Dreaming, Lan Wangji watched himself walk a narrow mountain ridge. Beside the path, a dozen paces ahead, a man lay motionless. He saw himself walk steadily forward, eyes fixed on the horizon, seeming not even to see the man. The air was thin and chill, but the Lan Wangji who walked showed no sign of feeling the cold. It was only in watching himself that Lan Wangji thought: he must be cold, he must be freezing.
He drew close enough that the man’s face became clear. It was Wei Ying. Lan Wangji shouted aloud, but his other self continued walking without pause. Wei Ying lay with open eyes, staring up at the sky, unmoving as the Lan Wangji on the path approached. Lan Wangji shouted again, but his other self continued, step after even step, until Wei Ying was only a few steps ahead of him.
He must see him now. He must. He must stop and turn. But Lan Wangji walked until his feet were even with Wei Ying’s, and did not turn his head. He walked past the still body, so close that Wei Ying could have reached out to grab his ankle. But Wei Ying did not move, and Lan Wangji did not turn his head.
He began to scream at himself. He pleaded with tears, shouted until his voice was raw, then turned and begged Wei Ying to wake up and call to him. He watched, shouts and pleas turning into wordless sobs, as the Lan Wangji on the path walked on without a glance.
After Lan Wangji had passed nearly out of sight, Wei Ying’s body moved at last. He turned his head slowly. His mouth opened. He seemed as if he was going to speak, but a trickle of blood spilled over his lips, and he was silent.
Lan Wangji woke shuddering. There was a hand on his shoulder, a face bent over his. It took him several moments to understand where he was, to know that the face was Mo Xuanyu’s.
“Hey,” said Mo Xuanyu. “You — I think you were having a bad dream.”
Lan Wangji closed his eyes, shuddering again. His cheeks were wet. His chest ached. It had been years since he’d had one of these dreams, and he’d always been alone. To be seen like this was unbearable.
“I am sorry for disturbing you,” he said tightly. “I am — awake now. Go back to sleep.”
“Uh,” said Mo Xuanyu, looking down at his hand where it lay on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Only then did Lan Wangji realize that he had seized hold of Mo Xuanyu’s wrist and was gripping it tightly. He let it go and turned his face away.
“My apologies,” he said again, waiting for Mo Xuanyu to leave him.
But Mo Xuanyu did not move. “You said — you were saying —”
“It was a dream,” he said sharply. He did not want to know what he’d been saying. He did not want to hear, out of a stranger’s mouth, what he’d been saying.
Mo Xuanyu still did not move, and Lan Wangji turned back to see why. In the dimness he could see the other man’s brows drawn, his mouth hanging a little open, as if he still meant to say something.
“It was a dream. Do not make too much of it,” Lan Wangji said, quickly and coldly.
Mo Xuanyu swallowed and looked away. “Right. Okay, I’ll just — you’re alright?”
“I am awake now,” he repeated. Mo Xuanyu hesitated a minute more, and then returned to his own bed on the other side of the room.
Lan Wangji had learned in childhood how to weep silently in the dark. He was thankful for that now.
Sizhui could tell something was wrong the next day. “Perhaps we should not have brought him from Dafan Mountain,” he said quietly, dropping back to walk beside Lan Wangji on the road.
“You did nothing wrong. You say he helped you. No good would have come to him, if Jiang-zongzhu had taken him.”
He had arrived on the scene to find a stranger fallen on the ground, Jiang Wanyin looking perplexed and furious, and Sizhui and Jingyi politely arguing that the stranger ought to be taken into the custody of Gusu Lan sect, as he might be needed to solve the mystery of the spirit arm from Mo Manor. Jiang Wanyin had not wanted to let the stranger go, which was enough reason by itself for Lan Wangji to insist on taking him.
He should have known that his first wild hope would be disappointed. If there were really any chance it was Wei Ying, Jiang Wanyin would not have let him go so easily.
“I am afraid we have created extra trouble,” said Sizhui. Lan Wangji understood that Sizhui saw his unhappiness, and was asking about it.
“It matters little. You did well, Sizhui.” Sizhui did not smile at this, as he ordinarily would. Lan Wangji sighed. It was almost as bad as having his brother here. “My sleep has been disturbed. Do not concern yourself.”
Whether or not he was convinced, Sizhui gave it up, and soon went ahead again to join his fellows. Mo Xuanyu was riding among them, perched on his ridiculous donkey, telling some story which made them laugh.
Mo Xuanyu had not wanted to come with them until his alternative was made clear: be caught and tortured by Jiang Wanyin. He’d ridden along willingly enough then, although toward the end of the day Lan Wangji had caught his eyes darting down side roads as if he was looking for an opportunity to escape.
Lan Wangji rather wished he would. Even that small moment of hope had disturbed his calm, disturbed his dreams. Zidian did not lie, and Mo Xuanyu had shown no signs of recognizing Lan Wangji. Still, it was hard to shake off his first thoughts. It was hard to look at Mo Xuanyu and see anything but the person he was not.
