The road ahead is long and dusty with the recommencement of trade at the end of winter’s bitterest storms. It is nearly empty of travelers for the moment, save for two men and a donkey, and the songbirds that have only just begun to titter and trill flit through the boughs that line the well-worn path. The scent of rain still hangs in the heavy air. The sun is high in the sky, nearly at its zenith, but little heat makes its way to the things living and breathing on the earth.
"So this night hunt," Wei Wuxian begins from his seat astride Little Apple.
Lan Wangji startles internally beside him. They have both been silent for the length of the morning since their chance meeting in the mountains that overlook Gusu. In any other circumstance, it would indeed have been an ideal way to pass the time: walking beside Wei Wuxian amongst rolling hills and gently bubbling streams, no set timetable and no pressing responsibilities to part them. But Lan Wangji has spent much of it reeling between trying to think of ways to convince Wei Wuxian to keep traveling with him, and panicking at his uncharacteristic quietude.
"What is it that summons the great Hanguang-Jun, Chief Cultivator no less, so far from home?" Wei Wuxian goes on, when Lan Wangji does not volunteer an explanation.
It has taken half the walk for Lan Wangji's heart to stop hammering from the surprise of finding Wei Wuxian so soon—and playing the song he had written him. It hammers again now.
"The town elders sent a letter pleading their case. It was vague.” He pauses to find the right word to draw Wei Wuxian in. “Intriguing."
"Getting boring up there on the throne, O Chief Cultivator?" Wei Wuxian tosses a disarming smile in his direction, and Lan Wangji looks away.
He is not incorrect.
"Without details, it is unsafe to send juniors, and I was the only senior disciple otherwise unoccupied," Lan Wangji says. “And there is no throne.”
"Unoccupied?" Wei Wuxian laughs incredulously. Lan Wangji stares at the way his jaw sharpens when he cocks his head at the horizon. "You're the Chief Cultivator. Not to mention, what, Acting Sect Leader?"
"My brother has begun his reintegration," Lan Wangji says, sidestepping the first part of the statement yet again.
Wei Wuxian looks surprised, then gently concerned. "Oh? How is he?"
"Improving. Else I would not have left."
"Of course, of course,” he nods, twirling Chenqing. “I'm glad to hear it. He deserves better than guilt and loneliness, and the cultivation world is better when he's in it."
Lan Wangji nods silent agreement past the warmth that blooms in his chest. Few things please him more than this person he loves most showing genuine care for another person he loves most.
"Still," Wei Wuxian persists, "it must have taken a lot of maneuvering to get away for a while."
It is impossible to put off the truth any longer. Lan Wangji is unsure why, exactly, he is so hesitant to say it out loud. Perhaps, in his own mind, it sounds too much like a confession.
"I am no longer Chief Cultivator," he says at last.
He feels Wei Wuxian turn fully in the saddle to gawk. Lan Wangji does not look back at him.
"What happened," he asks, tone flat in a way that suggests violence against responsible parties.
Lan Wangji's heart does a complicated flip at the implication, and he carefully considers how to clarify without saying too much. "It was my choice. I did not feel I had anything more to offer the position. Or that it had anything more to offer me."
After several moments more of staring, Wei Wuxian rights himself in his seat. "You really were bored," he says, half playful, half thoughtful.
Lan Wangji’s jaw tightens at the very near miss in Wei Wuxian's understanding. He is partially right about the boredom: the work had been important, urgent at first, but as the immediacy of the Chief Cultivator’s problems tapered off, his distraction became harder to ignore. Every dull moment of sect business only served to remind him of how much he simply missed this. He missed traveling and night hunting with Wei Wuxian at his side so much that the missing of it filled him like rising seawater day by day, slowly choking off his supply of air. He had spent such long years missing it, and missing it, then miraculously having it again, and then missing it once more, that he cannot quite believe he has it now. For the present moment, at least. All day he has been drawing in deep, lung-filling breaths when he catches himself forgetting that he can.
