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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.

Chapter Text

For the next few months, Lan Wangji spends what seems like his every waking hour doing one of two things: fighting in this horrible war, or playing Inquiry for Wei Ying.

There’s no response, and Lan Wangji is beginning to despair of ever getting one. Yet, he cannot bring himself to stop. His uncle had always praised his diligence - maybe it’s less that, and more just plain stubbornness.

The attacks of resentful energy continue, but have now grown even more vicious than before. Hearing about them sparks nausea in Lan Wangji’s gut, and a chilling fear for Wei Ying, because how can the spirit possibly remain unaffected in the face of such dark energy?

But, beneath all that, there’s an awful, guilty gladness - at least the attacks mean that Wei Ying is still here, even if he won’t answer Lan Wangji.

But then, almost a half a year after Lan Wangji’s last spoken to Wei Ying, the attacks cease, abruptly.

Other cultivators breathe uneasy sighs of relief, but Lan Wangji is terrified of what this might mean. The best case scenario is that Wei Ying has managed to move on, but the more likely one is that he has been -

Lan Wangji shakes his head resolutely. No . He refuses to think about that possibility.

His fingers rest on the strings of the guqin tiredly. Over the past few years, they’ve developed countless callouses from how often he’s been playing the instrument. Lan Wangji doesn’t mind - in a way, they’re a reminder of Wei Ying. Probably the only reminder he’ll have left, if Wei Ying will really never answer him again.

With a sigh, Lan Wangji plays the usual notes, ones he could probably play in his sleep by now. <Wei Ying?>

As expected, there’s no answer. Lan Wangji sighs again, but just as he’s about to end his Inquiry, he hears a quiet, <I’m here.>

Lan Wangji gasps, and almost fumbles his reply of <Wei Ying!>

<That’s me, Lan Zhan.> Wei Ying sounds...tired, lacking his usual energy, but at least he’s not livid anymore. <You...really are persistent, aren’t you?>

Lan Wangji feels himself flinch.

<You’ve been calling for me for what...how long has it been?>

<Almost six months,> Lan Wangji plays.

Wei Ying sighs. <Sometimes it seemed like that was all I could hear...it was a bit distracting, Lan Zhan.>

Lan Wangji swallows hard. Had it upset Wei Ying that much, being forced to listen to Lan Wangji and his desperate, pathetic pleas? <I’m sorry.>

<No, don’t be,> Wei Ying says. <Aren’t you...wondering why I stopped using resentful energy?>

Lan Wangji is , but he’s not going to push Wei Ying - he’s already learnt his lesson. <As long as it is your choice, it does not matter. Wei Ying, I am...sorry for the way I acted. I ->

<No, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays firmly. <What I’m trying to say is...you were right. About the resentful energy. It was dangerous, and reckless, and I almost...lost myself. Pretty often.>

<Are you alright?> Lan Wangji asks, alarmed.

<I am now ,> Wei Ying says. <You see, Lan Zhan, near the end, I started...losing track. Of who I was, of who I used to be...but do you know what stopped me from forgetting altogether, what kept me tethered?>

Lan Wangji can hardly breathe.

<It was your Inquiry,> Wei Ying continues. <Every time I came close to... you know, I’d hear it, and I’d remember you, and...well, eventually I started realizing just what this whole situation reminded me of. Those last few days, before my death, when I was so arrogant, so wrapped up in my own goddamn pride, when I thought nothing could possibly go wrong, and I didn’t even realise how stupid and reckless I was being. Not until I - well. And by then, it was too late, ha...> Wei Ying pauses, almost like he’s taking a breath he doesn’t need. <So, um, what I’m trying to say, Lan Zhan, is...thank you. For, uh, not giving up on me, even though I said some pretty horrible things to you…>

Lan Wangji’s fingers are trembling so hard he almost cannot play, but he coaxes them into stillness long enough to say, <There is no need.>

<No need for what?>

<To say thank you. Between us, there is no need.>

Wei Ying laughs softly. <Lan Zhan, you’re really...something else, you know?>

Lan Wangji isn’t sure if that’s supposed to be a good thing.

<I don’t know why you put up with someone like me,> Wei Ying continues.

This serves to remind Lan Wangji of something else Wei Ying had said, all those months ago. <Wei Ying, do you really believe I do not want you here?>

<Well,> Wei Ying plays hesitantly, <no? I mean, I always kind of thought I was pretty annoying to you...and you’re always trying to get me to move on, so I figured you wanted me out of your hair as quickly as possible…>

Not for the first time, Lan Wangji curses his awkwardness with words, his own inability to communicate his feelings properly. He’d much rather show them through his actions, but since that’s rather impossible to do with Wei Ying, he’s forced to fumblingly try to put his thoughts into words. <Wei Ying, I do not hate you. Nor do I detest your demonic cultivation - I only worry for your safety when you use it.>

<Yeah, well, I see that now,> Wei Ying plays, a bit wryly. <But back then...I only started using it because...well, because I wanted to be useful, somehow.>

<What do you mean?>

<Well, I’m always just kind of bothering you, aren’t I, Lan Zhan? I can’t fight, I can’t help in this campaign, but I still keep hanging around you because...well, it doesn’t matter. But you’re always so patient, and you keep making time to talk with me, just so I don’t devolve, or whatever. So I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to contribute in whatever way I could. Which turned out to be demonic cultivation...there’s not a whole lot else spirits can do on the battlefield, you know?>

There is a lot wrong with that statement, and Lan Wangji will have to unpack it all with Wei Ying later, but for now he just plays, <There is no need for you to fight.>

<But, Lan Zhan…>

<It...is not a burden for me, talking to you,> Lan Wangji plays, haltingly. <I will not make you leave, if you do not fight.>

<I know that,> Wei Ying plays, sounding frustrated, <but I feel like I have to do something, you know?>

Lan Wangji does know, and he knows Wei Ying well enough to realise that the spirit will not be satisfied with just existing, no matter what Lan Wangji tells him. So instead, he tells Wei Ying, <You can help the spirits.>

<Huh?>

<Most of the spirits who die during battle are restless,> Lan Wangji explains. <They do not respond easily to my Inquiry. You can calm them, and help them move on.>

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays. <That...actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.>

<Mm.>

<Alright!> Wei Ying plays, bright and lively, and oh , Lan Wangji has missed him. <That’s what I’ll do! Thanks for the idea, Lan Zhan.>

<Mm.>

<And thank you,> Wei Ying plays, more quietly, <for waiting for me.>

<No need.> I would wait a lifetime for you, if I had to.

Wei Ying laughs. <What, no need to say thank you or sorry? You’re so strange, Lan Zhan!>

<Is that a good thing?> Lan Wangji finds himself asking.

<Mm,> Wei Ying hums, <very.>

 

Finally, finally, the war comes to an end. Wen Ruohan has been killed, as have his two sons. The victory has not come without heavy losses, of course - the Wens had attacked and nearly decimated the LanlingJin Sect. Retribution, Lan Wangji suspects, for the role Jin Zixuan had played in the events in the Xuanwu cave.

Jin Guangshan had been killed while trying to sneak out of Koi Tower through a hidden exit. Malicious rumors say he was in bed with a brothel girl when the attack happened and had spent his last few moments grovelling and pleading for his life.

Jin Zixuan is named Sect Leader in his place, and one of his first acts is to appoint Meng Yao as his chief advisor. Meng Yao - Jin Guangyao, as he now calls himself - receives enough praise for being the one to kill Wen Ruohan and, alternatively, disdain for the role he’d played as a spy and for his parentage, to all but overshadow Jin Zixuan himself. Luckily, Jin Zixuan seems to take it all in stride.

Lan Wangji tells all this to Wei Ying, who huffs and plays, <Jin Zixuan? I met him once, when I was alive. What an arrogant peacock.>

<I suppose he has changed,> Lan Wangji replies, feeling both amused and rather irrationally jealous of Jin Zixuan for having the chance to actually meet Wei Ying, in life. He briefly considers asking Jin Zixuan about it, before realizing that he really shouldn’t be bothering the new Sect Leader with such trivial matters.

<Doubtful, but okay,> Wei Ying says. <What about this Meng Yao? Tell me about him.>

<He is part of the Venerated Triad, along with my brother and Nie Mingjue,> Lan Wangji plays. <He is clever, and pleasant to be around, but rather cunning also.> He hesitates, before adding, <Many are still suspicious of him, both because he spent most of the war undercover as Wen Ruohan’s affiliate and because he is Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate child.>

Wei Ying hums. <Sounds interesting enough. I mean, I can’t really say I approve of judging anyone for their parentage, especially considering my own - but I suppose people’s minds are hard to change. Anyway! Why are we discussing such heavy topics! Lan Zhan, that new song you were working on - play it for me!>

<It is not done.>

<Doesn’t matter, it probably sounds spectacular either way! Lan Zhan, please? For me?>

How can Lan Wangji refuse him? <Mm,> he says, and begins to play.

(<Lan Zhan, this song...it’s almost like a love song, isn’t it?>

<Mm.>

<Did you...compose it with anyone in mind, perhaps…?>

<No,> Lan Wangji lies, and hopes that Wei Ying cannot tell.)

 

Now that the war is over, the cultivation world falls into a rather uneasy sort of peace. The remaining Sects lick their wounds, and try to recover as best as they can.

Lan Xichen confides in him that Jiang Fengmian had lost his core at some point during the war, which is the reason for his sudden retirement. Jiang Wanyin becomes YunmengJiang’s Sect Leader now, but -

“Even though he is so young,” Lan Xichen says, “I am not worried for him. His parents are still there to guide him, even unofficially. Jin Zixuan, on the other hand -” He sighs heavily. “LanlingJin has sustained heavy losses, and its reputation is not the most stellar at the moment. Recovery will be a difficult task.”

“Jin Zixuan has LianFang-Zun,” Lan Wangji points out.

“That he does,” Lan Xichen acknowledges. “And A-Yao is my brother, so he has me as well.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says. “You know I am always willing to help.”

Lan Xichen smiles, a bit sadly. “Yes, A-Zhan, I do.”

 

<Do you know what has happened to the remaining people of the Wen Sect?> Wei Ying asks him one night.

Lan Wangji frowns. <As far as I am aware, there are none remaining. Why?>

<I spoke to a spirit,> Wei Ying plays. <Apparently he was one of the last few Wen cultivators left alive. He says they’re all being kept crammed up in some tiny corner of Qishan, forced to do labour for the Jin Sect - except, the only Wens left are the ones who were too old or young or sick to fight in the war, so none of them are exactly cut out for the work they’re being forced to do. It’s a worrisome situation - Lan Zhan, can’t you do something about it?>

Lan Wangji hesitates. He can’t say he’s not bothered by what’s happening to the Wens, but - he also knows there are likely few others in the cultivation world who will share that sentiment. After the Sunshot Campaign, the name Wen has become universally hated, their cities razed, their territory seized and divided up amongst the other Sects. <I will do what I can,> he plays eventually.

<Thank you, Lan Zhan!> Wei Ying says. <I’m really worried - the spirit I spoke to said that a supervisor there killed him in a fit of anger, and that he’s not the first one to have died in such a way. I mean, do they really deserve to suffer just because their name is Wen? Those there have never even fought in the war - why should they pay for the sins of their relatives?>

They shouldn't, and Lan Wangji knows this, but he has no idea how he's to go about helping them. His brother is sympathetic, but admits that there's little he can do. He offers to speak with Jin Guangyao and ask him to look into the matter, since the Wens are technically under Jin supervision, but for some reason Lan Wangji rather doubts this approach will yield much results.

Before he can do much more, however, he’s whisked off to the Discussion Conference in Lanling. There, outside Koi Tower, he’s approached by a hunched figure draped in ragged robes, who, upon closer inspection, reveals herself to be Wen Qing. Lan Wangji is startled by her gaunt, haggard appearance - even amongst those who detest the Wens, Wen Qing is renowned as one of the best medics in the land and, the few times he’d met her, she’d carried herself with a high degree of pride and composure. There is little of that left, now, as she says, hoarsely, “HanGuang-Jun. I know you hate my Sect - and you have every reason to - but please help me save my little brother.”

 

“Wangji,” his uncle all but roars at him, a week later, “what is the meaning of this?”

