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Every Friday, at seven in the evening, Lan Wangji takes his guqin, a scroll of parchment, a brush, and some ink out to a lonely stretch of grass deep in the mountains behind the Cloud Recesses and plays Inquiry.

It’s only one of the many duties he’s assigned, but this one is especially important.

He rests his fingers gently on the strings of his guqin, then lets the opening notes of Inquiry ring out softly, slowly, into the night. At first, there is no response. Then the spirits begin to gather, as they always do.

<What is your name?> he plays for the first spirit to settle low above his instrument.

<Liu Feng.>

<What was your occupation?>

<Merchant.>

<How did you die?>

<Bandits.>

<What ties you here?>

<Never buried.>

<Where is your body located?>

<Under Tangzhou Pass.>

Lan Wangji nods, though he knows the spirit can’t see him, and makes a note of the location on the scroll he’d brought out with him. <Someone will be sent to recover it.>

The spirit bobs once, like a nod, then floats away.

It continues like this for the next hour. One by one, the spirits approach him, and he asks them why they linger, what can be done to help them move on. Their responses usually fall under a few different broad categories: their body was never buried, their murderer was never caught, they have some last message to pass on to a loved one. Lan Wangji listens to them all and makes notes of their requests, to pass on to others in his sect to be fulfilled.

It is almost nine, time for him to cease and go to bed. But just as he is about to play the closing notes of Inquiry, one last spirit floats over. This one is different from the others in a way Lan Wangji can’t exactly pinpoint. Maybe it’s the way it bobs and weaves energetically through the air, instead of hovering sedately.

Lan Wangji watches it come to rest on the very edge of his guqin. As always, he plays, <What is your name?>

<Wei Ying. And yours?>

Lan Wangji can’t help the surprise he feels. With most spirits, just getting them to answer feels like a chore, so having them ask questions in return would be all but impossible - not that he’s ever really tried. The spirit hovers expectantly, so he plays, <Lan Wangji.>

<Lan Wangji? Lan Zhan? One of the Twin Jades of Gusu?>

Slightly more hesitantly, Lan Wangji plays, <Yes.>

<Wow! Just my luck, never catching a glimpse of you during life, but managing to do so after death! My friends would’ve been so jealous…>

This is getting off track. Lan Wangji is supposed to be helping this spirit move on, not making conversation with it. He attempts to steer the exchange down a path he’s more comfortable with.

<What was your occupation?>

<Rogue cultivator.>

Lan Wangji thinks he’s going to regret his next question. Rogue cultivators rarely meet peaceful ends. Still: <How did you die?>

<Fierce corpses.>

Lan Wangji feels a twinge of sympathy. Definitely not peaceful, then. <What ties you here?>

<I don’t know.>

Lan Wangji blinks. Spirits cannot lie through Inquiry, so Wei Ying must be telling the truth. This does make his task more difficult. <Where is your body?>

<No body left. It was eaten.>

<All of it?> Lan Wangji plays before he can stop himself, then winces at his own tactlessness.

<Yep, they were quite vicious.> Even though he can’t hear the words Wei Ying is saying, nor the tone he uses, the spirit comes across as entirely too cheerful for someone whose entire body was devoured by fierce corpses.

<I’m sorry,> he plays.

<Don’t be,> Wei Ying replies. <I kind of brought it upon myself.>

<Still,> Lan Wangji plays, <no one deserves to die in such a manner.>

<Hahaha!> Wei Ying’s laughter is a light, rapid strum of the guqin’s strings. <Of course you’d say that! Everyone was always going on about how kind and courteous you Two Jades are...they also said you were beautiful beyond measure, didn't they? It’s a shame that I died before I could’ve seen for myself…>

Lan Wangji feels his cheeks warming, and holds his hand up to shield his face before belatedly remembering that Wei Ying can’t actually see him. <You must think about what ties you here,> he plays quickly, trying to change the subject. <You need to move on.>

<I already said I don’t know, didn’t I?> Wei Ying plays: short, snappy twangs of the strings. <And just why is it so essential that I move on? What if I’m happy right where I am?>

<You will be happier when you move on,> Lan Wangji insists.

<Who is to say so?> Wei Ying retorts. <It’s not like any of the souls who have ascended to this mysterious better place have ever returned to tell us what it’s like there, have they?>

Lan Wangji sighs. Never, in all the years he’s been playing Inquiry, has he ever met a spirit this...infuriating. <It is late,> he plays. <I must leave. But please return the next time I play, and I will try to help you.>

<If that’s what you want, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying says.

Lan Wangji shakes his head, then plays the closing notes of Inquiry and watches Wei Ying fade back into the darkness.

 

Lan Wangji finds himself uncharacteristically distracted throughout his studies the next day. The other disciples appear to notice his change in mood, and steer clear of him - especially Nie Huaisang, who seems to tremble whenever Lan Wangji so much as glances in his direction.

It’s no surprise then that his brother takes notice as well, perceptive as he is.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen asks, “did something happen? You seem a bit unfocused.”