Fidgeting at his side draws his attention out of his thoughts.
“You don’t mind me tagging along, do you?” Wei Wuxian asks, picking at a loose thread on his robes. “I shouldn’t have just invited myself.”
Lan Wangji feels an uncomfortable surge of adrenaline. This is his chance to make things clear, to properly invite him to travel together indefinitely. He searches anxiously for the right way to ask, without implying any undue demands. He sees Wei Wuxian’s hands tighten around his flute, and knows he has left the question too long already.
“I do not mind at all,” he says, still scrambling. “It was fortuitous, to have found you.”
He winces at the incompleteness of it, the weakness of the reassurance. But Wei Wuxian smiles at him, his eyes crinkling in that way they do when he is truly pleased. Lan Wangji smiles back, some of his anxiety quieting. He will have to find another way to extend an explicit invitation, for both their sakes.
The rest of the walk passes answering Wei Wuxian's questions about the letter concerning the night hunt, and then listening to his increasingly wild theories until they finally stumble upon the town itself. It is small, but large enough to have a thriving market. As spring has not quite yet arrived in this part of the country, gray skies cast a gloomy pall over the rural bustle. They identify the town’s only inn, and enter.
Wei Wuxian glances around and raises an eyebrow. “Don’t think they’ll have quite the accommodation you’re used to, Lan Zhan,” he says.
The main room is small and dim, with only two customers drinking in the corner. It smells of dust. A worn-thin looking man scurries up to them and bows.
“Young Masters, how can I help you?”
“A room for the night,” Lan Wangji says. He does not ask for two. Wei Wuxian has not agreed to stay and night-hunt with him yet, and if he miraculously does, well. It is a small, slightly dangerous selfishness that he is unable to deny himself, leaving the number of beds to fate.
“Ah,” says the proprietor, and hesitates. “That...that will be no problem.”
Wei Ying cocks his head at him. “That doesn’t seem entirely true.”
“Oh, no, I mean no offense,” the man says, and bows again. “You see, we haven’t opened yet for the spring trading traffic, but of course we can make an exception for two esteemed lords such as yourselves. Will you...require meals, as well?”
Wei Wuxian snorts. Lan Wangji ignores him. “It will suffice to leave food that will keep,” he says. After a pause, he sees an opening, and ventures, “With good liquor, if you have it.”
Wei Wuxian beams at him, then shrugs at the proprietor. “Doesn’t even have to be good, I’m not choosy.”
Lan Wangji’s heart skips a beat. He will stay, then, at least for a drink. They will night-hunt together, and Wei Wuxian will drink with him, and he will likely have till morning to devise more of a plan. A cool wash of relief sweeps through him.
The proprietor nods his understanding. “If the Young Masters plan to take supper at a restaurant, I regret to inform them that there are none others open yet this week.”
“We do not,” Lan Wangji replies. “It is possible we will return very late this evening.”
“Ah,” says the proprietor, looking troubled again. “In that case...I will entrust the Young Masters with a key, if that’s alright. Your room will be prepared for you, rest assured, but….We live up the road, and haven’t hired back the staff who would normally be here so late. Apologies.” He bows again.
“That is acceptable.” Lan Wangji says, mildly scandalized at the idea of returning to an empty inn, late at night, with Wei Wuxian. It is an idly pleasing thought. He crushes it.
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, but Lan Wangji beats him to it. “We will also be needing lodging for one donkey.”
Wei Wuxian smiles at him again, soft and almost shy. Lan Wangji would pay to house a hundred donkeys for just that.
Once they have successfully made all the necessary arrangements and agreements, Lan Wangji has the pleasure of watching Wei Wuxian ply the proprietor and his two customers for information on the recent spirit attacks - for that, it becomes clear, is what they are. This much is certain. Beyond that though, the villagers seem uncharacteristically hazy on details.
“Either this town is a paragon of virtuous, gossip-free citizens, or there really is something unusual about this spirit,” Wei Wuxian says as they descend the inn steps to the street.
