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The Tears of Thirteen Years

Chapter Text

He would never tell anyone what happened that wretched night. The truth that Wei Ying was gone settling in his bones like poison. The grief and the madness born from it, stole any sense he might have had.

He would vaguely remember later, falling to his knees, one hand buried in the black soil of the Burial Mounds, screaming until his throat bled, despair so potent that it took the very breath in his lungs. Wei Ying was gone. The thought a nightmare he desperately wished would end.

Blood-loss, the trauma of his skin flayed and the exhaustion of all but crawling to this mountain of terror and sorrow, brought him closer to the point of no return. The soil was soft beneath his hand, a laugh so carefree echoing on the wind, startling grey eyes so expressive...gone.

Blood ran freely down his skin, soaking his robes a vibrant red. It was fitting, he thought that his blood fell to the lands that saw the last breath leaving that beloved body, the place that was the cradle of his demonic path and a sanctuary for so many.

Wei Ying.

His long black hair fell as a curtain around his face, his white ribbon flying into the unforgiving wind, ripping another sound, a low cry from his lips. They had taken his life, murdered him with the joy of their terrible blood lust singing in their veins. They had wanted his death, craved it, planned it...

He should have been here. He should have protected him or at least stood with him at the very end.

When Ying had shouted "Get Lost!', cruel and bitterly angry, had he been trying to protect him?

Did Wei Ying know his fate? And knowing it had he pushed the one who loved him most of all, away to preserve someone? That was Wei Ying. In madness or sanity, he always sought to protect others. It was who he was.

Who he had been.

A softer cry was heard only by the black soil, absorbed into its endless depths of death and loss.

In the midst of this maelstrom of agony, he had a moment of pure clarity. A moment that stretched out into the ether of darkness, in this foreboding place. If Wei Ying was gone...why must he live?

If he gave his life, would he be able to see Wei Ying again?

Would his soul find his? Would he be able to stay with him, whether wanted to or not? His companion in the existence after death? Why must he live, take breath when they had robbed Wei Ying of his life?

Bichen was his blade, imbued with his energy, with his love for Wei Ying. It was a long blade and carefully maintained for the optimal sharpness, a perfect weapon to gift Wei Ying his life.

Wei Ying even at the height of his demonic madness, would have been horrified, he thought. His body found no doubt by his brother, held by the black soil of despair, filthy and clearly dead by his own hand. A final, everlasting disgrace.

The clarity is the eye of the storm, spreading a numbness that shields him, allowing him to reach for the blade. The agony is there but he cannot feel it, the despair still ripping at him, yet his hand does not waver.

His eyes open and he startles, sitting back on his heels to stare at the sight before him.

A tiny face with ocean blue eyes stares at him. Torn robes once white now stained with blood and the filth of the burial grounds. Barely more than two years old, sitting a breath away from the edge of a cliff, right before his knees, with wide innocent eyes, filling with tears.

A-Yuan.

A voice carrying laughter and consternation floated on the breeze, carried from memory. "He calls me Ma. No matter what I teach him Lan Zhan, he calls me his mother!"

A hand warm and strong pressing against his arm, a careless touch that felt like benediction and brought all his feelings of want and love to the surface. He pointed at him, bringing the child's attention, nestled in his arms, safe and loved, to Lan Wangji's face. "Lan!"

The child curious and happy said "Lan!"

Wei Ying pointed at himself and the child patted his face lovingly, "Ma! Xian Ge Ge!"

A-Yuan.

Wei Ying's adopted son, who looked at his father and called him Ma. A little boy lost and damned to this place of the death, who loved a man who was nearly so powerful his demonic skills nearly touched the Heavens. A man murdered and stolen from both of them.

The clarity does not fade just yet and so some truths are his now to remember.

Wei Ying is gone. The words feel wrong and fathomless, a concept so against what should be, but the agony cannot touch now, the world still around him.

If he dies here, if he joins Wei Ying in death's embrace, what will happen to A-Yuan?

His Brother will eventually look for him and find his corpse here on the dark soil, surrounding the dead and damned. Dead by his own hand. How long will that take? How long has little A-Yuan been alone, crying for Wei Ying?

It has been days since his death and the tragic little form before him is fading... death not far from claiming him.

Wei Ying would never forgive him for leaving his son, alone and lost, like he had been once upon a time. Damned to wander the streets, an orphan no one wanted, starving and alone, chased by feral dogs and shouted at by the adults who should care for him. Grief might hold him in madness, but he finds he cannot let that happen, cannot knowingly lose A-Yuan too.

A smaller cry interrupted his churning thoughts. "Lan! Ma! Xian. Xian Ge Ge."

A broken shrill little voice, as if begging this known man, a safe adult to find his mother, find Wei Ying or not leave him as Wei Ying was forced to do.

Bloodied fingers reach out an touch the stained cheek, warm from fever and starvation. The tiny child moved forward carried by energy he does not have, to crash into his chest. There are now tears soaking his robes, tears for a man lost to both of them.

His mind is incapable of many things in these endless moments of pain, but he decides that A-Yuan is a gift, a piece of Wei Ying that he must keep safe. He did not leave voluntarily, he was ripped from this world, murdered.

He and the child both choose to believe that Wei Ying will come back. A-Yuan might forget him in time, but Lan Wangji...no. Wei Ying's Lan Zhan will never forget, the knowledge that return will happen, sinking into his bones, filling every crevice hollowed out by agony, with a faith that cannot be shaken. Gone but not lost. Gone but not truly dead.

He sat back cradling the child that weeps as his heart was weeping, for Wei Ying and chose to believe. In clarity, he chooses to rise, unsteady and everything that he had trained himself to never be, ungraceful and unlike the Twin Jade he was suppose to be. Wei Ying would frown at him and then tease him to distract them both.

He would wait for him.

The little one clung on with fading strength and gold eyes looked around the barren, broken damned place that was not Wei Ying's final resting place. He would wait and he would raise A-Yuan, look after him as he had failed to look after Wei Ying. Be for this little child, what his own parents had failed to be, a constant supportive presence. The boy would know him as his guardian, he would learn about Wei Ying, the truth not the slander and the stories of death. They would teach him about the Yiling Patriarch. He would teach him about Wei Ying.

One step and then another, the world tilted and swayed but strength was always what he had most of. Not courage or power perhaps, for he had not saved Wei Ying nor died with him, but the child gave him strength to carry on, to leave the place of Wei Ying and travel the lonely path back to Gusu.

Chapter Text

Waking up knowing that Wei Ying was gone, was truly one of the worst moments.

His body wrecked by exhaustion, pain and blood loss, deviated from its established routine, but to this Wangji, who had survived three days knowing that Wei Ying was gone, it really didn't matter.

Grey eyes dancing with amusement and poorly concealed worry, "What about your five am mornings Lan Zhan?"

That three days could pass by him unnoticed was a surprise, his body so wounded that it failed years of training. But everything was wrong, all color washed from the world, leaving him hollow and struggling to find within himself, the desire to even move, from his position face down on the bed.

That motivation came from A-Yuan. He had made a promise and he would not fail Wei Ying again.

His brother had tended his wounds, vivid and freshly bleeding in the Jingshi, away from the gaze of others, the only fact that was a balm to his heart. Interacting with others seemed a monumental task, for which he had no energy or desire, not until he could at least accept, the choice of so many to hunt down and murder Wei Ying.

He would never understand it or agree with the decision. How could he? Despite the endless reasons given, he knew the truth, his Wei Ying was not evil. He could have been saved.

He should have saved him, protected him. That guilt would never leave, nor the pain of his own poor choices. Instead he now carried thirty three lashes of disgrace. He cares nothing for them, shame, disgrace and physical pain could only be nothing, compared to the desperate agony in his chest.

Wei Ying was murdered. What were wounds compared to that? What were scars that would mar his skin for the rest of his life? Nothing. Not when his shining, beautiful Wei Ying, had perished so cruelly.

Nothing can eclipse this unforgiving reality.

His brother attempted words, but Wangji had no energy to spare, to either care or react. He is too tired to fight, not when his aching heart bleeds more than his back.

Xichen was not openly hostile or angry towards him, nor did he offer only his proud back and disappointed eyes like their uncle, but gone was his quiet care and supportive words. It did not matter to him either. His uncle's respect was hinged on his adherence to the strict rules, but to do that, to follow the command to condemn Wei Ying, went against everything in him; heart, body and soul. In the end it was for nothing.

His uncle's disappointment was expected, his brother's confusion was expected, as they stood in adherence to that command. Qiren thought Wei Ying was only rightfully killed and for that, Wangji would never forgive him.

His love for his family was strong and there was once a time not long ago, where to stand against them was unthinkable. 

To have stood with them against Wei Ying...that was unthinkable.

Before...before Wei Ying...before the hate for the man he loved began sweeping the lands, Qiren's disappointment would have devastated him. Self-loathing and shame, tearing into his very self, at the thought his brother losing faith in him. Now? He can smell the dark earth of the Burial Mounds and he knows what it is to love, a man everyone else has damned.

Now, he was wounded and mourning. The thought of another day alive without Wei Ying in this world was too painful to think of. So, he refused to. Promising himself and Wei Ying that he would focus on today, on surviving the next minute, the next two hours...so he could be the parental figure Yuan needs.

So, it was a bitter, acrid thing to rely on Xichen, angry with his brother as he was. Xichen...his brother, the one who believed in compassion and respect for all...gentle, kind and always understanding...He had decisively agreed with Wei Ying's death. Aided the very ones who clamored for his murder, to siege the Burial Mound. His hand, but not his own sword was stained with Wei Ying's blood.  Choosing unequivocally, Wei Ying's end.

Wei Ying would say he was being unfair. There were reasons, Wei Ying would say that there were good, solid reasons, all rightful for a Sect Leader to consider. But that was Wei Ying, unfailingly gifted in pointing out the motives of others, their needs and flaws, revealing so easily, the person's true intentions and how they defined their choices. Those reasons meant little when it was a loved one, a man Wangji would have done anything to save.

This reliance meant following his brother, whose opinion on his decision to seek parental advice, was shared with him in a quiet, resigned tone. As if he was being unreasonable in choosing to parent this small child or more likely tying himself and their family, to a person however young, who belonged rightfully to Wei Ying. His son no less.

True, there would be better people to choose from. Men and women...couples that would be more fitting, especially in this unstable time. But he had promised, as he declared in as calm a tone that he could force his voice to produce and finding the corrects words, told his brother simply, that Yuan was now his.

So, here they were.

Wangji was seated at the table, inside the Jingshi his attention on the clean, polished surface of his desk. At the other end of the room was his brother, talking softly to a tall, stately woman whose clever eyes missed nothing and judged harshly.

Lan Ai had been a friend, if she could be framed as such, to his mother during her imprisonment. She had raised Xichen and himself, to an age where they were ready to begin cultivation and their long, heavily indoctrinated education, under the tutelage of their uncle.

His relationship with her had always been distant, both of them preferring Xichen and he had no doubt that she fully condemned Wei Ying. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, but in his current predicament, he required knowledge and Xichen was asking for her to test Yuan, readying him for uncle's obvious, inevitable disapproval.

Qiren and Lan Ai only tolerated each other, but the elderly woman during their time together had always been strict, but kind. A bridge provided by Xichen, allowed him to seek during this time of enforced seclusion, her guidance on raising a small child.

She had asked him to sit in deference to his wounds, but her mannerisms and tone were exactly as he remembered. Her voice held neither censure nor sympathy, but her infamous, respectful disdain for poor choices, blended with care. Now he had been publicly disgraced and lashed, she expected him to reform, reverting to the near perfect Gusu Lan Sect disciple he was supposed to be.

A fifteen year old boy waved to him wildly, in his memories. It was too late for that.

And so the day thus far had been challenging. Conversing with his brother and Lan Ai, while trying to soothe A-Yuan with a raw, bleeding back, a despairing heart and so little energy, had been difficult. Not as difficult as ignoring Wei Ying admiring a pretty girl, but close.

He had however, distracted himself with the endless discoveries about Wei Ying and A-Yuan.

Wei Ying had been unsurpassed in so many areas of cultivation. From swimming to archery, innovation to strategy, he had flourished every single time he had been tested, by life, enemies and teachers alike. At so young an age, he had been an accomplished cultivator, daring and skilled.

So, it really should not have been a surprise to learn that despite everything; the threat of siege, endless bloodied fights and demonic cultivation, he had been an excellent teacher and a loving, responsible parent. He was a role model for what Wangji should become as his guardian... perhaps combined with their uncle, as he had always been superior, in so many regards.

A-Yuan at three years of age, could write several characters in neat legible handwriting, including 'Ying', 'Lan', and 'tree'. He possessed a large vocabulary for his age and clearly showed, during the grueling tests, they enforced upon him, an aptitude for cultivation. He was sweet tempered, clever and had the most innocent eyes, effectively winning Xichen's heart almost immediately.

Lan Ai had been impressed, praising his mother for her intelligence and care. Wangji accepted this praise with a nod. Wei Ying might not have been his 'mother' but that was what Yuan called him after all. Xichen looked half amused, half horrified as Ai patted the little boy on his head, when he responded with a sorrowful, "Ma!'

Then Xichen nodded, resigned and happy for the child, before smiling warmly at Wangji, which both pleased him out of love for his older brother and rubbed invisible agitated wounds at the same time.

When he had arrived back in Gusu, barely able to stand, his brother had met him, anxious and questioning, only to find him carrying a child. Bemused, his brother had agreed to take him, but Wangji swaying on his feet had declared that he was going to raise the child as a Lan, causing his brother to pause in guiding both of them up the steps.

This led to a conversation the following morning, where his brother as he tended to his injuries with gentle hands, clearly stated that as Sect Leader, there was only way he would agree, to allow Yuan to become a Lan. It was a simple and effective ultimatum.

Wangji was forbidden from telling the boy that his parent was Wei Ying.

Outraged he had moved too quickly, ripping the barely closed wounds closest to his shoulder, open to spill more blood onto the sheets. "Wei Ying is his father."

Xichen would not be swayed. The knowledge of his parent's identity would only end with the boy ostracized, beaten and constantly shamed. A poor decision for the boy's sake and their uncle knowing of his parentage would deny the boy entry. "Let him grow and learn, become a son of the Lan family and then, in the future when he is ready, then you can tell him." His brother had implored.

"What about his mother?" He had asked, soaking another cloth.

In truth, he knew little of Yuan's history. He was undoubtedly a Wen...but Wei Ying had claimed him as his son and that, was all that really mattered.

Wei Ying naturally found weak areas in the strongest of plans. He might not be able to speak his name, but that would not stop Yuan from learning that his parent had loved him, and all the things that Wangji knew, that no else cared to know. How he loved the stars for instance and so many stories he could share. A-Yuan needed to know Wei Ying.

So he had agreed, begrudgingly and with less than his usual perfect grace.

Today though, he had learned that he was not failing as a surrogate father too badly.

Instead he felt...pride in the little boy, more than he could ever say. As a child himself, he had been often described, even by Wei Ying, as distant and prideful, but he found pride only in his brother and possibly his Sect and home. He had too many flaws to feel pride toward himself.

He was of course proud of Wei Ying, but some of that pride was tempered and tainted by fear for his well being and deathless love, Wei Ying didn't acknowledge. But he was proud of Yuan, his intelligence and aptitude for learning, for proving that he was a excellent choice for Gusu.

The little one is so light in his arms, a weight barely felt, but he feels and hears that little heart beat, reminding him of his promise. It is decided. A-Yuan will become a Lan clan member and in three years or less if he can find a way, he will formally adopt Yuan as his son. An official recognition of his place at Wangji's side of the table, and a precaution if Xichen is right and Wei Ying's reputation hurts Yuan in any way. He can imagine the anguish that would cause Wei Ying.

There is no need to worry, he tells the Wei Ying in his mind's eye. Yuan is safe and will be taught well. He will be loved.

Unseen by his closed eyes, the pair by the door watched him closely. A-Yuan was asleep in his arms, cradled securely in his billowing sleeves, a child seeking comfort and a man that no comfort could soothe, sitting together in the late afternoon sunshine.

"I feel he will be an exemplary disciple Sect Leader." Lan Ai said simply, smiling lightly as they both heard Wangji respond to the little boy's restless movement, with a soft, "Hush little one."

Yuan used to those words in Wei Ying's sweetest tone, settled immediately and the younger of the Twin Jades, thought of those days, listening to Wei Ying and watching as he swung the laughing child into the air.

"I believe he will." Xichen replied, staring at his brother with love, worry and pride.

Chapter Text

When did annoyance become feelings of care?

Lan Wangji wondered this very question as he sat before his guqin, the fading notes of Inquiry still echoing in the air.

It was beautiful tonight, the moon glowing ethereally in the night sky, surrounded by the stunning light of so many stars. It was a night when Wei Ying would have been lying on the veranda beside him or in the grass, just quietly staring up at the sky, content with the world.

Four days had now passed, from the day he returned to Gusu with A-Yuan. It had been agreed that for now, A-Yuan would be tended to by Lan Ai, who would bring the child to him every day, here in the Jingshi.

By assuming the responsibility of a father, there were many traditional roles that he must fill in the place of Wei Ying, a position that felt as though a betrayal to Wei Ying and the greatest honor of them all.

Wei Ying acting as mother, teacher and father for A-Yuan completely disregarded all traditions. In his Sect, a child of the correct age to begin their education and training were, supported by their father, who would ultimately stand before the elders with his children behind him.

Without a mother, it fell to Wangji to begin this early phase of teaching, a role his uncle had upheld when his own father entered near permanent seclusion. Unlike his uncle though, Wangji respected that this little boy was grieving, lost and most likely afraid. Yuan needed time to adjust and support to adapt to this new lifestyle. He was worried the little boy might not adapt to the Gusu way of life, with only Wangji as his support, but he knew Xichen was trying to help them both.

So far, his uncle had avoided him and according to Xichen, he had not taken the news well, that his nephew had decided to adopt a random homeless, orphaned child. Wangji's main interest in this development, was whether their uncle intended to publicly oppose Yuan.

Xichen when he arrived that night to tend to his wounds, simply stated that Xichen as Sect Leader had declared the child, the son of Wangji, by pledge. This placed him in a position of guardian, with the expectation that he would fulfill the role of Yuan's father. His uncle was reportedly outraged and confused, as if his nephew had swapped his love for Wei Ying with a son, when said nephew had never once shown any interest in becoming a father.

Wei Ying would have been endlessly entertained by this. He could see in his mind's eye the way his hair would fly up, like a flock of cranes, as his head was thrown back in amusement and he could hear the heart-warming sound of that riotous laughter.

Xichen had done this irrespective of their uncle's opinion, a fact that Wangji appreciated more than words could say. His brother had done this for his own reasons, but he had placed himself close to the fire as Wei Ying would have said. Too close and your robes will burn.

It would take time to forgive his brother for his role in Wei Ying's death... his brutal murder... but it was what Wei Ying would have wanted. Sect Leader Jiang was not much of a brother as far as Wangji could see and forgiveness, between him and Wei Ying was impossible, with his impenetrable bitterness.

Xichen would protect them, him and A-Yuan as much as he could. He may not want or need that protection, but it was his older brother's way.

Stroking his fingers along the strings, he considered that he would need to teach A-Yuan to play. The flute would be more appropriate, but he had never learned that particular instrument and to be fair, Wei Ying had always vocally admired his musical talents. Yes. He would teach him to play the guqin.

He could teach Yuan he thought, desperate to ignore the building pain from both his back at the careless position, leaning forward over his instrument and the despair of his heart. There had been no reply from his beloved.

If he taught him to play the guqin, he would need to make him a new instrument. It would take eighteen months at least to make him an appropriate Gusu guqin, the process after all was not one Wei Ying would like. Unlike a bamboo flute that can be made easily, a guqin worth anything, requires one hundred precise steps, including crushing pearls and gemstones and mixing them with raw lacquer, for the best quality sound.

His fingers ghosted over the strings, a new softer song playing for the audience of rabbits and the breeze. Would the wind carry the sound to Wei Ying's soul, like the legends told? Was he humming even now, unseen and unheard?

In years since they had met, Wangji had composed thirty songs, while the average disciple may only create one or two, that were truly their own. He admitted to none of them, hardly able to play them in the company of only himself. These were songs meant only for Wei Ying, not that he had ever planned for the wayward, beautiful man to actually hear them. This was the paradox of loving someone he thought.

The only song that others knew of, was the melody he had hastily called Flowing Waters. Xichen had praised him highly for it, when he had entered unexpectedly, completely unaware that the inspiration had nothing in common with water. It was an ode to Wei Ying's long, unruly waves of dark hair, the way the strands would dance in the breeze or shift as one rippling wave when he practiced martial arts.

When had that mild interest become love?

Wangji could no longer remember a time when he had not admired Wei Ying's pale wrists or flowing hair, the red of his hair ribbon or those captivating, beguiling grey eyes.

When did he begin comparing every shade of grey that nature offered around him, to those sparkling eyes? When was he first seized by that strange desire, to brush back those wild strands that curled so beautifully around his face, just to feel them against his palm?

Was there a time before Wei Ying?

He could so easily remember the moment when he saw him again at eighteen, convinced with the naivete of a child, that the feelings that had so captured him at fifteen were no more. He hardly ever thought of the lawless boy. After seeing him again, those dormant feelings he tried so hard to deny had changed without him noticing. Becoming something new, its form changing like a seed becoming a tree or a caterpillar becoming a moth or butterfly.

With no one else, did he feel this overwhelming cacophony of feelings, both tender and not. He had never, not even once, admired the collarbones of anyone else or watched with budding excitement when those dark robes lifted in the breeze, outlining those thin but powerful legs. So many emotions, colliding and changing in his heart. Boiling jealousy when he admired pretty women, envy when others were able to touch him or that bubbling sensation when he heard that happy laugh, to name only a few.

Admiring became other things, a feeling he could not back then, name. Lust. Desire. Worship so sinful, that he had doubted that anyone could feel what he did.

The chance to touch those silky strands of his hair, became a desire to gather the mass of dark waves in his hand and force that face, with all its hard curves and sinful planes, to look at him.

Dreams filled with visions of skin, thanks to the shared time in the cold pools however reluctant he might have been at the time, added detail to his longing. That one moment when he had looked at those defined abdominal muscles and strong thighs, had fueled his desires for years.

Disbelief and rage over his careless removal of his forehead ribbon, despite every warning and rule, became a desire to tie the ribbon around those perfect wrists. Hold him down to plunder that lush mouth.

That kiss. Wrong, stolen and everything he had told himself he didn't want. It had awakened in him, a need for Wei Ying that was impossible to put into words. The taste of him addicting...the blindfold keeping his identity hidden from those piercing grey eyes...Nothing was the same, from that day forward.

His life of cultivation, Gusu Lan Sect rules and the honor of his family...he would give up everything for one man, beloved by few and loathed by most.

All that I had known and cherished for my entire life Wei Ying," He whispered into the cold night air, "All of it.. means so little, without you in this world."

The pin indicating mourning was now affixed to his sleeve, but there was no body to mourn over, no final resting place to visit. His murderers were even now so fearful they watched over the Burial Mounds, ready at the slightest provocation to destroy his precious soul, should it return.

They do not know as I do. Wei Ying. Come back to me.

With one last look at the glowing moon, his gathered his guqin, covering it smoothly in the long white cloth, rising with less than his usual grace.

Tonight Wei Ying's soul may not have come, may not have listened to his pleading call, but he might tomorrow night. He would play Inquiry everyday for the rest of his life, until Wei Ying returned, he vowed it there on his veranda. His gaze drifted from the wood slats of the veranda, across the grass to the spring fed pools and the towering peaks of the mountains of Gusu.

He vowed it here in his home, within the sacred lands of his people, a promise that echoed from his heart.

If his soul could not join Wei Ying yet in death, he would play for him.

Chapter Text

There were many occasions in life, when Wangji felt that words were not necessary and several times when words simply failed him.

A-Yuan doesn't seem mind that he is quiet.

By resolutely not allowing himself to think of any moment beyond this one, this breath... this situation...he had been able to painstakingly begin a routine. A-Yuan would arrive at seven am every morning, quietly following Lan Ai along what must seem like endless corridors, but his little face was always happy when he walked inside the Jingshi.

A-Yuan is a quiet, obedient child, often nervous but never timid. He sits just inside the door, ignoring the stool to remove his boots, before quickly padding inside, excited to learn and discover.

His cheerfulness is surprising, considering that the Cloud Recesses are new environment and to be frank, he was Wei Ying's son. A man who might have been a feared demonic cultivator as an adult, but Wangji had known him as a troublemaker well before that, flouting rules like water flows off a crane's back. Yet, he had taught A-Yuan manners, patience and kindness, so much so that the boy is a pleasure to teach and his table manners for a three year old, are impeccable.

Wangji has effortlessly become 'Father' a fact that would worry him, because it is a title that belongs to Wei Ying, but in A-Yuan's mind, Wei Ying is still his mother. The child refuses to think otherwise, so Wangji allows the subject to lie dormant, but recently he has learned that there was at some point, a Grandmother. He is curious but Yuan goes quiet and barely speaks for the rest of the lessons, so unlike the usual effusive response, so he asks nothing further.

Xichen is pleased to see how well he has settled in and A-Yuan is soon calling him uncle, sitting by his feet when he plays his xiao or tells him stories, that even entertain Wangji.

"You are a father now, Wangji. I am proud of both you." He says one night, as he leaves.

He is a father. It seems so strange to have earned that title, to look at this beautiful child, so adorably loving and be able to say that he is his son.

When he plays Inquiry, he pleads for Wei Ying to come home. To come back to him.

When he plays Sorrow, he asks about Yuan. Asks if Wei Ying is angry, he is now Yuan's father, in an official sense. There is no reply, but Yuan finds a red ball with no owner, the following day and Wangji wonders if this Wei Ying's blessing.

During their lessons, he ignores the pain and tries not to think about Wei Ying too much. He uses the time to engage with Yuan, to teach and to strengthen their bond, because that is what Wei Ying would say. "Without roots a tree cannot grow Lan Zhan!"

Roots. Yes. So he tries to overcome his own reticence. He learns that Yuan has understandable issues with food, that he tries to overcome. The issues are born from starvation and Wei Ying himself had a complex relationship with food. He enjoyed it, when he remembered to eat, but seemed to be able to go days without sustenance, well before he became the Yiling Patriarch or even studied inedia.

The answer he finds, is to cook them a meal for the midday break. He would be lying if he claimed the look of wonder on Yuan's face is not part of the reason, but the unconsidered benefit has been Yuan's excitement.

He would stand by Wangji watching from the floor, transfixed by curiosity and the memory of days long hunger, so Wangji picks him up and places him on a stool, or holds him as Wei Ying did once, so he can watch from a safe distance. He has never tolerated touch well, but he finds he doesn't mind holding Yuan, who sits quietly in his arms, one tiny hand holding the edge of his robes.

Yesterday, he told Wei Ying playing Sorrow again, that Yuan had patted cheek like he used to do with Wei Ying. That he still hugs his knee and sometimes laughs when Wangji picks him up. He tells him that Yuan now walks excitedly towards him at the door, instead of running, but still calls 'Father' in an excited tone.

The breeze touches his hair and he hopes it is Wei Ying.

Cooking and eating together, this becomes a small ritual, the same recipes never losing their allure, tiny hands offering him a spoon or seasoning, those ocean eyes filled with awe. He always without fail, says thank you in the Yunmeng dialect at the end of the meal and collects his utensils as if this is a old tradition, his smile happy.

It turns out that Yuan dislikes spice, much to Wangji's relief, but the experiment bears fruit that is unexpected. After a week, Yuan begins to speak quietly, telling him about Wei Ying mostly, small stories that Wangji treasures. He learns that Wei Ying played the flute for him every night, how his love had told him stories that Yuan now repeats.

Some of them are wild tales, perfect for entertaining a young mind, but others are disturbing, speaking of a time in Wei Ying's life, he knew nothing about. Tales of being hungry on the streets as way to explain Yiling he supposed, of his deceased parents and dogs chasing him, while adults shouted or laughed. How he promised Yuan that his past, would never be Yuan's future, while Wei Ying still breathed.

It won't be his future now, not with Wangji at his side.

Those stories are hard to hear and worse to think of. He thinks of all the different things people have said over the years and he wonders how long Wei Ying lived by himself on the streets. How it explained so many facets of his personality and how when kicked, Wei Ying fought, refusing to kneel to anyone, those grey eyes flashing with anger, so old nothing could wash away its fire.

Lan Ai tells him of the standard for young children and Wangji finds that Yuan has surpassed this in many ways. He has a vocabulary of three hundred words now, he can answer simple questions in sentences of five to six words, he understands time and can pronounce each word clearly. He was however struggling with numbers and Wangji had been so proud when A-Yuan had counted from one to one hundred without stopping.

In the coming weeks he plans to teach him the basics of stretching and centering his mind, as flexibility is a test he cannot fail, but for now he focuses on his basic knowledge. It was a joy to teach him. He was an avid learner, his mind inquisitive and his hopeful expression, when he moved the complete page closer to Wangji was heartbreaking but sweet.

Despite his worsening condition, he hid the effects from A-Yuan, not wanting to upset the child, or force him to relive difficult times. It was a balm to his shredded heart to see the little boy settle into a new life, away from death and heartache.

Wei Ying would be so proud but more than that, he would be happy, that the little boy he loved so much, was alive, safe and growing. That everything he had suffered to keep him alive had been worth it. Some days he could imagine Wei Ying running with Yuan as he played with his toy butterfly, laughing as he showed it to his growing audience of curious rabbits.

These daily lessons are proving to be more of a success than he thought. Yuan's vocabulary is growing and it is a relief to know that his first days of formal education will not be difficult for A-Yuan when he reaches the appropriate age. They will not be able to easily use his early beginnings against him, by claiming he is not intelligent or well-read. Wangji will give them no excuse to taunt Wei Ying's son.

It had been a wonderful discovery that A-Yuan's writing was an echo of Wei Ying's style. The same strokes and careless curves that Wangji would never correct, marveling at the similarities when he carefully added his new words to the pages to memorize.

The days pass slowly and he thinks of Wei Ying more than ever. He won't become his father, he thinks. Wei Ying would be horrified, would look at him with pity, as if those choices were taken from him, so he became what he found hard to forgive. A man who found no joy in two sons and only focused on his pain. Wei Ying would not forgive him, for hurting Yuan either and he finds that seclusion is no answer and he promised that he would not find death, not when he has a son to care for.

I will not falter Wei Ying, I will not fail either you or Yuan, not in this.

So he stands by the door every evening, Yuan at his side, strengthened by the knowledge that he must consider tomorrow's lesson.

A boy spoke from his memories, "Look at me Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! You could try words."

"You did well today Yuan." He says suddenly, staring down at ocean eyes that brighten with happiness immediately.

"Thank you Father." Wangji nods and smiles internally at the Yunmeng dialect.

Goodnight Father." He then says softly still staring up at Wangji, when they both heard Lan Ai knock on the door, arriving to collect him for dinnertime.

"Goodnight." He replies, patting his head gently, his mind already thinking of Inquiry.

Chapter Text

As the seasons change, the inevitable happens.

He woke on the floor of the Jingshi, collapsed before his guqin in the early dawn light. Sweat drenched his robes and the bandages covering his back, the skin unbearably hot and incredibly painful.

He felt hollow and drifted like a boat winding its way downstream, the currents beckoning it forward. A bright smile, an elegant body rising into the wind, twisting and flowing like rushing water...Wei Ying.

Any worry he might have felt abandoned him, like snow melting in the light of the sun. If Wei Ying was here, he had nothing to fear.

His wounds were reaching a level where movement of any kind was difficult. Wangji was too weakened to leave the bed, his spiritual energy too low to aid in healing the injuries. This was not surprising. Disciples had been lashed before, not to the number he had endured usually, but the aftermath could take anywhere from one to three years to heal fully. The reason was simple enough. The blows from the cane are inflicted in layers, inevitably causing open wounds, while the unbroken skin hides weeping internal injuries and bruised muscle.

Stiffness and breathtaking pain at every movement was considered important, disciplining the mind while emotionally the disciple works through the humiliation and shame, the anxiety and the dishonor. Usually, for non-cultivators the weals and bruising would heal eventually leaving little evidence behind. His back would be marred for the rest of his life, the scars to serve a poignant reminder to repent and never repeat. That was why forgiveness was possible, the memory of the Sect long, but its nature was one to gift second chances.

Something they did not consider when they murdered Wei Ying.

Why could he not be saved? Forgiven and protected?

He felt only grief and despair, a storm of feeling that centered around Wei Ying. He obsessed over what his beloved may have felt when he died, the re-telling of his death that he had mistakenly overheard, that Wei Ying had been ripped apart, alive and alone, sending him further into the blackest mood.

There was no shame because he regretted nothing. He had accepted what was coming, understanding the very nature of his punishment before they tied him to the posts. He had thought that fear and anxiety had died with Wei Ying, but he felt them, looking at Yuan, desperate to keep his promise, to be a good father to the child left behind.

He had left the bed during the night, unsteady and filled with hopeless dread to play Inquiry again, the tears of despair escaping his control, as pain rippled through his heart, across his back and wept as fresh blood to stain clean bandages.

The floor was cool against his cheek as he lay there, staring up at the magnolia tree outside. It was so easy to imagine Wei Ying there, leaning against the boughs, carefree with a blade of grass between his teeth, arms folded in thought as he gazed out over the Recesses. Unbidden a small smile came to his lips, as he watched his precious mirage, turn his head, those captivating strands held in an unruly bun at the back of his noble head, his fringe dancing in the light breeze.

His eyes traced that long neck, barely hidden by his robes and waited for him to toss his head, further loosening the red ribbon that tried to valiantly to hold the mass of dark tresses.

No one else seemed to notice his pensive moments, the way he would bite his lip unseen, fingers rising to rub his chin. Part of Wangji wanted only to offer comfort, to soothe the troubled brow or at least offer him companionship. The rest of him, ugly and all too human, rejoiced in these times, for they proved that Wei Ying was human too, that his life was not all bright smiles and laughter. From that realization, he was left wondering what troubled him, when nothing seemed to affect him too greatly.

Had he believed the lie too?

Were all of those smiles and bright happy moments hiding pain?

Soft fur touched his outstretched hand and he opened eyes glazed with fever, to see one of his rabbits, a daughter of his original pair, sitting near his fingers, her red eyes reminding him of Wei Ying. He felt no pain or anguish at the red, even at his worst, he was still his Wei Ying, the man he had loved for every day for almost as long as he had known him.

He shifted and cried out softly at the pain, ripping across his back.

Tears fell staining the floor, and he gripped his sleeves. He curled into himself a little more, and his eyes fell on the desk, the polished surface reminded him once more of another day, shared time over the books in the library. Days of endless proximity, of teasing and constant attention being trained on him, words...admiring words being aimed at him by that insistent, dulcet voice.

The sunlight would cast a golden crown over his hair, alighting on the rich tones but his eyes...those grey eyes would become something more, a stunning purple grey that he wished he had a name for, their otherworldly beauty stealing his breath.

He remembered sitting opposite, aware of every single motion and breath that Wei Ying made. He remembered that energy, flooding through him despite all attempts to hide it and deny it, when he thought of working with Wei Ying, of going to Pavilion Library, of him being there, as agitating as that could be.

Clenching his teeth against the pain, he reached for the Yunmeng Jiang Sect bell that he kept for all these years. The purple tassel curled around his hand as he held the silver bell engraved with a nine-petal lotus motif. The bell was supposed to be able to calm the mind and wondered if Wei Ying had ever found it calming.

He had seen this bell hanging from Wei Ying's belt so many times, contrasting so vividly with the red and black of his robes. In his daydreams, the fantasies he tried to deny for so long, ashamed and shocked by the intensity of those feelings, the bell had always chimed softly when he untied that belt.

The knock on the door signaled Lan Ai and Yuan, disturbed his dreams of Wei Ying. Moving was not currently possible and the last thing he wanted was for Yuan to see him like this.

Oh Wei Ying. If only you were here. He thought as he had for a thousand times, this week alone. A laugh echoed, a slender hand stained with ink and callused from weapons and mischief waved to him, coming back, forgiving him for being so quiet. 'Lan Zhan!"

A second knock came and then silence.

Did this make him a failed parent? The bell chimed distracting him and he returned to his memories, watching Wei Ying leaped into the air. Dream and reality blurred, but the constant was Wei Ying and it was on him, his memories that he focused his failing attention. Every action, every expression and every word, branded into his mind, the memories different now he wasn't struggling with his feelings. Now he wondered what Wei Ying was thinking or feeling in those moments and thought of his bravery and kindness.

He was humble when you least expected it, but his confidence was born from skill and zero respect for his own life. He was sweet and gentle but could be brittle and withdrawn, afraid for others but fearless. Wangji loved every facet of him, a gemstone valued for his rarity and color, but to Wangji he was perfect in every way, even in his flaws, because they were what made him Wei Ying.

Pain distracted him from loquats and Wei Ying's hand, right before him, offering and kind.

"Wangji! Wangji...you're burning."

Brother's voice drifted to him, sounding frantic and low, almost angry. He opened his eyes and found himself on the bed once more, a cold cloth over the back of his neck, his back feeling as if a fire was raging along his skin.

"Brother..."

"Shh Wangji. I am here." Xichen said urgently. 'You have a fever."

"Yuan?" He asked or at least attempted to.

"Safe. He is with Lan Ai." Xichen soothed, his touches burning but he knew his brother was helping him, cleaning the wounds and applying medicine.

"Wei Ying." He said into the pillow.

"I miss him." He said truthfully, wondering why he was telling his brother this. Xichen had wanted him dead after all.

"I know Wangji. I know you miss him. Sleep, dream of him and see him again little brother."

"I must play..."

"It is too early. Sleep." His brother replied, soaking the cloth and praying for his brother's life.

Chapter Text

The world spun like thread and he lost time. It ran like water between his fingers, dripping and sometimes flowing away from him, staying briefly and then drifting away.

Pain was constant, so was heat. Sometimes there was a chill he had never felt before, but everything seemed so distant. Nothing could concern him here in this weary grey landscape, not grief, not physical pain, not even the shameful lack of discipline he was displaying by possessing no motivation to move, fight or do anything beyond breathing.

He heard his brother's voice, steady and reassuring, "Shh Wangji. I am here."

When he opened his eyes, it was to the sight of his beloved elder brother, his face pale and his eyes so sharp with boundless worry. Then the world would burn once more, setting fire to his skin and to his heart, time again slipping away.

He knows at one point he heard his uncle, so different from the last time he had seen him, his voice always so authoritative, now quiet, his words indistinct. Why and any other question Wangji didn't really care enough to know. He found it hard to care about anything really.

He sees blurry landscapes and half formed dreams, but he feels no fear...no stress or worry. He is content to not be present, to float and drift through the flames and the pain.

Wangji wakes sometime in the night, his broken mind trying to understand why his brother seems to always be there, right beside him. Xichen is the Sect Leader, with various duties and responsibilities to their people yet he is here with him, in this endless night. For every time he wakes, returns to himself it is night time yet he does not know the exact time. "Is it nine?" He asks Xichen once, drawing his brother's worried gaze.

"No. It is eleven." He answered calmly, applying another cloth to his neck. He lies on his chest taking the weight off his back and it is odd to look at his brother from such a strange angle, so improper and yet becoming almost normal with the frequency which it happens.

"You should be asleep." He tells him solemnly, shocked to see his brother breaking the rules in such a blatant manner.

"I couldn't sleep. So I thought I would sit with you brother." Xichen replied softly.

Who was he to judge? When their mother had died Xichen had rarely left him completely alone, the grief wearing on him differently.

He is tired down to his bones, he misses Wei Ying and his back feels angry and raw, the pain snaking down his chest, shoulders and down to the small of his back. What did it matter? Any pain or discomfort he felt now, was nothing to what Wei Ying had suffered.

