His father says he got it from his mother.
His mother says “nonsense, that’s from your father’s side”. She also says “whoever disagrees is a fool” and “that applies to the man I married”.
The fact that Wei Wuxian takes to people easily is one out of many his parents love arguing about – but the way his parents argue, which is nothing like other people. They do it with a suspicious lack of heat, balanced by an equally suspicious abundance of lengthy looks (his father’s) and teasing smiles (his mother’s). They rarely seem to care what the argument is about.
They do seem to enjoy the arguing very much.
Wei Wuxian is thirteen, and in the newfound wisdom of his years, he finds there’s a growing number of unfortunate facts about adults, especially parents, he’d rather go back to not knowing.
Although he does, as a matter of fact, agree with them he takes to people easily.
Until he comes home one late afternoon, and finds his father with a grey-eyed stranger in long black and red robes.
They are sitting at the crane table.
The crane table is the table with delicate mother-of-pearl cranes inlaid in the dark wood panels, advantageously placed under the window opposite to the entrance door, also known as the table Wei Wuxian and his mother are banned from doing a long list of things at – including (but not limited to) eating, drinking, drawing, experimenting, studying, thinking, healing birds, fixing hives and having ‘I can spit that plum pit farther than you’ contests.
“…and here’s A-Ying” his father says when Wei Wuxian comes in, looking up at the same time as the stranger does.
Wei Wuxian’s greeting dies on his lips. He realizes a beat too late that he’s staring and quickly attaches his gaze to the nearest innocuous item – namely the two teacups on the table, opalescent white porcelain with subtle hues of blue celadon. They only take those out for guests.
“You’re home late today” his father observes, for some reason not addressing the presence of a stranger in their home.
Wei Wuxian is positive the man is a stranger. His memory is good, and he’s sure he has never seen him in town, including during the big market days and festivals that drain throngs of unfamiliar people from the surrounding villages and farms.
“We trained for longer than planned” Wei Wuxian explains, his gaze traveling from the teacups to the bow in his hands with a wide detour through the floor and the room’s central pillar, avoiding the left side of the crane table. “The potter’s son is having trouble with his shoulders’ alignment, and I promised I’d help him get it right by the end of the week.”
He doesn’t move from the doorway, forcing his hands to be still and not fiddle with the string of his bow.
He smiles. That’s kind of his strong point, it works with everyone.
(“Just like your father’s”, his mother gushes at the same time as his father tells him “you’ve got your mother’s smile”, and then they argue about it without putting in the slightest effort to make it look convincing, and Wei Wuxian loves them, but he wishes they’d remember the reason for the argument is right here, a sentient being with eyes and ears and complex teenage emotions.)
Wei Wuxian’s father is smiling too, and right now both their smiles are the same, stretched cordially over their teeth and not quite reaching their eyes.
The stranger still hasn’t said a word, although he’s far from inconspicuous. Wei Wuxian might be politely Not Looking, but the heavy stare being directed at him pushes like a wedge into his consciousness.
Maybe the man has never seen a bow before.
“And how’s that promise going?”
Wei Wuxian glances at his father and his smile eases when their gazes meet. The evening light flowing in from the open door envelops his father’s frame in a pocket of hazy gold, adding warm sparks to his eyes. By contrast, the other half of the table is all shadows.
“We’ll only need two or three more days, he’s nearly got it” Wei Wuxian answers, hanging his bow and arrow holder up on the wall in their designated spot, next to a bunch of dry flowers. “But the real issue is that he’s trying to control too many things at the same time. He needs to feel it more. You release an arrow with your body, not your head.”
“You’re skilled at archery?” a curious voice pipes up, and Wei Wuxian can finally turn his head and look fully at him.
The first thought that strikes him is how young the stranger is. Older than Wei Wuxian, but much younger than his parents. Around the same age as the basket maker, he’d say.
The second one is the odd tone in which the stranger just talked to him. The question was innocent enough but Wei Wuxian’s confusion slips into uneasiness. There’s something.
“I am” he says anyway with a proud grin, before he catches his father’s raised eyebrow. “I mean, I’m not bad. Pretty good. Fine. Though I can still improve, of course.”
“Of course” the stranger repeats, sounding amused.
His expression is hard to read in the half-light.
The most Wei Wuxian can see of him are his hands where they emerge from the ample folds of his back sleeves. They look delicate but nervous, hands that never stay still for long. His fingers are thin and pale, cradling his cup of tea as his thumbs run restlessly against the rim. The tanned hand of Wei Wuxian’s father looks huge in comparison, solidly curled over the second small porcelain cup.
“Who are you?” he blurts out.
“A-Ying” his father starts, “that’s not-”
“Ahah it’s fine, he’s right to ask! But I’m no one, really, just passing by…” the stranger laughs, waving his hands sloppily in front of him. “I needed a place to stay for a few days and your father kindly agreed… anyway, I’ll be gone before you know it and you won’t even remember I was here” he adds with a bright smile. “Wei Wuxian, right? Your father was just telling me about you.”
The man leans forward as he talks, for the first time letting the last light of the day fall directly on his face.
It’s his smile, Wei Wuxian realizes.
The stranger’s smile is as bright as a smile could ever be. Almost blinding, truly – wide, expressive and warm – not unlike his mother’s. But behind the brightness is nothing.
Wei Wuxian’s parents, much to his confusion, do not seem confused.
His father doesn’t appear to be aware of his own nervousness, or the questioning glances he keeps sending to the stranger, or the cup of cooling tea in front of him. He keeps the conversation going like an attentive host should, but there’s a touch of eagerness in his eyes and voice that Wei Wuxian finds deeply unsettling.
His mother comes back home not long after. It’s very clear very soon he’ll be getting no support from this side. She is delighted to have a surprise guest.
“Aiya, it’s not trouble at all but I’m sorry to say you’ve got terrible timing!” she laughs once the introductions are done.
The easy ring of her laughter makes Wei Wuxian relax a little where he’s sitting at the end of the crane table. His back is starting to hurt with how stiffly he has held himself for the past half hour.
“I mean, of course we love to have you here, but what are we going to feed you?” his mother shakes her head, her voice lined with mirth as she joins them after unloading her dusty bag, straw hat and travel cloak at the door in a heap on the floor. “A-Ying has not realized yet, but he devoured today’s dinner before leaving this morning.”
“I didn’t…” he starts protesting, “I only-”
“Ah, but that’s teenage boys for you…” she reaches out to ruffle his hair. Wei Wuxian only dodges thanks to the reflexes acquired from long hours of training. “One day they follow you around everywhere like clumsy ducklings, and the next they’re two heads taller than you and they eat like a pack of wolves!”
“I don’t do that!”
“Do you remember, A-Ying, when you promised you’d never grow taller than me?”
“Mom!!!” he wails, mortified and knowing better than to turn to his father for help because he can tell without looking that the traitor is practically vibrating with repressed laughter from behind his stupid cup of tea. “Stop, that’s not interesting!!”
“He was adorable” his mother doesn’t listen to him, turning to the stranger with an evil twinkle in her eyes. “I think A-Ying was eight, around this tall?”, she demonstrates with her hand at waist level. “I told him I’d be so sad the day he’d get taller than me, and he promised he’d stop growing before that. He was so serious, you should have seen him!! The cutest boy ever! Aren’t you the cutest A-Ying??”
Wei Wuxian’s face is so hot, he’s going to set fire to the crane table just by sitting so close.
“You’re just short” he mumbles, which sends his mother in a breathless fit of frankly unwarranted laughter. His father makes a muffled noise against his palm.
Wei Wuxian hates them both.
He looks at the stranger, his darkest glare at the ready in case there’s only so much as the hint of a smirk on his face, but much to his surprise the man is not laughing. Or smiling. Not even looking amused at their embarrassing family antics.
He looks. Surprised? Awed? Fascinated?
Whatever it is, neither his father nor his mother seem to notice as they resume their usual flirty banter. Wei Wuxian sobers up at once, uneasiness squirming again in his gut. He’s used to people staring at his mother because she is. What she is.
But this is something else.
“How long are you staying?” he asks after ensuring his parents are too busy making eyes at each other to hear.
“Mmh?” the stranger startles, snapping out of his daze. He looks confused, like he forgot that Wei Wuxian was here. “Ah. One day at least. Two, I’m guessing, if I can? I won’t stay long anyway, I’ve got someone waiting for me.”
Wei Wuxian wants to ask who “someone” is, but he also doesn’t want to give the stranger the wrong impression that he’s interested in him, which he isn’t, at all. He nods, trying not to fidget under the scrutiny of the man’s sharp eyes. He has grey eyes, like Wei Wuxian’s and his father’s, only darker.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know why he notices that.
“You don’t like me very much, do you?” the stranger asks out of the blue. He sounds amused again.
That’s a ridiculous statement. Wei Wuxian hasn’t known him for more than one hour, and barely spoke twenty words to him.
“I don’t know you” he counters.
“But you don’t like me” the stranger’s grin widens, all white teeth and knowing eyes. “It’s fine, kid, don’t worry. It’d take a lot more than that to hurt my feelings, and you’re kind of cute when you’re protective. Like an angry kitten.”
“I’m not-” Wei Wuxian sputters, “you, what the fuck-”
“A-Ying, no swearing” his father surges up from nowhere.
Wei Wuxian could swear he was on the other side of the room, too invested in whispering unfathomable things in his mother’s ear to pay attention to his son’s handling of meddlesome guests.
“That’s right A-Ying, no swearing” the stranger nods sententiously with one raised finger. “It’ll ruin your cuteness, and your mother will be devastated.”
“Oh, my cruel son devastates me on a daily basis!” she retorts from the kitchen, shouting to make herself heard above a flurry of clanking bangs and dull thuds. Wei Wuxian’s mother can’t do anything creative without noise, and her cooking falls in that category in both impressive and slightly terrifying ways. “A-Ying, don’t tell me we’ve only got radishes left??”
“Clever of you, to save your favorite for last” his father comments, dead serious.
Any other day Wei Wuxian would have a smart comeback at the ready, but the stranger snorts when he meets his father’s eyes, and that newfound complicity at his expanse is suddenly too much. He springs up from his seat and makes a beeline for his room without a look back at where all three stupid adults are laughing.
It’s going to be a very long two days.
Wei Wuxian wakes up the next morning to peals of woefully familiar laughter in the courtyard. He groans, squeezing his eyes shut and pulling the bed covers above his head. He hates this.
It’s not like him, to be so easily flustered.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t get flustered when he gets caught red-handed stealing fruits from orchards or sneaking out of school to go to the archery grounds. He barely gets flustered when his parents behave embarrassingly in front of everyone. And he’s the only boy in town who doesn’t melt into a stuttering mess when girls ask him out, which tends to happen more and more frequently since the summer began.
(“So young and so popular already” his mother sighs dramatically when she hears about it, “you’ll break so many hearts, I know it, just like your father”. “There were so many men who courted your mother”, his father recalls with dreamy eyes, “I still can’t believe I’m the one she said ‘yes’ to, but seeing you, A-Ying, I can tell that’s not a problem you’re going to have…” – and whatever that means).