Lan Wangji agrees. “We will need to proceed cautiously."
Wei Wuxian nods at him. They pause briefly so that he may say a cheerfully rude goodbye to Little Apple.
"She probably wouldn’t even come with us if we tried to drag her along,” he says ruefully, patting her neck. “She’s become her own Compass of Evil these days. It's too traumatic traveling with me for very long—which you know better than anyone. But she's developed a sixth sense about resentment. It's actually pretty impressive."
Lan Wangji does not tell him that traveling with him is so far from traumatic as to be quite literally the only time he can take a full breath, and instead produces an apple for the donkey. Ignoring Wei Wuxian’s protests that he'll spoil her, he starts up the path that will take them to the village's family shrines.
The resentment is palpable before they even reach the border of the clearing. The paltry sunlight is fading already, but still manages to cast slanting, ominous shadows through the barren trees as they walk. The air is still and too-silent. He is certain something watches them as they approach. It feels angry, and violent, with a strange undercurrent that plucks at Lan Wangji's nerves.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian murmurs, "I don't think it'll talk to us. You can try, but…"
"We may need information in order to heal the villagers."
"I know. We just might have to be more creative than asking the source. But there's no harm in trying."
Lan Wangji nods as they break through the treeline. He summons his qin, seating himself at the edge of the cemetery. Wei Wuxian stands beside him, arms crossed, Chenqing in hand, scanning their surroundings. His shoulders are straight, his face set in that alert calm that had once, long ago, signaled hell was very near to breaking loose. Lan Wangji makes himself close his eyes and focus. The playing of this music with Wei Wuxian alive and nearby, after so many years of playing it to his absent ghost, strikes up discordant memories of grief and loss. He pushes past them and Inquires the nasty spirit.
It answers, because it must. It does not lie, because it cannot. But it is...petulant. Unhelpful.
He tries a different tactic, with the same result. He repeats his questions to be sure of the answer.
"It will not answer but with a single word," he tells Wei Wuxian. “‘Want.’”
"Helpful," Wei Wuxian deadpans, pursing his lips.
Lan Wangji stores his instrument and stands. "I will search the northern half."
Wei Wuxian eyes the small graveyard grimly. "We shouldn't separate."
A fitful breeze rustles naked branches overhead. Lan Wangji considers his troubled expression, and nods.
They search the clearing methodically, and find nothing out of the ordinary. Evening is speeding onward, and they will have to leave soon if they want to make it out of the woods before it is truly dark. Lan Wangji is about to say so when Wei Wuxian lays a hand on his forearm. It has been a very long time since he has felt that touch. How can one year feel even longer than sixteen? The faint warmth through his layers of sleeves stops him short.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. The evening shadows emphasize the full curve of his lips and the thick sweep of his eyelashes. “Over there.”
Lan Wangji tears his attention away to look where Wei Wuxian has indicated. A few yards off, just before the woods begin again, there is a low mound of dark earth.
“Disturbed,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian nods and strides toward it just as a sharp gust of incongruously hot air sings past them. There is no time to warn him. Lan Wangji leaps forward to knock Wei Wuxian out of the angry spirit’s path, shouldering him aside as he draws Bichen. But he doesn’t quite turn in time. A sharp spear of resentment stabs through him, and he stumbles forward into a tree.
His mind is blank with pain for what feels like a long moment. But then he hears Wei Wuxian’s voice, right against his ear.
“Lan Zhan, don’t move,” he murmurs.
All the hair on the back of Lan Wangji’s neck stands straight. He finds himself pressed between the trunk of the tree at his front, and Wei Wuxian at his back. Wei Wuxian has a firm grip on the wrist which carries Bichen, and on his left upper arm. It feels...proprietary. Suddenly, and entirely inappropriately, a very old, very shameful memory surfaces, of a long-ago dream from which he had woken sweaty and shaking. The place on his chest where the resentment pierced him begins to throb painfully. Wei Wuxian breathes heavily against his ear for half a moment longer, and Lan Wangji feels himself flush.