Closing his eyes he is startled awake again by his brother sitting on the floor by his side. There are tears in his eyes, bright and so disturbing to see, his serene near perfect elder brought so low by sleepless nights and heartache he didn't understand.

"Don't go Wangji. Please don't go." He whispered urgently his hand falling to the back of his neck in a gentle grip, mindful always mindful of his injuries, but that touch said more than any words could. Xichen was afraid.

'I am here." Wangji tries to whisper, his throat parched and painfully swollen. He might be adrift and uncaring about himself, but everything in him rebels at the broken grieving look in those gentle eyes. Xichen did not deserve such pain.

"Stay. Don't go to him yet."

Even in his muddled state he knew exactly who 'him' was. "Wei Ying."

"Not yet. Please Brother. Don't go to him yet. Stay. A-Yuan needs you. I need you. Gusu needs you."

But Wei Ying doesn't? He wanted to ask but the words seem cruel and despite everything, he loves his elder brother. "I failed him."

"You didn't understand him Wangji. He did not want to be saved."

Who does not want to be saved? Wei Ying thought himself invincible but that was a lie. Wei Ying knew he was damned and yet Wangji could have saved him, brought him here, purged him of the resentful energy. Today he would be alive. Yet it was true that he did not understand him and oh that thought hurt more than his back and his grief combined.

"Wei Wuxian..."

"...Was never evil." He interrupts fighting his own mind for supremacy over this fog that builds around him. "He still loved and cared!" He whispered his voice cracked and soft despite his anger.

"No. Not evil." Xichen sighs. "He did kill so many Wangji."

"Would you accept him?" He asks suddenly brave because he has nothing left to lose.

His Brother's eyes are so bright with tears and his face is pinched in exhaustion and the mental toll that he cannot quite understand, lost to fever and despair.

Xichen's voice though is strong when he replies, "Yes. When he returns, I will give Gusu as a sanctuary. For you."

His jaw firmed and he wiped a hand under his eyes brushing away the tears. "I promise. I promise Little Brother."

There was a truth in his heart that he knew, had in fact always known. Gusu was his home, it was in his blood and his every breath. Wei Ying had time after time thrust that truth before him, a dagger and a reason, because Wei Ying believed that you should be proud of where you came from.

"Stay Wangji. Please." His brother asks again desperate, when his eyes slip closed once more.

'En." He replies already lost to the sea of flames and pain. The darkness was a welcome change, a respite for his mind and a relief to his soul.

Hours, years later the darkness recedes enough for him to realize he is sitting in the cave, so familiar after days spent trapped down here with Wei Ying. There was a fire burning before them and to his quiet joy, Wei Ying still young and undamaged by the lost of his family, still powerfully gifted but not tainted by resentful energy, lay with his head in Wangji's lap.

Wei Ying.

Desperate, he felt more alive suddenly than he had since he learned that Wei Ying was officially dead. Here he was, the weight of his head heavy on his thighs, the firelight flickering over his defined features, chiselled by the Heavens on a glorious day. He was wounded and feverish in the reality of this cave, but here in this version, he was neither the epitome of the Yiling Patriarch or the boy of the past. He was Wei Ying as Wangji loved to remember him. The man from every fantasy dreamed up on lonely nights, the man he had kissed beneath the tree, a stolen kiss that transformed vaporous feelings into unforgiving stone fit to last an eternity.

This was Wei Ying, this was man he loved. The one he cherished, treasured and missed so desperately.

It is quiet and solemn in the cave tonight, the fire crackling its light creating dancing shadows he had once watched so he didn't spend the entire time, staring at Wei Ying. For an endless time he looks at the sleeping face of his beloved, wishing that they were not here in this cave of tragedy and slaughter, but outside in the dignified spaces of water and earth, overlooked by the pure skies beneath the moon's gentle light.

'Wei Ying?" He breathed one trembling hand settling on his chest, right over Wei Ying's steady heart beat.

Grey eyes opened and blinked at him. "Lan Zhan?"

Hearing that longed for voice, Wangji for the first time in years, wept.

He didn't cry when his mother died or his father before his eyes. Nor did he cry really as a child, shouldering burdens and responsibilities that he was too young to understand, but he never cried. Not until the cave and the flickering fire, with a pair of grey eyes reflecting the flames in their stunning pure depths. He wept that night for his brother presumed dead, for Gusu and for the father he never really knew, perhaps too for his mother never fully grieved.

Wei Ying didn't judge him. He let him mourn and respected him for his grief. Now, sitting here with Wei Ying's precious form lying in his arms, he wept again.

He didn't made a sound. He didn't sob or wail or moan, even his ragged breathing was quiet, his tears an endless waterfall splashing onto his filthy robes and Wei Ying's gorgeous face. He tried to wipe them away to clean those beloved features that were blurry even as his throat closed, choked with tears.

Here, he grieved for Wei Ying.

A hand found his and he wept harder for the feel of those calluses and the strength behind grasping fingers. "Lan Zhan."

He would never cry in front of his brother, the person closest to him and the only one who really understood him. Xichen would not judge but he would worry, and some part of Wangji would be damned because those tears would prove that he was not as strong as he wished to be. He could not let his brother down, fail him with such weakness.

Wei Ying made him feel safe. It was an irony in itself. The boy who teased and pushed Wangji further away from everything he knew, believed in and took comfort in; the routines and the rules. A boy who was careless and reckless and so kind, so giving. The Yiling Patriarch and a demonic cultivator. A young man who found a child and called him his own, who smiled like the sun and who never, not once called himself a victim.

He felt safe, safe in way he had never experienced before and he had so much to hide from Wei Ying. His love, his admiration, his ever expanding feelings most of which he could not name but, he always felt safe no matter how uneven the ground beneath his feet.

"Lan Zhan."

He looked down into the perfect grey eyes he had spent hours memorizing. "Wei Ying."

"Who do you mourn for Lan Zhan?" He asked, his voice so soft, gentle and his eyes never strayed, staring straight up at Wangji, with no censure or judgement.

"You." He choked, the truth so easy in this cave, in the darkness.

"Why?" Wei Ying asked, a furrow in his brow.

Bold in ways he was never in daylight, Wangji reached out a finger and smoothed the frown away, unable to bear its existence. "You're gone."

The words were unfathomable still, like a nightmare he wished would go away, but they echoed in the cave, bouncing off the walls to hit him like a thousand knives. Gone. It threatened to end him, to destroy his crumbling defenses and leave him open to the maelstrom of agony, the circling carrion crows of his own despair.

Fingers callused and perfect stroked along his cheek startling him into opening his eyes, shoving him away from grief for a precious moment of reprieve. "I walk in chaos Lan Zhan." Wei Ying said formally, his eyes sharp and yet so soft.

"Mother never opened the door." He told him and he didn't know why he told him that, admitting that truth and the betrayal felt by a small child, who sat by a door that never opened proving the truth that Wangji wasn't enough to stay for.

"She wasn't a demonic cultivator. She didn't raise the dead or cause death."

The words were not cruel or goading, a simple fact whispered in the darkness. It seemed reasonable and Wangji clung to the surety of Wei Ying's voice in the solid ground promised in grey eyes.

"No."

"She didn't walk in chaos. She died a proper death. It was her time and her life was a good one."

"Father kept her prisoner." He had always wanted to say those words.

"So he lost her and cost his sons their mother." Wei Ying replied and the bitter truth settled like stones on a riverbed deep beneath the water.

"I never wanted you to be a prisoner. I just wanted you to live."

Grey eyes stared up at him, his long hair cascading over his lap like threads of silk. Time was endless as Wei Ying looked at him, but Wangji didn't care, choosing not to hide all the love he felt, his pain and his sorrow. Wei Ying deserved to know that someone mourned, would always mourn what happened.

"You know my soul is within chaos."

He had thought of little else, aware even in his limited understanding that whatever Wei Ying had done to himself, or that had been done to him by accident or design, had changed the very nature of his being. He walked the demonic path, created chaos in his wake and wielded the dead like a sword. Nothing about Wei Ying was exactly the same as it had been trapped in this cave so many years ago. If that could be established as true, then what did that mean for his death? Was anything about his end, because Wangji couldn't call it his death, comparable to anyone else before him?

Was he even truly, actually dead? Was he simply displaced from his body?

The only answer he could give was the one question he could answer. If he wasn't 'dead' then he must be within chaos and that was a frightening, disturbing thought. If true, how was he going to save him? To find him and bring him home? So he said, "Yes."

The word echoed in his chest, expanding through his soul to resonate in the cave. If Wei Ying wasn't dead and gone like his mother, like so many...then he could come back. How he didn't know but believing in Wei Ying had never been difficult, even when Wangji wished to hide, wished that Wei Ying wasn't the owner of his heart.

"Then wait. Wait for me. Prove your devotion."

The words were not ones Wei Ying would have chosen. They were the words spoken with Wei Ying's mouth, but came directly from the heart this man owned. But, yes. Yes. This felt right, an almost promise that was more than he had ever had before. He could wait, would wait an eternity for this gorgeous, perfect man.

"En."

Chapter Text

Wangji felt his awareness rise through the darkness, rising with the air as if he meant to touch the clouds.

It meant leaving half dreams of memories, of laughter and the bright sun, of days spent admiring and coveting what could never be his. For the first time though, since the shattering truth of the Burial Mounds, Wangji felt...settled.

He was weary and hurting, burning with fever and hollow with the knowledge that Wei Ying was not here, but he no longer felt dead. As if his heart and all his will to live had been burned away by pain. They...half of the world had wanted Wei Ying dead. They had sought to murder him and commit against him so many terrible atrocities, all in the name of vengeance.

They failed. Wei Ying wasn't dead, he hadn't been murdered. He wasn't alive but there were so many states it seemed between alive and truly dead. At rest. He would come back. His devotion, hope and love unfurled in his chest, pushing away the heavy clouds of despair. It let him breathe in air that did not sting his eyes with painful tears.

He had to fight, regain himself and his balance in this world, because one day Wei Ying would come back.

Lan Wangji woke to these thoughts, his body limp with exhaustion, his face pressed into the blanket. A position that was deeply undignified, but he was surprisingly comfortable, his back no longer as painful as it had been. Someone was humming an old song.

Xichen. He could recognize his brother's gentle tone anywhere, the song now he was more awake, so clearly the notes often sung by their mother when they were children. It was soothing and sweet, touched with only a little sadness.

Xichen would in rare moments hum or sing this song, to remember the woman that had defined how they loved and a mother they so desperately missed for years.

The humming stopped and he heard a faint rustle in the quiet of the room, the air neither cool nor warm simply...still. Sound echoing and magnified so easily, living up to its name Jingshi.

A sound...a soft murmur...his brother's voice as quiet as he had ever heard it, whispering to someone near the door. A woman's voice he could not recognize and then silence, broken by the sound of his brother's nearly inaudible steps.

Remaining motionless, he drifted aware in the periphery of his senses, his brother was moving around the room. There was the sound of water being wrung from material and the feel of a cold, wet cloth pressed against his neck and shoulders.

He protested in a mumble and frowned at his own lack of eloquence, struggling to open his eyes against the overwhelming tiredness.

"Shh Wangji. You will wake Yuan." That single sentence spoken in his brother's gently chiding tone, brought him to full awareness. If he was asleep, why was Yuan here?

A hand so familiar... a hand that had led him along the pathways of Gusu, guiding and supporting him through every trial and burden, was pressed to his arm suddenly. The warmth and reassurance in the gesture calmed his racing mind slightly. "I am here. Wangji?"

The victory of opening his eyes came with a surprising vision. A-Yuan wrapped in a white blanket was asleep on the other side of the bed, his tiny hand gripping the edge of the cloth tightly.

His gaze softened and his hand moved from beside his rib-cage to touch the tiny fist, tears blurring his vision as Yuan moved in his sleep and gripped his fingers. His faint frown disappearing as he held onto Wangji. This was Wei Ying's son. His son.

Again the knowledge that he was a father, struck his heart. It was a blessing and a gift. A child who would grow he knew, into a wonderful person both caring and kind. A little boy he loved as his own and loved too as a part of Wei Ying.

He looked up past Yuan and saw his brother with tears in his own eyes, the spell broken by that sweet, gentle smile that reassured even as it showed his happy pride. All that he had done against his brother and yet Xichen embraced him still. "Brother?"

"He would not rest or stop crying. I thought if he could see you, he might sleep and a eat a little." Xichen explained, reclaiming his stool by the bed.

Wangji looked at little Yuan carefully and saw despite his sluggish mind, the pale almost ashen skin and felt the weakness of his grip. Surely that was not normal? It was difficult for him to know however, as protocol and tradition dictated that he not leave the seclusion of the Jingshi. He had not witnessed Yuan sleep in recent months. "Why is he so pale?"

Xichen sighed and his eyes flew to his brother's face. "Xichen?" He whispered urgently.

"He is almost fine now Wangji."

"When was he not?" Worry held his heart in talons, but try as he might, he could not force his body to move.

"Stop moving Wangji." His brother admonished, not unkindly.

"Brother..."

Xichen gently pushed him back down and brushed away his long hair from his face. He sighed softly, his voice gentle but touched with sadness. "Three days after you came down with a fever, many in the Recesses succumbed as well. Others recovered quickly, but Yuan did not. His fever was dangerously high and..."

"And?" He repeated, worry beating like a bird's wings against his sternum.

"I can tell you when," Xichen tried to deflect and the worry became fear.

"Brother."

Xichen took in a shaky breath and closed his eyes for a moment. "The fever...he nearly died Wangji. Uncle has fought for his life for a week now. You have also nearly died."

Uncle. The knowledge that Yuan had been suffering without him being there was a painful blow, but it both surprised and awed him hear that Uncle, so staunchly set against him adopting Yuan, had possibly for the first time in his life changed his position.

For his Uncle to have acted as a healer and the elder relative he was supposed to be, would not have been easy and this choice would have shocked Wei Ying. It would never be enough for him to forgive his uncle for so plainly rejoicing in Wei Ying's cruel death, because his body was gone ripped apart by his own creations.

No. Nothing would allow him to forgive that act of cruelty, not when Wei Ying could have been saved. But Wei Ying would have been grateful beyond words for Qiren to have saved his son and Wangji was relieved, so incredibly grateful that his Uncle had put aside his prejudice to save Yuan.

Wangji looked at that tiny face and knew in his heart that Wei Ying wherever he was, would share his prayers and his thanks. He wondered if in the chaos he was watching over Yuan, afraid for him and felt as he did? Raw and fearful for this precious innocent life?

Wangji knew he would protect this little one at all costs and knew as well, that he loved Yuan as Wei Ying did. His eyes shifted back to Xichen and with a clench of his heart already so painful, he saw the disguised pain and worry in his brother's face and eyes. Before he could ask his brother's forgiveness for the strain and worry he had caused him, Xichen continued with a concerned expression, "He has very little memory Wangji."

"Memory?" That could not be correct, Yuan had excellent recall and a large vocabulary, his development was superior in many ways to other children of the same age. A difference he owed to the time he spent with Wei Ying, who clearly had taught him well.

"The fever caused him to forget many things."

All these years have taught Wangji many things. How to love a boy who smiled roguishly in the moonlight and how to walk when your heart was shattered. He was one of the best disciples of Gusu, one half of the Twin Jades and an accomplished guqin musician. Beyond any talent or skill he may possess, beyond the grief and the battle experience of these difficult years, Wangji was predominately accomplished in one thing. He had learned at a young age to read his brother and to understand Xichen's heart and mind.

"Say what you wish not to say." He advised, his eyes flicking between Yuan and his brother's ashen face.

"He does not remember Wei Wuxian or his life before three days ago. He does not remember me or Gusu. He knows you, because I told him you are his father."

The enormity of those words forced him to close his eyes against the onslaught of hurt

"You know my soul is within chaos." A voice, precious and compelling echoed the words from the cave. Wei Ying had never faltered, not even in those times when everything and everyone stood against him, when giving in would have not only been easier but might have meant, that his cherished Wei Ying would have survived.

He could not falter, he reminded himself. If Yuan did not remember Wei Ying then without revealing his name as reluctantly promised, he would teach the child of his parent. Perhaps to some degree it was a blessing.

The Burial Mounds had not been kind despite Wei Ying's love and care, it was at its very core a place damned and abandoned. A place of death and pain, of starvation and the only home the little boy had ever known. A place of love and despair.

He knew from words said and implied that Yuan suffered from nightmares and he had seen first hand the long-term effects of his earliest years. His struggles with trust and food.

But to forget Wei Ying?

"Wangji?" His brother asked worriedly. "He may remember in time. Many do after a fever. Uncle told me this. The memories may simply be locked away in his mind."

As with all things since the age of fifteen, he considered Wei Ying's reaction. He would focus on the fact that Yuan is alive and move on from there. This was right. It was not Yuan's fault. How could blame be ascribed? The pain he felt for Yuan, for this little boy losing his past was eclipsed by the joy, that he had survived what so few do. 

Wei Ying was also going to return to them and when he returned, Yuan would be reunited with his rightful father...mother.. considering that was how Yuan saw Wei Ying. 

He opened his eyes and stroked a finger over that tiny fist. "He is alive. Nothing is more precious that."

Chapter Text

The early afternoon sun did little to dispel the chill that settled over Gusu.

Wangji frowned as he knelt before Yuan and noticed the little boy shivering slightly in the unforgiving breeze, that was still touched by winter. The Spring had been late in arriving, the air slowly warming as the trees considered in their eternal wisdom whether to open their resplendent flowers or not.

Many thought that the claws of winter might only retract when summer was almost upon them this year. Just before Spring officially began, the wind had been bitterly cold and the rains had rarely stopped, but then instead of rain and the promise of warmer days, they had experienced the worst fog in over a decade. It hung as a cold blanket over the mountains, enshrouding Gusu in white and every surface was touched by frost.

This continued for three weeks. Moving around the buildings was not difficult or especially dangerous, venturing out beyond the structures however, was potentially lethal. One wrong footed step and you would find yourself falling into a partially frozen pool or slip from a edge to your death.

Wangji didn't mind it. What was a sunny day compared to this white expanse? Wei Ying was still gone from this world, his flute silenced and his voice absent. The dense air felt like a manifestation of his grief. Why should the sky be blue when Wei Ying was not here? It was a thought that struck him on a particularly bad day.

All around Gusu fog catchers had been placed at the foot of every tree and wind chimes were placed at intervals, something that would have amused Wei Ying no end. A passing disciple would agitate the chimes announcing their presence, while others carried small bells to avoid injury along the corridors. Three disciples had been injured in accidents despite the precautions however, so he would rather Yuan stay with him.

He could hear Wei Ying's voice so clearly, "He's so short! Someone might trip on him!"

So for several nights Yuan had remained with him in the Jingshi, with Lan Ai unable to return for him before curfew. He avoided his most recent habits while his son was present, such as strengthening his spiritual energy in questionable ways. This was done well before his brother deemed it sensible to try, considering his injuries and several long hours of meditation. His son did need observing after all, he was a curious child and might leave the Jingshi on a child's whim, putting him directly in the path of danger.

He also only played Inquiry a handful of times rather than for most of the night.

His brother unlike everyone else still visited, the fog never hindering his silent steps but he did not take Yuan back, only sat with them in the early evening. Yuan would often fall asleep around seven every night, a worry at first because Wangji had only ever slept at nine in his memory, but Xichen had pointed out that in all possibility, Wei Ying may have instilled that hour for sleep.

Wei Ying had only slept around one am... sometimes two, waking when the sun was high or when he had been corrupted by resentful energy, sometimes not at all. It seemed... responsible that he would teach Yuan to sleep early, perhaps respecting his needs as a infant. But Wangji couldn't stop thinking of the sweet image of Wei Ying putting him to bed as Wangji did, humming or playing a melody to ease him into dreams. It was a tiny balm for the pain in his heart.

Some nights he had played lullabies on the guqin and felt Wei Ying smile every time.

It had been eight months since Wei Ying had been lost to them and Yuan had finally filled out a little, growing into a healthy three year old. Wangji trying to be a good parent, looked at said child critically and then straightened his white robes before adjusting his short hair so it lay smoothly on top of his head.

Ocean eyes watched him curiously, standing before him on the veranda outside the Jingshi his little hands holding onto his robes for support, his feet wobbling slightly. Yuan smiled gently, but in that gaze there was also nervousness and it hurt to see that expression on his sweet face. Not for the first time or the last, he wished Wei Ying was here.

He would know how to comfort and how to distract Yuan but Wangji struggled, his words failing him even as he unfolded Yuan's thicker outer robes. "Keep you warm." He said softly as he helped him put it on and steadied him carefully as one little arm punched into the sleeve, then the other.

"Slowly." He admonished softly, watching the widening ocean eyes as the other arm slid into the sleeve at a far slower pace. Wangji pulled the two sides together, belting it so it kept the chill away from his little chest.

"Thank you Father." Yuan all but chirped in his earnest voice with a happy smile and Wangji patted his shoulder.

Winter may have retreated with the fog, but the air was still touched by cold and Yuan had nearly died from one fever, he didn't need a chill on top of it.

His grief tore at his heart in random moments, bringing him to his knees one moment or like now, causing hot tears to sting his eyes. He had found himself perfectly composed one moment and then sobbing the next, always alone and always silently. He looked down swallowing back his sorrow and then patted the space beside him on the tiled mat. He nodded pleased when Yuan obediently settled, copying Wangji's kneeling posture. It was sweet and amusing to watch Yuan try to copy actions and words, with all the warm mannerisms of Wei Ying.

Wangji watched the rabbits for a few minutes, while Yuan focused his attention on the piece of paper before him on the small table, set up on the veranda. With a child's calligraphy brush, his tiny hand began tracing the characters from today's lessons, his strokes wobbling but legible.

The book in Wangji's lap was untouched, his mind elsewhere. Today was an important day. He and Yuan were to attend a ceremony marking Yuan's adoption into the Lan family. Yuan was presentable in plain white robes that would soon carry the symbols of the Lan Sect, and at least now he was strong enough to stand throughout the ceremony, contrary to his brother's fear.

His injuries were a long way from healed, but Uncle had agreed to accept Yuan as a Lan in the official book. It had not been easy to gain this much. Traditionally the father would stand for a child, but Wangji was undergoing punishment and this was where a conflict rose ugly and clamoring.

The Elders, his Uncle and Xichen all argued for and against him attending for the hour long ceremony, acting officially for the first time as Yuan's father. The Sect would have no choice but to acknowledge him as Wangji's heir after this formality, and offer Yuan a rightful place within the Sect, with all the protection that it offered.

No one knew that Yuan had been born into the Qishan Wen Sect and no one except Xichen, knew he was Wei Ying's only child. Officially Wangji had found the child in Yiling and chose to adopt him, a simple heartfelt story but he fully accepted that others would add to that story, adulterating it for their own purpose. But it was the story Wangji kept to, this simple statement that hid a world of secrets. Wangji loved this little boy as if he were his son by birth and Wei Ying had proven his own love in so many ways, back when he had first met the ocean eyed baby.

Today he would be Lan Yuan. A-Yuan was the name Wei Ying had given him, now he would become Lan Yuan, the name now meaning 'willing' and that was a solid, dignified name for the little boy.

Next Spring Yuan would be tested and upon successful completion of those grueling tests, he would begin his cultivation training. Until the age of five he would stay with Lan Ai as agreed, before moving with all the other young children into the dormitory in the middle of the Sect buildings. Here, Yuan would begin his studies and his training, visiting the Jingshi in the late afternoon, at the closing of lessons.

Conveniently, his punishment would be over by then and if he angled his path correctly he would soon be teaching some of those classes. No one would be able to say he was a poor role model.

He smiled in the weak sunlight.

 

Xichen hurried as the rules permitted along the paths towards the Jingshi. He was proud of what today signified, that his nephew was being officially inducted into the family. They would be ready he knew, Wangji would have made sure his son was as close to perfect as it was possible, but he wanted to see for himself how Wangji was doing mentally and emotionally, before he stood before the Sect Elders.

At the sound of his brother's baritone, Xichen halted by the wall of the Jingshi his feet refusing to move, hearing the pride and love hidden in his brother's cool tone.

"You have done well in your studies."

"Thank you Father." Yuan replied his tone soft and bashful, the words sounding as if they were too new, preventing them from rolling off his tongue like he was sure the little boy wished them to.

The words were sweet and something that Wangji would not have done before losing Wei Wuxian. This little boy had brought so much to their lives. Just as he was about the walk forward he heard,

"Father?"

"Mmn."

"Would Ma be..." Yuan searched for the right word, dragging unknowingly Wei Wuxian back into light, shoving him and the pain into Wangji's focus. "...Proud?"

There was silence and Xichen sighed silently, thinking Wangji was going to say nothing and avoid the question, even he wasn't sure about the answer, about the truth. He had no idea what kind of parent the Yiling Patriarch had been, but Yuan contrary to all exception was a sweet, gifted and delightful child, who would grow into a wonderful man one day, a blessing to the Lan family.

"Mmn. Your mother is always proud of Yuan."

Xichen's eyes widened in surprise, then he smiled softly. He waited but there was silence again perhaps as father and son thought about this and then, "Yuan proud of Father!"

Xichen smiled broadly in the shade of the building, but it was his brother's response that nearly brought tears.

"Proud of yourself. Work hard...like mother."

"Yes, Father."

Gathering himself Xichen moved as if he had never paused and turned the corner. "Wangji, Yuan. It is time."

A five minute walk took them to the location of the ceremony, his eyes shifting between the path and Wangji, monitoring his condition carefully to his brother's obvious disapproval. Yuan followed holding Wangji's right hand, his little feet struggling on the uneven ground at times, but Wangji without breaking stride, simply lifted the little boy up with one hand carrying him up the steep steps. Xichen had to smile at the sight.

The Elders were gathered in the Hall of Ancestors, the place where Wangji had been lashed and in the past beaten in punishment with Wei Wuxian. Their disapproval was obvious but Wangji remained perfectly calm, his gaze serene as he stood before them, but Xichen noticed the odd glance down at Yuan, as he was checking if his son was still there.

Yuan to his credit looked at Wangji and then stepped forward, answering questions as best as a three year old can. He had a dignified appearance despite his age and his faint little smile was heart warming, he was well mannered and dressed well. All things that the Elders would comment upon.

His posture was excellent for his age, his mind sharp and his temperament gentle, completely different from his 'mother' Wei Wuxian. Wangji's influence was a positive impact on the child, for despite the lack of words or sentiment, he clearly understood that he had the support of his father.

A priceless gift that. Xichen thought thinking of their own father. It was a thought that never failed to bring the sting of disappointment, for himself and for Wangji who had only ever had him, after their mother had died.

Then the questions were asked of Wangji, their tone respectful but edged. They never crossed the line knowing Xichen would be bellicose in his response and QiRen spoke little, refusing to so much as look at Wangji.

They demanded his age, expecting Wangji to falter. His brother did not. Yuan was presumed to be three years old and of his date of birth he had little idea, but Wangji unhesitatingly chose the date that marked his first meeting with Wei Wuxian.

It was heartbreaking, he thought to see how much of Wei Wuxian that still, and he suspected would always rule his brother's heart.

Yuan's current cultivation level was checked, his intelligence, general knowledge about the world, about Gusu and the rules. After an hour, Xichen breathed a sigh of relief. Neither Wangji or Yuan had failed a single test or caused any offense, so there was no reason to refuse Wangji's request.

He smiled lightly at his brother, standing there as if there were not thirty three wounds in his back, as if his heart wasn't shattered beyond repair. He stood there imposing and aloof, genuinely unaffected by their barely concealed disapproval and scorn, their questions that were just shy of becoming too personal for Xichen to accept. The laws and rules of Gusu and the history of their Sect was on Wangji's side. He knew that and so he stood there like a tree withstanding the winds of a storm, standing tall and proud. The perfect role model for his son, who tried to copy him.

The very last step was the addition of his courtesy name to the book. Xichen presumed that Wei Wuxian had also bestowed a courtesy name on the boy and so expected a name from the Yunmeng Jiang Sect or Yiling where the child was from.

Not the unrepentant, shockingly romantic name that meant "to yearn for" or "hope", spoken so coldly by his younger brother, as daring anyone to find a problem in that choice. Their Uncle stared in equal shock edging towards to reproach. It was not a name Wei Wuxian would have chosen, he knew that from knowing the boy that had studied here and the few times he had met the man that owned his brother's heart.

"Lan Sizhui."

The only thing that was not a surprise, was that Lan Yuan could not only spell the name, but wrote it in the book with a speed that suggested that he had written it often. Smiling up at his father in excitement, who nodded at him in approval.

Oh Wangji.

Chapter Text

The silver bell gleamed in the shaft of moonlight as it fell on bowed shoulders, his long hair untied and his forehead ribbon abandoned.

Tears ran down his cheeks in silent rivers, unseen and unheard by anyone as he knelt on the floor of Jingshi, staring up at the endless field of stars. There was not a cloud in the sky and the air was cool, crisp after days of intermittent rain. It was a night Wei Ying would have loved, breaking curfew just to sit on a rooftop, with a jar of Emperor's Smile just admiring the stars with that dazed, content look on his beautiful features. One foot dangling over the edge, kicking back and forth in a lazy arc, one hand resting on his bent knee, his hair dancing in the slight breeze.  

If only he could see that again. What would Wei Ying think if he knew that Wangji had composed an ode on the guqin, that very image described with sound,  the strings copying that lazy arc, the contentment and the beauty? That there was a song for every cherished memory, written by a heart overflowing with love he could never show?

The night sky with its inky blue vastness, the stars with all their secrets so dazzlingly bright, enchanting like Wei Ying's smile, the moon a glowing disk high in the depths of the sky's darkness.

It was still and calm, the light reflecting on the surface of the pools surrounding the Recesses, mirroring the Heavens with glittering light, disturbed only by the ripple of the water.

A harsh breath barely audible, a long sleeve rising to wipe the tears away from the impassive face that betrayed so little of the agony, beating against Lan Wangji's breastbone.

Spring had become Summer in all its glorious days of warmth and cheer. Yuan had not grown, but he had surpassed the skills of other children his age, becoming a Lan a little more each day. The little boy had enjoyed Summer, playing in the grass with his new friend Jingyi who adored the rabbits too. Jingyi was a good friend, a little impatient but kind and a friend who followed Yuan eagerly, as they practiced or played. His Grandfather was a respected Elder, his  mother an excellent Healer and his father was a scholar the same age as Xichen. The adults in his life had no patience for the boy, so he often appeared during the day copying Yuan and left well before five pm, presumably returning to his mother.

Wei Ying's excited, teasing voice spoke in his ear, at the sight of the two of them trying to perform a handstand for the first time. "Look Lan Zhan! He's making friends!"

Summer was difficult. Feelings that were too complex to describe, cherished memories of days watching Wei Ying or being teased by him filling his every spare moment, be it day or night. Laughter and teasing, bright sunlight never able to compete with that stunning smile...graceful steps... endless longing with so many sleepless nights spent thinking about a boy, that would never be his.

Summer with all its bittersweet memories gave way to a bitter autumn, new faces and new trials for him and for the Sect. Then, this morning Wangji realized that soon the world was going be celebrating the anniversary of the Yiling Patriarch's death.

It struck like a blade, cutting into his heart with well-timed aim, stealing his breath even as it forced him to his knees, unseen in the privacy of the Jingshi, his door sliding shut firmly as if he shut out the callous words of the disciples outside.  A year. Soon it would be a year.

That morning he had been sitting on the veranda, a black rabbit descendant from the pair that Wei Ying had so sweetly gifted him years ago, sitting in the crook of his elbow. His back was resistant to bending and his dignity could only withstand so much, so he sat watching the world thinking as he always did of Wei Ying. Lessons were halted for the necessary nap-time that Yuan needed at his age, a time of rest for a tired little one, leaving him with his restless thoughts. 

His brother had come to see him, unexpected and yet welcome all the same, telling him in his gentle voice that he was leaving, to represent the Sect at the talks being held at Koi Tower.

Wangji had no interest in politics and even less for people congratulating themselves on 'defeating' the Yiling Patriarch, but wished his brother a safe journey all the same. As he turned away, Xichen had stopped and asked, "Is that little Sizhui?"

Wangji glanced down beside him at the large pile of rabbits, forming a mound of white and black, the odd flash of red eyes and twitching whiskers. The mound of rabbits were sitting on the grass just off the veranda, his son never far away from his side, memories of the mischief and danger Wei Ying could find himself in, even in Gusu, making him reluctant to let the boy wander. "Mn."

"How sweet. Is he asleep? Is that safe?" Xichen asked in concern looking at the rabbit pile in confusion and with the face of a man trying to be open minded and supportive.

"En." Wangji replied calmly, a book resting in his lap forgotten for now.

Xichen smiled still confused but indulgent. "Is he well? I have not seen him recently."

"Too short."

His brother pursed his lips hiding a smile, "He is not too short. Wangji, he will grow. It is only that the poor child was lacking nutrition. Now he is eating well, his body will recover the time lost." Xichen reassured immediately.

He sincerely hoped he would. It was not Yuan's height that worried him, it was how thin the child was, even after all this time. He presumed that Yuan would share some of the traits of the Wen Sect family as he aged and certainly possessed some of the more coveted natural skills, that the Wens had been famous for. But the child was not broadening in the shoulders or rising in height to match what he remembered seeing with the Wen Sect.  He feared something was wrong. "Mn."

Xichen smiled kindly, "Don't worry so Brother. He is growing and learning. He is safe and I dare say, he is happy too."

Wangji took this to mean that his brother thought he was living up his promise and was pleased, thinking Wei Ying would proud of how far the child had come in the months since Yiling. "Mn."

"He loves it here in Gusu." Xichen replied softly. "In some ways he reminds me of you, when you were a small child."

He had no answer to that. He was pleased to think that Yuan was beginning to love Gusu as his home though. "Mn."

Peering down at his younger brother, ignoring the unspoken request to not continue that thought, Xichen asked instead, "And you Brother?"

Knowing his elder brother was referring to his back, Wangji replied simply.  "En."

His Brother's smile was always proud and gentle. "I will visit on my return. Please remember to add the herbs to water when you bathe. They will help, until I can return" 

Xichen would only fret otherwise and his brother would know, if he was not using the herb concoction that smelled particularly bitter. "Mn."

But as he turned away, Xichen said softly, "I mean no offense Brother, but it is a warm day. It will be soon too hot for Sizhui to nap outside."

He glanced at the sun and nodded. Nap-time had now passed, they could return to their lessons. "En."

"Good. It is good to see you doing well."

Was he? It was all he could think watching brother serenely walk away, greeting the younger disciples that came past, along the pathway. How could this storm of pain be considered 'doing well'? What right did he have to feel anything beyond loss? Wei Ying was trapped in chaos, alone and...waiting.

There were many like his Uncle who disapproved of his grief, citing their own hatred as reasons why he could not, should not grieve for a man torn from this world. They celebrated his death or moved on with their lives content that a man with a kind heart and dancing grey eyes had suffered, driven to the darkness but still found within himself that vast capacity for love.

He lifted a rabbit gently setting it on the grass. Guileless ocean eyes looked up at him, a sweet face surrounded by the animals that existed only because Wei Ying was a generous, caring person, Yuan's words muffled by at least five white rabbits. Wei Ying had adopted this child at the height of his journey as the Yiling Patriarch, he had saved countless Wens and struggled in the many ways that made him human.

But he didn't think of the date, of the passing of time not until Lan Ai had collected Yuan at five pm just before autumn, remarking that Yuan had not grown much over this year. She was hopeful he would be taller in a few months, but all Wangji heard was the words, 'a year.' The disciples and now Lan Ai.

He had played Inquiry until nine, his fingers desperate and forlorn, the sound deep and longing coaxed from the strings easily from long practice, during these difficult years.  Just before nine, he played the song WangXian composed by a Lan Zhan so deeply in love and so young, confused by these encompassing feelings and too foolish to realize his mistakes until too late.

Sleep that night  came with difficulty and his dreams were filled with sorrow, the yearning and guilt translating into images of Wei Ying suffering.

Now he was kneeling on the floor bathed in moonlight, the ancient tree above him casting shadows on the veranda, its boughs heavy with flowers Wei Ying would have loved. His guqin finally silent rested on the wall in its usual place, his sleeping robes too thin to ward off the chill of the night air.  

He was surrounded by his treasures. A bookmark made from a flower once clasped in Wei Ying's perfect hands; a peony carefully dried, tossed to him on a beautiful day.

Despite the fire that destroyed the Library Pavilion, he had saved numerous drawings, random notes covered in Wei Ying's barely readable scrawl, three original music sheets created for the flute and several paper cut-outs. Three of which were paper flowers and six were animals, all lovingly pressed and hidden in an ornate wooden box.    

The perfume pouch that had healed and soothed near fatal injuries in a cave, when Wei Ying had comforted him in his grief, inspired him with his reckless plans, and irritated him to no end, distracting from guilt and despair. A cave where he had held Wei Ying for the first time in his arms, watched his face as he slept and played the song he had composed for weeks love-struck and hopeful.

He had fought so bravely, nearly died so many times and yet, that was the time Wangji realized that there was no end to these feelings. He admitted to himself that he loved Wei Ying in that cave.

This pretty perfume pouch had once belonged to a girl, young, foolish and everything Wangji could never be. A girl who had been saved from disfigurement by Wei Ying recklessly taking a branding iron to the chest instead of her. A girl Wei Ying had paid favor to and had helped so selflessly.  

When he held it, he thought of grey eyes and a stolen kiss. He thought of fevers and the first time he had brushed his fingers through those wild locks or pressed his hand to that beating heart rejoicing in its strength.

But this bell, the symbol of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect meant for calming the mind, was truly precious. It had been his symbol of hope and prayer when Wei Ying was missing... a symbol of faith when Wei Ying strayed down the path of darkness...

He had held it when he desperately needed to be reminded of why he fought for Wei Ying. Cried over it when he was told Wei Ying was dead and would not apparently rest in his fevered state without it nearby, much to his brother's worry. He had cradled it in his hands after every argument, every fight, his ears ringing with Wei Ying's words whether cheerful or angry. He had carried it close to his heart for years now and often slept with it beneath his pillow.

Lost in pain, Lan Wangji grieved alone, the only person left that loved Wei Ying in all the world. The man who would trade his life in a heartbeat so Wei Ying could live again.

Wei Ying had been gone for a year.

Chapter Text

There is nothing more personal than grief and nothing more enduring than love.

They thought that Wei Ying's death would mean that he slowly but surely lost the feelings he held for the man. As if death could rip from him, cleanly or not, all the love and loyalty he felt for Wei Ying.

Their hope seemed so futile, so strange. He had loved Wei Ying since the age of fifteen, lightly as first, hesitant in his first steps on a journey that would define his lifetime. Nothing Wei Ying said or did could ever change that. How did they think murdering him, could change that?

The resentful energy was not Wei Ying. He knew this and cherished the very fact that even at his so-called worst Wei Ying was still the boy he had met on a rooftop in the rain.

He would always love Wei Ying.

His days and nights tumbled, straining beneath the weight of his grief, his sorrow and his guilt. During the hours he spent with Yuan, he was focused and intent on teaching, guiding and reassuring his son in his own way. He enjoyed teaching and loved his son dearly, watching with pride at his achievements and startled every single time, when Yuan laughed sounding nearly identical to Wei Ying.  

He rejoiced in every way that Yuan resembled Wei Ying, encouraged and hopeful that he would one day remember the man he called 'Ma.'  

Nights were another story. The agony of his loss never disappeared, its iron grip was invincible around his heart, its claws relentlessly tearing into his lungs, poisoning all his thoughts, until only the guilt and endless pain endured.

Some nights his exhaustion let him sleep for a few hours longer. More common were the tormenting dreams of pain and bloodshed ending with Wei Ying's death. or nightmares where Wangji relived Wei Ying's rejection, anger and resentful energy fueled malice. He would throw himself awake sometimes calling out desperately, or lie curled in the sheets crying as he repeated Wei Ying's name in a mantra of despair.    

