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The Cruelty of Fate

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When the ghostly, incorporeal specter coalesces next to WangJi’s bedside between one breath and the next, WangJi’s first and only coherent thought is that this is yet another fevered dream. It wouldn't have been the first one, and would surely be far from the last. It’s the least WangJi can expect, with the marks of lashes splitting his back and barely held together by bandages and spiritual energy. He feels every twinge as he stretches his hand helplessly towards the mirage, unable to deny himself the urge though his delirium.

“Wei Ying,” he manages, a breathy croak, and peers past his eyelashes to watch those grey eyes widen. They swirl with more emotions than he can name at the moment- emotions that he has not seen in those eyes for years, and his heart aches further as he watches the other swallow visibly, trembling hands reaching up to tentatively hold his own outstretched one, though they pass through each other like the other is made of mist.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes, and the shadows under his eyes darken as his face scrunches up, looking like he’s about to cry.

Then WangJi realizes blood stains the other’s front as if he has been stabbed- that pieces of him are being ripped off his body as if bitten off, and WangJi lets the encroaching darkness take him once more, succumbing if only to escape this nightmare.

~

“I’m sorry,” is whispered over his head, and WangJi can almost feel wisp-like tendrils of hair curling around his face, an imagined weight pressed against his temple. “I’m sorry- I’m so sorry, you were right, I’m sorry, please don’t hate me- Lan Zhan I’m-”

“Do not apologize,” he rasps, and the voice goes silent which is the opposite of what he wants, he realizes, because if he had to choose between silence and listening to Wei Ying it would be the opposite of a hardship to choose the latter. Then a hiccuping sigh sounds over his head, an almost-pressure wraps around his hand, and another stifled choke is nearly pressed against his nape.

“A-Zhan,” WangJi hears from further away, a voice as familiar to him as his own, and WangJi forces his eyes open, seeing at first only a semi-solid shadow curled around him. Then he focuses his eyes enough to realize he can see through Wei Ying, and his heart picks up once more in building, anticipatory panic as he registers XiChen kneeling at his bedside, face somber.

“Brother…?” he asks, voice weak with a strain of fear running through it. He does not know why he can see through Wei Ying, does not know why guilt is written across his brother’s face, but the longer the silence stretches the longer his mind has to wake up and start whirling with one terrible possibility laughing cruelly at him.

“I thought it better if I was the one to tell you, rather than you hearing it through a slip from another,” XiChen says, voice nervous and dreading. WangJi does not fail to notice that he is dragging this out, whatever it is. 

Wei Ying, as ghostly as he is, curls himself closer into WangJi and starts to mouth his apologies into the skin behind his ear, given away only by the phantom traces of what would be his lips.

“A-Zhan,” his brother starts, and WangJi stares through smoke-like hair into his brother’s eyes as they break away to peer downward, guilt-ridden as he speaks to the room, “Wei WuXian is dead. The cultivation world is searching for his soulmate so they may deal his spirit the final blow- get rid of him: once and for all.” The sorrow in his brother’s eyes is tainted by the question that lingers in them as he meets WangJi’s once more, but the question does not need to be voiced to be understood.

“Whatever you want,” Wei Ying murmurs, and WangJi knows his words can only be heard by the two of them- XiChen left in the dark. “I’m already dead Lan Zhan- just end it all if you want. I have no one left. I’m so tired. Whatever-” his breath hitches as he finishes with a quavering, “whatever you want.”

There’s a bitter irony here, WangJi thinks, as his heart makes a gut-wrenching twist. Because between the two in the room with him right now, they each know the answer to the other’s question.

“Never,” he forces out, trying to bridge the gap in information. He hears his brother shift where he kneels, but does not look through Wei Ying this time, forcing his eyes to stop on the mist that forms the ghost of his soulmate. He reaches a shaky hand out, and when he fails to reach the untouchable form those hands raise to cover it, shadows trembling. “I’d never hurt you, Wei Ying,” he breathes into the air, exhaustion creeping into his bones, causing a half-sob to sound from next to his ear.

“Ah,” XiChen sighs, and it is pained enough to match the atmosphere in the room. WangJi hears a rustle of fabric, his brother probably rising to his feet, and he listens as the Sect Leader makes his exit, pausing after sliding open the door. “For what it’s worth,” the other utters, voice muffled for facing out and away, “I apologize.” The door closes quietly behind him, and the room is filled only with the hitching breaths escaping Wei Ying’s ghostly throat.

WangJi knows that those words were not directed at him, that he’d’ve said more if that were the case, and with a bone-deep ache WangJi acknowledges the only reason his brother would apologize to his soulmate.

He was there. He had aided in the murder of Wei Ying.

That fact hurts almost as much as the whip had when it tore its way through flesh and muscle like butter.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying cries into his hair, and WangJi aches to know that tears would be soaking his skin if the other was not a ghost.

~

He wakes for a third time with Wei Ying’s presence hovering on the edges of his awareness, and this is the first time he wakes knowing why . His consciousness is just as fond, as in, not at all, of the knowledge that Wei Ying is dead- stabbed, eaten to death if his memory of the other’s form collapsing before his eyes is correct. The second time he had awoken Wei Ying had been pressed too close for him to know what he looked like, but now Wei Ying sits slightly apart from him, wearing the guise of a living Yiling Patriarch, the closest recent appearance that does not show his death on his form. He is curled into himself as he mutters into his knees; not seemingly aware that WangJi is regaining coherency this time.

WangJi tries to focus further, tries to hear what his soulmate is whispering to no one but himself, but the voice is too quiet for him to hear anything but, “Everyone’s probably dead by now. It’s probably too much to hope for that no one found where A-Yuan was hiding.” His words are rough and full of pain and sorrow, mourning over those he had failed to protect. The image of a little boy beaming up at him flashes through WangJi’s mind, tiny hands clenched around the mediocre street-stall toy as if it was a priceless treasure, and he shifts uneasily where he rests. 

The motion draws Wei Ying’s attention, the specter uncurling himself to dart over to his bed, hands hovering uncertainly. “Lan Zhan?” he asks in a waver, misty pressure settling tentatively over the back of his hand.

“A-Yuan?” WangJi rasps, and carefully props himself up to grab for the water bowl resting near his bed, wetting his dry throat. His wounds twinge at the movement, but Wei Ying can only hover worriedly, incapable of affecting much of anything in the living world.

“Ah…” Wei Ying murmurs, and WangJi watches grey eyes flicker down and away, lips twisting into a pained grimace. “When the sects came… there wasn’t much time. I was already weak from destroying half of the Tiger Seal, and all I could do was hide him and hope…” he trails off, shoulders shuddering as he finishes, “It wasn’t a very good hiding spot. It wouldn’t have been very hard to find him.”

WangJi thinks on that, unable to break his gaze away from the shadows of the crown of Wei Ying’s head, thinks of that little boy again, and remembers the calls for blood that had been screamed into the night at that cursed Pledge Conference.

Then he pushes himself shakily, painfully to his feet, feels some of his wounds crack open already, and feels hot blood start to drip down his back once more as Wei Ying’s head snaps up, eyes wide as he leaps to his feet.

“Lan Zhan!” His scold is laced with worry and concern, but he’s unable to do anything as WangJi grits his teeth and limps towards Bichen, displayed on a shelf (thankfully) near his bed. “Lan Zhan what are you doing- your wounds have opened- how did you get them anyway they look bad- Lan Zhan-”

“They,” WangJi forces out, wrapping his hand around Bichen’s hilt, “would not have thought to look for children.” Wei Ying stills at his words, but follows quickly as WangJi moves one foot in front of the other in front of the other to take him outside. “Blinded. Only looking for enemies. Would not have thought to look for a child.” WangJi knows Wei Ying is biting his lip, eyebrows crinkled in worry. He can almost feel the other’s indecision: the war between his worry for WangJi’s wounds and his distress over the fate of the child almost palpable. In the end though, WangJi is in control of his own actions and so mounts his sword, because he too worries for the child.

When they land, Wei Ying having hovered alongside him the whole way, grey shaded in worry only emphasized when his blood started dripping off the sword onto the ground far below, WangJi looks around at the destruction around him and feels his heart clench.

What Wei Ying had made of the Burial Mounds: a painstakingly crafted home, has been remorselessly ravaged. WangJi can’t help but stare for a moment towards the Demon-Slaughtering Cave but Wei Ying ushers him away, head turned aside as if not wanting to look at the place, gaze fixed unerringly away. WangJi wonders, almost detached with the pain of his back pounding his heart for him, if that had been where Wei Ying had been eaten. 

He lets Wei Ying guide him away, having almost forgotten why they had come until his soulmate rushes forward to drop to his knees beside a barely visible hollow in a tree-trunk, voice an aching thing as he calls, “A-Yuan.” 

WangJi nearly prepares himself for the worst (a child’s corpse cut open by some demon-like cultivator), when he gets a bit closer and can finally hear a child’s heaving pants over the sound of his heartbeat.

He rushes to kneel next to Wei Ying and sees the boy curled up in the hollow, face scrunched and cheeks red, fevered and in pain. He ignores how his wounds pull and tear open further, sets aside Wei Ying’s choked, worried gasp as he reaches forward and wraps his arms around the toddler, rising to his feet and stepping onto Bichen once more.

As he rises into the air with A-Yuan in his arms and Wei Ying a mist given form by his side, ignoring the throbbing of his wounds, he falters only when the boy plaintively murmurs, “Xian-gege?” into his chest.

WangJi’s arms tighten, a hurt sound escaping from Wei Ying’s throat to his right, but he only resumes his trip back to the Cloud Recesses as A-Yuan’s eyes squint open, peering at him blearily though the fever. 