Flustered doesn’t suit Wei Wuxian, but yesterday’s dinner was. Enlightening.
It was hell.
He presses the back of his hands against his closed eyes, his throat tightening for unclear reasons. Silly reasons. Childish reasons.
He knows, alright… Wei Wuxian knows very well he’s maybe too used to being the center of his parents’ attention. But it still doesn’t explain how his heart felt heavy during all of dinner last night, as the stranger seized his parents’ interest, held fast and did not let go.
The thing is, Wei Wuxian’s parents are great.
They’ve been everywhere, fought all sorts of evils, helped so many people. There’s nothing about the world they don’t know. They are the ones who teach others about it, not the contrary. Yet here the stranger was, sitting at their table, eating their food and making this all about him, talking with dizzying ease as Wei Wuxian’s parents drank his words with avid eyes like everything he said was new to them.
It’s not even like he can blame the stranger for wanting the attention. On the contrary, he kept attempting to divert the conversation from himself and make them talk about their life instead – which was suspicious in its own way, now that Wei Wuxian thinks about it.
There is little to say about their simple life in this quiet town, where his parents settled when Wei Wuxian was still small because “being constantly on the road and fighting chaos is an honorable life, but no safe way to raise a child”, they said, which made Wei Wuxian bristle in his seat, although no one seemed to notice.
(The stranger noticed. He glanced at him with a strange smile, like he was sad, but a wry sort of sadness, and then he looked away and asked his father about his favorite song.)
Another burst of loud laughter rises from the courtyard and Wei Wuxian muffles another groan into his pillow. Tomorrow night can’t come too fast.
“A-Ying, why don’t you show him the archery grounds?” his mother says at breakfast, which they take on the regular table (worn, dented, scorched, much abused but carved in one corner with a knife engraving his father made a few years back representing the three of them, and for that reason incomparably more valuable than the crane table and its useless elegance).
Wei Wuxian stuffs his mouth with more rice to avoid answering.
“I asked you a question” his mother says with a rare hint of warning of his voice.
His father doesn’t say anything to soothe the slight tension in the air, which is how Wei Wuxian knows he’s taking this stupid uneasy thing too far.
He’s thirteen. He can totally dislike (not-like? feel-compelled-not-to-like? is that a thing?) someone without being a baby about it.
(“Your actions reflect upon the ones around you” his father says while his mother insists that “skill and knowledge amount to nothing if you can’t think first and foremost of the feelings of the people close to you” – which Wei Wuxian finds rather hypocritical coming from a pair who ditched their place in the world to elope and marry against all conventions, but what can he say, being himself the product this living contradiction.)
“D’you want to see the archery grounds?” he mumbles around the last of his rice, risking a glance at the stranger.
Who is, of course, smiling.
Wei Wuxian thinks it’s unfair that he’s the only one being scolded on his manners when the man looks like no one ever taught him to sit properly.
He’s… he’s slouched all over the table, his dark sleeves pooling over the worn wood and revealing slim forearms and narrow wrists. He’s got his chin propped in his hands. His ink-black hair falls in his eyes, messily gathered in a high ponytail with a red ribbon, and he’s looking at Wei Wuxian the way you’d look at a very cute and very angry cat. Torn between cooing at him like a senile idiot, or poking at his face until he wins himself a well-deserved scratch.
“I’d love to see the archery grounds” the stranger grins, a bit of a purr in his voice that makes Wei Wuxian want to squirm. “I’m not bad with a bow, if I may say myself. Who knows, maybe I could teach you a thing or two?”
He winks, and Wei Wuxian shoves another spoonful of rice in his mouth before he pushes the cat metaphor too far and starts hissing at him.
The stranger is decent.
Alright, he’s fucking amazing with a bow.
Wei Wuxian had half-hoped to put him in his place (he’s got this nagging feeling that the man thinks they are a funny bunch of country bumpkins, why else would he examine the fallow field where the archery grounds was set up with such creepy interest, or admire their house like it’s some architectural wonder, or praise his mom’s cooking skills when all they ate yesterday was doused in spices to make up for the lack of variety?), but that hope is crushed within minutes.
How – is what Wei Wuxian’s mindblown little bumpkin self wants to know – how do you shoot five arrows at the same time, on five different targets?
Hitting the damn bull’s eye for each. freaking. one??
With your fucking eyes CLOSED???
The amount of swearing going on in his head is so far above normal levels Wei Wuxian feels dizzy with it, or maybe he has been squinting too hard and for too long across the field, at the five arrows planted perfectly straight in the center of the haystacks that were dressed as targets.
“Not bad, eh?” the stranger whirls around in a flurry of black robes and long hair, flashing a cocky grin his way.
Wei Wuxian wants to rip the bow from his hands and shove it down his throat. He also wants to go down on his knees and beg the man to teach him how to do that. It feels unfair he has to choose one here.
“You’re not saying anything…” the stranger pouts, crossing his arms. “Don’t I deserve a little praise from you, A-Ying? No? Not even one word? I’m wounded!”
The grey eyes in front of him are far too full of glee to accommodate the smallest slip of pretended hurt. Wei Wuxian breathes in deep, taking meager solace in the realization that they’re nearly the same height even though he’s in the middle of his growth spurt. He’ll be taller than the man in a few months only.
“How did you do that?” he asks, flushing at the helpless admiration he can hear in his voice despite his efforts to keep it neutral.
“Oh I’m incredibly talented, of course!” the stranger cocks his head, his grin turning unbearably smug. “But I know what you’re thinking. It’s unfair right? This amount of outstanding skill, how can it all go to only one person?! That’s ridiculous, I agree with you, but what can I say? I was born like this ahaha!”
Wei Wuxian is not aware of his face doing anything. It must do something though, because the man points and bursts out laughing.
“Oh no, you’re so funny!” he wheezes, bent over in laughter and covering his mouth with one hand. “Oh no, oh that’s… you’re- I had no idea this face could look like that!! That’s fantastic, oh this was so worth it!”
Wei Wuxian’s admiration is not so strong that he doesn’t have any pride left. He turns around, definitely not feeling hurt, and makes it halfway to the shallow ditch enclosing the field when he feels a hand tugging at his sleeve.
Wei Wuxian glares at the short stems of dry wheat at his feet, debating whether to shove that hand away or not. He can. He should.
Why shouldn’t he?
That’s not being childish, when he’s being mocked openly by someone who seems to think of him as the funniest entertainment in town. Wei Wuxian is not susceptible by nature, quite the opposite, but something about the stranger makes him insecure – he can acknowledge that, at least.
It’s absurd, he thinks, looking up at the ditch, the earth path running alongside it, the yellow and green fields undulating beyond and the roofs of the town in the distance, buzzing peacefully under the summer sky. His home is on the other side, nested at the foot of the first hills, invisible from here.
It’s absurd, this new awareness he’s been feeling in his heart ever since the stranger showed up. That Wei Wuxian should feel vulnerable (there, the word is out), when nothing is threatening him.
“A-Ying” the tugging resumes, more insistent. “Look at me, would you?”
When he risks a glance behind him the stranger is still smiling, but it’s a soft smile, and he sounds genuine.
“I just never thought…” he shakes his head, letting go of his sleeve to thread the fingers of one hand through his hair, only managing to mess it up further. He has the grace to look unsure. “Ah, A-Ying, how do I even begin to explain that… I’ve got a nephew, see? And it’s a real shock that you turn out to be…” the stranger makes a vague hand gesture toward him. “Like this.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what the man’s nephew’s got to do with anything, or what’s so funny about it, or why the stranger is now looking a bit thoughtful, nibbling on his lower lip and staring at him like he’s trying to make sense of something complicated.
Wei Wuxian is a lot of things, but he’s not complicated.
Right now he wants only one thing, and it’s to take his bow and practice until his fingers bleed and he can’t tell the difference between the flesh of his arms and the wood he’s holding.
He quashes the last flames of embarrassment and wounded pride, and asks with the straightest face he can muster, “could you please teach me that? What you did just now?”
A small smile makes its way back on the stranger’s face.
“My nephew sure could learn a bit of courtesy from you…” he winks again, without malice. “I suppose that’s your parents’ doing. Who’s it, your mother? Father? Father, I’m guessing.”
“A bit of both…?” Wei Wuxian frowns. “Mom doesn’t care when it’s just for show, but she really hates it when someone is being rude just because they think they’re more important.”
“Is that so?” the stranger tilts his head to the side, looking at him quizzically.
“Yeah” Wei Wuxian nods as he starts walking back to the middle of the field, where his bow and arrows lie abandoned on the ground. “Like, she got really mad once. We were at the market and there was this woman… she wasn’t from around here, all dressed up in fancy clothes, and she kept yelling at everyone, her servants, the shopkeepers, even the tailor’s daughter who’s always so nice.”
Wei Wuxian glances at the stranger. He looks like he’s half-listening, focused on not tripping on the uneven ground while undoing the spare bow string he used to tie up the large end of his sleeves earlier, but Wei Wuxian gets the distinct feeling he’s hanging on to every word, which is.
“Well, that woman started yelling at a kid, one that lives in the street. They’re always around when it’s market day but no one really minds, as long as they don’t make trouble” he keeps his eyes on the stranger, who’s still struggling with the string. “But that kid ran into her by mistake, and she started shouting that he had dirtied her robes, calling him all kinds of names, and then she slapped him.”
He frowns as he remembers the scene. It didn’t last more than ten seconds, but it left Wei Wuxian shaken, unprepared to see violence unleashed so freely and abruptly, and for such a little thing too.
“Mom got real mad…” he shakes his head, stopping to pick up the bow at his feet. “Even worse than when I sneaked out to go on a night hunt with her. She went to talk to that woman, and I didn’t hear what she said but when she came back the woman was pale like she’d seen a ghost, and she never showed up around here after that.”
“That sounds like your mom can be really scary” the stranger comments, still inspecting his sleeves – now smoothing out the same patch of fabric for what must be the third time.
“She’s not scary” Wei Wuxian scoffs because the idea is ridiculous, then thinks better of it. “Well, she is, but only if you’re an asshole.”
Hopefully the subtle warning will be enough.
“Are you sure that’s a word you’re supposed to use?” the stranger finally looks up, not quite smiling but with a mischievous light in his eyes.
“What word?” Wei Wuxian straightens up, jaw set. “So, are you going to teach me or not?”
When he smiles for real, the man’s eyes crinkle at the corners. It makes him look kind.
“Sure, show me what you’ve got then I’ll teach you!” he squeezes Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, not unlike his father would. “I’ve got a feeling you’ll get it in no time.”
It’s past midday when they stop. The sun has climbed to its zenith by then, reigning implacable over the cloudless sky and heat-dazed land.
Wei Wuxian grows painfully aware of how sweaty and achy his body is as they walk around the field to gather stray arrows. His damp hair sticks to his neck and forehead. His clothes feel itchy against his heated skin. The muscles of his arms and back already feel stiff, and he’s sure to wake up sore all over tomorrow. But he’s overjoyed, despite the exhaustion.