“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji says. “Just a spirit I spoke to last night.”

Lan Xichen nods. “I understand,” he says sympathetically. “Some of their stories can be a bit distressing, can they not?”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says.

“Well,” Lan Xichen says, “at least you helped them to find peace.”

“Well,” Lan Wangji begins.

 

Lan Wangji is sorely tempted to call upon Wei Ying again that night, but he’s on patrol duty. Even so, he knows it’s not fair of him to focus specifically on any one spirit, no matter how...infuriating (intriguing) that spirit may be. He’ll wait another week to perform his usual Inquiry.

From his spot atop the wall, Lan Wangji spots a group of guest disciples milling around on the path below. They’re all laughing with each other, chatting easily. “Idling is prohibited within the Cloud Recesses,” he calls, causing them all to startle collectively. “Please head to your destination promptly.”

Exchanging nervous glances, the disciples scurry off. Lan Wangji sighs, ignoring the slight pang of loneliness in his chest - well, it’s not loneliness, is it? He has his brother, his uncle, his teachers. But sometimes he can’t help but think, a little wistfully, that it would be nice to experience the same kind of easy companionship that seems to come so easily to the other disciples his age.

But none of them ever approach him, and he tells himself he doesn’t mind. Lan Xichen tells him it’s because they find him intimidating. Lan Wangji knows he’s not approachable, doesn’t smile enough, doesn’t show enough emotions, can never find the right words to say, rarely understands the jokes people make. But it’s fine. He’s content with what he has now.

Lan Xichen had advised him to communicate frequently with Wei Ying. The more a spirit interacts with someone from the living world, the tighter the grasp they maintain on their own identity, and the easier it will be for them to remember events from their life. Spirits who linger too long on earth with no contact with the living often forget their humanity completely, devolving into vicious, malevolent forces. The more Wei Ying remembers who he used to be, the sooner he will remember what exactly is keeping him here.

Lan Wangji tells himself this is theonly reason he can barely wait the rest of the week to play Inquiry again, the only reason his fingers keep trembling slightly, itching for the strings of his guqin under them. He only wants to help Wei Ying move on as quickly as possible, that’s all.

But while he’s eager to speak to Wei Ying again, he’s also inexplicably anxious - when he’d spoken with him that one time, Lan Wangji had felt strangely off-centre, unsure of himself in a way he rarely is. But at the same time, it had been - almost exhilarating, the sheer unpredictability of it.

Finally, Friday comes.

As always, Lan Wangji sits in the grass with his guqin in the evening and plays the opening to Inquiry.

The first spirit who answers is not Wei Ying. Neither is the second. Nor the third. Lan Wangji listens to them all, and notes their requests, and tries to ignore the cold weight of disappointment settling deep in his stomach as the night drags on and Wei Ying does not come.

Finally, when all the spirits have answered and then faded away, he lets himself sigh. He has no right to be disappointed: it’s not like Wei Ying had promised him anything, after all. Still, he can’t stop his hands from moving to the strings and playing, one last time, <Wei Ying?>

And then, almost immediately, an answering strum. <I’m here!>

Lan Wangji straightens immediately, trying to pretend his heart hasn’t lifted considerably just from hearing those two words. <Why did you not answer earlier?>

<Well, Lan Zhan, I knew once I started chatting with you I wouldn’t want to let you go, and I didn’t want to hold up all the other spirits, so I let them go first!> A pause, then Wei Ying plays, with a certain mischievousness, <Why, Lan Zhan, did you miss me?>

<Ridiculous!> Lan Wangji plays quickly.

Wei Ying ‘laughs’. <Don’t be shy, Lan Zhan, I won’t judge! In fact, I missed you too! It feels like it’s been ages since we spoke...how long was it?>

<One week.>

<Only one week? Well, you can’t blame me, here in this spirit realm or whatever, it’s pretty hard to keep track of time.>

<This is why you must move on,> Lan Wangji plays. <Try to remember what binds you to this earth.>

<This again?> Wei Ying plays, sounding exasperated. <I already told you, Lan Zhan, I can’t remember! I already had a pretty bad memory when I was alive, how do you think it is now I’m dead?>

<You must try,> Lan Wangji urges, <before you devolve into a vicious spirit.>

<A vicious spirit, huh?> Wei Ying plays. <Isn’t there a way to remain on earth without devolving into one of those, though?>

Lan Wangji frowns. <None is known.>

<But there is,> Wei Ying plays. <I’ll only devolve if I forget my humanity - and isn’t that preventable by contact with the living? Such as what I’m doing right now?>

<How do you know so much about this topic?> Lan Wangji can’t help but ask. Although Wei Ying had said he was a rogue cultivator, the chances of him ever having had access to a sect’s library before he had died are very slim - and that’s where the bulk of knowledge on obscure subjects such as these are stored.

