Winter Solstice Gift for slightlytookish
Happy Winter Solstice, @slightlytookish! May it brings you peace and happiness. I’m (more than) slightly nervous about this gift and I hope the product is to your liking!
References to Chinese idioms and concepts, marked in , help with but are not necessary for comprehension, and are explained in the Footnotes on AO3 for those who are interested.
Read on AO3
— 《愛蓮說》 周敦頤 (1017-1073)
For the way it emerged untainted from the muck,
Rising cleanly above ripples of water with an unaffected grace
— “On the Love of Lotus” Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073)
Every year, Wei Ying says he’ll wander far and wide with Little Apple; every year, he says Gusu is getting stifling and he needs a breather, needs … no, not anything Lan Zhan can offer — for what he needs isn’t found in the Cloud Recesses, where the air is too fresh, too clean, too cultivated. Every year, Wei Ying explains what he misses is the smell of commoners, free from the promises and ambitions of a golden core. What he misses is the chimney smoke, filthy with soot and stinks of burnt meat and cheap spices. What he misses is the dust that clogs the nostrils, that flies from under the iron hooves of horsemen running their races in jianghu. [1,2]
But Wei Ying always ends up here, inYiling. Specifically, here on this mountain where there’s no chimney smoke. No dust. No kitchens or meat or spices or hooves. No horsemen. No jianghu.
He has never visited the Burial Mounds in winter before. Lan Zhan made a rare request for Wei Ying to help with the revamping of the Library Pavilion, and so he spent his August drunk in the scent of Gusu’s sweet osmanthus.
It was a little too heavy, too fragrant for Wei Ying’s taste. Possibly due to the lack of even a breeze as summer dies. Cloud Recesses can rest within the clouds for this reason. The clouds don’t dissipate.
Here, the wind is strong—it’s the one thing that never dies in this place—and its whistles sharpen into shrieks among the grey bare tree branches. Grey as the sky, bare as the bones that crunch under Wei Ying’s boots only to expose another layer of them. Within the cracks where weak rays of sunlight touch the dead trees, where bones reveal the wounds of their old flesh and blood, white flurries are twirling with the black curls of Resentment.
They look like they’re fighting. They look like they’re coupling.
Wei Ying caps his last jug of Emperor’s Smile and ties it to his waist. He promises Little Apple to be back soon and issues a warning about not doing anything stupid.
The donkey doesn’t even bray.
Well, Little Apple is already stupid. Wei Ying smiles, twirls his flute and scales the slope that leads to Fumo Cave. He doesn’t bother with talismans or setting up borders. He doesn’t mind the Resentment testing him, sending tendrils into the hollowness in him that only here, in Lan Zhan’s absence, does he once again recognise its presence. He doesn’t mind the darkness curling around his limbs, reminding him of how A-Yuan used to cling to his leg while he walked his single plank bridge in the darkest of hours. He doesn’t mind the suffocating pain as the more violent bands of Resentment threatens to strangle him, the pain almost pleasant in how real it feels, like flesh and blood, the pain from all those the Founder of Demonic Cultivation thought he could save but ultimately lost.
There’s an intimacy to the hollowness, the darkness, the pain, the chokehold. The Yiling Laozu is home.
The snow and the Resentment are fighting, after all.
A dark haze swathes the plateau where the Wen clan lived, determined to not let a single snowflake fall upon it.
The lotus pond is frozen, the ring of talismans Wei Ying set around it torn and tattered. The previous summer he visited, like all summers before, Wei Ying filled the pond with water from the Blood Pool — pink water that, supposedly like the water in Cloud Recesses’ Cold Pond, never stops flowing. Like all summers before, he planted tubers stolen from the lakes of Yunmeng, tubers that promised to bloom in the same hue as the lotuses in Lotus Pier.
The time for the first green shoots to appear enumerated the days Wei Ying got to spend in the Burial Mounds. Afterwards, he hoisted a ring of talismans and hurried back to Gusu, feeling more like himself, more guilty as Lan Zhan looked up from his guqin — its strings being plucked, as always, as Wei Ying stepped into Jingshi — and whispered a confirmation that had no cause to exist unless, deep down, Lan Zhan still harboured doubts that Wei Ying would return. From the alleged far and wide wanderings; from taking breaths of chimney smoke and a breather from Cloud Recesses, the Lan Clan, and Lan Zhan himself; from walking among commoners harbouring the spirit of jianghu instead of a golden core.
You’re back. Such excessive words wouldn’t have otherwise left Lan Zhan’s mouth otherwise.
Culprits of the freeze are there for Wei Ying to see; trapped trusses of dark red buried with whatever remnants of a water plant that used to require flowing water to survive. The blood from the pink Blood Pool water has congealed into bands as though it were Resentment’s scarlet sibling, and the bands, the tendrils criss-cross to form a lattice, a prison. Only half a lotus stalk manages to break free, its length above the ice grey as the sky and bare as the branches and bones. Wei Ying breaks it off and stuffs it in his robe, a token for yet another failed Burial Mounds experiment.
The young green shoots never make it into flowers — lotus blooms that, sages say, are untaintable, can purify everything.
The air, in fact, smells even heavier of blood. Violence. No wonder the Resentment is so active today, playful and alive, taking their chance to enter the opened front of Wei Ying’s robe. It traces his ribs before taking off again, like a tease, a caress, a greeting; invasive and intimate as night, as death.
Wei Ying, too, has died before. Once officially, twice in reality.