This , referring to the thirty odd Wen cultivators standing behind him on the pristine lawns of the Cloud Recesses, most cowering under Lan Qiren’s furious glare. Lan Wangji raises his chin. He is, of course, terrified of his uncle’s wrath, but he must remain calm, for the sake of the people he has brought here. “They were being mistreated,” he explains. “I could not ignore it.”

“It was not your place!” Lan Qiren shouts. “You humiliate us by leaving the banquet early - you end up in a confrontation against Jin cultivators, you sully your reputation - and for what? These people? You owe them nothing! They are the ones who should be begging forgiveness - have you forgotten what the same Wens did to the Cloud Recesses? To your own home?”

“These are not the Wens who destroyed our home,” Lan Wangji says. “Most of them are too old or weak to have been involved in the war.”

“It does not matter! A Wen is still a Wen!”

“Uncle, if I may,” Lan Xichen interjects. Lan Wangji turns to him, surprised - his brother had been silent for the entire exchange, and Lan Wangji had felt his disappointment like a palpable thing. “The conditions in which these people were forced to live were utterly deplorable,” Lan Xichen continues, “They were forced into labour far beyond their capacities, and punished harshly for imagined wrongdoings. As Wangji has said, these people have likely never fought in the war - and, Wen or not, they are still people, are they not? Does our sect not advocate against wanton cruelty?”

Lan Qiren’s beard twitches irately, and there are still traces of red in his eyes, but he appears to have calmed down somewhat. Lan Wangji supposes that’s just the effect his brother has on most people. “Even if I admit that they were punished unfairly,” he says gruffly, “what do you expect me to do about it? They cannot stay in the Cloud Recesses - I will not have the other Sects attacking GusuLan for harbouring them.”

“They can live at the base of the mountain,” Lan Wangji says immediately - he’s had a lot of time to think about it, on the way here, and Wei Ying had offered some suggestions as well. “I will create a settlement for them. And I will take full responsibility for my actions. I will say I acted alone, without the approval of the GusuLan Sect.”

Lan Qiren sighs. “Wangji -”

“There is no need for that,” Lan Xichen says. He smiles at Lan Wangji. “I will shoulder the blame as well.” He turns to the cluster of Wens. “You - is your name Wen Qionglin?”

“It is,” stammers one young man - Wen Qing's brother. He's leaning heavily on his sister, a cane in hand. When Lan Wangji had arrived at Qiongqi Path with Wen Qing, he’d found Wen Qionglin beaten heavily, severely injured. He might have not have survived, had Wen Qing not been able to administer medical aid as promptly as she had.

Lan Xichen gives him a gentle smile, then turns back to Lan Qiren. “Wen Qionglin was of assistance to me and ChiFeng-Zun during the war,” he says. “If not for him, the battle at Yunmeng may have gone quite differently. I owe him a great debt.”

“It - it’s nothing,” Wen Qionglin insists. “You don’t have to -”

“Be quiet,” Lan Qiren snaps at him, “and be grateful for what my nephews are doing for you.” He exhales, and faces Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. “I see that there is no dissuading the two of you from this decision, so I will not try. But you will still be solely responsible for the creation of their settlement - you are not allowed any help from other members of this Sect.”

“Understood, Uncle,” Lan Wangji says.

“And Wangji - despite your good intentions, your conduct at the Discussion Conference was still disgraceful. You must receive a punishment.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees. He can’t really argue with that.

“Twenty strokes, and you must then kneel in reflection for three hours,” Lan Qiren declares. Lan Xichen winces sympathetically, but Lan Wangji can’t bring himself to be too upset - the pain will fade eventually, and it’s a small price to pay for the safety of these people.

“I will,” he says.

“Good,” Lan Qiren says, and makes to turn away, but stops when Wen Qing breaks away from the group and steps forward.

“Master Lan,” she says, bowing to him. “ZeWu-Jun, HanGuang-Jun.” She straightens, and lifts her chin. She’s still dishevelled and exhausted, but seems to have regained at least some of her former dignity. “On behalf of all of us that you have saved, you, and your Sect, have our sincerest gratitude. I know we can never come close to repaying our debt, but we assure you that we are more than willing to help in whatever way we can.”

“There’s no need for that,” Lan Qiren snaps, looking more than a little discomfited - probably, Lan Wangji suspects, because he’s quite unused to Wen Qing being so...polite. “Just don’t go stirring up any more trouble for us, or for yourselves. Now get out of my sight!”

Wen Qing scowls, an infinitely more familiar sight, but returns to the group of Wens. Lan Xichen begins to lead them off to the path that will take them down the mountain, while Lan Wangji remains behind to receive his punishment.

Just before the group disappears around a bend, a tiny child pokes his head out of an old lady’s arms and waves at him excitedly.

Rather at a loss for what to do, Lan Wangji waves back.

 

“Why exactly did you decide to help those Wens?” Lan Xichen asks, later. “I know it was the right thing to do, but...how did you even find out about the condition they were living in? Not many others besides those Jin cultivators knew of it, much less of where they were even being kept.”

“Wen Qing asked for my help,” Lan Wangji says, which isn’t technically a lie.

Lan Xichen gives him a look. “We both know that’s not the full story, Wangji.” Not for the first time, Lan Wangji laments the fact that his brother can read him so well. He shakes his head - no point denying anything now.

“There is…a spirit,” he says, choosing his words very carefully. “He told me about the Wens.”

“Who was it?” Lan Xichen asks. “One of the cultivators there who died?”

Lan Wangji hesitates.

“It wasn’t?” Lan Xichen says. “Who was it, then?”

Lan Wangji averts his gaze. “Four years ago,” he says. “There was a spirit who would not move on.”

At first, it’s obvious that Lan Xichen can’t remember what he’s talking about. Then, in one instant, his eyes go wide, and he says, “Four years? All this time?”

Lan Wangji nods.

“And he still hasn’t moved on?”

“He cannot remember,” Lan Wangji mumbles.

“But by now he should have -” Lan Xichen breaks off, then says, slowly, “Wait. All those times, people said they heard the sound of the guqin coming from your room, or from your quarters during the war - was that -”

“Mm.”

“Wangji!” Lan Xichen gasps, looking so disapproving it would almost be comical if it didn’t also make Lan Wangji’s heart twist uncomfortably. “This - this is not safe!”

“I’m trying to help him remember,” Lan Wangji tries. It’s true - he does still ask Wei Ying every week whether or not he’s able to move on, and the answer is always the same.

Lan Xichen frowns. “Still - he should have remembered by now, I can’t think of any spirits who could remain here for so long and not become vicious. And he’s talking to you so often - are you sure that he harbours no ill intent towards you?”

If there is one thing Lan Wangji is absolutely certain of, it is that . “Wei Ying would not harm me,” he says resolutely. “He saved my life, in the Xuanwu Cave.”

Lan Xichen blinks. “He did? And, what did you say his name was? Wei Ying? You sound so…” He trails off again. “A-Zhan,” he whispers, “do you…”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to.

“Oh, A-Zhan,” Lan Xichen murmurs, no longer sounding disappointed, but just...sad. “You know this cannot end happily, right?”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says. Of course he knows - he’s spent so many days idly dreaming about the various scenarios that could play out, and in none of them do both he and Wei Ying come out of this happy.

Lan Xichen sighs again, and he looks so tired. He carries himself with so much grace and kindness that sometimes even Lan Wangji forgets just how much burdens he’s carrying. Lan Wangji feels a hot surge of guilt - he’d never wanted to add to that burden. “I know you cannot change how you feel,” Lan Xichen tells him, “so I will not try to force you to. All I can ask is that you be careful. I do not want to see my little brother hurt.”

Lan Wangji nods, silently. He feels that he’s probably in far too deep to be now considering caution, and he knows that he will end up hurt, one way or another, but he doesn’t want to worry his brother any more than he already has.

“I guess it’s true what they say,” Lan Xichen muses, “the Lans always have been unlucky when it comes to who we give our hearts to.”

Lan Wangji really cannot argue with that.

 

<Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays, sing-song, <tell me about your day!>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji plays. <I helped the Wens set up a small vegetable plot in their village, and I went to Caiyi town to purchase some food for their livestock.> He pauses, then adds, <I took A-Yuan with me.>

<Oh, again?> Wei Ying teases. <You take him with you often - could it be that the great HanGuang-Jun is looking to adopt?>

<Nonsense,> Lan Wangji plays.

<Aw, what a shame,> Wei Ying plays, chuckling, <I think you’d make a pretty good father!>

Lan Wangji hastily banishes the not-so-unwelcome mental image of him and Wei Ying having a child together, being a family. <Ridiculous,> he plays again, and Wei Ying shrieks with laughter.

<Oh, Lan Zhan, how do you manage to sound so disapproving even through music ? It must be a rare talent!>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji plays, allowing a tiny smile to form on his lips.

<But anyway, HanGuang-Jun who is definitely not a father, tell me about your outing in Caiyi! What did you do?>

Lan Wangji hums, and begins to play. The sun is setting, and it bathes the tiny settlement at the base of the mountain in shades of red and gold, lending it a cozy hue that helps to disguise how small the houses are, how in many areas they’ve had to resort to using sub-par materials. Lan Wangji still feels regretful over this, but without the backing of his Sect there is only so much he can do, so much resources he can access. The inhabitants have reassured him that it’s still a substantial improvement over their old lodgings, but it doesn’t stop him from worrying almost every day over how he might be able to help them improve.

For the past few months, Lan Wangji has been spending the majority of his spare time with the Wens, helping them establish their tiny settlement. Even when there’s no work to be done, he chooses to remain with them in the village - the elders in his Sect have still not quite forgiven him for what he has done, so he is met with disapproving glares almost everywhere he goes in the Cloud Recesses. The Wens do not seem to mind that he doesn't speak much, that any conversations he becomes involved in are  awkward and stilted - they speak to him anyway, not really expecting a response, and he hopes that his presence is not entirely unwelcome.

So he spends his day with the Wens, and, each evening, takes out his guqin and speaks with Wei Ying.

As always, there’s a small cluster of Wens gathered around him as he plays - he knows that they do not understand the language of Inquiry, so to them it must just seem like any other song. If they’re perturbed by the way the strings pluck themselves as Wei Ying speaks, they do not show it.

A-Yuan, the child in question, is fast asleep in his grandmother’s arms. He seems to have imprinted on Lan Wangji (“Not unlike your rabbits, A-Zhan,” Lan Xichen had remarked, amused), and now follows him around like a tiny shadow whenever he visits. Lan Wangji doesn’t mind - despite himself, he’s grown equally fond of A-Yuan. Because of this, he often lets the child accompany him on his trips to Caiyi - it’s still too risky for any of the older Wens to visit the town, but A-Yuan is too young to be easily recognizable as one of their Sect.

<I bought the food for the livestock,> Lan Wangji tells Wei Ying, <and also some flowers for the Wens to plant around their houses. A-Yuan noticed a vendor selling some toys he liked, so I bought them for him.>

<You bought - ah, Lan Zhan, you spoil him too much! Every time you go to town, you buy some trinket for him! At this rate, he’s going to become a spoilt little peacock like Jin Zixuan!>

<He will not,> Lan Wangji assures him.

<Aish,> Wei Ying sighs, exaggeratedly, <I take back what I said about you being a good father, Lan Zhan! Obviously, I’m going to have to be the more responsible parent here, or our son will turn out to be a monster! What did you buy him this time?> Lan Wangji resolutely does not think about the way Wei Ying had said our son.

<Two butterflies,> he says. Feeling himself smile at the memory, he plays, <He kept making them ‘talk’ to one another. One would say, ‘I love you’ and the other would reply ‘I love you more’. Then they would kiss.>

Wei Ying howls with laughter, the rather discordant chords startling Wen Qionglin - Wen Ning - who’d been listening. <Heavens, Lan Zhan, he’s only what, two or three? And he already knows about stuff like that? Just what kind of bedtime stories have you been reading him? Ah, who would’ve thought someone as unromantic as you would teach a child such things?>

Unromantic? If only Wei Ying knew. <I did not teach him.> He may have read to A-Yuan from some of his favourite poetry books from time to time, poems which may have been talking in rather vague terms about love, but he’s almost sure A-Yuan’s too young to understand.

<Mm, okay, Lan Zhan, if you say so…>

About an hour later, Lan Wangji stands and says, “It is late. I must return now.”