That was easily the most exciting practice he’s ever had.
The stranger is a strict teacher but he’s a good one. He knew exactly how to direct his moves and the kind of advice he needed. Wei Wuxian is confident he’ll need a week, two at most, before managing the trick with the several arrows.
With their equipment gathered they start on the path leading home, a narrow track buried in tall grass, snaking between fields and orchards to skirt around the town.
The road is familiar but it feels long today.
The air is stifling hot, hammered into compact layers by the relentless sun and brimming with heady scents of dry grass and summer wildflowers. Insects buzz loudly in his ears and a lone lark keeps calling out from the border of the woods east of town, the crown of trees just visible in the distance.
“The archery grounds were dad’s idea” Wei Wuxian rambles as he pushes low bushes’ branches out of the way, the stranger following closely behind. “I used to practice at home, in the backyard, but he said I was getting too good and I needed a proper place to train, like the one there was where he grew up. He used to live in a very important place, you know?”
“What do you mean, an important place?” the stranger asks, sounding a bit out of breath.
“Oh, it’s a very big place…” Wei Wuxian wipes the sweat from his face, trying to remember details of what his father told him. He doesn’t speak a lot about his life before he met his mother. “It’s a house for just one family but there are so many buildings, nearly as many as in town. And there are lakes too, as big and as deep as the sea and all covered with flowers. Everyone there is always dressed nicely, they eat in porcelain dishes every day, and there’s gold on the roofs.”
“Gold? Are you sure about that??” the stranger asks, panting a little and sounding a lot like he’s repressing a laugh.
Wei Wuxian whirls around. “Yes, gold! It’s really pretty in the evening when the sun sets, and… are you alright?” he frowns.
The stranger looks unwell. His face is shining with sweat, like Wei Wuxian’s, but he’s also very pale. He looks like he’s having trouble breathing, his chest heaving irregularly, one hand clutching his robes above his torso.
“I’m fine, I’m fine” he waves his other hand negligently. “Just no longer as young as I thought I was. You walk very fast, you know? Just how strong is your core?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t ask how he knows he’s developing a core. It’s a well-known fact around here that even though his father is no cultivator, his mother is one of the best there is, a disciple of the famous Baoshan Sanren and a renowned rogue cultivator herself. It makes sense that her son would follow the same path.
“Pretty strong” Wei Wuxian shrugs, seeing no use in toning it down when he knows it’s the truth and his father is not around to hear him boast. “Do you need to rest?”
The stranger shakes his head. He unclenches his hand from his chest, revealing a bunch of creased fabric. His face is still bright with sweat but it has retrieved some color, and the short pause looks like it was enough for him to catch his breath.
“I’m good to go” the man gives him an easy smile. “Just have mercy on this old man here, and go a bit slower?”
Wei Wuxian holds back a comment about the stranger not being anywhere near old. The farmer owning the land around their home is old, with aches in his bones when it’s humid and cold. The carpenter and his wife are old, with their grey hair and the deep wrinkles in their face. The stranger just flat out crushed every archery performance Wei Wuxian saw in his life, and he’s definitely not old.
Before he realizes his thoughts have strayed, the man already caught up with him.
“What are you waiting for, A-Ying?” he starts poking at his side with a pointy finger. “Aren’t you hungry after all the exercise?? I thought you ate like, what was it… a pack of wolves?”
“I don’t do that!” Wei Wuxian protests, quickly walking away as an eerily familiar laughter floats after him like dandelion’s seeds in the wind.
Home is within sight, a slanted line cutting through the curves of the blue hills ahead, when the stranger collapses.
One minute he is behind Wei Wuxian, chuckling at something he said. The next he lays in a crumpled heap in the yellow dirt of the path, his face white as chalk, his neck twisted at an awkward angle. He stays unresponsive to all calls and shakes. His breathing is shallow when Wei Wuxian brings a trembling hand to his lips.
He stands up and looks around, shaken. There is no shade on the sun-beaten path. No sound beside the screech of cicadas and crickets. No one.
Wei Wuxian runs home, the heat and exhaustion from the morning practice forgotten. The image of the inert man on the ground superimposes to the familiar scenery as he sprints down the path faster than he ever did, low branches whipping his legs and face. There’s a crushing weight on his chest, a weight bigger than his own life. His legs or his heart were not made strong enough for this.
His mother is home when he barges in, half-incoherent with panic. She quickly patches together his rushed explanation and a moment later they’re kneeling down in the dust at the stranger’s side. He’s still unconscious.
Wei Wuxian feels years too young.
He has done this before. His parents have been teaching him what they know since he was old enough to talk, and it’s a small town, the nearest healer is two days away, half a day on horseback. Wei Wuxian is used to helping out as best as he can, mixing herbs, checking pulses and echoing his parents’ comforting words.
His hands feel numb when he brings them around the man’s wrist. It hangs limply in his hold, blue veins fanned out against pale skin, as cold and breakable as the fine porcelain of the guest service. Wei Wuxian thinks he might throw up.
“A-Ying, focus” his mother directs, already loosening the collar of the stranger’s robes with one hand while the other hovers above his meridians.
A cultivator, Wei Wuxian thinks dumbly. Of course.
Of course, he’s a cultivator.
Wei Wuxian remembers the five arrows planted three inches deep in the center of their improvised targets. He looks again at the man’s wrist, delicate, almost feminine in his own tanned hand. He takes a deep breath and gets to work.
“Ah…” his mother says quietly not five seconds later.
Wei Wuxian looks up at her face, then down at where her eyes are fixed, at the gap she opened in the stranger’s dark robes.
There are thin black lines blooming across the man’s skin. They surge over his heart in a perfect circle and crawl up his torso from there, curving around his chest like ivy embracing a tree. They stop a mere few inches below his neck.
Wei Wuxian has seen a curse before, plenty of times.
For an awful moment it feels like he’ll never breathe again. His chest hurts like he’s the one being ensnared in ropes. All sounds fade abruptly and he can’t hear a thing, the buzz of insects, his mother’s voice, not even the blood rushing through his head. It’s silent. It’s dark. The curse lines swim before his eyes and he sways on his knees, nearly toppling to the side.
His mother’s touch feels ghostly against his hand, but it’s enough, somehow. Wei Wuxian manages to take one deep breath, then another. When he looks up his mother is watching him worriedly, and he needs a moment to remember how to arrange his lips into the approximation of a smile.
“Let’s go home, I can’t do anything here” she says after a last assessing look at him that says “we’re going to talk about this later”, already gathering the stranger’s limp body in her arms.
(“Your mother is way stronger than me, but she’s kind enough to spare me and not brag too much about it” his father laughs, not embarrassed in the least whenever the topic comes up and Wei Wuxian has Questions. “Your father is way stronger than me, A-Ying” his mother tells him seriously, “strong in ways I’ll never be, and you’re just like him. That’s how I know I’ll never have to worry about you.”)
That afternoon is easily the strangest of Wei Wuxian’s thirteen years.
It gets better at first, with the stranger waking up soon after his mother lowered him in bed (his parents’ bed, bigger and more comfortable than the straw mat he claimed would be more than enough for him to rest during his stay).
But it only goes downhill from the moment the man opens his eyes. He immediately starts making a fuss, loudly protesting that he feels fine, he feels great, he feels bloody fantastic, and he’s sorry to have inconvenienced them (??) but he’s all good now so there is absolutely no need for further examination.
He has no idea what he’s up against, Wei Wuxian thinks, watching him wail and kick his legs like an infant child as his mother waits it out (whatever she came up with to force the man to stay in bed, he’s not pleased with it).
Wei Wuxian feels embarrassed for him. Who would be dumb enough to pretend they’re fine, when a donkey would know they’re not and there’s someone who can help right here?
“A-Ying, give me a hand with this, please?” his mother asks, drawing his attention away from the continuous cries flowing from the bedroom.
She gestures in front of her with a sheepish smile. She had been working when Wei Wuxian interrupted, and the room looks like a tornado came in through the door and left through the window. The floor, tables and shelves are sprinkled with her things – books and papers, bottles of all sizes, small tissue bags and plain-looking boxes, and various instruments he has yet to understand the purpose of.
Only the crane table has remained religiously untouched.
(“It’s a dare” his mother told him once. “A friend of your father gave it to us for our wedding, and their wife said it was a waste and I’d ruin it within a week. It’s your father’s guilty pleasure in life to write them letters where he can inform her it’s still intact after fifteen years, so we’ve got to do our best, A-Ying. I can’t possibly take his only source of pettiness from him.”)
Wei Wuxian starts tidying up the mess on the floor while his mother takes care of the lower cupboards. That’s where she keeps her most common cultivation artefacts, while the rest is stored in the upper cupboards (sealed at all times, because Wei Wuxian is his mother’s son, and his parents have an accurate understanding as to how his willpower fares when presented with an interdiction).
The volume of noise from the bedroom eventually starts decreasing.
“Are you done being ridiculous?” his mother asks once it has reduced to muffled grumbles and tragic sighs, going to peek inside the room.
Wei Wuxian can’t see much from where he’s sitting on the floor, gathering loose papers in piles, but he does get a satisfying glimpse at the stranger’s sulky face.
“I’m not ridiculous!” the man pouts and crosses his arms, his lower lip jutting out like a petulant child’s.
Wei Wuxian feels so, so, so incredibly embarrassed for him.
“Even A-Ying thinks you are, and he’s thirteen” his mother points out.
“Now you’re being mean, is that a way to treat your guest??” the stranger whines louder, kicking his legs some more.
Wei Wuxian has never, ever seen a grown man behave so foolishly before. He didn’t think a day would come when he’d be so thankful for his father’s example. It’s not that he never whines himself, but it’s just a little, sometimes, for fun – like, say, when the old ladies at the market provoke him on purpose. The stranger is on a whole new level of shameless.
It’s very unseemly.
“I don’t know who taught you about hospitality, but I don’t usually let guests pass out at my door and look the other way” his mother retorts. “Now stop being a baby and let me examine you.”
“You can’t go on like this, you-”
“I said no.”
Wei Wuxian’s hands freeze around his papers. He sees his mother’s shoulders tense. The stranger hasn’t moved from his reclined position on the bed, propped up against a pile of pillows. He still looks pale and his sullen expression hardly changed. But there was something in his voice just now.
“You can be rude all you want about it”, his mother tries again after an awkward silence. “That still won’t stop me from having a look at that curse. Do I need to knock you out with a broom, or do you prefer the easy way?”
“I don’t know who taught you about hospitality” the stranger scrunches up his nose, his eyes narrowed, “but they sure had weird customs.”
“You’re very bossy, has anyone told you?” the man sighs, sitting up to fiddle with the edge of the blanket covering his legs. “I had a friend, she’d be laughing so hard if she could see me now. She was a good friend, mind you, but she enjoyed it way too much whenever karma came back to bite me in the ass just to prove her right.”
“I can understand why she enjoyed it” his mother says dryly. “Now lay back down or I’m fetching that broom.”
“Of course I would.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“A-Ying, tell him.”
“She would” Wei Wuxian agrees, nodding quickly. “She totally would.”