In the aftermath he would sit, praying for Wei Ying's soul or just lie there drowning in pain and sorrow.

Nights like this were worse still.

These nights left deeper scars in his soul. The despair as there as was the grief, a constant shadow and the pain he held close to his heart, as deserved as it was endless. But on the these rare nights he felt something else too. Want. Desire. Yearning.

Throughout his younger years, infatuated and then standing lost on the cusp of love Wangji had first discovered desire and jealousy while watching Wei Ying. Those were innocent days really, when Wei Ying was simply being himself either with others in the sunlight or with him in the Library Pavilion.

There was no single moment he could pinpoint where infatuation and curiosity has become more. Leading to him spending all of his free moments thinking about Wei Ying...not just about the man but how much he wanted him.

At first he thought this was wrong, that love should be pure and giving as he had been taught. Not dark with carnal longing...nights when the curve of Wei Ying's jaw or the way he moved provoked dreams that brought shame to his heart and bliss to his soul.

The memory of Wei Ying pushing him off the roof, his arms around his waist and the feel of his skin had been the inspiration for many early dreams. Playing his flute, lips against the instrument his fingers so beautifully playing over the carved holes...leaning back in the grass, his arms stretched wide...There were so many of them.

That night in the pool after the beatings, he had seen almost all of Wei Ying's immaculate, perfect body. The smooth skin over the planes and valleys of his chest...the defined muscle of his hips...the strong shoulder blades...almost all of it. Despite the shame and confusing rush of lust he didn't really understand, Wangji had pressed the memory of that night deep into his heart.

He found himself thinking too often about the length of his thighs, the magnificence of his collarbones and those pert pink nipples standing out sharply in the cold.

Confused by his imaginings and disturbed by the frequency of such thoughts he had tried to ignore them...deny them really and failed. Eventually, he had met returning from a night hunt, a book seller specializing in every type of fiction involving romance. He sold copies to the different Sects and wealthy families, romances stories mostly but while he was browsing his wares, Wangji had not only found an obscure music book that would interest Xichen, but something else.

Similar to the pornography book that Wei Ying had tried to torment him with, except there were no women in the drawings...on any of the pages. Heat had suffused his ears and immediately his mind replaced the image on the page for stunning grey eyes, a smile brighter than the sun and a body that Wangji already worshiped.

At nineteen Wangji had impulsively purchased the copy and had walked back to Gusu, determined to show nothing not even to his brother that could rouse suspicion, convinced that others would know he was carrying a book banned by the Sect, a book that would horrify his family. Once inside the Jingshi he had removed the floorboards and slipped his secret into the specially created hollow.

He had spent the entire day with want pooling at the base of his spine, thinking of that book...of Wei Ying. No one, not his brother or his uncle or even another disciple had made any comment. And that night...he had thought of Wei Ying, a hand on his own cock the book on the bed.

Not a week went by without those images, the carefully mapped sequence of each fantasy making its way into his mind. Year upon year of hopeful yearning, adding more and more to the dreams. In the center was Wei Ying and every single moment spent near him only strengthened the want and the love he felt for this tempestuous soul.

But, for more than a year now desire of any kind had been a distant memory. Beyond honoring his vow to raise their son, Wangji had only focused on surviving the next ten minutes knowing that Wei Ying was gone...on trying to control his feelings enough to play Inquiry or on remembering to breathe when his mind unleashed yet another way, Wei Ying might have died on the Burial Mound.

Wangji hadn't believed that with Wei Ying gone, lost to chaos at least for now, that he could ever feel anything beyond grief. He loved Yuan and felt so proud of the little boy, but his heart was heavy in his chest even when he praised the little one.

The other nights...they began one morning when he and Yuan were sitting on the veranda of the Jingshi, hidden from sight but he had seen a red ribbon. It had been woven into the hair of a guest, a woman vising among a large group from a far smaller Sect from somewhere down South. He paid little attention to the group or the woman herself, only the ribbon. Yuan had been curious and had paused in his attempt to play a simple chord on the guqin, to watch as they passed by.

The ribbon was red and it had been flying in the wind, pulling on her hair.

Wei Ying. A flash of memory...the way the ribbon ends had drifted in the breeze or fluttered like the wings of a bird. Wei Ying tying up his hair...the ribbon slowly loosening as it tried to contain the masses of gorgeous dark waves.  A beautiful mane of dark wavy hair Wangji had spent too many hours admiring...watching fascinated as the ribbon lost the battle to contain the shorter strands, that then framed a staggeringly beautiful face. The man in his mind's eye flicked his hair behind his ear so casually, so seductively that Wangji was lost.

Tonight was the same. Wangji lay back on the bed, several hours into the imposed sleep routine but slumber would not come and nightmares beckoned. He was so tired, worn down to the bone and his heart ached, lying here staring up at the ceiling of the Jingshi. His body craved sleep but his mind and heart craved Wei Ying.

Grey eyes gleamed in the darkness, the flames flickering in those ethereal depths. A ribbon danced among the dark waves falling around his face.

A long, toned body so different from his own, dark hair framing a face so beloved. "Lan Zhan."

A kiss stolen from the lips of a blindfolded Wei Ying...he closed his eyes his hand already traveling down to his hips, parting the folds of his sleeping robe. He was hard and aching thinking about how he pressed Wei Ying into the tree boughs...the taste of his lips so sweet and addicting.

His hips rose as he grasped himself, rubbing as he thought of how Wei Ying had responded...

When he came, his lips were raw and he was breathing hard, one name on his lips...the taste of a kiss and a enrapturing laugh echoing through the branches of the trees.

Chapter Text

The deep resonating chords of the guqin echo mournfully in the late afternoon air.

The nights fell early now in the mountains, darkness enshrouding the Recesses well before sunset was meant to come. It was too early for Inquiry but that would be his next song. This was Sorrow, one of the oldest music scores developed by the Lan Sect and one few mastered.
    
Long elegant fingers danced over the strings, stroking and gliding as the melody rose. The song flowed through the air, dancing in the breeze calling to the souls of the departed, the lost and those cast aside. It cried for one soul, tormented and alone, the blue light of cultivation energy illuminating the dewy grass.

It was a whisper of love and the depth of prayer, calling with hope reassuring with tender hands that safety could be found here.

Sadness lingered but there was power in the notes, carried into the inky depths of the cold sky, to the stars hidden by clouds with the promise of rain. Only few knew the chords of Sorrow, wishes and forgiveness curving around the secrets only two souls knew as the lone figure knelt beneath the shade of an ancient tree.

The white of his robes gleamed in the darkness, the water of the pools rippled as the sound of a heart's despair drifted over the mountains, his finger s ceaseless, gold eyes intent on the strings.

Grey eyes smiled in the distance, a slender, deceptive figure settled on the rooftops. A laugh full of fearless carefree youth echoed from memory. A father carrying his son, with happy pride, long legs dancing on the path, his reward an excited giggle.

A single tear fell from long lashes, to fall onto the strings adding more pain to the melody.

Today was his birthday. The day he would always celebrate as the blessing it was. The day Wei Ying came into this world, the date told to him by chance and never forgotten.

Sorrow is a song that has no fixed end. The repetitions could be played until the end of time, grief as encompassing as the second day waking with the fathomless truth.

Wei Ying's face staring down at him from the tiles of the roof, the halo of stars caressing his skin with sweet light. His dark waves of hair almost loose from the red ribbon, his sleeves no longer hiding toned forearms and the delicate juncture of his wrists. A mouth made red, such a tempting rosy red from the aged wine...

The leaves fall from the tree and he laughs wild and free...so young...so full of mischief and those eyes could call anyone into rapture, a voice that could so easily beguile, distract and enrage. A heart purer than mountain water as he flowed into the stone pools cherished by their people and a mind sharper than any blade with a soul that believed itself unlovable.

Wei Ying. Wei Ying. I'll always love you.

He pays no mind to the two standing in the shadow of the building not far from his home. Gentle eyes filled with worry watching those elegant fingers glide and strum, the heartache so apparent with every note. It pains him that nothing can soothe that broken heart, that the man who so carelessly held his brother's soul had thrown him away so cruelly.  Yet, Lan Zhan plays on praying for him to return one day.

Older eyes of disappointment and grief, judge as he plays knowing that the song is flawless and emotive, calling to a man that was rightfully gone from this world. The demon of a man that holds his nephew's heart even now, but he believes so foolishly that the bonds will break over time.  

Together they watch as a young child walks onto the veranda, his robes immaculate and his ocean eyes fixed as always on his father. The child settles beside Wangji who greets the small boy with a nod that is as tender as it welcoming.

The boy moves closer, carefully away from the sweeping motions of his father's elbow, his eyes fixed on the strings now.

The pair in the shadows say nothing as they watch, seeing their changed Lan Wangji pause and surprise fills them, as he shifts the guqin away slightly. For a moment they believe he would cease playing this ode to a man long dead, a man cursed and damned by all except the tall figure beneath the ancient tree.

One hand pats his knee and the child moves to sit on the lap of his father, to the shock of the pair watching. He is held safely, the white of his new robes blending with the seamless edges of his father's attire, his movements confident. The pair had doubted that the silent man holding the child was capable of doting on the ocean eyed boy, but it is with ease that he reaches for the guqin strings, listening intently to the simple quiet instructions, offered by a rich voice. Larger hands gently position the tiny fingers of youth, with no calluses and a shining heart of wonder now in ocean eyes.

Together father and son begin again, playing the difficult notes of Sorrow. Older hands lifting to allow the younger one to copy the chords, while caressing the strings with his right hand, teaching and guiding.

At each pause and breath, the confidence in the child grows until they begin to play in excellent harmony, the song growing with each breath, more spirits attracted to the melody with each passing moment. Gold eyes watch over the child, one hand holding his tiny waist so he doesn't fall, the other guiding the tune, correcting the faltering passages, praising the deft hands as they play the middle chord together.  

No one completely understands Lan Sizhui. Even Qiren can admit he is an avid learner and his manner is pleasingly quiet and polite. He is clever and has succeeded many that are older than he, aided no doubt by a father few could surpass. It is clear that he listens to Wangji with the ear of one devoted, trying to emulate his father where he can, but unlike Wangji who dislikes interacting with others, Lan Sizhui easily engages with other children.

Xichen was so proud to see the child flourish as he has and there is no doubt that in time he will become a young leader of his generation. Watching him play the guqin with Wangji is a precious sight and he is relieved that the darkness which formed his early years does not torment him now.  Already at the age of five, he had grown beyond expectation, perhaps not yet in height but certainly in his education.

At first Xichen thought that he might not be accepted, considering Wangji's defiance and punishment. The simple fact that his origins were unknown likely to stand in his way, but within a few weeks he formed the bonds of friendship with Lan Jingyi, comforting the other boy he had apparently found crying on the steps. Now, after two years it was as if the child had been born into the Sect, his place set by the Lan family.

Xichen closed his eyes and turned away from the sight of father and son. It was a cherished memory he would keep in his heart. Their uncle sniffed in displeasure no doubt finding error in the moment and turned as well, vanishing into the gloom of the building behind them, unwilling to gaze upon the nephew so changed by Wei Wuxian and the grand-nephew he had gained so recently.

Lan Wangji noted they had left, but he continued, guiding A-Yuan's tiny hands over the strings.

"Father?"

Gold eyes study the crown of his son's head, the hesitation in the hushed question surprising him. "Mn."

"As it is Ma's birthday...can I light a candle in the Ancestor Hall and pray for his safe return?"

Emotion welled in his chest at the offer, the quiet reverent love from a child that remember almost nothing of Wei Ying. "En. I will request Lan Ai take you."

A sweet little nod and for some minutes there is only the call of the strings. "I will go with you next year."

"Thank you Father."

Tonight Wei Ying will not answer his call, but A-Yuan learns what many have needed decades to master. Together they honor a man cherished and missed. Somewhere, Wei Ying will be smiling and his laugh may not be as carefree, but he always found joy in life. Black robes flutter in his memory and grey eyes smile again over the flickering flames. "Lan Zhan...play a tune."

The pair in the shadows watching as father and son play into the late afternoon, one wondering about his mother, one worshiping a man with grey eyes cradled in the core of his heart.

Chapter Text

Black robes whirl around long legs, a red ribbon flutters in the wind.

Leaning against the bamboo, his head tilted those grey eyes watching remorseless and yet...they were warm, gentle in this half light.

Everything is in shades of grey and black, the stars and moonlight concealed by the clouds that promise rain. The richly earthy scent of soil and bamboo still green and young fills his nose as he walks further into the forest.

Eyes now as red as his ribbon watch as he approaches, Chen Qing twirling idly in the loose grip of his fingers. He is half turned away, coy and tempting, one long hand stroking the leaves near his arm, his touch that of a lover.  

It is not the red of his demonic cultivation that sends fear through his heart. It is not the promise of the power he knows lives in this man. No, it is the path deeper into the forest lies behind Wei Ying, a winding route made of stone roughly cut and laid, disappearing off into the distance. "Wei Ying...stay. Please stay."

His voice is somber and tired, grief pressing down on his shoulders, pain in his heart and anger lighting his step. Wei Ying is not angry though, the syllables of his name caressed by that voice, sending shivers down his spine.  "Lan Zhan."

His eyes opened in the pale grey light before dawn, the scent of bamboo and the chill of the forest clinging to his skin, his heart in his throat. It was a dream. With a soft sound, a keening noise heard by no one, he turns onto his side, his left hand reaches for the bell hidden beneath his pillow. He cradles it to his heart as tears escape, running in rivulets of sorrow down his cheek, disappearing into his hair.

The bell gleams even in this muted light and he presses it to his lips.

Wei Ying...Come back...

----

Hours later the breeze touched by the hand of winter, drifts through the ancient courtyard, gathering the fallen leaves that signal the end of the year is approaching.

It is too similar to his dream for his heart to settle, for his mind to truly focus. No one, not even his brother seems to notice that Lan Wangji is distracted, that his heartache robs him of the motivation needed to stand so diligently. His pristine white robes lift to swirl in a gentle dance, his jade Lan Sect token swings away from his hip following the cold air. His long sleeves billow, the material rippling with cold air and the long strands of his hair rise in an elegant wave as gentle as the wings of a black moth.

The ribbon securely tied around his forehead barely moves, as if only the hands of Wei Ying can disturb its careful position. It is his right after all.

The breeze is mild when compared to the one in the dream, he thinks of red and grey, of charcoal black and the drawings on his desk. As he waits, he thinks too of the chords left partially unwritten, a song Wei Ying had begun but never finished, left with the notes scrawled inelegantly over the page. He thinks of adding to it, the melody different to those preferred by the Lan Sect, but the music is not from Gusu, it reflects the brilliant mind of its composer.

It would work for a guqin. It is not one of Wei Ying's more complex songs, the ones he played alone on his flute by the curving tree. He wonders this as the  gathered Elders and attending Seniors, attempt to hold their robes down or try to re-order the white cloth, when the breeze abandons the courtyard for another long moment. Lan Wangji simply remains where he is, an untouchable statue uncaring of the wind or rain.

Unseen, resting against his skin the Yunmeng Jiang Sect bell is warm, carried by Wei Ying and now hidden close to his heart.

He could teach the melody to A-Yuan. It would have pleased Wei Ying, that he was playing something he had written, his cheeks brightening with that rare flash of color, embarrassment there and gone before it could be noticed.

His robes settle easily in place as the wind leaves, his hair falls immaculate against his once wounded back. He is unbowed, power restrained and despite all that has happened he stands here, in this place built by the hands of his ancestors, as if unaffected. This is what Wei Ying would expect.

He will not be considered less by those who murdered his love. He cannot bow to those he once deeply respected and not feel the bitterness in his heart. They called for Wei Ying's death, they prayed for his pain and tried to see his death, delivered by those who wear the robes of this Sect. For the cultivation world, they said. To protect those that the Yiling Patriarch would murder. He suspected it was more to do with glory and political power, should the Lan Sect be victorious.

To the Elders, Wei Ying's death was a blessing.  To him, they are a betrayal of everything they should stand for, a sad mockery of the people he thought he knew.

As they straighten their robes, gold eyes assess each of them with a forbidding stare.

At his side, standing respectfully as he tries to hide his nerves, is Lan Sizhui. He does not try to stand as immobile as his father, but hopes by not reacting as the others have, he will not disappoint his father with untidiness, an outcome he had been warned against this morning by Lan Ai. Gold eyes soften as they stare down at him and his father's nod is reassuring.

Wei Ying would be so proud of the little boy with ocean eyes. Five years old and easily the best of his generation. Of course, Wei Ying would also be defiant standing here, judged by the eyes of those who condemned him, but this is something he cannot afford if he wishes Sizhui to be fully accepted.

To find Wei Ying he has to seek the chaos, to do that he must leave and yet he must also return, for A-Yuan is now his son. This is only possible with the mending of ties, the advice of his brother. He cannot mend what is broken, the threads are frayed but not by his own hands. They chose to hate Wei Ying and they do not, cannot respect his grief, his torment and the pledge he has given a man they despise. 

The skin of his back with wounds weeping as his heart wept, and deeply bruised muscle had healed slowly. The wounds beaten into his back with the rage of cultivation energy and the anger felt by his Sect Elders, slowly but steadily transform into scars.

His uncle refuses to look upon him as he once did. It is a sign to the other Elders that he, Lan Qiren has not forgiven his nephew nor accepted the end of his punishment. Of the thirty two others he defeated to protect Wei Ying, they look at him with varying expressions.

His brother's face is passive, as he sits in the chair designated for the Sect Leader, imposing and proud, but his eyes are gentle as he watches Sizhui, attempt at five years old to remain perfectly still like his father towering above him. At this point, with his brother standing with his son behind him, in the long tradition of the family, it is clear that Sizhui's height barely rises to Wangji's thigh. The reality of it, father and son is not a image he has yet fully accustomed himself to seeing, the sharp joy in his heart that Wangji has a child, has not lessened three and half years on.

Of the thirty one others, some are sternly reproachful or openly distrustful of him. As they should be, the sinful voice of Wei Ying whispers. About time they realized that the world does not bend to them.

No. It bends to you. He whispers back in his mind.

Others are vaguely welcoming, aware perhaps that the official forgiveness of the Sect Leader has already been granted and Xichen cannot be moved on the subject of his brother. Or else they consider that the punishment he endured was enough, to forgive the insult and injury he dealt them far too easily.

He is one of the best. It is not a status he cares much for. His skills however vaunted were not enough to protect Wei Ying. They have not yet called forward his soul nor, were they enough to hide away his love when the enemy came demanding his blood in recompense.

Wei Ying is power and whiplash temper. He is the one who innovates and sends the shudders of impact through the cultivation world. Wangji is one who failed him.

Still, he is aware enough that he can defeat all in this room except for his brother, even in his weakened state.

"As your cultivation energy is weakened..." One of the Elders states in a cold tone. He is one who dislikes that Wangji remains not as a humble disciple, but stands more as a warrior undefeated and steadfast.

"We as your Elders, will need to test your abilities."

They expect him to be less able now that his seclusion has ended. They expect him to be depleted in cultivation energy and weaker than before, expect too that someone other than Xichen will need to aid him. Wangji decided upon hearing of this gift of aid, veiled as its own form of humiliation that he will prove them wrong. He would bring shame to Wei Ying, if he does not.

He bows not in deference, but in simple agreement. Xichen's eyes implore him to be careful and reassure that he has his support.

For the next hour they attempt to test his strength. The blue fire of his cultivation energy is by no means diminished, fueled by the promise of meeting Wei Ying again, supported by his dedication and calm mind.

He defeats the Senior, Lan Ming within eleven moves. His fellow disciple is well trained but Wei Ying had moved with the speed of a cobra, using techniques that were foreign to the Lan Sect. Wangji is too experienced and far too calculating even weakened, his responses ruthless and well-timed.

Sizhui stares at his father in awe, watching him wield BiChen with deft hands, blue energy and staggeringly steady movements that push the other disciple to the floor after three minutes.

Gold eyes look down at him with an unimpressed expression. "Feet are unsteady." He reproaches and then returns to stand at the opening of the courtyard relishing in the laugh he can hear dancing through his memory.

Sizhui wobbles and Wangji steadies him easily with a single hand. The gesture is one of a caring father and Xichen smiles, eyes still holding worry for his brother.

The tests then continue, exercise after exercise with the determination to see Wangji fail or succeed. After the hour has passed, sweat is dripping down his newly scarred back, humiliating and uncomfortable. Sizhui is tired but resolute behind his father and even the Elders who choose to hold onto their offense cannot find fault in his display.

The conclusion is obvious. The punishment has either not worked for the first time in the history of their Sect, or and this the explanation they choose to accept, Lan Wangji is a superior cultivator and has used the time in seclusion to his benefit.

"Lan Wangji, you are hereby released from seclusion."

----

The long notes of Inquiry drift through the Recesses, the call of Wei Ying, never fading.

Chapter Text

Grief is a storm of feeling that never lessens in power.

In the days following the end of his seclusion, he finds himself unexpectedly restless now that he is free to move within the Recesses.
As one day becomes another, he falls into a pattern caught between nights of sleeplessness and others nights filled with nightmares, all of them centering around Wei Ying, his death and the times before the Siege, where he had failed his love.

During the day light hours, his mind cannot concentrate constantly distracted by memories and the thin facade of normality, hiding the difficulties the Cloud Recesses are experiencing.There is pressure building around their haven in the Clouds, demands for the Lan Sect to rise again above the others, to stand as a reliable, responsible and admirable Sect. The cultivation world expects Xichen to act as a guiding force, in the rebuilding of the cultivation world, adding support to Jin Guang Yao as the overall leader of the cultivation Sects.

He learns that the world has changed greatly while he was healing. But, it does not seem strange to him, that life could so easily reshape itself in such a small amount of time. His world has so easily been reshaped. His mother's death, meeting Wei Ying, The Sun-Shot Campaign...scores of changes that nearly destroyed the cultivation world...his world. Out of all that has happened, two things stand out. 

He is a father now and Wei Ying is still gone from this world.

In the end only those two things are truly of any value to him. His brother and Uncle remain much the same, as do the Recesses in many ways. The changes he had witnesses before, such as the burning of Gusu... those scars have already been replaced with deeper, more painful wounds.

Buildings can, as he learned be replaced, the memories untouched as time carries on. The desk where he sat opposite Wei Ying... watching as he worked copying the rules and silently marveled when his head slipped from his hand, boredom slowly edging into sleep... That desk burned in the fire set by the Wen Sect. The Library, his sanctuary and the only place truly blessed with memories of Wei Ying, was gone.

Yet, every place in Gusu held some memory of him. The tree where he sat among the branches playing his flute...the steps where he laughed with Jiang Cheng...the wall where he often returned after curfew...the rooftop where he usually lay looking a the stars...

He was here for so little time when he thinks of it, but everywhere he looks reminds him of Wei Ying. It is torment and it is comfort in a strange way.

What difference is the political landscape through the rise and tragic demise of so many Sects? Before he would have said that such a thing would have devastating consequences, but now he understands only too clearly that these are the people who tried to end Wei Ying. These are the people struggling to find common ground, but agreeing on one subject in particular. Wei Ying's death.  

His salvation is A-Yuan. The little boy growing steadily before his eyes, bringing with it the wonderful pride that he is alive and safe, tempered only by the scathing realization that Wei Ying is not here to see him grow. Wei Ying is not here with his son, as Yuan takes his first few steps on the journey of cultivation, to hear his first attempts playing the guqin or to watch him play in the sunlight with the rabbits.

Wei Ying would be incredibly proud of him. Their son aged five years had become the youngest member of the formal class, despite many seeing him as too young. Even Uncle was forced to admit that Wangji had adopted a clever, polite and diligent son. The highest praise that he would give A-Yuan or any student.

There are whispers as there always have been, but he ignores them, or else he fears what he might do. Contrary to their words, he does not see him as a responsibility, a legacy or anything other than Wei Ying's little boy. His son.

Regardless of his heavy heart, of the grief that aches with every breath, the regret he would never stop carrying and the endless waves of guilt for not being better, he will not become his father. It is a promise to himself, to A-Yuan and to Wei Ying, that even now Yuan has joined formal education, he will always be Yuan's primary support.

Others, even his own brother to a degree, are unsure if he will continue as a parent. Many in the Sect, after their child joins the many halls of cultivation training, rarely interact with them. The communal meal tables are often the only time they speak with their parents or if punishment is decided and then the father stands as head of the family. This role is simply a title, formal and often devoid of affection.

This is not always the case. Some children remain close to their parents, but there is always that distance. Never more felt than with his own father. He was a stranger in many ways, loved but not physically there. Known but not understood.

It was Mother who remained the parent figure for both sons, with Qiren as their main role model and instructor as they aged. But, Wei Ying would be horrified if Yuan was left alone. He would be furious and no rules would keep him from interacting with his son. He could easily imagine Wei Ying sitting in on the lessons, causing endless trouble.

It is with a sudden painful clench of his heart that he realizes that he would to anything to have him here, causing trouble, flouting rules...blessedly, powerfully alive, his laugh ringing in the courtyard...

Each day now, he finds himself thinking of what Wei Ying would say or do in response to something. His voice with its many tones, his grey eyes with endless expressions...

His dreams tear his heart open, his fingers bloodied from the guqin strings hidden in his sleeves, all tell of his pain. But he will not burden Yuan with this. His own father made his grief and regret all too clear, leaving Wangji to wonder if he cared about his sons, if they meant anything to him. He will not allow Yuan to think the same.

His son will not sit alone wondering if he is liked or loved by the adult named as his father.

In the days following the Burial Mound, it is the little boy with ocean eyes keeping Wangji afloat in this bitter icy river. He is now a Lan, he is family and his son, but Wangji does not wish to lose the toddler who held his calf or the happy, carefree baby in Wei Ying's arms. He wishes for him to find his sense of self, to grow and learn, to find home here in Gusu, but Yuan is the child of the man he loves.

There is Wei Ying in his smile, reminding him of the soft curl of lips the color of pale pink orchids. He still gives thanks in the Yunmeng dialect and loves flute music, though he wishes to learn the guqin first. Wangji suspects he might be too afraid to disappoint Brother or that possibly, the sound is one of grief. He does not remember Wei Ying or the family murdered around him, but that does not mean his heart does not know, that the ones he loved were ripped from his life cruelly.

He enjoys drawing and loquats, his tiny hand making slight flourishes to his sketches of flowers or the rabbits, just like Wei Ying.

He flushes a deep red though when Wangji shows these drawings proudly to Xichen, amusing him as Wei Ying would never have blushed. His brother smiles as he takes the parchment, eyes skimming over the orchid flower in genuine delight, "He draws so well. Our little Sizhui is very talented!"

It is the voice of Wei Ying that sets his heart aflame, "Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! Look. It's a rabbit." It is the knowledge that Wei Ying would have been sitting on the floor, heedless of the rules, drawing with Yuan for hours, charcoal staining his fingers as they created artwork together. Yuan would have laughed, calling Ma! Xian Ge Ge! when Wei Ying hugged him or used the slightest cultivation energy to make the cut out drawings dance to a silent song.  

How can a child with no memory and not a drop of Wei Ying's blood, possess so many of his characteristics? Yuan will help anyone often not caring about himself in the process, exactly like Wei Ying. He is kind like Wei Ying, but has a gentleness that Wei Ying did not have. A sweetness, an innocence that Wei Ying never had the chance to know.

Life had been cruel to Wei Ying, in many different ways for his entire lifetime. Cruelty had touched Yuan as well, but now he had no memory he was freed from those dark times free to think of the future with no understanding of the past. It was a blessing in some way, allowing him to forge a better relationship with food, with sharing and he seemed to finally feel safe enough to leave Wangji's side.

That he did not remember famine and fear, the murders he no doubt witnessed...Wei Ying telling him to hide.

That day preparing lunch when Yuan had told him that, with the innocence of a three year old, that Xian Ge Ge told him to hide, to be quiet. That Xian Ge Ge said, "Hide A-Yuan. Xian Ge Ge will come get you. Won't let them find you." 

The child's confused, plaintive voice saying, "Xian Ge Ge didn't come back."

Those were the last words anyone had heard from the lips of Wei Ying. He was so wounded, so tired...but he protected A-Yuan, gave his son a chance at survival. Did he know Wangji would come?

Losing those memories, tore Wei Ying from his mind, but not his heart.

This is the year he notices the most changes. Yuan has more energy, his vocabulary has improved vastly, surprising most of the adults he interacts with. He recognizes and can copy shapes, recite several rules and has taken to his early martial arts training with excitement. He will, without any doubt become one the best Lan Sect disciples.

Unlike Wei Ying. Wei Ying took great joy in not being an ideal Lan student.

The cup in his hand was from the same set he had once used to offer Wei Ying tea in the Library Pavilion. There were white blossoms and a small crane painted onto each cup. Wei Ying had liked the pattern, he remembered a smile as brilliant as sunlight  had stolen his breath when he had presented the steaming cup to the mischievous man.  

Blossoms fell like snow, gathering on the rocky ground as a sea of gentle pinks. Black boots nimbly twirled in a circle of five steps, the sound of the flute filling the air around mountain with an uplifting melody. It made him think of spring mornings and the flight of the cranes over the lake deep in the mountains. The rushing water of the pools and an empowering sense of hope.

A graceful turn, strong shoulders lifting as long fingers danced over the carefully carved holes, as grey eyes shone in the sunlight. He was playing to the trees and the souls of the mountainside, joy twirling through the song, the bright red tassel swaying as he moved.

The song was from Yunmeng, rising in joyous sound and the falling to quiet chords, the blossoms raining down on his stunning hair, the strands moving in the slight breeze like the waves of the sea. It was the type of song he only played alone and he wondered now, how many of those melodies were written by Wei Ying himself.

"Wangji?"

Gold eyes lift from the tea cup cradled in his hands and met the concerned deepest amethyst eyes of his elder brother.

Those eyes had worried for him over his lifetime and the way his brother held his own cup, spoke of some disquiet. It was always in the smallest gestures and the words that were not said that spoke the volumes they needed to convey. His voice ever gentle said, "Uncle told me this morning, that you intend to return to your duties this week."

Everything about his brother suggested support and yet concern. Wangji knew that the man opposite him, sitting in the grey light of the ever darkening sky with the clouds over them promising rain, was concerned for his health and for the stability of Lan Yuan.

His brother was devoted to his son, in ways he had not expected. He knew that Xichen would accept Yuan eventually, willing to protect the child whether he became a Lan or not. That was his Brother, always unable to turn away those in need, a hand held out to those in pain.

Which was the precise reason that he could not understand why Xichen had chosen to aid those seeking Wei Ying's death.

For him, it was a wound that could not heal, a question that would never be asked aloud and so, would never have an answer.  Perhaps, if he had brought Wei Ying here, before all the pain and death, perhaps Xichen would have sheltered him. Perhaps not.

Xichen did not and would not see that Wei Ying needed saving. In Xichen's eyes he was neither weak nor repentant and so, those elegant hands that helped so many, were not offered to the man he loved.

Lan Yuan though...Wei Ying's son was now beloved by his brother. He had witnessed him sitting before a desk, teaching Yuan the secrets of calligraphy with a small brush and copious amounts of ink. He recommended books and commended him on his good behavior, tirelessly watching over both of them, brother and nephew.

"Mn."

"Does this include night hunting?" Xichen asked softly, pouring them both another cup from the pot between them.

"En."

"Are you sure that it is a good idea?"

A dark brow rose curving above gold eyes dulled by pain and grief, the only true sign on the face of purest jade of the burdens he carried. Xichen wished he could ease that pain and feared that his brother may withdraw from all of them, even A-Yuan.

"Yuan has only just begun formal education."

For a moment, gold eyes brightened with the pride and love of a father and the sonorous voice that so many loved, was tinged with pride when he said, "Head of his class."

Xichen smiled softly, thinking of the diligent child sitting with near perfect posture at the head of the class, his attention fixed on Uncle. He stared at his brother, weighed down with grief and wondered how he could ease the burden, a question that remained at the forefront of his mind every day for three years.

Every action seemed to carry the echo of pain, from the way Wangji poured the tea to the bruised and scarred fingers. To judge on his posture one would not immediately know that he had been grievously wounded, languishing in blood soaked sheets, too weak to rise only a short time ago. A century would not be long enough for him to forget the sight of his brother lying on the floor of Jingshi, almost lost to them.

His robes were immaculate and not a strand of hair was out of place. But in those gold eyes, Xichen saw the truth. The shattered heart and weary soul. He could read the sleepless nights in the blue rings around his eyes, the pain in the set of his shoulders.

His little brother had always been strong, but now that indomitable strength was failing and it frightened him as nothing else could.

Yuan had been the only element of Wangji's life that held any true interest. If night hunting could help, as dangerous as that might be, his brother would have his support.

"I will watch over him, while you are gone." He offered and met the gold eyes now staring at him questioningly.

"I simply ask, that you join some of the other Seniors in teaching the younger generation. This time with Yuan has shown, that you are an excellent teacher and it will be good for Yuan to have your presence in the classrooms."

His argument would be difficult to refute, without rejecting Yuan in some way.

Wangji nodded eventually. "En."

Chapter Text

Silver light gleamed in the darkness as Bichen swung through the air.

The ghoul fell to the earth as a pair of white boots landed gracefully on the rain soaked land, sheltered only partially by the forest that lay behind them.

The scent of the rain and the whisper of the trees were the only sounds beyond the battle raging between the fierce corpses and the lone cultivator.

Others feared the corpses but they were no match for the power level and experience of Lan Wangji.

Bichen arched through the air, covering the small distance between himself and the next ghoul, powered as much by his rage as it was by cultivation energy. Here, he could release the anger burning in his chest. Here in this fight he could use the weapons at his disposal to end the onslaught.

It did nothing to ease the pain of his heart.

Wei Ying would have laughed. He could hear it still, ringing through his memory as loud and as beautiful as the first day he had heard the sound of it, piercing the quiet of the Library.

He dropped a talisman to the ground to seal and destroy the remains, before turning to meet the attack from the next ghoul, tearing through the branches. Bichen reappeared at his hand and he blocked the oncoming attack easily, tipping his hand to throw the blade at the ghoul leaping from the tree branches.

As he spun avoiding the next attack, he removed the guqin from his back, each movement graceful and efficient. The strings vibrated with energy and a low strumming sound rang out over the clearing, before power erupted with the casual flick of callused fingers transformed into a blue wave of energy.

It struck the remaining ghouls with considerable force, obliterating the physical form they held. It was the work of a minute to throw the appropriate talismans onto the remnants, sealing then destroying the remains.

A white ribbon rose in the air, as chasing the breeze. The quiet returned and with it, a soft sigh could be heard, breathed from a chest aching with loss.

----

The scent of spice will always remind him of Wei Ying.

There are three chilies floating in the warm broth, watched intently by gold eyes, as if a demon might rise from the depths.

Lan Wangji takes another mouthful of a traditional tofu and rice dish, as he watches the chilies drift from one side to the other, like the boats in Yunmeng across to the Lotus Pier.

The innkeeper smiled at him and he nodded politely, the vivid blue of her dress standing out against the dark wood of the tables and seats. Despite their gratitude for his swift work, dispatching the ghouls, there was some apprehension when they recognized the Lan Sect robes. They had been expecting one of the cultivators from the smaller sects in the area... the ones who refused to aid them against the ghouls.

They feared that the fierce corpses were the work of Wei Ying.

He had come for that very reason, the whisper that a demonic cultivator was working in the area, carrying him much further than he had intended to travel. He had to check that it was not Wei Ying, even knowing that Wei Ying would never have been so disorganized. If he had been aware of the crimes, the demonic cultivator in question had committed, he would not have undertaken the journey, from his original night hunt.

As it was, he had arrived too late. The demonic cultivator had already left this area and then within an hour of his arrival, news that had reached this town, proclaiming that another Sect had captured the demonic cultivator.

It was not Wei Ying as he had suspected, but a man from the nearest city now imprisoned by the Jin Sect for his crimes. He murdered three young women and attempted to control them as Wei Ying once had. It had been apparently a partial and violent success.

Wei Ying would have been angered by this and likely ended the man's life for committing murder in the first place. An irony, but the core of Wei Ying's values. He would use the dead relentlessly but would never have broken into someone's home, to rape and murder a person in their own bed.

A beautiful face with eyes as cold as winter in Gusu. A malicious smirk and the ominous dark power curling around a beloved form.

No. He would have hunted the man down and killed him in revenge for those slain.

Sipping his tea he looked around the room, glancing at each of the customers, the evident regulars and the travelers passing through.

Wei Ying would find the silence at this table stifling and would no doubt find his chosen meal devoid of flavor, preferring the eye-watering spices that dye the dishes of his home a vivid red.  In Yunmeng he had witnessed many eating hot pot, the broth a deep red reminiscent of the blood pool in Yiling.

Wei Ying.

Chopsticks nimbly dipped meat or tofu into the broth, the scent of the spice enough to bring tears to his eyes. Elegant hands offering him meats or vegetables to try, the floating chilies in vibrant reds and oranges an endless fascination, the sheer quantity of them almost mythical.

That dish he had favored before...dried chilies drowning the beans in another red sauce. Glass noodles in copper orange broth, pungent and spicy with liberal use of garlic and sesame. The side offering of yogurt a true blessing, but nothing can cool the broad bean chili paste expect perhaps death.

Another of his favorites; the eye watering pungent lotus, chili and black bean soup...

He would eat chilies raw or ten of those pots filled with steaming chili soup if he stood a chance of seeing Wei Ying laughing over a bowl of red broth, his grey eyes glittering in the shade.

The mountains of Gusu were not known for spice. Many in the Lan Sect considered spice to have a damaging effect on cultivation, but he had found his proof in Wei Ying. The dishes of red heat had not diminished the power of his cultivation and the expression on his face as he enjoyed a meal, was its own breathtaking gift. He would laugh and flirt, grey eyes sparkling.

"This is flavor Lan Zhan!"

Like others of his Sect, he had no taste for spice either, but here in this simple restaurant, he realized that it was not enough to remember Wei Ying.

He wanted to experience.

In seclusion he had revisited so many moments, sharing time with the man he loved and through this, his silent devotion that he would forever regret, he knew things about Wei Ying that he doubted many knew.

Wei Ying loved spice and lotus seeds. He loved watching the stars and walking through forests dripping with raindrops. He loved sitting on the highest peaks and the lofty branches, surveying the world at his feet.

A cautious hand dipped his chopsticks into the broth. He had that moment as if standing on the very edge of a mountain ravine, knowing that single step could very well end in death. He had moment and like all moments where he should fear, he did not.

The tofu piece he selected rose from the steaming bowl and across the table, the phantom of Wei Ying grinned at him.

It was fire. His mouth burned as if he were chewing a red hot ember. His eyes watered and his throat constricted, only his iron strength control prevented him from choking or outright crying. His gold eyes widened and the tears shone, but his face betrayed no other expression of discomfort.

How did Wei Ying enjoy this? Why did he enjoy the red dishes, if fire was his only reward? Nutrition could be found in a variety of sources without the need for pain, for this burning torment.

He swallowed quickly, his mouth aflame.

The bowl still sat before him, the chilies continuing to float. He clenched his hand and did not make the mistake of reaching for the tea, experience suggesting that water would only make the sensation worse.

After the fourth time, his mouth was completely numb, the food flavorless. But despite this, he felt...comfort.

Wei Ying would have liked this dish, would have enjoyed the lively chatter around them and the music, a erhu being played however, badly by the front of the restaurant. He would have said that it gave the place 'atmosphere'.

Putting the chopsticks down for a moment he thought of Wei Ying, idly sitting in the chair, making a comment or two about the erhu player and the people around them.

He wanted to experience everything that Wei Ying enjoyed. He needed that sense of closeness, the knowledge that Wei Ying would have done the same, reached for those things and maybe...one day he would understand.

You didn't understand him.