<I guess you could say I was pretty interested in stuff like this back when I was alive,> Wei Ying plays carefully. <Harnessing the resentful energy from spirits, monsters, the like...I did a fair bit of research.>

Lan Wangji almost knocks the guqin off his lap in shock. <You are talking about demonic cultivation!>

<Well, I guess you can call it that,> Wei Ying plays. <What, do you want to condemn me for it? It probably goes against all your stuffy sect’s principles, doesn’t it? Well, don’t bother - I’m already dead, so I’ve been punished enough, haven’t I?>

<Do not joke about your death,> Lan Wangji plays, then adds, a little irritably, <And the GusuLan sect is not ‘stuffy’.>

Wei Ying laughs again. <Well, of course you wouldn't think so, Lan Zhan! I bet you’ve never studied at any other sects, so you’re probably used to it. Maybe it’s a good thing we never met while I was alive, because you definitely wouldn’t have approved of me!>

Something about this statement doesn’t sit well with Lan Wangji, so he repeats, <Do not joke.>

<What else am I supposed to do, Lan Zhan? Feel sorry for myself? That’s how resentful energy accumulates, you know! But anyway, if you really don’t want me to turn into a vengeful spirit - you should make sure I get as much living contact as possible, shouldn’t you? So talk to me more! It’s lonely in death, after all…>

Lan Wangji freezes. This is probably the first time someone has ever told him they wanted to talk with him more - Wei Ying really must be lonely. But -

<You still need to move on,> he plays.

There’s a soft, prolonged strum that Lan Wangji thinks might be the equivalent of a sigh. <You really want me gone, huh? Very well, Lan Zhan, I’ll try to remember what I’m still doing here - but you must help! Speak with me more - that helps spirits remember their lives better, doesn’t it?>

It does, that’s the thing. Lan Wangji tells himself that’s the only reason his heart leaps at the prospect of speaking more with Wei Ying.

<I will speak with you twice a week,> he suggests.

<Only twice a week, Lan Zhan?> Wei Ying plays, managing to somehow lend a wheedling tone to the usually placid notes of the guqin. <That’s not often enough! Why not every day?>

Because that would be a serious lapse in self control, not to mention in judgement. <Once every two days,> Lan Wangji amends.

<Hm, fine,> Wei Wuxian plays, <if you really won’t be convinced…>

Lan Wangji is about to reply, when he hears the toll of the bell that signifies it’s almost curfew. <I must go now,> he tells Wei Ying.

<Why?>

<It is curfew.>

<Gusu Lan actually has a curfew? And you say you aren’t stuffy?>

Lan Wangji sighs. Maybe it really is for the best that he doesn’t speak with Wei Ying every day. <Good night, Wei Ying.>

<Good night, Lan Zhan! See you soon!>

Lan Wangji ends his Inquiry, and Wei Ying soon vanishes into the darkness.

 

True to his word, Lan Wangji does indeed end up speaking with Wei Ying every other night. He does so in the privacy of his own Jingshi, to avoid drawing attention to himself. Because, the truth of the matter is, for all he insists at the beginning of every session that its only purpose is to help Wei Ying recover his memories, that very rarely ends up being the actual route their conversation follows.

For every question Lan Wangji asks, Wei Ying somehow finds a way to skillfully deflect it and turn it back on Lan Wangji himself, who often finds himself answering. He doesn’t mean to - it’s just, conversation with Wei Ying comes so easily in a way it does with no one but his brother. Maybe it’s the barrier of the guqin (and of death) between them, but Lan Wangji finds that he rarely stumbles over his words the way he does normally, his words translating smoothly into the notes of the guqin.

Of course, it’s also mostly because Wei Ying is an excellent conversationalist. He’s brash and a bit crude in a way that predictably grates on Lan Wangji, but he’s also charming, witty and surprisingly empathetic, effortlessly filling the gaps in the conversation created by Lan Wangji’s awkwardness. Somehow, over the course of the several long months they spend talking to each other, he manages to persuade Lan Wangji to tell him about his studies, his brother, his uncle, the books of poetry he enjoys reading in his free time. Lan Wangji knows his life can hardly be called interesting, but Wei Ying hides his boredom well, and acts like he’s actually interested in what Lan Wangji has to say. Lan Wangji knows it’s probably just out of politeness, but it’s nice to pretend otherwise.

That’s not to say that he learns nothing about Wei Ying himself. He learns that Wei Ying was the son of a rogue cultivator and a servant from some large sect, who had been killed in a night hunt when Wei Ying was very young, leaving him to fend for himself on the streets.

(<Do you remember your parents’ names?> Lan Wangji asks, although the chances of Wei Ying being tied here because of them are slim - their deaths had occurred too long ago.

<My mother was Cangse Sanren and my father was Wei Changze.>

These names sound vaguely familiar to Lan Wangji, but he won’t figure out why until later.)

He learns that, eventually, Wei Ying had managed to fall in with a passing pair of rogue cultivators and obtain some rudimentary training, along with a second-hand sword, from them. Eventually, when he was old enough, he had struck out on his own again, this time much better equipped to fend for himself. He’d travelled all over the land, taking care of whatever minor cases of ghosts and monsters he came across, and making a living off the payments - sometimes money, more often shelter and a hot meal - people offered him in gratitude. Despite having no access to a sect’s library, he’d picked up whatever cultivational skills he could here and there - which, eventually, had led to him getting interested in demonic cultivation.