The first time Wei Ying died, he was here. The first time he was reborn, he was also here.
Liberate. Suppress. Eliminate. The three strategies towards pacifying Resentment leave one mystery unsolved. While the first assumes humanity—with its gratitudes and dying wishes—still living within the Resentment, the other two assume this humanity lost. Gone.
Where has it gone to? Has it left at all?
On the southern side of the pond, Resentment rises and falls into the decrepit huts through broken roofs, dark like the chimney smoke Wei Ying does miss. Humanity remains heavy, too, in the hut once occupied by A-Yuan and his Gran. The chopping board remains by the fire pit, the cleaver on it pitch black as bands of Resentment take turns to lick the blade. Grandma must’ve been cutting what little meat the sect of Yiling could afford then—it was all saved for the child—when she sent herself off to slaughter.
The Resentment can’t let go of blade’s memory of blood. Blood, so reminiscent of wounds, revenges, relief, so unbearably close to living.
Wei Ying was there too—well, here, here on the Burial Mounds, clinging onto his memory of bloodshed. His urge to revenge, to inflict every possible wound onto Wen Chao and his cronies.
He finds the stump that once served as a table and sits, crossed-legged. He brings Chenqing to his lips.
Every one of his flute is Chenqing. It matters not if it wears a red tassel, or comes with a Stygian Tiger Seal. His every flute tells stories that all want to judge but few want to hear. 
Cleansing isn’t the song for now or for here. Wei Ying isn’t Wen Ning, whom the Resentment assaulted without consent. By surviving the Burial Mounds, by devising Demonic Cultivation, Wei Ying willingly opened himself up for the Hell Resentment carries.
He plays Wangxian instead.
He plays it as if humanity, its meanings and sentiments aren’t lost to the swirls of black around him, as if they still have gratitudes to be repaid, dying wishes to be granted. As if they’re still worthy of liberation. Of “thank you”s and “sorry”s.
The darkness heeds his call and gathers, ropes against his flesh, closes against his throat in a way that if Lan Zhan was here, if Lan Zhan saw him, he’d be sure to strike with the most lethal note from Chord Assassination.
Lan Zhan…who, over the years, has also developed a habit of closing his hand around Wei Ying’s throat. He does so when their bodies merge into one, when all that remains awake in Cloud Recesses is the vast darkness above their heads, pinned in place by the moon and stars above the rooftops.
I won’t go anywhere, Wei Ying choked out then, as his mind now tells Resentment while his fingers—his body—play Wangxian. He did that, did he? He told Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan, so intent and exposed, his hair loose and robe discarded, his full weight pressed upon Wei Ying as if a man missing a golden core could still sword-fly away right there and then? Lan Zhan, soaked with sweat that had never shedded even in the worst of battles, his usually tight lips gasping to drink in whatever breath Wei Ying could spare?
Or did Wei Ying choke then and said nothing, even though Lan Zhan never used any force on his hand?
The cleaver falls onto the floor with a clang. Music that isn’t coming from Chenqing has flipped it over.
Chenqing leaves Wei Ying’s lips. He shoots up from his seat, turns.
Wangxian only grows louder, its notes from a guqin gentle but insistent above the whistling of the winds. It, too, tells a story all want to judge but few want to hear.
The man in Wei Ying’s thoughts, in Wei Ying’s dreams is on the Burial Mounds.
Wei Ying would’ve seen Lan Zhan’s footsteps if the snow has been allowed to fall.
Wangxian stops, finally, when their eyes meet. The meeting isn’t for long. Wei Ying soon lowers his focus to the dust under his feet, freed of snow and Resentment by Lan Zhan’s talismans and marked by not the imprints of iron hooves but of his own lonely trips here.
“You came.” These words from Wei Ying are excessive too. like You’re back. Of course Lan Zhan did. Lan Zhan, ethereal like the rest of snowy Yiling and the cultivation world, his guqin so feared by yao mo gui guai on his lap. Lan Zhan, who still plays Cleansing at dawn before Wei Ying wakes. 
Don’t play for me, Wei Ying said.
I play for myself, Lan Zhan replied.
The Lan Zhan before him offers no reaction, so Wei Ying braves a look at him again. Flurries are still clinging on the familiar silver crown, the black hair shining like no Resentment can. The snow has thawed into beads on the jade-like face, as if to prove its chill is but a lie.
Warm, too, are Lan Zhan’s eyes, which harbour no accusations. There’s only warmth—heat—and patience.
Lan Zhan doesn’t belong to the Burial Mounds. Patience is never one of Resentment’s virtues.
Wei Ying smiles. “I thought the Lan Clan Leader is pre-occupied with the latest edition of Virtue and Conduct.”
That was yet another excuse for Wei Ying’s leave. That tome gives me nightmares, he said. Only to come to the place of nightmares.
Lan Zhan stows his guqin with a wave of his sleeve. “Eliminating rules takes little time.”
Wei Ying should’ve remembered that; the rules have been eliminated because they were no longer reinforceable. They were no longer reinforceable because of him.
As the cultivation partner of the clan leader, he was supposed to be a wielder of the Discipline Whip. Instead, he deserved the whip more than anyone else.
“You followed me here.”
This time, Wei Ying is rewarded by a raise of Lan Zhan’s chin, a measured survey of their surroundings. He follows Lan Zhan’s line of sight. Fumo cave—and the palace it once was—is covered with the same dust that could’ve been rocks or shattered tiles from the Xue Chonghai’s final battle; the same severed ropes from the second siege of the Burial Mounds, the talisman nets used to pacify Wen Ning; the same failed inventions and empty wine jugs that explained them; the same splatters of rust-red ….