He’s met with a chorus of goodbyes, and A-Yuan’s grandmother pats him lightly on the shoulder. Wen Qing has only now shown up - she’s working as a medic up in the Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen had managed to get the elders to agree to an arrangement where some of the Wens would do odd jobs around the Cloud Recesses as a sort of payment - they work in the kitchens, they help mend robes, they help feed the rabbits which by now have become a staple of life on the mountain. And, of course, no elder could pretend they weren’t eager to have the famous Wen Qing working in the infirmary and helping to train other healers.

Before he leaves, he pulls her and A-Yuan’s grandmother aside. A-Yuan follows, still clutching the butterflies. In a low voice, he says, “I think it would be good for A-Yuan to receive training as a disciple of the GusuLan Sect. With your permission, of course.”

The old woman’s eyes go wide, and Wen Qing blinks. “Your Sect would allow that?” she asks skeptically.

“I will ask my brother to convince them,” Lan Wangji says.

The grandmother squeezes his hand, between her wrinkled ones. “I - cannot thank you enough,” she says. “For A-Yuan to have this opportunity - it means a lot to us.”

“Do not thank me,” Lan Wangji says. “A-Yuan is clever, and determined. He has much potential. GusuLan Sect will be grateful to have him as a disciple.”

Wen Qing snorts. “We’ve already said yes, HanGuang-Jun, no need to flatter us.”

Lan Wangji nods at them, then says his goodbyes. As he turns to leave, he feels a light tug at his robes, and looks down to see A-Yuan standing there.

“Goodbye, Han - Hangau…” He scowls, evidently struggling with Lan Wangji’s title.

Lan Wangji's lips quirk helplessly at the sight. “Han-Guang-Jun,” he pronounces carefully.

“HanGuang-Jun!” A-Yuan repeats, beaming toothily when Lan Wangji nods at him. The child tugs at his robes again. “Please visit soon!”

“I will,” Lan Wangji promises.

 

<Hey, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying begins, one night, <what do you look like?>

<Why do you ask?> Lan Wangji plays. It’s been almost two years since the Wens had settled, and by now most of the elders have come to, if not approve of their presence, at least tolerate it with a minimum of scowling and disgruntled muttering. He still goes down to visit them often, but he also spends more time in the Cloud Recesses, having been appointed the duty of training some of the disciples.

(If he spends maybe a bit too much time making sure A-Yuan is doing well, no one has to know.)

<Oh, no reason,> Wei Ying replies, a bit too nonchalantly to not be suspicious. <I’m just a bit curious as to my Lan Zhan’s appearance, that’s all! I can’t see anything here, after all, so it’d be nice to have a mental image to content myself with...>

<I do not know how to describe myself,> Lan Wangji tells him. He’s never really put much thought into his appearance, besides to ensure that he’s always neat and presentable enough to satisfy his Sect’s standards. He knows people say that he and his brother are handsome, but he thinks that’s probably just the norm for most GusuLan cultivators.

<Oh, at least try, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying insists.

Lan Wangji thinks. <I have long dark hair,> he plays, finally, <and brown eyes.>

He knows that’s probably not very helpful, and, predictably, Wei Ying groans. <That doesn’t give me anything, Lan Zhan!> he complains. <There are so many other people who fit that same description. You know, for someone who reads as much poetry as you do, you’re pretty bad with words, aren’t you?>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji plays. It’s not like he’s not aware of the fact already, but it still stings a bit to hear Wei Ying put it so bluntly.

<Don’t worry about it, though,> Wei Ying continues, <I’ll help you out! I’ve more than enough words for the both of us! Okay, so first - you said you wear your hair long, right? Is it straight or more wavy?>

<Straight.>

<Mm, yeah, I thought as much. Do you tie it up, or leave it loose, or braid it or something?>

<I put it in a topknot.>

<Ooh, how prim and proper,> Wei Ying teases. <It suits you. I bet you have really nice hair, don’t you?>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji says, for once thankful that Wei Ying isn’t actually here with him to see him blush. <It is manageable.>

<Okay, so we have something to go off of!> Wei Ying enthuses. <Alright, what shade of brown are your eyes?>

There are different shades of brown? Lan Wangji thinks despairingly. <Light?> he tries.

<Mm, so like, kind of a golden colour, huh?>

<I suppose,> Lan Wangji plays.

<Wow,> Wei Ying plays, <you sound so pretty! I mean, back when I was alive everyone always said you were, but...it would’ve been nice to see for myself, you know?>

<Mm,> Lan Wangji plays, ducking his head instinctively because he’s sure the expression he’s making right now is extremely embarrassing, <I am not.>

<Oh, of course you’d say that, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying groans. <Isn’t lying against the rules of your Sect?>

<Not lying.>

<Mm, fine, be like that. Aren’t you curious about what I looked like back when I was alive?>

Lan Wangji considers. Truth be told, he has thought about it before, but never for very long, nor in much detail - he’s fallen in love with the Wei Ying who’s an incorporeal spirit, and he doubts his physical appearance could affect his feelings in any way. <You do not have to tell me if you do not want to,> he plays, finally.

<Haha, what, Lan Zhan, are you worried it’ll upset me to talk about back then, when I was alive? Ah, don’t worry about that - it’s been so long, I’ve more than come to terms with it by now. So I don’t mind reminiscing a bit! Not to sound too vain, but I was rather handsome, Lan Zhan - girls used to be all over me!>

Lan Wangji’s fingers curl into light fists, before he forces them to relax. He knows it’s ridiculous to feel - what, jealous? - over Wei Ying. But he still -

<What about you, Lan Zhan?> Wei Ying is continuing, oblivious. <I bet you’re pretty popular with the ladies too, Mr. Second Jade of Lan. Got any, ah, suitors?> There’s something off about the way he plays that last sentence, but Lan Wangji doesn’t think much of it.

<I am not,> he plays, truthfully. While, again, he is aware that people find him attractive - at least according to that ridiculous list - he is also aware that his apparent coldness and stoicism quickly discourage any potential suitors.

<Oh, really? What a shame. So, no one special who’s caught your eye?>

<No.> Technically, he cannot see Wei Ying, per se.

<Oh, is that so?> The notes of the guqin turn low and teasing. <You know, Lan Zhan, I bet if you could’ve seen me, you’d have found me pretty.>

Lan Wangji stiffens. Does Wei Ying know - ? <Ridiculous.>

<Oh, don’t be like that! Don’t you think we’d have made an excellent couple, cut-sleeves or not? We’re already so close, as it is!>

Lan Wangji can barely breathe. What is Wei Ying saying? <Wei Ying, I ->

Suddenly, Wei Ying erupts into peals of laughter. <Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, don’t get too angry with me! Oh, I wish I could see your face right now!>

The tiny tendril of hope in Lan Wangji’s chest shrivels and dies a quick death. Hands shaking slightly, he plays, <Do not joke about that.>

<Alright, alright, I won’t! I just didn’t think the thought of being with me would disgust you so much…> Wei Ying trails off, the notes going slower and softer.

<It does not,> Lan Wangji finds himself playing. Quite the opposite, he wants to play, but he’s not quite that brave.

There’s a sudden twang, like Wei Ying is surprised. <N-no?> Lan Wangji does not think this is going to end well. Still, he must reply, no matter how heartbreaking the inevitable outcome.

Before he can, however, Wei Ying plays, <Oh, it’s pretty late, isn’t it, Lan Zhan? Ahaha, I don’t want to keep you up past your curfew, I’d better go now!>

<Wei Ying,> Lan Wangji begins, but the spirit has already vanished. With a sigh, Lan Wangji ends the Inquiry and sets his guqin away carefully, then begins to get ready for bed.

He keeps replaying Wei Ying’s words to himself, even though he knows they meant nothing, that Wei Ying was only teasing.

It’s only later, as he’s just about to drift off, that he remembers - spirits cannot lie through Inquiry.

So, the things Wei Ying had said -

Lan Wangji does not know if they mean what he hopes they mean. But he cannot stop the stubborn little flicker of hope from resurfacing. A smile tugging at his lips, he finally falls asleep.

Chapter Text


The first time A-Yuan calls Lan Wangji father, to say that it takes him by surprise would be an understatement.

They’re both seated across from each other in the Library Pavilion. A-Yuan practises his calligraphy with a single-minded focus that’s both commendable and endearing, while Lan Wangji marks the essays of some of the more senior disciples. Just as he finishes making a few notes in the margin of one, he hears A-Yuan’s tiny voice saying, “Um, HanGuang-Jun, I’ve finished…”

Lan Wangji hums, looks over to A-Yuan’s paper, then nods in approval. Every character is neat and precise, not a stroke out of place. “Well done,” he tells the child, unable to keep a note of pride out of his voice. A-Yuan is quickly turning out to be one of the more promising disciples amongst his age group. He’s diligent, perseverant, and a quick learner, not to mention well-mannered and courteous. In fact, it’s come to the point where Lan Qiren often singles him out as a model student for other disciples, and even the elders have stopped muttering darkly about allowing Wens to study in the Cloud Recesses, and have granted him their grudging approval.

A-Yuan practically glows under the praise. “Thank you, baba! ” he says.

Lan Wangji freezes. Oh. Oh no. “You should not call me that,” he says, keeping his voice as gentle as possible. “I am not your father.”

A-Yuan deflates visibly. “Oh…” he whispers. “I’m sorry, HanGuang-Jun...it won’t happen again!”

“It is fine,” Lan Wangji assures him, then proceeds to panic internally for the rest of the session. A-Yuan is even more subdued than usual, looking almost on the brink of tears, and Lan Wangji itches to comfort him, but what can he say in this situation?

The bell tolls, and A-Yuan hastily gathers his things, mumbles a goodbye, and flees.

Lan Wangji sits there in silence for a moment more, then rushes to his guqin.

 

Wei Ying is beside himself with laughter when Lan Wangji tells him what has happened.

<It is not funny,> Lan Wangji snaps, when almost a minute has passed and Wei Ying’s mirth shows no signs of abating.

<Oh, but it is, Lan Zhan!> Wei Ying cries. Lan Wangji gets the impression that, were he here physically, he’d be rolling around on the floor. <I told you you were spoiling him too much! With all that attention you give him - no wonder he wants you to be his father!>

<But I am not, > Lan Wangji insists, hoping Wei Ying can sense his desperation and give him some actual advice. <The Wens are his family.>

Wei Ying finally sobers up. <Yeah, he’s related to them, and yes, they are his family,> he plays. <But...family’s not just about blood, you know? He’s around you so much, no wonder he looks up to you like a father. And correct me if I’m wrong, Lan Zhan, but...I rather get the impression you wouldn’t mind having him as a son yourself.>

<I wouldn’t,> Lan Wangji plays. He is, indeed, exceedingly fond of A-Yuan, and so are Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren, even if the latter won’t admit it. <But the Wens ->

<Go talk to them!> Wei Ying insists. <I’m sure this will all work itself out, if you just clear it up with them!>

With this in mind, Lan Wangji approaches Wen Qing, Wen Ning and Granny Wen with something that can only be called trepidation. When he explains the situation, Wen Ning laughs softly and says, “A-Yuan is so cute…” Wen Qing glowers at him.

“Well?” she snaps. “I don’t see what the problem is. Go ahead and adopt the kid - you obviously want to.”

“But he is part of your family,” Lan Wangji says.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes, and Wen Ning says, “Of course he is! We’re not saying we’ll, uh, give him up, it’s just...he can be part of your family too!”

“Unless you’re not planning on ever letting him visit us here again,” Wen Qing says, raising a brow.

“Of course not.”

She huffs. “Then, again, what exactly is the problem?”

Lan Wangji turns to Granny Wen. “Is this okay?” he asks her.

The old lady gives him a gummy smile. “Didn’t you say A-Yuan is doing well in his studies? He can actually have a good future - unlike the rest of us here. But if his name is Wen, then…”

Lan Wangji understands. The vitriol against the Wen Sect is unlikely to die down any time soon - A-Yuan will have access to much more opportunities if his name is Lan and not Wen.

Still, he’s hesitant. “Are you sure?”

Wen Qing clicks her tongue. “What, is it that you don’t want him?”

“I do.”

“Does your family have a problem with it?”

“No.” Quite the opposite - Lan Wangji thinks his uncle might possibly like A-Yuan even more than him.

“Then quit dawdling and go adopt him!” Granny Wen says.