The words Brother had said while he was fevered, remained haunting his every step. There was so much about Wei Ying he didn't understand. How would he prevent himself from making the same mistakes, driving Wei Ying away from him each time if he didn't try and understand? When Wei Ying returned, he wanted to be there for him.

It did not matter if Wei Ying would never return his love. His friendship was more than what he deserved, but even his anger, his hate was a gift to him now. If he was alive to hate him, it would be a blessing enough.

He would remain by his side for the rest of his life. Protect him as he had failed to do so before. He would know his every need and desire, so that Wei Ying would never have to struggle alone again.

He rose from the table and paid for his meal, his tongue still numb.  As he left the restaurant though, he was filled with the warmth from the spice and the heady feeling of love so strong not even death could dampen its strength.

In the room overlooking the fields behind the inn, he settled on the floor. Unwrapping his guqin, he considered that it was a good thing Yuan did not favor spice.

He laid the instrument on his lap and began to play, the chords of Inquiry filling the air around him, the pull of power calling to every spirit. A heart calling for Wei Ying to answer.

Chapter Text

The dog is a sacred and often cherished animal.

A Shar Pei was sitting not a foot from him, half hidden in the shadows of the room. It was  only the second time he had ever seen such a dog, as animals not native to the area of Gusu were forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. The first one he remembered, was the beloved pet of Jin Zixuan, often left at the foot of Gusu Mountain while his owner was studying within the walls.

They are a compact dog in comparison to others he had seen and medium-sized. The wrinkly folds of bristly loose skin around it's head were light brown in color, it's face held a scowling expression and it's tongue was an interesting shade of bluish black.

Everything about it would have terrified Wei Ying.

It was always a disturbing thing, that such a man even at a young age was so proficient, daring and endlessly reckless, could be be so afraid of a creature that he could destroy in seconds. Especially at the height of his status as the Yiling Patriarch.

Resentful energy, years of high cultivation, remarkable reflexes and a prowess with weapons that few could achieve. Even,  he thought at one hundred years of age, but skills present in a boy of fifteen. He invented talismans, controlled hordes of corpses and had an understanding of the world that Wangji marveled at.

All of that and he was still afraid of dogs.

The color was different, but it was very much the same as Jin Zixuan's pet he mused looking at it carefully. He could remember so clearly, the complete terror on that beautiful face. It hurt to think of it. That fear.

It made him wonder if his face had held that expression when his life was ripped away.

He bowed his head as pain made itself known, raw and aching at the thought. For five years now, he had wondered, dreamed and endlessly tormented himself with the possible ways Wei Ying had died. The stories retold sharing different elements each time, but one thing was consistent. Wei Ying had died in terrible pain. Ripped apart by his corpses, destroyed by the explosive breaking of the Seal or murdered by Jiang Cheng.

The dog moved attracting his attention away from the excruciating thoughts.

He sipped his tea but tasted nothing, the warmth and cheer of the tavern grating on his nerves, rubbed raw by the memories and the recent news that Jiang Cheng had captured several demonic cultivators. They were tortured and then publicly executed for crimes against the cultivation world.

What would he do to Wei Ying?

The Shar Pei bared its teeth as someone, a young man carrying  tray of piu jiu who came a little too close to the table. The man didn't notice and hurried on, handing out cups and jars to the waiting customers.

Wangji frowned and sipped his tea once more. He had nothing against dogs or any creature of the living world. Each deserved a chance at life and fear was no reason to take life either, a lesson he had learned from the endless poems and stories in the old library. But, he had to admit he could see why Wei Ying had preferred rabbits.

The Shar Pei that night had been no different. Perhaps even more aggressive.

Wei Ying's reaction had been such a shock. He had been there at the time, waiting for Wei Ying, knowing that the other boy was sneaking back inside past curfew. He would never admit it even to himself, but watching Wei Ying perform such acrobatics was his main motivation for waiting, the way his body so fluidly moved, the graceful arc as he leapt into the air...

Faster than the strike of a snake, as nimble as a fox Wei Ying could scale any building, soar across rooftops and land so lightly, that no one unless you happened to be watching would suspect he had ever been airborne.

He stared down into his soup as he remembered. The aerial twists as a graceful as a koi moving through water, the easy slide of his feet so soundless on a rooftop or on the grass. He was silent and he moved so smoothly, with the moonlight so beautifully illuminating his devilish smile, the gleam of his hair...the sparkle of his grey eyes.

That night was different. He had appeared as expected on the wall, so suddenly it was as if he had always been there. Then he would as he had before, land on the grass so effortlessly, walk the five steps necessary and then swing himself so flawlessly onto the roof.

Where he, Lan Wangji was waiting.

The dog obviously discontent at being left once more at the foot of the mountain had shattered the quiet of the night by barking loudly.

Wei Ying had frozen mid-step, body twisted unnaturally and for the first time had nearly fallen. From his vantage point he had clearly seen, in the bright light of the summer moon, the terror in his handsome face.

It had stabbed through his heart like a well honed knife. That expression of agonizing terror in eyes that saw no issue in dangers anyone else would fear.

Then he had bolted, a keening sound of pure panic from a throat that gave the world the song of Wei Ying's voice, the ringing laughter and richly accented speaking tones, Wangji had memorized.

The dog tore through the undergrowth aiming for Wei Ying, who launched not at the roof where Wangji had been waiting, but for the nearest tree. The long fingered hand had nearly missed the branch in his panic, slipping from his grasp, but the fear propelled him to use those acrobatic skills. He had hauled himself up into the more dangerous branches of the tree, climbing as high as he could to get away from the dog.

Panicked cries and harsh breathing could be heard below the barking and howling of the dog chasing him. Those sharp teeth had missed Wei Ying's leg by a hair's breath!

The decision to move, to leave the roof and the rigidity of the rules was one done without thought, his heart in his throat the longer Wei Ying clings to the tree branch, trembling so violently he could see it clearly from where he was.

Wei Ying's fear pulls from him a need, not a desire or a kindness, a need as deep as his bones to protect him.

The dog had nearly bitten him. If he was afraid before the bite, how much worse would it be if those teeth had buried sharp canines in  flesh?

The noise had attracted several other patrolling disciples, yet he had not thought twice about distracting them from the tree where Wei Ying was recovering...

The dog in the present, makes a snuffling noise and a high whine that makes Wangji frown again. His owner, a cultivator sitting in a group that had recently left Gusu, from what he could understand of their conversation, looked down his pet. It was a noise of distress, but the older man chastises the dog quietly. A quick gesture and the dog lies down beneath the table, but the conversation never ceases and no one else pays any attention to the animal.

He wonders if the idea of a dog beneath the table would terrify him more. It is likely that Wei Ying was bitten or attacked without injury as a child rendering him forever afraid of the animal. Even the word brought fear to his eyes.

The following day after the incident Wei Ying had seemed fine...until someone had mentioned the word dog, gossiping about Jin Zixuan's punishment. He had frozen in his seat his body caught between sitting and rising in panic, wild eyes looking everywhere for the creature that tormented his thoughts. No one else had noticed, not even Jiang Cheng.

He had not thought twice about admonishing the other cultivators for gossiping which was forbidden in the Recesses or from pointing out at a louder volume that his normal speaking voice, that the dog had been removed.

The relief on Wei Ying's face was worth the heat of embarrassment for speaking out and for this unfathomable need to soothe that fear away. His own relief when Wei Ying returned to his usual self, was not something he wished at the time to think on too deeply.

He should have, Wangji thought. He should have asked if he was alright, making it clear that someone worried for him, that he was not alone.

That would always be his regret.

After chasing the dog off that night for apparently breaking the silence of the Cloud Recesses, he had assumed that Wei Ying would have left the tree, not wishing to be caught for breaking several rules.

If he approached he had no idea what to say, the desire to comfort restrained by the knowledge that Wei Ying's pride would be hurt by any attempt to offer him aid. So he had watched as the other boy had perched high in the tree for a good ten minutes upon his return, still shaking.

Then in a moment of nervous energy, Wei Ying had employed those acrobatics skills to test the power of gravity. He had stepped onto the weaker branches and jumped, twisting high in the air to land, just barely on the rooftop.

His breath had caught in his throat. Fear that Wei Ying would fall, gripping him by the heart and by the mind, but he made no move to catch him as he sprinted across the rooftop and then out of sight.

The memory of his dark hair rising into the air, the ribbon barely holding the long waves...the way his body had stretched...his long legs bracing to absorb the shock of impact, the graceful dip as he righted himself, a hair breath from the edge of the roof and possible injury.

He never mentioned it to anyone, but tucked the memory close to his heart.

Did his face hold that same expression of fear when he was killed? Did terror rise in those perfect grey eyes as it did that night?

"Sir?"

The voice startles him from his thoughts but his face betrays nothing as he looks up. The tavern owner nods at him, wiping her hands on a clean cloth, "Your order is ready."

He thanks her and rising from the table. While paying for his meal, he collects the two large jars waiting for him on the long scarred wooden counter. Living so close to Gusu, they probably were aware that the Recesses prohibited alcohol, but no one commented or questioned.

How many times in the short while Wei Ying had been here, had he come to this small tavern to collect with what money he had, these very same jars? How many did he drink?

He decided it didn't really matter. After all, he had first met Wei Ying sneaking back into the Recesses, holding two of these jars.

"It's Emperor's Smile! I'll give you one jar. Can you pretend you never saw me?"

He pays for the order calmly and mostly tunes out the chatter at the bar, the conversations behind him, but holds himself still when the tavern owner brags, "Even the Yiling Patriarch enjoyed our jars! I sold him several when he was here!"

Another one, a older man shouts, "No you didn't! What would the Yiling Patriarch be doing here!"

Studying, breaking rules with hordes of young women and one Lan Sect disciple falling in love with him. He punched the owner of the dog who tormented him over slandering his sister...then he was gone.

I missed him and pretended even to myself that I didn't.

He keeps his face still as he collects the two jars and turns for the door, ignoring everyone but he looks back just before he leaves at the Shar Pei.

When he comes back, he thinks, I'll make sure he never has fear being bitten again.

The walk back to Gusu is quiet, but he doesn't head for the main gate and the sanctuary of the Jingshi just yet. It is late, sometime after ten pm. If he goes home now, he too will be sneaking back in with two jars of illegal alcohol.

The last time he had brought these back, he had for the experience done precisely that. No one asked and no one discovered him either, making him wonder how many times Wei Ying had entered uninterrupted with his stash.

It amused him now, when before the idea would have irritated him, that this beautiful boy could break so many rules and disrupt so many of the things Wangji used for structure in his life.

Now he wished he could see him sneaking back in once more.

Decades on and so many life altering situations later, he thought Wei Ying would probably not caught at all if he tried now.

That was one thing he was glad Wei Ying was not teaching Yuan.

If his son wanted to try alcohol later, when he was far older and wiser...then like his father before him, he would not interfere. Wei Ying loved Emperor's Smile and strong drink in general as well as strong spice.

Yuan might as well. but that was a worry for later. When Yuan was fifteen perhaps and pushing boundaries, just Wei Ying did back then.

Unlike most of the students himself included, he thought as he took a lesser known pathway into the forest. Unlike them, Wei Ying knew exactly who he was at fifteen. He had a supreme sense of self, unchanged even at the height of his dark pathway and harsh choices. Wei Ying at fifteen was not entirely innocent and already inured to the painful world around him.

He had been raised  but not nurtured. He loved his siblings but spent considerable time shaping himself into the cultivator he wanted to be, that ultimately Wangji thought, was far better than the ones round him. To the jealousy of people like Jiang Cheng.

For all his faults, Wei Ying shone brightly, a gemstone in the cultivation world. That gleam and shine, the flashes of fire in the brilliant stone...that was Wei Ying.

He had voracious appetite for knowledge, but only what interested him. Thankfully his son...their son was calmer and diligent in his studies, learning all and not just the parts that kept his attention.

It was different he thought. Wei Ying was unique.

He sat down at the base of a tree, placing the jars to his left  and balanced his guqin on his lap. He stroked the jars, feeling the rough pottery beneath his fingertips, the cloth so red it reminded him painfully of a hair ribbon...the binds that long fingered hands pulled free eagerly.

With the memories gathered around him, he began to play, laying his heart on the strings as he had every night for five years.

It was Inquiry.

Chapter Text

The magnolia blossoms were gathered on every branch around him, seated as he was at the base of the ancient tree.

It was a place Wei Ying would have liked, he decided staring out over the vast valley that stretched below this steep rise, sweeping into the next mountain ridge, swathed with clouds.

He would come here again soon and play Inquiry to this valley, a place that was special in the heart of both the Twin Jades. Here was their own little haven, owned by all but beloved by them.

This towering tree gnarled and twisted had seen moments of silence, of strife and of the bond that only brothers can know. Brothers aged beyond their time, hurt by grief, by the sting of abandonment and yet the man they called father stands so near, but so far away. They decided their path here, strengthening themselves against the strain, the weight tipped onto shoulders too young to truly understand.

In the brisk air of the morning creeping yet closer to midday, it was too witness heartache too.

"I thought this would please you Brother." Xichen said softly breaking the silence between them, a small frown forming on his usually serene expression.

He didn't understand by why would he? Xichen didn't love Wei Ying, didn't marvel at that brilliant mind even as he stood against his demonic path.

The younger of the Jades stared down at the tea set on the thin stone table, positioned below the overhanging branches of the flowering tree. They were far from prying eyes but close enough. It was Xichen's oldest tea set, a tradition between them now after so many years and one of the few that survived the Wen Sect attack.

The white of the cups and teapot gleamed still, but the mountains of Gusu painted in once vibrant dark blue had faded over time to a softer shade.

This ritual should be comforting, two brothers simply sharing each other's company and the easy flow of words touching upon whatever topic was needed that day.

But today, there was a storm in his chest, violent and loud as his heart beat to the song of anger and indignity placed not on his shoulders, but heaped on the hands of the man slain in the name of revenge. Wei Ying.

The anger made it harder to breathe and the words caught in his throat, trapped and swarming like a thousand bees. "No!" He gasped in his anger, startling his brother.

"They...wanted his death." He tried forcing the words from his throat.

"Why must they take from him?" He demanded staring up at Xichen. "This takes from him!"

"It is not known if Wei Wuxian..." Xichen tried but Wangji was not content.

"I was there!" He said tersely, breaking the code between them by interrupting, a code of respect and patience.

"Where?" Xichen asked, his tone a little sharper.

"In the Library...He drew it there." Wangji replied his fingers curled around the parchment, as if he wanted to cradle the talisman drawn on the surface to his very heart.

"I scolded him." Wangji whispered, every word was drenched in shame and regret.

On the table between them was the echo of Wei Ying in an entirely different form.

The talisman was drawn in black on standard parchment, the lines of the array altered just so, allowing for something called Evil Summoning.

This was the core of the argument. Others such as the Jin Sect were taking credit for Wei Ying's work and now, the Lan Sect were trying to do the same.

Why? Because, he thought savagely, the cultivation world could not deny the genius of Wei Ying. They attempted to write him from the records, but he had proven so many things were failures and more than that, he had soared high above others in cultivation.

He may have studied and devoted himself to the demonic path, but Wei Ying was an explorer and an inventor before all else.

 Most of the things that Wei Ying had explored and experimented with, pushed fiercely at the boundaries of cultivation, far beyond that of corpses and resentful energy.

No one knew that Evil Summoning talismans were even possible before Wei Ying devised one and then used them so successfully.

No one knew that the greatest protection wards had fundamental flaws that he could so easily exploit...from afar.

He had an innate highly successful ability in creating talismans, arrays and containment with or without music. This was his ability, not one even rewarded in the Yunmeng Jiang Sect who preferred traps and nets over the complex almost woven entrapment Wei Ying could create.

The scrawled handwriting streaming down each page, like rivers of knowledge that were enlightening in so many ways. From what Xichen had told him this morning alone, Wei Ying's life's work covered everything from better traps to the origins of ghouls.

He wrote of spirits and defined soul poisoning, he had a carefully written hierarchy of corpses ranging in power strength...

"Wei Ying made this." Lan Zhan said running a finger over the design. "He made all of them."

"We are not stealing credit from Wei Wuxian." Xichen reiterated calmly. "What we are doing Wangji, is making use of them."

Any response he might have made was interrupted by a disciple hurrying up the path towards them. Xichen watched him approach but Wangji's eyes remained staring at the talisman, his mind thinking of those days the breeze dancing through the window, the scent of blossoms in the air...grey eyes fixed not on the rules he was supposed to be copying, but on a scrap of paper, thick lines flowing into a complex web...

"Disciple Sizhui was injured."

Those words cut through the echoes, just as Wei Ying lifts his head in the memory, grey eyes watching for his censure, never his praise.

"Sizhui?" He asks rising to his feet by the table, the argument, even Wei Ying forgotten as the words registered in his mind.

"Sizhui would not be fighting." Xichen answers for both the younger disciple and the ire rising in light gold eyes. "What happened?"

"The boys who are here as guests, caused a fight Sect Leader. There were fourteen older boys and three Lan disciples in the courtyard."

It was not the end of lessons, the boys Sizhui included should not be in the courtyard." Xichen said beginning down the path, Wangji directly behind him, his heart racing at the thought of their son injured.

"One of the Elders collapsed Sect Leader. Lessons were suspended. The boys were leaving for their next lesson." The disciple rushed to reply.

The simple fact that his brother was adept in hurrying without running outright was the only reason Wangji did not move ahead. They reached the courtyard in under a minute, Xichen guiding him into the crowd that parted quickly.

His heart stopped for a moment that stretched to eternity.

Sizhui, his gentle son with ocean eyes was lying on the ground with Jingyi kneeling beside him, with a belligerent expression. As soon as he saw Wangji and Xichen he bowed and all but shouted, "Hanguang-Jun, Zewu-jun!"

"What happened here?" Xichen asks in a tone that is not to be ignored.

"The ones who were fighting where taken inside and contained Sect Leader." Answers the deep voice of one of the Elders, Lan Wǔ.

Wangji moved passed them both and knelt on the ground beside his son. His hands were shaking, every breath felt stilted, panic and fear gripping his heart as he reached for his hand. His pale, small hand.

He was breathing and his heart was strong. Gathering the little boy in his arms, he stood in one motion his only thought to take him back to the Jingshi were he could heal his injuries and better protect him.

"Brother," He said as he turned, Sizhui curled into his arms almost hidden by his billowing white sleeves.

"Go. I will find the truth of the matter." Xichen said gently belying the fire building in darker gold eyes, a well hidden temper roused by worry. "Help my nephew first."

Twenty minutes later, Sizhui was resting on the bed in Jingshi covered by a thin blanket. His face was pale, but he was breathing easily as if dreaming one small hand held by his father, while Wangji pressed energy along his head, where bruises rose.

Chapter Text

The quiet was almost suffocating.

Long fingers with neatly shaped fingernails, callused from years of playing the strings of a guqin, smoothed the square edges of the simple fold in the bed covers. Slowly eradicating creases so diligently, as if it might ease the pain in his heart or the fear in his mind.

Training ensured that his hands didn't shake, the near unbreakable walls of his self-mastery, didn't allow his face to betray the storm in his chest, the panicked beating of heart.

He had counted the time since returning here to the quiet of the Jingshi, but while it felt as though an eternity had passed, it in fact  had only stretched into eleven minutes so far. But even that was too long.

A-Yuan had not woken, but all the signs were that he would be fine. Seeing him lying so still though, Wangji was not in any way reassured.

How could any parent or guardian be easily reassured? He had wondered this many times since becoming a father, the roles and actions of his own parents often coming to mind, or the stories of other children about the families who had sent them to Gusu for further training.

An injured or sick child was the worst time for a parent, seeing their child so helpless and vulnerable  was a torment. Kneeling here by the bed, he had no idea what he should do now. Head injuries had to be treated carefully, but in his personal experience, Wangji had never lost consciousness due to a head wound or even blood-loss. Fever? Many times, the exact count a figure impossible for a mind lost in a dreamless haze of heat and pain, but he knew it was more than ten.

He had discovered a deep bruise on the side of Yuan's head, and another on his cheekbone. In the Jingshi left over from his own days of sickness and bleeding wounds there were ample salves, bandages and the tonics Xichen often made for him. With quick fingers he had gently rubbed some of the strongest salve into the area around the bruises, feeling for any sign of broken bones.

His son was strong, but his bones were still as fragile as a bird's wing in his hands, from years of malnutrition and the very fact that he was only eight years old.

This little boy would forever be the infant he carried home from the black soil of the Burial Mound, the three year old staring up at him hopeful and afraid. The child of five, trying determinedly to pluck the stiffer strings of a guqin, with tiny hands. The baby sitting curled into Wei Ying's shoulder, or holding his leg in a fast grip hoping to be picked up and held.

His mother had been given no choice in how she felt, locked away and then taken from them so quickly, there and gone in a breath that caught in his throat even now, decades later. Their father was different though, actively choosing not to become involved. Qingheng-jun always so conflicted, deliberately never, no matter how severe the injury visited either son in times of crisis.

Their Uncle almost in direct opposition to their father, could be counted on to be standing over them, chastising and angrily worried. The experience so unpleasant, that both of them strove to avoid injury even in the worst of the night hunts or the days of the war, just to avoid facing Uncle. If they could not, they usually hid the wounds or the cough that wracked lungs or the weariness that tea could not lift. They were the Twin Jades, never allowed to be mortal even as child.

He would never have approached his Uncle if he had been disturbed by the other boys, or even outright bullied by them, he still would not have mentioned a word. His brother would have known of course and no doubt either supported him or dealt with the problem as Xichen always did. Eyes fierce, but his face perfectly calm, the retaliation unyielding and direct.

At eight years old Lan Wangji would not have interfered if the others were physically fighting, only too aware that punishment would be swift and memorable for those involved.

Was A-Yuan having problems with the other children?

It was a worrying thought. This may have been an isolated incident...or this is possibly more complex than meets the eye. If he was, why had he not spoken to Wangji about it? Was he also hiding injuries and worries as he had done himself as a child?

Worried gold eyes stared down at the little boy all of eight years, lying in the center of the bed. A vast ocean of clean sheets on either side of his fragile body, the carved wood relief surrounding the bed, appearing like the sides of a cradle.

Anger simmered alongside confusion, but neither had risen too close to the surface, tempered by the knowledge that Wei Ying was a fighter down to the very marrow in his bones. It made him think differently, this loss and the phantom touch of his love. It made him consider for the first time, not the opinions of Gusu, the rules of his Sect or even his own training, but  a new perspective. One built on Wei Ying, his opinions and the way his love thought in every action and word.

You didn't understand Wangji.

No. At the time he didn't and that made for a lifetime of regret, lining the walls of his heart like limestone.

So now, he thought of what Wei Ying would have done and spent endless hours thinking of each time they had met. Puzzling over why Wei Ying had done this or said that, trying to better understand.

It had worked over time. He realized that Wei Ying for all his guile and cleverness, could be naive, wanting to believe in people often the very ones that let him down over and over again. He was a survivor and never deviated from the path of survival, never able to free himself from the chains created from those early days of his life.

When all you know is struggle and hopelessness, you will do far more than others to ensure that freedom is what you have. Poverty meant nothing to Wei Ying, wounds meant nothing but losing the ones he loved...that was what broke his back in the end.

Realizing that had been hard. In the quiet of the Jingshi, he had considered everything including the ways that Sizhui took after Wei Ying.

Unlike Wangji, his love as a boy had diffused many fights and had won many more, his victory wounds only a few bruises easily hidden by long sleeves. To Wei Ying every fight was practice, every fight was possibly his last. So it didn't affect as it often did others. There was no fear in Wei Ying not like that. He feared for others not for his own life.

Grey eyes flashing, a malicious smile on a stunning face. A bright grin and hard eyes warning of retribution...

Jiang Cheng had either fought with him or tried in a hundred ways Wangji had witnessed,  to prevent his brother from creating or becoming part of conflict, wary of his mother's rage. All of them so different from the fights Wei Ying had won as an adult, fueled by resentful energy and a far superior mind for battle strategy. Wounds meant little to Wei Ying, words even less. No could bully Wei Ying either as a child or as an adult.

Sizhui was not someone who made conflict, avoiding confrontation and was often praised for his excellent communications skills, so unlike himself. They praised his  ability to negotiate and debate, soothing tensions and irate Elders. Wei Ying was unparalleled in communication, but was usually the one causing the rise in the Elder's blood pressure. Yuan was halfway between Xichen in that regard and the more free-spirited Wei Ying.

This was different. Sizhui had tried to help, to prevent those fighting from getting into trouble and had been hit for it. With cultivation energy, he must teach his son how to block and by a fist that unfortunately did not miss it's mark.

The journey of cultivation was one that often included injury, severe or not and was only preventable by skill, luck and a clever mind. Wangji had no faith in luck, a thing fickle and uncontrollable, but he valued a clever mind and had spent his life honing skill. Clearly, while he had focused on education, he had been remiss in teaching his son how to fight well and with clever strategy.

The Lan Sect spend a lot of time looking pretty and less on actually fighting.

He couldn't remember who said that, it wasn't Wei Ying but even he had mentioned in the past, that the Lan Sect were not always good fighters. Sizhui would be. Wei Ying would say that their son should have blocked the blow and recognized the possibility that others, especially those from certain Sects, were more likely to lash out with energy.

He would know this because Wei Ying often had to defend himself from attack, but he was right. To survive, Sizhui had to learn what Wangji could teach. The Sunshot Campaign had proven that even the best could easily fall, even the ones dedicated to higher cultivation still died on night hunts like Wei Ying's parents so long ago.

How could both of them leave Wei Ying younger than Sizhui now, alone while they night hunted? Then to die and just leave him?

To Wangji it was unforgivable. The very thought of A-Yuan, his son dying on an night hunt or for any other reason than a life long lived, if he didn't reach immortality, was unthinkable.  He should as a parent do as best for his child. He would teach him more, train him as Wei Ying would have expected, to survive in a fight be it with a ghoul or with a sword.

Xichen had some of Wei Ying's innovations and some of his surviving texts. If that was true, then he could teach A-Yuan what Wei Ying would have inevitably explained. How to use Evil Summoning talismans or flags, how to identify different corpses and how to change talismans to something else. How the nets worked, how the traps could be avoided...

He sighed into the quiet. Jingyi would be punished for hitting one of the attacking guests so violently and he knew that Yuan with his sweet nature, would want to share that punishment.

He couldn't easily forget that Wei Ying had been thrown from Gusu, for hitting Jin Zixuan over his sister.

Focusing on the bandaged wrist, covering a bleeding cut from falling to the unforgiving flagstones of the courtyard, He checked Yuan's meridians, pulse and breathing. Siphoning more cultivation energy into his son's system to ease his pain and promote healing, following what he learned from Xichen, that head injuries had to be tended with cultivation energy in small doses, each session separated by some minutes. Otherwise, you could overwhelm the body, causing more harm.

Glancing from the pale small face, relaxed in sleep with a dark bruise rising along his cheekbone, Lan Wangji stared at the window. At the trees beyond, the fluttering of the breeze as it lifted the leaves.

When he woke, they would discuss this, he vowed to Sizhui, to Wei Ying and to himself.

Three more minutes had passed while he dwelled and considered. The sunlight was golden so close to afternoon now, the midday meal long past.

The quiet of the Jingshi tormented him these days, pulling on the broken shards of his heart, oppressive as it had never been, cold and and damning when these walls had long been his sanctuary.

In the quiet, the gnawing hollow feeling from the very early days after the Siege had returned, leaving him feeling distant and off kilter. Was that why Sizhui had not told him that he was experiencing some difficulties? Was he troubled and Wangji in his conflicted state, simply not noticed?

Sizhui deserved better from him and he could all but see Wei Ying shake his head.

It was no excuse he thought, but these last few weeks had given him much to consider, issues to weigh against the fates of innocent lives. Anyone guilty of demonic cultivation was tortured and executed, making him fear for the day Wei Ying returned. Now, the words written by Wei Ying were being warped and used for as many purposes as suited, those stealing his inventions.

Even the Lan Sect were attempting to use Wei Ying's work, claiming his methods for their own. As if they understood Empathy? He shuddered to think what Wei Ying had tried in order to create that one.

It awoke the fire in his blood, as almost nothing did these days. Very little stirred the stagnant waters, making it difficult to care. One day bled into another, one event no different from another.

All that changed and all that he cared for, was the little boy lying in his inner robes tucked into bed in the shadowy alcove of the Jingshi. The son of the man he loved above all else and the son he had cradled in his arms vowing to love and protect as he raised him.

A hand slipped into the folds at his waist, his fingers curving instantly around the silver bell of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. In conflict of his heart, he would reach for the bell, imbued with talismans for clear thinking and more importantly once owned by Wei Ying.

In the absence of a grave or altar, he held the bell that swung from Wei Ying's waist in every memory of Wei Ying before he was the Yiling Patriarch.

He pulled it free into the light of the new afternoon, studying the patterns engraved onto it's smooth surface.

As he did nearly every night after Inquiry, Wangji held the bell to his heart, as worried fingers checked the bandage on his son's wrist, the laceration from falling so hard to the unforgiving courtyard stone. It was tied well, supporting  the bruised bone and covered the cut with a herbal salve.

He stroked a hand over his brow, worry in every gesture, then gold eyes swept over the Jingshi one more. At the growing shadows on the floor facing the windows, at the need for another coat of lacquer on the floor boards...at the fallen leaves on the veranda he should sweep.

At the desk devoid of its usual papers, the work completed late last night, the light from his candle turned and hidden just so, from prying eyes and judging whispers, at the censure of such obvious rule breaking.

At the identical floor boards covering the jars of Emperor's Smile and his treasures, the circular knot of dark wood in the third board, the only tell denoting the hiding place.

The shadows on the floor shifted as someone walked by the Jingshi, leaving golden sunlight in their wake. Wei Ying did that, he remembered. He left moonlight, starlight and sunlight in his wake...yielding nothing and giving everything of himself.

The hollow in his chest was at odds with the sunlight. It should be raining, another long thunderstorm over the mountains better suited this empty feeling, the broken glass in his lungs when he thought about another year without Wei Ying.

"Wangji?" His brother's voice quietly called as he entered the Jingshi, worry and no small amount of concealed anger in his wake.

Chapter Text

Xichen stepped into the Jingshi, his light footsteps the only sound to disturb the quiet. He had always preferred to listen to the faint sounds of Gusu, the life and quiet vibrancy of his fellow disciples, closer to the main buildings arranged around the courtyard. His own house the Hanshi, now the official residence of the Sect Leader was situated on the other side of Uncle's home, directly on the main pathway for every disciple. 

Wangji in contrast, preferred his solitude and the endless quiet so close to the more obscure pools and the forest of the mountain beyond his door.

Lan Zhan said nothing and simply waited, his eyes watching A-Yuan for any change that might indicate when he would wake. His elder brother, a handful of moments after closing the door to the outside world, settled on the floor beside him with only a faint flutter of white robes.

From the corner of his eye, he watched as Xichen as he had for years, smoothly fold his legs, roughly one chi from his own knees and nodded to himself.

The two of them sitting together, denying any distance that age or rank might have created between them over the years, was the only normal part of today. For as long as he could remember, his elder brother had chosen to sit beside him always with the same serene solidarity and soul deep brotherly love. To not sit beside him, would wound Xichen. An error he had made at the age of ten, choosing to believe Qiren when he claimed Xichen would prefer the company of older children.  

This moment would not seem important to an outsider, to anyone who had not lived the life that they had. When one was trained to be perfect, near expressionless and always serene, you needed to learn the art of subtle gestures to survive.

They had learned together what was permissible in this silent language when they had an audience, be it their Uncle or one of the Elders. Words had never come easily to Wangji and his brother had often tried to shield him when his own voice failed.

It was something Wei Ying had never fully understood, never needing a silent language to communicate with his siblings. Every action or gesture no matter how small could possess layered meanings or stand as a indication or warning.

Both brothers had needed it, relying on those gestures to help them navigate the  the difficult years of their education. Xichen could read his little brother as easily as he could lift a tea cup by the age of nine.

In contrast, he had learned from a small child to read Xichen's mood and thoughts from one careful glance as his brother tucked his feet beneath him, or the way he would stand or the way he walked. The small gestures Xichen made with his hands could speak volumes after all. A twist of his left wrist, the smoothing of his robes or a minute flick of a finger, were loud signals to Wangji.

A slight turn of his body as they stood together, indicated that Xichen was about to tell him something important. If he sat down too quickly it meant that Xichen's mood had soured or if the distance between them was greater than usual, his brother was worried about something. As if the distance might prevent Wangji was being affected by whatever haunted his brother's mind.

His brother never turned his back to him, preferring Wangji to leave first, despite of protocol and always turned his head gracefully when he saw Wangji approaching. Not even the rift between them, slowly healing and caused by his undying love for Wei Ying had changed the respect that Xichen held for him.

If Xichen was in a good mood, or amused by something he would sit closer. His posture perfect, his expression schooled to suit the occasion but his hands would be folded in his lap and his eyes would glance at Wangji with that mix of pride and care.   

At a table especially alone, those hands would be more vocal, subtle gestures telling Wangji more of a story, than was possible in public. How he felt and how he thought translated into those small gestures.

At this moment, Wangji knew that his brother was angry and by the way he sat shoulder to shoulder meant that the argument had been with Uncle. The quick flick of his hands to arrange his robes comfortably spoke of dissatisfaction. He leaned on his knees over the edge of the bed, his eyes worried as he looked over Yuan.

Unlike his own scarred and callused hands, Xichen's elegant fingers often admired as a symbol of the Lan Sect, suggesting calm strength and grace, moved gently over A-Yuan's face. There was a frown of upset along his brow, familiar from the days of open wounds and blood soaked sheets, here on this very bed.

He would not ask. He had no words to ask about Uncle and in some way no interest, unless Xichen decided that he should know. What he did wish to know, was why his son was lying with a bruised face.

He turned his head watching as Xichen sat back, his own eyes leaving his son to look at the tight jaw and the sharp expression in darker gold eyes. "Why?"

Xichen sighed, a quiet, dissatisfied breath leaving his chest. "One of the Elders is unwell. The children were told to leave the class early, which was against protocol. Sizhui was standing with Jingyi. They planned apparently to see the rabbits and to see if you were at the Jingshi."

"One of the guest disciples from a smaller Sect, a fifteen year old at that, began a fight with another boy also fifteen, from the QingheNie Sect. Our little Sizhui tried to calm tensions but was attacked in turn, a blow of cultivation energy from one boy and a physical blow from the other. Both will be expelled from Gusu. I have also reprimanded the teachers that did not intervene in time and the Elder who did not see fit to guide the class, as was his duty. They will be punished in accordance with the Rules."

In Gusu, the younger disciples were often guided in between classes. This was mainly for safety reasons, as the many pathways of the mountain could be dangerous, but it was also tradition, with the younger generation following the Elder.  For the Elders to be so remiss in their duty was a surprising thing.

"From behind?" Wangji guessed, looking at the bruises.

Xichen's expression darkened but he nodded. He slowly pulled back his arm, satisfied that the bruising was the only injury to Yuan's head before focusing on the bandaged wrist.

"Fell." Wangji offered as Xichen carefully picked up the injured hand and critically assessed the damage.

"Does not seemed to be broken at least. He will have to be careful of worsening the injury over the next few days. I suggest he keeps it bandaged for support."

Wangji nodded, pleased with his brother's assessment. A hurt wrist and a bruised face were worrying yes, but his son would be fine. After the last few years of war and death, such things were a relief. Knowing just how much worse things could be, made him thankful Sizhui had escaped lightly.

"Forgive my temper." He said softly into the quiet between them, a plea he had not used in fifteen years or more.

Xichen touched his arm gently and sighed. "I understand that this is not what you would wish,"

"Wrong."

His brother turned from the waist to look at him, a rare action especially as his hand was still holding A-Yuan's forearm. "Wangji?"

He had considered this not only today but for the last week. Wei Ying would not like other using his work and Wangji hardly blamed him for it. He was vilified and hated, yet people would choose what they wanted and accept nothing else.

He would greatly resent others using his innovations while calling him a demon, but Lan Zhan knew in his heart, that Wei Ying would shower such knowledge at A-Yuan's feet, if he thought it might protect the child he loved as his own.

Patting his brother's hand, Wangji gracefully rose from his position by the bed, running a hand over his son's forehead before stepping away. His brother watched confused as he walked over to the desk and retrieved a single sheet of paper.

Returning he handed it to Xichen and settled back to watch his son sleep.

"You planned to tell me this." Xichen said half questioningly.

He had in fact planned to suggest to Xichen that certain inventions that Wei Ying had created be added to the training. Before learning that others were stealing his work and claiming themselves the inventor. "En."

"This is a talisman that Wei Wuxian created?"

"Mn." Wangji said in answer. "Tried it."

"When?" Xichen asked concerned and more than a little bemused.

"Night hunt."

The paper shifted slightly in the light breeze dancing through the open window. "A talisman to vanquish ghouls? This that correct?"

"En." Arguably one of Wei Ying's first true inventions, created one afternoon in the Library Pavilion.

Xichen laughed softly, amused as he looked at it. "Wei Wuxian was very talented."

Wangji was the last man alive who would argue with that truth, but any words he might have said vanished as he noted the slight shift in Yuan's breathing. Xichen did as well and they both watched as Yuan opened his sweet  ocean eyes and stared, confusedly up at the ceiling of the Jingshi.

Before either brother could reassure him, Sizhui sat up in one sudden motion staring around the room wildly, his gaze then landing on the Sect Leader and his father, seated on the floor watching him.

The Lan Brothers as Wei Ying could have told him, were the Twin Jades for many reasons. Their skills complimented each other perfectly and flawlessly anticipated each other's actions even in the middle of combat. They were mirrors of each other in many ways.

They were also so similar in facial features and height that many mistook them for genuine twins, but it was in moments like these that the legendary pair proved the third reason.

They could stare at something without expression, gold eyes intent and assessing.

Even Wei Ying would have paused. Many more would have stilled in shock or fear, finding that gold gaze unsettling.

Lan Yuan stared at both them and to their surprise, those ocean eyes welled with tears.

Sizhui had cried often as a small child; confused, grieving and naturally sensitive. As he grew in confidence, the little boy had shown remarkable courage and an ability to adapt, always seeking to understand. Wangji knew as only a parent could, that Yuan grieved still. Mourning those he could not remember, especially Wei Ying. His Xian Ge Ge.

Yuan played the guqin for Wei Ying in a different way to Lan Wangji and he would sit at the altar, praying for a father ripped so cruelly from his life.

Those large ocean eyes dropped to his lap and he cringed back from his father and uncle as if expecting a blow. There was the almost audible sound of heartbreak and the flight of panic that began in the Twin Jades as they realized that something was very wrong.

Wangji rose immediately and gathered his son, winding his arms around Yuan's small frame, who was trying hide with his head buried in his knees. Xichen rose as well, sitting beside his little brother on the wide bed, as Sizhui was sheltered in Wangji's strong arms.

Light gold eyes looked at his elder brother in panic and worry, silently pleading for him to find the words he could not.

Xichen, shocked and anguished by the pain his nephew was experiencing moved closer, pitching his voice to be soothing. Wangji as a child had often withdrawn so completely in times like these, very little had attracted his attention. His little brother had never cried, but locked away his pain instead, drowning in his sorrow and his shame.

Pushing away the memory of his mother's death and the image of Wangji, so small and lost sitting by the door, uncaring of punishment and deaf to Xichen's imploring words, Xichen clear his throat.

"Sizhui? What's wrong?" He asked, tilting his head so he could look at both father and son.

"Please don't." The voice was murmured in Wangji's chest, high and afraid. Pleading.

Wangji's eyes widened and he held his son closer. Xichen feared that he had either remembered or was suffering some sort of nightmare. "There is no need to be afraid Sizhui. Your father and I are here. Nothing will hurt you."

"Please don't send me away."

Baffled Xichen stared at Wangji, silent questions passing between the brothers as they tried to understand.