But something has changed. Something is different about the place and Wei Ying cannot pinpoint what it is.
Still, Lan Zhan’s meaning is clear. He arrived at the Burial Mounds before Wei Ying.
Which is hardly surprising. For those with a well-cultivated golden core, sword flying between Yiling and Gusu takes little more than a few stick incenses’ time. Meanwhile, Wei Ying took a winding road around the mountains, with Little Apple refusing to climb where fresh grass and apples were scarce. It has been weeks since they left Cloud Recesses.
Lan Zhan’s meaning is also this: he expected Wei Ying to be here too, at the Burial Mounds.
He expected Wei Ying to lie to him.
“I—” Wei Ying’s scrambles for excuses, as Lan Zhan rises from the rock that was once Wen Ning’s sick bed.
“As long as I find you,” Lan Zhan says.
These words dig a sharp knife into Wei Ying’s chest. After sixteen years of waiting, the hope and satisfaction of the legendary Hanguang Jun has withered down to this: as long as he can find Wei Ying. Guilt coils around his innards, threatens to cut his windpipe.
He attempts a grin. “But I’m not lost.” He sounds strangled. Choked. “Whereas you, Hanguang Jun, must’ve been totally lost to find yourself here.” He nods at the cave’s entrance, to the Resentment and flurries coupling, fighting. “The Chief Cultivator must have better things to do than to wander into a ruin.”
“Why do you call it a ruin.” It isn’t a question.
Wei Ying walks around, gestures with Chenqing at the pillars, the split beams above him. “This is hardly what I’d call decor. Hardly palatial enough for cultivator conferences and post-night hunt feasts. Also,—” he remembers Lan Zhan’s first visit, of A-yuan clinging onto him like snow on the silver crown “—I don’t think the kitchen has been supplied with tea leaves yet.”
Wei Ying’s humour, his bid to divert their present conversation down the memory lane is lost on Lan Zhan. “This was A-Yuan’s former home. Your former home.”
“Ah, Lan Er Gongzi,” Wei Ying tries harder, feigns a disapproving head-shake before pointing the end of his flute at Lan Zhan. “Now you’re just saying that I, a sect leader of legendary prestige, can only afford a dump like this.” Which was the truth, and Wei Ying flashes another grin as the winds howl outside. The dust in the cave ripples as their robes flap; Wei Ying secures his belt, sticks Chenqing in it. “I’ve have you know though, the fengshui here is more than exquisite, if you consider—”
“This was your former home.” Lan Zhan repeats, ignoring every word Wei Ying has said. “Which makes this place my home.”
Wei Ying breaks into a chuckle, sincere but more bitter than intended. “Your home? Ai-yah, Lan Er Gongzi—”
Lan Zhan lifts his forearm, retrieves something from his sleeve. “And this,” he continues, raising what he found. “Mine to give.”
Wei Ying receives the gift with a trembling hand.
Nothing like it has ever existed on the Burial Mounds. Its fore-bearers—does it count, if they sprouted from the same soil only a lifetime ago?—were sterile, their seeds withered and poisonous. It mattered not they looked tall and green and strong, or the flowers they had once formed the core of shared the same hue as the Yunmeng lotuses.
The lotus receptacle in Wei Ying’s hand is smaller and a shade paler, but each pod is plump and promises the sweetest seed. Wei Ying gives it a sniff; its scent brings forth memories not only of Lotus Pier but of Cloud Recesses—not the sweet osmanthus drifting up from the foothills but the magnolia tree by the Library Pavilion. Sandalwood.
How reminiscent it is of the ones Lan Zhan handpicked for him on the boat in Yunmeng.
No more exceptions. Wasn’t that what Lan Zhan said then? But he has only made more exceptions for Wei Ying ever since, one after another.
Like polishing smooth the rules carved in stone by his ancestors. Like letting pet rabbits roam the grounds of Cloud Recesses proper. Like permitting dissent in Lanshi, as long as it comes with arguments that withstand the test of Wei Ying. Like asking Wei Ying to be his cultivation partner. Like saying nothing when Wei Ying comes and goes whenever he wants, when Gusu Lan’s has always been about order and predictability.
Wei Ying inhales again, and the change in the cave finally hits him.
Fumo cave no longer smells of blood.
He might’ve identified it sooner if the stink of violence wasn’t as strong by the lotus pond, or the proof of a slaughter, as stubborn in A-Yuan’s hut. But these are excuses. Diminishing every summer, like starlight on the rooftops at dawn, has been Wei Ying’s hope that he can heal the only source of healing on the Burial Mounds—the Blood Pool that used to be the kin of Cloud Recesses’ Cold Pond, the Pool that should never freeze; the Pool that turned into a congealed hell during the second Burial Mound siege. Time has since disintegrated the fierce corpses, their Resentment released from cold bones grey and bare; but despite Wei Ying’s best efforts every summer, despite his channeling its water to plant lotuses, Wei Ying hasn’t recovered a single, clean drop of water to return to the Blood Pool.
The Pool water might have flowed again, but it remained pink and reeked of blood.