Thankfully, the next inn had enough rooms that there was no need to share. Lan Wangji closed himself into his as soon as they had settled business with the landlord, leaving the juniors to manage food and anything their guest required.
He had lived with grief long enough to know how to handle it, when it became rough-edged like this. Pushing it aside would only bring on more dreams. He stood by the window, breathing the cooling air, letting the silent heaviness of his heart pull him down. Then he sat and brought out his qin.
Inquiry first, a familiar sequence: Wei Ying, are you there? I am listening. Wei Ying, I thought for a moment I saw you in another’s face. Only for a moment. Wei Ying, I swear I will not dishonor you with false hopes.
He did not expect an answer anymore, but he always waited for one. Always said what he wanted to say. Perhaps, even if Wei Ying could not answer, he could hear.
Sometimes it was enough, to sit and speak his thoughts, but tonight he still felt jagged and uncontained. He stilled the strings from his last, unanswered question: Are you at peace?
Then he began to softly pick out the melody that he only ever played when he was alone.
A knock sounded before he had finished the second phrase. Anger flared at the interruption. He lifted his hands from the strings, observing with interest how badly they wanted to clench and break something. He kept them open and still, took a deep breath in and out, and went to the door.
Mo Xuanyu stood there, smiling brightly. “Hi! I just came to see if you wanted dinner brought to your room.”
“No.” He was about to close the door in the man’s face, but Mo Xuanyu leaned into the doorframe before he could.
“What’s that you were playing? I can’t place it. It’s pretty.”
If he was trying to ingratiate himself, he couldn’t have chosen a worse subject. “You don’t know it.”
Mo Xuanyu straightened up, defiant. “Yeah I do! It goes —” he hummed the next few phrases.
The world went white. Lan Wangji found himself pinning Mo Xuanyu against the doorframe, hands twisted in his collar. “Where did you hear that? Who are you?”
Mo Xuanyu’s eyes were wide and panicked. “I — I don’t know, I just —”
“Who are you?” His hands were shaking. He was balanced on the edge of a knife.
“I — I remember now! You were humming it in your sleep, the other night. That’s where I heard it.”
Lan Wangji stepped back as if burned. Could that be true? It could. He thought it could. What kind of a spectacle was he making of himself? If this was truly a stranger, the shame should be scorching. If it was not — if it was not —
Mo Xuanyu stared back in shock. He seemed to be searching Lan Wangji’s face. This was wrong. Lan Wangji should be searching his. But what could he look for? How could he not know? How was it possible, to look and not to know if he was looking at Wei Ying?
He closed his eyes. His lips moved to ask again, Who are you? but what he said instead was, “Leave me.”
A minute later he wanted to take it back, but Mo Xuanyu was already gone.
The next day he felt brittle, the way he hadn’t since he was a teenager: the feeling that the wrong move or the wrong touch could shatter his skin, letting light fall on soft, rotten things. To imagine that he could be treating Wei Ying as a stranger was horrifying. To imagine that he could be thinking of a stranger as Wei Ying was nauseating.
It was intolerable whatever the truth was, and somehow he was still required to move through his morning in an ordinary way. He encased himself in icy composure. He walked beside the youngest of the disciples, who were too much in awe of him to see anything amiss. He tried, and failed, not to look at Mo Xuanyu.
When he failed, half the time Mo Xuanyu was already looking at him. Lan Wangji wanted to drive him away, to shun him, to never see him again. He wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him and ask Who are you? until he was given an answer he believed.
Around midday there was a distraction. They passed a few travelers who saw that they were cultivators and began to chatter eagerly about a spirit that was troubling some nearby farmland. Once he had grasped enough of their story, Lan Wangji judged that it was likely to be a simple problem, very suitable for the juniors to practice handling on their own. Sizhui confirmed, a little shamefacedly, that he had remembered to bring the flares to send up if they needed help.
They found a clearing by a quiet stream where Lan Wangji would wait. He was thankful to the travelers, thankful even to whatever was haunting the farmlands nearby. Perhaps with a little time alone he could settle himself, meditate back to calm, or find some solution to the unbearable uncertainty.
But as the disciples were making their final preparations, Mo Xuanyu did not seem to be intending to go with them. Of course. Why would he? But Lan Wangji felt a desperate, crawling panic. Something was going to break if he had to sit alone with the man.
“You do not wish to go?” Lan Wangji asked, looking at Mo Xuanyu’s hands instead of his face. He saw the little, startled movement.
“As you see, I don’t carry a sword.”
The specificity of the phrase stole his breath. He raised his eyes and met Mo Xuanyu’s. “You are plainly capable, using your own methods.”
Mo Xuanyu dodged his look, now. He laughed, short and shrill. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d want your disciples exposed to more of such methods.”
Jingyi was standing near them, and heard the note of irony in his voice. “You think Hanguang-jun isn’t capable of judging what is and isn’t good for us?”