“Alright,” Wei Wuxian whispers, “it’s coming around again. Chord assassination. No more gentle tactics.”
Lan Wangji nods and gathers himself. Wei Wuxian releases him, spinning out to one side of the trunk, and Lan Wangji takes the other. He strums chord after chord of destruction into the cloud of angry black smoke, while Wei Wuxian plays a commanding, fast-paced melody. The spirit weakens immediately, and they press forward without needing to speak, fanning out to come at it from either side. As Wei Wuxian’s song reaches a frenzied high, the thing releases a piercing scream and implodes. The silence that follows feels like deafness.
Lan Wangji is at his side immediately, searching him for signs of overexertion. “Wei Ying, are you alright?”
“Fine, fine,” Wei Wuxian waves him off. “I’m much better at not overestimating my energy these days."
Lan Wangji finds this hard to believe but says no more, opting instead to keep a watchful eye.
“Are you?" Wei Wuxian says, searching his face, then the rest of him, with worried eyes. "Did it hurt you? You stumbled.”
“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji replies. The curse mark throbs as if to accuse him of lying. But it is nothing—it should fade now that the spirit is dealt with. As should the villagers’ mysterious ailments. “Let us go back, and see how the villagers fare.”
Wei Wuxian nods, a grin pulling at his lovely mouth, lighting his beautiful eyes. “We still make a great team."
Oh, Lan Wangji allows himself to think, just once, how I love him.
“Always,” he says with a matter-of-fact nod. Wei Wuxian’s grin breaks into a smile that puts the day's wan sun to shame, and Lan Wangji turns away. He swallows hard and heads over to set the grave to rights before night is well and truly upon them.
The villagers, it turns out, are not faring as well as they should be.
“He’s been like this since I came to check on him this morning,” the town midwife tells them in hushed tones. They are standing in the main room of a baker’s house while the baker himself languishes in his bed on the other side of a thin wall. “His fever’s only gone up, and the medicine I give for pain seems to be working even less.”
“Is he the only one?” Wei Wuxian asks. The first person in town they encountered and asked about the curse sickness merely pointed them directly here. Finding the illness unresolved, they started the investigation from zero.
The midwife shakes her head. “There’s one more, the blacksmith’s son—he’s twenty and less bad off. The weaver’s husband and her oldest daughter both recovered, and so did the rice farmer’s wife. She’s nearly 80.”
“Recovered? When?” Wei Wuxian does not seem at all surprised. He has his thinking face on. Lan Wangji’s curse mark flares in tandem with a familiar heat in his blood, which he is accustomed to ignoring in his presence.
“Weaver’s husband three days ago,” says the midwife, ticking them off on her fingers, “her daughter yesterday, the farmer’s wife… the day before, I think.”
Wei Wuxian brushes his finger across the tip of his nose. Lan Wangji wants to snatch his hand away and kiss it. He blinks. Such thoughts do not usually make it to the forefront of his mind before he quashes them.
“Were the weaver’s husband and daughter cursed at the same time?” Wei Wuxian asks, blissfully unaware of his trusted friend’s wayward urges.
“Yes. They’d gone to pay respects to his parents and were attacked. Sunday, I think they said.”
“And yet they recovered at different times…” He trails off and walks a slow circle of the room. Lan Wangji watches him closely. He looks tired, but his face is lively with the prospect of a mystery to solve. “Did anybody have any idea what might have healed them?”
The midwife casts her eyes down and pauses before speaking. “They wouldn’t tell me, but I think they might’ve known. All of them seemed...unwilling to share their activities prior to recovery.”
Wei Wuxian stops in his tracks and looks at her sharply. “What does that mean?”
“I honestly don’t know, Young Master. As I said, they wouldn’t tell me.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian sighs, gesturing toward the bedroom. “Can we help him?”