His mother doesn’t need a broom, in the end. The stranger is so adamant that he’s not going to let himself be examined and he gets so agitated about it that he passes out again on his own.
Wei Wuxian breathes out in relief when his mother disappears inside the bedroom with the leather bag containing her preferred herbs and work tools, closing the door behind her.
His mother is the best.
She is Baoshan Sanren’s disciple. She has helped everyone who ever asked her to. She has never failed, ever. She will know what’s wrong, and she will fix it.
Wei Wuxian continues cleaning up, pausing at intervals to listen, but he can’t hear a thing. Maybe the stranger is still out cold. Or maybe they activated the silencing talismans inside the bedroom (another thing he dearly wishes he could go back to not knowing).
The hours drag on forever.
Wei Wuxian loses count of how many papers he picks up, how many books he tidies, how many boxes and strangely shaped objects he orders in neat piles around the central pillar of the room. It feels at some point like he’s going in circles, forever moving the same items around. His head hurts.
Shadows grow, spilling like ink stains on the walls.
The heat feels more bearable now, but when Wei Wuxian looks out the window it’s still bright outside. The sky is a deep metallic blue and a heat shimmer blurs the familiar outline of the hills. He wipes the sweat on his forehead with his sleeve and looks down at his feet.
There are papers scattered everywhere, and books, and instruments he doesn’t know the name of. He bends down and picks them up, pausing to listen at times, but it’s quiet. Absolutely quiet. Not a single hint as to what’s going on behind the bedroom’s door.
It feels like years ago when he went to the archery grounds to help the potter’s daughter with her posture. She thinks too much. It makes her tense at the exact moment when she should be most relaxed, just feeling the way the arrow slips away and flies to its goal as sure as if it’s home and it recognized it.
Wei Wuxian rubs two fingers between his eyebrows, willing his headache away.
They must have stayed too long in the sun. It’s weird, because Wei Wuxian’s core is strong even though he’s still young, he hasn’t suffered from heatstroke in ages. He stops cleaning up the time to go drink some water, realizes the pot is empty, and goes outside to fill it from the well in the backyard.
When he comes back the bedroom’s door is ajar.
“A-Ying?” his mother’s head pops out. “Was that your father?”
“No” he shakes his head, looking down in confusion at the books, papers, boxes and bags and instruments scattered at his feet. “Just me, I went to fetch water. Mom, I-”
“Tell him to come here when he’s back.”
By the time Wei Wuxian registers how she just said that, she already closed the door.
(His mother is never scared.)
His father is ushered inside the bedroom the moment he gets back.
“I will explain, but come in first” his mother whispers, pulling on his arm before he can ask what’s going on.
It’s dark, now, the sun having just set behind the hills. Wei Wuxian only gets a quick glimpse inside the dim bedroom.
The stranger is awake. He’s sitting up on the bed, his arms tightly wrapped around his legs, his face pressed against his knees. His ponytail is undone and his long black hair spills over his back and shoulders. The tips of his bare feet poke from under the crimson hem of his robes. He’s quiet, after making all that ruckus earlier.
His mother glances at him before she closes the door.
“Don’t worry, A-Ying. It’ll be fine” she tells him with a smile.
It’s a bright smile – bright as a smile could ever be – and there’s nothing behind it.
They eat dinner in silence.
Wei Wuxian’s home is never silent.
His mother always has a fun story to tell, Wei Wuxian brings anecdotes of his own, and his father is the best public, listening attentively and sprinkling the conversation with unexpected jokes that send them into fits of irrepressible laughter.
His mother’s eyes are red-rimmed when she sits down with him that evening.
“Your father will eat later” she says simply as she brings out the dishes, yesterday’s leftovers, and lays them out on top of the table.
Wei Wuxian’s stomach chooses that moment to remind him loudly that lunch was skipped amidst the confusion of the day’s events. He starts wolfing down the food in front of him, uneasiness forgotten in the face of more pressing urges. He only looks up when he starts being full, feeling significantly better, and his heart drops through his chest like a stone.
His mother’s eyes are bright with unshed tears.
His chopstick fall on the table with a clatter.
“Mom” he runs across the table, dropping on his knees at her side. “Mom what’s wrong? Did something bad happen??”
She shakes her head and loops her hands around his wrists where Wei Wuxian is trying to remove the tears from her face. She doesn’t push him away. She doesn’t let go of him either, her head lowered, expression hidden behind loose bangs of hair. Her hands are trembling around his wrists, but her fingers dig hard into his skin.
When she looks up she’s smiling, but this smile looks like it was made of shards or ashes. Like just looking at him hurts.
“A-Ying…” she breathes out, her voice thick and wavering, so much raw love and pain all mixed up in one word – in his name – that Wei Wuxian has to wonder if it’s really for him. “My lovely A-Ying… my kind, beautiful son. You’re the gift of my whole life, you know that?”
He nods, growing more panicked with every word she says.
“Mom, what’s wrong?? Are you hurt? Did…” he swallows around the lump in his throat, eyes darting to the closed bedroom door. “Did he do something wrong?”
“He did nothing wrong, sweetheart, he only…” his mother’s voice gets so unsteady she has to stop, exhaling a shaky breath before she pulls him into a tight embrace. “Don’t worry, alright? I promise it’s fine, A-Ying. I promise nothing’s wrong.”
“You’re crying” he points out, fighting back his own tears. “Mom, you’re crying.”
(“She cried the day we married” his father says with a fond smile, “that’s the only time I ever saw her tear up, and I’m to blame for it”. “He cried the day A-Ying was born” his mother says with tender eyes. “And the day he first talked. And the day he first walked. Everything A-Ying does makes him cry at this point, I can’t handle it anymore it’s impossibly cute.”)
“It’s happy tears, you silly boy” she says, her voice frail as cracked glass. “You have to let your foolish mother have her moments, you know. Even when she’s embarrassing you.”
Wei Wuxian says nothing and lets her pull him closer, almost all the way in her lap. He closes his eyes when she starts stroking his hair like when he was a small child. Despite her tears, despite the silence from the bedroom and the heaviness on his heart, it doesn’t feel so wrong when she’s holding him like this. Entirely. Possessively.
He curls greedily into her warmth, breathing in her scent.
“I love you, Mom…” he whispers against her neck, because he doesn’t know what else to do. “I love you, I’ll never leave you, I promise.”
“Oh A-Ying…” she cradles his head closer to her chest, pressing a fierce kiss to his temple. “My A-Ying, I’m so glad I met you.”
Wei Wuxian wakes up early in the coated silence of his bedroom.
Awareness hits him instantly – the now permanent weight on his chest is a good reminder. He listens to the silence, watching timid sunlight filter in through the blinds and thinking of how the silence and the shy morning light would have felt comforting just two days ago.
He pushes the covers away, and pads out of his room still in his night clothes.
The bedroom’s door is closed. The kitchen’s stove is warm and there are two empty cups of tea on the table (plain stoneware and earth brown), left in the corner where their family was carved in wood, like a promise. Wei Wuxian stares at it, furiously blinking back tears he doesn’t know the cause of.
He isn’t aware he’s moving until he’s slamming the bedroom’s door open.
The pressure around his heart is nearing unbearable, painful and confusing in equal measure – sadness and anger and longing roughly melted together into a dense mass of poignant feelings. There’s more in all this than any emotion Wei Wuxian felt in all short thirteen years of his life. More than anyone like him, who hasn’t even lived yet, should be able to feel.
The stranger is awake when he storms inside.
He’s alone, sitting on the bed much like he was when Wei Wuxian spotted him yesterday – knees pressed to his chest and arms wrapped around them. He changed into one of his father’s night gowns and it’s too big for him, revealing pale collarbones and the black lines creeping up his upper chest. He looks at him when Wei Wuxian comes in, his dark grey eyes tired but crinkling at the corners to greet him with a genuine smile.
Wei Wuxian wants to rip him into pieces.
Or he wants to wrap him in his arms like his mother did last night, tell him he was glad to meet him, and to get the fuck out of his life, now.
“Ah…” the stranger tightens his arms around his knees and closes his eyes briefly. It sounds like he’s talking to himself. “It hurts more than I thought it would.”
“What are you doing?” Wei Wuxian demands. “What the fuck are you doing to us??”
“Nothing” the stranger puts his chin on top his knees, looking in his eyes. He is so calm and Wei Wuxian hates it so much. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s bullshit!” he shakes his head, the volume of his voice increasing to cover how scared he is. “Why are you sorry if you’re doing nothing?? Why are you even here? You said you would go!! You said we wouldn’t even remember you!”
“You said you were no one!!”
He’s shouting but not crying, and that’s a relief. The mess of swirling emotions in his heart is getting out of hand, swollen, tangled, growing more painful and more confusing with every slow blink of those wide grey eyes that are the wrong color, the wrong softness, the wrong person.
“Who are you…” Wei Wuxian asks again with a hint of desperation. “Just… just who are you??”
The stranger averts his eyes, wrapping his father’s robes more tightly around himself. He manages to cover his shoulders and most of his chest but fails to hide the slim black lines that now reach less than an inch below his neck, stretching upward like sun-starved flowers. Wei Wuxian’s hands start shaking.
It’s all so big.
Too big for him.
“Please tell me who you are…” he asks again in a small voice, realizing as he says it that whatever the answer is, it’ll again be more than he was made to bear with.
“I’m someone who needs you” the stranger tells him with another of his strange smiles, this one soft and self-deprecating at the same time, like he can’t tell the love and the hatred apart. “Ah, A-Ying… what can I say? I’m just a really selfish person who manages to miss things I never even had.”
“What do you need us for, is it to heal that curse?” Wei Wuxian asks, briefly wondering why he isn’t angrier.
Why he isn’t throwing that man out of his parents’ bedroom, far from their home, away from their quiet and perfect life.
Why he isn’t telling him he can stay if he wants, forever, if that would make that horrible smile disappear from his face.
“I just need to be with you…” the stranger lets his gaze wander around the room, stopping reverently on every small detail – a shadow of the hungry look in his eyes when he first visited the house and the archery grounds. “Here. To be with you here. It won’t last much longer, now” he adds with a fleeting smile. “I promise, A-Ying, it won’t be long until I’m gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” Wei Wuxian can’t help but ask, his anxiety ratcheting up. He clenches his hands to make them stop shaking. “Who said you had to go??”
“Ah, your parents are right” the stranger chuckles, “you’re kind, A-Ying. Much kinder than I was at your age. That’s good to know.”
“What do you-”
“Doesn’t it hurt, that I’m here?” the man interrupts, laughter lingering on his lips but his eyes unusually serious. “I know it hurts. I can tell. You could tell, from the moment you saw me. It’s fine to wish I’d never come here, you know. That doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“I wish…” Wei Wuxian starts, before realizing he doesn’t know what he wishes.
He feels drained, all of a sudden. He doesn’t want to fight this now, whatever it is.
“Do you need anything?” he asks instead. “Water? Food? Medicine? My parents went for a walk, they do that sometimes, when they… I mean, they’ll be back soon, but you can ask me if you want something. I’m not- I can help, too, you know?”
