As Chief Cultivator, Lan Wangji receives correspondences regularly: letters from sect leaders seeking his advice, requests for assistance, petitions to arbitrate, reports to keep him apprised of certain situations. Lan Wangji reads them all dutifully, replies to the important missives, assigns the less urgent ones to Sizhui -- who has, upon returning to Cloud Recesses, grown even more dependable and self-assured about his place in the world -- and files the rest away in the archives.
As Hanguang-jun of Gusu Lan sect, Lan Wangji receives papers regularly from his disciples. Class essays on music theory and the history of cultivation. After-action reports detailing any nighthunts they went on. He skims these and hands most of them over to Jingyi.
Jingyi is still noisier and more rambunctious than the average Lan, but he is diligent and has a sharp eye for details and will make an excellent instructor with a little more training. It helps that he also likes hearing the sound of his own voice. Jingyi’s lectures tend to be...dramatic.
As Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji rarely receives anything. So when a letter arrives simply addressed to Lan Zhan one morning, it’s immediately brought to his attention.
A nervous new junior disciple stands in front of him, awed to be in the presence of the illustrious Hanguang-jun, and holds up a languidly waving paperman.
“It says for, um, for Hanguang-jun’s eyes only,” she says in a rush.
It does not, but Lan Wangji does not correct her. The paperman’s activating sigil ends with the warning that its contents are for Lan Zhan’s eyes only, but Lan Wangji does not blame the junior disciple for not being able to say his name.
He lifts his hand and the paperman flutters over to land confidently on his palm. It blows him a kiss -- the junior disciple squeaks at the sight -- then lays down and unfurls into a letter.
“You may return to class,” Lan Wangji dismisses, tucking the letter inside his robes, next to his heart so he can feel the dissipating warmth of spiritual energy from the paper. The junior disciple bows and leaves as quickly as she’s able to without breaking any rules.
Lan Wangji spends the rest of the day going about his duties and does not think about the letter again until he retires to the jingshi that night. Then, finally, he settles at his desk and takes the letter out.
Wei Ying’s writing has not improved since his student days at Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji is amused to see. Wei Ying has always been meticulous and neat with his talismans and sigils and arrays, but his characters are still slanted and smudged, like he can’t write fast enough to keep up with his thoughts.
As promised, I am writing you to let you know that I’m doing well. It’s been two weeks since we parted and I haven’t been cursed or stabbed or anything! Aren’t you proud of me?
I jest, but I swear: I’m being careful.
It was a little strange, at first, being on my own. No Jiang Cheng, no Wen Ning, no you. The last time I was truly alone...that’s a time I don’t really like to think about. Before that, it was right after my parents died. So both times were terrible! This time it’s not so bad. Maybe the third time’s the charm.
This isn’t to say I want to be on my own forever. I’m enjoying the freedom to do whatever I want, but I find myself looking for you in the quiet spaces.
I miss traveling with you.
I’m eating well. I stopped by to visit Mian Mian and she let me stay for dinner. Her husband is an excellent cook. Little Mian Mian is just the cutest. She wants to be a cultivator one day, and I told her she could study at Cloud Recesses when she’s older.
You’ll make sure there’s a seat available for her, won’t you?
Speaking of cultivation, I’m getting stronger! My paperman can last longer and travel further now, which you already know because you’re reading this letter. I’m sure I’ll be able to form a golden core any day now.
Be well, Lan Zhan. You’re busy being Chief Cultivator, but you must take care of yourself since I’m not around to take care of you right now.
Tell A-Yuan and Jingyi I said hello.
And pass along my greetings to your brother, if you think he will accept them. I hear he’s still in seclusion, and I understand why, but there are still good things in this world and I hope Zewu-jun will be able to experience them again.
As a rule, Lan Xichen does not accept visitors during seclusion. There are only two exceptions -- his uncle, and his brother.
His uncle visits occasionally, and only stays at the Hanshi briefly when he comes. They don’t speak during these visits. Lan Xichen pours his uncle tea, they each drink a cup, and then his uncle leaves.
Wangji visits once a week and they meditate, or Wangji plays the guqin for him. Lan Xichen has not been able to bring himself to touch any instrument since the events at Yunping City. But he misses music, and he appreciates that Wangji does not let him go too long without hearing some.
His brother accepts his seclusion in the same breath as he rejects it. Wangji doesn’t expect him to speak, doesn’t even expect him to meditate or listen to music. But he adamantly subjects Lan Xichen to his presence every week, as if to say ‘you are my brother and I will continue to care for you.’
Obstinate, persistent Wangji. Lan Xichen will not ask him to stop.
During this week’s visit, Wangji sets down his guqin as usual, but something is different. His expression seems lighter, somehow. A little less careworn.
Being Chief Cultivator has not been easy for Wangji. His brother takes the role seriously and doesn’t shy away from its demands, but Lan Xichen knows if given the choice, Wangji would gladly return to a simpler life of teaching and nighthunting. So for something to raise his spirits...
Lan Xichen can’t help reaching out to the guqin and plucking out a short question. Wangji glances up at him, eyes wide.