Wen Ning smiles gently. “Good luck!”

 

And that’s how Wen Yuan becomes Lan Yuan. The sect elders, predictably, grumble loudly when they hear, but Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren somehow manage to get them to agree to it. It’s all worth it, though, for the way A-Yuan smiles when Lan Wangji tells him to call him Father.

 

About a year later, Lan Wangji gets injured on a night hunt in Lanling.

Not badly enough to die, but badly enough that when he regains consciousness, it’s to the sight of Wen Qing standing over him brandishing a needle like a weapon, and A-Yuan standing beside her, rather teary-eyed.

“Father!” the boy cries, and moves forward like he’s going to try to hug him, but Wen Qing grabs him by his collar and hauls him back.

“Your father’s wounds have only just healed,” she scolds. “Do you want them to open again?”

A-Yuan retreats, embarrassed, and mumbles, “Sorry, Qing-jie…”

“It’s fine,” Wen Qing says. “Go fetch my brother, and tell him to bring more bandages when he comes.” A-Yuan nods, then scurries off, after sneaking on last glance at Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji tries to sit up, then winces when his stomach twinges with pain. “How long was I unconscious?” he asks Wen Qing when she tsks and pushes him to lie down again.

“Almost a week,” she says. “Do you remember what happened?”

Lan Wangji thinks. The last thing he remembers is… “A beast. In the form of a tiger.”

Wen Qing nods. “From what I’ve heard, you tried to do something stupid and self-sacrificing, as usual, and got gouged through the stomach as a result. If you weren’t in the hands of such a capable medic, you would’ve certainly died from those wounds. I doubt your ghost boyfriend would’ve have been too happy to hear that.”

“He’s not my -” Lan Wangji begins to protest automatically, before he remembers - it has been almost a week, and Wei Ying likely doesn’t know what has happened. Would he be worried? “I need my guqin.”

“You need to rest, ” Wen Qing corrects.

“Wei Ying -”

Wen Qing waves her needle threateningly in his face. “What part of gouged through the stomach is so foreign to you?” she demands. “You need to use your spiritual energy to recover, not to go reciting love poems to your boyfriend. I’m sure he’ll agree with me.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Lan Wangji repeats.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. Your ghost husband.”

Lan Wangji wishes his pride would allow him to pull the blanket up over his head. As it is, all he can do is mutter, “We are only friends.”

“Please don’t insult my intelligence,” Wen Qing says witheringly. She adds some herbs and water to a bowl, then starts grinding them to a paste with her pestle. “We all see the besotted look on your face whenever you’re playing for him - even Granny has commented on it, and she’s half blind.”

“Am I that obvious?”

“Yes,” Wen Qing tells him bluntly. She comes over, removes his bandages, and begins slathering the paste on his wound. “I’m surprised your uncle hasn’t commented on it yet. I don’t think he’d be too happy to hear you’ve pledged yourself to a ghost.”

“He does not know,” Lan Wangji says. He knows his uncle would be beside himself with ire were he to find out, which is why he’s especially careful not to let that happen.

“Congratulations,” Wen Qing says drily. “Does your brother know?”

“Yes.”

“How’d he take it?”

“Not well.”

Wen Qing shrugs. “To be expected. Don’t take this the wrong way, HanGuang-Jun, but...how do you expect this story to have a happy ending?”

“I don’t,” Lan Wangji says truthfully. “I will just enjoy what time I have with Wei Ying, before he leaves.”

Wen Qing scoffs. “What a hopeless romantic you are. Pining away like a lovelorn maiden. Whatever happened to the esteemed HanGuang-Jun, whose demeanor could rival frost?” They both know it’s not an uncommon sentiment about him.

Lan Wangji would shrug, if it wouldn’t hurt so much. He’s spared from having to reply by the arrival of Wen Ning, A-Yuan in tow. Wen Ning greets him shyly - he’s still timid, but not nearly as much as he was four years ago. “Hello, HanGuang-Jun.”

“Hello, Wen Ning,” Lan Wangji replies.

Wen Ning offers the bandages to his sister, who snatches them away and says, grudgingly, “You brought the right type for once...not bad.”

“I do remember what you yell at me for,” Wen Ning mumbles.

“What was that?” Wen Qing demands sharply. “Stand up straight, and don’t mumble! I’m not going to eat you!”

 

Lan Wangji is warned on pain of paralysis to refrain from playing Inquiry for another week, until his wound is sufficiently healed. He spends the entirety of the week feeling fidgety and restless, much to his brother’s amusement and Wen Qing’s irritation. He knows Wei Ying is most likely not worried about him - either because the spirit just doesn’t care about him enough to be, or because the strange flow of time in his spirit realm makes him completely unaware that something is even amiss. Still, the moment Wen Qing declares him to be as well as he’s going to get after a wound like that, he’s off to speak to Wei Ying.

Wei Ying replies almost before the final note of the opening is played. <Lan Zhan! What happened?!>

<You noticed something was wrong?> Lan Wangji asks.

<Of course I did, you didn’t call for ages! I was so worried!>

<You were?>

<What the hell do you mean, was I worried? How could I not be?>

<I am fine,> Lan Wangji plays, feeling something warm and happy settle in him at Wei Ying’s words. He was worried about me...does this mean he cares about me? <I was injured in a night hunt and could not play while I recovered.>

<What exactly do you mean, injured? > Wei Ying plays slowly. <How badly?>

<Pierced through the stomach,> Lan Wangji plays, then startles at the discordant screech of the chords.

< Pierced? > Wei Ying demands shrilly. <How are you being so calm about this?>

<I am fine,> Lan Wangji plays, wondering why Wei Ying seems so upset. <I have suffered worse injuries before.> If anything, this only seems to agitate Wei Ying more.

<Was that supposed to make me feel better, Lan Zhan?> he demands. <What the hell even happened?>

Lan Wangji tells him. It had been a more or less routine night hunt, in a small patch of forest near the Lanling border. According to the nearby villagers, an overlarge tiger had started off devouring their livestock and had now progressed to devouring the villagers themselves. The village was too small and out-of-the-way for most major cultivators to take notice, which is why Lan Wangji hadn’t been surprised to find himself the only cultivator there. But then Jin Zixun had appeared.

About a year ago, Jin Zixuan had been severely injured during a hunt in Qinghe. Although he survived, he came out of the ordeal paralyzed from the waist down. He had been forced to resign as Sect Leader, appointing Jin Guangyao - who was, after all, his half-brother - as his successor, and then moving to Yunmeng with his wife and child.

So far, during his time as Sect Leader, Jin Guangyao's leadership has been nothing short of commendable - still, rumors are bound to spread. And it's a bit of an open secret that Jin Zixun hadn't been entirely happy about the fact that Jin Guangyao, a prostitute's son, was chosen over him, a more 'legitimate’ member of the family, to inherit the position.

Lan Wangji is not particularly fond of Jin Zixun, and from what he can tell, the feeling's mutual. Jin Zixun had been the one responsible for 'overseeing’ the remaining Wens before Lan Wangji had brought them to Gusu, and neither of them have really forgiven the other for the role they played in the incident. Still, Lan Wangji had managed to avoid interacting with the other cultivator in the years that had passed - until they had run into each other during the night hunt.

Lan Wangji had inwardly wondered what had brought Jin Zixun there, considering how unlikely this particular beast was to bring him any kind of renown by killing it. Jin Zixun had offered no explanation either, only brusquely ordering his own cultivators to set elaborate traps around the perimeter. Before they could finish, however, the beast had appeared.

Despite its initial appearance as an ordinary, mid-level beast, the tiger turned out to be much more vicious than Lan Wangji had expected. It had killed two Jin cultivators before they could even draw their swords, and then turned to Jin Zixun. Realizing that by the time he managed to land a blow, it would be too late, Lan Wangji had put himself in the beast’s path - hence the wound.

<You idiot, > Wei Ying plays feelingly, oddly reminiscent of Wen Qing. <Be thankful I don’t have a physical body, otherwise I would’ve beaten you up even more! What the hell did you do that for?>

<It would have killed Jin Zixun otherwise,> Lan Wangji replies, rather alarmed. This is probably the angriest he’s ever heard Wei Ying sound since that awful time during the Sunshot Campaign.

< And? You could have been killed, Lan Zhan!>

<It would have been for a good cause.>

<I hardly think the life of Jin Zixun is worth you losing yours!>

Lan Wangji frowns. <One of the rules of my Sect is to put others’ lives above our own. Our personal feelings do not matter.>

Wei Ying plays a wordless note of frustration. <Aurgh! Lan Zhan, you’re impossible! It’s alright if you want to go and throw away your life, but how do you think your family - your uncle, your brother, A-Yuan - would feel? How do you think I would feel?>

<My family would understand the reason for my actions,> Lan Wangji tells him, which is true. <And...would you care? Much?>

<Would I - oh, what the fuck, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying snarls, definitely angry now. <What kind of question is that? >

Lan Wangji blinks. What does Wei Ying mean? <I ->

<Of course I would care if you died, Lan Zhan!>

<Because you would no longer be able to communicate with the living?> Lan Wangji asks tentatively.

<No, because I care about you! You idiot! >

Lan Wangji’s hand almost slips. <Oh.> He feels a telltale warmth in his ears, and he feels his lips curve involuntarily. He knows Wei Ying probably doesn’t mean it in the same way, the way he hopes, but it’s fine - this is more than enough. <I care about you too, Wei Ying.>

Wei Ying plays a short series of notes that sounds almost like a splutter. It’s hopelessly endearing. <That - that’s - don’t try to distract me, Lan Zhan! I’m still supposed to be mad at you!>

It’s a good thing no one ever enters the Jingshi, because Lan Wangji is sure that if anyone were to see the way he’s smiling, they’d think him possessed. <I apologize,> he plays, and laughs softly at the way the tiny orb bobs up and down in indignation.

<I will forgive you, this once ,> Wei Ying huffs, <but don’t ever think of pulling a stunt like that again! If you die, the moment I find you here in the afterlife I’ll punch you!>

<I’ll keep that in mind,> Lan Wangji promises. <But there was actually something else I wanted to ask you about.>

<Yeah? What is it?>

<There were many talismans stuck to the beast,> Lan Wangji plays. <But I had never seen those characters before - and they were drawn in blood. They seemed to radiate resentful energy. Do you have any idea about them?>

<Hmm,> Wei Ying plays thoughtfully, <I might. Can you describe them?>

Lan Wangji tries his best to do so. When he’s finished, Wei Ying hums pensively. Finally, he plays slowly, <I know what talisman you’re talking about. It’s purpose is to attract resentment, instead of repelling it like a normal talisman. This particular talisman alters the energy of an animal and turns it into a beast - with as many talismans on that poor tiger as you’ve said, no wonder it was so vicious.>

<How do you know so much about this?> Lan Wangji wonders.

Wei Ying pauses. Eventually, carefully, he plays, <Because I was the one who designed it.>

<What?>

<It was back when I was alive. I never used it, I swear!> Wei Ying plays hurriedly, like he’s still worried Lan Wangji will condemn him for his cultivation. <It was only an idea I had. But...I don’t know how anyone could’ve found about it, much less to recreate the exact talisman.>

<Did you make a record of it somewhere?> Lan Wangji asks.

<Yeah,> Wei Ying says, <I think I jotted it down in this book I always carried around with me. But I always thought that got destroyed when I...you know…>

<Are you sure?> Lan Wangji presses, despite wanting to do nothing more than to escape this topic.