"No one will send you away." Wangji said, his voice lower than his normal speaking tone, a rumble of suppressed pain like thunder in the distance promising rain.

"They said if I broke the rules. I would be sent away." Sizhui answered, tears in his voice.

'Who said that?" Xichen asked in a deceptively calm tone.

Sizhui shook his head violently, torn between hiding in Wangji's arms and trying to escape.

"You are not breaking the rules by telling us little one." Xichen added quickly. "You will not be punished Sizhui. You have done nothing wrong. Gossiping is forbidden, but you are answering a question asked by your Sect Leader. No one can punish you for that."

Ocean eyes looked up, half hidden by white robes. "Lan Ai, Great Uncle, the Elders."

Anger lit the light gold of his brother's gaze, but Xichen touched his arm gently. "You did not break the rules. You were following the rules when you interfered in the fight. You were hurt because of it."

"Lan Ai said I would be a disgrace to Father. That Father wouldn't want to keep me. That my first father had died by misdeed, failed." Sizhui babbled staring between Wangji and Xichen, the words kept hidden, sealed away by fear were now escaping with his tears.

"Ridiculous." Wangji said sharply and Sizhui cringed again.

Lan Zhan had no idea who Yuan's parents were by birth. They could have been dissidents, fighting against Wen Chao and murdered in retaliation. They could have been killed in the war in the last part of the Sunshot Campaign. They might even have led forces for Wen Chao, storming Yunmeng or Gusu and could be responsible for the deaths of Wei Ying's family or for the disciples of Lan, for all he knew.

What he did know, was that this was the little boy hardly older than a baby, who had been cradled in Wei Ying's arms. The flash of grey eyes daring Wangji to dispute him, when he claimed loudly that Yuan was his.

Lan Sizhui was the son of Wei Wuxian. That was all that mattered.

"Xian Ge Ge." Was all Wangji needed to say. "He loved you and was proud. So am I."

Ocean eyes stared up at him, absorbing every word as the foundation of his very world. "Xian Ge Ge?"

Xichen had sworn his brother to secrecy regarding Yuan's parentage, but Xian Ge Ge was the figure who occupied the place in Yuan's heart, his past and his original parentage. Xian Ge Ge answered all the questions about where he came from and why Wangji played Inquiry every night.

All Yuan knew was this Xian Ge Ge was his father before Wangji. His parent, his home and that Xian Ge Ge had died when he was a young child, but that that Wangji had saved him, bringing here to Gusu. It was all Yuan needed.

Wangji stared intently at his son, wondering how he had missed this terrible pain Yuan was suffering alone. Living with the belief that Wangji might throw him away if he failed, his throat tightened by fear in the same way his own had been with Wei Ying. Better to suffer and keep what you have, rather than lose it all trying for what you want. Yuan wanted the security of belonging, the promise that Wangji would be there for him. It was better to not know, to not have it confirmed when your daily life was bearable as it was.

Wei Ying would be angry.

"Care for others, protect family. Stand for your beliefs and learn well. Xian Ge Ge believed this. You are Lan, my son. If you go, I go."  

Xichen watched their interaction, marveling at his little brother as he comforted and reiterated that Sizhui's home was here in Gusu. He would find the ones responsible for these lies and correct them heartily. Their Uncle would hear his words and he, as Sizhui's only uncle would see that the record was righted. They would not wound Sizhui as they did Wangji, driving him into a rigid mask with no childhood or joy in his heart.

This small child clutching Wangji's arm, was his beloved nephew and all that was keeping his brother sane and alive. He had no doubt in his heart, despite all that he wished to believe, that if not for this beautiful child first adopted by Wei Wuxian, Wangji would have ended his life, for the thinnest chance to see the Yiling Patriarch again.

"You are my nephew and no one shall take you from Gusu." He declared pulling a long white cloth from his sleeve, to gently wipe his tears away.

Wangji smoothed his hair back, tidying his son as lovingly as any parent, the deep sorrow of loss in his eyes. Resolve settled in his heart as Sizhui looked hopefully at him. He would erase that doubt.

Chapter Text

Gold eyes, indifferent and mournful watch the sky of Gusu as it slowly lightens with the coming dawn.

The deep blue of the night washes away with the heavy rain that runs in rivers down the stone paths, the light of the sun hidden by the grey of the clouds. The air is cold and damp with the storm blanketing the mountains and yet all is still, the only sound the thunder and rain.

Lying in the center of his bed, he listens tiredly to the rumble of thunder and the sound of the rain falling to the terracotta tiles, the faint clatter and rush of the water escaping to the soaking ground below.  Sleep has eluded him for most of the night. His nightmares have only grown worse, visions of Wei Ying's death and all his regrets magnified. Tonight it was the storm that woke him rather than his own desperate screams or cries.

Yet he prefers the nightmares to the dreams that leave him aching with hurt and loneliness. The dreams where Wei Ying is alive, happy and carefree, sitting in the sunshine or worse still, the delusions where Wei Ying returns his feelings. These moments are so perfect, he never wants to leave and waking to the truth that Wei Ying is gone, is a agony that cannot be described.

He stares out the window, at the grey clouds he can just see from this angle. It has rained for two days now, the water pooling into a sea that flows down the steps, a waterfall along every pathway or rise. The type of storm that has not come to Gusu for a handful of years, the wind and thunder making the odd, soft roar that he had only ever heard in the mountains. The quiet of the Jingshi replaced by the sound of nature, resplendent in its glory and its rage.

When it rains like this, all Lan Sect disciples remain inside wary of the dangers. Gusu was carved into the side of the mountain and its location guarantees flooding and dramatic thunderstorms, protected only by clever positioning and cultivation energy using the protection talismans that block the worst of the damage.

The ferocity of the rain is blinding and the mountain paths are lethal in these conditions, the ground wet and unforgiving in a fall. Everyone in the central area chooses the corridors, leading to the dining hall and the classrooms that are sheltered, never straying across the courtyard which always floods, the water pouring down the roofs in a constant waterfall and then down the steep hill. The inconvenience and difficulty much preferred over the possibility of injury or the breaking of the sacred protocol, created by their Sect Founder.

Those who live further away, like Wangji chose to stock the essentials in preparation for the storm. It may rain for days more, he thought.

He hoped Sizhui was warm, knowing that his son was still asleep half and hour away from dawn as it was. The little boy needed rest, he thought, after the last few days of trials and heartache. Sizhui's wrist was healing well and his heart had settled but Wangji could only hope that was true.

He had failed to see that Sizhui had been afraid, caught in a cage build by the Elders and Uncle, terrified that he would fail and be thrown from Gusu. That he might lose his home, his family and his future, becoming a disgrace to Wangji as he had been warned. It angered him, to think that they had told a little boy such lies, making him think of himself as less, that Wangji didn't love him as his own. 

Neither he nor his brother would abide by others hurting A-Yuan so. Xichen's anger had been a surprise to many, too used to his serenity as they were, especially Uncle.

Xichen's anger lent him a defiance only Wangji had seen before, refusing to allow them to wound his nephew, to suggest even mildly that he was less and there were no words that could express his gratitude to his brother.

This defiance took many quiet forms. Xichen was like the storm above them now. When he chose a path, nothing would stop him. Brother had decided to teach Sizhui the art of silk painting,  a rare and highly prized skill their mother had taught them and had sat with him for over an hour improving his calligraphy. He had stood on the training grounds and praised Sizhui's first attempts with a wooden sword, and made sure that he was sitting at the Lan family table during breakfast.   

When the weather cleared, Xichen had also requested Sizhui play the guqin in a private recital, for him and the Elders. Designed to showcase his talents and reiterate his place as Xichen's nephew, smiling at Wangji's look of pride as they sat together.  This was a sign to them all, that Xichen would not be moved from this position and that Sizhui in his eyes, was a son of Lan. One that would inherit Wangji's place, as a heir if anything should change, if either of the Twin Jades died, never reaching immortality. 

Ocean eyes had filled with anxiety and looked at him for answers, confused by Xichen's sudden dogmatic interest.  Wangji, unseen by his brother had patted Sizhui's small hand in reassurance, already planning the piece and the setting, for the recital that was a great honor for any Lan student.

Lightning lit the sky in a breath taking arc, a vivid purple like the gentians that blossoms around Mother's cottage. Like the tassel of the silver bell.

He sighs. The breath lost in the sound of the rain, the creak of wood.

The sky is crying but he has no tears left. The mountains would drown if all his pain and sorrow could become tears, his regret and the agony of knowing Wei Ying's death.

A pale hand reached into his inner robes and pulled the silver bell free. It was warm from his skin, from being tucked against his heart as he slept however fitfully. The long purple tassel brushes his hand and the metal gleams, even  in the muted dark of the gloomy morning.

Wei Ying.

Another crack of thunder and the bell rang quietly, like the echo of a stilled heart. It was not like the peal of the bells that warned disciples in the fog along the corridors, or the trio of little chimes that danced in the breeze above Xichen's door.

It was a long, low tolling sound, that shivered in the air. The metal vibrated slightly and he felt the talismans bathing him in calm, in serenity that he had not felt since that night. The night he met Wei Ying. It was the purpose of the bell, the symbol of calm as the Yunmeng Jiang Sect as their creed dictated, tried the impossible. It was a focal point and a spiritual reminder, an anchor for each disciple. A thread that was still tied irrevocably to Wei Ying.

Flicking the bed covers back, he shifted and sat up with another sigh, cradling the bell to his heart. It was close to five am and there was no point remaining where he was, wallowing in pain and bitter memories.

The floor is cold, the chill from the storm creeping along the ground to swirl around his bare feet, as he sits on the edge of the bed. This is always a difficult time for him. At night, he plays for Wei Ying, his fingers only stilling on the guqin well after nine pm, leaving the Jingshi every night to play Inquiry in the surrounding forest. Other times, during night hunts he is focused on battle and his duties as a cultivator. During the day, he keeps his mind occupied with his responsibilities, with Sizhui or with the distractions of travel.

The mornings are a reminder that Wei Ying is gone. His routine is some comfort, when he forces himself from the bed, from the promises of dreams. The water from the bowl atop the dresser is icy against his skin, the scent of the soap and the familiar weight of his tooth brush, grounding him in the now. Mindless tasks that soothe the restlessness. The glide of the razor along his jaw, the comb through his long hair, the security of his forehead ribbon that will always belong to Wei Ying...

This home which had been his sanctuary and salvation, is now an abode that houses his grief and pain or at the very least a witness to his dreams of Wei Ying.

Did Mother experience this? He wonders, staring around the room, his eyes touching on every surface, on the rain outside pouring off the roof in torrents. This nameless emptiness and the heavy weight of every single day? The knowledge that hours were passing, life far removed from her grasp confined as she was?

Had she preferred to linger in dreams too, rather than face the constant aching sorrow of the daylight hours? Knowing that her children were out there, learning, growing all without their mother by their side, only able to visit when Uncle allowed it each week? As a father, it was a wonder to see Sizhui, to welcome him into the Jingshi or to talk with him during recess times. It was a gift to see his son each day and watch with bated breath as he became a young, rule-abiding version of Wei Ying.

When he opens his eyes each morning, there is a fresh stab of pain. It is another day without Wei Ying.

With the rise of each day he is reminded that his precious son is growing older, aging further away from that timid, feverish boy of two or three years into a beautiful child of eight.  He is reminded that Wei Ying has not returned yet, that he is missing these formative years. Missing the laughter and the wonder, the trials and discoveries. They are nearing the end of another year. Soon he will be nine, a bittersweet milestone that his second father will celebrate with quiet joy.  

He is reminded too that the faith he once had in Gusu has been damaged, shards of his trust lying on the blood soaked stone floor after Nightless City. When the people he respected the most, chose undeniably to end Wei Ying's life. That the cultivation world prays Wei Ying will never return, that his own family hopes that he will not, so proud of themselves for their 'good' choices.

Every breath he takes should fill the chest of the man  years gone from this world. Every swing or parry of Bichen echoes his failure, the gleam of the blade a promise to remain, vowed on the Burial Mound that he would protect Sizhui.

He had no answer. There are no answers, not to his dreams, his hopes or to the plea of Inquiry.

A flash of lightning illuminates the room once more and for a moment he surrounded by purple light, a different vision of himself in the mirror opposite.

His eyes fall on the red brand on his chest, right over his heart.

The burned skin has long since healed and scarred, the sun pattern of the Wen Sect so obvious against his pale skin. This brand is an insult to everything he should believe and yet he treasures it. The Wen Sect murdered his father and countless others like Wei Ying's family, but the Wens were also the people who banded together behind Wei Ying, victims when they were once perpetrators.

His son was born into the Wen Sect and they were loyal to Wei Ying, even to their last breath. He cannot think of the Wens without thinking of Yiling, of sharing dinner with a family who called Wei Ying their Patriarch, the head of their tiny clan. Who laughed with him, sharing food and homemade wine, laughing with him even as they worried for the future. A child sitting on Wei Ying's knee, an elderly man Wei Ying called 'Uncle' and so many others.

This symbol though, goes back further than that. It is intrinsically a part of the story, Wei Ying's story, but it is also a reminder of Wei Ying himself. Not of what he survived, not of the war or the loss they both suffered. No. It is a reminder, so powerful and perfect of a day, well before the loss of the Lotus Pier.

Wei Ying, selfless and reckless had moved in front of a branding iron destined to forever mar the beautiful face of a girl, Wei Ying liked. His own scalding jealousy, when he witnessed Wei Ying flirting with Mian Mian in the cave of Xuan Wu, was bad enough, adding to his shame and the realization that he could no longer deny the love that consumed him. His father was dead, his beloved brother missing and the Recesses had been attacked, but Wei Ying was all he could think about. Wei Ying and the girl he favored.

“The mark on your body right now will not be able to come off for the rest of your life either.”

Wei Ying had shrugged uncaring. “That’s different. It’s not on the face. And I’m a man, what am I scared of? In a man’s life, how can he not get a few wounds and earn a few scars?”

That night in the same cave, trapped and alone together he had pressed his hand to the painful burn, watching grey eyes register the pain and then watched that fiery boy suppress any reaction. Wei Ying didn't care that he was marked for the rest of his life. It didn't matter to him and he thought it a good thing that the girl would now remember him, for having saved her.

His beautiful, toned upper body completely bare and tempting, Wei Ying had squatted on the ground, choosing a branch and stabbed at the flames for it to burn brighter, “And, if you think from another perspective, even though this won’t be able to come off, it represents the fact that I protected a maiden. And the maiden will definitely remember me after this. She won’t be able to forget me for the rest of her life. Now that I think about it, it’s actually quite…”

He never finished his words, the same scalding jealousy and anger had forced words of rebuke from Wangji's throat. He wanted the girl to remember him, wanted her to admire him for what he did, yet Wangji was forced to sit there, trapped in a cave with the love of his life, and hold himself still. Hold back from the pure temptation of the beauty before him, the careless way Wei Ying moved and the overwhelming fact, that he loved this boy, who stripped him of his clothes but didn't want him.

All he wanted was for Wei Ying to want him. Shaking his head, he rises from the bed and walks smoothly over to the mirror, pulling his inner robes open. His body is honed from years of rigorous training, broader now and he could say stronger than it was back then, a boy barely a man sitting in a dark cave, Wei Ying's head in his lap, his fingers stroking through those beautiful dark waves. 

How many times has he dreamed of Wei Ying touching his skin? No self-control was enough to banish the want, the desire for his touch and sometimes it was the only balm to his soul. He was tormented in his younger years by those dreams, by that want. It seems so ridiculous now.  He is in love and when his body awakened, it craved and he suspected, always would, Wei Ying's touch. Not even death had changed that.

He avoids the mirror usually, only checking his appearance before he leaves, to ensure nothing is creased or out of place. He stares at himself now, at the unblemished naked skin, at the muscle he has worked tirelessly to rebuild. The mirror bares almost all of him to his own gaze, from the weight of own eyes, down his chest, his abdomen and the top of his thighs.  All of him belongs to Wei Ying and always will.

His eyes return to the brand, his fingers caressing the mark gently.

He cannot remember that night, the decision and the choice itself. When the Wen Sect fell into ruins, the cultivation world picked through the remains like carrion crows, taking away with them the spoils of war, and the blood soaked trophies they gloried in. Wealth, jewels and knowledge alike, all stolen from the dead, from the houses burned to the ground or the temples that held Wen Sect secrets.

They showed no mercy and enjoyed the spoils, exactly as the Wen Sect had when they destroyed the rival Sects, sparking the beginning of the Sunshot Campaign.

They remembered the atrocities and claimed what the Wen Sect knew and owned for themselves, denying any wrongdoing on their part. Not even the Lan Sect was immune or free from such guilt . Some called these things 'artifacts' or 'histories'. Claiming as Uncle did, that they were keeping the memory of the extinct Sect alive, by owning what was once theirs. That they were justified and rightful, teaching their children of the war and through these spoils, about the Wen Sect themselves.

All of those items were trophies and no excuse could change that.

No one had been willing to tell Wangji of this. Not his Uncle and certainly not his brother. They knew his response and correctly guessed his opinion, but they did not think to caution Lan Yuan about it. That day, A-Yuan had innocently asked one of the most difficult questions he could possibly  think of and by doing so, that told Wangji in explicit detail about the items he had seen. Asking about these 'artifacts' and the secrecy that the Elders employed, moving them into a disused storeroom. Everyone was talking about it and he had heard the news through Lan Ai, had in fact witnessed several disciples moving things into that room, on the way to the Jingshi.

Some of those items might even have belonged to A-Yuan's family.

It was an appalling thought. As was the more painful question he asked himself. Did they steal from Wei Ying? Were there even now, people in the cultivation world, with things that Wei Ying had once owned? He  had demanded answers from his brother, who had told him simply that everything owned by Wei Ying had been destroyed.

Those words had been a blade though his already bleeding heart. It wasn't enough to murder his love, to plan his demise and crave his torture, they had destroyed everything that was once his. Essentially wiping Wei Ying from the world. As if Wei Wuxian had never existed. Only the Yiling Patriarch, the demonic cultivator. Not a man. A demon in their eyes.

He had been mad with grief that night. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by the treasures he had saved and the shattered remains of his heart. His back was scarlet with blood, wounds torn open when he abandoned the bed, but he was seized by the need  so desperate and raw, to have something Wei Ying had once owned or touched. 

At some point that night, he opened a jar of Emperor's Smile, the one he had bought before Nightless City, had in fact planned to give to Wei Ying as a peace offering. He never had the chance and remembering that, had cried endless tears over the jar. What happened after the cup of wine, he didn't know, only the result.

Apparently, he had abandoned the Jingshi somehow in his inebriated state and walked through the corridors undetected, by any of the other disciples in the early hours of the morning.  At some point, he found the storeroom that A-Yuan had described. The simple lock was viciously broken and he had entered the small room for some inexplicable reason.

The only thing he removed was the Wen Sect branding iron.

Perhaps he thought that the brand was a fitting ode to Wei Ying, or remembered the way Wei Ying had once said in that cave, "She won’t be able to forget me for the rest of her life." Perhaps by branding himself, he thought Wei Ying would remember him. In the cold light of day, his brother found him on the floor, the fire still burning, the iron brand dropped carelessly to the hearth.

Xichen had been horrified and confused, looking for answers but aware he would gain none, so resorted to excuses, to explain this. Explain why his little brother had branded himself with the symbol of the Wen Sect. He blamed it on grief and fever, inexplicably hiding the injury from Uncle. Wangji should have been punished as he pointed out, but Xichen had publicly claimed that it was young disciples who broke the lock, to satisfy curiosity, redirecting Uncle's anger. 

He hid the brand beneath bandages and never told a soul. When he asked why, Xichen had repeated the question staring at his wounded chest.

His answer was Wei Ying.

For Xichen, that was the answer also. His little brother's grief was the cause and to him, Wei Ying was to blame.

To have the same brand on his chest, to know the pain Wei Ying must have been in so many years ago, was a blessing in his mind. When he looked in the mirror and saw the lines that created the vibrant sun pattern, he didn't think of the Wens. He thought of Wei Ying.

It was Wei Ying he thought of when he pressed the hot iron to his own chest, when he angled the brand just so and when the scent of burning skin filled the air. No pain could compare to the way Wei Ying died, to being torn apart by corpses and resentful energy. The pain from a burn so vivid and deep, was nothing compared to the agony of his heart either. When raw skin pressed into the bandages, he welcomed it.

Like the silver bell, the drawings and the notes in scrawled calligraphy, the perfume pouch and the pressed peony bookmark, it was a precious reminder of Wei Ying. Of the man he loved and so desperately missed.

Grey eyes so suddenly serious in that stunning face, "Because there’s no other choice. We’re the only two unfortunate souls left here, aren’t we? If you don’t have useless conversations with me, then who will you have them with?

 

Come back Wei Ying.

Chapter Text

The sound of the brush against the paper is soothing. The scent of the ink and the patience of each word is a comfort, here in the warm sunlight of the afternoon.

The light breeze pulls the leaves of the tall trees into a sweet dance, the water of the vast pool before them, shivers. The waterfall in the distance flows over the ledge, the storm filling the pools to brimming but now, the birds and dragonflies are free to explore the air. The world is once more bright with the beauty of nature, the vapor rising with the rush of clear water, the dark boughs of trees ancient and twisted all around them.

Lan Wangji sits at a table in the small pavilion overlooking the pools, a quiet glade with stone steps leading down to the water. In olden days, many in the Sect would use this waterway, traveling by boat to the back mountain or to sit in one of the boats in meditation.

He has been tasked with completing some of the duties required of his brother, who is absent from the Recesses, visiting the Qinghe Nie Sect for the funereal.

Nie Mingjue was dead.

The constant anger and resentment inherent to their cultivation, had caused the madness suffered by every leader of the Qinghe Nie Sect. It always ended in death, not for just for the one unfortunate individual but usually several people around them. Nie Mingjue had succumbed and in his madness had killed or maimed those around him. Who ended his life was something answered only rumor. He would find out soon enough, when his brother returned.

His death long feared by Brother, was a harsh blow. Xichen had always hoped his oldest friend might be able to overcome the anger, suppress the worst of the side-effects though the musical arts of the Lan Sect.

Wei Ying would have said that it was reducing the flames, not smothering the fire.

Nie Huaisang had been a friend to Wei Ying during their adolescent years. Most of time he had seen the other boy, he was painting fans, searching for birds, skipping classes or catching fish. Usually running behind Wei Ying.

He should be finishing the work before him, but his mind was for once not on the task. His heart ached for his brother and he wondered about Nie Huaisang and the role he must now undertake despite his lack of skill.

The report lay unwritten, his eyes on the lotus pads floating gently in the pool.

His brother's loss reminded him sharply of Wei Ying, of the days after the Siege, the black soil of the Burial Mound and the hatred the world held for his love.

Staying indoors was difficult, the walls too close and the whispers too loud. The Elders were meeting with Uncle, deciding the course of the Gusu Lan Sect, the role they were now asked to play in the affairs of the world beyond their mountains.

The glade was cool in the oppressive summer heat, the shade from the trees and the slight breeze, a welcome change.

It was one of his preferred places to play Inquiry and all the songs he had written for Wei Ying, over the years. The cliffs tower over them, the pine trees finding the steepest pathways, their branches seeming to float in the air.

It is also Yuan's favorite place away from the Jingshi. As a small child he would play in the spring air or in the snow, running in this small area with his ball, hidden almost completely from view. He had learned to swim in the shallow pool, to read under the shade of the wide tree and had told Wangji stories of Wei Ying before the fever.

He collected flowers and climbed the smaller tree with Wangji standing ready, should he fall. He learned to stretch and to breathe properly, with the basics of shisan shi on the circle of grass, to meditate but the glade was always filled with happy laughter, quiet song and guqin music.   

They came here still, in the quiet afternoons to learn and practice the guqin, to complete their work in the quiet and share time as father and son.

The afternoon sunlight is warm against his skin, but he watches with hidden amusement as the breeze stirs the pages on the small dark wood desk, beside his own and the sight of nine year old Yuan, hurriedly moving his prized black river stone, to prevent them from flying away.

Yuan shuffles them back into order and moves the stone into the middle. His little son had found the stone in the forest a year ago and kept it, to use as a paperweight. It wasn't very big, but it had lines of red and gold running in the tiny cracks, reminding him of Wei Ying.

He smiles when he notices Wangji watching, his ocean eyes so very bright. Wangji nods his head and his son returns his attention to the page before him, adding strokes of black to his ink and wash painting. At nine years old his face is changing and he has lost four baby teeth in the last three months, but his coordination is improving. Something that eases the worry he would fall from one of the steep steps while Wangji is not there. 

Wei Ying was a gifted artist, rendering beautiful images with charcoal and ink. He would draw on loose paper or on the edges of his notebook, creating scenes and worlds with a few simple lines. His talismans were always accompanied by another drawing, usually a face or a caricature that he would be punished for had anyone else seen such rudeness.

Painting was after all one of the Four Arts, following music, calligraphy and Weiqi. It was considered by all to be a necessary skill and a mark of one's status, even among the ranks of the cultivation world.

Wei Ying had been born to humble beginnings, an orphan and his education was hinged on his success, understandable with a guardian such as Madam Yu overseeing his cultivation.

He was naturally talented with a flute, a clever strategist with Weiqi and while his calligraphy was unfortunate, his painting was beautiful. His cultivation was high and carefully maintained even when he left the path, to explore demonic cultivation. Wei Ying was never anything less than brilliant.

To Wangji's endless joy and pride, Yuan was remarkably similar. The order was reversed in comparison to Wei Ying strangely, but both son and father had one of the Four Arts they struggled with. His nine year old son was a diligent student of the guqin with an excellent grasp of music like Wei Ying. His calligraphy was concise and flowed well, but he struggled with Weiqi.

His paintings were stunning.

He was around three years old when his tiny hand found a piece of charcoal and within minutes drew an image of a rabbit that was surprisingly lifelike. In a way that was so reminiscent of Wei Ying, he had moved to Wangji's side on the bed, leaving his chosen spot in the sunlight.

It had been a particularly bad day, he remembered watching the lotus pads as thy drifted to and fro.

His back was bleeding and Wei Ying's son was playing in the sunlight while his brother re-applied the salve. He paid little attention to his brother, as they had argued again over Wei Ying, over Yuan and his place in Gusu.

Neither his wounds or the pain mattered to him, his mind lost in grief, but a sudden movement had him lifting his gaze. It was a beautiful rabbit and he could see Yuan had spent a long time, sketching the fur so it looked real.

Ocean eyes had looked so hopeful with smudges of charcoal over his face and hands. Ignoring his brother who was trying to distract Yuan, no doubt wishing that the child ws not a witness to this argument, he had reached out carefully.  Using a square of clean cloth, that sat waiting for Xichen to use in applying the salve, he gently wiped the smudges away.

"For Father." He had said, using that word for the first time. Announcing to all who would listen that Lan Wangji was his father and that his freshly drawn picture was a gift.

He had run a hand over his disheveled hair and took the drawing looking at the rabbit carefully. "Well drawn." The words hoarse and almost devoid of emotion.

Yuan hadn't cared, smiling happily.

It was the first of many drawings. Before the fever had claimed his memory, he even had a handful of precious drawings, featuring ChenQing or Wei Ying himself. In one beautiful little image, Wei Ying's hair was framing his face and he was smiling. His face wasn't quite right and his robes had no form, but the thought of Yuan seeing him smile like that, was a beautiful thought.

His paintings in class were simple and the subject was always inoffensive, but here in the glade, Yuan painted whatever he saw. This afternoon it was a stunning drawing of the mountains rising above the twisted boughs of a pine tree, the fog swirling around the rock to touch the sky.

Each one he would place in the Jingshi to dry, then in the morning or in early evening he would proudly show Xichen.

Wei Ying would be so proud.

Wei Ying. A dragonfly lands so serenely on one of lotus pads.  It was easy for his mind to imagine here. A boy ankle deep in water, waves frantically at him. "Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!" He smiles sadly at the memory.  

Wei Ying would not be sitting he thought. No. He would lying the grass or stretched out against the tree, uncaring of protocol or consequences. Or even more likely still, he would have his feet in the water, a long graceful hand playing with the lotus pads, a stick or his flute in the other.

Or up the tree, he thought, curled against the trunk, sitting on the thicker branches staring at the sky or from his great height, throwing the odd pebble into the water, just to see the ripples.

Wei Ying.

As another hour passes he finishes his report and the remaining work assigned to him by the Elders and Brother, now he has returned from his most recent night hunt. He stacks the pages organized by the time-stamp and closes the book detailing his experimentation.

Wei Ying's manuscript, filled with his scrawled handwriting and too many stains to be comfortable naming, waits for him on the end of the table. Closing this book is far harder, but the system that Wei Ying provides in these pages will be precious in the coming years, a standard for corpses that is badly needed in these turbulent times.

He slides the peony bookmark in between the dense pages, unable to stop himself staring at the characters written so rapidly in a badly aligned column, words running into one another. There are drawings here as well. A peony flower and three pages back there is an adorable image of Yuan as a toddler.

He cannot show these to Yuan. Cannot answer the questions that would arise. Not without breaking his word to Brother. He will one day. When Yuan is older and together they will look through this book and he will point out the tiny image of a baby.

As Yuan puts down his paintbrush, he closes the book sealing away Wei Ying's innovation until tonight. He would give them no excuse to deny Wei Ying's words, when they had decided to use what Wei Ying had created. If they could feel no guilt for demanding his death, the least they could do was respect his work.

The beautiful painting in strokes of black and grey, depicts their surroundings with an amazing detail.

"Well drawn."

------

As the afternoon shifts ever closer to evening, they switch from words to music. Wangji settles on the grass beside Yuan, his son's guqin aligned carefully with his own. His son sits with perfect posture, waiting for the signal to begin and the introduction of the piece they would playing tonight. 

The sound of the guqin is comforting. Yuan thinks as the birds circle above the trees.

The song he was playing was supposed to mimic  the flowing of a river, the ebb and the continuity of the sound. As he pauses, the peaceful quiet returns here on the glade, beneath the shade of the ancient tree, the blossoms dancing as the birds sing in the distance.

The strings vibrate against his fingers, the chords ring out across the glade, the water rippling outwards in response.

Gold eyes as sharp as a hawk turned to watch as the world responded to the harmonic ring and the power of Yuan's cultivation energy.

His father sat impassively with perfect posture before a larger guqin, his own elegant hand had paused, his callused fingers hovering above the strings. "Apply more pressure. Left hand." He intoned, inclining his head as he watched.  

It was supposed to be 'a bird's wing lifting into the air' when you released the string and a smooth slide, 'like silk' but achieving this was proving more difficult than his five year old self had anticipated. His balance was improving, his speed and the quality of the notes he could play earning him, his father's pride. A treasure beyond compare.

Each time he plays, he hopes to see the small nod of approval and the rare words of "Well done." each time he completes the score before him. Failing Father leaves a bitter hollow in his chest, a desire to do better taking hold, afraid to be a disappointment to this man who has raised him and always protected him.

Without pausing, he plays the chord again, focusing on the beautifully written, ancient score on the low stand before him. Father has chosen a song written almost a century ago, called Lament of the Peony Flowers. It is a rambling tune,  he thought when Father played it earlier, but it is beautiful. Bringing to mind not peonies, like Father's bookmark but meditation or reflection.  

In the quiet there was the soft rumble of his father's voice. "Pause too short. Raise hand over strings."

Gold eyes watched avidly as he played, demonstrating the correct pause over the strings before he began another chord, allowing the sound to vibrate in the air.

The guqin was the first thing he could remember, beyond his father's face. It was one of his earliest memories, watching Father play in the middle of the Jingshi, while he painted or practiced his first characters.

Father often played with a somber expression, drawing inward even as the sound filled the air. He could remember sitting closer still, watching those long fingers perform Ti and Tiao, fascinated by the sound and equally entranced by the way Father played.

He could remember sitting on Father's knee, as he patiently explained the strings and what the notations meant on the page before them. He felt safe knowing Father would never let him fall and so excited by the long strings. Father's gentle hand guiding his small fingers into the Tiao position, praising him quietly when he copied correctly.  

Music lessons were by far his favorite. Father would let him sit close and only years later did he realize, that other parents would never think to teach thier son in such a way. Exploring, enjoying the sound of the chords he first learnt to play, never thinking that this instrument was more than Father's guqin.

Wangji was famed for its use in the Sun Shot Campaign, used as a weapon to great success and it was a symbol of his father's cultivation. More than that, it was the only way his father often expressed his emotions. When Father played, it was like listening to his soul, the beauty of the sound transcending and pure.

Sometimes Father would sing, his voice low but comforting, teaching him how to use his voice and he would try to match Father, to Uncle's great amusement.

"Father and son." He would say. "You are doing well A-Yuan."

He thinks Uncle Xichen enjoys listening to Father too, watching him play Wangji and watching him teach Yuan with such diligence.

His father speaks in short sentences, using words that are not always easy to connect with concepts, but, there is endless kindness, love and patience in his father's manner. Through the guqin he learns to understand, to pause and let the strings sing as they were meant to. Just like Father.

Father's quiet is never silence. He learns this at age three. When he is afraid Father has always guided him gently, letting him find his courage and his confidence, without the verbal lashings he has witnessed with JingYi.

When Father admonishes him, it is always for a reason and the suddenness of it, was always enough to calm him. Father knows in an instant when something is not right, allowing him to find his answers on his own, but always ready to listen if he is in trouble.

No, quiet is not silence. Father speaks in gestures and actions, his eyes often telling you more than his words.

When Father plays with Uncle Xichen, the world stills and flows around them. It is power and it is often melancholy, the notes of the flute rising in the air followed by the low hum of the strings.

It is a lantern released into the sky, the promise of the past and the vibrancy of today, written into the chords the xiao begins and the guqin echoes.

He thinks he will always watch with that same wonder.

Across the water, an Elder and a Senior not much younger pass along the pathway. He greets them politely, pressing his fist into his palm and bowing low over his qin. Gold eyes stare first at him and then nod curtly at the pair passing by, his attention returning to the passage Yuan is struggling with.

Their response is coldly polite but Yuan is accustomed to the way they judge his father and himself, for all the ways they are different. No other father in Gusu would purchase a small table, to spent time with their son in the afternoon sunlight. Only Father and he is eternally grateful.

He thinks about other children who see their parents now and again, snatches of time or quiet gatherings at dinner tables. He wonders what life would have been like, if Father never chose to spend time with him.  A father only in name. Never sharing tea in small delicate cups and simpler games of Weiqi, learning the guqin or as they have done so many times in the past, when his father would hand him a book and gesture for him to begin reading aloud.  

The actions of others are important and life is precious. These are two rules. Father is mindful of the rules and the protocols of conduct, teaching him carefully so he can move easily within the world of Gusu. But when it comes to Yuan, his health, safety and well-being, Father places him before the Sect.

At the dinner table he ensures Yuan is eating, when his son speaks he listens intently and often chooses to spend time with him, here in the glade, with the rabbits even out in the training fields.

No other father would do such a thing.

He has heard them talk. It is against the rules to gossip, but that does not stop the conversations he overhears without intending to eavesdrop. Uncle Xichen worries for Father, he can see it clearly in his uncle's gentle eyes, in the encouraging manner he uses when he visits. He speaks with Great Uncle, whose abrasive words and coldly angry demeanor frighten him into silence whenever they meet.

He hears others talking about how Father was being punished when he was small and so many stories of his bravery, his perfect etiquette and flawless manners. They whisper about downfall and second chances, about how he was nearly exiled.

They whisper too about his origins. Later when he is far older, he will think back and wonder what it was that prevented the words turning cruel and sour. The odd disparaging remark never within earshot of Father was a small price to pay for happiness he has. The harder challenges were in overcoming the barriers they set, the condescending attitude and the high expectation, he feared he would fail.

When he looks up at his Father sometimes, at his calm gold eyes and his far larger hand demonstrating a word with such perfect calligraphy, Yuan often wonders why Han GuangJun would choose him for a son. Other times he thinks only that Lan Wangji is his Father and that is the only thing that matters.

It is explained to him carefully by Uncle Xichen, that Father loved his first parent, that they died and Father became his only parent in their honor. He wonders if that person was Xian Ge Ge. He wishes it was. He doesn't know why, but when he thinks of Xian Ge Ge it is always with sadness and endless curiosity.

He spends a long time thinking about Xian Ge Ge, not really sure if this is his first Father or his older brother, but the stories Father tells of him, random sentences that eventually could fill a whole book, building word by word, a picture of Xian Ge Ge. He loves the picture of this person, this father or older brother, who is brave and bold. Clever and strong with grey eyes and a flute.

Xian Ge Ge died and when he died, Lan Wangji adopted him. This was the only thing he really knew for a fact. He knows deep in his heart, that he loves Xian Ge Ge and he knows too, that Father despite never uttering the words, loves him as a son.

His Father is always pleased when he honors Xian Ge Ge in any way, surprised sometimes but he agrees solemnly and quickly each time. Xian Ge Ge is family and he wants to honor him, even if he cannot remember him.

Lan Ai tells him that he must be honorable and grateful, that his home was gifted by Father. That he must become a cultivator that is a blessing to the Lan family or he will bring shame on the family name.

Some call him an orphan that Han Guang Jun took pity on, but in the early days there were other words he didn't understand. Most dared never to speak in front of Father, did not dare to ask about his 'mother' or why Yuan prayed for another father at the altar every week.

In the end, he did not care. Father had promised he would always be his son. That was all that mattered. Xian Ge Ge would be proud he knew.

"You have improved."

He cannot contain his smile, hearing those words and his hands pause on the strings as the last chord settles in the air.

Xian Ge Ge would be proud.

"Can I play it again for Xian Ge Ge?"

Chapter Text

The late afternoon sunlight caresses the floor of the Jingshi, pooling around small bare feet balanced on his father's desk.

Only the rustle of cloth disturbed the soothing quiet and the creak of the tree branches outside the window, swaying with the wind. The skies were beginning to threaten rain, storm clouds building on the horizon. It would probably rain overnight, Sizhui thought, glancing out the window to his left.

Sizhui kept his silence and lightly shifted his feet to release the strain, after standing for so long. Gold eyes lifted from the hem of his robes and glanced up, stilling his feet immediately. He nodded his head in apology and nearly fell from the desk, when he misjudged the edge.

Long hands callused from the guqin, gently grasped his waist and one leg, preventing him from falling. The look he received was mildly disapproving and Sizhui flushed. "Sorry Father." He tried to say it quietly but the words seem to echo in the silence around them, shattering the peace of the room.

His flush deepens and Lan Wangji watches him with amusement and mild admonishment, from where he gracefully kneels before the desk, holding a long measuring stick.

"Do not fall." He reminds his son gently, guiding him to stand further back.

He was currently one of the best students in class, for his age at least, in wushu and had surprised many of his Elders by displaying a natural talent for shisan shi as well. Despite all those achievements, that many begrudgingly considered, befitting of the son of Han Guang-Jun, his balance and flexibility far advanced for his age...but he had never stood on this desk without almost falling.

The wide desk had been cleared of all items; except for a single scroll, a pot of ink and his father's oldest calligraphy brush. The wood beneath his feet was gleaming with freshly applied wax and the scent of sandalwood incense fills the air.   

Every year, on the same day almost as if it was an anniversary, his father would guide him onto the prepared desk, to adjust the measurements for his robes.

He could remember standing up here as a small child, one of Father's hands supporting him as his height was carefully recorded. Always in the afternoon too, even back then, when Father was officially in seclusion. He smiled now thinking of it.

Those days when Father would lift him so effortlessly onto the gleaming desk, that brief moment being airborne was so exciting, before being told to stay still, while Father straightened his baby clothes. By six years old he was climbing onto the desk by himself, tottering forward to where Father knelt, his small hands trying to smooth the cloth ready for inspection.

Each value would be carefully written down on the lone scroll sitting on the corner of the desk. His current height and the adjustments in length he needed for robes this year. The scroll so innocuous and plain, would be then sent to the seamstresses that produced every robe set, for every member of the Gusu Lan Sect, from Lan Qiren to Father himself.