<Of course, I never meant to use it for - for whatever nefarious purposes your sect probably thinks demonic cultivators have,> Wei Ying plays, sounding a little desperate, like he’s afraid Lan Wangji is going to disapprove of him. Lan Wangji doesn’t know why he worries - he has assured Wei Ying many times that he will not. Maybe before (before he met Wei Ying), he would have, but now…

<I just thought, energy is energy, right?> Wei Ying is playing so quickly Lan Wangji might have once had trouble keeping up, but months of speaking with Wei Ying have trained his ears better than any theoretical manuscript on Inquiry. <Spiritual energy, resentful energy - they’re really not that different when they’re harnessed responsibly. The most I did was get a few corpses to help me carry my groceries! I never harmed anyone, I swear! Well, anyone besides myself, that is…>

Besides whatever reason he has for lingering on Earth, another subject Wei Ying is noticeably evasive about is his death. Lan Wangji knows better than to pry - eventually, he hopes, Wei Ying will tell him on his own terms.

And when Wei Ying does tell him, Lan Wangji almost wishes that he hadn’t.

He can only sit in stunned silence, fingers hovering uselessly over the strings of the guqin, as Wei Ying haltingly plays the story of how he’d created something he shouldn’t have, something that was beyond his control, and of how trying to destroy it had caused the horde of corpses it’d summoned to turn on their former master and literally devour him alive.

Wei Ying had died, slowly and agonizingly, in some cold, abandoned forest, with no one to know and no one to care.

When Lan Wangji doesn’t - can’t - reply, Wei Ying plays shakily, <Fun story, huh? You know, Lan Zhan, I can kinda guess what you’re thinking - it served me right for messing with demonic cultivation, isn’t that it?>

This is what finally spurs Lan Wangji’s fingers into motion. <How can you even think that of me?>

<What?>

<Of course I do not think you deserved it,> Lan Wangji plays. < No one would deserve to die in such a way, and especially not you, Wei Ying.>

<But my cultivation ->

Lan Wangji presses lightly on the strings to stop Wei Ying’s words, interrupting him for the first time. <You being a demonic cultivator makes no difference to me,> he plays. <You are still a good person.>

A harsh strum, like a bitter laugh. <How can you even know that, Lan Zhan? You’ve never known me.>

It stings, a little, the reminder that Lan Wangji was not there for Wei Ying when he was alive, was too late to save him, can only do what little he can to help him when he’s already dead. <I may not have known you when you were alive, Wei Ying, but I still know you.>

A heavy pause. Lan Wangji waits.

<Thank you, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays finally, the notes soft and melting into one another, like a murmur. Wei Ying plays Lan Wangji’s own instrument more expressively than Lan Wangji himself could ever hope to. <It’s good to hear you say that.>

<It is good that you know,> Lan Wangji replies. Then, tentatively, almost like a confession, <I wish that I had known you sooner. I wish I could have saved you.>

Wei Ying laughs again, but it’s lighter, lacking the bitterness of before. <Thanks for the thought, Lan Zhan, but I doubt even you could have helped me. Near the end, I was...in a pretty bad state. I made a lot of stupid decisions. I wouldn’t have wanted you to see me in that way.>

<I wouldn’t have cared,> Lan Wangji insists. <You would still be you, Wei Ying.>

<You’re sweet,> Wei Ying murmurs. Lan Wangji’s heart trips over itself. <I still don’t think you could’ve helped, but I appreciate the sentiment regardless. Thanks, Lan Zhan. I actually feel a lot better, now.>

<I am glad,> Lan Wangji says, before a (not so pleasant) thought occurs to him. <Does this mean...that you are able to move on now?>

<What, still trying to get rid of me, Lan Zhan?>

<You know it is not like that.> At least, Lan Wangji hopes Wei Ying does.

Wei Ying sighs. <No. I feel... lighter now, I guess, but I still can’t leave. What, disappointed?>

<Only that you cannot be as happy as you deserve,> Lan Wangji tells him. In truth, he is the opposite of disappointed. He knows it’s wrong of him, and selfish, but he can’t help the relief that floods through him at the reassurance that Wei Ying will not be leaving him just yet .

<I’m plenty happy here, with you,> Wei Ying says, and Lan Wangji’s traitorous heart beats even faster.

<I am glad to hear it,> is all he can say.

 

<Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!> Wei Ying plays, one day, out of nowhere. He cannot control the guqin on his own, not without a preceding question to answer, so these days Lan Wangji has taken to playing the opening to Inquiry early in the morning and leaving it open for Wei Ying to speak when he wishes.

Lan Wangji looks up from his book, and crosses the room to the guqin. There are a few books from the library set on the table next to it - Lan Wangji has taken, lately, to playing passages from some of the cultivation manuals from Wei Ying, who is a surprisingly attentive student - his uncle might have liked him, had Wei Ying studied here.