<Um,> Wei Ying plays haltingly. <The thing is...the events leading up to my, uh, death, are kind of...blurry? I don’t remember much of what happened during those last few days. I mean, I remember the end really clearly, which is, ha, not such a good thing...but I do remember not having the book with me, then. Nor any of my talismans, nor my sword, or my flute...I guess I always just assumed that they were destroyed by the corpses as well? But now that I think about it...maybe I did lose them before that. I can’t remember, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry.>

<Do not apologize,> Lan Wangji plays. <It is not your fault.>

<Still,> Wei Ying plays, <I wish I could be of more help.>

<It is fine.>

<What I am curious about, though,> Wei Ying plays, <is why anyone would actually use that talisman? I mean, what purpose could creating that beast serve? Did they mean to set it upon the village? Is there...any significance to that place?>

<The Mo Village? I cannot say,> Lan Wangji plays. Although, now that he thinks about it…<It is situated on the border between Gusu and Lanling. I know that the LanlingJin sect has been trying to get its people to submit to LanlingJin jurisdiction, but the villagers insist on remaining under GusuLan.>

<Huh,> Wei Ying plays, contemplatively. <And...after this night hunt, did they give into LanlingJin?>

<Yes,> Lan Wangji plays. <After all, it was Jin cultivators who slew the beast.>

<I see,> Wei Ying plays. <And you did say that Jin Zixun usually wouldn’t bother showing up to night hunts like these, didn’t you?>

<Mm.>

<Well…> Wei Ying plays, dragging the note out. <I don’t really want to say it, but… >

Lan Wangji is sure they’ve both come to the same conclusion. <You think LanlingJin sect created the beast and set it upon the village so that they could rescue the people and gain ownership of the land.>

Wei Ying snorts. <I wasn’t exactly going to say it so directly, but yeah. Basically.>

Lan Wangji frowns. <This matter will have to be investigated. I will tell my brother.>

<Oh, don’t bother,> Wei Ying says. <I doubt anyone will believe you.>

<Wei Ying,> Lan Wangji plays, reproachful.

<What? It’s true!> Wei Ying protests. <After all, all the evidence we have is circumstantial - no one besides myself knew about that talisman - and if it comes down to the word of the entire LanlingJin sect against the word of one cultivator and a ghost, well. You can imagine how that’ll go.>

Lan Wangji huffs quietly. <I must still do something,> he insists.

<Well, go talk to your brother if you think it’ll do any good,> Wei Ying says. <But what I also wonder is how exactly LanlingJin got their hands on that book.>

<I will ask them.>

Wei Ying sighs. <Lan Zhan, please don’t tell me you’re planning on dramatically barging into Koi Tower and interrogating the Sect Leader...although, it would be kind of cool, now I think about it…>

<I was not planning to,> Lan Wangji plays. It’s only half a lie and, by the disbelieving strum Wei Ying plays, it’s obvious he can tell.

<Well, I’ll leave you to it then, Lan Zhan,> he plays. <Go get some rest - you need to recover!>

<I am recovered.>

<Ha, like I’m going to believe anything you say when it comes to your own health,> Wei Ying retorts, and plays an increasingly loud series of discordant chords until Lan Wangji ends the Inquiry.

 

Lan Wangji does talk to Lan Xichen about his theory but, as Wei Ying had predicted, not much can be done. Lan Xichen does believe him, but he tells Lan Wangji essentially the same things Wei Ying had, only in much gentler terms - essentially, no one else would believe him.

Lan Wangji is quietly angry about it for a while, but eventually decides that, until he can obtain more evidence, he had better just bide his time. He manages to almost put the matter out of his mind for the next year and a half, until the next Discussion Conference, which happens to be held in Lanling.

Jin Zixun spends the majority of the event strutting around arrogantly, which not a particularly novel occurrence. What is new is the wide array of talismans he shows off to anyone who’ll listen - all talismans Wei Ying had already talked to Lan Wangji about designing. There’s a particular one, a flag which attracts spirits and monsters to the wearer, that Jin Zixun claims will be highly useful during night hunts - and then proceeds to offer to sell for a correspondingly high price.

“What has gotten you so upset, Wangji?” Lan Xichen asks, probably picking up on his sour mood.

“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji says, continuing to glare fixedly at the talismans.

Lan Xichen follows his gaze. “Ah,” he says. “I see.”

Lan Wangji asks Jin Zixun about it later, and the response he gets is that of course LanlingJin sect designed it ourselves; after all, we are by far the most talented in every area of cultivation!

Lan Wangji resists the urge to curl his hands into fists - how shameless must Jin Zixun be to claim Wei Ying’s ideas as his own? But he says nothing, and asks Jin Zixun about it again, three hours and five cups of wine later. This time, the response is much more honest.

“It’s a whole damn manual on demonic cultivation,” Jin Zixun slurs. “We had it locked up in the treasure room for heaven knows how long, no one wanted to use it…”

“Where did you get it?” Lan Wangji presses, trying to ignore the dread that’s creeping up on him steadily.

Jin Zixun snorts, swiping a dismissive hand across the table and scattering empty cups everywhere. “Some upstart little rogue cultivator, a bunch of years ago...wanted to act like he was all high and mighty, better than us…” He laughs again. “Wasn’t so proud after we gave him a good beating and took his little diary with us!”

Lan Wangji inhales, counts to ten and back. Losing his temper will do him no good now - but he has never been more sorely tempted to strike another person in his life. “So you robbed him,” he says, evenly.

“Eh, it wasn’t robbery!” Jin Zixun says. “He was trespassing on LanlingJin land - eating our food, hunting our beasts, and not paying a single coin in taxes! Everything he owned was rightfully ours, don’t you think?”

“You left him for dead!” Lan Wangji snaps, self control finally abandoning him.

Jin Zixun huffs disparagingly. “So what if I did? Who’s going to care about the fate of one rogue cultivator? Their kind get picked off every damn day!”

I care, Lan Wangji wants to say. I’m in love with him. Instead, he says, “No matter who, robbery is still a crime.”

“Come on, don’t be so self-righteous all the time, HanGuang-Jun!” Jin Zixun groans. “It’s exhuasting.”

This entire conversation is exhausting, and Lan Wangji longs desperately to talk to Wei Ying, but he has to find out more. He says, “Why did you only start using demonic cultivation now, if you have had the book for years?”

“Well, obviously none of us were stupid enough to try the stupid shit some demonic cultivator came up with, so we found someone who was .”

“Xue Yang,” Lan Wangji realizes.

“That street rat was foaming at the mouth to get his hands on that shit,” Jin Zixun says. “He’s the one who actually figured out how to use the talismans...oi, where are you going?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, not sparing him a glance as he sweeps out of the room. Sure enough, he hears the telltale sound of snoring from behind him.

 

Lan Wangji’s first instinct is to go to his brother. But then he thinks: if Xue Yang is being held as a guest cultivator of the Jin Sect, then it’s more likely than not that Jin Guangyao is aware of exactly what he’s doing. Which means that even if Lan Xichen were to confront him about it, Jin Guangyao might be hesitant to actually take action against Xue Yang.

Then, at ChiFeng-Zun’s insistence (and likely due to the bad reputation they were gaining for housing a known criminal), the Jin Sect claims to have executed Xue Yang for his past crimes. Lan Xichen later tells Lan Wangji that when asked about the manual, Jin Guangyao had claimed to have found no trace of it in Koi Tower’s treasure vault. Lan Wangji rather doubts he’s telling the whole truth, but what proof does he have? Besides, Jin Guangyao is Lan Xichen’s sworn brother  - Lan Xichen must trust him for a reason.

About a month later, Jin Zixun drunkenly falls from the Tower and dies.

<I am sorry I could not do more,> Lan Wangji tells Wei Ying. Jin Zixun may have died, but the demonic cultivation manual is still unaccounted for - as are Wei Ying’s sword and flute. Not to mention, rumours abound that Xue Yang is not actually dead - after all, why would the Jin Sect so resolutely refuse to present a body? If Xue Yang is still alive, and has the manual -

<Weren’t you the one who said that between us, there’s no need to say sorry?> Wei Ying plays. <Lan Zhan, it’s fine - I know you tried your hardest. And what’s in the past is in the past - I’m not bothered by it anymore. No need to worry that I’ll turn into a vicious ghost, or something like that!>

When Lan Wangji had told Wei Ying what he’d found out from Jin Zixun, he’d been worried about how his friend would react. Wei Ying, however, took it with surprising calmness - he claimed not to remember anything about the attack. Lan Wangji, however, had managed to piece together that it was probably the encounter with Jin Zixun that had sent Wei Ying into the enraged frenzy that had resulted in him losing control of the corpses.

All in all, he thinks Wei Ying is taking the news with less anger than he himself is.

Now, though: <Now that Jin Zixun is dead,> he begins, then stops. Does he really want to know the answer to the question that’s on the tip of his fingers?

<Mm?> Wei Ying hums. <Now that he’s dead, what?>

<Are you,> Lan Wangji plays, one note at a time, trying to drag this out, <able to move on?>

Wei Ying is silent for a long time, to the point that Lan Wangji has to play <Wei Ying?> just to make sure he’s still there.

<I’m here,> Wei Ying plays. Then with a weak chuckle, <You still...care about that?>

<Of course,> Lan Wangji plays immediately. What he wants for himself is completely different from what he wants for Wei Ying - he just wants the spirit to be happy, no matter what that happiness will cost him. He hopes Wei Ying doesn’t think that Lan Wangji will force him to remain here just because he…

<Well, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays, <I think you’ll be disappointed. That’s not, uh...what’s keeping me here. I’m sorry.>

<Do not apologize,> Lan Wangji plays, hating himself for how selfishly relieved he is to hear it. Wei Ying had sounded so glum - is it that he’s upset that he’s trapped here? <We will keep trying.>

<Yeah,> Wei Ying mutters. <I guess.>

 

One stormy night, there’s a soft knock on the door of the Jingshi, interrupting Lan Wangji from his conversation with Wei Ying.

<Please excuse me for a second,> he plays, then gets up from the guqin and opens the door to find a drenched A-Yuan standing outside, dressed only in his sleeping robes.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, ushering his son inside and closing the door behind him. He rummages around in his wardrobe for a towel, then wraps it around A-Yuan and begins to pat him dry. “It is late. You should be in your dormitory.”

“I know,” A-Yuan mumbles. “I’m sorry, Father, it’s just...I had a nightmare, and the storm…can I stay here, just a bit?”

Lan Wangji sighs. His uncle would refuse, insisting that Lan disciples needed to conquer their fears from an early age, but...Lan Wangji remembers when he himself was A-Yuan’s age, and had developed an unreasonable fear of the dark corner of his room next to the door. His brother had stayed with him all night, comforting him, showing that there was no monster lurking there.

(“Don’t worry, A-Zhan,” he’d reassured him, “you’ll become a big, strong cultivator one day and if there is a monster, you’ll be able to fight it yourself!”)

With this in mind, Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan, “You may stay for a while. But you must return to your dormitory later. And what is rule number one thousand, two hundred and twenty-six?”

“‘Giving into one’s fears is prohibited,’” A-Yuan recites, then beams and says, “Thank you, Father!”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, and finds an old spare robe for A-Yuan to change into.

<Who’s that with you?> Wei Ying plays, briefly startling Lan Wangji - he’d almost forgotten the spirit was still in the room with them.

He returns to the guqin and plays, <A-Yuan.>

<Ah!> Wei Ying exclaims delightedly. <What’s this? Father-son bonding time?>

<He had a nightmare,> Lan Wangji explains.

“Er, Father?” A-Yuan asks. Lan Wangji turns to face him. A-Yuan fiddles with the sleeve of his overlarge robe and says quietly, “May I...ask? What it is you’re playing? And how your guqin plays itself, sometimes?”

Technically, Inquiry won’t be on A-Yuan’s syllabus for a few more years, but Lan Wangji supposes a little extra tutoring won’t hurt. “It is called Inquiry,” he explains. “It is a song that allows me to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Different notes correspond to different syllables. The spirits themselves may play the instrument to respond.”

A-Yuan’s eyes widen. “So...you’re talking to one right now?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, just as Wei Ying pipes up, <Wait, what’s happening?>

<I am explaining Inquiry to A-Yuan,> he replies, just as A-Yuan gasps softly.

“Father,” he says, “is this the same spirit you spoke to in the evenings? When you would visit the village?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji repeats.

“What is their name?”

“His name is Wei Ying.”

<What’s going on?> Wei Ying plays impatiently. <I feel so left out!>

<He wants to know about you,> Lan Wangji tells him.

<Oho, and just what are you telling him? Only good things, I hope!>

<I told him you’re shameless.>

<Ah! Lan Zhan, don’t slander me like that when I can’t even defend myself!>

“Is he your friend?” Lan Yuan asks.

Lan Wangji hesitates. Friend feels like too small a word to describe everything Wei Ying is to him, but he still says, “Mm.”

“Ah,” A-Yuan says. “I wish I could meet him.”

At almost the same time, Wei Ying plays, <You know, Lan Zhan, I wish I could talk to A-Yuan - I want to see how you’ve been raising him! I hope you’re not still spoiling him rotten!>

“He wants to meet you too,” Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan who blinks, startled.