“Rich-gege?” He asks this time, and then starts struggling, extremely weakly, in WangJi’s arms. “Rich-gege- there were bad people- fire- they hurt- where’s- Granny? Qing-Jie?” 

“Ssh,” WangJi can only hush, and the boy starts crying openly.

“Where’s Xian-gege, Rich-gege? Where’s Granny? Where’s everyone?” His sobs take over his body, half-delirious as he keeps demanding for what he’s lost, voice becoming incoherent as he fades back into unconsciousness. WangJi glances away from the direction he flies in for only a moment to see the look of misery etched on Wei Ying’s face, and his chest tightens, heart beating agony against his ribcage for more reasons than just the re-opened wounds.

How could the others have done it- been so blinded by their hate that they killed innocents and deemed it justified? 

He wonders, terribly, if his brother’s Shuoyue had fallen even one of them, and feels sick at the thought.

“Lan Zhan, just a little further,” Wei Ying murmurs, voice gentle and a memory of a caress touching his cheek. “You’re almost there Lan Zhan, you can do it.” He hadn’t realized he’d been wavering until that moment, Cloud Recesses in sight but vision blurry. He hopes the blood loss won’t catch up to him before he can land.

He manages it, in the end, with Wei Ying’s steady stream of encouragements keeping him vertical. He lands in front of the Jingshi and is only able to spare the thought that it might’ve been better to go to the infirmary instead before his knees crumple from under him. His hold on A-Yuan remains firm and steady but everything else about him shakes, Wei Ying hovering around him and his voice out of focus but edged with fear.

WangJi hears another voice on the edge of his consciousness, and only his eyes move to regard his swiftly approaching brother, face twisted in panic. “WangJi!” he calls again, and the last thing WangJi registers is his brother's voice calling for healers as Wei Ying’s palms press in a make-believe pressure against his cheeks.

The next time he wakes his bandages have been rewrapped much tighter, on his stomach with one arm outstretched to curl around a sleeping toddler. A-Yuan, thankfully, looks better, but he does not stir at WangJi’s awakening shift. The feeling of fingertips combing lightly through his hair is more a memory than an actual touch, but it tells WangJi where Wei Ying is all the same.

“You’re awake.” His soulmate’s voice is almost emotionless, a terrible inflection hiding in the ebbs, and WangJi considers turning to look at him briefly before realizing that would be a Bad Idea.

“What is wrong?” His question is a mumble, half spoken into a pillow, then his eyes catch on A-Yuan again as his heart picks up slightly and he asks, “Is A-Yuan-”

“A-Yuan is fine.” Wei Ying cuts him off before he can finish, and his heart calms again before he registers the same dead tone. There is a blanketing silence for some minutes, WangJi hesitant to guess what has caused Wei Ying’s voice to flatten like this, while the other only keeps stroking his hair carefully, gently.

“You should exorcise me,” Wei Ying breaks the silence finally, with the worst words WangJi could imagine spoken with finality.

Horror crashing through his veins, WangJi only manages to croak, “Wh-,” unsure himself if he was going to ask ‘what’ or ‘why’ or any variation thereof, but is cut off by a shift in Wei Ying’s tone as he lightly informs, “You know, Lan Zhan, your healers were gossiping while they were treating you. Isn’t gossiping against the rules?” His question is so falsely light-hearted that WangJi can feel the ache of it on the back of his tongue. The ache only grows when he thinks on what exactly the healers could’ve been gossiping about for Wei Ying to make such a statement.

(He’s sure insulting A-Yuan’s origins would have infuriated Wei Ying- not made him decide that, so-)

He feels like his worst fears are confirmed when the hand in his hair stills, only for a phantom touch to trace the wounds along his back as if he can see them through the bandages.

“Why,” Wei Ying utters, the word not even a question as all the falsified levity disappears as if it was never there. “Why did you do it.” 

He remains silent, unknowing how to formulate a response that might be an answer Wei Ying could want. He feels like ‘I had to’, would only hurt the other more. Then a tear-filled laugh sounds from above his head, and WangJi’s gut somehow clenches tighter as he feels a mist-like pressure of a forehead against his nape.

“You know-” Wei Ying chokes out, and WangJi fights the urge to roll over and look at him, “you know I- I didn’t- don’t- remember what happened after the Pledge Conference.” WangJi’s heart pauses for several beats. “I thought- I thought I somehow managed to drag myself away, since I woke up in the Burial Grounds and the last thing I remembered was stumbling away.”

WangJi had thought- had thought his soulmate had not addressed what happened because he did not return his feelings. Had thought that the other’s soothing words and wisp-like touches were the indulgence that a kind man would offer to the soulmate in love with him, whether the love was returned or not. WangJi had thought- had thought-

“You,” Wei Ying starts up again, the word a crack of sorrow, “you carried me away. You saved me- after all the deaths I caused. You saved me.” Sobs are audibly building in his throat now, and WangJi wishes he had the strength to push himself up, to turn, wishes he could touch and comfort. “You told me-” his words cut off, choked on, and he breathes with agony, “and I just kept telling you to get lost.” WangJi’s heart clenches at the memory, at the despair in his soulmate’s voice, and reaches back with his free hand only for it to pass through mist-like air. 

“And you kept protecting me. Went against- you,” his words shudder and break, and he swallows before he manages a wheezy, “you were punished because of me.”

“Not your fault-” WangJi blurts, tries to cut in, hating the fact that Wei Ying is blaming himself for this. “My choice- I’d do it again with no regrets.” 

Thirty-three lashes, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying cries, and the weight of his forehead on WangJi’s spine gets just a little more real. “With a discipline whip. I’m not worth that, Lan Zhan. I was never worth that.”

“Wrong. Wei Ying is worth everything.”

Lan Zhan.”

There is a measure of time after that that can’t quite be called silence, because Wei Ying is choking sobs into WangJi’s back, and he can only let it happen with a heavy heart. 

“How could you love me?” Wei Ying finally asks, voice breaking. “All I did was hurt you. Everything I do hurts you somehow. Just get rid of me.”

No.”

A sniffle, then, “How can someone as perfect as you have a soulmate like me? You deserve the world, and I’m just- just-”

“You are Wei Ying,” WangJi insists, voice as stern as he can manage. “There is no ‘just’ about Wei Ying.”

WangJi hears Wei Ying huff out a breath, and subsequently nearly feels a wind of hot air brush against the finer hairs on the back of his neck. This time there is an actual following silence, Wei Ying calming himself slowly as he keeps idly tracing WangJi’s scars, and WangJi lets him stay in silence as he thinks.

“Even when I was a kid,” Wei Ying finally starts again, voice low and contemplative, still somewhat stuffy, “I thought that- that the way soulmates work was more sad than romantic. I mean- you don’t know who they are until they’re dead? And then you only find out because they’re bound to haunt you until you die too?”

He huffs again, this time almost petulant. “It seemed cruel, to me. Imagine you’ve never met before, but with all the haunting you eventually fall in love with them, but they’re already dead. Or if you were happy together but they died young- you can’t really move on to find happiness without them if they’re there the whole time. Or even on those occasions soulmates don’t get along?” He sighs, then seems to lean more phantom weight onto WangJi as he continues, “And the only way to get rid of them is to exorcise them? And since no one else can see them, it has to be one soulmate who exorcises their other half? Isn’t that just terrible?”

WangJi doesn’t really know what to say in the face of all the fair points, so he just hums, “Mn,” and that seems to be enough of an answer for Wei Ying.

“I still think you should just exorcise me,” Wei Ying states almost casually, and WangJi starts to tense again until the fingers start stroking his hair again. “But I can’t make you. And- well, I did say I’d do whatever you want.”

~

(“Shijie-” WangJi hears Wei Ying whisper into the dark, when he is teetering on some vague balance of asleep and awake. Wei Ying swallows, “Shijie said she didn’t blame me. That he didn’t blame me.” A quiet pause, than he finishes, voice pained, “How terrible it must’ve been, to be celebrating your son’s one-month only for the ghost of your husband to appear in front of you.”)

~

When A-Yuan wakes, blinking slowly and looking around the room in confusion, WangJi is relieved. He is, admittedly, less so when the boy eventually turns his head to WangJi, whose arm is still curled around him, and asks who he is.

It’s- he won’t lie, there’s a flicker of hurt that flashes through him when he thinks ‘Rich-gege’ was, in the end, not important enough to remember. Wei Ying does not seem so sure, seeming perplexed. He insists that if that was really the case, A-Yuan wouldn’t have recognized WangJi on their way back from the Burial Grounds, which is a valid point, but then-?

-then it is discovered that it is not only WangJi he does not remember.

A-Yuan, now Lan Yuan, is a blank slate. He remembers nothing of the Burial Grounds, of Wen Qing, his Granny, and nothing of Wei Ying. 

When Lan Yuan starts smiling again, voice a chirp and a laugh, it is the first time WangJi sees a smile spread itself across Wei Ying’s face, too, ever since the time WangJi went to Yiling when Wei Ying and the Wen Sect Remnants were still alive.

It pains him, though, to see how sad the smile is, how much grief glints in his eyes.

“It’s sad,” Wei Ying admits to WangJi when he asks for honesty. The specter sits with his legs crossed and stares out the open window, watching Lan Yuan play. “He doesn’t remember his family. Doesn’t remember the ones that loved him, that raised him until now.” Then he pulls his eyes away, leaning his head back to stare at the ceiling instead. “And yet, at the same time, it’s better that he does. Forget, I mean. Everyone… everyone hated the Wens, every last one. It’s better he doesn’t remember the life that he would be…” hunted. Brutalized. Murdered. “shunned for. Then again…” 

Finally, his grey eyes trail down, watching WangJi with a tilt of his head, face swimming with so many emotions WangJi can’t place them all. WangJi only stares back at him over his cup of tea and waits.