(Once, just to see how Wei Ying would react, Lan Wangji had begun playing from the Book of Righteousness instead.

He’d barely made it up to the thirtieth rule.)

<What is wrong?> Lan Wangji plays.

<There’s an entire family of baby rabbits stranded out in the forest,> Wei Ying tells them. <Their mother was eaten by a fox. Lan Zhan, you have to help them, otherwise they’ll die!>

<How do you know?> Lan Wangji asks.

<The mother’s spirit told me.>

<You can talk to animal spirits?> Lan Wangji asks, surprised. Wei Ying had told him once that all the spirits trapped in whatever purgatory they were in were able to talk with each other - it was just that most of them didn’t want to.

(<It’s so lonely and boring here, Lan Zhan, you’ll have to speak with me more often!>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji had replied, trying not to sound too delighted at the prospect.)

<In a way,> Wei Ying says. <It’s not really talking, so much as...communication, I guess? Anyway, all spirits here can get their messages across to one another, whether they’re human or animal. The mother is pretty distraught - Lan Zhan, you have to do something!>

Lan Wangji hesitates. Even if he manages to find the rabbits - <Pets are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.>

<Is that another rule? Heavens, how do you people live? No, don’t answer that. Anyway, you don’t have to keep them, just make sure they don’t freeze or starve to death. Or -> the notes of the guqin acquire a teasing lilt - <if you really don’t want them, you can always eat them...rabbit meat is quite delicious…>

Lan Wangji stiffens. <Killing is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. I will find the rabbits. Where are they?>

Wei Ying relays the directions to a hollowed-out tree trunk in the forest, where Lan Wangji finds four tiny, shivering rabbits. He tucks them into his robes, brings them back to the Jingshi, reads several books on caring for rabbits (why those books would be present in the library, given the rule against pets, he has no idea) and feeds them some lettuce leaves.

Lan Xichen finds out about them soon after. “Wangji,” he says gently, “you know that pets are not allowed…”

“Not pets,” Lan Wangji says. “They were orphaned. I am making sure they survive.”

“If you say so,” Lan Xichen says, a bit skeptically. “As long as you’re planning to release them.”

“I am,” Lan Wangji promises.

He really is. The problem is, the rabbits don’t seem to have any intention of leaving the Cloud Recesses, even after they’ve grown plump and fluffy and are obviously in no danger of starvation. Even worse, they seem to be multiplying quite rapidly.

Wei Ying laughs himself sick when Lan Wangji tells him, a little irritated - after all, this is all Wei Ying’s fault. <Oh, this is too funny, Lan Zhan! They’ve taken a liking to you! And you seem pretty fond of them too!>

<Am not,> Lan Wangji insists, though he probably does indulge in playing with the rabbits a bit too frequently.

In the end, Lan Qiren reluctantly allows the rabbits to remain in the Cloud Recesses, on the basis that they make no sound and never interfere with the other disciples, unlike the dog that Jin Zixuan had kept trying to sneak in when he was studying there.

(That, and the sight of his stoic nephew surrounded by a horde of fluffy rabbits is rather endearing even to him.)

 

Then, the Wens arrive, and destroy the only home Lan Wangji has ever known.

His father is dying, his brother is missing, his guqin is destroyed so he cannot even speak with Wei Ying, he is deep within Wen territory, and Lan Wangji has never felt so alone and hopeless in his entire life.

Lan Wangji ends up trapped, by himself, within the cave of the Xuanwu. The other disciples have escaped - he can only hope that at least one of them has made it out to ask for help. Out of desperation for any kind of weapon at all, in the event that the Xuanwu decides to go for another round, Lan Wangji collects the strings of seven abandoned bows and stretches them out in a crude imitation of a guqin.

He doesn’t even know why he’s done it - he’s too weak for any of his songs to have any real effect against the Xuanwu. But maybe -

Almost unconsciously, his fingers play the opening to Inquiry.

Immediately, what looks like hundreds of spirits rise from the surface of the lake - the victims of the Xuanwu. But Lan Wangji doesn’t want to talk to them - he knows it’ll be impossible for any of them to move on while the Xuanwu still lives. Instead, he plays, quietly, <Wei Ying?>

He’s not really expecting a response. Spirits rarely travel across long distances, so it’s highly unlikely that Wei Ying will leave the Cloud Recesses to show up in this dark cave that stinks of death. So that’s why he’s shocked when, almost immediately, there’s an answering, <Lan Zhan? Is that you?>

Wei Ying is playing so quickly and so frantically that the strings vibrate so hard they almost come loose from the rocks Lan Wangji had used to anchor them. He secures the strings once more and plays, fingers feeling stiff and clumsy in his excitement, <Yes. Why are you here?>

<I was kind of...following you? You didn’t call me in...a long time, so I thought that maybe...but I kept following you, waiting, and…>

Lan Wangji doesn’t know what Wei Ying had assumed was the reason for his silence, but he doubts it’s anything good, so he tells Wei Ying what has happened, fingers shaking as he does. Wei Ying does not interrupt, and is silent even when he’s done.