The stranger grins at that, a familiar mischievous spark lighting up in his eyes. Wei Wuxian lets out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding. He’ll take the teasing any day over smiles that are not smiles, or questions he has no answer for.
“Well, you can come here” the man pats the mattress next to him, until Wei Wuxian gingerly comes to sit next him. “And hug me.”
“What?!!” he manages to half-stand from the bed before the stranger’s arms wrap tightly around him, shoving him back down with shocking strength. “What are you doing?? I thought you were sick!!”
“I am sick” the man rubs his cheek against his shoulder like an affectionate cat, ignoring Wei Wuxian’s hands hitting and pushing at his arms. “I’m terribly sick, A-Ying, and guess what? The sicker I am, the clingier I get! I need hugs!! But the person in charge of that isn’t here so you can be substitute, aren’t you so lucky??”
“I’m not hugging you!”
“You are right now” the stranger laughs merrily above his head, “and you’re good at it! Come on, A-Ying. You’re tired, I can tell, and I am too. We can sleep together!”
“Absolutely no way” Wei Wuxian manages with a lot of squirming to extract himself from the man’s hold and immediately takes several steps back, only stopping when he’s a safe distance away. “You’re a lunatic” he points accusingly, his hand shaking again for altogether different reasons. “You’re… you’re just crazy!”
The man’s laughter follows him through the door, warm and bright as the sun.
His parents come back from their walk looking better than they did yesterday. They are quiet and their smiles have changed, but they are calm, and their eyes are clear. Wei Wuxian stands up from the front porch and goes to greet them on the path.
Their gazes don’t leave him as he comes close, not for one second, an emotion in them he can’t grasp. Wei Wuxian doesn’t mind. No more than he minds the light press of his mother’s lips on his forehead, or the weight of his father’s hand on the top of his head.
“Mom, dad…” he calls before they resume walking toward the house, uncertain of what he’s calling for exactly.
They look at him, and suddenly it’s everywhere.
Their love for him is everywhere – in their eyes, their smiles, their joined hands and the way they reach for him, as if to say that of course he belongs here, he always will, it was never in question. Wei Wuxian feels childish for needing that from them. He feels tired too. Increasingly tired.
What wrong could it do, to have this a little while longer?
So he reaches out as they do. He lets them each take one of his hands, and swears he’ll never let go.
(“He keeps getting in trouble but he’s a soft one, like his mother”, his father says. “He feels a lot, and thinks a lot, and talks a lot, and I wouldn’t like to be in his head because it must be chaos” his mother says, “but A-Ying is like his father and he’s not afraid to think his own thoughts or to feel what he feels, to the fullest. It’s not easy to follow him though, so you have to watch and listen. Else you’ll miss it.”)
They’re finishing lunch when someone knocks at the door. Wei Wuxian goes to open it, and every confusing feeling he managed to bury in the last three hours rears its head back up the moment he lays eyes on the man on the other side.
If anything, the stranger at the door looks at least as stricken.
“…Wei Ying?” he asks after a stunned silence that seems to last hours.
“How do you know my name??” Wei Wuxian fires back, instantly suspicious.
He tries to look away and realizes he can’t. It’s the man’s face. It’s the man’s voice, and the way he just said Wei Wuxian’s name, like there was more. Like it’s all here, and all he has to do is reach out and destroy himself in doing so. He knows that’s what will happen. He can feel it in his bones.
He can’t look away.
Wei Wuxian finds himself clinging at the doorframe, his legs weak, torn between the absurd urge to run into the man’s arms and the equally absurd one to yell at him to get out from his home, right this second, and never come back.
“What do you want?” he blurts out before the man can answer his first question, instinctively blocking the way with his body. “No one wants you here.”
His heart is racing. The anxiety is back full force, at war this time with another mass of unending feelings of… of want, and loved, and safe. Wei Wuxian grips the doorway harder.
“I’m looking for someone” the stranger says in a low, quiet voice.
His eyes look like gold, Wei Wuxian notes with the tiny part of his brain that’s not reeling under foreign emotions – bright, burning gold. They are beautiful. He is beautiful. The most beautiful thing Wei Wuxian ever laid his eyes on, long lashes like dark clouds over his sun-like eyes, smooth skin like in the poems they study at school about the immortals, and a voice so deep and so soft, Wei Wuxian wouldn’t mind hearing it for the rest of his life.
His face flushes the moment he realizes where his thoughts are going.
“I did not expect…” the man stops half-sentence, managing to look unearthly despite his confusion. “Are you-”
“LAN ZHAN!!!” an inhuman yell shatters Wei Wuxian’s ears.
The next thing he knows he’s being shoved aside like a sack of rotten vegetables, and the first stranger is jumping in the arms of the second stranger, and then they are. Kissing.
On the mouth.
With their tongues.
Wei Wuxian turns his head away fast enough to get whiplash, his face burning hot. Do they have no shame???
Wei Wuxian is not a prude. He knows about such things. His parents themselves are affectionate (a little too much at times), but even so they’d never stoop so low as to do… that, in front of an audience. A young audience, with complicated teenage feelings on a regular day, and extremely troubling ones for the past day and a half.
“Who is it? A-Ying, who just knocked?” his father asks, coming forward behind him.
Wei Wuxian slams the door close.
He puts the latch on.
The idea of his parents seeing the two strangers kiss like that makes him want to disappear into a hole.
“A-Ying?” a puzzled voice calls from the other side, followed by loud knocking. “A-Ying, why did the door close?? Open up, would you!”
“In your dreams” he grits out.
“A-Yiiiiing…!” the infuriating whining is back to full volume. “A-Ying, don’t be rude! And don’t forget I’m sick, what if I collapse here?! Ah… I’m feeling very weak, oh, oh no, I’m fainting A-Ying… I’m fading, this is it, I’m leaving this cruel world! A-Ying! Don’t tell me you’d be so cold to let me die at your door!! We just made up this morning! We even slept together!!”
“We did not!!”
Wei Wuxian hears a weird noise from the table and glares at his mother, who quickly hides the lower half of her face with her hand, not looking remotely guilty.
“You’re so mean, A-Ying…” the insistent whining and knocking continues. “So, so cold to this poor dying man, ah… such cruelty is breaking my heart, I shall leave this world unloved and forsaken, denied alas even the last comfort of a friend’s helping hand-”
“You’re not dying” Wei Wuxian hisses, ignoring the part of him that wants to scream at the idea. “You are just annoying!”
“That’s not incompatible, I can do many things!”
“Then die in silence!”
“A-Ying” his father chides gently.
“But dad…” Wei Wuxian complains, lowering his voice as warmth creeps up his neck again. “They were. He was… You didn’t see what he was doing.”
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong!” an indignant protest rises at once through the door. Wei Wuxian has never wanted his hands around someone else’s throat so badly before. “Can’t I greet my husband properly?? Am I going to be judged for being a good spouse now?!”
Wei Wuxian’s brain shuts down. The amused light in his father’s eyes disappears, and his mother stands up from the table hastily.
“Now that’s unexpected…” she murmurs to herself as she joins them. “A-Ying, open the door please.”
Wei Wuxian’s hands feel numb, but the momentary absence of any thought in his mind makes it easy enough to undo the latch, consequences be damned. When the door opens there are two strangers outside.
The first one is grinning, looking entirely too pleased with himself for someone this pale and currently bearing curse marks that rise as high as the hollow of his throat.
The second one is.
(“Dangerous” a voice warns in his head.)
(“Beautiful”, “safe”, “yours” whisper others that he tries to stifle).
Wei Wuxian can’t decipher the expression on his face, but he feels overwhelmed the moment pale eyes slide down to observe him again. The same urge from before is back but five times, ten times as strong, to step into that man’s embrace. For a breathless second there’s nothing in the world Wei Wuxian wants more than that – his face buried against a firm chest, his body held close by broad hands, and that low, quiet voice… that golden stare, all for him.
“He looks great, right?” a laughing voice cuts through his thoughts, and Wei Wuxian is brutally jerked back to reality.
The first stranger’s smile is impossibly wide. He’s leaning heavily against the other’s body. They are holding hands – Wei Wuxian can’t help but notice that, that they’re holding hands. He also notices the tall one’s arm wrapped around the first one’s waist. And his fingers, long, elegant, curling at the other man’s hip in a way that screams “mine” and makes Wei Wuxian want.
His parents save him this time from the catastrophic train of thoughts.
“I must say, this is a surprise” his mother says on this right, at the same time as his father comes to his left and lays a firm hand on his shoulder.
“I’m surprised too!!” the stranger laughs, sounding delighted as he tugs on the taller man’s arm to try and bring him closer, a futile endeavor seeing they’re glued to each other. “Meet Lan Zhan, my husband! Ah, you’ve got to know, he’s the best husband in the world! The greatest!! But Lan Zhan, how sneaky of you to come here like this! Ah but I’m so glad he did, you’ll forgive him right??”
The introduction is odd, but what is one more odd thing those days? Wei Wuxian barely notices. He has yet to proceed past the word “husband” and what it did to him. He can’t stop staring at the two men’s joined hands.
He only looks up when the taller man gently untangles himself from the other’s embrace and steps forward, his expression solemn. His pristine white robes glide soundlessly on the scraped wood of their simple porch. His headpiece gleams in the midday sun when he bows.
Wei Wuxian has never seen anyone bow so low to his parents before.
“My name is Lan Zhan, courtesy name Lan Wangji” he says in that quiet, low voice of his. A shudder runs down Wei Wuxian’s spine. “It is an honor to meet you.”
The stranger unleashes a dizzying storm of activity the moment everyone is inside. Wei Wuxian would have thought that spending thirteen years under his mother’s influence would have desensitized him, somehow, but the stranger is far worse.
He runs his mouth nonstop. He can’t stay in one place and there’s a feverish glow in his eyes as he goes “Lan Zhan this, Lan Zhan that”, showing him around the room like he lives here, dragging him left and right to admire the engraving on the table, to smell the flowers above the door, to run his fingers against the dents in the central wooden pillar where his parents kept track of Wei Wuxian’s growth through the years.
And all of this wouldn’t be so bad, if his hands didn’t keep darting out to touch the man under the most ridiculous pretexts.
Wei Wuxian wants to crawl into a hole from secondhand embarrassment. It doesn’t make him feel better that his mother keeps laughing as the stranger taps the man’s forearm and pretends to be hurt from how hard his muscles are, or fusses with his white robes complaining they’re wrinkled. His father watches it all with a quiet smile.
Predictably the stranger passes out after a few minutes, caught this time at once in the tall man’s arms.
The man – Lan Wangji – cautiously lowers his body to the floor then pulls him in his lap, showing no intention of bringing him to bed. Despite himself Wei Wuxian glances at the closed bedroom’s door. He has to stifle the absurd urge to open it and see what’s on the other side (he knows what’s on the other side). He looks away and his eyes stray to the couple again, helpless to resist the pull.