He doubted that they required such stringent instructions and at ten years old, felt embarrassed by the entire process. Most of the boys in his class were wearing robes that required adjustment, right up the point where the Elder declared it was time in early summer usually, for a new set to be provided. This was deemed sensible. There was little point constantly adjusting the sleeves and hem to account for small changes in height, so only the boots were adapted, when it was time. Then, that summer each child was provided with a new set, all identical in size and pattern, with boots sized for further growth.

To Father, this was unacceptable.

He wonders sometimes if Xian Ge Ge would have waited for summer or if he too, would dislike the sight of his sleeves rising to meet his wrist.

Sizhui does not ask, though he wants to.

He likes to think Xian Ge Ge would not mind. At least, perhaps not as much as Father does.  

Astute gold eyes however, notice as soon as the cuff of his sleeve or the hem of his outer robe shorten even slightly. Father's eyes were something of myth and legend, they missed nothing. He would not be surprised if Father really could see for miles just like Lan An, their Founder could in the stories about him.  

Long fingers would pluck at his sleeves, sudden and brief, or he would stare at Sizhui's boots disapprovingly when he arrived at the Jingshi, for weeks before this special day. Worse still, were the handful of occasions when he, as Father's son was allowed the privilege of serving the Twin Jades tea, beneath the shade of the white tree. Uncle Xichen, would only have to glance at him once and he would say so casually, "Sizhui, you are growing so boldly now."

Father would remain so impassive, but Sizhui would see those gold eyes considering the length of his robes and he would state, before Sizhui could think of an appropriate answer, "His robes will need adjusting."  

Uncle Xichen would simply smile and with a flush of embarrassment, he would continue the ritual, making sure that he had correctly followed every step.

He had not the courage to ask others his age, a child's intuition telling him that this is something Father alone does. But, this perhaps better. He cannot imagine the parents of his fellow disciples, writing three cun on a scroll, planning for robes three months before summer.

The robes would arrive a week or so before his birthday, as the seamstresses were not overly busy at this time. As part of their tradition, he would fold his newly washed old robes, which in their pristine condition would be passed to another, a younger disciple. He would dress in his new robes, ignoring the mutters of his fellow students and walk to the Jingshi before classes began.

Father would be waiting and would run his eye critically over the robes. On one memorable occasion, he declared that they fit badly and requested Sizhui wear his old ones for another day, while they consulted his instructions. After that, they were careful to add the exact amount Father requested, so in tradition, Father would nod his approval and gesture for Sizhui to sit with him for breakfast.

He would be the only one in class with new boots and a new set robes, a fact that did not sit well with his fellow disciples. Or the Elders really. Not even Lan Qiren. Several parents called him spoilt, suggesting that he was too vain or proud, but the idea of waiting for summer was not something Father would agree with.

Uncle Xichen had explained that this was one of the ways Father showed his care and love, when he found Sizhui with a bruised cheek, after a fight he tried to avoid. The other boys were punished and Sizhui copied the rules in the Library with Father sitting nearby, for nearly a month after that incident.

It was worth it. If it was for Father, then it was worth the taunts and remarks, even from Jing Yi.

"Up." Father's voice interrupts his thoughts and he automatically lifts his arms, spreading them wide. Father had been kneeling in front of the desk for a while now, measuring the distance from his hem to the surface of the polished wood, with an antique measuring stick. A procedure that could last a number of minutes, as each section of his hemline was checked against the length of his leg, from knee to desk. Eventually Father nodded, satisfied.

"Mn."

When he stands, Father towers over the desk and takes the measuring stick so it lies from his middle finger, to where it just touches his chest. Again he nods and checks the other arm, long fingers testing the lapel of his outer robe.

"Down."

When he lowers his arms, Father turns away and adds another three numbers to the scroll.

Father writes conscientiously with beautiful calligraphy, unmatched by anyone else he thinks.  Sizhui having been taught from his earliest years to copy this style, so always tries to convey information concisely, with a clear line of thought. He applies the same succinct style to every task, but here Father notes the differences, with all the importance of an official missive. Each page, preserved in a stack of similar scrolls, one for each year in the same compartment beneath the floor of the Jingshi.

There is a special importance Father gives each scroll, as if they are priceless and Sizhui doesn't understand why, but it sends a warm feeling to curl in his chest.

"You have grown by three cun." Father declares, the rumble of his voice disturbing the silence, that fell once more on the main room of the Jingshi.

Three cun. That was a lot. He wanted to be as tall and strong as his Father, so nodded excitedly. Pleased to finally be growing like all the other boys, his age. Uncle, Teacher Qiren, Father...they were all so tall and graceful. It was expected of all Lan cultivators, to be exceptional but Father was the greatest cultivator of all time, as far as he was concerned and he wanted to be just like him.

"Thank you Father." Sizhui's voice is happy and bright as he bows in respectful gratitude. When he looks up, Father simply nods.

He always thanks Father, not simply for the robes, though he is always grateful for everything Father does for him, but he thanks him too, for caring. For loving him. For choosing and continuing to choose him as his son.

Somewhere, he thinks, Xian Ge Ge is smiling down on them.

--

Lan Wangji watches as his son leaves the Jingshi, passing beneath the shade of the magnolia tree, his robes fluttering in the breeze.

Three cun, he thinks with fond pride.

When Sizhui disappears from sight, he collects the scroll from his desk and prepares it, to send to the seamstresses.

As an inexperienced father, many including Uncle doubted that he would be proficient in raising the shy toddler. They expected Yuan to be less and for him to fail. That this beautiful little boy, who laughed like Wei Ying and sat at his knee so attentively when he tried to tell him a story, would be less. Wei Ying's son. His son.

He refused to lose the child who contently sat curled in Wei Ying's arms, so rather than force Yuan to become like him, cold and distant, he chose to ensure that his son could not be looked down on. Yuan's early formative years under his tutelage, had earned him his own merit, despite the efforts of most of the teachers later on . He was clever and compared to the other children, more advanced in his studies. He was athletic and strong, skilled in shisan shi and the Four Arts.

He was a disciple, his Sect should be proud to call their own and on the dark nights when the past lurked in the shadows, he admitted to himself, that Lan Yuan would have been molded quite differently in the Qishan Wen Sect. His clever mind spelling his end at a young age or the beginning of training for a high rank with flames around the sleeves and collar.

Perhaps...If Wei Ying had survived the Siege...perhaps Yuan would have worn red and black as this age too. A single disciple in an army of one. No. Wei Ying would not have taught Yuan demonic cultivation. Taught him of it yes, but not as student of the darker arts.

He tries to imagine Sizhui in red and black. When they laughed, they would look the same. One older with grey eyes, the other ten years old with eyes of the ocean. Wei Ying would be so proud.

Whose?

Mine.

His sigh  fills the air as he collects the items missing from his desk, arranging his brushes and the scrolls he was required to look through. He does not sit at his desk however. His restless spirit has him moving back to the window, to the sight of the magnolia tree and the mountains beyond, the stormy clouds and then down at his own pristine white robes.

Wangji knew though, that no matter how clever or how skilled his son might be, they would look for anything to judge.

Brother too. He knew that Wangji had chosen to adopt Yuan, as the son of Wei Wuxian. Brother watched over Yuan carefully, caring and protective, but his gentle gaze held a hint of judgement that Wangji found difficult to accept.

Wei Ying would not have taken that well.

After his time of seclusion ended officially, he was determined to present his son to the Gusu Lan Sect not as an disciple adopted into the Sect, but to formally acknowledge him as a Lan. As his son and rightful heir.

It was a hard battle and won, not simply through his son's wonderful achievements, but on the public image father and son presented to the world. Sizhui knew nothing different. He had instructed his son carefully, to always appear pristine and the ingrained habit, meant that Sizhui always stood ready for judgement.

They believe only what they see. Wei Ying had said once. His words ringing through his mind whenever, he took Yuan to the Elders or to the family gatherings. 

He nodded to himself as he watched the rabbits playing in the shade. Wei Ying would be so relieved that Yuan was growing. It had been a worry for so many years, the malnutrition and stress leaving him well  behind his fellow students.

Wangji had spent several days considering this when Yuan was only five years old and showing no sign of growth. As in all his decisions regarding their son, he thought about Wei Ying, fighting through the pain to remember their early days. When they were fifteen and the days were careless and filled with Wei Ying's laughter.

Wei Ying had told him stories of his childhood during their time in the Library Pavilion and he had heard others over the years, adding to the picture. Wei Ying had been too thin and malnourished as a child too and look how strong he had grown!

There must be a difference in what Wei Ying would decide, he thought. So, he ignored them. The Elders, his Uncle, the healers and his own brother. All their words of wisdom were cast aside in favor of Wei Ying.

He remembered how Wei Ying often mentioned beans and lotus roots. The latter was difficult to find here in Gusu, but he strove to ensure that Sizhui consumed beans with nearly every meal for a good four years.

Wei Ying had begun his training young, learning shisan shi first as Yuan had done, but Wangji knew that Wei Ying had assisted Jiang Yanli with several menial tasks, carrying water for her and spent most of his free time swimming. So, he guided his young son into the shallow pool and taught him, as all fathers do in Gusu, to swim and encouraged him to perfect the skill.

Slowly, his son gained some muscle and several cun in height. Rather than a too-thin child of war as Uncle had unkindly suggested, he began to resemble the other children in class. At seven years old, just as Jiang Yanli before him, Lan Wangji had handed his son a light bucket of water. He carried it diligently without complaint for weeks.

As he grew stronger, from handstands and constant practice, he increased the amount of water and encouraged him to climb the steep steps of Gusu at the same time, every day.

His son would be ten years of age within a few weeks, now healthy and strong. He was not very tall and perhaps never would be, but he was diligent, clever, skilled and like Wei Ying, incredibly kind.

Come back Wei Ying



Chapter Text

The mist of late autumn gathers at the foot of the ancestral hall, with the twin peaks of the mountain behind rising up, as silent witnesses to the trio standing at the top of the long, steep steps.

The river flowed half hidden by the clouds of mist, to fill the vast pool below the hall, the bitterly cold air quiet with only the sound of the rushing water. There was no breeze, so the banners of mourning hung limply from the centuries old beams high above them. It was, as it should be, somber and quiet.

A dignified funeral for a venerable Elder, who demanded that the traditions and protocols of Gusu, be maintained at all times.

Most times, it was difficult to believe that Lan Ai had been a friend to his mother.

Her long years of dedicated service and diligence had earned her the highest respect and many, including Brother mourned her loss, with grief equal to her surviving daughters; Lan Bingqing, Lan Heng and Lan Peizhi. Lan Ai had raised several orphaned children in her time, but only these three had survived. They were all of them female cultivators of good repute and they married well with a few children between them.

Wei Ying would have no doubt have found it amusing, that despite living in Gusu for his entire life, except for the brutal months of battle during the Sunshot Campaign, he had never met any of them before today.

They arrived together, a trio in the traditional outer of robes of mourning, with the same pins he wore on his belt, denoting loss. Their spouses and children followed slowly behind, heads bowed as they ascended the steps ahead of the formal service. Their faces held little expression, but he thought them tired, the nights of vigil and the evenings of the funeral wake, wearing on them equally.

He had heard it said that the three surviving daughters of Lan Ai were not particularly liked by other female cultivators. The rumors that their positions had been secured by their mother's connections, rather than face the undignified process of assessment, followed them in whispers. It was unfortunate and he had little interest in such words. He had listened once to them, when there had been rumors one year, of Brother marrying Lan Bingqing's eldest daughter for an entire summer, he remembered.

The youngest one; Lan Peizhi was a decade older than he and Lan Heng's oldest child, was one of his contemporaries from his own student days. He knew little of Lan Gen, except that he had been an average student and had been punished several times as a youth for disobedience, at his own hand. It was fair to say, that Lan Gen had often avoided him, working as a Senior for a high-ranking Elder, a position than Lan Ai had secured.

He did not join night-hunts and simply spent his days writing correspondence and copying scripture. It was a safe, easy life one might say. Wei Ying would have found him strange.

He had alongside his brother and son, performed the three bows joss-sticks in hand. They had given their bow to Lan Ai's family before leaving the altar, Xichen remaining behind for a few minutes more, to offer the Sect Leader's prayer.

Gold eyes watched as a bird landed near the edge of the smaller pool, far below him where he stood immobile on the steps, waiting for the funeral procession. It was tradition, for those of the direct Lan descendants to wait on the steps for the pallbearers to pass, carrying the coffin. Lan An was said to have stood here where the cliffs fell away on the steep steps, into the waters below, beginning a tradition that has withstood the tests of time and grief.

The last time he stood here for a funeral, it had been for his father.

The memory of that day, sat like stone in his heart. He had offered prayers that day for both Wei Ying's safe return and his father's passage into afterlife. No one knew that for every prayer, one was always for Wei Ying. For the seven days of mourning prayers, he had chanted for his father while thinking of Wei Ying, the silver bell hidden in his robes, a talisman of hope, even as he grieved for a man he could never understand.

He thinks that he should perhaps grieve for the elderly woman, who cared for him and Xichen when they were small. Standing in for his imprisoned mother. But he wonders if Mother truly tried to befriend Lan Ai, or tolerated her simply for constant news of her children, since she was only allowed to see them once a month. He will never have an answer and he must be content with this.

They gather to mourn Lan Ai across Gusu and he shares their hopes for her soul to find its resting place, an afterlife worthy of such a person. This is the one truth he can offer.

He is grateful that she took care of A-Yuan when he was held in seclusion, following that sad pattern, barely able to hold his head above the mattress of his own bed. His heart broken beyond healing and his body weeping blood mingled with tears for a man she loathed. He found out too late that she blamed Wei Ying for the attack on Gusu, a wrong he could not forgive her for. He is thankful he learned of it before she poisoned the mind of Yuan and the young disciples like Jing Yi.

It is unthinkable that Wei Ying's son would not love him, when he returns. Not welcome his father with open arms and understanding.

Still, he should feel more than this hollow graveness that fills his chest.

He finds it difficult though. He cannot grieve for her, only pray for her at the altar. She despised falsity and would have no sympathy for him or for Wei Ying, not in this life or the next. Still, she was kind in her own way and would have died for Yuan in a heartbeat should anyone have tried to hurt him. She protected him from scandal and ruin brought on by gossip. If Lan Ai, the very pinnacle of what a female cultivator should be, accepted the boy as an Lan, the rest of the Sect had no choice but to follow her example. Even Uncle.

His brother is clever indeed and dedicated to family.

The gratitude he feels does not help though. His pain for Wei Ying's death is a vast ocean of grief, its storms and the endless rain battering his control each day. At every corner and in every waking moment there is a reminder of Wei Ying, a treasure in itself for the man spent so little time in this place as a youth and avoided it stringently as an adult.

Come back to Gusu with me.

His pleas were denied and his hands outstretched, ignored each time he tried to offer Wei Ying shelter.

That vivid, brilliant soul bowed to no one and Lan Wangji was not his father. He would never clip Wei Ying's wings only to leave him broken in a cage. Wei Ying was the fox that roamed of his own free will, protecting those he loved and content to create from his discoveries, never refuting their cruel claims. They could hurl their abuse and he would ignore them, their taunts and cruelties irrelevant to him.

Lan Wangji could only do the same.

No. His grief was only for Wei Ying and for the little boy barely eleven years old, standing just behind him.

It takes all of his control to not dwell on the bitter thoughts, because no one except himself, truly mourns for Wei Ying.

Not a scrap of cloth was left behind, not a fragment of bone or a whisper of his soul. Only the tears and agony of a man kneeling in the black soil of the Burial Mound. The man who still weeps in the grey light of dawn, who roams the world seeking all that Wei Ying experienced, drinking the wine he favored, seeking the wounds he bore, so he may bear them too.

Every memory was precious, even the moments that hurt him. Words spoken with that cherished voice, aimed like weapons and hurled in anger, in defiance and so much pain. Wei Ying had stood unbowed, his heart hurting with grief and isolation. Choices to save become the very decisions that damned him. Selfless and angry. Revenge that was brutal and fueled by resentful energy he could not control.

The memory of one such day engulfs him its painful grip.

Wei Wuxian spun around to dodge his tentative attack with ChenQing in his hand and he laughed coldly. It was chilling. So different from the laughter of his youth, the warm song of the sound a distant echo. "Fine, fine. I knew since the start that we’d have to fight a real fight like this one sooner or later. You’ve always found me disagreeable no matter what. Come on!"

The cry of his name, desperation and fear flowing with love deeper than the earth, "Wei Ying!"

Unseen by his Uncle and his son, Lan Wangji's mouth twisted for a single moment, as his heart stuttered from the pain of that memory.

Other memories of days in the sun, that teasing note in his voice and a stunning smile, that any siren would envy, one not even he, the younger of the Twin Jades could refuse.

Copying the rules for punishment, in the Library Pavilion. His perfect head with all those unruly entrancing dark waves pillowed on his hand, the ceaseless chatter falling away as he slept. His own hand preventing the calligraphy brush from ruining work that was not his own...

"Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan." Comes the cheerful call, and an elegant hand thrown up in a happy wave of excitement.

The boy who chose to spend his free time with him. Wei Ying never asked him to be something he was not. In his own way, Wei Ying was proud for him, of his achievements and for his standing, his cultivation and his mind. The only person other than Brother, who would happily stand with him in the rain or the sunlight, always pushing for friendship when they were young. During the war and all the trials he wished they could have faced together, Wei Ying still welcomed him.

If he had been better, if words had come to him as easily they did for Wei Ying, would he be alive today?

It is the question that has haunted him since the Siege. In the bleak days after his return from the Burial Mounds, it was all he could think of.

He does not pray for the afterlife for Wei Ying. He prays that he will return, that one day he shall see that bright mischievous smile once more.

It for that future that he lives for now.

No one hung mourning banners for Wei Ying. No one purchased flowers or picked them lovingly from the mountain paths. There was no body, so there was no coffin for a funeral procession or a cemetery for him to be buried within. There was no boat wreathed in lotus flowers or chrysanthemums, to honor him and carry his beloved body down the river to the family gathering.

There was no clothing to be burned and no one lit incense during the seven days of mourning prayers. No one bowed to his painting or offered chants or praise in his name. No one sat during nightly vigils or offered food sacrifices that were uncommon here in Gusu, but a point of honor in Yunmeng.

He could not dress A-Yuan in black clothing or add black to his sleeves, for the one hundred days of mourning. Not without question or without breaking his promise to Brother. He could not give him the black soil of the Burial Mound, to honor his father in prayer later on either, for Wei Ying had no grave and no one knew the exact location of where Wei Ying had perished.

Many Sects like the Yunmeng Jiang, followed the boat along the river path, playing music to accompany the deceased on their journey, but he played to bring Wei Ying to him, to call his soul to his side. The funerals in Gusu were silent unless prayers were being offered and no one spoke to the family directly here in the ancestor hall. That was a dignity for the private walls of the family home and the simple wake on the first day of seven that was held in honor of the deceased.

There was no ancestor tablet so Sizhui could properly show his respect and fond remembrance of his own father, his grandparents through Wei Ying or his Wen brethren. There was no tablet with his courtesy name or a banner. Only the ancestors that were Lan Wangji's by birth and Sizhui's by adoption. People he could hardly know and he doubted his own son prayed for Wangji's father, a distant figure that no one spoke of, or his Grandmother who would have adored him had she lived. Mother would have called him Xiao Yuan and she would have showered her grandchild in love.

She would have said that he was a beautiful boy and that Wangji should be very proud, for the gift of such a son.

His heart hurt thinking of Mother, of the futile wish that she was here. That his son could have known her.

When he explained to Sizhui that Lan Ai had passed away, that he would be attending her funeral on this day, he had found it one of the hardest tasks. Bringing hurt to his own son felt cruel and he welcomed the shivering little boy into his arms, holding him tightly to try and bring some comfort, when words failed him.

When they told him Mother was gone, he was too young to understand and Xichen had been drowning in pain too, hardly able to speak with tears he could not let fall in front of Uncle. He had sat beside him in front of Mother's door, awash in grief and uncaring if he was punished too.

When Xichen had told him of Wei Ying's death...he remembers so little of that night. His brother's voice trembling with knowledge that this would bring him pain, admitting that the man he loved had been killed by forces he aided, even indirectly.

The burning need to know eclipsing all else. Of the journey to Yiling he remembers nothing. Not the agony of his wounds or the soul destroying pain of the words, "He is dead Wangji. The Yiling Patriarch fell."

All he was fell to the earth that night. All of his heart shattered on the Mount that his love called his sanctuary.

A strong gust of wind startles him from his memories. He looks for Sizhui and checks that he is safe, away from the steep steps, in case he should fall.

His son remains still and he sees that he is watching the waterfall as it cascades into the pools below, falling as if from skies from the highest crests of the mountains, his thoughts elsewhere.

He held no issue with his son for his grief. If anything the tears that shone in those sweet ocean eyes, only made him want to erase the pain Sizhui now held. Lan Ai was a Grandmother to him in many ways, but Lan Wangji believed that his sorrow was for more than one soul. What the mind does not remember, the heart never forgets.

The terrifying haze of fever had stolen precious memories from Sizhui, but he went to the ancestral hall every week, to pray for a man he loved, but could not remember. His family from the Burial Mound; Wen Ning and Wen Qing in particular should have been honored by Sizhui as a matter of tradition, but it was too dangerous. No one prayed for the Wens.

So on this cold autumn morning, his son mourned for a Lan Elder, as a Lan himself. Standing just behind him, out of respect and partially to remain away from Uncle, who stood glowering at the temple entrance, immaculate and disagreeable as always. He had never respected or particularly cared for Lan Ai, but she was older than he, so tradition demanded his respect and piety.

For the sake of the rules and those long traditions, that barely honored Mother at all and who showed Wei Ying no such favor, Lan Qiren proudly led the prayers for his old enemy. Perhaps he would miss her presence within the halls of the Elders. Perhaps he was relieved that she had passed on, which is what Lan Ai herself would have said.

Wangji ignored Uncle, preferring the silence rather than risk inciting uncalled for arguments or another of his Uncle's frustrated complaints in front of Sizhui. But he turned slowly to gaze at his son, standing mutely behind him. His kind eyes were staring at the stone steps and his own boots, withdrawn and he looked so...fragile standing there it worried him. Wei Ying was loud and unafraid of chaos, his chatter filling the silence around him with his beautiful voice. Lan Yuan was sensitive and quiet, struggling to appear unaffected in this time of official mourning.

He moves with the utmost grace, stepping back and to the side, sheltering Sizhui from the worst of the chill and the heat of Uncle's gaze. Ocean eyes dark with grief look up and he smiles sweetly, shamed by his weakness but Wangji nods approvingly. His son takes heart in this and stands tall beside him, still just slightly behind him as was tradition. For every trial and sorrow, he shall be there for him, to guide and cherish their son for always. It is his vow.

He is pulled from his thoughts by the sounding of the bells within the temple.

The trio on the steps, three generations separated by far more than time, with loyalty far divided. A son who follows only his father, a nephew who gave his heart to a demonic cultivator and an uncle whose harshness hides his love. They stood with heads bowed as Lan xichen joins them, with gentle grace. He smiles at his family and ignores the distance, the true link in this beautiful chain.

The pallbearers carry the ornate coffin bearing the symbol of the crane, pausing as was tradition to face the Sect land below. As one they turned and waited as the four facing them bowed in respect, the words of final prayer rising to the mountains with one voice, deep and melodious.

The six pallbearers on the last note set off on the mountain path that led to the burial grounds.

Lan Ai's family stepped into the cold light of early morning and bowed low to the four Lan descendants. Lan Bingqing steps forward, her face perfectly composed but her eyes are slightly red, sorrow in her eyes. She opens her hands and offers the fine red thread to each one, for a safe journey as was the ancient tradition.

As their beloved Sect Leader, Xichen sweeps aside with a gentle smile and the trio follow him to the outcrop, standing in the footsteps of Lan An, giving them his blessing to continue after their beloved Elder, their mother and grandmother, on this last journey.

Lan Wangji ensures that Sizhui will not fall with a quick steadying hand and the cortege gathers in silence, behind the three daughters, each step they take is smoothly mirrored by Lan Ai's extended family and the Elders who wish to follow, their sister in quiet respect.

In silence, Wangji guides Sizhui to follow Xichen as he departs from the ancestral hall, with Uncle refusing to follow the cortege striding behind them.

"In honor of Lan Ai, perhaps you would join me for tea?" Xichen asks softly, but something in his manner makes it clear it is not entirely a request. His darker gold eyes lingering on Sizhui, is all Wangji needs to agree, though he would prefer to return to the Jingshi, to distract Sizhui or offer him the comfort of private conversation, of grief without judgement.

The memories are haunting him, swirling around him the mists. Wei Ying's pain and the agony of his death. He wishes he had been there. The guilt tears at him still, tormenting with the alternatives, worlds where Wei Ying escaped, where he survived if only he had known...

He sees a similar expression in his brother's gaze. Perhaps he thinks of Nie Mingjue. Perhaps Uncle thinks of his brother and the waste that was his life and perhaps too the destruction of Gusu, the anniversary of their near extinction only days away.

"En. Tea is traditional." His words enunciated carefully surprised the three as they descended the lengthy steps.

His Uncle gave an undignified sniff and Xichen smiled warmly at him. "Then shall we choose the small pavilion?" He asked gliding down the steps as lightly as a breeze dancing through the branches of the pines.

Xichen lifted the oppressive air as they reached the winding path, beginning a long talk with Uncle as Wangji returned to his silence.

As walked in sight of the pretty pavilion favored by their family for generations, Sizhui said very softly away from the ears of his Seniors, "I said a prayer for Xian Ge Ge too."

"So did I." He admits somberly in the same hushed tone and Sizhui smiles, the sight easing some of the hurt in his own chest. His little son will be alright. That is all that matters.

When he returned they would welcome him. He would never part from his side and Sizhui would know the brilliant mischievous love of Wei Ying. They would shelter him and he would want for nothing. A family forged through the mountains and the trials of the past, giving way to a new future.

He would come back.

We are here for you Wei Ying.

 

Chapter Text

The sunlight weak as it is, filters through the rafters of the old buildings and paints the rooftops in pale gold.

The air was still, the long rain storms over the early spring finally giving rise to the slightly warmer days, that whispered of summer approaching, winter but a distant memory.

Most of the cultivators, from Elder to Junior rejoiced as the fear of flooding and the icy chill of winter departed, from the mountains. The halls echoed with quietly hurrying feet and the classrooms were filled with new students, guest disciples and through it all, the banners of their Sect stood proudly.

One of their most famous cultivators avoided the muted noise and the company of others, choosing the lull while most were in attendance inside the walls of the classes or the training grounds. The darkness of his thoughts carried him along the paths and corridors of Gusu, without aim or destination. The notes of the ode Sorrow following him, like a ghost clinging to the memories that once held life.

For weeks of restlessness, haunted by the past he has walked across the mountains, through the valleys and meditated in the forests, seeking but never finding solace in any of these places. 

His heart felt like sand, his feet heavy. He had woken this morning well before five am, dreams of Wei Ying bloodied and desperate ripping into his soul. The cry of his name echoing in the hushed silence of the early hours, his voice breaking even as he reached out his hands to clasp only empty air.

No one witnessed his dry heaving sobs or the way his body shuddered, fingers pressing the silver bell into his chest. No one knew that he had spent the hours until dawn sitting like this, kneeling on the floor as he once had on the Burial Mound.

Two hours meditating in the remote cold pools had done nothing to ease the bitter ache in his heart, or the lingering pain of the nightmare. He had  relived those final days with near prefect detail, letting him see so clearly all his failures and poor decisions. The line he had diligently kept to; that Gusu came first and that he still had time to change Wei Ying's mind...

Regret weighed on him heavily and there was no peace to be found in reflection, only the cold truth that his love died so brutally. That he knew that he might not survive, hiding Yuan to keep him away from the coming massacre...it taken him to his knees in the shallows of the pool thinking, that Wei Ying might well have known death was coming for him.  

Was he afraid? No. Wei Ying was fearless and brave as so few were. Did he feel that fear when they came for him? When he realized that he couldn't get free? That he wouldn't survive, never to see Yuan's face again or watch him grow? Did...did he look for him, for his face in the crowd? Did his heart hope that Wangji was there?

Guqin strings he has learned over these long years, can vibrate with the sound of despair echoing his own. The music of it, hallowed and haunting did nothing to ease the emotions in his chest, the restlessness or the driving sorrow. For once his refuge of music, cannot soothe him. 

Every task asked of him had been completed in the hours since then and the Library held no sway over him, the words of the scriptures meant to calm, only drove him further into the darkness of his sorrow.

So he walked.

His weary feet slowed as he came to the oldest courtyard. Tired gold eyes fell on the square of grass recovering from the cold months and saw not the empty space by the fountain, but memories of a summer that felt almost like another life.

Wei Ying ignoring the rules about running, his black robes fluttering in the breeze as he dashed along the corridor. His hair had streamed behind him, the red ribbon almost completely loose as his hair rippled, like waves of dark ink. A flash of grey eyes and an impish smile before he disappeared around the corner, Nie Huisang only steps behind him.

Wei Ying leaning against one of the structural posts, his arms folded, his eyes almost charcoal in the shade. Those long lashes a smudge of shadow as the light waned when evening rose around them. He was defiant and beautiful, one boot resting against wood, his posture a study of feigned indifference and cold anger.

Wei Ying sitting on the fountain edge, one long hand dipping into the clear water. His long legs stretching out to the side, his black robes elegantly falling on either side of his hips, letting the eye travel up those slender legs indecently. His hair was tightly constrained that afternoon, the dark waves falling around his face so sweetly. His eyes were soft watching the water as the beads dripped back into the basin, lost in thought and memory.

How he had not realized he was in love back then, was a mystery. Everything about Wei Ying had enthralled him, from his boots to the way his eyebrows framed his stunning grey eyes.

This was a quiet area, but the courtyard was an easier route, a short cut really to the main buildings from the lecture halls and the classrooms. Some had spent their entire lives in Gusu and not realized this, but during the time Wei Ying had studied here, he had often seen him along this path. Usually breaking the rules.

He of course, never chose this route for precisely that reason. It was a good choice and offered a timely path from the Library to the lecture hall, where Uncle waited. It wasn't entirely for the chance to see the boy with the bright smile and enchanting laugh.

He lingered, watching the small birds as they settled on the rim of the fountain. It was tranquil and for a few minutes, he could rest here. Think of better, sweeter memories of Wei Ying, before the loss and the war....the resentful energy and... 

"Wangji?"

Despite the way his thoughts led, he turned smoothly and saw Brother emerging from the shadows of the next corridor as he turned the corner, a scroll tucked under his arm. There were faint signs of strain around his brother's eyes and his hands were tense, half hidden as they were in his sleeves, but he was careful to appear as immaculate as always.

Perhaps as one of the few in Gusu, Wangji understood as only someone in similar pain could.

He was not the only one who sought to avoid others.

Nie Mingjue's death weighed on Xichen, guilt and loss standing as companions to his brother's kind heart. An end undeserving for a man devoted to standing up against injustice and cruelty, a man who pledged life-long friendship to Xichen when they were barely more than children.

His own opinion of Nie Mingjue had long been a complicated one. He respected him and was grateful to him for his ironclad loyalty and friendship to Xichen. But he was wary of his temper and unable to forgive the Qinghe Nie Sect Leader, over Wei Ying.

His condolences for the pain his brother was experiencing had been genuine and heartfelt, but he could not deny that his words were tinged with resentment.  

As in all the unspoken issues between himself and his brother, Wei Ying stood at the heart of this particular chasm.

There was and could not be any resolve, not for as long as people like Nie Mingjue celebrated Wei Ying's torment and his horrific death. They called it justified, his fate and congratulated themselves for their part in his downfall. Ridding the world of the Yiling Patriarch.

In the years during the Sunshot Campaign he was one of the voices loudly clamoring for Wei Ying's death and the first to call him evil in public, when it appeared that Wei Ying was no longer going to be controlled by what Nie Mingjue deemed the good forces.

They condemned him and it was easy to see that people like Nie Mingjue were the ones, who had convinced Brother that Wei Ying had to die. That there was no chance for reconciliation, negotiation or any other alternative, where Wei Ying did not perish. Had he lived, he was perfectly aware that Nie Mingjue would have no issue with Wei Ying's torture or execution.

In the years since the Siege, the Lan and Nie Sects had recovered after been wounded by the Wens, not broken but certainly scarred. Along with the Yunmeng Jiang Sect they had set to rebuilding their homes with shared resources and knowledge, strengthening ties amid the carnage.

He wanted no part in this. To sit in the same room as these people, was tantamount to declaring that he agreed with them. A peace-offering Xichen would prefer, as he would prefer to think that his own brother would not have killed Nie Mingjue outright to protect Wei Ying. Killed him with no remorse or hesitation, if it meant Wei Ying would live.

For this, silence was better. Why wound his brother when he was already grieving? It was not lost on him either that Xichen had made the same decision during the first painful months after the Siege. It was a kindness and a courtesy, both brothers in their respective silence agreed upon. Why wound when there could be nothing to gain? Xichen rarely spoke of Wei Ying and when he did, it was carefully respectful. He could only honor his brother in same way.

Still, looking at his brother now, thin and tired as he walked serenely towards him, he wondered as he had over these many years, how far friendship went with them. Xichen's bond with Nie Mingjue was different to the one he shared with Jin GuangYao and Wangji had long noted this.

Not then as a child and certainly not now, would he ask. It was not his place and the waters with this subject were muddied. Wei Ying's cruel death and Nie Mingjue's sad end were nothing alike. The one always vilified was yearned for my his heart alone and the other was mourned, praised and glorified by many.

Brother smiled gently unaware of his dark, tumultuous thoughts and "I am glad that I have found you here brother." He said as crossed the small courtyard without disturbing the little birds,  

The way Xichen's eyebrows rose told him that his brother wished to ask something of him. It would be a relief to have a task, he thought, something that he could distract himself with. At this point, he did not even chastised himself for seeking a balm to his pain. There was no balm, no cure save Wei Ying's return.

Etiquette demanded that he act and this made the decision for him, as it had so many times over the years. Knowing what you should be doing was a relief in itself. There was comfort in routine and familiar steps, in the boundaries and well understood expectations.

As etiquette demanded, when his brother reached his side he abandoned his place by the post. He nodded in greeting and watched Brother smile gently.  As habit and etiquette, he moved in pace with Xichen, between one step and another, walking as the Twin Jades as they passed the fountain and the sweet memories of Wei Ying. An onlooker might assume that they had been walking together for some time, a light stroll on their way somewhere important.

Xichen glanced at his face with a soft expression and continued easily, "I intended to speak with you after breakfast."

The words, "But you were not there and I worried for you." hung in the air between them. It was half a gentle rebuke for not caring for himself and undisguised worry.

"What about Brother?" He asked ignoring this, as they turned the next corner and into the second courtyard that faced the main buildings.

"We are facing some difficulty." Xichen said with a small gesture.

"With the passing of Lan Dequan?" He inquired and Xichen nodded as if relieved that he did not have to admit that, the death of one their Seniors, was a problem rather than simply a tragedy, felt by all during the proper time of mourning.

Lan Dequan was a excellent cultivator and many were calling his death a tragic accident. A mistake that any experienced cultivator could make. 

It was a lie. No one wanted to admit why he had died on a night-hunt recently. His wife had been murdered by the Wens when they attacked Gusu and his son had been killed during the Sunshot Campaign. Not by Wei Ying though he was blamed, but by the Wens on a separate occasion. His father had died of heart disease and many said that the man simply had lost his will to live. He had hidden the signs of strain and then, a week ago had left Gusu for a night hunt taking on the fierce corpses in the West...and had simply not returned.

Investigation had suggested that the fierce corpse attack could have been obliterated by Wangji or Xichen in a few minutes.

He was one of the primary instructors for archery. Most of the male Seniors experienced in the art, enough to teach the next generation of male children, were either dead or overwhelmed with the number of responsibilities they carried already. There was also an issue Wangji didn't understand about taking the place of Lan Dequan. Many skilled enough to teach were reluctant and Uncle in a towering rage, was currently dealing with this problem among many.

The head instructors for the female cultivators refused to teach the male students, as this contravenes the teachings of Lan An and the rules. It could be said that many of the female instructors, were superior and this was a well established fact. A point of pride for Gusu actually.

"Yes. It seems we are not going to be appointing a new Head Instructor for another three weeks."

Three weeks?

He inclined his head in question and Xichen sighed. "Lan Ushi and Lan Jei are returning to Gusu, but the earliest we can anticipate them is in three weeks."

This was an issue. It meant either delaying the beginning of lessons for Sizhui's generation and temporarily discontinuing the current class. Unheard of in the history of the Gusu Lan Sect, except for the complete suspension of training after the attack.

"This was why I wished to speak with you Wangji." Xichen said with a careful tone that warned Wangji that his brother's next statement would likely cause him discomfort.

"If you would consider teaching the archery class for the three week period?" Xichen finished, his darker gold eyes wary and worried. 

"I will of course reschedule all other duties and can easily offer you several Seniors to aid you,  with your other responsibilities over the end of Spring and possibly the beginning of summer, as that is only two weeks away."

"Brother," He began stalling Xichen's words, but before he could continue a group of Seniors, bowed in respect nearby and asked for a moment of Xichen's time.

A flicker in his brother's expression told him how little Xichen appreciated the interruption, but to the others he was as serene and courteous as always. It was not entirely etiquette, but he stepped back and continued on for another two paces, until he reached the middle of the small, narrow bridge that was suspended over a deep stream. He felt his brother's eyes watching him and he stood, staring down at the waters below, his heart churning and his thoughts spiraling.

It was true that he stood as one of the best archers in Gusu. He had devoted years to the practice, learning methodically how to make each arrow count, the pull on his shoulders as he held the bow, the line of sight and the careful timing. Should he need his bow to protect Xichen's back or another disciple, there were few faster or more skilled from their Sect. This was not ego. This was hours of practice in sun and rain born from worry, with the judgmental gaze of the Elders watching on.

It was not the task. The problem was very simple.

He could not think of archery without thinking of Wei Ying. The two were intricately linked. Where he was skilled, Wei Ying was brilliant.

He could not pick up a bow, not even his own, without reliving the moment after the archery competition when he was seventeen...his forehead ribbon loosening around his head, the way the cloth seem to flow like water from his skin, falling so effortlessly into Wei Ying's hands.

Long clever fingers had held the cloth, without reverence or kindness and Lan Wangji was lost.

That day seemed to be centuries away, a long distant past hardly considered when the more recent era was far more painful. He did not dwell on those memories. He lost hours at time thinking of days of sunlight and rain. In Yiling with the Patriarch and the Wens, here in Gusu with the young Wei Ying and the days in-between.

He castigated himself with all poor choices he had made. The decisions that pushed Wei Ying further away, that isolated the one man he would have done anything to save. He tormented himself daily thinking of all the alternative arguments that might have won Wei Ying's agreement to leave Yiling and seek safety. He thought about the times he could have stayed, fought beside Wei Ying and perhaps met his own end with him on the battlefield.

He thought of all the times Wei Ying had spoken to him, the resonance of his voice and the brightness of his smile. He thought of him carrying Yuan close to his chest, how he laughed and all the things that made him Wei Ying. The way he could saunter into a room like a king, but stride so coldly when he was angry...lazy in the sun playing with flowers...leaping from the treetops with the speed and grace of cat...

He thought of all the things Wei Ying enjoyed and might enjoy now. He thought of the stories Wei Ying had told him of his childhood and all the youthful antics he had been guilty of, like stealing chickens and hunting in the middle of the day for pheasants.  

He did not think of the time just before the cave. The competition held in Qishan during the seven day grand Discussion Conference, held by the then all powerful Wen Sect.

That competition was a defining moment for him with one single instance standing out above all.

His ribbon.