Lan Wangji goes to find out. The baker is lying on the bed, so pale and still he could easily have already been dead, if not for the sheen of sweat on his skin. Lan Wangji takes hold of his arm, and the baker stirs. His eyes open slowly, then take yet longer to focus on Lan Wangji’s face.
“Are you a spirit?” The baker rasps.
“I am not,” says Lan Wangji, as gently as he can. “I am here to help. Please conserve your energy.”
He places his fingertips against the inside of the man’s wrist and feels for his natural spiritual energy. It is dangerously depleted and mangled, threaded through with resentment and that same strange undercurrent that had bothered Lan Wangji in the forest. It is familiar, almost achingly so, but he does not want to focus on it long enough to place it. He searches instead for the origin point of the curse in the man’s body and finds it in his right shoulder, a blotch on his network of meridians devoid of spirit, of life, of light. Lan Wangji sucks in a surprised breath.
This is not a curse that can be eradicated, but one that must be broken by fulfillment of terms—not so different from the one that had brought Wei Wuxian back to life. It is exceedingly rare for a spirit to construct something of this complexity. Lan Wangji places the man’s hand back where he found it and straightens. He deliberately does not think about the sting of his own cursed flesh as he moves. He finds Wei Wuxian watching him, leaning in the doorway.
“If you will question the others, I will play Healing for him,” Lan Wangji says.
It is the best they can do. The baker will die if Wei Wuxian cannot find out how to fulfill and end this particular curse very soon. He looks meaningfully at him, unwilling to speak such bleak words over a dying man.
Wei Wuxian nods, the odd softness in his eyes turning to understanding and determination. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Be careful,” says Lan Wangji, because he must.
Wei Wuxian nods, and leaves. Lan Wangji plays Healing. The baker creeps closer to death, and he is not alone.
It is not long at all before Wei Wuxian returns. He strides up the steps of the little house, cheeks and lips pink with the night’s chill, eyes bright with discovery, and spins to lean against the doorway beside Lan Wangji. He is visibly holding back a grin. The stars which Lan Wangji has been contemplating to maintain his inner peace hold no interest in the face of such compelling competition. He turns.
“You’ve solved it,” he observes.
Wei Wuxian unleashes the waiting smile.
Lan Wangji fiercely wants to kiss it. He frowns at himself.
“I have. The blacksmith’s son is already on his way to the next town to, uh...well.” Wei Wuxian drops his head and laughs a little, awkwardly. Equal parts embarrassed and giddy. “You’re not gonna believe this, Lan Zhan. It’s a sex curse."
Lan Wangji blinks, and for a moment, his brain refuses to comprehend the words. But then he remembers the word the spirit kept repeating. Want. His curse mark gives a mighty twinge, and inner peace is suddenly a very long way off.
“I’ve never heard of this actually happening before,” Wei Wuxian continues, looking equally delighted and discomfited, “I thought it was just the kind of thing dumb teenagers make up to tell at sleepovers. I can’t believe it’s real.”
Lan Wangji’s ears are ringing. He has never heard of such a thing at all, possibly because he has never been to a teenage sleepover, and possibly because it wasn’t real, until now. This could be an entirely new type of curse. He should probably be taking notes for the Gusu library.
He will not, under any circumstances, be taking notes for the Gusu library.
He swallows down his panic and lets his mind slip past the shock and distaste, skirting around the pain that flares insistently in his own chest. A man’s life is at stake. Serious focus is necessary. But he is not certain how to parse this new information.
“What does this mean in terms of recovery? The afflicted must merely…” He trails off. He’d had it, for a moment. Composure. He tries to get it back, but the silence goes on just a little too long before Wei Wuxian saves him.