The stranger is so loud when he’s awake, so vibrant, so alive he fills the entire space around him to the brim with overwhelming presence. But in unconsciousness he looks small, his body folded between Lan Wangji’s arms like a child’s, his face tucked in the crook of his neck. His labored breathing is obvious now that he’s not talking. The curse marks are well visible above the collar of his robes.
His husband (husband) raises one hand and trails a light finger against the longest dark line marring the stranger’s skin. For the first time Wei Wuxian glimpses an emotion on Lan Wangji’s face, concern and love mingling seamlessly in one focused expression of intense yearning.
He looks away, his cheeks burning.
His parents don’t have the same qualms at him. They are staring blatantly, against all (few) rules of propriety they’ve ever taught him. Wei Wuxian can’t read their expression, no more than he can explain the brightness in his mother’s eyes, or the way they are holding onto each other so tight the knuckles of his father’s hand are white where he grips his mother’s.
So, Wei Wuxian was wrong.
Even in unconsciousness… even when he’s small, when he’s quiet and motionless as a corpse, the stranger is still enough to fill up his whole world and make it revolve around him. In that moment Wei Wuxian might as well not be here.
He might as well have never existed.
He feels suffocated again.
It’s worse this time, much worse, the walls of his heart crumbling onto themselves under the intolerable pressure of the foreign feelings inside.
Wei Wuxian clenches his hands around his robes. He closes his eyes. He tries to breathe, and he tries not to cry, not to panic, not to acknowledge how everything is wrong, how it hurts just to be here and exist, but he must be doing poorly because the next thing he knows, there’s a broad hand running up and down his back and a voice telling him to breathe.
“Oh, A-Ying…” his mother sounds heartbroken.
(She’s always smiling.)
“What should we do?” his father sounds at loss.
(He always knows what to do.)
(The three of them are always fine. They are happy, in their simple house in this quiet town where nothing bad happens. Wei Wuxian can’t dig out a single painful memory from all thirteen years of his life. How could he? He’s got everything he needs here, everything he could ever want… everything he’s ever longed for.)
Black floods his vision, and he sinks into nothing with a call for help on his lips.
Voices, distant, unclear. Words floating like the shimmering reflection of water on a wall on a sunny day. He feels so far away. So detached. Almost a shadow himself, the faded reflection of an existence so much brighter than him.
“…unwilling to show me. I think he knew I’d understand.”
A hesitant pause (his mother is never hesitant).
“Or to be correct, it made sense to him that I would.”
“It must have been hard to accept.”
Oh, that voice. His heart trembles under it. He feels warm – too warm, but he’s too tired to try and escape the tight heat around him. There’s a hand stroking his hair, light but purposeful, the opposite of mindless. The repeated motion makes him feel drowsy.
Another silence. When his mother talks again, there’s a sad smile in her voice (his mother is never sad).
“It wasn’t so much of a surprise to be honest. I guess we knew, deep down. Everything here is all just so…”
“Perfect” his father finishes that thought for her.
The hand in his hair slows. Someone hums thoughtfully. There’s a lark singing outside – Wei Wuxian has always loved the lark’s song the most. Unlike the other birds it’s never the same thing. It sounds like speech, like a message delivered just for him, everchanging, always hopeful.
“There must be a kind way of doing this” his father continues, a plea in his voice (his father never pleads).
“I understand the situation, I do, but nevertheless I can’t bear to see him like this.”
The hand in his hair stops, shaking a little.
“I can’t bear for him to know.”
He shifts in his cocoon of warmth. The words float, specks of light, meaningless. He has a feeling he should try harder, but he’s so tired.
“There’s no need for him to know.”
A lark is singing outside, and Wei Wuxian runs after it.
When he wakes up, the first thing he sees are the stranger’s eyes.
A stormy sea, when his father’s are pale as a winter sky. He blinks sleepily and the grey eyes crinkle, veiled with exhaustion and more, but genuinely smiling. He really looks kind, when he smiles for real. It makes it worse, somehow.
“I get that you’re tired, but you’re missing all the fun, little one” the man says, his voice a bit raspy.
That finishes waking Wei Wuxian up.
“I’m not little” he protests, hastily straightening up from where he fell asleep on the table.
Someone put a blanket over his shoulders. A first glance around tells him the sun is already low in the sky. A second one sweeps over the table, cluttered with all sorts of items.
There’s the stuffed doll Wei Wuxian carried everywhere until five years ago. The rattle-drum that’s the last toy to have survived from his early childhood. The first talismans he drew, unsteady lines that had made his parents so immensely proud. His mother’s silk scarf he kept stealing when she was away on her travels because it’s so soft and it smells like her, now threadbare and discolored. A clarity bell, exquisite and expensive-looking, that Wei Wuxian always remembers having.
“Why is this here?” he asks, his brow furrowed, before he looks around and realizes with a spike of panic that they are alone. “Where is everyone??”
“Relax…” the stranger chuckles. The sound is wheezy, like he doesn’t have enough air in his lungs to laugh. “They’re outside. Lan Zhan wanted to rehearse something on his qin and your parents wished to hear it, but they didn’t want to wake you up. So I volunteered to keep an eye on you.”
“More like they didn’t want you to leave the house…” Wei Wuxian mutters, taking in the stranger’s appearance.
The curse lines have reached all around his lower neck now, like a deadly necklace. Thicker. More numerous. Wei Wuxian has to fight the urge to wrap his hands around his own neck to get rid of a phantom pressure on his throat.
“Yeah, that too, I suppose” the stranger smiles tiredly. “Understandable, seeing the mess I’ve made. Again.”
“What mess?” Wei Wuxian frowns. “You’re just here. There’s nothing wrong with you being here.”
He expects the stranger to laugh and coo at him that he’s so cute, or funny, or kind, or something ridiculous like that, but the man merely shakes his head. His smile turns thoughtful as he picks up the rattle-drum in front of him, and runs his fingers against the worn embroidered fabric on the sides. Wei Wuxian has half a mind to rip it from his hands.
“Say A-Ying… do you still hate me?” the stranger asks out of the blue, his eyes on the toy and his voice careful.
“I don’t hate you” Wei Wuxian scoffs.
“Or dislike me?”
“I don’t do that either!”
“Feel scared of me, then?”
“I’m not scared” Wei Wuxian hisses in outrage. “Least of all of you, you can barely stand on your own two legs!”
“I can’t say you’re not right” the stranger chuckles, looking up to meet his eyes. They are the wrong color and yet the more he looks, the more familiar they seem. “But still, I wonder…”
“Why would I be scared?” Wei Wuxian crosses his arms. “You’re just… you’re you, you’re sick, this is my house, and my parents are right here. How could someone like you scare me?”
“How indeed…” the stranger whispers, faint amusement dancing in his eyes like the glow of a fickle flame. “You ask very good questions, A-Ying. Has anyone told you that before?”
“You’re making fun of me again” Wei Wuxian accuses, his eyes narrowed.
“I’m not, I swear” the stranger says, entirely too serious to be believable. “But let me rephrase my question then. Don’t you feel like it’s either you or me here?”
All the air feels like it’s knocked out of Wei Wuxian’s lungs.
“I… it’s not…” he stammers. “Why would you ask that?”
“I’m not trying to hurt you or being cruel on purpose…” the stranger continues in a too-light tone. “But you do realize this has to end now?”
His fingers are still brushing mindlessly against the rattle-drum, pale against the red fabric. Wei Wuxian wants to snatch the toy from him and cradle it against his chest. His hands curl on themselves, cold again. The pressure on his chest is back.
“This is hard for me too, you know…” the stranger’s voice lowers to a murmur. His eyes are kind but there’s steel in them. “And I wouldn’t say this if I could avoid it. As a matter of fact they don’t want me to say it. But the more you hold on, the more it’s hurting him, and I won’t have any of that.”
“I don’t…” Wei Wuxian inhales sharply, a hand clutched above his chest where his heart feels like it’s being squeezed by an iron fist. “I’m not doing anything wrong, you’re the one who came here.”
You’re the one who’s ruining everything, he can’t bring himself to say aloud.
“You’re kind A-Ying…” the stranger puts the rattle-drum down and lays his hands on the table, his fingers following the lines of the wooden figure of Wei Wuxian’s mother. “And you’re young like I never was. Soft. None of those things are bad, but you’re going to need more courage than that.”
There’s a burning trail on Wei Wuxian’s cheek where a small tear is snaking down.
“Why are you saying that?” he says, his voice shaking in spite of his best efforts. “You don’t get to say that. You’re no one. You said you’re no one. You-”
“It was a lie” the stranger cuts in. “I thought you’d realize on your own but it’s taking too long. Look around, A-Ying. You can barely hold it together as it is.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t look around, because he knows what he’ll see.
(His home. His and his parents’ home, simple and warm, with the dry flowers above the door and his bow next to them, the small horizontal lines in the central pillar, the crane table, the kitchen, the cupboards and his parents’ bedroom, the hills beyond the window and a lark’s song outside.)
He doesn’t look around.
There’s hollow darkness creeping up the edges of his vision. In his back. On the sides. Above and under him. Waiting to swallow him entirely and make it like he was never here.
Wei Wuxian is no longer thirteen. He’s younger than that.
A lot younger.
A lot less sure of what belongs to him, always and forever.
He looks down at the table, at the lines engraved in hard wood. His family is blurring under the caress of pale fingers, like it is made of sand.
“It’s not a lie” he chokes out, his cheeks wet and cold, his voice small. “It doesn’t have to be.”
“You know as well as me who’s the stranger here” the man across the table says wearily. “Let it go, A-Ying. Come on, you’re braver than that. I know this better than anyone.”
He shakes his head vigorously, a fresh surge of hot tears filling his eyes and spilling down his face. He steps back, unsure of when he stood up. The room is huge and dark around him, cavernous, walls removed far away and lost in uncertain shadows, closed doors invisible, silence only broken by his own strained breathing.
Now it’s just him, the empty table and the man on the other side of it, wiping away his whole life with the mere tips of his fingers.
A door opens and he feels rather than hears the presence of other people. They stay quiet, a stricken pause.
“Wei Ying…” a low, quiet voice says at last, sounding infinitely sad.
“I had to” the man with the wrong eyes murmurs.
He turns around on his heels, his sight too blurred by tears to make anything out beside the three silhouettes standing between the door and him. One of them is tall, white, almost glowing. The other two are shadowed, as clumsily outlined as the figures drawn by a child’s unsure hand on talisman paper.
“A-Ying…” the shape of a hand reaches out but he dodges easily, running for the door. “A-Ying, stay with us, please. I swear it’ll be alright.”
(His parents never lie.)
It’s night outside.
It’s dark outside and he doesn’t know anymore where’s the entrance of the path that leads to the archery grounds. Where are the fields and orchards. Where is the town. The blue hills. The forest in the east. The door that leads back inside the house where his family is.
A-Ying is alone here, in the dark.
He’s the only thing left.
He sits on the cold earth and wraps his arms around his knees, his face pressed against them.
It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, he repeats to himself. It’s still fine, it’s not all lost yet as long as he’s here. If there’s nothing else then he’ll just hold onto himself. He knows how to do that, at least. He’s used to it. He’ll not go so easily. He’ll not just disappear when all he has ever wanted is right here, within his reach, if only he could believe a little bit longer.