It was the symbol of Gusu, of restraint and self-mastery through regulating oneself. The only one allowed to touch it... to remove it, besides himself was the one, who he would devote himself to. His cherished. It was a thing of legend and the pride of the Lan Sect, that they could have such a representation of self-control.   

It was a thing of ritual, of beauty with all the symbolism and tradition it held. That moment when permission could be given, was something precious.

Wei Ying had taken that from him, with one little tug. He had taken his heart too before that, held it even now, wherever he was in the dark chaos.

Now, years older and wounded with loss, he rejoiced in the simple fact that Wei Wuxian had taken his ribbon, that the cloth tied around his forehead was owned by the man he loved. That he could wear it with such pride not only in Gusu, but with the knowledge that he had found his cherished.

Like the silver bell and his pressed peony bookmark, his ribbon had been held by those beloved hands.

Wei Ying would always have his heart and the ribbon tied over his forehead still, belonged only to Wei Ying. The Siege did not change that.

It was not the ritual others dreamed of, the pinnacle moment when his cherished would stand before him and he could offer them the ribbon. It was sacred after all. It was a moment that deserved reverence and love. It was defining and tantamount to marriage, especially in the eyes of people like Uncle.

His heart sighed, even as his face remained still like marble.

No. It might not have been the way he had dreamed it would happen, but the hands pulling his ribbon free, asking for his love and for all of himself, would always be Wei Wuxian. Those were the dreams he wished he never wake from.

Did it matter when he had taken it? When Lan Wangji would do almost anything to have that chance again? To offer the ribbon, freely given with all of himself to the same man?

Time and love had allowed him however, painfully to see that Wei Ying had not tugged on his ribbon maliciously, as he had once believed.

Oh, if he could go back to that time with all the weight of today and live that day again. He had ignored Wei Ying who felt slighted by his silence, proven in the small but myriad of ways he tried to catch Wangji's attention. Faced with the boy who brought all the feelings he had tried so hard to distance himself from, bubbling to the surface... words were beyond him.

He feared that giving Wei Wuxian attention would destroy all chance he had in living free of him.

Free of him.

The ground had been taken from his feet the day he had overheard Uncle speaking with Brother about Wei Ying. How they wished he could live free of him, as if Wei Ying was some malignant force, or opium smoke slowly eroding his mind. Sizhui had been very young then, seven years old and had stood staring up at him in confusion when they stalled on the path.

They talked of the time when he was sixteen or seventeen when they felt they could have freed him from Wei Ying's influence. His brother wishing he could be spared the heartache, his Uncle; the unruliness and the descent away from the true values of Gusu.

At sixteen and seventeen he too had wished to be free of Wei Ying.

It was scalding to think such a thing now, burning his heart and his skin itched with discomfort. It felt like betrayal and shame, the twin emotions that they could not force on him, tied to the posts as they lashed him with the Discipline Whip. The punishment, the blood running in rivers down his back, the infection and the helplessness of it... it failed to make him feel this wounded.  

But the thought that he had once however wrongly or naively believed, that he could live freely without Wei Ying... that was  not something he could easily forgive himself for. Nor could he easily forgive his brother and uncle, for wishing for such a thing either.

He could not be spared the pain. How could he be? These days, months and years without him. Knowing Wei Ying was gone...ripped from this world and sent spiraling into the chaos, where he couldn't follow, only to call for him endlessly with a broken voice and pray for his return. To watch as A-Yuan grew from a timid, tiny child barely able to walk, to a happy little boy soon going to begin archery lessons.

He was a fool. A young fool who should have seized that chance with both hands.

At the time he hadn't known that he was in love with this stunning boy. That came later in the cave of Slaughter. He was lost in his own feelings, in the confusing ways his body and mind reacted when Wei Ying was near, yearning to be with him and hopeful he would stay away. Let him be, let him reclaim mastery over himself and live free of these shackles. These emotions that clawed their way up his throat, choking him with the sheer undeniable power of them, when he had spent years numb and comfortably so.

He was safe in the silence. He could become all that he was meant to be, if he kept his mind and heart free of all attachment beyond his family. He was doing well on his own. It was safe and free.  

Wei Ying didn't understand this. He would call this hiding. A monk's life. A self made cage. And Wei Ying for all that he was, never backed away from a fight, be it life or the cultivation world. No one could cage him.

Now, he didn't blame him. How could Wei Ying understand, when he, Lan Wangji did not? He had felt raw and isolated, trying so hard to be what was expected of him and Wei Ying did not, could not interfere with that.

He was not safe or free in his silence. It protected him then as it aided him now. But it wasn't living and it wasn't freedom.

Freedom was choosing to embrace this love and the pain that came with it. In learning to live with these feelings, not suppressing them but rejoicing in all that Wei Ying was and will be again, he had found a way to continue. A way to marry duty with his own heart.

Back then, had he embraced these new feelings rather than fearing what it could mean, he could have spent so much more time with him. Hunted in the woods for the paper mannequins with him that day. He could have spent every second with the boy he loved, just to see his face, hear his laugh and watch him shoot the targets with speed and accuracy that no one could compete with, not even Brother.

Instead, he had distanced himself. Alone even with Brother, he was humiliated and wounded. He had felt robbed of his dream, robbed of nearly everything he held sacred. No one was to touch his ribbon and he could never admit to anyone that it had been tarnished or tainted.

He had felt tainted.  

As if the man he adored, treasured and missed so fiercely could ever taint anyone. Wei Ying was kind to a fault, devious and too clever for his own good, but he had never sought to wound Wangi. Only in the height of his madness fueled by resentful energy had he lashed out and he would never blame him for that.  

If he could live that time again, he would have rejoiced. Wei Ying had publicly laid claim on him and he could have offered him his heart back then.

Regret was a shadow that lived inside his heart. Choking him daily. Wei Ying would not have understood the problem. Taking on the tasks that might discomfort him was what Wei Ying did, had done all  his life. He had been called less and had proven himself superior.

He was the only cultivator, the one person he would watch with awe and a powerful sense of pride. Unlike Jiang Cheng he never envied Wei Ying, only rejoiced in him.

To teach archery was to embrace those memories. It was to face what he had been and accept who he was now. A youth afraid to love and a man who knew no other way to live. 

It was to honor Wei Ying in a different way, who would have loved to teach the children all the tricks he had learned and Wangji knew most of them, having watched him for so long. 

His heart lifted as he thought of that happy laugh and the stunning beauty of Wei Wuxian as he lined up for a shot... his arm pulled back, his chest broad and those eyes, intent and calculated. It was constrained power and easy grace. Sharp eyes and careful patience. It was confidence as easy as breathing and a relaxed posture right until that last second.

"Wangji?" His brother asked, his tone gentle and he paused, turning to look at Xichen as he came to stand with him in the middle of the bridge, darker gold eyes gazing at him worriedly.

"I will."  He said simply. "It will be good to teach them."

Xichen's smile was sweet and unbearably proud but he shifted his weight and watched the birds fly overhead.

Silence fell on them, but here together bound by a lifetime and the ties of brotherhood nothing could sever, it was not heavy. It did not suffocate either of them with memories or the cold reality that the one they missed was absent.

Tonight he would go to the forests and play Inquiry by the remote lakeside. In the morning Sizhui would offer prayers to Xian Ge Ge and tell him he was beginning archery.

Tomorrow afternoon, he would teach his son how to draw a bow, how to aim for a target for the best results. He would see Wei Ying in him, in his stance and the way ocean eyes would focus on the rings in the distance.

He came from a long line of excellent archers after all, like Wen Ning, who even Wei Wuxian had once admired.  He would tell him about Xian Ge Ge, who could ride on horseback and shoot a kite down from the sky, with one arrow. How his father would lie on his back in a small river boat and practice taking down targets as they passed by, floating on the water in the distance.

That was tomorrow.  For now, he stood beside his brother united in grief and regret. They watched the birds sail through the sky, passing the clouds in a glorious landscape, that towered around them. Mountain and water, love and pain. 

Chapter Text

Hello!

I'm sorry for this. I hate finding the next chapter is fake too, but there is no easy way to communicate on this site.

This story is not finished and I'm not abandoning ship either, but I will not be updating until mid-July at the earliest.

Thank you for reading this story and thank you for every comment.

Lightning

Chapter Text

 The lonely song of a guqin, broke the quiet peace of the forest. Echoing the pain of a heart long broken.

One thought wove and danced through the music.

It has been thirteen years.

Long fingers stroked the taut strings, low ringing notes following in their wake like a tidal wave, bold and mesmerizing. A story of devotion and loss etched into ice, the spiraling patterns of grief, spun like spider's thread remaking a sweet love song into something new.

Minutes stretched into a hour, as years had turned to a decade, their count held in sadness. Still he played, as he had played nearly everyday for every year lost to the past.

If he closes his eyes he will feel the black soil of the Burial Mound between his fingers, smell the scent of the battlefield and again relive that agony, the shock of pain of hearing, the knowing that he was gone.

In the underbrush, a young fox listened for a moment, before darting away from the sound it found so strange and ominous in the peace of the woods.

After that, not a single animal approached the area, where the man cloaked in white cloth and cold grief knelt, drowning in pain. The aggressive melody, that slowly mellowed into haunting chords, that would bring a shiver even to the strongest of souls.

Every note was one of longing, a sweet almost tender song that filled the small clearing. It echoed and called through the trees down into the valley below. Calling and never once receiving a reply, the reflected silence only adding to the pain.

The moonlight danced along his sleeves and shimmered across the guqin, casting his furiously moving hands into shadow, the sharp motion and decisive pluck of the vibrating strings.

Thirteen years.

He would wait a hundred, if he was granted such time in this world. A thousand, if it meant seeing Wei Ying one more time. He dreamed of it some nights. A street and a man so familiar. A laugh that had him running towards a voice he waited to hear once more. A face in a crowded marketplace.

It was difficult to imagine that the world could have moved on by over a decade, without Wei Ying. Harder still to reconcile that he had been absent from his son's life for so long. Wei Ying would find that hard to bear when he returned.

No one else believed now that he would return. It was better that they believed him gone and yet the sting of their disbelief never completely went away. He had less tolerance for them now. They had wished for his death. Would wish for Sizhui's if they knew who his father was. His true father.

He had begun here in this lonely outcrop, thinking to play something that let him reminisce on the earlier past. Summer days and Wei Ying's laughter.  The one he often played by the glade overlooking the bridge, where Wei Ying would once cross into Gusu, the tone far lighter, dancing in the air. That was a safer ode to Wei Ying, calming and something more in line with the ancient songs of his Sect.

A song Sizhui would like.

This was anything but calm.

It was not a song he would play in Gusu. Not where his brother or son could hear. Too honest and raw for the quiet days and too loud for an audience that included most of his Sect. He would not care but for Sizhui he needed the appearance of calm, if nothing else.

A short step  away was the edge of a cliff, that tumbled smoothly into the forest below. It offered a perfect view of the valley, stretching for miles in daylight he thought, but here in the quiet of the pre-dawn hours, the village in the center of his vision was perfectly illuminated, by night fires and lanterns. Small pinpricks of light in the distance.

Where Sizhui was investigating with JingYi.

His son was talented, responsible and had been carefully trained for almost all of his young life, preparing him for a night such as this.

As if that makes you worry less.

It had been two months since the day, Sizhui gave his respectful bow to the Elders, accepting his graduation from his studies with excitement concealed behind a gentle expression.

Standing impassively behind him as his father, Lan Wangji was torn between pride and dread.

Wei Ying would have been elated and effusive. Planning night hunts in the future and beaming with joy. His son graduated! There would have been warnings and cautions about everything from corpses to prostitutes thrown in with happy pride.  Sizhui would have blushed and tried as one does in a storm, to hold on as his father chatted excitedly.

Alone without him, they celebrated quietly over dinner in the Jingshi.

Sizhui looked happy as they ate, no doubt relieved that he had passed the final tests. Sitting across from him, watching this precious, wonderful boy with a parent's quiet love, Lan Wangji barely knew where to start.

There were words he wished to express, caught in his throat and settling in his heart until he could say them. He rejoiced in the happy shine so present in those ocean eyes and smiled when Sizhui thanked him for the meal, still in the Yunmeng dialect.

Their little boy now a young man.

It seemed only hours ago, that he was rocking him to sleep, a tired toddler deeply missing his Xian Ge Ge, with tears in those ocean eyes. Running in the fields behind Gusu, wild and free like Wei Ying. Learning to read by the window, his accent a mix of Yunmeng and Qishan. Adopting him officially as his son...

A baby in Wei Ying's arms, nestled into his robes, content and safe.

Mine.

It had been a defining moment for him, watching Wei Ying with A-Yuan. He was so fierce, so protective. Declaring to the world so boldly that this little one was his.

Like a dragon in the tales his mother used to tell them, curled in her arms, caught in the story.

He had lost any doubt he may have had in Wei Ying that night. All of his heart and could only watch in wonder, as Wei Ying proudly carried his son.

His own father would hardly look at him. Locked away by his own choice and hand.

Qingheng-jun would rather not interact with his sons... his was the last hand that would be there to help him as a child. Always his brother or Uncle, after losing Mother.

Wei Ying would stride beside his son for his entire life. He had proudly chosen to become a father and A-Yuan had been at the center of his life. It was written in those vehement grey eyes, daring Wangji to deny him.

He would be so proud of him and without a doubt right there, where he could protect him still.

Wangji chose to guard him from afar. Let him find his feet with someone at his back, who would take on an army or far worse for those ocean eyes.

Yes.

His heart was in his throat, watching his son leave Gusu without him for the first time, even knowing that he would follow behind, but he ignored Xichen's soft smile.

As afraid as he was for him, he knew that no son of Wei Ying would stay behind as a scholar. No boundaries or walls could contain Wei Ying. He was born for flight, soaring in the skies as free as a bird and for battle. For pushing the edges of the world's understanding, armed with only his wits and talents. How could little Yuan be any different?

So he stood with him and JingYi when they chose their path officially, panic fluttering like a bird in his heart. Xichen praised him for his support and nodded knowingly at him. The Elders accepted as he knew they would. How could they not? Sizhui was one of the finest disciples of Gusu. The best of his generation, to the disappointment of many.

Still, death was close for every cultivator. No matter how trained, how disciplined, Yuan was still a child in his eyes. Sixteen. Too young to be here, alone with his best friend in a village with fierce corpses nearby.

It was within his skills, but Wei Ying's parents had likely thought the same. The Lan Sect had lost several disciples, young and older during night hunts, over this last decade alone. For Sizhui to be in such danger was not something he could ignore.

So he did what Wei Ying would have done. He went with him.

The first few night hunts went well...with his silent intervention. No injuries and Sizhui had performed so well, returning to Gusu half a day behind Wangji, to tell him what had happened and to deliver his well-written report.

The worry did not leave him.

It was his constant companion in the quiet. For both of them. His growing son and for Wei Ying.

In recent years, the violent storms of grief and anger had abated, becoming loss and sorrow that lingered in every breath. He had scoured the world for information on the chaos. Devoured every text that mentioned even briefly a soul falling to chaos. From the library of Gusu to the illegal texts aligned with demonic cultivation, he had searched for answers. In the end, at the beginning of this year he had been forced to accept that the only man who could know, was the very man he was trying to find.

There were times reading the pages, the dark theories that hinted at what chaos could be, his hands would still. His breath escaping in a wordless gasp, gold eyes reflecting the horror that his face could not reveal.

There were lost hours, in fields and on mountain pathways, seated by the window in the Jingshi and in between the old shelves of dusty books along the way, where he would lose himself in despair and helplessness.

Nights when he would sit combing his hair or seated his desk with his brush forgotten beside his hand, filled with questions it seemed no one but Wei Ying could answer. Was he in pain? Was he even aware out there in the chaos? Had he been Judged? Did he feel alone?

All that was left to him was Inquiry.

There was no answer.

His fingers paused, hovering above the guqin.

In the night sky a brilliant flare rose like a blue flame forming the runes of distress.

Sizhui.

In a blink, his guqin was wrapped and in one step off the edge he was on his sword soaring towards the village, his heart pounding.

-----

To his relief it was a straightforward situation.

He poured cultivation energy and all of the worry for Sizhui into the attack, the strings of his guqin echoing in the courtyard, gold eyes like those of a hawk, watched the corpses attack the severed arm.

They were losing the fight.

It was strange. Not the most challenging fight or completely without precedence, but there was something decidedly odd about the corpses, the way they moved and the severed arm was not something you expect. Not in the center of the fight and by most measures, actually winning the battle.  

Long fingers strummed a single chord in response, in a high tone and he watched calmly as the corpses fell and the arm lay twitching on the grass.

A man standing the half shadows, vanished into the darkness, perhaps panicked by the corpses.

The Eradication Tone ended the corpses and a single glance told him, that down below in the courtyard, Sizhui and JingYi were well.

Why did this not feel right?

Chapter Text

Da Fan mountain loomed in the distance.

The main thoroughfare of the town was thriving with families shopping at the many stalls, the brightly colored lanterns stirring with the breeze. There were umbrellas over the wares, sheltering them from the light rain, and some of them were traders from other areas, passing through.

With his long robes protected by a umbrella the color of the first snow, Lan Wangji paused on the roof of a man selling pottery, watching as several children ran laughing along the street.

By nightfall tomorrow they would be in the forests of Da Fan Mountain, where Sizhui and the other disciples would compete.

Over the next two years, he would earn a name for himself as a young cultivator in competitions much like this one. At eighteen he would then be introduced as full cultivator, as Wangji himself had done.

Of course, in his case there had been a massacre, the burning of Gusu and a war ending with the slaughter of the Wen Sect. Then...the dark years that followed as the world turned on Wei Ying, even as he fell further into the madness of demonic cultivation.

Turning away from the view of the mountain, he continued to wander over the rooftops in the twilight.

Very faintly he could still hear the dizi, playing a morose song, in the inn, he had abandoned for the rooftops.

The old man was a trader and a friend of the innkeeper. He had been asked to play for the guests as a favor, much to Lan Wangji's disquiet, ending with,

"...my friend, who can play better than even the Yiling Patriach!"

It took control not to break the dizi in the man's hand at that. Instead he had left the disciples to enjoy the music with a disparaging noise in the back of his throat.

There was no one who could play the flute as well as Wei Ying.

For five years after his murder, he had considered asking Xichen to teach A-Yuan the xiao. The dizi was not an instrument on Gusu, but by learning the flute, he would honor his father's memory.

A night-hunt changed that.

In a busy city in the north, he had heard the haunting melody, a song with no name that he knew, but one he had heard Wei Ying play in the past. A song of longing and sadness.

For hours he had searched, convinced it might have been Wei Ying, returned to him.

The realization that it was not, had shattered him.

Of the many things about Wei Ying, of the memories that he treasured even those that brought sadness, it was the dizi that remained the most poignant reminder. For everyone.

Jiang Cheng had all but banned the instrument to little surprise. The flute was a symbol of Wei Ying. Even more Chen Qing, it was rare when there was not a flute in Wei Ying's possession, always hand carved.

After that one incident, he could not bear the sound.

To hear a dizi, was the cruelest reminder that Wei Ying was gone. A sharp knife, with a serated edge plunged deep into his heart, with every note.

The old fear for Wei Ying's life, the devastation he had wrought and the bittersweetness of those summer days forever lost.

Not even his control could withstand the pain for very long. He had hurried though villages and found excuses to leave a room when he could.

Sizhui learned the guqin and with awe and excitement, he would listen to Brother's xiao or like now, sit happily in the corner of an inn his ocean eyes fixed on the musician, with wonder in his gaze.

He didn't blame him. The flute was a reminder of Xian Ge Ge, a tangible link to those half-remembered songs Wei Ying used to play him as a toddler. Lan Wanglji rejoiced in this connection but could not bear to listen.

It was sweet. He had been so proud when Sizhui's first composition was for the flute. For Wei Ying.

Xichen had played it for them and had complimented Sizhui highly for his talent, while Wangji listened by the table.

As in all ways, Xichen was different. Listening to Brother was never painful. It had never reminded him of Wei Ying. He played traditional songs, the poetry of Gusu weaving through the score. Melodies Wangji had heard from childhood, from the days Xichen had first positioned his fingers on the xiao in practice.

Thinking of Xichen, his feet took him along the pathways of the small town to the rooftops, escaping the notes of a song, Wei Ying would have considered too simple.

When Wei Ying played, the world was hushed.

With a flute he ahd summoned the demonic, an army of the damned bringing terror and death. He had played lullabies for his son, complex melodies from Yunmeng and far too many drinking songs. He had played traditional scores and brought delight when he started playing the uplifting songs that had a crowd dancing.

Even the songs of Eradication or Suppression felt like a serenade, a gift to the world.

No one could surpass his talent.

As he walked along the terracotta tiles, he sighed as he realized he could not return to the inn just yet. He sat down on the rise of the roof, hidden from view from both the rooftops around him and the road below.

The flute despite the pain of it, reminded him of something. The courtyard. There had been no flute, but the fight between the demonic arm and the fierce corpses weighed on his mind.

Sizhui and the other disciples were positioned on the right, directly in front of the living quarters, to protect the innocent lives.

He watched Sizhui's face for a moment. His face worried even as he stood ready, prepared as any son of Gusu to fight for the innocent, for his fellow disciples. So young. Too young to be here, he thought.

In his mind he turned away from the disciples and looked for the shadow, he presumed was Young Master Mo, then looked back at the ongoing fight. The female corpses he now knew to be Madame Mo was being overpowered as the younger male corpse staggered back.

Young.

From the viewpoint of the young, the inexperienced...things were simple. The fierce corpses were engaged in vicious combat, caused by innate violence and what many cultivators...an educators would call evil.

Simple.

To a man who had witnessed the Yiling Patriarch...watched as fierce corpses were so skillfully directed with a careless flick of a sweetly elegant wrist...demonic cultivation was a sword of a different nature.

Once you had borne witness to the might of Wei Ying, his temper flashing in scarlet eyes...listened to the haunting melody  of his flute...watched helpless as he drove his enemies to their knees...

As much as he loved Wei Ying, adored him and prayed each day to see him again he was not, as his Uncle claimed, blind to what he could do. To what Wei Ying had done. There were solid reasons for his choices. He had been pushed to the very edge of sanity, by his own brother and the conspiring of the Sects. He had been thrown to the Burial Mound, left to die and had been...altered. He had walked a dangerous path, that further altered his heart and perception.

He was Wei Ying. He might not have agreed with those choices. On most occasions he did not, especially at the time. There were days were death seemed to be everywhere. Allies and enemies alike, fallen to the merciless ground, while Wei Ying slipped further away.

Then there were days when Wei Ying seemed only an older version of the boy he once knew. Protecting the Wens, cleaning  Yuan's little face so gently with a cloth,  enjoying red spice as he laughed...

He had seen Wei Ying  deploy the dead and damned with remarkable precision, using only the power and intent of the master to wield  the vilest of weapons...it was not simple.  Could never be simple again.

Unlike the children, he could see how strange it was, for fierce corpses that strong, that determined to fight a demonically possessed limb.  Especially when the disciples, the innocent servants were a far easier target. The arm itself was remarkably strong, its resentful energies unlike anything he had previously encountered.

To him, it was clear that someone was wielding the fierce corpses. Directing them to defeat the possessed arm. Keeping them so carefully away from the disciples, ensuring no further bloodshed among the living.

Demonic cultivation.

Those who followed in Wei Ying's footsteps usually had not a drop of his skill or power. They were cruel, murderous and often mad. Exactly the opposite of his Wei Ying. Others were misguided and abused, seeking a different way, validation for their suffering. Something to make others fear, to drive their tormentors away.

Neither were the type to protect the disciples or the innocent from the rage of the arm or the corpses.
Opening his eyes, he saw that night had fallen and the crowd below had only grown.

It was good he decided, that he was accompanying Sizhui to Da Fan Mountain. If there was a demonic cultivator around there was a good chance, he might interfere in the competition.

If only it was Wei Ying.

------
The first scream was concerning, the second more alarming for the disciples and by the fifth, Lan Wangji was perturbed.

The decade without Wei Ying had been quiet, but evil still came, spreading death and chaos. He had followed its call and without truly meaning to, had taught Sizhui to do the same.

The sounds of fear and desperation never failed to take him back to the darker, uglier memories of the Sunshot Campaign. The roads and fields littered with the slain bodies of so many. The slaughter of the Lotus Pier. The burning of Gusu. The weeks of endless battle, resulting in his own sword taking the life of too many. Until the blade was stained with a river of red, until his hands were bleeding from the strings and his energy was nearly completely drained.


Wei Ying staggering with a bleeding nearly fatal wound.

The murdered children and the army of corpses. The endless cycle of grief for what seemed the entire world.
For the disciples unused to such sounds, they stilled unsure where to turn. His gratitude would never cease for these children including his son, had not been hardened by war. Their hearts were pure, untainted by all that he had seen at the same age.

That being said, they needed to learn how to react, in the proper way, that was befitting of a Gusu Lan cultivator.
Striding forward he led them off the path and into the forest, thankfully not dark enough for a torch, his eyes watching for any movement, his ears straining for the sound. There.

The disciples trained to be stealthy, followed his steps until they came over the rise, swords drawn to see a man struggling in a large net, dangling from a tree. He was all but howling now as he struggled, the net bulging suddenly then sagging with his efforts.

A deity-binding net.

"There are so many." Sizhui said horrified gesturing at the older trees, where still more were trapped, screaming, crying or wailing in a cacophony of panic.

Visions of one of his disciples stepping into the trap, especially JingYi, who was despite his training, sometimes too impatient for good sense,  had Bichen unsheathing at his waist. Tightly leashed power now shimmered in pale blue and a quick turn of his head, had the sword propelling itself high into the air.


The blade,  long and almost crystalline, appeared nearly translucent in the shadows, as if it was made of ice. It sliced evenly through the nets, the victim of the trap falling roughly to the floor of the forest.  A flick of his index finger had the silver blade whistling through the trees, neatly sheathing itself with a clank.


The net floated down into his hand and his eyebrows lowered in a frown as he felt the familiar energy of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect.


This was an affront to Gusu and to the other cultivators, now rolling around on the ground, trying to rise or running terrified into the undergrowth.


Jiang Cheng would hear of this.


He raised his arm and stepped into  the air, in a graceful arc that had his disciples staring in wonder. Bichen again rose into the air, following the sharp motion of his hand as he flew across the treetops, to where Jiang Cheng or his nephew was most likely to be.


Deity-binding nets were always set up in a decisive pattern. This number was extravagant, ridiculous and unfair competition, but the pattern was easily discernible from the air. They glowed faintly from above and formed a vaguely peony like pattern, along the mountainside.


He could all but hear Wei Ying say, indignant and horrified, "If you are going to make a flower, at least make a nice one!"


The center of the misshapen flower was likely were Jiang Cheng or his nephew was waiting for results.


He flew to the center, Bichen soaring into the night air beside him, bringing a wave of fresh screams and the odd crack as the cultivators were freed. High above he saw Jin Ling attacking an unarmed man who was holding his hands up in defense.


Disgusted by this dishonorable sight that was against everything he and Wei Ying believed in, he angrily sent Bichen hurling down, choosing the exact moment the golden sword aimed for the man, striking the blade with the force and power of lightning.


To his satisfaction, the blade inferior in design and power shattered.


A good lesson for the over-indulged boy, proving that rashness gained nothing.


His boots made not a sound as he landed, his gaze fixed on Jiang Cheng, standing there in his typical purple Sect robes, with his sneering expression and angry eyes.  


Here was the man who caused so much of Wei Ying's suffering. A brother who abandoned him and whose embitterment had only grown. Instead of love and loss for Wei Ying, all Jiang Cheng felt was hatred.


For the man who was better, even at his worst, at his lowest. A man who never ceased to love, even when driven to the brink of death.


He glanced at Jin Ling coolly. He felt for the boy, orphaned so young and left in  situation were succeeding meant  having to attempt to please Jiang Cheng,  but the boy's conduct was often abrasive and rude.


For the second time tonight, his blade shivered and then flew through the air to re-sheathe itself at his waist.


The young man was lying on the ground, his face lost to the shadows, but as he rose unsteadily to his feet, he saw that his face was badly painted with rouge. His attention however, left the young man as Jiang Cheng moved closer.
Jiang Cheng looked at him, lifting one brow sardonically and said coldly, “HanGuang-Jun, you sure live up to your reputation of ‘being wherever the chaos is’. So, you had time to come to this remote area today?”


The disciples had followed him and appeared from the trees in traditional formation. Unfortunately, JingYi spoke in his straightforward way, “Isn’t Sect Leader Jiang here as well?”


He would have to discipline the boy for that moment of rudeness, as it broke the main protocols of their Sect, but it was typical of JingYi's family line.


As expected, Jiang Cheng was affronted immediately, “Tsk, do you really think that you should butt in when your seniors are conversing? The GusuLan Sect has always been known for its respectful conduct. Is this really how it teaches its disciples?”


Irritated by Jiang Cheng's presence and in no mood to converse, he looked towards Sizhui and indicated carefully that he wished for Sizhui to disarm the tension. His son was diplomatic, trained into this thinking by Xichen, who hoped that now Wangji had a son, they had gained an heir to the Lan Clan, descendants of Lan An. Uncle had pointed out that Sizhui was adopted, but Xichen had simply ignored him.


Sizhui gave a quiet order laced with iron, for the disciples to talk only among themselves, then he smoothly turned to Jiang Cheng and his nephew.


“Young Master Jin, night-hunts have always been fair competitions amongst the different clans and sects. However, to set up nets all over Dafan Mountain is clearly hindering the cultivators, causing them to fall into the traps. Is this or is this not against the rules of night-hunting?”


Jin Ling as almost a mirror of his Uncle, said abrasively, “What can I do? It was their own fault for stepping into the traps. I’ll solve everything after I finish capturing the prey.”


That was a step too far. To admit publicly that he planned to capture the cultivators, which would include GusuLan disciples, was abominable.


The Spell of Silence was one he had grown adept at deploying to reprimand disciples and cultivators alike. Jin Ling's mouth was sealed between one breath and the next. If he chose to be this rude, there would be consequences. Wei Ying's nephew or not.


Jiang Cheng naturally took offense. “You, with the Lan surname! What do you mean by this? It’s not your turn to discipline Jin Ling yet, so release the spell, now!”


SiZhui spoke calmly, disquieted by this angry reaction, “Sect Leader Jiang, there is no need for anger. As long as he does not break the spell forcefully, it would release on its own, after thirty minutes.”


Wangji turned his head listening, ignoring Jiang Cheng's reaction as a man in the Jiang Sect’s uniform ran toward them from within the forest. He shouted, “Sect Leader!”


He hesitated when he saw that his Master was in the middle of an obvious argument, but Jiang Cheng spoke satirically, “Talk. Is there more bad news?”


The man spoke in a low voice, “Not long ago, a blue sword flew over and destroyed the deity-binding nets that you had set up.”


Jiang Cheng's glare was viscous, but he had nothing on Uncle. “How many were broken?”


The man replied carefully, hoping not to trigger further rage “… All of them…”


He waited, watching as Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes, his left hand casually stroking the ring on his right hand’s index finger. If he wanted to fight, he was not going to harm his disciples. Sizhui was directly in the way of the whip, where he stood.


For a moment there was silence as the gathering waited to see if Jiang Cheng truly wanted to test Lan Wangji, known across the cultivation world for his superior skill and ruthlessness.


They watched as Jiang Cheng slowly took away his left hand, ceasing to stroke his ring and turned around, with his back to Wangji,  to confront Jin Ling who was still covering his mouth angrily.


 “HanGuang-Jun wants to punish you, so just let him do it for this one time. It’s not easy for him, either, to discipline juniors from other clans.” He said sarcastically.


Then thundered, Why are you still standing there? Waiting for the prey to come and throw itself onto your sword? If, today, you don’t catch the creature hunting Dafan Mountain, don’t come to me ever again!”


The boy glared not at him or the disciples, but at the nearly forgotten man standing off to the side. He angrily put his sword back into its scabbard, saluted the two seniors, and retreated with the bow in his hand.


SiZhui watched him retreat and then addressed Jiang Cheng, “Sect Leader Jiang, the GusuLan Sect will return the exact number of spirit-binding nets that had been destroyed.”


Xichen would be so proud.


Jiang Cheng simply sneered. “No need.”


Xichen would pleased he thought to not have to pay for the nets, especially as they had posed a threat to Sizhui.
To no surprise, JingYi spoke from behind in disgust, “How could the Sect Leader Jiang act like this?


Very easily, he thought and frowned at the breaking of yet another protocol.


His son however turned and smiled gently, and said in a warm tone, “Young Master Mo, we meet again.”


Time was running short, Wangji thought with Jiang Cheng stooping to underhand tactics, to ensure his nephew could keep face.  “Do your tasks.” He commanded, still irritated from the meeting, but his face betrayed nothing of his inner feeling.


They turned to him expectantly and respectfully. He thought for a moment, not wishing for them to take unnecessary risks or get into a conflict with the Jiang Sect,  and said succinctly, “Do what you can. Don’t force anything.”


Young Master Mo watched them disappear into the forest and he looked at the man calmly. He had helped the disciples and he was grateful, so he nodded with respect to the man, who seemed surprised. His features were still in shadow, only the paint really visible, but there were no traces of resentful energy and the man was unarmed.


Young Master Mo saluted respectfully and nodded in return.


Turning away, his thoughts on Jiang Cheng and his anger towards Wei Ying, he walked further into the forest. Wei Ying without doubt would be with the children, the prey already in his sights. No cultivator was truly a match for Wei Ying and the disciples would learn much from him.


Thinking of Wei Ying of how his black robes would disappear in the gloom of the forest, he left Young Master Mo and moved higher up the mountain.

Chapter Text

At Buddha's Feet, tension was in the air. 

Lan Wangji knelt before the polished table in the only teahouse the village offered, perhaps ten chi from where Jiang Cheng sat sipping his own tea.

Both of them waited for news, worry sitting on their shoulders for a boy that each raised for fathers long dead. A father murdered and a family torn to pieces with the loss that could not be understood. Not in ten years, not a thousand. Three deaths that weighed heavily. Three deaths that would forever dictate the tapestry of their lives. Everyone's lives.

One death in particular remained a source of their grief.

Neither of them spoke, barely acknowledging the other was seated nearby in direct contrast with polite etiquette. To do that, was to acknowledge that one death that had long stood between them. One who tried to end his life and the other who would have done anything to have saved him from the hand of fate. There could be no reconciliation between them. Never friends, but once comrades bound by the same desire for revenge, for the end of the Wen tyranny.

Now, one feared the day of Wei Ying's return and the other waited for nothing else.

In all the world, two men could not be more different and yet the same. Trapped like insects in amber waiting for the day Wei Ying would return, never fully living in the present when the past was rich with pain. With memories of better, happier times when two of those three laughed and smiled. Darker times to dog their steps and tragedy that left a permanent mark on their souls. 

So they sat, as islands in a vast sea in heavy silence wrapped in pain. No one spoke, unwilling to pull the attention to themselves, not when a fight brewed in the air as it so often did when Lan Wangji was in the vicinity of Jiang Cheng.

What was there to say? They both laid blame firmly at each other's feet and the sting of betrayal was only tempered by promises to their Sect. Relations had to be kept between their people but truly, both of them would rather face anyone else.

To look upon each other was tor remember the three that were not there. Cruelly ripped from life, so Wei Ying could never  see his son grow. The sister and brother by marriage lost so young leaving behind a boy so lost.

The man running towards them from the forest, his feet stumbling as he came closer, diverted the stress immediately, pulling both men from their memories.

"What is it?" Shouted Jiang Cheng fear already tightening his chest. Jin Ling.

Lan Wangji stared at the man with a cold, indifferent expression but ice ran down his spine. Sizhui.

"The forest is on fire!" He said panting. "The disciples...all of them of them are caught in the flames! There is a statue... a Goddess of some kind...she's trying to kill them all!"

He did not register getting up from the table, the tea spilling over the wood to drip onto the floor. He cared nothing for Jiang Cheng and took to the sky, fear for his son, for his disciples pulsing in his veins.

It did not take long for him to see the source of the fire. It was engulfing the trees in a wide circle far into the distance, much further than the point where he left them.He would not be able to land safely in the flames he had to find Sizhui.

His feet hit the ground when he was close enough to see the flames spreading to the trees beyond the circle, panic for Sizhui and the disciples beating violently in his chest. The ground blurred as he ran, listening to the screams and the roar of something inhuman, just ahead in the distance between the lines of trees. There!

He saw the clearing and raced up the hill towards the battlefield, his white robes billowing with every stride, even as his mind prayed for his son's life.

The shrill sound of a broken flute broke through the sound of battle and the crackle of the fire. The sound of it, halted his frantic feet, Bichen gripped tightly in his hand. The shock of it, thrummed through him.

It had been years since he had last heard a flute over a battlefield. Gold eyes searched the area, looking at the trees for the sight of a lone figure cloaked in darkness with a red ribbon riding the breeze. Nothing.

A flute?

It echoed and rolled around the mountain, brittle and too sharp to almost bear. The notes seemed to ring with anger, the song unlike anything he had heard before.

He stood as a statue between the trees, his eyes wide with disbelief. The old pain of grief rose with the music, the anger of the flute reminding him fiercely of those early days. The nights when he lay with his back bleeding steadily onto the sheets, guilt and despair weaving through the cold anger, that had roiled through him. One thought had kept him awake, uncaring of moonlight or sun. Uncaring of anything beyond the realization that had driven him to his knees on the black soil of the Burial Mound.

They murdered Wei Ying.

It was only the screams that drove him on and the frantic worry for Sizhui rippled through him once more.
In another breath lost to the unforgiving fire, he was almost there... the clearing now in sight. He could see through the flames that engulfed the trees, that there were cultivators on the ground, their bodies broken nearly beyond recognition...Sizhui!

Sizhui! Where was he?

Wei Ying calling for A-Yuan in the marketplace, his eyes frantic. A father's fear now a cold hand around his heart. Where was he?

The voice of a cultivator shouted, “Fellow cultivators, we have to block him so that he doesn’t escape. This is Wen Ning we’re facing!”

That was the last name he expected to hear spoken. Wen Ning?

The Ghost General was Wei Ying's right hand, a weapon and his closest companion. But that could not be right...Wen Ning had been burned into ash well before...before the siege at Luanzang Hill...before Wei Ying's murder.

There were nights when he had wondered if Wen Ning had been with Wei Ying that day, if by some chance, Wei Ying himself would have survived.

Wen Ning stood at the heart of Wei Ying's demonic cultivation. He was both the one who murdered Jiang YanLi and was the very symbol of Wei Ying's power.

If another fierce corpse had been resurrected with half of Wen Ning's abilities, Sizhui would be in terrible danger.

At the crest of the hill, he stepped into the circle of fire prepared for battle to destroy the fierce corpse or the Goddess Statue, should either be standing.

A growl, inhuman and familiar turned his attention to the middle of the clearing, past the heat of the flames, into  an area of cultivators still standing with swords drawn. None of then was Sizhui, though several of his disciples were trying to help...JingYi was there.

Where was Sizhui?

A fierce corpse stood in chains and ragged clothing. The corpse waved his arm and the black iron chains swept past in a heavy arc, swiping into the drawn swords. There were cries of pain as the chains broke blades and bones, while others were thrown to the side.

Within in one breath and a single step, the corpse had already moved, gripping the neck of the person closest to him, a young cultivator. With a light pull, he was lifted off the ground, struggling as his windpipe was slowly crushed.

It was his worst fears confirmed. A demonic cultivator, had finally managed to surpass the basic level of dark cultivation and was even now walking the same path as Wei Ying.

Before he could release Bichen or release his own energy, the flute quiet for over a minute now, sounded again.

A melody, sweet and tranquil rose through the trees, sweeping across the hillside towards the corpse in the center. As if held in a trance, the corpse seemed to relax. It dropped the boy, who landed with a heavy thud, and turned away from the violence... from the half circle of terrified cultivators.