“He knows about me?”

“Of course,” Lan Wangji says. “You are my son.”

A-Yuan smiles bashfully, then says, “Um, if it’s not too much trouble...could I learn to play Inquiry? If it won’t bother you, of course.”

“It will not,” Lan Wangji says. “Let us begin.”

“What!” A-Yuan yelps. “Right now?”

“Why not?” Lan Wangji says, already explaining the situation to Wei Ying. “Do you have something else to do at the moment?”

“Well, no,” A-Yuan says.

“Then listen,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Ying plays, <Hello, A-Yuan!>

“What did he say?” A-Yuan asks.

Lan Wangji repeats the message, then says, “Listen again.” To Wei Ying, he says, <Play it slower.>

Wei Ying plays carefully, one note at a time, and Lan Wangji interprets. “Hel - lo - A - Yuan. Did you hear it?”

A-Yuan nods, and Lan Wangji says, “Now you try.” He takes his son’s hands and guides them to play the notes that spell out, <Hello, Wei Ying. I am A-Yuan.>

<Ahh!> Wei Ying cries happily, when he’s done. <Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, did he play that? Wow, he sounded so good - as expected from HanGuang-Jun’s son!>

“He said you did well,” Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan, who goes bright red and stammers, “Thank you!”

“Thank him ,” Lan Wangji says, gesturing to the guqin. “Here, I’ll show you.”

About half an hour later, after they’ve made it through most of the basic phrases of Inquiry, a rather amused Wei Ying offering encouragements at every turn, Lan Wangji says, “A-Yuan, it is late. Time to return to bed.”

A-Yuan briefly looks like he’s considering protesting, but ends up just nodding. “Thank you for the lesson!”

“It is no problem,” Lan Wangji says, standing. “We will practise more tomorrow. Come, I will walk you back. Do you remember how to say goodbye?”

A-Yuan nods, and plays, <Goodbye, Wei Ying!> It’s a bit shaky, but a good attempt for a child who’s only just learnt an hour ago.

<Goodbye, A-Yuan! See - you - late - er!> Wei Ying chirps, and Lan Wangji hides his smile behind his sleeve.

As they walk to A-Yuan’s dormitory, the entirety of the Cloud Recesses silent except for the low chirping of crickets. A-Yuan asks, softly, “Father...is Uncle Xichen okay? I haven’t seen him recently.”

Lan Wangji hesitates. How does he explain this? “Your uncle is sad,” he decides on. “One of his friends has passed away.” Nie Mingjue’s death from Qi deviation had not come as much of a surprise to anyone, not given the cultivator’s infamous temper, but it was still a crushing blow to many - to Lan Xichen in particular.

“Oh,” A-Yuan says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Not your fault.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Allow him time to grieve,” Lan Wangji tells him. “And tell your friends not to make trouble for him.” They both know which friend in particular he’s referring to.

“I will!” A-Yuan promises. They arrive at the dormitory, and Lan Wangji allows himself to stroke his son’s hair once before he tells him goodnight and returns to the Jingshi.

 

In this fashion, several years pass.

Lan Wangji continues to go on night hunts, to teach the disciples, to care for his rabbits, to visit the Wens, and to play Inquiry every Friday night.

A-Yuan - Sizhui, now - continues his studies, becoming one of the top disciples in the Sect, and continues to learn Inquiry.

And throughout it all, Wei Ying remains a constant, and Lan Wangji only falls deeper and deeper in love.

The presence of Wei Ying is something of an open secret in the Cloud Recesses by now. Even if they don’t speak of it, almost everyone knows that HanGuang-Jun spends his nights talking to a spirit, that Lan Sizhui treats the same spirit almost as a second father. On more than one occasion, Lan Wangji has overheard a disciple asking Sizhui how Senior Wei is doing.

(At some point, Sizhui had started addressing Wei Ying as Dad, and Wei Ying still gleefully refers to Sizhui as their son, totally unaware of the effect it has on Lan Wangj’s heart.)

While Sizhui had initially only spoken with Wei Ying while under Lan Wangji’s supervision, during his lessons, he’s reached the level of proficiency where he can now converse with the spirit on his own. Lan Wangji notices that Wei Ying plays considerably more slowly when he speaks with Sizhui, letting the notes sound out one at a time instead of flowing right over each other like they usually do.

Sizhui has been allowed to assist Lan Wangji with his weekly Inquiry session now. It wasn’t lonely before, but Lan Wangji can’t deny that it’s...nice, having someone besides the spirits to keep him company on those nights.

The Wens have managed to flourish in their little settlement at the base of the mountain, whether they’re working in the Cloud Recesses, or in Caiyi, where the fervent hatred of all things Wen has finally died down enough to allow them to make a decent living in the town. Wen Qing is the head medic in the Cloud Recesses. Wen Ning and Granny Wen grow flowers and sell them in the town.

All in all, life is probably as good as it can get.

Sometimes, Lan Wangji and Sizhui talk to Wei Ying together. At times like these, Lan Wangji thinks about all those offhand comments Wei Ying makes about Sizhui being their son, and has to wonder: is this what it would feel like? For the three of them to be a family?

One such night, as Sizhui is telling Wei Ying about his day, he happens to mention, <Oh! Father had a meeting today, with another potential suitor…>

Lan Wangji stiffens. Wei Ying plays, <Oh?>

Sizhui notices the change in Lan Wangji’s demeanor. “Sorry,” he says, “should I...not have told him?”

“It is fine,” Lan Wangji says.

<Suitors?> Wei Ying plays. <Are you...looking to get married, Lan Zhan?>

<It is nothing,> Lan Wangji plays, then rather unsubtly changes the subject.

Later, after Sizhui has said his goodbyes and gone off to bed, Lan Wangji feels the need to tell Wei Ying, <I do not want to get married.>

He doesn’t want to get married - to anyone besides Wei Ying, at least - but that’s not a wish shared by the Sect elders. Apparently, he’s of an age where his lack of a cultivation partner has become a hotly contested topic amongst the general public. While his reputation had suffered somewhat, first from the attacks of resentful energy that seemed to follow him during the Sunshot Campaign, and later from his rescue of the Wens, it has apparently recovered to the point that offers of marriage have begun to arrive from various other Sects.

The elders insist that he accepts one which will be beneficial to the Sect. Lan Wangji insists that he will not marry anyone to whom his heart does not belong.

For a Sect with such a romantic history, he thinks rather bitterly, its elders are quite insistent on the issue.

At every meeting that is arranged between him and a suitor, he wastes no time in turning them down politely, but firmly. And with every unsuccessful meeting, the ire of the elders only increases.

It comes to the point that Lan Qiren himself tells him, “Wangji, I know you may not want to marry some stranger, but don’t you think that you should take some companion?”

“I have Sizhui,” Lan Wangji says. “And you and brother. And the Wens.”

Lan Qiren sighs. “Why not marry Wen Qing, then? Are the two of you not close?” Wen Qing must have really proven her worth in exceptional fashion for Lan Qiren to grant her his seal of approval to marry his nephew.

“Wen Qing is only my friend,” Lan Wangji says. He also suspects that she is altogether uninterested in men, but that’s a different story.

Lan Qiren can only sigh and mutter about disrespect.

Lan Xichen, when he hears about his brother’s predicament, gives him a knowing look and says only, “Wei Ying?”

Lan Wangji nods.

Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Wangji...you know this cannot end well. Have you not considered...moving on?”

“I cannot,” Lan Wangji says. He’s given too much of his heart, too long ago, to Wei Ying to ever hold hopes of getting enough back to give to anyone else .

“Yes,” Lan Xichen sighs, “I know.”

 

Lan Wangji briefly explains the situation to Wei Ying, who strums a note that sounds almost like a sigh of relief, except that doesn’t make sense. <So you’re not interested?> he plays. <In any of your suitors?>

<I am not,> Lan Wangji repeats.

<But...don’t you want to get married?> Wei Ying presses. <Lan Zhan, aren’t you lonely?>

<No,> Lan Wangji plays, <I have you.>

<Aah!> Wei Ying cries. <You call me shameless, Lan Zhan, and then you go around saying things like that! But you know that’s not what I mean! Surely you want to find a cultivation partner - or do you intend to spend the rest of your life a bachelor?>

<I cannot marry someone I do not love.> Lan Wangji feels a dull twinge of unhappiness at how insistent Wei Ying seems to be that he get married to someone else. He hadn’t wanted Wei Ying to be unhappy at the prospect, but...

Wei Ying hums. <Maybe even if you don’t love them now , you’ll grow to love them later, once you’ve gotten to know them better. Come on, Lan Zhan, give it a shot!>

<Doubtful,> Lan Wangji plays. <I already love someone.> Then immediately curses himself mentally - why would he tell Wei Ying that ?

Wei Ying is silent, then plays shakily, <Y-you do?>

He supposes there’s no getting out of this. <Yes.>

<Ah,> Wei Ying plays softly. Then, <Who is it? Ha, I wonder which maiden has managed to catch the attention of the great HanGuang-Jun - let me guess, what kind of woman would you like? Someone quiet, probably, respectful ...pretty, definitely, if she’s managed to attract someone as beautiful as you ...>

Lan Wangji looks down at his hands. Wei Ying’s guesses are so far from the truth it is honestly bewildering. <It does not matter,> he plays finally, <they have already died.>

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays, <shit, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan. How...how long ago did it happen?>

<About twenty years ago.> Twenty years...that’s how long he’s known Wei Ying.

<And...you’ve been in love with them? This entire time?>

<Mm.>

<Oh,> plays Wei Ying. <What were they like?>

Lan Wangji lets himself smile. Something tells him that Wei Ying will find out soon enough - this secret he's been keeping for so many years. Why not let himself be as direct as possible?

But...how can he possibly put into mere words everything Wei Ying is, everything he means to him?

<He is lovely,> he plays finally.

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays again, softer. <Aha, Lan Zhan, I can't believe you were in love with someone this entire time and I never knew about it! Was I really that dense?>

<I didn’t want you to know,> Lan Wangji plays.

He realises it was the wrong thing to say when the only response from Wei Ying is a trembling, <I see.>

<Wei Ying, I didn’t mean ->

<No, it’s fine, Lan Zhan, I get it,> Wei Ying plays. <Listen, I...I think it’s best if we, uh, say goodnight for now.>

Lan Wangji sighs. Part of him wants to beg Wei Ying to stay, to try to explain to him. But he’s never been good at expressing himself - most likely, he’d only end up creating further misunderstandings. Best then to give himself another day to gather his thoughts. <Okay,> he plays.

<Alright, then,> Wei Ying replies. <Goodnight, Lan Zhan.>

 

The next day, Lan Wangji worries briefly that Wei Ying will not come. But he does, with only a few minutes to spare till curfew.

<Wei Ying,> Lan Wangji plays, wondering if the relief he feels is palpable enough that it conveys itself to Wei Ying.

<Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays. Not only is he rather more subdued than usual, but the form of his spirit trembles and flickers in a way that’s worrying to Lan Wangji - has something happened?

<Wei Ying?> he asks. <What is wrong?>

<Nothing’s wrong, Lan Zhan, I’m just...uh, nervous, I guess.>

<Why?>

Wei Ying laughs softly. <No, just something, ah, a bit stupid. Lan Zhan, let me ask you something. Do you...care for me?>

Lan Wangji frowns. How is this even a question, after all these years? <Of course.>

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays, <that’s - that’s good. Yeah. Anyway, um, the thing is, I...sort of have something to tell you.>

<Mm?>

Wei Ying hesitates. <Lan Zhan, I want you to...ask me. If I know what is keeping me here. Come on, you used to do it so frequently.>

Lan Wangji stiffens. <Why?>

<Just do it, Lan Zhan.>

The notes are tight, clipped. Cold dread creeping down his spine, Lan Wangji plays, <Do you know why you remain here, Wei Ying?>

<Yes.>

Lan Wangji freezes. It has been over a decade since he’s asked the question - he kept telling himself that it was because he was sure Wei Ying would tell him himself if he figured it out, that asking too frequently would only make Wei Ying think Lan Wangji didn’t want him around -

But the real, selfish, reason is...he was always afraid that the answer would be yes.

<Don’t you want to know what it is?> Wei Ying asks.