<Lan Zhan,> he murmurs, eventually, <I don’t know what to say…>

<Don’t say anything,> Lan Wangji plays. He can feel tears burning hot in the back of his eyes, and he stubbornly blinks them away. He may have lost everything, but at least he can still keep ahold of his composure.

Apparently not.

<Are you crying?> Wei Ying asks, intuitive as always.

<No,> Lan Wangji says, swiping away a tear that’s managed to escape.

<Do you want to?>

<No.> Wei Ying may not be able to lie through Inquiry, but Lan Wangji can.

<I think you do,> Wei Ying says, frankly. <What you’ve gone through, Lan Zhan...if it happened to me, I can’t even imagine what kind of state I’d be in. It’s alright to be sad. Don’t bottle up all your emotions, it’s not healthy!>

<Excess emotions are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.>

<Yes, but we’re not in the Cloud Recesses, are we?>

Lan Wangji knows Wei Ying hadn't intended for his words to sting the way they do, but it doesn’t stop the tears from finally overflowing. <Wei Ying, please shut up,> he plays before he can stop himself.

Wei Ying does.

When Lan Wangji has finally regained some control over his own feelings, he plays, feeling incredibly guilty because Wei Ying still hasn’t said anything, <I apologize for snapping earlier.>

<It’s fine,> Wei Ying replies immediately, almost like he’d been waiting to. <I told you, it’s not healthy to bottle things up! I just…>

<What?> Lan Wangji prompts, when it doesn’t seem like Wei Ying is likely to finish his sentence any time soon.

<I wish I could be there with you,> Wei Ying plays, very softly.

Lan Wangji takes a sharp breath, feels his ears growing hot. <I don’t,> he plays. <I would not wish for anyone to be trapped here.>

<Still,> Wei Ying plays, <you should not be alone. Especially not now.>

<I am not alone,> Lan Wangji finds himself playing, <I have you.>

He winces at himself, at how that had sounded, but Wei Ying simply plays, <You always do.>

 

(<You know, Lan Zhan, if I were there and, you know, alive - I'd hug you right now!>

<Mm. I dislike physical contact.>

<What, even from me ?> Lan Wangji can practically hear Wei Ying's pout, and briefly indulges in imagining what it'd have looked like on his lips. <Can’t you make an exception, just this once?>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji concedes, <for you.>

<Really? Wow, Lan Zhan, is it that I’m special?>

Of course you are. How could you possibly think that you are not, to me?

<Mm.>)

 

<Why is there so much resentful energy here?> Wei Ying asks him the next day. <There are so many spirits, but they’re all so angry.>

<They are the victims of the Xuanwu,> Lan Wangji tells him. He’s weaker now - how many days has it been now? <They have accumulated over the course of several centuries, all unable to find peace.>

<Hmm,> Wei Ying plays.

<What is it?>

<I think I may know of a way for you to escape this cave…>

 

<Absolutely not,> Lan Wangji plays, when Wei Ying is done telling him his plan.

<But why not?> Wei Ying demands.

<It is too dangerous.>

<What, for me? I’m already dead, Lan Zhan, I doubt there’s much else that can happen to me!>

<Your spirit can still undergo damage.>

<Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays, sounding exasperated, <I’ve done stuff like this a thousand times when I was alive.>

And look how well that turned out, Lan Wangji doesn’t say, because he’s not a terrible person.

<What,> Wei Ying snaps, <is it that you don’t trust me?>

<You know I do,> Lan Wangji plays immediately. <But I am worried for you.>

<No need,> Wei Ying plays briskly. <Just give it a shot - at this rate, who knows when help will come. I will be fine, I promise.>

<And if you’re not?> Lan Wangji asks, quietly.

<I’m already dead,> Wei Ying repeats flippantly. <What’s the worst that can happen?>

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t know if this is the worst outcome, but it certainly feels like it, as he plays, < Wei Ying! > over and over, with rising desperation, to nothing but utter silence.

Somehow, Wei Ying had managed to manipulate the abundant resentful energy surrounding the Xuanwu, not to mention the hundreds of vengeful spirits, into what had seemed to be an almost corporeal mass of energy that had done something to the Xuanwu, causing it to howl with pain and writhe wildly, it’s huge head whipping right out of the water to where Lan Wangji had been waiting, ready.

He’d clung to the bowstrings cutting into its neck for what had seemed like an eternity, before, finally, the life faded from the Xuanwu. Then, utterly exhausted, he’d reassembled his makeshift guqin with bloodied, trembling hands and called out for Wei Ying.

There had been no response.

Now, three hours later, he keeps calling. He’s on the last dregs of his spiritual energy - he doesn’t know how much longer he can continue. Then, just as he’s about to collapse from exhaustion, a spirit, tiny and wispy and barely visible, alights on the strings.

<Lan Zhan?> Wei Ying plays, so softly he almost doesn’t hear it.