Towards the source of the song.

The chords slipped past the worry for his son and with honed precision cut into his heart. The notes striking at every nerve to reach deep into his bones.

It could not be.

His breath froze in his chest, trapped in a state of wonder and hope. He dared not hope...It was a dream...it had to be.

The fierce corpse walked forward, his steps slow and ambling, those depth-less eyes stared at the man in the firelight.

From the shadows, he could see the face of the corpse....

It was Wen Ning.

Forgetting his fear for Sizhui for a moment, the fire and the cultivators...the danger of Wen Ning. He took another step forward from the shadows of the trees untouched by the flames, one thought overriding all else.

Only one man could control Wen Ning like this.

The man who played the notes of a song only one other person knew.

Of all the songs he had composed, the quiet odes to the man he loved, this was one he had never played in thirteen years. Swore to the mountains and a man cruelly ripped from this world, that he would never play it again.

Wangxian.

The song written by his foolish heart, named by the naivete of his young hopeful yearning. The tone, the chords...it was  the story of his love. No one else could hear the song, he had forbidden it. It belonged to Wei Ying.

The flute was badly carved and the quality was awful, but the man in the firelight, played expertly, his fingers long and graceful over the air holes of the bamboo.

The world fell away, like a stream tipping over the side of a waterfall. All he could hear was the notes of his...their melody and the rushing of blood in his ears. All he could see was the figure of a man in black retreating from the circle, from the fire away into the forest, coming with every step closer and closer.

Closer.

From the icy shock, came the hope he could not deny. He trembled with it, his heart overflowing as every breath, all the energy of his very core was focused on the man before him.

In all his desperate longings he had not imagined this. In every dream and daily wish, in every prayer and with all the power of his cultivation energy... every single time he played Inquiry, until his fingers bled, until his heart could take no more...there had been a single thread of hope.

One promise that kept him going. Every step, every birthday celebrated with a son who could not remember his true father's face...he remembered the promise he had made on Burial Mound. To him it was a definitive fact. Others had scorned and had looked upon him with worry or pity.

It mattered not. Because, one day he would come back.

One day, Wei Ying would return.

Closer.

It was the complete melody, he thought dimly. The song he had played for Wei Ying in the Cave of Slaughter, expertly rearranged for the flute.

His mind tried to piece together the truth, afraid to believe and desperate for it to be true. His heart began to pound in his chest, fear and wonder wrapping like vines around his chest.

Wei Ying.

His hands shook as the figure retreated further and his vision blurred as the man didn't stop.

One step back and then another.

The weight of him stepping back into his chest, barely missing his boots, caused his heart to stumble in his chest.

Unthinkingly, he snatched the wrist holding the flute, a thousand prayers and whispers of one name colliding into this moment. Thirteen years of patience, of fear. Nights and days of sorrow, where only memories could hold back the pain. Nearly thirteen years of searching in chaos.

His breath stuttered in his throat, words lost in his trembling, in the feel of bone and smooth skin in his hand. Real.

He was real. This was not a dream.

Sizhui...look! He is here.  

It's your father. It's Wei Ying, returned to us. Your Xian Ge Ge.

Wei Ying. Wei Ying.

The man...Wei Ying was still holding the flute and in powerful defiance turned around slowly to face him.

The world was plunged into icy cold, into darkness. Into pain and still that fearful hope as his mind registered that the face before him was not Wei Ying's.

No. It had to be him. Wangxian could only be played by him. 

He had lost hours over twenty years admiring the curve of Wei Ying's jaw, the slant of his brows....the way his hair danced in the slightest breeze.  The softness of his face at fifteen, had given way to sharp angles and the stunning beauty that would take his breath in a single glance.

The haughtiness of his neck, the shell of his ear, the strength of those broad shoulders...he had often stared at Wei Ying's back, his gaze slowly sliding down to his waist, to those thin, powerful legs and elegant feet.

The wrist in his grasp felt as fragile as a bird's wing.

The shoulders were narrower, sharp with the strain of constant hunger and he was slightly shorter than Wei Ying, dressed in filthy black robes, stained with blood and dirt. A red sash was tied at his waist, the flute still gripped tightly in his long, deceptively delicate hand.

The eyes that stared up at him, were not the eyes he cherished.

In starlight Wei Ying's eyes were touched by violet, reminding him of the purple gentians that grew outside Mother's cottage.

When he laughed they sparkled like brillant jewels.

In the midday sun they shone like Bichen, bright pure silver.

When he was angry, they were a storm. Lightning and grey skies.

At the height of his demonic cultivation they were scarlet, the color of blood.

No dye, paint or any of the sights within nature itself could compete with those grey eyes. The color was elusive, unique to one man.

These were darker. An angry pool of grey, with streaks of silver in a beautiful pattern, like frost spreading its icy fingers on a pool of mountain water. They were sharp and cool, reflecting the shadows around them...the skies of Yunmeng.

The look that came into them, was Wei Ying to the bone.

Wei Ying bent to no one and he watched with silent wonder as those eyes tightened with decision.

Pulling his arm up, fighting the hold he still held on his wrist, the man...Wei Ying raised his arm to continue playing.

This time, the tempo was faster, as if it was urging or scolding. His air was not steady and each note cracked at the end, sounding shrill and painful to the ear.

Wei Ying. What have you done?

Wei Ying was here. The powerful joy of it was tempered by fear. Playing the flute and the fierce corpse behind him was Wen Ning.

This was not a situation that would be easy to ignore...deny or refute. Not with Wen Ning in the middle of the forest, a flute and Wei Ying.

He had always hoped, that when he did return....well he rarely thought beyond that point, but if he had considered it, then he had presumed it would be quiet. Safe.

Not this.

In panic he tightened his grip and those long fingers loosened from the pain and the bamboo flute dropped to the ground.

Wen Ning vanished faster than lightning, disappearing into the dark and gloomy forest without a single bound, high into the air much to the anger and outrage of the cultivators, now trying to chase after him.

Wei Ying twisted slightly but not to break free. The elegant hand that been holding the flute, now gripped his own wrist in return, those grey eyes staring up into his, as if searching for answers.

Wei Ying. What have you been through? Are you hurt? You were in chaos for so long. Sizhui has grown and he misses you. Misses his Xian Ge Ge. I have missed you. Wei Ying. 

Time and the violence around them meant nothing. He stared at this new face, noting all the differences and the similarities....the wild hair and beauty of his features.

It was not Wei Ying's face...but he had loved Wei Ying in spite of his handsome features, falling for his sweet, noble heart and quicksilver mind. Whatever he had done...he was back. Returned to them.

His face, he was sure must be revealing the emotion swirling so vibrantly in his heart. All the words he longed to say caught in his chest the longer he stared into grey eyes, eyes that seemed so stunned. As if he could hardly believe they were standing here.

His heart whispered the words, his voice could not say. You're back. You came back, Wei Ying. I've waited for you.

For the first time in thirteen years, his entire being was a conflict of different impulses. His eyes wanted to shed the tears, kept concealed from the world for over a decade. He wanted to touch his face...to run his fingers down the new angle of Wei Ying's jaw. Wanted to sink to his knees before him and wanted still to pull Wei Ying into his arms, just to feel the steady beat of his heart, the breath in his lungs.

Jiang Cheng's voice cut through his longing and the wonder of seeing Wei Ying here alive. He spoke softly, but Lan Wangji heard every word, “… Well, well. So you’re back?”

 

Chapter Text

In the darkness, there was a sizzling sound and the long, thin whip of Madame Jiang lit the night air with brilliant purple. 

It was lightning, as if a bolt of pure energy had been pulled from the sky. Jiang Cheng in all his riotous fury held one side of it in his grip and the whip sparked violently.

Lan Wangji's body was taut staring over the shoulder of Wei Ying, held suspended like the strings of his guqin, his own righteous anger settling into his heart. 

Zidian was famed for many things, many of which were untrue. What it could do, he remembered with mounting fear was dislodge any possessing spirit, demon or ghoul, shattering their existence, rendering them into scattered pieces never to be re-made into a whole.

No.

As the lightning flashed towards Wei Ying's unprotected back, he pulled his guqin into the void between them. Fear had his hand moving across the strings, sending out wave after wave of energy that formed a defensive wall between them.

Power rippled and surged.

Lightning met the waves and the whip's energy fell harmlessly from the barricade he erected before them, with the power of the music. Jiang Cheng could neither advance forward to attack Wei Ying from the side, or defeat the song crafted from years of battle experience.

For long minutes, they fought. Jiang Cheng's anger rose and he in turn focused on protecting Wei Ying, hoping to give him enough time to make it into the forest behind him.

Wei Ying moved, like a snake in the tall grasses.

His love had always been fast. A sprint runner and more than capable of vanishing into the shadows of the forest, but something was wrong. He was not as fast as he had once been.

Jiang Cheng feinted to the left at the center of his barricade of protection, then in one angry gesture sent the whip surging to the right, beyond where his energy whirled in waves of blue light.

Terror struck his heart as the whip slashed across Wei Ying's back, like the tail of a dragon. The sound of it would haunt his memory, as the ancient weapon struck his unprotected back.

Wei Ying!

The scream never left his throat and both of them stopped, staring at way Wei Ying was flung into the air, barely missing a grazing donkey and a tree. He hit the ground with a painful thud, the whip having ripped a long slash into the back of his black robe.

One pale hand covered his waist and somehow, unlike the scores of people over the centuries to be hit with Zidian's full power, Wei Ying stood up. He gripped the reins of the donkey and put himself behind it.

Grey eyes appeared black in the darkness and he faced them squarely with the reckless bravery of Wei Ying. In a tone of pure outrage, he shouted, “How amazing! You really can do anything when you’re from a powerful clan, can’t you? You can even beat up anyone you want! Tsk tsk tsk!”

The relief felt like the rush of water over his shoulders and back, his frantic heart easing as Wei Ying, faced his once brother with a scowl that was achingly familiar.

In an angry tone that was both shocked and enraged, Jiang Cheng shouted, “What is going on?”

There was only one explanation he thought, a feeling of pure elation lifting the weight of his grief. If Zidian did not throw his soul free of this body...then Wei Ying had not seized this body. He was not possessing it. He was fully residing within it. He had become the man standing there.

How?

He stared at the outraged face of a different man, holding safely within the walls of flesh and bone, the soul of the man he would gladly die for.

Wei Ying was a dark cultivator, the true and famed creator of demonic cultivation. He held within the palm of his hand, knowledge that others could never understand. Knowledge that had allowed him to escape the chaos and return to the living plane, in a body that was not his by birth.

How was not important. It should have been, according to the tenants of the Lan Sect; the rules that governed his life and the teachings of his Uncle.

It was Wei Ying and he had achieved the impossible.

He had returned.

Bewilderment did not stop Jiang Cheng from raising the whip for a second time, when Lan JingYi's voice suddenly shouted, “Sect Leader Jiang, this should be enough, right? It was Zidian!”

In that moment, Lan Wangji decided not to punish Jingyi for his impertinence. There had been so few who had defended Wei Ying, in his previous life, so for this young disciple who rarely paid full attention in class, to argue against Wei Ying's torture, was priceless.

If he dared to lift that whip again, Jiang Cheng and his disciples would face him in a fight that would only have one outcome. No one was going to hurt Wei Ying again.

Then his gaze slid past the smaller JingYi, to the boy moving in the light of the fire. Sizhui.

Relief at seeing his son unhurt, filled his chest, despite his worry. Ocean eyes were red with the smoke, but he stood tall among the crowd, a slight cough immediately hidden behind his sleeve. His sword was in his grasp, named and forged only recently in the same style as Bichen and he looked warily at the Jiang Sect disciples gathering around them.

In this moment, he looked so much like Wei Ying. Waiting for trouble and prepared as always for a fight.

If it came to open combat, his son would not hesitate to fight, despite not realizing that the man who stood so indignantly was in fact his father. His Xian Ge Ge.

Again he took in the sight of him, glaring at Jiang Cheng with desperate tension brewing in the air. Drank in the way he stood, looking for injury.

He was dressed in black as was his preference... but the memory of the man Jin Ling had attacked surfaced in his mind. Bony shoulders, a face drowned in shadow...the same height and right nearby when Jin Ling was setting up the nets...It was...had been...

Wei Ying.

Swallowing his realization, he silently thanked the Heavens for allowing him to stop that blade, before it touched Wei Ying's skin. Jin Ling could have hurt him, as Wei Ying would never lift a finger against his own nephew.

Then he walked away. Wei Ying was right there and he walked away. How could he not have seen?

Guilt burned in his chest. He had not realized, had not even checked who the man might be or why he was being attacked by the Jin Sect.

After the ambush on Wei Ying by Jin ZiXun...he had never trusted the Jin Sect again. They had avoided being on the front lines of the Sunshot Campaign and supported the Wen Sect for years before the tragedies that led to the war. Brother said it was the past and occasionally made the point that Wei Ying had killed three hundred men at the ambush site. Including Jin Zixuan.

They cornered him and tried to kill him back then. They gloried in his death thirteen years ago, and tried to take credit for his murder.

No. He did not trust the Jin Sect. They employed violence too easily and so he had not questioned.

In his mind he saw Sizhui's gentle smile and heard again the warm greeting to the man, “Young Master Mo, we meet again.”

Wei Ying was Mo Xuan Yu.

The lunatic. The one who 'helped' the disciples, right there in the middle of the courtyard. All of the disciples mentioned him as mad but generous with information, aiding them and then disappearing. They were inexperienced and used to elders advising them, so they did not considered how odd it was for a young man, to know what he did. To help them.

At the time, he had been curious about the young man. This Young Master Mo, but with no way to find the man, his questions had no answers.

Now he understood clearly.

Wei Ying had protected the disciples.

Awe filled him as he realized what Wei Ying had done. He was the demonic cultivator who kept the corpses from the boys and the innocents...but to be caught....that was why he left. He had perhaps thought  the disciples would report him. He distrusted Gusu...determined that the Lan Sect would only imprison him...Or worst still, hand him over to Yunmeng, to be killed or tortured as Jiang Cheng was wont to do.

...If he had somehow become Mo XuanYu...they might just believe that Mo XuanYu was truly mad and a demonic cultivator trying to become the next Yiling Patriarch...or a madman playing at becoming one. Jiang Cheng might just believe that.

Clearly whatever Wei Ying had done, it was not an evil act. Yet, how was he in Mo village in the first place? How long has his love been back?

Why did he not know? Did Wei Ying really think he would not protect him? Something too much like disappointment and sadness filled him as he wondered if Wei Ying truly thought he would abandon him.

No. That was not fair. He could not blame Wei Ying.

He thought about it, his eyes on the man he loved. Wei Ying had not attacked him, not considered him an enemy. He would have, if he thought him a threat. There was no anger in those eyes...if anything he had seemed surprised. As if the sight of Lan Wangji was unexpected.

He seemed...stable now. His temperament was again calm and everything he remembered Wei Ying to be. He did not appear cornered or hostile despite the situation he was in now. He was different. Not reaching for the resentful energy as he was too much pain to respond rationally. There was no malice in his gaze and his voice was not filled with hate. There was no sorrow or anguish.

Wei Ying was standing there in shadow, with foxfire eyes of grey storm, clever, beautiful and alive.

He had been in Mo Village, as Mo Xuan Yu, which meant that he had not been "Young Master Mo" for very long, otherwise he would have disappeared well before Sizhui arrived. There was the risk of discovery, the risk to Sizhui...

He had been gone thirteen years...he could not be aware of the world. All of the new alliances and the politics that governed the Sects.

All Wei Ying would be aware of, was how hated he had been.

Did he even realize that the child he selflessly helped, was in fact his own son?

Sizhui was a young man now. Still a child in his eyes, but he was so different from the toddler Wei Ying had desperately hidden from his own murderers. He was reflective and sweet, gentle and often quiet. Not the excitable baby, running with his toy butterfly always calling for Xian Ge Ge

In that clever mind, it was far more likely for Lan Wangji to be sitting in the Library Pavilion with ancient texts, than right here in the middle of Da Fan Mountain. How would he get a message to him in Gusu without alerting his enemies?

He looked at the whip.

Zidian was a high level weapon of immense power, equal to Wangji. If a possessing soul was not forced out of the body, it wasn’t the seizing of a body. Jiang Cheng, who worried in his typical way,  about maintaining his reputation above anything else, was thanks to JingYi, unable to make another move.

This meant there was a chance, Wei Ying would not be revealed tonight.

Jiang Cheng oblivious to the mirrored scowl on Wei Ying's face,  snarled “Who on Earth are you?”

Now the initial danger had passed, he took a single shaky breath. Though his face betrayed none of his turmoil, he looked at Wei Ying who still faced Jiang Cheng fearlessly.

Before anyone else who act or speak, one of the cultivators in robes he did not recognize as the uniform for a particular Sect, spoke timidly.

“Sect Leader Jiang, you might have not paid attention to these things so didn’t know about this. Mo XuanYu was the LanlingJin Sect’s… Ahem, he used to be a foreign disciple of the Jin Sect. But, because his spiritual powers were low and he didn’t work hard in his studies, and also had that…"

Here he paused and Lan Wangji focused his attention on the words while staring at Wei Ying, watching as those eyes also fixed on the cultivator. Thoughtfully.

Wei Ying was already planning.

"...He harassed a peer and was thrown out of the LanlingJin Sect. I’ve also heard that he lost his marbles? In my opinion, he was probably bitter from being unable to cultivate using the correct method, he ventured off onto the wrong path. It might not be… the YiLing Patriarch seizing this body.”

Caught in his embitterment and the affairs of the Jiang Clan, Jiang Cheng asked in genuine confusion, “That? Which?”

The cultivator stumbled and stuttered, “That… As in that…”

Another cultivator in drab robes added in an acidic tone, “The cut-sleeve penchant!”

Jiang Cheng stared at Wei Ying in disgust while someone else said, “It’s not him no matter how you look at it… The flute was also played horribly… This is definitely a case of blind imitation, hearing how inferior it sounded.”

If he was not already aware that the man was Wei Ying, he might have agreed. There was no comparison to Wei Ying, who played the flute so ethereally and the screech of the badly carved one lying on the ground. His skill with the instrument was legendary...the hand carved bamboo flute he was currently playing could not be compared to Chen Qing.

Dark brows twitched in irritation, grey eyes narrowing and hope again rose in Wangji's chest. The face was not Wei Ying's but that particular expression was one he had witnessed many times. Stung pride.

Thankfully Jiang Cheng missed the expression and made a curt gesture to his waiting disciples, a silent order to arrest Wei Ying.

Wei Ying guessing their intention, nimbly moved past the donkey before Wangji could act in his defense. Rather than attempt another run for freedom, he chose to stand behind Wangji back.

Biting back his surprised gasp, his heart started to thrum with the way heat suffused through his robes, from Wei Ying's proximity. Clearly, he did trust him. The Wei Ying of the past, under the effects of the resentful energy would have deemed them all to be his enemy. There would be causalities around them at this point, even without the flute on the ground.

Yet, Wei Ying had chosen to rely on him. Placing his life and freedom squarely in Lan Wangji's hands. No one seemed to notice the way his breathing roughened and he rejoiced in the trust Wei Ying showed.

Theatrically, Wei Ying playing the role of the lunatic, shouted loudly while holding a hand over his chest, “Ah! What are you going to do to me?”

It was the antithesis of how Wei Ying himself cornered and prideful, would have responded to the threat of torture.

Clever, but there was one thing Wei Ying did not know. Would never know.

For thirteen years he gave the same pledge to the earth and sky. When Wei Ying returned he, Lan Wangji, would give everything to protect him. Wei Ying in this new life would not, could not face death again. He would use his energy, his soul and his body to guard him.

He would protect him at all costs, except the life of thier son. For Wei Ying he had faced down his own Clan, attacked his own brother and exerted all of his will to keep him safe. He failed.

Not this time. The Heavens had granted him a second chance. He would not waste it.

So, as expected of him, he turned his head to look at Wei Ying and gave him a unimpressed look, as if trying to dampen his extremely discourteous, noisy, and overly exaggerated behavior.

Annoyed that Wangji was as unmoved as the mountains of Gusu, Jiang Cheng glared at him to no effect.  “Second Young Master Lan, are you purposely making it difficult for me?”

The truth was not something he could say.

You have no idea, what I am willing to do for him.

Sizhui stepped forward and Wangji turned his attention to their son. Sizhui to his credit looked at Wei Ying, not as his father but as the man who had helped them. He could see in those ocean blue depths, the shadow of Xichen's teachings, given voice when he said, “Sect Leader Jiang. The evidence is clear. Mo XuanYu’s body was not taken. If so, why should you want to trouble an unimportant person such as him?”

Sizhui never considered anyone unimportant. He was courteous to all, from servant to Sect Leader, having been taught from a very young age by first Wei Ying and then himself, to value all lives equally. To protect the weak and the poor from evil, as this was way of the Gusu Lan Sect and Wei Ying himself. But, by minimizing Wei Ying in such a way, it brought question on Jiang Cheng's decision.

Vexed, Jiang Cheng replied coldly, “Then, why is Second Young Master Lan going to such great lengths to protect an unimportant person such as him?”

A low laugh came from behind him. The cadence of it was wrong. The tone was too low for Wei Ying's voice, but the mirth in it called to Wangji's heart sending a unnoticed shiver down his spine.

“Sect Leader Jiang, umm, I’ll feel very troubled if you keep on bothering me like this.” He said almost coyly.

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrow twitched again and he appeared almost nauseated.

Wei Ying wielding his brother as easily as his flute said, leaning further into Wangji's space, “Thank you for being so enthusiastic. However, your thoughts are quite off. Even if I am attracted to men, I don’t like just any type of man, much less follow anyone who waves at me. For example, I’m not interested in ones like you.”

Rather than be repulsed by his words, Jiang Cheng seemed slighted. “Oh, really? Then, may I ask which type you’re interested in?”

The voice was now smooth...honey dripping from every word and it flowed around him like the wind danced between the leaves of the magnolia tree, where Wei Ying used to lounge. The shrill edge to his voice, full of faked fear  was gone. His voice was mellow and deeper than before, the Yunmeng dialect softened with a throat unused to the accent, creating a new voice.

It suited Wei Ying, he thought lovingly. It was beautiful and new. It was the voice that now belonged to Wei Ying. It was perfect.

Distracted by his voice, Wangji nearly choked when he said, “Which type? Well, I am very much attracted to people like HanGuang-Jun.”

If only that was true. It was a knife between his ribs, knowing that Wei Ying would not see him like that. If you did, Wei Ying... If only you do mean them. Those words would lift my heart and soul. They are yours after all.

Wei Ying was not the man he had been when he was murdered at twenty two years of age. Lan Wangji, was not the same man he had been long ago, willing to remain behind the shield of the rules, when Wei Ying inevitably crossed the lines.

He had pledged his life to protect Wei Ying, would shelter and care for him for the rest of his days, if he let him. He would follow where he led, sharing the burdens and the responsibilities Wei Ying carried. Whether he stood now on right or wrong path, he would stand with Wei Ying, without question or qualm. 

Whether Wei Ying wanted him with him or not, by his side he would stay.

Now, with this declaration....he could keep that promise, with Wei Ying's blessing. Wei Ying, of his own free will had announced that he wanted to stay with him....

His face hid the joy spreading its wings behind his breastbone. The soaring thrill that Wei Ying was alive, thrumming through his veins. Nothing was more important than this.

“Mark your words.”

Distracted no doubt by Jiang Cheng, Wei Ying''s responded with a soft, adorable, “Hmm?”

For thirteen years he had prayed for this day. With every breath, from this night forward, he would protect Wei Ying. Love him from afar and keep him from all harm.

Lan WangJi, the younger of the Twin Jades of Gusu,  turned back to the group daring Jiang Cheng to interfere. Every word was intoned with the full weight of his devotion, his honor and his love.

“I will take this person back to the Lan Sect.”

Chapter Text

With every step he takes, his heart lightens like a bird finally able to truly take flight.

It had felt far longer a time, held captive by Jin GuangYao but it was still dark, the brilliant hues of the dawn an hour away, so the streets were quiet. The hush of early morning, long settled before the new day. There was no one yet awake to hear the clicking of a donkey’s hooves  on the ground, but it could have been the mouth to hell itself and Lan Wangji's soft footfalls would not have hesitated.

Sitting on the back of the donkey was the center of his world, his miracle.

Well trained in the art of horse riding, but Wei Wuxian sat upon this donkey's back as idly as an Emperor.

It stole his breath to see him, vibrant, unbowed and alive. The sharp knives of panic, a memory too close to the surface to let him rest just yet, the image of guqin strings cutting into the perfect column of Wei Ying's neck, leaving his heart unsteady.

Jin GuangYao was dead but that was not the thought his mind and heart was focused on. Wei Ying loved him.

Wei Ying, the Yiling Patriarch...loves him.

There were no words in any language to describe the feelings swirling in his chest. It was an impossible dream, a wild hope and nothing reality could ever give him.

The beautiful wild soul he had cherished for what felt like a lifetime...loved him.

For thirteen years he had lived with the shards of his heart, the jagged pieces that focused on raising their son, on surviving another day, another ten minutes knowing that Wei Ying was damned to chaos.

For longer than that, he had fought these feelings and resigned himself to heartache.

In one night he had discovered what it felt like to kiss Wei Ying, to hold him warm, alive and passionate in his arms. The feel of his skin and the sound of his moans. Every fantasy, dream and craving realized in an inn room.

The misunderstanding that followed seemed so ridiculous now.

Wei Ying loves him.

From the corner of his eye he watches Wei Ying pluck an apple free from the basket and bite into it.  Before, he would have looked away, afraid to reveal the truth of his feelings, the want that would have surfaced like a wave, but now he simply rejoices in everything that is Wei Ying.

The tempestuous but much loved Lil’ Apple flared its nostrils in fury, slamming its hooves. Wei Ying slapped it lightly and bravely slipped the half-eaten apple into its mouth.  

“Lan Zhan, did you know? The one named SiSi seemed to have been a friend of Jin GuangYao’s mother’s.”

 Refocusing on the present despite the joy bubbling in his throat, he answered his question. “I did not.”

Wei Ying smiled warmly as those long fingers caressed his shoulder, suddenly and so gently. It startled him, but such affection from Wei Ying was precious, something he often dreamed about. “I was only making a comment, not that I was really asking you. I saw it back at the Guanyin Temple, in Empathy with the ghoul woman. She looked after Jin GuangYao and his mother quite well.”

Empathy. It was a remarkable creation, something only Wei Ying would consider and terrifyingly dangerous. News of it had spread, the idea upsetting centuries of standard practice. By this point in their lives, the entire cultivation world had heard of Empathy and several other... similar inventions but no one could employ it with the same ease and grace as Wei Ying.

The ghoul and the other deceased prostitutes had gravitated towards Wei Ying, writhing for him...

Ignoring that memory, he focused on what Wei Ying was referring to. “Thus, Jin GuangYao let the woman go.”

Wei Ying seemed to hesitate and he watched those grey eyes with love building in his throat. “It should be the case. I was afraid ZeWu-Jun would go soft on him again, so I didn’t say everything. Even now I still don’t think we should tell him.”

He understood. How could he not but... “If he should ask in the future, I will let him know.”

Wei Ying nodded, his brow slightly furrowed as he considered the options, then he elegantly shrugged.  “Might as well.”

When he turned to face the street, his face grew taut with something like melancholy, a rare sigh escaping his lips. “I don’t want to care about any of those nasty things anymore. This is it.”

Lan Wangji could only nod and tightened his grip on Lil’ Apple’s reins, ensuring the temperamental animal continued along the road. He thought of Xichen and glanced at Wei Ying.

In the middle of the chaos, distressed eyes of dark gold had looked at him across the sea of people. There was pain and devastation in those eyes. He went to step forward, wishing only to offer something of comfort, of support but Xichen's eyes flicked to Wei Ying with an expression he could not decipher.

Leave here. Follow him.

His brother was pale and bowing under the weight of the truth, of the betrayal and cruelty. His brother like Wei Ying, loved fiercely giving all of himself to those he pledged loyalty to...protection, care and endless support. But Wei Ying was different to either brother.

Wei Ying was Wei Ying.

Xichen returned his gaze to his and then deliberately looked to the open doorway. Then he turned away. For the first time in their lives, his brother turned away from him.

It stung. For a moment all he could focus on was the smooth white fabric stretched over his brother's shoulders, then he looked at Uncle. Red in the face with outrage, Lan Qiren was looking for an argument.

Gold eyes moved to Wei Ying as if called by a magnet, and saw the grim expression on his beloved's face. The resignation in his eyes as he looked unseen at Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling. Family he loved but could never have again. Bonds severed, never to heal. He witnessed the pain in that cherished gaze and as fraught as it made him to see the way his mouth tightened, he knew that no words could soothe Wei Ying's pain.

He watched in this strung out moment as Wei Ying crossed the bridge long separating him and his brother. Watched as Wei Ying smiled tremulously and made his choice. Jiang Cheng and the love Wei Ying had for him would be eternal in that generous heart, but Lan Zhan watched as Wei Ying closed the door on the past.

A tiny nod and Wei Ying's shoulders unconsciously straightened, his black robes fluttering slightly as he folded his hands. Wei Ying looked at the juniors with pride and affection, then whistled lowly. Wen Ning hearing the sound turned quickly, watching Wei Ying. Then he melted into the darkness of the temple, gone without a whisper.

Words died in his own throat as he looked back at his brother. Xichen had closed the door. It would be bolted...a barrier between him and his brother as painful as the door to Mother's cottage. Xichen was wrapping himself in the security of silence, grief a pain he hoped his brother would not experience again. Not in these supposed times of peace.

In the aftermath he felt unbalanced, a new world unfolding at their feet. No one was to remain untouched, unaffected by the death of Jin GuangYao. It would shape the events to come he was sure. The Yiling Patriarch was once used to unite the world under Jin GuangYao's hand, an enemy to loathe, fit to take the blame for the woes of others.

He had damned Wei Ying. Jin GuangYao had planned Wei Ying's death. The tragedy and heartbreak he dealt Wei Ying, was a cruelty...a crime that Lan Wangji could never forgive. Others had suffered for Jin GuangYao’s ambition, lives snatched away, freedom ripped from the hands of the innocent...but he had purposefully dedicated time, resources and a web of lies, to end Wei Ying.

Xichen though awash in his pain was aware of this, of how staunchly against Jin GuangYao he had been. Now, learning the true extent of his plans, of his crimes...there would be no sympathy shared, no burden of grief for Wangji to carry.

It is a bitter, lonely thing to be the only one in mourning.

To be forced to listen to recriminations, morbid joy in another's death...

If Nie Mingjue had not ended Jin GuangYao, he would have for the agonizing death Wei Ying had faced. For the single-plank bridge he had been forced walk alone and for the typhoon of grief he had put Wei Ying through. All that pain, all  that loss simply for a title and power.

No. There could be no sympathy shared.

Xichen would seclude himself and Uncle would lead the clan with ironclad efficiency. Sizhui had grown into an amazing young man and would be returning to Gusu with Uncle, to finish this year's examinations. There would be no further danger to his son for at least another few months. He could leave. Sizhui would understand and had encouraged him happily to stay with Wei Ying.

"He gives you happiness Father." He had said with a sweet smile. "And Senior Wei does not have anyone."

So he turned away from his brother, walked deliberately away from his distracted Uncle and faced Wei Ying. Grey eyes had met his at the door, glancing back at the disciples and Seniors in white, the epitome of Gusu. At Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen. Are you sure? Those eyes asked. Are you prepared for the aftermath of your choices?

Wei Ying had walked away from his family once and he knew the pain of losing family. Bore the scars in his heart and the memories that hurt even as he clutched them close. Never gaining acceptance and being forced to live with consequence.

Yes. Their son was safe, so nothing else mattered. Nothing else tied him to here.

He glanced at the man sitting so languidly on the back of a donkey and thought how breathtaking he was. All that pain and still, Wei Ying walked with head held high. His back wounded but not broken. Traumatized, alienated, hurt beyond comprehension and Wangji could not fathom all Wei Ying had been forced to endure.

Never again. He had been granted a second chance. Wei Ying would never again face such pain.

Yet, thinking of how Wei Ying had looked at the juniors, there was still one thing he had failed to do.

Xichen had forced him upon returning to Gusu all but dragging himself up the incline of the mountain, with a feverish child, to keep Sizhui's parentage a secret. Until the time Sizhui was considered an adult. That was in two years time.

He had hoped Wei Ying would ask him about A-Yuan, but as the weeks turned to months Wangji began to realize that Wei Ying may well be silently mourning his son. So used to suffering alone, he had perhaps not thought to talk about his loss, not consider that Wangji would listen to all he could possibly say.

Wei Ying thought he was walking away from his only family but that was not true. Sizhui prayed nearly everyday for his Xian Ge Ge and clearly adored him without knowing his identity. If he told Wei Ying, he could decide. In two years Wangji would tell him the truth if Wei Ying decided to remain quiet until then. If not, then Sizhui would be reunited with Wei Ying. His son and his love. Xian Ge Ge and A-Yuan reunited.

“Wei Ying.”

Grey eyes flicked to his face, curiosity in thier depths, “What?”

How to say this? He had considered for hours on end how he would explain Xian ge Ge, but not this.

“There is something I have never told you.”

concern filled that gaze and he watched as Wei Ying seemed to ready himself for a blow. “What is it?”

Pausing, he tried valiantly to collect his thoughts and stared up at him, his love. Just as he was about to speak, from behind came the sound of running footsteps. Wei Ying grimaced, “Goodness, somebody’s already caught up with us?”

From the shadows came a single form, one Wangji could identify from miles away. Their son. Their little Yuan.

Sizhi stopped before them panting, “H..HanGuang-Jun, Senior Wei!”

Ocean eyes looked at him, his young face open and bright. Wangji was reminded of the times as a young child Sizhui would run to him, exactly like now.

Wei Ying was surprised to see him and casually propped his arm on the donkey’s head, “Sizhui-er, I’m eloping with HanGuang-Jun. Why are you here? Aren’t you scared Old Man Lan will scold you?”

Ocean eyes smiled but he still blushed, something Wei Ying would never do. “Senior Wei, do not be like this. I-I came to ask a very important question!”

Wangji wanted to straighten his robes and noticed critically that they would need replacing soon. He wanted to reassure both of them, but realized that the truth was about to come free. He saw Wen Ning walk gingerly from the shadows, watching over his nephew.

Wei Ying curious and concerned in equal measure asked, “What is it?”

“I remembered a few things that I could not confirm, so… so I came to ask Han Guang-Jun and Senior Wei.”

Yes. This was it. The moment he had been waiting for.

"I.." He looked at Wangji who nodded reassuringly. "I remembered Xian Ge Ge."

Wei Ying stared at him blankly.

"Claimed he had top-notch cooking skills, yet made dishes that were pungent both to the eye and to the stomach.”

“Huh?” Wei Ying said thrown by that comment.  

Sizhui added, “Buried me in a field of carrots, saying I would grow taller quickly with water and sunlight, and maybe a few more children would sprout and play with me.”

"The graveyard was full of bones. They screamed at night. It sounded like the...Jin clan when they took away others. When they threw them down the hill. Xian Ge Ge would play the flute...he would sing and tell stories."

Wei Ying's eyes widened. He almost couldn’t steady himself on the donkey’s back. He stammered, “You… You…”

Sizhui's ocean eyes were fixed on Wei Ying. "Maybe because I was too young, I cannot remember most of the things from back then. But, I am sure that… my surname used to be Wen. I remember your voice. I remember the songs. I've tried to play them so many times...melodies half remembered."

Those ocean eyes they filled with tears, "Be strong A-Yuan. I'll always be here. I'm your Xian Ge Ge."

Grey eyes were equally wet and his voice trembled, “Your surname was Wen? Isn’t it Lan? Lan Sizhui, Lan Yuan…” He murmured, “Lan Yuan… Wen Yuan?”

Sizhui was usually so calm, so steady...but his voice was shaking as well, “Senior Wei, I… I am A-Yuan…”

As if he hardly dared to believe it, Wei Ying blinked rapidly. Tears beginning to fall. It broke his heart to see them, glisten in  his eyes but hope flared hot and brilliant as he watched father and son. “A-Yuan...my A-Yuan? Didn’t he die? He was left alone on Burial Mound back then…I had to hide him...there was no time. They were coming and...and...”

Wei Ying leapt down from the donkey and as if sleepwalking, he moved closer, to stand before Sizhui. Staring at him anew, looking for A-Yuan in his features.

Then he spun on his heel, black robes taking flight as he moved, so he became a whirl of black and red. "Lan Zhan, was it you?!”

Blood ran freely down his skin, soaking his robes a vibrant red. Cries heard only by the black soil, absorbed into its endless depths of death and loss. Clarity. Loss. A tiny face with ocean blue eyes staring at him."Lan! Ma! Xian. Xian Ge Ge."

Sitting in his arms crying for Wei Ying. Sitting in the sun, a little hand diligently writing out simple characters. Standing on his desk for his measurements, writing Sizhui in the book of ancestors. Playing with the rabbits, learning his first handstand...laughing. Reading in the sun, painting by the river. Learning to ride a horse...to use chopsticks...his first exam...the little red ball.

Earning a merit from Uncle for diligent studies. The fear of his first night hunt. His poetry winning first prize. Gifting him his sword wishing Wei Ying was there. Moments spin like silk thread, sweet, sad and always loving. His little boy, growing into a young man.

Their son.

“Yes.” He looked lovingly at Wei Ying, “This was what I never told you. I was made to promise, that I would keep it a secret. If anyone,” At this he looked at Sizhui, "...If they knew you were a Wen by birth, you would have been bullied. I promised Wei Ying, that I would give you the life of a Lan."

He faced his son who was staring at him, "You are my son. I adopted you, gave you the name Lan and you have faced so much in your young life. I wanted you to have a life free of blame, free of battle and the scars of the Wen's downfall. Forgive me for the secret."

With a loud cry, Sizhui moved forward and wrapped one hand around Wei Ying's waist and the other around Wangji, his fist clutching the front of his white robes. With strength born from Gusu Lan training and overwhelming emotion, he pulled the two into a tight embrace.

Wei Ying bumped into him, tears freely falling from his eyes but his smile was incandescent.

"Father...I've always been proud that you are my father. Oh Father. Xian Ge Ge...I...I..."

His voice was muffled and he sounded so young, so overwhelmed. Wei Ying was crying. "My A-Yuan. Little A-Yuan. I thought you were gone. With Shijie in Heaven."

He looked at Wangji and the world seemed to stop. Gratitude and happiness shone in his eyes, but Wangji could see how much this meant to him. How he loved the little boy between them. He saw his pride and wonder, the overwhelming joy that was yet to come when Wei Ying had time to adjust, to think this over.

With a sniff, Wei Ying pulled the tattered mask that was Wei Wuxian back over his face and gently, lovingly patted Sizhui's back. “Enough, what are you crying for? You have Xian Ge Ge and your father here.”

Still muffled the embrace warm and sweet, Sizhui said, “Not crying… Just… I suddenly feel so frustrated, but so happy as well… I do not know how to describe it…”

His heart overflowing, Lan Wangji laid his hand on Sizhui's head and rejoiced in this moment. In this joy and wonder. He stroked his head just as he did when he was a toddler and patted his shoulder. “There is no need to describe it then. We are here.”

Wei Ying used his sleeve to dry his eyes and sniffed again, “That’s right.”

The road ahead would be forever changed, but Wei Ying had returned to them. He was home and within his arms he pulled Sizhui and Wangji closer. The future lay as an open road, the bonds of their little family strong enough to withstand the storms that might come. Their son would grow and their love would only blossom together.

Lan Wangji looked at Wei Ying and smiled.

He had waited thirteen years for the other half of his soul to come back. He had raised a beautiful child dreaming of today. He had found the shards of himself and painstakingly rebuilt who he was.

The wait was over. Life had begun.