“Then again,” he repeats softly, contemplatively, and that sad smile lines his face once more, the foundations achingly fond, “you are giving him all he has lost. A family. Loved ones. A life. And by taking him in you’ve given him one thing he probably could never have had as Wen Yuan.” The smile trembles slightly, a shallow waterline appearing behind his eyelids as he lowers his eyes, then head, then shoulders, curving his spine into the best bow that can be expected of someone sitting down.

“You gave him a future, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers into the room, and when he looks up his eyes are affectionate. “No thanks will ever be enough to express my gratitude for that.” WangJi can only fight not to break eye-contact with his soulmate as he feels his ears heat, sipping his tea if only for something to do.

“There is no need for thanks,” he eventually murmurs, feeling slightly flustered. In reward, Wei Ying gives him the brightest smile he’s seen on the other’s face since… he doesn’t know.

(There’s a part of him that wonders, sometimes, rather cruelly maybe, which hurts Wei Ying more: the fact that Lan Yuan does not remember anything of him, or that he is right there, and the boy cannot see or hear him.)

~

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs into his ear, voice desolate. “Lan Zhan please, you’re hurting yourself.” But even with Wei Ying himself asking him to stop, he still cannot make his hands cease their movements, searching frantically for-

“WangJi?” WangJi thinks he hears his brother ask. Can’t be sure. Not important. He answers on auto-pilot: what he’s looking for is an elusive object that his brother apparently thinks is easily procured.

“Lan Zhan, please. It’s not here. You won’t find it here.”

“Where,” he mutters, his response half-instinct. 

“It doesn’t matter. Lan Zhan-”

Feverishly, WangJi’s eyes light on branding rods. Familiar ones, and his body stills, eyes riveted. Only Wei Ying is there to see the consideration in his eyes, pupils dilated to double their usual size, and when he realizes what has caught WangJi’s attention he panics.

Don’t you dare,” he hisses, angry and scared. WangJi rises to his feet, still staring at the rods, entranced. Wei Ying leaps between them, tries to tug WangJi away but his fingers pass through like smoke, becoming desperate with each step forward. 

“Lan Zhan!” He calls, snapping in his soulmate’s face, then clapping, then again attempting to get between him and his fixation. “Lan WangJi! HanGuang-Jun! Dammit Lan Zhan you walk away from those right now!” 

It’s like the other can’t hear him, can’t see him, and Wei Ying watches, horrified, as Lan Zhan wraps his fingers around the handle.

Wei Ying can’t do this. He hates that his soulmate won’t look at him, won’t hear him, not when he’s the only one that can anymore. And he hates that he’s about to hurt this loving man even more, even though it’s the last thing he wants. 

What pride does he have left? One could argue he never had any pride to begin with. Begging and anger haven’t worked so far on his drunken soulmate, and he’ll do anything to keep Lan WangJi from tainting himself further on Wei Ying’s account.

Decision made, he flits forward to where Lan WangJi stares at the Wen brand in growing fascination, familiarity brewing, longing in his expression, and is about to turn it on himself when he hears, “Lan-er-gege, please,” whispered into his ear.

WangJi freezes, then feels his ears blush crimson as the term of endearment reaches tendrils around his incoherent mind. It had felt as if the lips were so close they were brushing his ear, but then the presence pulls away only for Wei Ying to step in front of him, pressing between his face and the hand that still holds the brand.

Wei Ying looks like he did as a teenager, storming the Cloud Recessess with loud laughter and high ponytails and beaming grins, and WangJi’s heart clenches at the sight, eyes burning with a sudden flood of unshed tears.

“Er-gege, please,” Wei Ying calls softly again, this time reaching his hands to hover over WangJi’s face, phantom heat cupping his cheeks. “I’m here. I’m right here. You don’t need Chenqing to remember me by- and you don’t need a damned brand that I got when playing hero.” He inhales, a shaky thing, before smiling tremulously up at WangJi once more, peering at him through his eyelashes. “Please, Lan Zhan? Please let go of the brand. I’m right here.”

It takes a monumental effort and yet none at all as his fingers obediently drop the iron rod, and he can only stare down with a fluttering heart as Wei Ying answers that with a sunshine beam of a smile.

(When he wakes in the morning, the entire previous night a black slate he can remember nothing of, Wei Ying kneels beside him and stares contemplatively at WangJi’s hands, which are as close to being wrapped around Wei Ying’s as possible. Now more-or-less used to the almost-touches that Wei Ying has showered him with since becoming a ghost, WangJi doesn’t panic, only twitching them slightly under the grey scrutiny.

This attracts Wei Ying’s attention, eyes drawing up from pale hands to meet WangJi’s own, and at the movement of his head a section of hair falls forward over his shoulder, loose as always, worry nearly darkening the permanent shadows under his eyes.

“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs between them, reaching as if to brush some of WangJi’s hair behind his ear before remembering he can’t touch. “You’re awake.”

“What happened last night?” He wants to know why Wei Ying looks so sad and guilty again, worried that he’s caused his soulmate’s grief.

Some confusion pinches Wei Ying’s eyebrows together as he starts, “You don’t-” before he cuts himself off with a flick of his head, biting his lip. WangJi waits until he sighs, shakes his head, and says, “If you don’t remember, then it’s not important.”

WangJi frowns slightly, about to protest when one of Wei Ying’s ghostly hands rises to press the image of a finger against his lips, silencing him before he can start. 

“It’s not important,” Wei Ying repeats firmly, determination settling into the planes of his face. “All that’s important is that you know I’m here, and that I’m not leaving you.” Grey eyes seem to search WangJi’s own as he ensures, “You know that, don’t you Lan Zhan? I’m right here.”

Something deep inside of WangJi, so deep it must be some piece of his core, loosens and unravels. Tension eases out of WangJi, and he feels like he can relax for the first time in years, unknowing of the tension he’d been cultivating as much as his core.

“Mn,” WangJi manages, and Wei Ying’s lips ease into an affectionate smile, his shoulders seeming to relax as well.)

~

Sometimes it’s too easy to forget that other people have soulmates, too. That Wei Ying being at his side as a ghost is a natural occurrence rather than an inexplicable one.

Then Nie Mingjue dies, and WangJi… remembers, when seeing his brother again after the fact.

Admittedly, he hasn’t been nearly as close with XiChen as he’d been before, but they were too close then for affection to simply disappear, and whenever a kernel of resentment forms in WangJi, Wei Ying staunchly insists that he in no way blames XiChen for his role in his death.

He also staunchly insists that he was going to die then no matter who all came as long as someone did and that he deserved to die, but he’s thankfully started realizing that WangJi hates hearing those words.

Still, having a soulmate walking in the shadows of your strides makes it easier to recognize when there’s another person’s soulmate in the room.

WangJi had expected his brother to be distraught at the death of his long-time friend. Had expected the period of mourning seclusion that inevitably followed. What neither he nor the rest of the Cultivation world had expected, though, was the fact that, after Nie Mingjue died via qi deviation, XiChen suddenly cut any and all ties he had to his surviving sworn brother: Jin GuangYao.

WangJi only knows about the shut-out because of gossiping disciples, and is only there to see the resulting fall-out because he happens to be outside and near the Hanshi at the time: Wei Ying hovering over his shoulder.

Jin GuangYao’s jade token has stopped working; only allowed inside anyway because Lan guards know him, and he goes to return the token with a grieving expression.

“Er-ge,” he calls through the walls of the Hanshi, the image of a dejected puppy, “please, I just want to understand.” WangJi watches as the door to the Hanshi flies open to reveal a distraught XiChen, eyes glimmering in tear-filled fury, lips twisted, and WangJi freezes at the sight. He’s never seen his brother like this.

“‘Understand’?” He demands, a shaky thing, and Jin GuangYao has paled at his appearance. “You want to understand? I want to understand! How could you, A-Yao?! Why?!”

“Er-ge-” XiChen is drawing attention now, even considering that the Hanshi is separated from the common area, but he doesn’t seem to mind the stares he’s getting.

“Or will you even bother to explain? Will you just lie to me- lie to me as you’ve been? How can I even trust anything you say?”

“Er-ge, please, there must be a misunderstanding-”

You killed him!” XiChen screams, and even the birds stop chirping, the Cloud Recesses falling into true silence as his tears spill over. “You killed him! Don’t try to lie to me!”

“I’m not-”

“He told me! You killed him! He told me!” Jin GuangYao finally stills, frozen, looking a mix or shocked and horrified. The knowledge that comes from those words sweeps the watchers, and they all avert their eyes and move away, expressions pained. XiChen takes in a wavering inhale, then grits out, “You want to understand? Fine. You lied to me, again and again. You took advantage of my trust. And you killed Da-ge- my soulmate. These are the reasons why I never want to see you again, Jin GuangYao. I can’t prove it to the cultivation world, and you had better hope to Guanyin that I never can, because I will spend the rest of my life until I do praying the opposite.”

XiChen’s face is stone, angry and composed in one, and that’s the last those outside the Hanshi see of him before he slams the door in Jin GuangYao’s face.

~

Whoever spread the rumor of ChiFeng-Zun being XiChen’s soulmate had better hope WangJi never finds out who they are. It’s bad enough hearing gossip spread about soulmates appearing and subsequent break-downs, but the fact that they are spoken in snide voices by even the other sects, and about his brother, makes an indignant fire burn in WangJi’s bones.

Only the sight of Wei Ying pulling faces and sneering right back as their eyes pass through him helps keep his face as non-emotive as always.