Lan Wangji feels like he could sob from relief. <Wei Ying,> he plays. <What happened?>

<Too much...resentment,> Wei Ying plays, haltingly and clumsily, nothing at all like his usual cheerful eloquence. <Almost overcame me…>

Lan Wangji shivers at the thought of how close he’d come to losing Wei Ying. He’d told Wei Ying it was too dangerous - at some point in the future, he’ll berate him for his recklessness. But for now - <Rest, Wei Ying. Regain your strength.>

<Play...something for me...Lan Zhan…>

<You wish for me to speak with you more?>

<No...just a song...a normal one…>

Lan Wangji understands. Wei Ying doesn’t want a song written specifically to communicate with spirits, or to fight, or to subdue, or for any purpose other than for the simple pleasure of being heard. It has been a long time since Lan Wangji has had the luxury of playing a song like that. But he thinks about Wei Ying, how the spirit makes his heart clench almost painfully in his chest every time he hears the light notes of the guqin, how close he’d almost come to losing him, and the notes for one come to him as easy as breathing. He plays, watching the faint form of Wei Ying hover barely an inch above his fingers.

 

Eventually, rescue comes. It appears that Jiang Wanyin has managed to escape the Wens and call upon his sect for assistance. Lan Wangji is taken out of the cave, and back to the ruins of the Cloud Recesses.

He tries to help rebuild, all the while listening to the increasingly dire reports of the crimes the Wens are committing to other sects outside the Gusu borders. Some of the news comes from cultivators who have been forced to flee their homes, some as gossip from civilians and passing merchants, and some from the spirits Lan Wangji still speaks to when he plays Inquiry every Friday, although almost everyone in the sect is far too preoccupied to offer any assistance to the spirits.

Wei Ying is here with him, as well - he’d managed to emerge from the cave, having recovered sufficiently from his brush with the resentful energy, and had followed Lan Wangji back to the Cloud Recesses.

Lan Wangji finds it strange, that Wei Ying is so mobile for a spirit. Most spirits attach themselves to one place and remain there until they move on. But for Wei Ying to be able to follow him, from Gusu to Qishan and back...there is a possible explanation, but it’s one Lan Wangji is hesitant to consider.

Lan Wangji’s father passes away, and he feels guilty for how... little he feels. Lan Xichen returns, and Lan Wangji is significantly more emotional about this. The simmering tension against the Wens erupts into a full-scale war, headed by Lan Xichen and his sworn brother, Nie Mingjue.

The moment Lan Wangji’s injuries are healed sufficiently, he takes to the battlefield himself. So does Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji is ashamed to admit it, but he is glad to have Wei Ying with him. He’s a comforting, familiar presence (well, as much of a presence as a spirit can have) in a place where all the other cultivators around him only bow stiffly and call him HanGuang-Jun. It is...nice, to know that, at the end of battles that leave him drained and limping, on days when the war seems like it will never end, Wei Ying is only a strum of the guqin away.

Then. Reports begin to emerge, of Wen soldiers killed in strange, gruesome ways. Scared to death, some people say. The ones left alive, but driven to insanity, babbling on about vengeful spirits.

And, the thing is, these strange occurrences only seem to follow one person - Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji shrugs off the rumours. He knows he has nothing to do with whatever is happening. But then his eyes fall to the guqin, resting carefully on a small table in the corner of is tent. Is it possible…?

No. It cannot be.

But then he sees what happens to Wen Chao.

Lan Wangji had run into Yu Ziyuan and her son, Jiang Wanyin, just outside the borders of Qishan. The two of them have been tracking Wen Chao and his companion Wen Zhuliu, the Core-Melting Hand, who is arguably one of the greatest assets the Wens have to their name. Jiang Fengmian is not with them, and Lan Wangji wonders briefly at this, but supposes he’s occupied elsewhere - and besides, the Purple Spider is a more than capable cultivator in her own right.

Yu Ziyuan, Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji manage to corner the two Wens in some dilapidated trading post, far from any cities. They’re about to enter, when they hear Wen Chao cry out thinly, as though in pain. “Quiet,” Yu Ziyuan hisses, when her son opens his mouth to speak. “Onto the roof.”

The three cultivators leap lightly up onto the roof of the station, and peer into the room below. Jiang Wanyin gasps at what he sees, and Lan Wangji feels cold all over.

Wen Chao writhes on the floor, surrounded by swirling masses of resentful energy. His screams mingle with the moans and bellows of the spirits, who, right before the eyes of the three cultivators, rip entire chunks of flesh straight off his bones, leaving him howling in agony.

Wen Zhuliu tries desperately to fight the energy, but to no avail - his sword is useless here, and this is not the kind of energy that can be banished with a flick of his hand.

This is all horribly, achingly familiar.

“What -” Jiang Wanyin breathes, eyes wide.

“Resentful energy,” Yu Ziyuan growls. Her hands clench into fists, and Lan Wangji watches purple sparks begin to dance along her ring. “Demonic cultivation.”