Yes, it’s been Wei Ying’s intention to kill two birds with one stone. He intended for the Blood Pool’s ever flowing water to sustain the lotuses through the cold, and in turn, for the lotuses—untaintable, as the sages say—to purify the water that nourishes them. But the Burial Mounds have other ideas, handed Wei Ying a double defeat: the water for the Blood Pool never stayed flowing long enough for the lotuses to grow; the lotuses never survived long enough to cleanse its water of blood, of memories of violence and slaughter.
The two birds Wei Ying intended to kill have joined the flight of the snow, the Resentment.
The lotus receptacle in his hand has surely come from elsewhere.
“Seems like you’ve developed a taste for theft, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying plays with the stalk in his hand, the stalk that is as strong as it is pliant. Two failures back to back, he thought, and he didn’t even get to get drunk. He decided to laugh then—at himself, mostly, for attempting the impossible again; for never learning, for never losing the habits he should’ve lost a long time ago — and escalate his rubbish talk. “I bet you got your hands on some Emperor’s Smile, took this from some lake on your way.” He waves the receptacle. “I should be glad you don’t have a sleeveful of chickens—”
Wei Ying stops. Lan Zhan has that look on him, the look when Wei Ying is amused by something he shouldn’t.
Right. Mine to give. Those were Lan Zhan’s words and Lan Zhan doesn’t lie, doesn’t joke. He means exactly what he says — the lotus receptacle comes from the Burial Mounds, from his own hands. His own effort.
“I saw the pond.” Wei Ying deflates, waves at the cave’s entrance. “Nothing’s growing in it. I guess it’s luck, that time I got something going a while ago. Plus, Lan Zhan, you really shouldn’t be encouraging my infatuation with lotuses. It’s not like I have any more business to do with them.” Especially the nine-petalled ones; Wei Ying gestures with the receptacle again and smiles. “So, unless you’re coming clean about how you got this thing, I think we should leave. Little Apple must be furious right now with this weather; bet it’ll throw me off its back on our trip home.” Home, as in Gusu, where Wei Ying swallows the Resentment, hides it in the hollowness in him; where he dreams of Cleansing, and the man who shouldn’t be playing it, as dawn breaks. “Then, you’ll prepare for that conference coming up, while I’ll lock myself in the Library Pavilion and copy Virtue and Conduct a thousand times.”
As punishment. He isn’t about to list his sins in words; the list is too long. Coming here. Lying. The heart of them all being this: Yes, Lan Zhan, I failed to control myself. I couldn’t break the ties between me and the Resentment, as you said I couldn’t.
You’ve walked the single plank bridge for me, with me, while I stare at the bloody, resentful waters below and find it…homely. I want it to grow lotuses in a way I never do with the waters in Cloud Recesses.
It carries my reflection. Do you see that, Lan Zhan? Do you understand that?
“Ah, it should be two thousand times, now that Virtue and Conduct has been abridged.” Wei Ying blathers on at Lan Zhan’s silence, before schooling his expression to something more sincere, more serious. “You know, I can do with a bit of music for the copywriting. You’ll play for me, will you?”
Still, no reactions from Lan Zhan, whose face has only tilted ever so slightly in Wei Ying’s direction. A bead of molten snow traces the curve of his silver crown as it falls, like a shed tear. “Fine. Fine. I’ll play my own Cleansing. I can do that with Chenqing.” Wei Ying sighs. “Look, I won’t do it again. I won’t come here anymore. I won’t lie about my whereabouts. I won’t make you worry. I won’t—”
Lan Zhan turns before Wei Ying finishes, brings his hands to his back and strides towards the alcove, the corridor that leads to what is once Fumo Palace’s Meditation Hall. Wei Ying has no choice but to follow, the lotus receptacle held close to his chest.
Wei Ying has to stop half way in the corridor. “When?” he asks.
Lan Zhan keeps his pace, his robes growing brighter to crescendo-ing rays of sunlight, which have never seen this part of the cave before. Wei Ying grabs his sleeve, catches up and faces him. “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Zhan stops finally. He waits, quiet still, as if the reason of Wei Ying’s question is lost on him.
“You’ve been here.” The light, clean scent of lotuses around them is now unmistakable — not from a receptacle or even a flower, but a pond full of them. “Before today. You sword-flew here, brought in tubers and you—” he points towards the Meditation Hall, where he knows, already, that lotuses are blooming in the Blood Pool. “Why? How many times have you been here since I —”
He chokes; to say more is to admit, in his own words, that he has been lying. He scratches his nose, forgetting the lotus receptacle in his hand.
It gives his cheek a clean slap.
It’s at moments like these that Wei Ying thanks the heavens that few hawkers have a clue what the Yiling Laozu is like.
Lan Zhan’s eyes soften, his lips curved just enough for a smile. “Deceit is no longer prohibited in Gusu Lan Sect.” Wei Ying knows he’s been forgiven then, for everything he has yet to apologise for. “Virtue and Conduct has been—” Lan Zhan heaves a light sigh “— too deprived of chimney smoke.”
True, the chimney smoke from Cloud Recesses blends into the clouds that veil the mountains. Still, Lan Zhan is the better cook between the two of them; he’s the one who’s truly knows jianghu, being wherever chaos is, crosses paths with wherever the iron hooves are.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says.
Lan Zhan does something strange then; instead of nodding an acknowledgement, his lips part, shudder before sealing tight again.
Lan Zhan is taciturn, but never hesitant. The moment soon passes, however, and he reaches out, does a gentle swipe on Wei Ying’s cheek.
It must be water he’s drying; the receptacle is that fresh, that alive.
But then, Lan Zhan’s fingertips come back…
Pink, like the water from the Blood Pool.