“Well, yes and no?” he hedges. “That took some...uncomfortable digging.” He breaks off, color rising in his face. Lan Wangji suppresses the now-horrifying impulse to reach out and feel the heat of it. “It turns out, the curse requires the cursed to carry out the, uh, first sexual desire they experienced, immediately after the curse was cast on them. Which makes sense, given who—”
“You said the blacksmith’s son is on his way to the next town?” Lan Wangji breaks in. He does not need any more details. He can feel his ears growing redder by the minute. It is enough to know if there is a relevant healer nearby, or any kind of alternative at all.
Wei Wuxian snorts, his grin returning. “Yeah. The next town has a brothel.” His expression turns delighted, but pointed. Teasing. Conspiratorial.
Lan Wangj cannot take his customary empty flirting just now. He turns abruptly and goes back to the bedroom. He kneels and passes the baker enough spiritual energy to rouse him. It takes more than it should. The man is so very close to death.
When he opens his eyes, Lan Wangji speaks. “We have found the way to break this curse. It is unfortunately of a sexual nature, and those who are afflicted must carry out the first...sexual thought they experienced after they were struck by it.”
The baker blinks, lets out a long breath, and smiles weakly. “Then I will die.”
Lan Wangji's discomfort is whipped away by such unexpected certainty. “Why?”
Painfully slowly, as if each word is dredged up out of the depths of his lungs, the baker explains. “My wife died three years ago.”
The resignation in his eyes is laced with that same, other, nagging emotion. Lan Wangji recognizes it easily this time, in this context. A longing for something one can never have. He sits abruptly back on his heels, and the room is silent in a way that only death can bring as it nears. His chest throbs, and it is more than just the curse mark.
“So?” Wei Wuxian says, disturbing the quiet. Lan Wangji did not hear him come in. “There’s a cure. You don’t have to die. Trust me, it’s not the solution you think it is, friend.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji admonishes without meeting his eyes. He will not allow Wei Wuxian to see this man’s love and grief and hopeless loneliness mirrored in his own. “It is not a question of preference. There simply is no cure for him.”
“But—” Wei Wuxian cuts himself off. Lan Wangji can feel searching eyes on his face. He cannot bear it.
“Go and rest at the inn,” he says, and turns back toward the baker. “I will stay here.”
Wei Wuxian is silent for a long moment. “No,” he says. “No, I’ll stay.”
Lan Wangji controls himself well enough to say neither please go nor please never leave me again. Wei Wuxian must be free to make his own choices, in all things. This is the principle Lan Wangji has chosen to guide his life. He will not go against it now, so near the end of it.
“I miss her,” the baker breathes. Lan Wangji almost doesn’t catch it, and leans in closer to hear. “Do you think I’ll see her again?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “In the next life.” He takes the baker's cold hand in both of his. “You will.”
He feels Wei Wuxian settle beside him, and knows he is still being watched. His chest hurts. His throat feels thick with words unsaid, but they will stay there for as long as they have any chance of doing damage. So the three of them are silent, and the implacable stars wheel overhead, and Lan Wangji holds the baker’s hand until there is no more life left in it.
The inn is dark and desolate when they finally make their way there in the dark of the morning. As Lan Wangji lets them into their home for the night, Wei Wuxian is worryingly silent once more, following a half step behind all the way up to their room. He hovers by the door while Lan Wangji lights the candles.
The room is small and ancient, but there are two beds. Lan Wangji must admit that given the unfortunate turn of events, this is a very good thing. The curse is clawing slowly through him even now, after so much time using mitigating meditation at the baker’s deathbed, and his spiritual energy and his body know instinctively what it requires. Even his skin is...alert. Anticipatory. The slightest movement of his soft inner robes feels like a caress. He disregards this discomfort and suppresses a sigh at the memory of his earlier tentative hope for simple nearness to Wei Wuxian. Lest he wishes to irrevocably shame himself as his very last act, he must be careful to never be too near him again.
“Is it really alright that I joined you today?” Wei Wuxian finally asks.
Lan Wangji straightens from the last candle. “Of course.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile is very small, and aimed at the floor. “I don’t always mean to annoy you, Lan Zhan, it just seems to happen.”