Then he breathes out a pleased sigh and says, “Wei Ying wrote. He wishes you well.”
Ah. Lan Xichen should have known. He looks down, the faintest of smiles softening his face as Wangji begins to play.
Letters from Wei Ying continue to arrive at random intervals. Mostly they come as papermen, strutting directly into the jingshi to await Lan Wangji’s attention. (Lan Wangji has long since adjusted the wards around Cloud Recesses to allow Wei Ying’s papermen through.) Sometimes they arrive by bird, and the birds always squawk “for Lan Zhan’s eyes only!” as they deliver their letters, to the delight of any nearby disciples and the ire of Lan Qiren.
Most of the letters are very short. Wei Ying had promised to write, so he does, but that doesn’t make him good at it. Lan Wangji is treated to bits and pieces of Wei Ying’s life on the road, and then sketches of scenery, and then --
I am broke. It’s all your fault! I spent too much time around you and your bottomless purse, and now I’m careless with money.
Currently I’m staying at the Unclean Realm. After everything that happened, I figured Nie-xiong owes me at least a week or two of room and board. (It feels a little strange to call him Nie-xiong now, but it’s even stranger to call him Sect Leader Nie, so Nie-xiong it is.)
Nie-xiong has caught me up on a lot of the things I’ve missed while I’ve been dead. People call him Mr. Know-Nothing but really, he knows everything. And he’s become more cunning. Be a little careful of him, Lan Zhan. I like him well enough, but I would not completely trust him.
The food here is...let’s say it’s not quite to my taste. The kitchens at Cloud Recesses seem to want food to taste like air, but the kitchens here want their dishes to be weapons of war. I know, who am I to talk when I eat spicy hot everything, but hear me out. Every dish is salted and pickled and meat upon meat upon meat, so much so that I’ve actually begun missing fresh vegetables. I’d even eat a radish if someone gave me one right now.
And radishes are disgusting.
But I’m hungry, so I eat what I’m given.
I think I’d enjoy the food more if you were here. I miss sharing meals with you, even though you always remind me not to talk while eating. I’ve actually gotten better about that -- probably because it’s not worth doing without you around to scold me.
I almost forgot to mention, Nie-xiong had received a report about a hungry ghost, which I took care of for him. It wasn’t very difficult, but it took more energy than I thought it would, which is why I’m hungry.
Not because I am broke and starving. Stop worrying. Seriously.
Anyway, a few more days and I’m off. Nie-xiong has given me a small purse -- I think on some level, he still feels a little guilty. I find I’m all right with that. When I run out of money again, I’ll start selling paper charms or something. Turns out there’s still a market for talismans by the great Yiling Patriarch! They’ll definitely be a lot easier to sell than radishes.
Give my best to everyone. Take care of yourself.
P.S. Don’t try to send me any money here, by the time this letter reaches you I’ll have left already.
Jingyi is just about to start his lecture on the history of Gusu Lan sect -- the founding is an entirely romantic and action-packed tale that is way better when he tells it, in his humble opinion -- when Hanguang-jun steps in to the classroom. The seated disciples quickly scramble to their feet and bow in greeting.
He nods back, then looks over at Jingyi. “Assignment for the class.”
Jingyi smiles, shoving his lesson plan away. Lectures are great and all, but nighthunts are way better.
“Purchase one hundred paper charms from each of the five districts.” Hanguang-jun looks the tiniest bit amused as he says this. “Begin in Qinghe.”
Jingyi, being Jingyi, frowns. This sounds more like an errand than a nighthunt. And if Hanguang-jun wants paper charms, why can’t he just draw some up himself? Or have the students draw them up? From the way the younger disciples are staring at him (because they wouldn’t dare stare at Hanguang-jun), they are wondering the same thing.
But Hanguang-jun has already left the classroom, off to do Chief Cultivator-y things.
Jingyi sighs. If one hundred paper charms from each of the five districts is what Hanguang-jun wants, that’s what he will get.
“All right, we’ll split into teams. And take notes on the paper charms you buy!” Jingyi blithely makes up a lesson as he goes along. No need to waste an opportunity, after all. The kids should earn their outing. “You’ll turn in an essay after on inconsistencies you find in lettering, the regional differences in the paper used and if that affects the strength of the charm, as well as the most popular types of charms in each district and your analysis on why they’re popular.”
The younger disciples look a little resigned at the thought of another essay, but Jingyi is pleased. Teaching is fun!
I’m at Koi Tower and no one has tried to stab me! What a difference a year has made.
Honestly, there was a time when I thought I’d never be able to come back here. But Jin Ling has been a kind and gracious host. Wait, I take that back. Apparently I’m family now, which means he gets to bully me as much as he wants. At least he added more bells to Fairy’s collar so I can always hear her coming.
I miss our rabbits.
You’ve probably already heard from A-Yuan that we all went on a nighthunt. I was originally just taking Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen out, but then they invited A-Yuan and Jingyi. It was great to see them! It was great to go on a nighthunt with them.