There’s nothing sharp about the receptacle, however; nothing that can cut into Wei Ying. He lifts the receptor for a better look.
A seed has been displaced from its pod. Red tendrils have clawed their way out from a crack in its skin, before being diluted pink by the surrounding succulent, white flesh.
Wei Ying removes the seed and peels it thoroughly. Something like a drop of blood, old and congealed, soon sits on his palm; or a pearl coughed up by a demon oyster, a freshly dissected golden core. More red oozes out with a squeeze, staining his nails, the fine lines on his skin.
Still, all Wei Ying can smell is the scent of lotuses.
“It’s edible,” Lan Zhan says.
Edible? Wei Ying stares at Lan Zhan, who wouldn’t have made the statement if he hasn’t tried it before. He looks at the seed again. No respectable—or un-respectable—cultivator could possibly have chosen to try this.
“It’s sweet,” Lan Zhan adds.
Wei Ying rolls the seed inside his palm, until the blood—is it blood, if it smells not of violence and slaughter?—renders his hand indistinguishable from that of an executioner’s. Liberate. Suppress. Eliminate. Wei Ying’s straying from the cultivator’s path began with an imagined hand like this.
But he has always known about the sweetness of blood, hasn’t he? In the marketplaces of his earliest memories, fan-waving storytellers used to tell tales of jianghu heroes; those who made a living, they said, by licking the blood on their blades. 
Little Wei Ying finally gathered the courage to ask one day. Don’t heroes have something to eat?
The old man, wearing wrinkles deeper than tree rings, laughed. It’s an idiom, he explained, crouching to offer Wei Ying a steamed bun. He whispered then, as Wei Ying replies to Lan Zhan now—
“— But folks do say, blood from revenge is always the sweetest.”
With that, Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying’s tainted hand in his own.
Wei Ying soon falls on his knees by the edge of the Blood Pool.
The ceiling of the Meditation Hall has been broken, the snow and Resentment kept out by talismans woven together by guqin strings. Under the light, grey and dreary outside but kind and forgiving here, lotus pads are floating on clear, calm water, green and round putuans for the flowers resting upon them. The hearts of the bloom are a regal gold; the cup-shaped petals are strong and pure white, carrying no traces of blood or darkness, no memories of violence or slaughter. 
They don’t even carry the purple of the Yunmeng lotuses.
If lotuses were native to Cloud Recesses, they would’ve looked like this.
If lotuses were grown under Lan Zhan’s care, they would’ve looked exactly like this.
But they, and the dilapidated hall that houses them, smell of the same summers Wei Ying knows, the same carefree laughter, the same…hint of soot and dust, the Lotus Pier being the only cultivator sect residence built within a commoner’s town. The soot that darkens the rooftops also promises delicious, filling dinners. The dust from iron hooves, from their bloodthirsty riders also delivers the xia from jianghu—its brotherhood, generosity and abandon that attempt and accomplish the most impossible.
Only when tendrils of red seep into the Pool does Wei Ying notice his sullied fingers and receptacle have dipped into the clean water. He snatches them back.
“You grew this.” He lifts his head towards Lan Zhan, who has remained standing, his hands behind his back.
Lan Zhan nods, his eyes trained on the flowers.
A long silence.
“I want to understand,” he answers finally. To understand what, he doesn’t have to say. It’s the draw of the Burial Mounds, the Resentment; the forces that compelled Wei Ying to visit the first time, even before the decor of Cloud Recesses had shed the last of its marital red.
“How long have you known?” Wei Ying asked. How long have you tolerated my betrayal?
Three years, and Lan Zhan has never protested, never said a word. Wei Ying forces a smile.
“Ai-yah. I didn’t know my stealth skills were so bad. How did I give myself away?”
He expects an answer like when he asked for the name of Wangxian; a non-answer that will take Wei Ying months to figure out. A non-answer that’ll make Wei Ying further appreciate his own carelessness, forgetfulness.
His own cruelty.
But Lan Zhan replies softly, directly, immediately. “Your eyes turn red when we…” His lips part, shudder again. His head bows. His voice drops. “When I have my hand on your neck.”
When he and Wei Ying were coupling. When their bodies—when they—were supposed to become one.
The red got in the way. Resentment is black until it escapes through Wei Ying’s flesh. Below the steps of Jinlin Tower, Wei Ying’s tears were indistinguishable from the blood on Shijie’s robe.
Wei Ying’s Resentment was indistinguishable from the blood on Shijie’s robe.
Even now, only a flutter of those long eyelashes offers proof to the riptide of emotions that must have coursed, that must be coursing through Lan Zhan. “The red gets more intense every time you return to Cloud Recesses. It fades until you leave again.”
“Hand-on-throat is what you want between bedsheets.” Wei Ying’s voice falls, darkens at the light Hanguang Jun has cast on the truth. “You want me to —”
Shut up, Wei Wuxian. Shut Up.
What do you think Lan Zhan wants from you? What has Lan Zhan ever wanted from you?
“The Resentment in you gathers at your neck.” Lan Zhan does Wei Ying another favour with the interruption. “I thought I should pay its bones a visit; understand why it told my hand it has you, why it told me it can have me.” He levels his chin, his gaze finding a toppled pill furnace on the other side of the hall. His tone returns to its usual, almost distant calm. “I should do it before my fingers close around your throat; I wanted to do that. So I came and stayed some nights. Sealed my spiritual vein.”