The Jins never press forward with a demand for an apology for the accusations XiChen hurled at their Sect Leader, though, so either Jin GuangYao has suppressed that, or whichever gossipmonger residing in the Cloud Recesses with their loose tongue deemed it too delicate a topic to spread.

(“Do I think it's true?” Wei Ying had parroted back at him, sounding surprised. “I think that if anyone could know how a person died it’d be that person. LianFang-Zun was a spy before he even got a courtesy name- he’s always had a silver tongue. And ChiFeng-Zun was brash- impulsive at times, but never dishonest. It’s why he got along so well with your brother.” At that point he smirked, a sly thing, and winked, quipping, “It seems that dynamic works well for soulmates, no? The peerless beauty and the instinct-driven ruffian?”

“Wei Ying.”

“Yes yes, Lan Zhan, back to the serious stuff.” He leaned back to stare at the ceiling reflectively, twirling a strand of his hair before he finally shrugged and said, “I don’t know how anyone could kill a Sect Leader like ChiFeng-Zun and make it look like an unfortunate accident, but LianFang-Zun is definitely one of the people I think capable of doing it. If ChiFeng-Zun says he did it, then there’s no reason to doubt.”)

A lot of bad comes from the spread of information: sly looks and sneers and whispers behind sleeves too loud to be hidden. But there seems to be at least one plus that comes from it, and it comes in the form of the new Sect Leader of Nie arriving at the Cloud Recesses, nearly a month after Jin GuangYao was forcibly escorted down those same steps with a white face and a drawn expression.

“Thank goodness!” Nie HuaiSang exclaims, scrambling in a very haphazard move towards where WangJi (and Wei Ying) watch his approach. “I came as soon as I heard and could get away! HanGuang-Jun, may I please speak to Er-ge?”

It does not escape WangJi’s notice that the Sect Leader didn’t specify what exactly he’d heard that had made him come running. He does not address the avoidance though, only vocalizing, “Mn” and turning to lead the other towards the Hanshi. Even if HuaiSang has only come because he’s heard of the soulmate situation, he should’ve already heard that XiChen is also currently in seclusion, so WangJi doesn’t bother pointing it out. If XiChen will see his soulmate’s brother then he will, and if not he need only refuse to interact.

It does not surprise him when, after Nie HuaiSang knocks on the door of the Hanshi and calls for permission to enter, the door opens just enough for him to slip inside before it closes behind him.

It doesn’t surprise him, but it certainly twinges somewhere deep inside him, shadowy hands wrapped around his own to give some comfort. XiChen has refused to see anyone since he raged at Jin GuangYao: even WangJi and Uncle only receiving silence. That twinge is the closest he’ll come to wondering what he has done to deserve his brother’s ire.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers in his ear as he stands frozen, staring at the closed door. “Resentful energy is leaking from there. Zewu-Jun is not at his finest. It is no one’s fault but Jin GuangYao’s.”

What he means is to absolve WangJi of any guilt or hurt, he knows, but the words only make apprehensive worry churn in his heart. 

Resentful energy, hm?

It is hours later, while WangJi sits in the Jingshi still wondering what he should do, that there is a knock on his door and a timid voice calls out, “HanGuang-Jun? May I please speak to you?” 

WangJi opens his eyes only to meet Wei Ying’s from across the table, cunning glinting in the grey. His soulmate only raises an eyebrow at him in question, as if asking, ‘What will you do?’

WangJi rises to open the door, and Nie HuaiSang pours himself into the Jingshi as soon as the door opens, mouth already moving in a never-ending ramble.

“Politics is so terrible, HanGuang-Jun! You’re lucky to not be a Sect Leader- I always knew it wasn’t my thing but now here I am! Terrible I say- it’s too bad the elders won’t let me just name one of the disciples a successor and let me secede. What do they think I’m going to do- suddenly become a model Nie now that I’m Sect Leader? Honestly, I don’t think they know what they’re doing by giving me the title- it’ll surely-”

“HuaiSang,” WangJi interrupts, feeling slightly irritated that the other hadn’t waited for even so much as a by-your-leave before entering his home and sitting where Wei Ying had been. He's only ever been interested in the ramblings of one, and that person is not Nie HuaiSang.

Wei Ying casts an assessing look at the Nie from where he’s moved, and when he meets WangJi’s eyes he says only, “This isn’t nervous babble. He’s just avoiding an issue he knows he can’t.”

The Sect Leader, unaware of Wei Ying’s commentary, laughs nervously and opens his fan to hide his face, voicing, “Apologies, HanGuang-Jun. I know how you like your silence.”

There’s an entire ghost in the room that is evidence otherwise, but WangJi chooses to simply not respond to that.

The Sect Leader wilts, scratching his neck as he restarts hesitantly, “I just had a very good talk with Er-ge. A very good one! Very productive!” WangJi doesn’t know why the other thinks he’s skeptical of the statement but still says nothing in the face of it, Wei Ying drifting closer to take a seat at the table perpendicular to them. Nie HuaiSang glances around from behind his fan, as if wishing he could be anywhere else, before he admits, “It seems Da-ge is still very… displeased… with how things turned out. I’m not much of a cultivator myself, but even I could… tell. I believe it be a good idea for HanGuang-Jun to aid Er-ge in his time of grief.”

The words are too-careful, too-cryptic. They tell too little and far too much. They are phrased just the way one would expect, and yet they hide too many secrets to count.

WangJi has half a mind to leap to his feet and rush to the Hanshi before even ensuring Nie HuaiSang leaves his Jingshi, Wei Ying rising to hover, but the Sect Leader only speaks up once more with, “On my way to the Cloud Recesses, I heard so many bad things said about Wei-xiong.” The words freeze WangJi in place. “So terrible! They couldn’t have known him at all to say such things, believe me HanGuang-Jun.” A hand of smoke hovers over his shoulder as he makes himself breathe. Eyes peer at him from behind a painted fan, narrowed in consideration as he asks, “Does HanGuang-Jun possibly know where Wei-xiong is?”

WangJi does not know how, with his heart beating a tattoo into his ribcage, but he manages to reply evenly with, “Soulmate.” It’s all he can get out, but it’s apparently all Sect Leader Nie needs as he closes his fan at that and rises to his feet.

“Yes, I suppose so!” he says, voice cheery and out of place. WangJi blinks, but Nie HuaiSang simply walks towards the door. But before his hand touches the wood he pauses, stares directly forward, and adds, in a voice completely casual, “I think Wei-xiong would want to know that there may have been more to what happened than met the eye.” Then he opens the door to the Jingshi, steps out, and closes it behind him without looking back.

“He knows,” Wei Ying voices, voice pensive as he touches his chin. “That was way too pointed. He knows.” WangJi watches him as he stares thoughtfully at the door, before finally meeting WangJi’s eyes and asking, “So are we going to go see Zewu-Jun now?”

WangJi probably shouldn’t have needed that prompt, but at the reminder he jolts and leaps to his feet, Wei Ying moving to intercept him before he can start walking as quickly as possible towards the Hanshi.

“Lan Zhan,” he says sternly, his hands misting bracingly across WangJi’s shoulders, staring into his eyes. “Rushing and panicking will do you no good. You don’t want to worry everyone else, do you? Zewu-Jun’s been okay for a month now and was coherent enough to talk to HuaiSang- he won’t suddenly go mad in the space of a couple hours.”  

He’s right, of course he is, and WangJi’s not sure exactly why panic still thrums in his veins, but he forces himself to calm down, taking a deep breath. 

When he opens the door to the Jingshi and exits, Wei Ying hovering behind him, WangJi’s face is as blank as usual as he moves with measured steps towards the Hanshi. He hears the notes of Clarity before he can even knock, and feels himself relax with every pluck of a qin string. Then he does knock and the playing is suddenly interrupted by a harsh twanging, as if several of the strings broke at once.

“Da-ge,” he hears from inside, XiChen’s voice tired and ebbing with some emotion that only gives WangJi a sense of foreboding. “Mingjue, please, you have to let me-” 

He’s cut off with a crash, and WangJi stands frozen at the door when Wei Ying whispers in his ear, “Forget propriety Lan Zhan- go in. The resentful energy in there is ridiculous.” Which is enough prompting to get WangJi to open the door himself, taking in the scene with a quickening heartbeat.

Either this has happened all within the last ten-some minutes he’s been with Nie HuaiSang, or the timid man’s simply used to things thrown everywhere. 

In XiChen’s Hanshi, though, the scene is bewildering: table toppled, desk crooked with a broken leg, pottery strewn across the floor in several places, and now WangJi can see that it was the guqin that had made the most recent noise- appearing to have been thrown across the room.

WangJi stares, and the only thing that helps him remember that this is reality is the impression of a palm holding firm on his shoulder.

XiChen looks up at him, stricken. “WangJi…” he starts, only to trail off helplessly as his eyes move between WangJi and an empty spot. It’s not hard to guess who is the other to hold his brother’s attention.

It’s odd, admittedly, because while there is a heaviness in the air indicating massive amounts of resentful energy confined in the room, WangJi can’t precisely sense the energy himself, nor can he detect that the spot XiChen watches with a pale face is the origin of the feeling.

It’s Wei Ying that says, “Oh yes, ChiFeng-Zun is very resentful. My, I wonder how he’s lasted so long in here.”

“You can sense him?” WangJi asks him, voice as quiet as the wind. He’s not clear on what soulmate ghosts can see of each other- only knowing that no other living being can see Wei Ying besides him, and so on. Wei Ying laughs in his ear, a secret between the two of them.

“Oh, I can’t sense him. I can’t see him. Can’t hear him.” He pauses, then tilts his head and squints at the spot where Nie Mingjue must be, “But I can sense the resentful energy he’s marinated in.”