“But who could be responsible?” Jiang Wanyin wonders. “I see no other cultivator here.”

“Does it matter?” snaps Yu Ziyuan. “They're doing us a damned favour. A-Cheng, come - let's finish the job.” She and her son drop soundlessly into the room. A moment later, Lan Wangji follows.

I see no other cultivator here, Jiang Wanyin had said. Of course he hadn’t - the cultivator responsible is already dead.

Lan Wangji watches, silently, as Yu Ziyuan’s whip flashes out to wrap itself around Wen Zhuliu, slowly squeezing the life out of his struggling form. He watches as Wen Chao’s screams peter off as he’s reduced to a bloody husk under the knife-like tendrils of resentful energy. When he can bear to watch no longer, he leaves.

 

Lan Wangji finds a small room at a nearby inn and sits, ramrod straight, guqin poised in his lap, until, finally, the tiny orb that is Wei Ying materialises beside him. <Wei Ying,> he plays tensely.

<Lan Zhan!> Wei Ying replies. He almost sounds...excited. <You saw what I did to that bastard Wen Chao, didn’t you?>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji forces out.

<Hahaha, didn’t he deserve it? He’s the one who got you trapped in that cave...and when I listen to the spirits from the places he’s destroyed, when I hear what he’s done to them, well...all I can say, Lan Zhan, is that he got off easy tonight. Don’t you agree?>

Lan Wangji cannot take this any longer. It’s hard to breathe. He’s angry, and frustrated, but most of all he’s scared. <Wei Ying, you must stop.>

Wei Ying, who had previously been bobbing rapidly, comes to a halt. <Stop...what?> he plays slowly.

<Stop using demonic cultivation.>

<And why should I do that?> Wei Ying plays, as languidly as before, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of tension.

Lan Wangji breathes deeply. <It is dangerous, Wei Ying.>

<And I’ve told you before, Lan Zhan, I know what I’m doing!>

<You were almost consumed,> Lan Wangji grits out. <In the cave.>

<I made a mistake. It will not happen again.>

<How can you be sure of that?>

<I know my own limitations better than anyone!>

<You died, because of demonic cultivation!> As soon as the notes have been played, Lan Wangji wants to pull them back, go back in time and stop himself from even thinking of the words. But all he can do, is play, fingers tripping over themselves, <No, Wei Ying, I didn’t mean->

< Oh,> Wei Ying plays, and have the notes of his guqin ever sounded this cold? <That is what you’re choosing to bring up?>

<Wei Ying, I’m sorry ->

<I always knew you pitied me, that you thought I deserved my death, all because of my cultivation,> Wei Ying plays angrily. <I don’t know why I even told you about that - I don’t know why I ever trusted you in the first place.>

Lan Wangji rears back, feeling like he’s just been pierced in the chest by a hundred burning arrows. Wei Ying continues, <All you cultivators are the same, aren’t you - so proud of your straight, shining path, detesting those who choose to walk any other - you’ve detested me all this time, haven’t you, Lan Wangji? This entire time, you’ve been thinking how evil and dangerous I am, how it’s a good thing I died early before I could cause any more trouble, how you should just try to get me off this earth quickly before I could stir up any more ->

As Wei Ying plays, the notes grow louder and louder, sharper and angrier, and the tiny orb of his spirit shivers, tinged with red -

Lan Wangji slams his palms down onto the strings, cutting Wei Ying off. They leave deep angry welts in his skin, but he pays them no heed as he plays, <Wei Ying, stop! You are becoming a vengeful spirit!>

<And so what?> Wei Ying flares, bright crimson. <Are you going to exorcise me now, HanGuang-Jun? You’ve always wanted me gone - well, now’s your chance!>

<No!> Lan Wangji plays. I’ve never wanted you gone - I couldn’t detest you if I tried - please don’t leave me - he has so many things he wants to tell Wei Ying, but his fingers stumble on the words, and all he can play is, <Wei Ying, let me help you. I cannot watch you suffer.>

Wei Ying laughs bitterly. <And why do you even care, Lan Zhan?>

Because you are the first person, besides my own family, I’ve ever become so close to. Because you’ve made me happier in the few years I’ve known you than I can ever remember being. Because you did not deserve what happened to you, and I wish I could have saved you then, but I couldn’t, so all I can do is try to save you now. Because it’s very, very likely that I’m in love with -

<It’s not like we’re even friends,> Wei Wuxian continues, and Lan Wangji gasps, feeling the arrows in his chest twist .

<Wei Ying,> he plays quietly, brokenly.

<Save it, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays, and he’s not loud and angry anymore, just quiet and... defeated. His spirit no longer glows scarlet, but its usual pale blue, much duller than before. <I’ll save you the trouble of going through an exorcism to get rid of me, and I’ll just leave you alone from now on.>

Lan Wangji’s heart all but stops. <Wei Ying, wait -> he plays, desperately, but the spirit has already vanished.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji shouts, and the guqin screams the name simultaneously. But there is no response.

Lan Wangji does not know if there ever will be.