Mo Xuanyu laughed again, more gently. “Hanguang-jun is wise.” His fingers twisted in the fabric of his robes. “Actually, I was surprised to see disciples of the Lan sect using such things as lure flags at all. I had heard they were more strict.”
Lan Wangji was looking steadily at him now, while the other man glanced toward and away from him. At last, as if rising to a challenge, Mo Xuanyu met his gaze and held it.
Lan Wangji said, carefully, “The first thing is to stand with justice. The method is secondary.”
He saw the words strike home. Mo Xuanyu blinked, looked down again, and smiled as if it hurt him. Lan Wangji watched him, hardly daring to breathe.
Mo Xuanyu stayed, while the juniors set off. Lan Wangji stood in the shade of a tree and watched him pacing up and down the bank of the stream, fidgeting with that shoddy bamboo dizi of his. He twirled it around and around. Lan Wangji watched it spinning, and he knew the rhythm of it. He knew the beat of his steps and the swing of his arms as he paced back and forth. He knew it.
Then the other man gave the dizi a final, decisive spin and shoved it into his belt. “I think maybe I’ll go after —”
“Wei Ying.” The other man froze where he stood, facing across, his profile to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji saw his throat move.
“Wei Ying,” he said again, heavy with force, as if the name could pin him in place.
“Ah,” said the other man, turning and looking at last. “Hi, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji crossed in three steps and seized his shoulders. “Wei Ying,” he said again. He seemed to have forgotten all other words.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying whispered. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“Wei Ying.” He half-sobbed it. Wei Ying’s breath caught.
“Lan Zhan, that was — that was what you said, when you were dreaming. That was all you said, over and over.” He lifted a hand to Lan Wangji’s cheek, as if to brush away tears from two nights ago, but hesitated just before touching him. “Why?”
Lan Wangji caught his hand and turned his face into it, pressing his lips into the palm. “Wei Ying,” he whispered against it, then kissed the heel of the hand, the wrist, the soft inside of the arm. He bared his teeth against it, catching and dragging the warm, pliant skin.
Wei Ying made a small, high sound and swayed into him. Lan Wangji caught him in both arms and kissed the side of his neck. Wei Ying’s fingers wound themselves into Lan Wangji’s hair. Lan Wangji held him close, felt him warm and breathing in his arms, pulse fluttering under his lips.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathed.
Lan Wangji lifted his head. Wei Ying was looking up at him, eyes wide, lips parted. “Lan Zhan, you really…?”
Lan Wangji kissed his mouth, hard and searching, desperate for the taste of him. Wei Ying melted against him, fingers curling in his hair. Lan Wangji kissed him with tongue and teeth, seeking, biting, trying to take all of him in at once. Wei Ying opened to him with tiny, hungry sounds.
He felt his own hardness between them, where Wei Ying’s body was molded against his. He could push Wei Ying down into the grass and have him right here. He wouldn’t — not now, not yet, but he could. For now that was enough. Wei Ying was here, in his arms, keening into his mouth. Lan Wangji kissed him until his limbs felt weak, and then he released Wei Ying’s mouth to kiss his jaw, his cheek, his temple.
He pressed his lips to the center of Wei Ying’s forehead and held him there. One of them was shaking, or both of them were. Wei Ying tucked his face against Lan Wangji’s throat and gave a long, shaky sigh.
“Lan Zhan, I never thought...” he gave a tiny, shaky giggle. He lifted his head and looked up into Lan Wangji’s face. “Lan Zhan, who knew you could be so fierce!”
Wei Ying laughed, delighted and surprised. “Kiss me again.”
His eyes shone; his lips were red and swollen. Lan Wangji thought again of throwing him down to the grass, but instead kissed him once, gently. Wei Ying whined as he pulled away.
“I must watch for a signal.”
“Oh,” sighed Wei Ying, “alright.”
They settled at the base of a tree, Lan Wangji sitting against the broad trunk, Wei Ying leaning back against his chest.
“But Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, “were you really —” he stopped, and then said, more softly, “ah, never mind, we can talk about it another time. You probably have questions for me.”
“Mn. Another time.”
“Okay,” Wei Ying said, and curled against him. “You’re so warm, Lan Zhan, have you always been so warm? I could fall asleep like this.”
“If you wish.”
“Isn’t sleeping during the day prohibited? You really have changed, Lan Zhan. We’ll talk about everything later, and maybe we can...” he stopped in his drowsy rambling and laughed a little, sounding embarrassed.
Lan Wangji stroked his cheek.
“Oh,” Wei Ying said softly, as if he’d asked a question and been answered, “that’s nice. Just for a little bit, Lan Zhan, I’ll just sleep for a little bit...” his voice was dropping off. “Lan Zhan, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, I didn’t know…”
Lan Wangji didn’t ask what he didn’t know. He stroked Wei Ying’s head and felt him relax, breathing heavy and even. Time for all that later. Time for many things, later. He held Wei Ying close, and watched the sky.