It’s always the words Lan Zhan neglects to say that shake Wei Ying to his core.
The Resentment in Wei Ying has tried to drag Lan Zhan into its darkness. Lan Zhan has resisted, but instead of calling Wei Ying out, instead of trying to cleanse Wei Ying of Resentment, he came to the Burial Mounds to understand it, to experience it himself.
To seal the spiritual vein is to temporary shut off one’s golden core. To temporary downgrade into a commoner.
To turn into Wei Ying.
Wei Ying can see Lan Zhan stumbling among the bare branches alone, his Bichen sheathed and guqin stowed. He can see the billowing white robe being the only mirage of light on the Burial Mounds, the winds whistling, as famished bands of Resentment attacked, tore into him.
The bare bones crunched, exposed another layer.
There’s always another layer.
Wei Ying had lived through that before, unwillingly. The first night he spent on the Burial Mounds, he wished not for death but for the Hell in the scriptures where, at least, the executioners are someone else. Here, on the Burial Mounds, the one who elicited all the pain was always himself; the knives, the boiling cauldron, the mortars and pestles.
The regrets. The guilt. The envy and rage.
Resentment has only grown stronger on the Burial Mounds after the treachery of the Jins.
Who would want to live through that, willingly?
“When? When did you do all of this?”
Lan Zhan’s lips part and shudder yet again. This time, however, they move past his hesitance. “I haven’t been at wherever the chaos is—not as much as I’ve claimed.” He pauses briefly, his minute expression morphing from sadness to defiance. “I eliminated the prohibition of deceit from Virtue and Conduct for myself.”
The honourable Hanguang Jun, Lan Wangji, has lied.
Wei Ying hasn’t accompanied Lan Zhan on many of the trips to chaos. Yiling Laozu has remained an unwelcoming sight for most, so he only goes when his expertise is missed. On those nights when he’s in Cloud Recesses alone, Wei Ying watches the moon and the stars; on those nights, Wei Ying gets drunk on the rooftop and misses Lan Zhan.
On a night when a full moon had shattered into Gusu’s first snow, Wei Ying replayed the first sword fight between Lan Zhan and himself. He played Lan Er Gongzi.
That Wei Gongzi was dead. He was dead until A-Yuan climbed the roof to check on him, then offered to play the Wei Gongzi who had snuck in two jugs of Emperor’s Smile.
Perhaps, the rebirth of Wei Ying’s first death wasn’t on the Burial Mounds, but there and then.
If he only knew at the same moment, Lan Zhan was giving his life away for him.
There’s no survival on the Burial Mounds; only death and rebirth.
“Lan Zhan, Resentment doesn’t have me. I might have come back here for…“ Wei Ying doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t have the answer, “but it doesn’t have me.”
“I know.” Lan Zhan offers an unexpected reply. “That was my mistake.”
Wei Ying stares at the water, the red tide from the crushed receptacle advancing towards the lotuses. He has ruined the Pool again. “No, you were right,” he says, a burst of darkness rising from the hollow in him. He slaps the water, taking cold joy in the tide’s breaking into threads, red as those on the deadliest blades. “You were right about me losing control.”
The darkness chokes the I‘m sorry he meant to say. So what? It leers. You think sorry never loses its sincerity, its meaning?
How many times have you, Wei Wuxian, said it to everyone who cared about you?
Lan Zhan doesn’t agree, doesn’t argue. “I also played Cleansing for myself,” he says. “I played to know if it liberates, suppresses, or eliminates.”
He leaves his insight unspoken. Instead, he sits down beside Wei Ying.
The way he does so is surprisingly efficient, surprisingly inelegant. He removes Bichen, his belt, his outer robe; he retrieves some cheap, grass-woven strings—doubtlessly bought from the commoners of Yiling—ties up and secures his sleeves, his hair. Wei Ying watches the silt taint the white of his inner garments, the remnants of red from the crushed receptacle soaking, creeping like cracks into the silk. He knows then, that’s how Lan Zhan works on the Blood Pool, the lotuses; that’s how the Bearer of Light levels himself with the young green shoots, until they thrive against the blood, the darkness, the hell of Burial Mounds.
The darkness in Wei Ying dissipates into a silent scream, which he lets out as he falls back into the mud himself, his face buried between his knees.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls, his voice like Inquiry for Wei Ying’s soul. He waits for Wei Ying to look up, for the demons in the scream to vanish between the walls of the Meditation Hall. “You’re not here for the Resentment. You’re here for the lotuses, the Blood Pool that is a kin to the Cold Pond. You were searching for a Lotus Pier that isn’t Lotus Pier, a Cloud Recesses that isn’t the Cloud Recesses. You’re here for a place that knows those differences, that knows you.” He pauses; his chest heaves a light sigh. “The Burial Mounds and its Resentment don’t have you. The Cloud Recesses and I have lost you.”
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying closes his eyes.
“You came here because only the Burial Mounds knows, it’s the Resentment that makes those differences. Resentment that is the yin to spiritual energy’s yang, that has a kinship with blood, the lives in which blood flows.” He finds Wei Ying’s hand in the mud as Wei Ying turns away. “My prior misjudgement, and yours, was that we put up those talismans.” He guides them to look at the hole above them, the yellow papers fluttering on strings. Talismans that Wei Ying hung network after network of, when he self-exiled here with the Wens. Talismans that he set up around the lotus pond, before he returned to Gusu every summer. “The talismans keep Resentment away from the blood it wants to reunite with. Resentment is born out of blood and wants blood with it, wherever it goes.”