Lan Wangji blinks. He cannot think what he is referring to. “Wei Ying. You do not annoy me.” Wei Wuxian looks up at him, one eyebrow raised. “...Not in any significant way.”
Wei Wuxian huffs and pushes off the doorframe to go and sit at the low table. He pulls a dishcloth off one of the plates there. It is piled with pancakes. He stares at them without seeming to see them.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, “eat.”
When Wei Wuxian only smiles sadly up at him, Lan Wangji busies himself heating water for tea. He has never known how to reassure his friend without saying too much. How to keep him without trapping him. It has been one of his few remaining sources of inner conflict in the short time since Wei Wuxian’s return. Perhaps it should be a comfort, to let it go now.
It is not.
He seats himself at the table, pours a cup of liquor, and passes it across. He must try not to dwell on his own abbreviated future during their last moments together. In the morning, while Wei Wuxian still sleeps, he will write down his vague but ardent goodbyes and slip out into the dull morning. He might even make it back to the Cloud Recesses before the curse reaches his heart, if he travels quickly and does not use his golden core for anything but suppressing it. He is quite certain the healers there will be unable to help him, but it will be good to say goodbye to his brother and uncle. And Sizhui. But he cannot think about Sizhui now. He is grown, and he will be well attended. He cannot think about the long years ahead, full of Sizhui, and Wei Wuxian, and all their new memories together from which he will be absent.
Is this the pain that Wei Wuxian feels for his lost years?
He cannot think of it. He takes a breath. For now, this. A quiet, cozy room. Tea. And Wei Wuxian. It is enough.
Wei Wuxian breaks the silence. “Have you ever been in love, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji’s heart thumps loudly. He pauses for a long moment before meeting his eyes. His head is tipped to the side, a gently somber expression on his fine features. Burnished in the candle glow, he takes Lan Wangji’s carefully maintained breath away.
“It took me ages of wheedling and charming to get answers out of all those villagers,” Wei Wuxian goes on, “and I still never got to the heart of the thing. I never even mentioned to you the question of why some people seemed to require specific people to heal, and some didn’t. But you just knew. Just from looking at the baker, you knew exactly what he meant. You seemed to understand him. To...empathize.”
Lan Wangji looks back down at his tea. Perhaps he should simply not answer. It is what he would have done, before today. Before he was a dead man.
“Yes,” he says. There is a beat of pregnant silence.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “Sixteen years is a long time. I’m sorry I never asked. What happened?”
This, Lan Wangji wants to say, this, here, now. There had always been some small part of him that thought perhaps some day things would change, and he would tell him. He has never considered what might happen after, only that he would at last be free of the weight of it, constantly sitting in his chest like a stone. That at last he would give all of himself to Wei Wuxian, to do with as he would. He lets that small part of himself slip away as he sips his tea.
He shakes his head, and Wei Wuxian sighs.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You may ask whatever you like,” Lan Wangji tells him, “but I may not know how to answer.”
Silence stretches between them. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, and places a hand atop Lan Wangji’s wrist. Lan Wangji’s whole body lights up, and he freezes. When he looks, the melancholy on Wei Wuxian’s face is a hair too close to pity for comfort.
“It is time to sleep,” he says. He allows himself to cover Wei Wuxian’s hand with his own for a brief moment before standing. It is, after all, the last time they will touch.
The weakness in his limbs is startling. He will need to meditate before he falls asleep if he is to make it back to the rest of his family. He removes only his outermost layer and his boots, leaving the rest, including his hair ornament and forehead ribbon. The morning will necessitate haste above all things.
To his surprise, Wei Wuxian blows out the candles and makes ready for bed as well. It pains him to leave things this way, colored by sadness and words unsaid. He wishes fruitlessly for resolution.
Just as he stretches out, he hears the dearest voice in all the world say, “Good night, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes. It is as good a farewell as any.
“Good night, Wei Ying. Sleep well.”