love with him. Brother, please teach me how to utilize the time travel talisman to its full capacity so that I may return to him. I shall come back here after I discuss my feelings with him, as well as our next steps moving forward.”
Lan Wangji woke up to something cupping his face. It was a hand, he concluded, whose thumb brushed against the tender skin underneath his eyes. When the drowsiness subsided and the veil of a deep sleep lifted, he opened his eyes to find Wei Ying staring down at him, skin flushed and mouth parted in an expression Lan Wangji could only describe as awe.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said. Lan Wangji’s breath caught at how Wei Ying said his name: warm, carefully so, as if his name was valuable enough to be mindful as to how it was handled.
“Ah,” Lan Wangji said. He blinked away the vestiges of sleep. “How long was I gone?”
“A couple days,” Wei Ying said. He retracted his hand and Lan Wangji immediately missed its warmth. Because it was cold, uncomfortably so. In fact, everything was uncomfortable, from the gritty asphalt underneath him, to how he was awkwardly propped up into Wei Ying’s lap, still half-splayed across the —
“Ah,” Lan Wangji said again. “I am on the ground.”
“We really need to stop meeting like this,” Wei Ying said wryly. A cursory glance revealed that the two of them were sitting in the same exact patch of sidewalk Lan Wangji had first woken up in the day they first met. The same crowd of people walked around them, the same multi-paneled buildings towering over them like bridged pillars leading to the heavenly realm. But it was different all the same: this time Wei Ying wasn’t a concerned bystander nudging him awake with his toe, but a man who caressed Lan Wangji’s face with his hands and said his name like it was something important. And Lan Wangji —
Lan Wangji leaned into Wei Ying’s arms and enjoyed the feeling of being held. “Let us go home,” he said. And so they did.
“So,” Wei Ying said as he locked the door to his apartment behind him, “how’d you fuck up this time?”
Lan Wangji brushed the gravel sticking to the bottom of his bare feet. The skin of his arms was goose-pimpled from the cold, and he began to search for something more warm to wear over his threadbare sweater. “What do you mean?”
Wei Ying gestured to this living room. “You’re back here, aren’t you? Didn’t you figure out the whole time travel thing? At least, that’s what I assumed when I came home a few days ago to an empty apartment. You could’ve at least told me you were leaving, y’know.” He playfully knuckled Lan Wangji’s bicep, but Lan Wangji could see the genuine hurt there, tugging Wei Ying’s mouth into a false smile.
He must think I purposefully left without a goodbye. Lan Wangji grimaced. “I would have informed you if it was my intention to leave. My brother was the one who brought me back. He had, as you once said, ‘made shit up.’” He couldn’t help but feel a bit wounded from being saved instead of saving himself. Next time, he promised to himself, he wouldn’t need to depend on Lan Xichen to get himself out of sticky situations.
“Oh. Well, back to the original question, then. What happened? Why are you back here?”
A cold dread stopped Lan Wangji in his tracks. “Did you not want me to return?”
Wei Ying immediately shook his head. “No! That’s not what I meant at all. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, my couch is always open. But something must’ve happened to bring you back here, right? Did your talismans fuck up again?”
Oh. He didn’t know. Of course he didn’t know. “No, I…” Lan Wangji swallowed, then took a step forward. “This was not an accident, Wei Ying. I meant to return to you.”
Wei Ying opened his mouth, then let it hang there for a moment. “Uh,” he said lamely. “Okay. But, uh. Why though.”
There was a look on Wei Ying’s face, the same look he had when Lan Wangji first levitated in the air on Bichen. Oddly enough he wasn’t even nervous anymore, now that he’d gotten a taste of what it may be like to be apart from Wei Ying without the prospect of seeing him again. “Because I wanted to,” Lan Wangji said plainly. “Because I love you.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying said. He spent the next minute opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. Lan Wangji couldn’t help but smile at how cute he was, which only made Wei Ying slip further into his speechless stupor.
“Okay,” Wei Ying finally said. His face was the color as one of those sweetly tart fruits — tomatoes, they were called tomatoes — he enjoyed adding to his stir fry. “Okay? Phew. This is. Okay.”
“Okay?” Lan Wangji ventured.
“Yeah, okay.” Wei Ying walked to the couch and sat down with a thud, suddenly exhausted. “I love you, too, if it wasn’t obvious. But yeah, okay.”
Lan Wangji sat next to him, and Wei Ying’s words allowed him the bravery to press his leg flush against his. “Good. I am glad.” More than glad; Lan Wangji was so happy his heart felt like it would burst if anything else as wondrous as Wei Ying’s I love you, too were to happen right now. He could hug him, perhaps. Or maybe he could kiss him.
The thought of them kissing was a punch to the gut. Baby steps. No need to rush.
“But isn’t — ” It was at least comforting to know that Wei Ying was just as flustered as he was. “You still have to go back, right? You can’t just leave your family for, what? Me?”
“Of course not,” Lan Wangji agreed. “But who said I have to choose between my family and you? I want both, and so I will have it.”
Wei Ying wheezed. “God, you’re impossible.” He rubbed his face with his palm. “But I’m serious, alright? I really like you. When I thought you weren’t coming back I was a wreck. I thought, ‘I didn’t want him to leave,’ and fuck, how selfish is that? I wanted to wake up to you doing handstands in our living room. I wanted you to silently judge me whenever I said something stupid. I wanted to give you more Future Advice about Suzhou, about the world. About me — my shitty relationship with my family, my shitty relationship with my job. I just wanted you."
His voice was dipped in disbelief, and he shook his head. "Fuck. It’s almost scary how much I want you. It’s not good how much I want you.”
Lan Wangji was done with overthinking now, not about this. “Then be bad,” he said, taking Wei Ying’s hand. “Want me badly.”
Wei Ying choked on air. “Lan Zhan!” he exclaimed, trying and failing to hide his flaming face with the hand not being held in Lan Wangji's. “Warn a guy first before saying stuff like that, my heart can’t take it!”
An incredulous laugh bubbled from Lan Wangji’s lips. The whole situation — it was so insane. How could this happen to him? How could he deserve this?
Wei Ying just about died at Lan Wangji’s laugh, clutching at his chest to accompany his dramatic proclamation of, “Lan Zhan, you’re gonna kill me.” He returned the favor by leaning forward and kissing Lan Wangji’s temple, then his cheek, then the corner of his mouth; a soft brush of lips that Lan Wangji just about died from, too.
“I — I must go back to the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji managed to gasp when Wei Ying pulled away, “to inform my sect that I may be away from home for the impending future.” He paused, then hesitantly asked, “That is alright with you, yes? We still have to solidify the specifics of this arrangement, but it is certain that I will have to split my time between here and my own.”
Unless Wei Ying would be willing to visit the Cloud Recesses instead of the other way around. How hard would it be to bring another person along with one time travel talisman? Ah, but they could iron out the details later. For now, let Lan Wangji revel in this:
“So kinda sorta long distance, huh?” Wei Ying mused. He was so close his breath warmed Lan Wangji’s face. “Never thought I’d be in one of those relationships. But you’re worth it, I guess. We’ll figure it out.”
His arm wrapped around Lan Wangji’s waist. It was a miracle, how Lan Wangji had lived for so long without this. “Yes,” he said, ducking down to breathe his words against Wei Ying’s smiling lips, “we will.”