He doesn’t want to be brave. Just for once in his life, in all the many, many years of his life, A-Ying doesn’t want to be brave.
“I’m here too” he whispers against his knees, against the hungry darkness pressing all around him. And again, louder, stubborn. “I’m here, too.”
“You are” a low, quiet voice says next to him.
“I matter too” he continues helplessly, fighting the tightness in his throat. “It’s not wrong that I’m here. It’s not a lie. I’m not a lie.”
He’s so much younger than thirteen. Maybe eight. Maybe six. Maybe four, wandering in the night and looking for a lost door he already knows will be closed.
“You matter” the voice next to him says, and A-Ying trembles when real warmth wraps around him. “Of course, you do. Everything you are matters.”
A-Ying surrenders then, and lets his tears run freely against a broad chest, lets sobs wrack his body while a sure hand gently strokes his hair and hums a familiar song. He cries, he cries, he cries and it hurts but it’s good too, because the longer he cries, the longer it’ll last. He wants every painful second of it. He wants every broken shard of a safe world fallen apart.
His tears run out, eventually. There’s only so much sadness his cracked heart can hold, but the arms around him don’t loosen. The hand cradling his head doesn’t leave. The gentle song goes on.
“I don’t want to…” A-Ying begs against the soft material covering a strong chest, his cheeks burning, a shameful secret. “Please, I don’t want to.”
His heart is beating erratically inside his ribcage, a mayfly caught in a net in the early hours of its life.
“I’ll stay with you” the warm voice says.
They don’t sound hurt. They don’t sound angry. They don’t sound like they think A-Ying is being selfish, or childish, or cowardly.
He clings onto the white robes under his palms, grips them with all the strength the crying has left him with. His hands are small but it’s a relief, in a way, that they still know how to hold onto something other than himself, here at the end of darkness.
“You promise?” he asks.
A-Ying knows what little worth promises are. He has been made promises before by people who never lied, people who were always kind and people who loved him so, and it had hurt to wait in vain. It had been so hard to let go of their smiles and forget their voices. He doesn’t want to go through it again.
He wants the promises still – he wants them with ravenous hunger, like if he hoards enough words they’ll fill up the holes inside his chest, where his heart lies in pieces.
A-Ying will take a promise over the darkness, any promise, a word, a smile, anything. And the voice is so warm. He can almost believe this one.
“Bring me back” he finds his courage one more time.
There’s a grey-eyed stranger with long black and red robes in the room, a shadow on his left, another on his right. They’re holding onto him, whispering in his ears, telling him sweet things that make his eyes too bright and his smile fragile.
A-Ying doesn’t love nor hate him.
He stares at him from where he’s curled into a ball in the tall man’s lap, enveloped by his warmth, his sureness, his promise. We can both be here, A-Ying would tell the stranger. It doesn’t have to be either you or me. You’re the one who made it this way. You’re the one who’s wrong, and you’re the one who’s scared.
He doesn’t want to try to prove anything anymore. He feels sleepy, too small, too young, too bruised to take another blow.
The wooden table is gone. There’s a guqin in its place, and when the man raises his arms to lay his hands on it, A-Ying finds himself surrounded in white silk. He sighs a little, burrowing further in the warmth of the man’s body.
He still wishes he had been enough, but this is not so bad either.
He closes his eyes when the first notes ring, clear as a bird song in the quiet hour before dawn. He lets a few more tears roll down his face freely. He’ll not be ashamed of them. He’s not wrong to want this, to miss it, to still yearn. He’s not wrong to still be here.
He lets go, since one of them has to.
Wei Wuxian wakes up with wet tracks on his face.
The tears are not uncommon. Neither is the fact of waking up in unfamiliar places or to unforeseen situations, and the next steps come easily.
His body’s condition first (sore and tired, a dull ache in his chest, his throat raw and tight like after a particularly vicious cold, but overall nothing that a few days of rest won’t fix). His surroundings come next, which means, however, that he must open his eyes. Wei Wuxian feels reluctant to do so, until a door opens and the brush of footsteps he could recognize in his sleep draws near.
He opens his eyes and scrambles to sit up in bed, shoving the covers away.
“Lan Zhan” he croaks out the moment his gaze lands on him, an instant smile breaking open on his face.
Lan Zhan goes still for half a second. He only needs the other half to put down the trail he was holding, walk up to the bed, sit down next to him and wrap Wei Wuxian back in the bed covers, doing it all with frankly ridiculous grace for all that it’s rushed and harried.
Wei Wuxian feels guilty at the display of concern, but not guilty enough that he doesn’t bury his wet face against Lan Zhan’s neck the moment he’s within cuddling distance.
“Wei Ying…” Lan Zhan says against his hair, a greeting, a sigh, a plea all bundled in one breath.
I’m sorry, Wei Wuxian swallows.
Forgive me, he swallows harder.
“Hold me close” he asks instead.
If there’s anything he’s learned in his years of being married to Lan Zhan, it’s that there’s nothing they can’t solve with some nice hugging time and the inevitable sex that follows (and talking, there’s definitely going to be talking involved at some point that Wei Wuxian doesn’t look forward to, but he’s earned this one, he figures).
Lan Zhan holds him close and perfect. If Wei Wuxian’s arms maybe cling onto his back very tight, he’s nice enough not to comment on it. Once it stops feeling like the world is fading at the edges, Wei Wuxian loosens his hold, just enough so he can look at Lan Zhan’s face.
How long has it been exactly since he last looked at Lan Zhan’s face? Admired the perfection of him? Got swallowed whole in his sun-like eyes? Felt scorched by the fire in them, burnt raw down to embers of burning need and love begging to be kindled?
It must be years. How else can he explain the yawning gap in his heart, the hunger in his shaky hands, the raw tingling on his lips as he pulls him closer without subtlety nor shame nor patience.
“Kiss me” Wei Wuxian demands breathlessly.
Lan Zhan is already angling his face with one hand and pushing him back against the pillows with the other, trapping his mouth against his lips. One of the unenumerable perfect things about Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian thinks hazily as insistent teeth bite on his lower lip, seeking entrance, is that no matter how unsubtle, shameless or impatient he is, Lan Zhan will always outdo him when it comes to such things.
He’s proved terribly wrong a moment later when Lan Zhan pulls back, leaving him dazed and panting and nowhere near satisfied.
“Lan Zhan” he whines, making grabby hands at his face. “You were doing so great, how can you leave my lips like this, can’t you tell they’re so cold and lonely without you??”
“You are recovering” Lan Zhan says with the barest hint of chiding in his voice.
He looks unfairly beautiful, hovering above him like this, barely disheveled at all – not from this tiny bit of kissing.
Surely, Wei Wuxian’s fate is cruel to have handed him such a glorious husband with such a messed up priority order.
Like it matters what condition Wei Wuxian’s body is in when Lan Zhan’s mouth is waiting so close, already nicely red and wet. Wei Wuxian is a dutiful, hardworking spouse. He knows exactly how much redder and wetter he can make it. He’s about to say as much, when Lan Zhan cups his face with one hand and rubs his thumb carefully against it, which is when Wei Wuxian remembers about the stupid tears.
“Ah… that’s nothing” he hastily wipes his face with his sleeve, ignoring the reproachful look in Lan Zhan’s eyes (Lan Zhan considers Drying Tears a fundamental husband’s duty and privilege, and he never relinquishes it with good grace). “Look, all gone!”
He smiles brightly. Lan Zhan looks unimpressed.
“Wei Ying” he says.
He doesn’t need to say more. Wei Wuxian crumbles after ten seconds of intense staring, sighing dramatically.
“Alright, alright” he surrenders, opening his arms wide. “You can hug me more if you want, you insatiable cuddling beast.”
He breathes out in bone-deep relief the moment Lan Zhan pulls him into his lap. Wei Wuxian allows himself to remain a perfectly useless dead weight as his husband arranges his limbs this and that way, until they’re pressed so close Wei Wuxian can feel every sway of Lan Zhan’s breath and heart.
It doesn’t take long for a hand to start stroking his hair.
Wei Wuxian maybe has to blink back a few more tears.
“Ah Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan…” he manages, his voice thicker than he’d like. “Can you believe how terribly selfish your silly husband is? This is really no way of treating you well, he’d better be ashamed of himself.”
“There’s no need to be ashamed” comes the immediate, expected answer.
Sometimes Wei Wuxian hates how easily he has come to rely on Lan Zhan’s limitless affection to compensate for his own aching needs.
Old, deep needs, apparently. Very old. Very deep.
Very, very inappropriate too.
“And Wei Ying is not selfish” Lan Zhan adds quietly. “No part of you is selfish.”
Wei Wuxian snorts.
“Well, we just got the perfect demonstration that’s not true” he mumbles against Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
Are they going to do the talking now?
He doesn’t want to do the talking now, they didn’t even have the sex yet, but it feels only fair that Lan Zhan gets to decide of the order of things, no matter how messed up it is. After all, it was Lan Zhan who had to go out of his way to literally pluck his incredibly dumb self from whatever stupidly selfish haze that had been, and-
“What happened?” he asks abruptly, tensing against Lan Zhan’s chest until a hand firmly pulls him back close. “Lan Zhan, what happened exactly?”
“A yearning curse” Lan Zhan states the obvious, as if he doesn’t know what Wei Wuxian is in fact asking for. “It was undetectable, from what Jingyi told me. You were not careless in any way in checking the temple, but-”
“I know it was a yearning curse, Lan Zhan” Wei Wuxian sighs. “And I know what it does, alright?”
Stupid, ridiculous, useless illusion bullshit.
Of course Wei Wuxian has stuff he misses, like everyone. Stuff he regrets, or longs for. But he made his peace with that a long, long time ago. He’d be an awful person not to have done so – what’s with how much love he’s being smothered in on a daily basis.
“How come I couldn’t shake it off?” Wei Wuxian asks again.
It must have been powerful, is the only explanation he can come up with.
Very powerful indeed, to have engulfed him so smoothly and completely. Wei Wuxian was lucid through most of it, though. He knew what had happened and where he was and was not, mostly, and it’s what bothers him. The awareness alone should have been enough for him to easily break away from the illusion created by the curse, no matter how well done.
“Lan Zhan?” he probes when he realizes how silent his husband is. “It was powerful, right? Right. I bet it was, the damned thing was sneaky as hell, can you believe-”
“You were not shaking it off” Lan Zhan says softly. “Wei Ying, you were not fighting it.”
Wei Wuxian takes a moment to absorb the ridiculousness of that statement. Lan Zhan’s heartbeat is steady against his ear, but his hands are pressed hard against Wei Wuxian’s back, a wordless claim.
“Of course I was” he blurts out. “Lan Zhan, of course I was fighting it! What do you take me for?”
There’s the tiniest edge of anger and panic in his voice and Lan Zhan picks up on it immediately, tightening his arms around him and kissing the side of his head.
“A part of you was not” he says simply.
He doesn’t say which one. Doesn’t need to.
Fuck, Wei Wuxian thinks, as a young tear-stricken face comes back floating at the front of his mind.