The bands of Resentment cannot let go of the cleaver in A-Yuan’s hut; the fabled jianghu heroes, riding for one revenge after another, make a living by licking their blades.
“If you and I spill blood in the Pool again,” Lan Zhan continues, “if we drive fierce corpses into it, heal Wen Gongzi in it and leave the talismans hoisted, the Pool will remain blood-filled. Resentment can’t reach the blood, can’t take it away. The blood in the water will congeal at snowfall; the Pool will freeze.” Like the frozen pond outside, Wei Ying can see now. The blood becoming un-moving, unyielding without its energy—Resentment is its life energy turned dark, turned yin. “The lotuses will die without flowing water. I put up this net to show you.”
Wei Ying sees even more: the bands of Resentment above the cave longing for the blood in the Pool below, wanting to reach across the net of talismans and failing. The snow, with its own entanglements with the dark bands. Fighting. Coupling.
“Show me what?” he asks weakly.
“I want to show you three things can co-exist: the lotuses, the Blood Pool—which should be renamed the Cold Pond, like any cold, healing body of water in a spiritual mountain—the Resentment. And on the Burial Mounds, they do co-exist. They do so to survive.” Lan Zhan turns to Wei Ying finally, and looks into his eyes. “They do so in you, Wei Ying, so you survived. My mind understood that, but my heart, not enough. Cleansing tried to liberate a part of you, but it couldn’t do so without breaking you.”
Wei Ying contemplates Lan Zhan’s words. The lotuses, reminiscent of Yunmeng. The Cold Pond, its twin in Gusu, in Cloud Recesses. Resentment, its home in the Burial Mounds. They all live within Wei Ying. They’ve all made Wei Ying the man he is. That much is clear.
But Resentment is also living within Lan Zhan now. Resentment leaves no lives untouched.
“Cleansing cannot liberate a part of me without breaking me,” Lan Zhan seems to read Wei Ying’s thoughts, says it like a promise, with a smile.
He says it the way he said it felt good to walk the single plank bridge into the dark, on the steps of the Carp Tower. He says it as though he will follow if, at this moment, Wei Ying decides to dive into the bloody, resentful waters below the single plank bridge to chase his reflection.
He already followed.
Wei Ying studies the face watching him. The jade-like skin. The clear, gentle eyes that mimic the stars. The mouth from which no muck, no filth has ever escaped. The expression, soft yet open, like Gusu’s famous Autumn moon.
Resentment may have found a place inside Lan Zhan, but Lan Zhan is, like the lotus flowers in the sages’ words, untaintable.
What had Wei Ying’s past-past-past reincarnates done, what saintly deeds had they achieved, for the three lives of Wei Wuxian, the Yiling Patriach, the Founder of Demonic Cultivation to deserve someone like Lan Zhan?
“So the lotuses have nothing to do with the restoration of the Blood Pool.” He knows he’ll never have an answer to that question.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “They cannot cleanse.”
“The Blood Pool hasn’t helped the lotuses grow.”
“The flowers would’ve bloomed in any clean, flowing water. The beauty of lotuses—” Lan Zhan pauses, as a hint of sadness and—is it envy? Has Lan Zhan ever shown envy before?— flashes across his eyes “— is that it seems to prefer the presence of chimney smoke.”
Chimney smoke, from the kitchens of lake owners who chased after Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng. The smells of cheap spices and meat wafted from the thrown open doors of their huts, and Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng would decide, then, that they were hungry enough to go home.
They wolfed down their loot as they did, each lotus seed sweet and pearl-like.
“What is the red in the seeds then?” Wei Ying asks.
“Colour. The Resentment cannot, or is unwilling to remove it.” Lan Zhan takes the crushed receptacle from Wei Ying and swishes it gently in the water. The red spreads and intensifies in front of them. “The red collects in the lotus seeds over time. It’s nothing but memories.”
Memories of violence. Slaughter. Of how Resentment came to be. “You’re saying,” Wei Ying is being long-winded, he knows, but he only wants to make sure. “The lotuses aren’t tainted.”
Lan Zhan nods again. “The sages are correct. Resentment doesn’t leave a mark on them. The seeds are harmless. Sweet,” he remakes his statement, lets go of the receptacle into the Pool as he turns to look at Wei Ying. “I tried my first when my spiritual vein was sealed.”
A commoner, deficient of a golden core, cannot go without food. Wei Ying cannot go without food.
“Then, I ate more because the seeds reminded me of you.” A tremor has found Lan Zhan’s voice as his gaze lowers, as the tip of his ears goes pink.
Wei Ying runs Lan Zhan’s words in his head. He runs them twice. He runs them thrice.
With each pass, his smile widens, until it turns into a grin. This is the closest to love-speak he has ever heard from Lan Zhan.
He leans sideways, bumps Lan Zhan’s shoulder with his own. “You can go ahead and say I’m sweet. I won’t be offended.” He nods at the trail, the tide of red that connects them, through the water, to the centre of the Pool, the most flourished spot of the lotus bloom. “This red will fade too, am I right? I haven’t ruined your handiwork?”
Lan Zhan has neglected to mention how, or why he began the lotus project, and Wei Ying knows him enough to not ask. He must’ve seen the failure of the lotus pond outside; the rings of talismans marking each summer like tree rings.
And who else has always been there to pick up Wei Ying’s pieces, to catch Wei Ying where Wei Ying falls?