Lan Wangji draws a deep, shuddering breath. He’d always known Wei Ying would have to leave, eventually - this should not come as a surprise. <Mm.>

<It’s you.>

Lan Wangji can’t have heard right. <What?>

<You heard me,> Wei Ying plays. He’s still trembling, but the notes are stronger, surer. <I stayed for you.>

No. No.

<You -> Lan Wangji plays. <Why?>

<Because, because I…> the notes fade, till they’re barely audible, <because I thought you wanted me to.>

No. This cannot be happening. Lan Wangji is the reason why Wei Ying has been trapped here for twenty years, why he cannot move on, why he cannot be happy?

He has to - he has to let Wei Ying go.

<You should not have,> Lan Wangji plays, soft.

Wei Ying’s spirit flares, like he’s startled. When he plays again, it sounds much more uncertain. <I - you didn’t want me to?>

Of course Lan Wangji wants to be with Wei Ying. He wants it more than anything. But he doesn’t want it to come at the cost of Wei Ying’s own happiness. <No.>

< Ah, > Wei Ying breathes. <Lan Zhan, I thought - I thought you’d be happy, to hear it…>

A horrible thought occurs to Lan Wangji. Does...does Wei Ying know how he feels about him? Is that why he’s stayed? Out of some sense of obligation, just to make Lan Wangji happy? What kind of person does he think Lan Wangji is, to imagine that he’d be happy to be the reason for Wei Ying’s suffering? <I am not,> he plays tightly.

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays, softly, like a whisper. <I - I see. Look, I know you don’t want to hear it, Lan Zhan, but I’m sorry.>

<Do not apologize. It is not your fault.> It is mine.

<Still,> Wei Ying plays, <I shouldn’t have...stayed. All these years.> Lan Wangji closes his eyes, exhales.

<It is not your fault,> he repeats. <But now, you can move on.>

The strings still.

<Is that really what you want?> Wei Ying plays finally.

He sounds so small, so vulnerable in a way Wei Ying so rarely is. The last thing Lan Wangji wants to do is to hurt him, to make him feel unwanted. But he cannot keep selfishly clinging to Wei Ying. If he tells Wei Ying just how much he adores him, how much he wishes that he’d stay by his side forever, that would only bind Wei Ying even tighter to the earth.

Spirits cannot lie through Inquiry.

But Lan Wangji can.

<Yes.>

Wei Ying bobs up and down once, like a nod. <Okay. That’s - that’s fine, I guess. Um. Can I at least talk to our - to Sizhui, one last time? Before I leave.>

<Of course.>

<Alright,> Wei Ying plays. <I’ll, um, get going now. Guess I can see the light already, hah.>

<Mm,> is all Lan Wangji trusts himself to play, with how strongly his hands are trembling.

<Well,> Wei Ying plays, <Goodbye, Lan Zhan. It’s been good knowing you.>

<Goodbye, Wei Ying.> He almost tells Wei Ying something else, but the spirit vanishes before he has the chance to.

Lan Wangji crumples, bowing low over his guqin and burying his face in his hands.

 

For the first time in many, many years, an entire month goes by without Lan Wangji speaking to Wei Ying.

It's fair to say that it's one of the worst months of his life.

It's made all the more unbearable by the knowledge that this is it , this is permanent. At least, all the other times he and Wei Ying had been separated, Lan Wangji could rely on the knowledge that Wei Ying would still be there at the end of it. That he'd be waiting, just a strum of the guqin away. Even that time during the Sunshot Campaign, when they hadn’t spoken to each other in weeks, he’d known that Wei Ying was still out there, somewhere. And that maybe, possibly, he’d return to Lan Wangji.

He has no such comfort now.

Wei Ying is gone, and he has no one to blame but himself.

But at least Wei Ying can finally be happy. That’s the thought he keeps in mind constantly.

Sizhui's eyes are red-rimmed for the first couple of days after Wei Ying leaves, but he carries himself with remarkable composure, considering he's lost someone who's been a parent to him in all but blood for almost his entire life. Lan Wangji knows that Sizhui doesn't resent him for it, though, and for that he is grateful.

He doesn't know if he'd survive losing his son as well.

Lan Wangji doesn't cry. Not at first. He wants to, just to find some outlet for the misery that threatens to consume him, but he can't. He thinks he probably doesn't know how to.

His brother notices, as always, and tries to comfort him.

“I see Wei Ying has moved on,” he says, pouring Lan Wangji a cup of tea as they sit together in the quiet evening. Lan Wangji nods wordlessly and takes the tea.

“You are unhappy,” Lan Xichen observes.

Lan Wangji doesn’t even try to deny it. “I know it is selfish of me,” he whispers. “I know Wei Ying is happier now that he’s moved on. But I - I miss him. I cannot help it.”

Lan Xichen sighs. “I don't blame you, Wangji. You have known him for what - twenty years now, isn’t it? I’d be worried if you didn’t miss him.” He sets his own tea down, peers closely at his brother. “You know you are allowed to be sad, right? And I don’t mean just quietly endure. Take some time off from your duties if you need to - you and Sizhui both.”

“Excess emotions are forbidden within the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji recites automatically.

Lan Xichen laughs softly. “I’m not telling you to go wailing through the halls - I’ll leave that to Jingyi. But just - take the time you need, Wangji. You’ll feel even worse in the long run, if you don’t give yourself time to grieve properly.”

Lan Wangji nods. He supposes Lan Xichen would know.

Later that night, alone in the stillness of his Jingshi, he lets himself cry, finally, finally.

 

Then, one fateful night, the flare of the LanlingJin sect appears high in the night sky. Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen, and their uncle notice it as they eat their evening meal.

“Mo Village,” Lan Xichen realises. Lan Wangji hasn’t thought about it in years, that tiny village on the border. He wonders what could’ve happened that was extreme enough that the cultivators there felt the need to send up a signal.

“I will go,” he says.

“Why not just let LanlingJin handle it?” Lan Qiren says. “The village under their jurisdiction, after all.”

“Aid may not arrive in time,” Lan Wangji says. “We are closer.”

His brother and uncle exchange a look, then turn to him with unmistakable concern etched on their faces. He meets their gazes steadily. He knows why they’re worried - this is the first hunt he’ll be going on since Wei Ying left. But he can’t wallow in grief forever. He will never get over Wei Ying, but he can at least try to distract himself.

Finally, Lan Qiren sighs. “Go, then,” he says. “And take some of the senior disciples - they could use the practise.”

 

Lan Wangji arrives in Mo Village, Sizhui, Jingyi and a few other disciples in tow, to the frankly rather unbelievable sight of three walking corpses - brawling?

“What the -” Jingyi begins loudly. Sizhui nudges him, and he falls silent.

Lan Wangji draws his guqin, and with a few strums, immobilizes the corpses long enough for the disciples, both from the Lan and Jin sects, to wrangle what appears to be a severed arm into a Qiankun Pouch.

They listen to Jin Rulan - Jin Zixuan’s son, who’d returned to study in Lanling - explain the night’s strange events.

“But the strangest thing was,” he says, “that this cutsleeve lunatic who’d been thrown out of my Sect showed up here - and it seemed like he was…” he trails off, scowling.

“He was what?” Sizhui presses.

“You wouldn’t believe me,” Jin Rulan mutters.

Sizhui smiles gently. “You won’t know unless you try, Young Master Jin.”

Jin Rulan huffs. “Fine! And don’t you dare laugh at me! It looked like he was controlling the corpses!”

Lan Wangji freezes. It cannot be…

Out of the corner of his eyes, he barely notices a young man dressed in black slip off quietly into the night.

 

They are in the forests of Dafan mountain, and Lan Wangji is not entirely sure he’s not dreaming.

All he can do is stare wordlessly as the man from before plays his song - their song - to subdue the corpses he’d summoned to defeat the goddess statue. There are only two people in the world who have ever heard this song often enough to play it so well, even on a hastily carved bamboo flute, and Lan Wangji is one of them. Which means -

The disciples, and Jiang Wanyin (who’d come to the aid of his nephew, descending upon the party like a large purple bat) are staring too, but probably for a different reason - Lan Wangji doubts they’ve ever encountered such demonic cultivators before. But demonic cultivation or not, Lan Wangji couldn’t care less. Wei Ying is here , he’s alive -

Lan Wangji’s moving even before the last notes of the song float out, the corpses having finally returned to stillness. Almost without his permission, his legs take him over to Wei Ying, who notices his approach and looks up, eyes wide.

“Oh,” he says, panicking visibly, “I can -”

Lan Wangji doesn’t let him finish, sweeping him up into his arms like he’s been dreaming of doing for the past twenty years. Wei Ying squeaks. “What -”

Lan Wangji buries his face into his soft, dark hair. “ Wei Ying, ” he breathes.

He feels Wei Ying stiffen against him. Then, so soft he has to strain to hear it: “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji nods wordlessly, not trusting himself to speak, and thinks his heart might burst from happiness when Wei Ying’s arms tentatively come around his waist to hug him back.

Lan Wangji has so much he wants to say to Wei Ying, but for now, this is enough.

He hears Sizhui’s voice, hesitant: “Um, HanGuang-Jun? What…”

Lan Wangji releases Wei Ying, who turns to Sizhui and gasps. “Wait - are you Sizhui? Oh my heavens! You’ve grown so big! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, why didn’t you ever tell me our son was so cute ?”

Sizhui’s eyes go very wide. “Senior Wei?”

Wei Ying huffs, and even though Lan Wangji has never heard the sound before, it’s infinitely familiar from the countless times he’s listened to the equivalent strum of guqin strings. “Lan Sizhui! What’s with this ‘Senior Wei’ and ‘HanGuang-Jun’ nonsense? How many times have I told you to call me ‘Dad’?”

From somewhere behind them, Lan Wangji hears Jingyi holler, “IS THAT SENIOR WEI?! SIZHUI’S OTHER DAD?!” and has to suppress a smile.

Wei Ying cackles. “Ahaha, you must be Jingyi! Sizhui always tells me you’re the loudest person he knows!” And oh, his voice . Lan Wangji knows that this is not Wei Ying’s original body, that this voice is not the one he’s used to, but it is Wei Ying , and so just the fact that he can speak now means that his voice is the sweetest thing Lan Wangji has ever heard.

“WHAT!” Jingyi shrieks.

“Okay,” Jiang Wanyin growls, “can someone please tell me what the fuck is going on?”

 

In the end, Jiang Wanyin is still rather wary of Wei Ying’s...unusual methods of cultivation, but he relents and allows Lan Wangji to take him back to Gusu with him. Lan Wangji makes up some half hearted excuse about keeping Wei Ying and his cultivation under observation, but he doubts Jiang Wanyin believes him, going by the deeply skeptical look the Sect Leader throws his way. Still, Lan Wangji can’t bring himself to care.

The entire way back to the Cloud Recesses, he can hear the disciples excitedly gossipping amongst each other. He chooses to ignore them - after all, his behaviour must seem rather strange to them, who until now have only seen him as the stoic, composed HanGuang-Jun, not like this: utterly and completely enamoured.

Sizhui spends the majority of the trip clinging to Wei Ying like a little limpet, both of them chattering happily. Lan Wangji allows himself a small smile at the sight of them - his family, two of the people he cares for the most in the world.

When he’s alone with Lan Wangji, though, Wei Ying is strangely subdued. Lan Wangji tries not to worry about it too much, telling himself that Wei Ying’s still getting used to having a corporeal body after spending over twenty years as a spirit - of course he’d be having difficulty adjusting. He keeps thinking back to the way they parted - Wei Ying hadn’t exactly seemed happy.

When they finally reach the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen takes just one look at Lan Wangji and knows.

“You must be Wei Ying,” he says, a huge smile beginning to spread over his face. “It is good to finally meet you. Tell me, how did you come by this body?”

“It’s a long story,” Wei Ying says blithely. It is: Wei Ying had told him some of it, but Lan Wangji gets the feeling that there’s still much even he doesn’t know. Lan Wangji knows what his brother is worried about, even though he’s not going to ask about it directly, so he glances just once at Lan Xichen, knowing his brother will read the reassurance in his eyes. The body was offered to him. Lan Xichen nods slightly.

“Well, you’ll have to tell me about it later,” he tells Wei Ying. “Unfortunately, I must leave soon for the Discussion Conference, so I cannot linger, but I hope we’ll have more opportunities to converse in the future.”