“Brother,” WangJi finally utters, regaining the attention of XiChen. “Clarity is not working?” He figures it’s best to cut straight to the main problem here, rather than asking for an unnecessary explanation.

XiChen looks pained as he says, “It is, but-” He glances again at the empty space, wincing and pressing his lips together as if the former Nie Sect Leader has begun a loud tirade.

Well, if Clarity does work, then WangJi will just play it himself until the resentful energy is gone. XiChen’s spiritual energy and music cultivation is admirable, but WangJi has always had more skill with the guqin than him.

The problem, he finds, is that the moment he pulls out WangJi and plucks out the first note, he sees XiChen jolt forward at the same time Wei Ying rushes in front of him and holds a hand up as if to stop a blow.

He doesn’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that Wei Ying’s outstretched arm shakes with a sudden impact, as if he really has intercepted a blow, but the sight causes WangJi’s heart fly to his throat and his fingers to pause over the strings.

“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying sings, almost vindictive. “I’ve got this unruly former Sect Leader- keep playing.” Strain disappears from the shielding arm, indicating the blow has been retracted, but Wei Ying stays standing before him as WangJi forces enough calm into himself again to return to the song.

Wei Ying blocks another blow, eyes glinting red for the first time since he was alive, and WangJi keeps playing.

“Da-ge,” XiChen pleads, staring at an empty space not far in front of Wei Ying, “this is Clarity, not whatever A-Yao-” he cuts off as the lower drawer of a nearby dresser nearly implodes from a colossal force put behind a kick. “Please- it’ll help-” WangJi hits a particularly loud refrain, and they both watch their respective soulmates as one attempts to snap WangJi’s neck and the other grabs the extended forearm with a punishing grip.

“HuaiSang came by earlier,” Wei Ying remarks suddenly, sweetly, and XiChen watches as Mingjue falters for seemingly no reason. “He said that he had a fairly nice, productive conversation with ZeWu-Zun. So why is it that the second he left you started throwing a tantrum?”

Wei Ying knows the other can’t really hear him, can only know he’s speaking because of the resentful energy he’s reflecting back onto the other, but he know ChiFeng-Zun understands enough of what he’s saying to get riled up.

There’s also the fact that everytime ChiFeng-Zun hurls energy at him, some inevitably slips past and throws memories at him whether he likes it or not.

“Won’t throw a tantrum while your kid brother’s around, but fine with messing up your soulmate’s room? What did ZeWu-Zun do to earn you ire, hm?” He blocks a kick with a crossguard but catches a deluge of memories once more and has to stop himself from getting disoriented, skipping back to get closer to Lan Zhan again for some modicum of comfort. “Oh, so you resent that ZeWu-Zun took LianFang-Zun’s side over yours? Isn’t that petty, ChiFeng-Zun? Or should I say unfair? In that way of speaking, HuaiSang turned to LianFang-Zun for comfort too. Where’s your resentment for him?”

Nie Mingjue releases a feral roar, swiping down at the blank space he knows someone is occupying, instead of trying again for the Lan they protect.

“W-” XiChen starts before catching himself, then starts again with an unsure, “Is- are you talking to Da-ge, Young Master Wei?” 

This catches both Wei Ying and WangJi’s attention, a grin stretching across the former’s face as he chirps, “Oh, can he hear me to an extent? That’s great news!” He reaches down to wave his hand in front of WangJi’s face, a gesture telling him to increase the volume, before he takes a deep breath and starts to whistle along. And, instead of attempting to purify the Nie himself, simply calms every string of resentful energy clinging to the wisps of his ghost.

Already weakened from the constant attempts XiChen had made to play, then having WangJi play, and then WangJi and Wei Ying combined, the resentful energy that had been a swarm cultivating on the Nie finally relinquishes its hold, leaving the ghost free of any Resentful taint. 

He blinks, slow and confused, as he stares around himself, only to realize he’s in XiChen’s Hanshi which has been wrecked. XiChen’s there, staring at him with a pale but hopeful face, and Lan WangJi is not looking at him but at something not far away, some empty space that must not be empty to him. Lan WangJi plays a semi-familiar tune on his guqin, one that brings to mind a traitor and a liar and- but stops for some unseen cue, bringing the song to a close. Gold eyes don’t glance his way even once, and Mingjue feels even more out of place than five seconds ago.

“XiChen?” he asks, hoping that his voice doesn’t betray how confused he is. “What happened? Why am I here?” Lan WangJi doesn’t seem concerned, which isn’t unusual, but the fact that he’s not reacting at all is slightly unsettling.

It’s like he can’t even hear Mingjue, let alone see him.

“Da-ge,” XiChen breathes, sounding relieved, and Mingjue looks back at his sworn brother (why does that seem to have negative meanings to him now?) only to realize exactly how haggard he looks.

“What happened?” He repeats, unease and discomfort building in his chest. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Lan WangJi’s head turn up slightly, and turns to watch him nod at nothing before rising to his feet and making his way out of the Hanshi, strapping his guqin to his back as he moves.

XiChen starts to his feet at the movement, wincing slightly, but calls, “WangJi-” after him, and he pauses. The older hesitates, guilt writing itself across his face, and he bites his lip before saying, “If possible- if it would not be unwelcome… I would like a chance to formally apologize to Young Master Wei.” Mingjue’s shocked silent because ‘Young Master Wei’? Wei WuXian? The Yiling Patriarch that died how many years ago? 

At first Mingjue thinks he must be having some fevered dream, but Lan WangJi only glances at an empty space (again- what’s with him and empty spaces??), says, “Mn,” then turns his gaze back to XiChen to say, “He does not want one. Good luck with your soulmate.” For the space of a second, gold eyes cut toward Mingjue, staring fixedly at somewhere slightly to his left, before he turns again and leaves the Hanshi, door closing behind him.

“XiChen…?” he croaks, because he’s not unfamiliar with the concept of soulmates, but he never… he…?

XiChen sighs heavily, looking tired and worn, and says quietly, “I see I must catch you up on what you don’t remember.”

(They’re walking away from the Hanshi but not quite in the direction of the Jingshi, Wei Ying’s arms crossed behind his head, when WangJi finally voices, “You can still cultivate resentful energy as a ghost.” It’s not a question, and Wei Ying’s steps pause before continuing on.

“Yes,” he admits easily, eyelids heavy with thought. “It might actually be easier, like this.”

Choosing to ignore the second statement, WangJi keeps looking ahead as he asks, “Why didn’t you tell me?” He stops, though, when Wei Ying wheels around him to stop in front of him, leaning down only to peer up into his eyes, grey glinting with uncommon seriousness.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “You spent the last years of my living life telling me to stop Demonic Cultivation because you were worried about me- about the ways it would affect me, and you were right. I can’t regret continuing to do so because I didn’t have a choice at the time, but. But now I’m dead and there’s no reason to do it, so I won’t.” He shrugs, movement fluid as he spins on a heel and looks up, crossing his hands behind his back as he finishes, “If I have to- if I think I need to, I probably will. But not if it’s not necessary.”)

~

Which, as par of the course, means that not half a year later Wei Ying is forced to use Demonic Cultivation once more.

WangJi doesn’t- can’t and refuses to blame him. Even he knows that it was probably the difference between several crippling injuries to several juniors, including SiZhui, and all of them coming home fine.

He just really wishes that the incident could’ve been restricted within the barriers of the Cloud Recessess. As it is, it’s not even some undiscovered overly chatty Lan cultivator that spreads the information. It doesn’t need to be- because there had been juniors of several other sects present at the time.

Rumors, possible reasons why, all spread like wildfire. Speculations ranging from a random Demonic Cultivator that has so far escaped the clutches of the Yunmeng Patriarch lurking in the shadows, to the ghost of the Yiling Patriarch himself making an appearance, though none of the Seniors supervising the nighthunt could possibly be that Demon’s soulmate, surely?

It is a select handful of cultivators that hear the latter theory, discover that HanGuang-Jun was one of those Seniors, and feel understanding thrum in their bones.

Only two of those few have the audacity to take their suspicions straight to the source.

One is a man that has exhaled fury and spoken rage for years now. People say WangJi is a bearer of light; that he follows chaos with righteousness. Those same people only dare to speak in whispers of the volcanic man- of the way his entrance is forever heralded by the hiss of purple lightning. 

When Jiang WanYin arrives at the Cloud Recesses with his bared teeth and shadowed eyes, WangJi does not blame the disciples for allowing him entry.

"He's here, isn't he." It is not a question. It's nearly a demand, with Zidian crackling ominously around the man's finger.

WangJi does not blame the disciples for guiding Jiang WanYin to him, while his desk is crowded with paperwork yet to be graded. Their fear has made them obedient, and he can't blame them for that.

But WangJi has not and will never fear a man that would kill his own brother without an ounce of regret.

In fact, he almost blatantly ignores the man just to spite him, no matter how rude or as against the rules of his Sect as it would be. He's well aware it would only infuriate him all the more, and that at least would make WangJi feel better about having to deal with the Jiang Sect Leader when he never gave his approval for a visit like this.

But Wei Ying whispers a pained, disbelieving, "Jiang Cheng?" into the air, so WangJi sets down his brush.

Purple lights up the room with the thrum of electricity as Jiang WanYin demands, "Where is he?!" Eyes of the same color pass right over where Wei Ying sits by WangJi's side as they search hungrily for a ghost they cannot see.

WangJi has set his brush down, risen to his feet to face the Sect Leader, but all he spares the man is a cold look and, "Presumptuous."

Wei Ying makes a stifled sound in the back of his throat, but WangJi keeps his eyes fixed on the man who is coloring with ever-growing rage.

"You defend him?" Jiang WanYin snarls, taking a threatening step forward.