Lan Zhan nods, his blush now extended to his whole ears. They’ve been cultivation partners for more than half a decade, broken enough beds and bathtubs for the Cloud Recesses to hire its own carpenter. Even the folks in Caiyi are not so discreetly joking that Hanguang Jun, the Bearer of Light, reserves his light for the million-year long gazes he casts towards Wei Ying … and yet, Lan Zhan still can’t handle even the idea of himself flirting. Wei Ying suddenly finds all of this a bit funny.
Well. Quite funny. Of all the places they can make up their missing courtships, they’ve chosen the Burial Mounds.
Good fengshui here, indeed.
He laughs, kicks his legs high and removes his boots. “All right. Now I’ll go certify that your claim about the seeds are true.” He throws Chenqing to the side, then himself into the water. He dives, grabs Lan Zhan’s boots and yanks them off too. “And you, Hanguang Jun, are coming with me.”
Lan Zhan is the undisputed chief of understatement. The lotus seeds are the sweetest Wei Ying has ever had.
Only Lan Zhan can eat something so messy and still look clean and ethereal. The red, somehow, refuses to sully his teeth and skin, only adding colour to his lips and the water, no higher than the knees even at the centre of the Pool where they are, has washed away every bit of mud on his clothes.
What isn’t so clean and ethereal are Wei Ying’s thoughts. Perhaps it’s the Resentment they’ve let into the hall upon severing the guqin strings, the Resentment now twirling and gliding just above the water surface, its swath of black accentuating the purity of the flowers, dashing in only to capture every drop of red it can find.
They remind Wei Ying of the cormorants in Yunmeng, hunting for fish.
Hunter. Prey. Violence. Slaughter. The Resentment here, strong as it is, has never haunted the dwellers of Yiling. The chaos that requires the presence of Hanguang Jun has never been about it; instead, it’s about those who’ve barged into its home. Who create it, make it a scapegoat, sharpen it into an executioner’s knife.
Wei Ying pops another seed into its mouth, savours yet another burst of sweetness as he further appreciates the scenery. A black tendril interrupts its own hunting, coils around Wei Ying’s neck to join his stare.
Oh, he should stop pretending the Resentment has to do with his not clean, not ethereal thoughts.
It’s Lan Zhan in his wet clothes, having fallen into the water with Wei Ying’s too forceful pull into the Pool. It’s the thick, dripping hair, half loose from its tie under the lopsided silver crown. It’s the forehead ribbon, perfectly positioned still and waiting to be stripped.
It’s Lan Zhan, who manages to look strong as his teeth sinks delicately into another seed, regal as his mouth curves into a smile at its taste. On the days when both Cloud Recesses and Wei Ying get drunk with the scent of sweet osmanthus, Lan Zhan can be found on the back hill playing Wangxian. The music sounds inebriated too as rabbits hop all over Lan Zhan’s lap and guqin, as if the Chief Cultivator is merely one of those rock decors so prized by the Gusu scholars.
Next summer, maybe, Wei Ying can bring with him a nest of rabbits, see how they fare on the Burial Mounds. The species seems to share similar musical taste as the Resentment—Wei Ying once practiced Cleansing on the back hills and their red-eye glares were quite unnerving, quite hostile.
Lan Zhan will come with him, Wei Ying is sure, to check on the lotuses.
Their eyes meet once more—all right, Wei Ying should also stop pretending their eyes have truly left each other since they’ve got to the centre of the lotus growth, since he’s left a trail of not red but his clothes in their wake—and this time, he bends and picks not a receptacle but a flower petal, rolls it into a needle.
The helpers at Lotus Pier smoked lotus petals when Madam Yu was travelling. Wei Ying, of course, gave the smoke petals a try. He starts a flame, pushes one end of the rolled petal into his mouth while peering at Lan Zhan.
Hanguang Jun has got a little too intimate with the lotuses. The image of him on his fours, as he demonstrated where he’d planted the tubers, caused Wei Ying to choke.
This, Wei Ying bets, slicing the petal tip with his teeth. Hanguang Jun has never tried this before.
He pulls a breath between his lips, feels its whistling down the petal tube, his tightened windpipe. The red seed stain on his lips marks the regal white and the thing caught at Wei Ying’s throat sings. The thing obsessed with red.
At that moment, it finds a peer, a rival in Lan Zhan.
The silver hairpin comes off first; the crown falls off next as Lan Zhan’s hair frees itself of its tie. A gust blows above the cave, raining in fresh snow as those star-like eyes gain a mystifying mist, throw Wei Ying a teasing, dark glance. The flame on Wei Ying’s petal dies, accompanied by a smirk from the usually reserved, well-mannered mouth as the perennially ramrod straight body falls bonelessly backwards, its knees naturally spread, its weight shifted back to rest on its elbows.
The Resentment on the water surface makes way for the fall, a circle of clear, bright water opening as sprays of black temporarily cling onto the white petals nearby, before gathering back into a thick band that relocates elsewhere to hunt.
That thing in Wei Ying is ready to hunt as well.
“Come,” the untaintable Lan Zhan whispers, his head tilting to rest against a lotus bloom, his eyes closing. The protrusion on his long neck pulses to the whistling air in Wei Ying’s throat; the same pulse echoes along Wei Ying’s every vessel, drums as, through the crystal clarity of the former Blood Pool, Wei Ying’s eyes can see what is now engorged with blood between Lan Zhan’s legs and waiting.
He doesn’t need to be asked twice.
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