Wei Ying smiles tentatively. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Lan Xichen returns the smile. “Oh, and rest assured, I’m very happy that you’re back. You’ve made my little brother so happy for so long - for that I must thank you.”

Brother ,” Lan Wangji hisses, feeling his ears burn.

Wei Ying is blushing too. “I did? I mean, uh, yeah, you’re welcome, uh, Zewu-Jun -”

Lan Xichen chuckles. “Please, call me Xichen-ge. I will take my leave now. And give you two some time alone to yourselves,” he adds, completely unsubtly.

“He’s nice,” Wei Ying comments, as Lan Wangji leads him to his Jingshi (to his Jingshi! he thinks, giddily). “I mean, you always told me he was, but it’s nice to see it firsthand.”

“Brother is very kind,” Lan Wangji acknowledges.

Wei Ying laughs softly. “So are you, Lan Zhan, the two of you aren’t so different in that regard. Not to mention,” he adds with a wink, “you’re both beautiful beyond comparison, so I guess the rumours were true!”

Lan Wangji ducks his head to hide his smile.

When they enter the room, Lan Wangji sets his guqin down carefully on the table. Wei Ying walks over, brushes his fingers lightly over the strings. “This is…” he murmurs.

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, knowing he’s staring and completely unable to do anything about it. He’d been worried he’d get awkward and tongue-tied with this physical incarnation of Wei Ying, the way he does when he has to hold verbal conversations with most people but, new body or not, this is still Wei Ying. Lan Wangji has known him for more than half his life. Being with him is as easy as breathing.

Wei Ying smiles softly and, while Lan Wangji watches, sets off to explore the Jingshi. Once he’s made a complete round, he sits perched on the edge of Lan Wangji’s bed.

(Lan Wangji’s breath hitches at the sight. While he supposes that this body Wei Ying is in is objectively attractive, the mere fact that it’s Wei Ying makes him unbearably beautiful. And he’s sitting on Lan Wangji’s bed. )

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying starts. Then pauses, frowning.

Lan Wangji walks to stand by the bed. While he gives Wei Ying time to gather his thoughts, he says, “You may sleep in here, if you wish. I will get you some spare robes. If you would like to take a bath, you may -”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, firmer. Lan Wangji stops talking, and his heart drops when he realizes that Wei Ying isn’t smiling anymore.

“Um,” Wei Ying begins awkwardly. “I’m very grateful for you standing up for me on the mountain, and for offering me a place to stay, but. That’s not necessary, Lan Zhan. Just give me a change of clothes and I’ll head out as soon as possible. I mean, I’m used to being on my own, so...”

Lan Wangji - cannot speak. His throat seems to have closed up. Wei Ying doesn’t want to stay. Wei Ying doesn’t want to be with him.

And why should he? After all, he’s already been forced to spend twenty long years with someone as dull and awkward as Lan Wangji as his only company. Of course, given the chance, he’d want to get away from him. Wei Ying is alive again, and has the whole world ahead of him - and Lan Wangji was going to be selfish, again, and keep him contained in the same place with the same person he’s had to endure for so many years?

He hadn’t even asked Wei Ying properly if he wanted to come back to Gusu, he realizes with horror. He had just assumed, foolishly, selfishly -

“Lan Zhan?” he hears Wei Ying ask tentatively. “What’s wrong?”

Lan Wangji inhales. Tries to regain his composure. There is no good letting Wei Ying see how upset he is - Wei Ying would only force himself to stay out of a misplaced sense of guilt, like he had for twenty years. “Nothing,” he says.

Wei Ying frowns. “Don’t bullshit me, Lan Zhan. I’ve known you for so long, you think I won’t be able to tell when you’re upset?”

Of course he would. Wei Ying has always been able to read him better than most, even if it’s only through Inquiry. “I know it is...selfish,” he says, “but I thought you wanted to stay. With me.”

Immediately, he lowers his gaze, so he won’t have to see the expression on Wei Ying’s face. Will it be annoyance, at how clingy Lan Wangji is being? Disgust? Amusement?

However, when he dares to look up again, he sees none of that. What he does see is pure, wide-eyed shock.

“You - you thought - of course I want to stay with you!” Wei Ying bursts out. “ You’re the one who doesn’t want me here!”

What. “Why would you say that?” Lan Wangji asks, trying to keep his voice steady.

“Because you told me so!” Wei Ying is almost shouting. “I told you I was staying for you, and you told me to leave!”

Lan Wangji can barely breathe. “I wanted you to be happy.”

“I was happy!” Wei Ying exclaims. His eyes flash, and his face is flushed. Despite the situation, Lan Wangji distractedly thinks that he really is lovely. “Did I seem unhappy?”

“I -”

“Don’t even try, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying snaps. “I know you probably just got tired of me, taking up so much of your time -”

This is all horribly reminiscent of their fight so many years ago, and Lan Wangji cannot let that happen again. He cannot lose Wei Ying, not now, and if the price to pay is to finally, finally be honest, well...it’s really a bit overdue anyway, isn’t it?

He reaches out and takes Wei Ying’s hand. Wei Ying’s words cut off with a splutter, and he stares at their joined hands. “Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says lowly, “asking you to leave was...the hardest thing I have ever done.”

Wei Ying turns his wide-eyed gaze up to him, and Lan Wangji suppresses the urge to turn away from the full force of his attention. “So why did you do it?” Wei Ying whispers.

“Because I just wanted you to be happy,” Lan Wangji replies, equally quiet. “No matter my feelings.”

“And what are those feelings, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying murmurs. His thumb strokes over Lan Wangji’s knuckles, and Lan Wangji shivers. “Why was it so hard?”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes, inhales and exhales once. Lets himself take courage from the comforting weight of Wei Ying’s hand in his. Even if Wei Ying doesn’t feel the same way - at least he will know that Lan Wangji has never wanted him gone.

“Because I love you,” Lan Wangji says, then flinches when he feels Wei Ying yank his hand away. He braces himself for the worst - Wei Ying shoving him away, leaving him for good -

Except, the next thing he knows, Wei Ying is getting to his feet and flinging himself at him so hard they both go stumbling back a few steps. Wei Ying’s arms wrap tightly around his waist, and he buries his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. At a loss for what to do, Lan Wangji rests his hands gingerly on his back. “Wei Ying…?”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles, voice muffled. “You...you are so foolish!”

What is happening? Is Wei Ying angry?

“You said you just wanted me to be happy,” Wei Ying continues. “Well, don’t you realize that the times I was happiest were when I was with you?

Lan Wangji inhales sharply. Wei Ying’s arms tighten.

“You know,” he says, “when you told me you were in love with someone, I...I thought you were talking about me. I hoped you were talking about me! And the next day, when I told you why I was staying, I, I was trying to -”

Wei Ying pulls back just enough to look him directly in the eyes, and wraps his arms around his neck. His fingers fiddle with the knot of Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon, and - doesn’t he know what it means? He has to, Lan Wangji has told him -

“I was trying to tell you that I’m in love with you too!” Wei Ying declares. Lan Wangji’s heart all but stops.

“You are?” he manages to ask, hating how small his voice sounds.

Wei Ying nods furiously. “Yes! Lan Zhan, you have to believe me, come on! We’ve spent twenty years together - how could you not realise?”

“You -” Lan Wangji wants this so, so badly he can barely breathe, but this can’t be happening, it can’t be this easy. “You are just saying that because I’m the only one besides Sizhui you’ve spoken to in a long time,” he grits out.

Wei Ying smacks the back of his head. Not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to make his eyes widen from the shock. “Lan Wangji!” Wei Ying snaps. “Don’t tell me the wise HanGuang-Jun is entertaining such foolish thoughts! Of course you’re not the only person I’ve talked to for twenty years! Do you know how many spirits I meet every single day? How many I talk to? I was never lonely!

“Do you know how long it has been since I realised why I was staying here?” he continues, eyes flashing. “Thirteen years! I could have left any time I wanted, but I chose to stay, because I love you, and I want to be with you! I want to spend the rest of my life with you, go on night hunts with you, do whatever with you - it has to be you! So, Lan Zhan -” and here Wei Ying’s voice goes low, his lashes dropping. Something like uncertainty crosses across his face, and how can he ever doubt Lan Wangji’s feelings for him? “I’ve told you what I want. Now - what do you want?”

Maybe, just maybe, Lan Wangji can let himself have this. He pulls Wei Ying in close again, hearing him squeak in surprise (so cute!) and noses into his hair. He can feel Wei Ying’s heart where their chests are pressed together. It’s beating at a breakneck pace - just as fast as his own, he’s sure. “I just want you,” he murmurs.

Wei Ying laughs, loud and carefree. Even though he’s never heard it before, Lan Wangji still recognizes the sound - how many times has he heard it, but in the form of plucked guqin notes? “That’s all you had to say, Lan Zhan! Why did it take you so long?”

“I was scared.”

Wei Ying scoffs. “What, of me? Scared of the big, bad demonic cultivator? Come now, Lan Zhan - what’s the worst I could do to you?”

“Leave me.”

Wei Ying stiffens, then melts into Lan Wangji’s arms with a peal of laughter. “So shameless, Lan Zhan, saying such things with a straight face! Well, you don’t have to worry about that - I fully intend on staying right by your side from now on! Even if you get sick of me, you won’t be able to get rid of me -”

“Will not happen,” Lan Wangji assures him, stroking his hair.

He feels Wei Ying smile into his neck. Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to do with this - this happiness, threatening to overwhelm him completely - it’s almost frightening, the intensity of it.

“That’s good to hear, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “And hugging is fun, and all, an excellent use for a physical body, but -” he pulls away again, smirks up at Lan Wangji, whose breathing stutters. “Can I kiss you? I mean, I’ve been wanting to for a long time, and I wasn’t lying when I said you were really beautiful, like, wow, I must be the luckiest man alive -”

Lan Wangji knows from experience that left uninterrupted, Wei Ying can and will continue rambling for a good ten minutes, and he really doesn’t know if he can wait that long, so he just cuts Wei Ying’s words off himself with a kiss.

Wei Ying makes a muffled noise of shock, but soon recovers and kisses back with rather startling enthusiasm. Objectively, technically, it’s probably not that good a kiss, considering Wei Ying doesn’t seem to have much more experience than Lan Wangji in the area - which is to say, none. But Wei Ying is in his arms, and he’s kissing him, and Wei Ying’s nimble fingers are undoing the knot of his forehead ribbon and letting it slip from his hair so, all things considered -

Wei Ying pulls back, breaking the kiss. Lan Wangji finds himself swaying forward unconsciously, chasing the warmth of his lips. Wei Ying is flushed, his hair in disarray, and he’s smiling so widely his cheeks bunch up adorably. “Lan er gege,” he says, laughing breathlessly. “We...are so bad at this!”

Lan Wangji can’t really argue with that. “Mm.”

“What,” Wei Ying says, low and teasing, “was that your first kiss or something?”

“Mm.” Who else does Wei Ying think he’d have wanted to kiss?

Wei Ying gapes. “It was?” The forehead ribbon almost slips from his slack grip; Lan Wangji catches it, and, in a fit of impulse, ties it around Wei Ying’s wrist. Wei Ying stares at it, then flushes even darker.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “Was it not yours?”

Wei Ying flails weakly, then protests, “Well, yeah, but I died when I was fifteen! What’s your excuse?”

“Never wanted to kiss anyone but you,” Lan Wangji says, and can’t help but smile at how hopelessly flustered Wei Ying seems at the words.

“Aaah!” he hisses. “You - you - this is unfair! You can’t just - ah, just kiss me again! We both need the practice!”

Lan Wangji smiles again, and is only too happy to comply.

 

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.

Except, now, he’s not alone. A teenager in white sits on the grass besides him, his own guqin in his lap, playing Inquiry almost as well as his father.

A dark-robed man sits huddled closely up against Lan Wangji’s side, his head resting on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, listening as he plays. A myriad of rabbits surround them, nosing at their instruments, trying to climb into their laps. The dark-robed man’s laughter rings out into the night as he strokes their ears, plucks them away when they get too close to the guqins.

A small, almost imperceptible smile appears on Lan Wangji’s lips. He has a home, friends, and a family and here, in the peace of the Cloud Recesses with his husband and son bathed in the soft glow of the spirits, he lets himself believe in happy endings, and a forever.