WangJi only looks at him with the most judgmental look he can muster, which, come to think of it, might not be very different from his usual expression.

"Of course you're defending him," the other man sneers, grinding his teeth to make a truly awful sound. "If you had any common sense you would have exorcised him the moment he appeared before you. And yet still he lingers, because you still let him." A disgusted scoff, then, "You used to not tolerate anything to do with him. What's with the change of heart?"

WangJi used to do and not do a lot of things, but none of that is Jiang WanYin's business. After all-

"You used to love him." WangJi's gaze drifts pointedly to the ring crackling purple lightning on the man's finger, on the way his hand hovers over Sandu, and utters, "And yet."

A choked gasp escapes Wei Ying, his form hovering just out of the edge of WangJi's vision, but Jiang WanYin only bristles further and screams, "Don't speak as if you know!"

To know, hm? 

WangJi had been at the Nightless City too- people seem to forget. He had seen the man who was his soulmate lose control: agony and sorrow and rage alike bringing the halves of the cursed Tiger Seal together to create a bloodbath. But WangJi had also seen what had led to it- events that many seem to prefer to forget. The fact that Wei Ying had not been the one to strike first. The way all onlookers screamed for his blood even when years before they had cheered his victory. 

He had seen Young Madam Jin die, yes. But he had seen her die to protect Wei Ying, not at his hand. And he had seen exactly how much that devastation had led to the fall of the man he loves.

So WangJi is remorseless, voice lacking any single possibility of inflection as he responds, "You are right. I do not know what it is like to hurt and kill the brother who loves me."

Tension fills the room at his words, silence thrumming like a reverberating chord of a plucked string. There is a look spreading across Jiang WanYin's face, and WangJi doesn't know the man well enough to place it. Doesn't really even try- too focused on a ghostly hand clutching through the fabric of one of his sleeves, already-pale knuckles white as they tremble.

"As the Sect Leader of Yunmeng Jiang, I declare that Wei WuXian should be exorcised." 

"I am not beholden to the Yunmeng Sect."

"He is! His life is mine to decide!"

"You struck him from your records and declared him rogue. You took his life. You cannot have it both ways." A twist of rage and agony is painting itself across Sect Leader Jiang's face, but WangJi is unimpressed as he nearly bites out, "And who exactly holds power over a dead man?"

There are some plausible answers here that could possibly be considered. Wei Ying, for example, has held power over countless dead men throughout his life. The Tiger Seal in the same vein, though that is more a "what" than a "who". And in history, one could say a person's soulmate has power over them: with the right to choose if they continue as a ghost or move on.

Those options go unheeded, as Jiang WanYin immediately understands what all WangJi had meant by that. 

"You hold no power over him anymore, nor ever will again." 

"You refuse to exorcise him?" It is the calmest thing that has left Sandu Sengshou's mouth yet, but it is more disbelieving than anything else. Disbelieving that he is so close yet so impossibly far from eliminating Wei Ying for good? Or disbelieving that, when one had once stood at Wei Ying's side and one opposite, they have now so thoroughly switched positions?

But WangJi has stood against thirty-three Gusu Elders in protection of the man he loves before he even knew they were soulmates. He had raised his sword in protection, and proceeded to earn thirty-three discipline strikes with actions that he will never regret. 

WangJi has stood between many people and Wei Ying in his life, and he will never stop doing so.

Jiang WanYin, a man younger than him whose only emotions seem to be rage and betrayal, who knows only how to shift blame and stew in jealousy, will not take Wei Ying from him. Not again.

It is a fact of nature, that WangJi will protect Wei Ying to his last breath, and the other must read it in his eyes because he only scoffs angrily once more before taking his leave.

(The fact that the first thing Wei Ying says after that purple-robed back disappears into the distance is a desolate whisper in his ear of, “It’s not his fault, Lan Zhan- it’s mine,” only strengthens the resentful feeling solidifying in WangJi’s gut.)

It is the other that sends a formal announcement of intention to visit, no request for permission mentioned, and XiChen brings it straight to WangJi when it arrives, the two staring down at the innocuous paper. Two ghosts watch from over their respective soulmate’s shoulder, one with anger teeming under his skin, the other seemingly perturbed as he hovers a hand of mist lightly over a hand made of flesh.

“I can’t forbid him entrance when he moves as the Chief Cultivator,” XiChen finally voices regretfully. Mingjue only crosses his arms tighter, grinding his teeth. He’d been the first to point that out before they had come to the Jingshi, though not with such polite phrasing. “Luckily, the way soulmates work, only you are capable of exorcising Young Master Wei, so you need not worry about him attempting to do so himself.” All other three in the room do not address the way WangJi’s fist tightens in response to the idea of Wei Ying being forcibly exorcised, the slightest movement of his head that is a flinch. Wei Ying only presses farther forward, aligning more of his body with WangJi’s own.

With the feeling of his stomach churning leaving him queasy, WangJi only manages to voice, “Mn.”

“However, A-” XiChen hesitates, then hardens his face to continue, “Jin GuangYao is cunning. I do not know if he will press the point. I do not know if he will consider it beneficial to himself for Young Master Wei to be exorcised.” He pauses again, lets the considerations wash over the rest of the room, then finishes, “But WangJi, you must understand that if he does- it may become extremely unpleasant for you.” 

WangJi does not care about that. He doesn’t possess an ounce of concern over unpleasantness. The cultivation world has already led to the brutal demise of his soulmate and still smears his name daily even as they hypocritically use his inventions. He passed “unpleasant” the moment Wei Ying’s ghost had appeared before him, eyes wide in remorse, covered in his own blood and ripped to pieces.

The only care he has for his brother’s warning is that it is obviously Wei Ying’s point of concern. He is the one that does not want things to “become unpleasant” for WangJi. Worse still: he feels guilty that it is his use of Demonic Cultivation that has once more caused WangJi any sort of inconvenience. It’s probably worse that he can’t even regret the use, because not using it would’ve led to far more regret than using it has.

Wei Ying, WangJi has known for a long time now, has an awful habit of placing all sorts of blame onto his own shoulders. 

There is nothing more to be said between the brothers, so XiChen and his soulmate leave the Jingshi so the other pair may discuss as they will.

“I guess it’s lucky that that bastard was born Meng Yao,” Mingjue spits, anger rousing further at the idea that there is anything lucky about one Jin GuangYao being who he is. “Your brother is well-respected as a Pillar of Light. A Jade of Gusu. Known for being wherever the chaos goes. Pit him against a son of a prostitute, and even the title of Chief Cultivator won’t let Meng Yao be the victor in the matter of public opinion.”

XiChen hears this and hums in agreement, hesitant to openly address his soulmate in public. If he remembers correctly, it’s against at least two different rules of the Cloud Recesses to hold a conversation with your soulmate where others can hear.

Mingjue, understanding of this, glances at his soulmate before looking away, awkwardness crawling over his skin as he adds, hesitant, “Neither of you will like this, but the fact that most of the world believes your brother hates Wei WuXian… will probably help a lot.” Knowing this, understanding it as the truth, XiChen only purses his lips and grimaces slightly. “I know, it sucks-” Mingjue says, but the Lan jerks his head in dissent, cutting him off.

“As much as it ‘sucks’, that’s not what bothers me,” XiChen admits quietly, assured by the lack of anyone passing by. He thinks for a moment, arranging his thoughts carefully, before finally voicing, “After the Nightless City and what happened to WangJi, I will admit I… was… resentful of Young Master Wei. Call it an older brother’s protectiveness, but I could not understand how he could say such a thing to WangJi after what he had done for him. But, with how he turned out to be WangJi’s soulmate, how… content WangJi seems to be now with Young Master Wei at his side, I considered whether there may have been some… miscommunication, previously.” At this he smiles, and Mingjue is one of the few that can see the regret and bitterness in it. 

“And so I thought, and considered, and thought some more. I know better than most how honestly terrible my brother is with communicating verbally, and Young Master Wei was always a verbal person. And… looking back at how they met, I believe I was the only one to see how the boy fascinated WangJi; considering it was a common assumption that WangJi hated him. The next time they met would’ve been the Discussion Conference, and that did not go well for either of them. Then after that would’ve been the indoctrination. I admit- I don’t know how well that turned out, but it’s fact that it happened just before Lotus Pier was razed, Young Master Wei losing all he knew besides the two Jiang heirs, and his subsequent disappearance that lasted three months.” He hesitates, then continues, “Him turning to Demonic Cultivation- I can’t understand that, but even I know I do not know everything that led to it. But the fact is that from what I heard, everytime WangJi encountered him thereafter ended in an argument.”

XiChen shakes his head quickly, shaking off the memories that have engulfed him, before he smiles wryly at Mingjue, who is content to listen to him parse through his thoughts, and finishes, “You say everyone is convinced that WangJi hated- hates him? Perhaps WangJi and I overlooked the possibility that he thought that as well.” Troubled sorrow writes itself across his face as he murmurs, almost to himself, “Perhaps Young Master Wei had good reason to react the way he did.”

Jin GuangYao arrives the next day, the Lan members stationed outside to await him watching him with disapproving looks, but he holds his head high as the Chief Cultivator who is free to go wherever he pleases- even without the permission of the Sect Leader of the area. He only falters once, and it is when he sees who exactly has come to meet him at the entrance.

Lan XiChen watches him approach with a cold look, head held as high as his is, and there is a rush of discomfort that floods through Jin GuangYao at the sight, his heart hurting for withered affection and broken trust. Everyone who sees the look on their Sect Leader’s face shudders, and are suddenly reminded that the primary distinguishing feature between the two jades are usually their expressions. And without his ever present smile, he certainly looks much like his younger brother.