In the confusion of it all, he would have loved to assume that a thirteen-years-old Wei Wuxian had been a mere part of the curse, a piece of lie that needed like the rest to be proved wrong, crumbled to dust and scattered to the wind. But Lan Zhan is saying there was more to A-Ying than that. More than an illusion.
He swallows painfully.
“Oh Lan Zhan…” he breathes out, his heart clenching hard.
It’s bad enough that Lan Zhan saw it, witnessed for himself the pointless fantasies he’s apparently still holding onto. Longing can be excused, though – Wei Wuxian has accepted that no matter how happy he was and how loved Lan Zhan made him feel, there were missing pieces of happiness he’d always wonder about.
But longing is one thing. Actually allowing the empty call of it to balance out everything he now has, that’s something else entirely.
And his heart clenches even harder as he thinks of how Lan Zhan must have felt. Maybe like he’d been lied to? Or like he’d been lacking?? Worse, like he wasn’t enough – like the limitless warmth and fire of his soul still wasn’t vast enough to embrace all of Wei Wuxian’s greedy heart?
“Lan Zhan…” he chokes out as that last thought settles, straightening up on Lan Zhan’s lap to get a good look at his face (not an easy feat seeing how unyieldingly he’s being held, but Wei Wuxian is nothing if not persistent). “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, my sweet Lan Zhan, let me look at you, love?”
Finally he manages to wriggle his body enough to be able to see Lan Zhan’s face. Wei Wuxian worriedly cups his cheek, searching his eyes.
Lan Zhan doesn’t look hurt, so that’s a good start.
He doesn’t look angry either, which proves nothing at all, because the angriest Lan Zhan has been at him in the past four years (creative bed activities aside) amounts at worst to a soft huff of amused annoyance at his ridiculousness, or the barest hint of concerned reproach after Wei Wuxian recklessly let himself be dragged into some dangerous situation he could have avoided.
Lan Zhan looks calm. Content, even, which makes no sense at all.
“I’m… that was so stupid of me” Wei Wuxian says anyway, working around an apology he knows Lan Zhan will refuse if it’s offered outright. “It was selfish, unbelievingly selfish, and… and you know it didn’t mean anything, right? You know that, Lan Zhan, you know there’s not… there can’t be anything I want more in the world than be with you for the rest of my life, right?”
“I know” Lan Zhan acquiesces, which is nice but doesn’t give Wei Wuxian’s increasingly panicked brain a lot to go with.
“And I love you” he rambles on faster and faster. “I love you so much, I’ve never loved anything or anyone more than you in my life, Lan Zhan, and I never will. I can’t, if I try my heart will explode, I can’t even yearn for you because you’re already so much more than I ever hoped I could have-”
“And that was… that was just a stupid curse” he blinks back the tears of frustration welling up in his eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything. You mean everything, Lan Zhan, you’re more than everything, it’s ridiculous how much you are, and how much you mean and I love you so much oh my god I’m saying it all wrong but you know all of that Lan Zhan? Tell you me you know that?!”
Oh great he’s crying.
It’s the curse. The damn curse and the ridiculous things it made him feel, leaving him too soft, too raw and clumsy with his own emotions.
“I know” Lan Zhan says again quietly, running his fingers again against Wei Wuxian’s face to carefully collect more tears in their hold.
“You do?” Wei Wuxian needs to make sure.
“I do” Lan Zhan nods solemnly, so serious Wei Wuxian has to huff out a laugh.
“How can you speak with such a straight face when I’m running my mouth like that” he sniffs wetly, landing a halfhearted slap on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “It makes me feel dumb.”
“Mnh” Lan Zhan removes the last of the tears, still sounding strangely satisfied. “Wei Ying is very smart most of the time, but not always.”
“Lan Zhan!!” Wei Wuxian straightens up in his lap, indignant. “Did you just call me stupid??”
Lan Zhan merely smiles, a tiny lilt of his lips and a light in his eyes, undeniably amused. Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to voice out a protest, that is immediately swallowed by the soft press of Lan Zhan’s lips. It only takes a few seconds more for him to forget what he’s supposed to feel insulted about.
It was a yearning curse.
Wei Wuxian knows how yearning curses work. How they take the oldest regrets, the hopes buried the deepest, the lost wishes anchored most firmly, and weave the severed threads of them into the closest thing possible to a reality.
It was not real, none of it.
His parents’ smiles, their voices, their appearance, their love for him. The small house at the foot of the hills, the humble archery grounds, and the fields and orchards and forests. The continued days of uneventful happiness. None of it was close to any kind of truth, not even a probable “would-have-been”.
It was just Wei Wuxian’s ideal of a life long lost, locked behind a forever closed door. It did, in fact, mean nothing at all. He didn’t learn anything from it, neither about his parents or about what a life with them would have been. As desperately as a part of him might have clung onto it, that’s all there was to it – an illusion.
Wei Wuxian lets it go.
Lan Zhan doesn’t.
It’s not obvious, not instantly.
There’s, after all, an awful lot of things about him Lan Zhan had already picked up on – what’s with the chili oil always kept nearby, how he always knows when to keep him close and gently stroke his hair, or the way he happily indulges (encourages) Wei Wuxian draping in his clothes when he has to leave for more than half a day, because they’re soft and pretty and most importantly, they smell like him.
No matter how greedy he is, Lan Zhan will outdo him in that too. Wei Wuxian had simply not realized that after four years, he was still withholding some pieces.
Lan Zhan witnessed the exact same fantasy as he did, but with different eyes. What he saw in A-Ying were not lies.
One evening Wei Wuxian comes back from a long day with the disciples in Caiyi town, and finds Lan Zhan in the Jingshi, perched on a stool near the door.
“What are you doing up there??” he giggles, looking up and squinting to see his face in the fiery sunset light. “Are you not tall enough?? Do you need me to carry you, Lan Er-Gege?”
“Next time, maybe” Lan Zhan suggests, and Wei Wuxian gets too busy laughing and calling him shameless to make much of the freshly picked summer flowers hanging above the door.
There’s another evening, after they’ve finished their dinner with Sizhui, when Lan Zhan interrupts the usual ritual of drinking-while-extracting-forbidden-gossip-from-poor-blushing-head-Lan-disciple-Sizhui, and brings a box to the table.
“What’s this??” Wei Wuxian scoots closer, instantly intrigued. “Lan Zhan, what’s in there?”
Sizhui says nothing but his face is already turning a suspicious shade of red. Any redder, in fact, and he might rival Jiang Cheng on a fine angry day.
“I asked my brother to keep hold of this, a few years ago” Lan Zhan says, opening the lacquered box with care. “But I recently thought you might like to see it.”
He brings out in turn a painted wooden spin, a rattle-drum, several messy scrawls going for a tentative and adorable scribble of “Lan Sizhui”, splashes of ink that might pass of as drawings if he’s being very indulgent, and a lot (a lot) of colorful pebbles, dry leaves, withered flowers and pearly shells.
“Hanguang-Jun” Sizhui hides his face in his hands. “I don’t think…”
But Wei Wuxian has already dug out a visibly very loved and very munched on stuffed rabbit.
“Oh Lan Zhan” he looks up, eyes gleaming. Sizhui lets out a pained sigh. “You’ve got to tell me all.”
There’s a pair of larks that settled in the back of the mountains, Lan Zhan tells him one morning, as Wei Wuxian is still buried under a towering heap of warm covers and very intent on spending the rest of his life here (it’s cold in Cloud Recesses, the first cold before snow, and the chilly blue sky outside cannot be trusted at all).
“Larks…?” he inquires, his voice coming out muffled from under an approximate ten layers of blankets.
“Larks” Lan Zhan confirms. “Would you like me to show you where?”
Wei Wuxian nearly doesn’t whine as he allows Lan Zhan to extract him from the warmth of their bed and wrap him in ten layers of thick robes instead. The larks are there indeed when they reach the back of the mountain, Lan Zhan’s hand warm around his as he directs his gaze to a tall birch tree.
It’s the first larks he’s heard in years. Wei Wuxian smiles as enthusiastically tells Lan Zhan how their song is never the same, and how it makes him feel like they came from across the world to tell him their secret. This time again he completely fails to notice Lan Zhan’s content eyes on him.
It only dawns on him months later, one late winter afternoon, when Wei Wuxian wakes up from a nap (still sleeping off the remnants of a nasty cold) and finds Lan Zhan sitting at a table with a knife in his hand.
“What are you doing?” Wei Wuxian sniffles, rubbing the sleep off his eyes.
He yelps in alarm when Lan Zhan determinedly sinks the point of the (very sharp) knife in the (very expensive) wood of the mahogany table. He doesn’t care much for fancy furniture, but he’s pretty sure they got that one at their wedding from some stuck-up Lan elder who’d definitely love to have a personal reason to bemoan the unfortunate addition of Wei Wuxian to the family.
“Lan Zhan!!” he squeaks, scrambling out of the bed to rush to his side. “What’s gotten into you? Did someone make you angry? Why are you taking it out on the table!! Just… just punch a wall or like, kiss me, I mean, if that’s what you need to get it out of your system I’ll volunteer but-”
His voice trails off when he finally registers the figures Lan Zhan’s knife is making. Wei Wuxian stops tugging at his arm and drops inelegantly on his butt next to him, an embarrassing sting in his eyes.
“Oh Lan Zhan…” he says, his voice high and nasal (because of the cold). “That’s…”
“Do you wish to continue?” Lan Zhan asks in a very normal voice, the cruel, cruel man, like he has not just taken Wei Wuxian’s notoriously fragile heart and turned it inside out all over again. “You will be better at this than I am.”
Lan Zhan hands him the knife, a question and a hope in his eyes.
Wei Wuxian looks at him, then at the knife, then at the outline of two people holding hands carved in the shiny dark wood of the table. He furiously blinks back the tears, thinking he would do a better job at it indeed. The proportions are a bit off and the knife ripped on the wood in several places, but it’s not unsalvageable.
He shakes his head.
“Go on” Wei Wuxian says, curling against Lan Zhan’s side and pawing blindly at the floor on his left until he finds the blanket he abandoned there after his pre-lunch nap (it was a very nasty cold and so he needs lots of sleep).
“I’ll help you” he adds, and wraps his hand around Lan Zhan’s, gently adjusting the knife’s angle. “You’re pressing it too hard.”
“Mnh” Lan Zhan hums, turning his face the time to land a light kiss on his forehead. “I often go too hard.”
Wei Wuxian laughs wetly and shifts closer to him, intertwining his fingers with Lan Zhan’s around the knife handle.
“That’s a shocking understatement, but be serious, would you?” he chides with a smile he knows must spread on his whole face. “Or I’m going to think it doesn’t matter to you.”
“It matters…” Lan Zhan says, a softness in his voice Wei Wuxian remembers but cannot quite pinpoint.
It sounds familiar but very distantly, like words he once heard in a forgotten dream. Softness he had thought was only in passing. The reflection of something bright.
“Every part of you, Wei Ying.”
In a low, quiet voice, made for love songs and promises.