“Sect Leader Jin,” Lan XiChen greets, voice frigidly polite. He does not salute. Only his ears hear the booming, mocking laughter from the victim of the one that stands before him. Only his eyes see the sneer etched on Nie Mingjue’s ghostly face. 

(Only he knows of the betrayal thrumming in his soulmate’s bones.)

But this is not his fight, not a battlefield he has a place on, so with stiff shoulders he leads his greatest betrayer to where his younger brother waits in his office, accompanied only by a ghost neither of them can see.

“I feel I should remind you, Chief Cultivator,” XiChen says, voice cold and distant, “that even I am allowed to evict the Chief Cultivator if you cross lines with my younger brother.” He fixes a look on A- (not A-Yao anymore, never again) Jin GuangYao, the other squirming under the weight as few do under his looks, and finishes, “I am, after all, very protective of my brother.”

He has never had the silver tongue that Jin GuangYao is known for. He doesn’t like deceit, doesn’t like speaking in riddles, doesn’t like speaking anything but the honest truth.

But if he’s to one day face off in a battle of wits against this man, he needs to learn the ways of a slithering tongue as well, and so gets his practice in with double meanings he knows the other will catch.

And then he opens the door to WangJi’s office and gestures Jin GuangYao inside, closing the door firmly behind him.

 

WangJi watches as Jin GuangYao stands almost awkwardly in the doorway as the door closes behind him, the light coming in from the windows being more than enough.

There is a moment of absolute silence that hovers between the three of them, weighing like consideration, before Jin GuangYao smiles and says, “I think we both know why I’m here.” He pauses, dramatically, before correcting, “We all know why I’m here.”

There is a brief, breathless pause where WangJi honestly considers trying to deny it, then immediately realizes he’s not a good enough actor to pull it off and vocalizes a dismissive, “Mn.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you had truly been wanting to exorcise him, you would have done so when he first appeared before you.” This is almost a mirror of what Jiang WanYin had sneered, but this feels so much more threatening, even as WangJi refuses to be cowed by a viper.

“Mn.”

“You know others will find out eventually,” he points out, tone falsely kind. “And when they do, even being HanGuang-Jun won’t be able to save you from being the soulmate of the Yiling Patriarch who refuses to get rid of him.”

WangJi, knowing fully well XiChen had trusted this man far too much before he’d betrayed him, narrows his eyes at Jin GuangYao because, “I do not care.” And Jin GuangYao knows he doesn’t- has to.

WangJi highly doubts that XiChen in all his misery-tainted honesty had not gone to his sworn-brothers for comfort after watching his little brother take thirty-three strikes from a discipline whip.

Cloth of shadow brushes across his knee, Wei Ying’s hand settling on top of WangJi’s own clenched fists (which relax slightly at the phantom touch), but Jin GuangYao sees none of that as, with an almost pleasant smile, he says, “I thought not.”

“Wow, so he does think some things through.” The observation is part mocking, mostly dry humor, and Wei Ying continues on, “funny, because he apparently never considered your brother would hate him after he found out. Did he really decide that killing one sworn brother and losing the other was worth getting revenge for a son of a prostitute jibe?” He shakes his head, acting out the role of a dismissive judge as he finishes, “I guess he spent most of his brain power playing the innocent fool, which is disgustingly ironic.”

It’s not- funny, per se, but there is some form of dark humor involved. Thinks things through to the utmost for a process and entirely ignores that there may be repercussions? Certainly, Jin GuangYao is thrice the fool.

Some amusement must filter through onto WangJi’s face at that, because Jin GuangYao looks curious as he asks, “Did Young Master Wei say something funny? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that expression on your face before.”

And, because the man asked, because WangJi simply wants to see that smile break, he tells him exactly what Wei Ying had said, and that they both agree he is a fool.

The Sect Leader’s response is not to drop his ever-present smile, only letting it look pained and take on an almost bullied air, and WangJi can’t help but think it foolish as well. Why does he insist on smiling no matter what anyone says to him? Doesn’t he know that by smiling he is joining in on a joke made at his expense? What does he think he accomplishes by hiding what he feels behind a smile, here and now?

Wei Ying has done the same for longer than he can remember; sadness and anger and frustration hidden behind wide smiles and loud laughter. But Wei Ying had done it to try and lessen the blow of the hard feelings swirling havoc around him, inside him. 

Jin GuangYao smiles so as not to displease those around him, and it is… irritating, to say the least.

By Guanyin, how had XiChen stood so long on this man’s side? Was it some sort of misguided sense of pity?

“If I am allowed to bring in Young Master Wei’s matter-” Jin GuangYao starts, as if he hadn’t been the one to bring up WangJi’s soulmate from the beginning. Wei Ying scoffs. “Then, I have noticed you are still on fairly good terms with Er-ge.” It’s rather shameless of the man to still feel he has the right to use the term “Er-ge”, but WangJi isn’t much in the mood to be so picky. “Don’t you know Er-ge was one of the leaders of the Siege of the Burial Mounds?” ("Don’t you know your brother aided and abetted in the murder of your soulmate?”) “So was Da-ge, come to think of it.” 

And for a split-second, WangJi feels a wash of rage sweep through the marrow of his bones- the likes of which he has not felt in years. Is this man trying to call WangJi a hypocrite? “If you condemn me for my hand in ChiFeng-Zun’s death, you should condemn them for their role in Wei Ying’s,” is it?

WangJi is practically vibrating in anger, seeping in fury, and he has to stop his fists from shaking out a release of emotion. He dares call WangJi a hypocrite for such a thing, even as he still uses ‘Er-ge’ and ‘Da-ge’ as if he himself was not the downfall of that relationship? He dares equate killing a man that trusted him with WangJi tolerating the presence of those his soulmate does not even blame?

“It is not the same,” he finally utters, voice as frigid and sharp-edged as glass. 

Being so close to XiChen must not be a proper preparation for dealing with WangJi, because Jin GuangYao does not sense the danger lurking in his words, only raises an eyebrow and inquires, “And how is it not?”

“Tell him-,” Wei Ying whispers in his ear, mischief in the cadence, and WangJi hates the words even as they spill out of his soulmate’s mouth.

Hates them, but he will never deny Wei Ying a voice, and so says, as blankly as he can manage, “Wei Ying says, ‘At least they were upfront with their intent to kill me.’”

The man’s smile, already hovering on the edge of collapsing, becomes frigid as ice. The knowledge teems between the three of them: that one had faced his death brought by screamed hatred and flashing swords dripping blood, while the other had plotted with a kind smile on his face as he plucked the strings that would bring about the death of one who trusted him. Both deaths brought by brothers, and yet oh so dissimilar.

Jin GuangYao had worked to suppress and snuff out every rumor that hinted he’d been behind ChiFeng-Zun’s death. But no amount of manipulation or power can change that two different pairs of golden eyes will never again meet his own without the knowledge of his plot hovering in their irises.

But that’s not here nor there, shouldn’t have been brought up at all- his mistake. So he considers the topic at hand, the one he’d known would be a waste of time the moment he’d considered it. Convince Lan WangJi to exorcise Wei WuXian, his soulmate? What folly.

Those years ago Lan XiChen had still loved and trusted him, and just as he went to his Er-ge when things bothered him so still did troubling events bring the Lan Sect Leader to his doorstep.

“WangJi betrayed the clan,” Lan XiChen had said, face lined with distress. “He injured our elders in order to protect the Yiling Patriarch. He would not listen to reason. The clan is furious- Uncle most of all.”  

He had not stayed long, but also did not take long before his next visit. Not two days later found him at Carp Tower’s gilded doors once more, the distress giving way to tears as he reported, “WangJi has been given punishment. A lash from the discipline whip for each elder injured.” His shoulders had shaken, tears finally spilling over, and Jin GuangYao had rushed forward to let Lan XiChen collapse into his arms as he clutches him back and whispers, “The healers are not sure he will survive it. I’m so scared. What if he doesn’t make it?”

Jin GuangYao had comforted him, heart aching for the sight of strong shoulders collapsing under the weight of his worry for his brother.

He doesn’t believe he’ll ever forget Lan XiChen speaking, “WangJi does not regret it,” because the words had resounded in his ears as the determination of an immortal come to earth.

Trying to convince Lan WangJi to exorcise Wei WuXian would be a lesson in futility. An attempt of the wind roaring for the mountain to bow before it. A request to the sun for it to rise from anywhere but the East.

(A prayer that his father may one day respect him and love him as he would a son.)

So Jin GuangYao meets cold, golden eyes, lets his own drift as if to catch a glimpse of the ghost surely listening to every word of the conversation, and rises to his feet, posture perfect.

“Young Master Wei should exercise caution when practicing Demonic Cultivation,” Jin GuangYao says carefully, hand on the door leading out of the suffocating room. “Otherwise, you must understand that things may become extremely… unpleasant for you, HanGuang-Jun.”

He exits, closing the door behind him, and shows no hesitation in leaving the Cloud Recesses without lingering.

Neither Lan WangJi nor Wei WuXian will ever mention to Lan XiChen that the man had said almost the exact same thing he had.

~

Wei Ying has always been a tactile person. WangJi knew that when the other first came to the Cloud Recesses as a boy: his arm always thrown over the shoulders of Jiang WanYin or Nie HuaiSang. That had seemingly faded somewhat after he had gained the title of Yiling Patriarch, but when WangJi had encountered him in Yiling carting around a young boy, it was clear that he hadn’t simply stopped.

It’s why he aches, slightly, watching ghostly hands pass through Lan Yuan’s head, his shoulders, his arms, when Wei Ying forgets too long that he can’t touch. And he aches terribly when those same ghostly hands try to touch him- contact more shadow than weight.

WangJi doesn’t- can’t regret Wei Ying being his soulmate, even though he’s making the man he loves endure starvation of touch. But he wonders, sometimes, how Wei Ying feels about it.

His soulmate had cried once, when he discovered the origin of WangJi’s scars. Had confessed his lack of memory, hadn’t even been able to voice WangJi’s love for him without choking on tears. He’s said more often than not that WangJi is perfect, complimented his appearance and temperament and fortitude and honor all in the same breath. That he is far from deserving the title of WangJi’s soulmate.

But he’s never once said what he thinks: of WangJi’s love for him, of what he feels for WangJi.

So WangJi can’t help but keep… wondering.

“Wei Ying,” he finally voices, watching the sun set on the tenth year Wei Ying has spent dead at his side. The shadow curled into his side shifts, phantom weight pressing against his ribcage, and Wei Ying lets out a curious hum. “Wei Ying, do you wish you were not my soulmate?” The specter stills for several heartbeats before jerking away from him, the abrupt loss a pang in WangJi’s chest as grey eyes glint up at him in disbelief.

“Lan Zhan?” he croaks, pale face even paler in the lighting. “What do you mean? Why would I…” he trails off, confusion rippling across his face, and WangJi’s heart aches in response, but he stops himself from reaching out.

“Being with me,” WangJi voices quietly, maintaining eye-contact even though the truth hurts, “means you are reminded, every moment of the day, that you are dead. That you can’t touch anyone- that the only one that can see and hear you is me.” Wei Ying’s eyes bore into him, incredulity in his eyes asking WangJi why that could be a bad thing, and WangJi sighs before looking down, guilty and embarrassed. “You have to stay here,” he elaborates, “and keep me company, even though you do not return my feelings.” A disbelieving gasp escapes Wei Ying, but WangJi does not dare look up until he feels phantom pressure of palms cupping his cheeks, lifting his chin. He meets grey eyes once more, and they are unbearably gentle.

“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, voice achingly fond. “You silly, silly man. How could you think I do not return your feelings?” WangJi’s heart stumbles at the words then kicks into overtime, leaving him breathless with a hope he never dared indulge. Dark eyelashes flutter as Wei Ying sighs, then continues, “Yes, I wish I could touch. I wish I could hold A-Yuan again, could ruffle his hair, could pinch and tease him as I could when I was alive. I wish I could touch you- hold your hand, touch your cheeks, kiss your lips. But being with you- you being able to hear me and see me? I could never wish for that to end. I’d beg the stars on my hands and knees to be able to stay with you for even a moment longer- hear your voice, see your eyes soften in the candlelight, listen as your fingers pluck out our song.” WangJi can feel his lips trembling, can feel tears budding behind his eyelids, and the look Wei Ying gives him is infinitely soft as his thumbs mist across WangJi’s cheekbones, soothing.

“Of course I love you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying speaks between their lips, and WangJi watches his face lean forward, foreheads so close to touching that his already pounding heart starts racing. “How could anyone not? I fall in love with your everything all over again every day.”

WangJi can’t remember the last time he cried. Wonders if it was really a decade and a half back with the same company, dripping cave and the smell of rust and muck overwhelming. That time WangJi had been ashamed of showing weakness- had told Wei Ying to shut up, had told him he was an awful person. Anything to get the boy he’d been falling in love with to not focus on how his tears fell.

Now with blurring vision and stinging eyes, WangJi looks through wet eyelashes and the light of the setting sun to see Wei Ying smiling at him with a gentleness that wrenches his heart. Misted shadows rub at his cheeks, move through his tears as if to wipe them away but failing. He’s not ashamed of weakness because this man has seen him at far lower states now and has still granted him the words he’d never thought he’d hear from those lips.

WangJi cries, does not hide the tears- letting them roll down his cheeks, and stares at his soulmate as he manages to croak, “Love Wei Ying.” 

Grey eyes widen just slightly, staring back at him from a breath away, before curving into the fondest crescents as that smile that he loves so much just gets wider. 

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he sighs, chuckling slightly but not moving his eyes an inch away, lips still beaming. “How are you still so pretty even when you cry? Give the rest of us some face, won’t you?

WangJi has never been a wordsmith like his soulmate is- never will be, he thinks, but he doesn’t think he needs to be one. Not with Wei Ying smiling that beautiful smile and grey eyes telling him that they understand every confession his heartbeat is pounding between them.

So he does something he knows he hasn’t done in ages.

WangJi feels his lips, stiff and trembling all at once, curve at the corners into a smile he’s trying to mirror off Wei Ying’s face. 

It’s certainly worth it, with the way his soulmate’s eyes widen in delight.

~

It’s halfway through his sentence, something silly about wondering if the villagers that had requested his aid would kowtow in gratitude for the help of the mighty HanGuang-Jun, that Wei Ying stops mid-word and looks perplexed. 

This in itself is not unusual- it usually means Wei Ying’s just been distracted by an entirely different train of thought.

Then he looks over his shoulder, looks around, as if in response to someone calling out.

This is also not unusual, though it’s odd that WangJi hadn’t also heard what he’s reacting to.

Then a look of sharp surprise and panic blooms across his face, grey eyes wild as they find his, and he only manages to shout, “Lan Zhan-” before disappearing into nothing.

This. This is far from usual.

“Wei Ying?” He calls, cautious and looking around. His hand double checks to make sure Bichen is safely sheathed, but when he sees no trace of his soulmate his heart starts to beat an uneven tempo in his chest.

He calls for his Wei Ying again, and again, and again, and never once does he receive a reply.

WangJi stands where he is, trapped with fear and panic boiling up in him from the inside out, and clutches desperately at the still-sheathed handle of Bichen.

There is no reason his soulmate should not still be here. Bichen has not rung out an exorcism song sung by its sword glare- WangJi has not swiped it through the love of his life to send him on. Even discounting that no other could do so, they were the only ones in the immediate area, leaving WangJi to now stand alone.

But where is his soulmate, then?

It can’t be some contrived time limit. The longest recorded document of a soulmate living with their shadow had apparently lasted several centuries: a cultivator apparently on the cusp of immortality. Wei Ying has only been a ghost at his side for days more than thirteen years- three spent in mutual, loving harmony. And WangJi is far from dead.

So where is Wei Ying?

He will admit, he does not handle the disappearance well, but he doesn’t think anyone should or could blame him. He spends the entire day searching, finding no trace at every turn, and when night comes he does not sleep. In bed at nine, the rules say, but the rules have never taken precedence over Wei Ying’s well-being before, and they definitely won’t start now.

Which is why he’s awake and alert when a distress flare appears several li away, and WangJi stares at it for several moments, torn and debating, before deciding that Wei Ying would want him to prioritize those who needed help for certain, over one whose condition is currently unknown.

And so he arrives at Mo Village in time to witness a Demonic Hand being brutalized into submission by three fierce corpses, and the sight of Demonic Cultivation catches his heart in a choke and a stutter, worried that there is apparently another Demonic Cultivator nearby.

He’s about to have a very strong debate with himself over whether priority declares he needs to search for said Demonic Cultivator, personally take the arm back to the Cloud Recesses, or if he can ignore the Cultivator and leave the arm to SiZhui and go back to looking for Wei Ying, when an unfamiliar voice with oh-so familiar inflections calls out a breathless, “Lan Zhan?” from the shadows.

WangJi turns, almost unable to believe his ears, and witnesses the approach of a man he’s never met before in his life, but whose eyes are wide in a way that is achingly familiar.

“Wei Ying?” he tries to ask, only mouths, because his throat has closed up at the rush of emotion. But the other seems to understand, because those eyes light up and those lips stretch into his most favorite smile, as Wei Ying cries out again, “Lan Zhan!” and runs forward to leap at him.

A rush of worry floods through him for moments, terrified his soulmate will just phase through him as always and land on the dirt behind him, when he catches a solid, waif-like body against his chest, wiry arms wrapping around him, clutching him close.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying wearing another body babbles, pressing his face into WangJi’s neck, “I missed you so much- I never want to leave you again- I’m right here I’m not leaving you never again- Lan Zhan-”

The body in his arms is warm, WangJi registers faintly, and the tears falling from his soulmate’s eyes, dripping down his neck, are trails of cold.

“You’re here,” WangJi says, voice thick and rough with emotion, and he realizes he’s started crying too, pressing his face into his soulmate’s hair just a little too hard, feeling the pressure. Reveling in it.

Wei Ying sniffles wetly against his neck, pulling away in a move WangJi does not appreciate. At least, not until warm, warm hands cup his cheeks, teary grey eyes filled with adoration meeting his own, nose to nose with him.

“I’m here,” Wei Ying agrees, voice a mumble and a murmur, a secret between the two of them, He nods, more tears spilling over as he repeats, “I’m here and I’m not leaving again and I love you-” before surging forward and crushing WangJi’s lips against his own.

WangJi inhales slightly in surprise, then relaxes almost immediately under the way a hand holds his nape with fingers tangled in his hair, the other curled over his shoulder to press firmly against one of his shoulder blades. It takes him less than a second longer to wrap his own hands around this new body, clutching his soulmate- Wei Ying’s soul closer and closer until no wind can pass between them.

Objectively, neither of them are very good at this. Unsurprising, since this is WangJi’s second kiss ever and the first has been stolen from this same person. Though in that case he doesn’t know what Wei Ying’s excuse is- he shoves that down before it can pierce through the pleased haze he’s floating in.

Wei Ying is the first to break away, panting and gasping against him even as his hands are still holding tightly onto WangJi, and puffs out an adorable, “I forgot to breathe.” His eyes are wide, as if surprised by the revelation, even as he still fights to catch his breath.

And WangJi, filled to overflowing with a joyful euphoria, doesn’t even try to stop himself from laughing.