I miss going on nighthunts with you. Watching you at work, the way you analyze problems, the way you take action -- it’s really something, how competent you are. You know that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be your friend in the first place? Until I met you, no one could keep up with me.
You’ve surpassed me for now, but I’m getting stronger every day. One day you won’t have to protect me anymore -- although I wouldn’t mind if you want to.
You’ve protected these kids well, Lan Zhan. As expected of Hanguang-jun, you’ve helped raise a generation of good little cultivators. I’ll try my best not to steer them down the wrong path. Although now that I think about it, there isn’t really a wrong path, is there? If only matters what you do while you walk it.
In a few more days, I think I’ll head south. Koi Tower isn’t bad, but it’s not for me. To be honest, I’d really like to visit Lotus Pier again. But I’m not sure I’ll be welcome there. You’d think Jiang Cheng would have moved on by now, he can be even more stubborn than you and me combined about some things.
P.S. A-Yuan says you’ve been looking a little tired of late. Are you getting enough rest? You really need to take care of yourself before you can take care of the world.
It is nearing dinner time when the peace at Cloud Recesses is disturbed by an odd, whining wind. Lan Wangji immediately heads to the mingshi, where the bells that should be silent are ringing hollowly. He finds Sizhui already there.
Sizhui has a damp brush in one hand and a creased piece of paper in the other. He doesn’t look panicked or worried, but neither does he look calm. Concerned, Lan Wangji decides. Sizhui appears concerned. It’s probably not that serious then.
“I was drawing an array for Xian-ge, and it seems to have activated.”
Lan Wangji looks down the the just-barely-dried array Sizhui has drawn on the mingshi floor. It’s complex, with numerous loops and intertwining sigils and dozens and dozens of layers. Lan Wangji recognizes Wei Ying’s telltale brush strokes, diligently copied by Sizhui.
The wind picks up slightly, making their robes flutter and prickling at their eyes. The array flashes ominously with soft red pulses of light.
“What is it for?” Lan Wangji asks mildly.
Sizhui’s smile is a shade apprehensive. “Xian-ge didn’t say...he only asked me to draw it here, then send him a message when I was done. It was supposed to be a surprise for you.”
Lan Wangji considers this. He’s certain Wei Ying wouldn’t ask Sizhui to do anything dangerous, anything that would put Cloud Recesses at risk. So he decides to wait and see.
(He does, however, subtly step in front of Sizhui, on the off chance Wei Ying has miscalculated. Wei Ying is a genius but he still hasn’t quite formed his golden core yet.)
The wind builds up to a shrieking whine that makes Sizhui wince, and then there is a sharp cracking sound. The array stops flashing and fades into smoke, and in the space it had been occupying there is a plate of tiny cakes shaped like lotus blossoms.
“Object teleportation?” Sizhui ventures, looking suitably impressed. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
Wei Ying has always attempted the impossible. Lan Wangji calmly picks up the plate. There’s a letter attached to its underside, which he slides into the fold of his robes.
The cakes are still smoking slightly, and Sizhui looks at them with curiosity.
“Do you think they’re safe to eat?”
Does Lan Wangji trust Wei Ying? Lan Wangji selects one of the cakes in response and brings it to his mouth. He breathes in the rich scent of warm sugar and lotus paste, and bites down.
I hope the cakes arrived safely! They’re a Lotus Pier delicacy.
I’ve tested the teleportation array around Lotus Pier -- it’s unfortunately noisy and everyone hates me now, haha -- but this is the first time sending something as far as Gusu. The array is much more stable than a talisman, and less stressful on the caster’s body. But so far it can only handle inanimate objects to fixed locations. I’ll keep working on it. Maybe I can make it less loud, too.
Yes, you read that first part correctly. I’ve finally done it and shown my face at Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng didn’t immediately throw me out -- he even gave me a decent room to stay in. I don’t think he’s happy I’m here, but he’s not unhappy, if that makes sense.
If it weren’t difficult, it wouldn’t be Jiang Cheng, after all. That really hasn’t changed.
A lot around here has, though. Last time we were here it was night, so I wasn’t able to really look around. Now...now I see that Lotus Pier can never truly be my home again. It’s still beautiful, and I still love it, but it is Jiang Cheng’s home.
Strangely, I’m not upset about this. I’ve made very happy memories here with people I have loved, but that’s all they are now. Memories. And I can’t build a life around memories.
I’ve gone and made myself maudlin. I think I’ll go liberate some wine from the kitchen. We don’t have any Emperor’s Smile here, but I’ll make do.
Enjoy the cakes, Lan Zhan. They’re my favorite, and I think they go well with that white tea you like. Maybe next time I’ll send you chickens.
Lan Wangji has only just retired to the jingshi with a pot of Silver Needle tea when a paperman arrives. It’s unexpected, as it’s been less than a full day since Wei Ying’s last correspondence. A sliver of worry works its way through Lan Wangji as he picks up the urgently dancing paperman.
He hopes nothing has happened to Wei Ying.
At his touch, the paperman relaxes and unfolds.
Last night I dreamt that I was back on the mountain where we parted ways. I was playing the song you wrote, and then I heard your voice, clear as day. You called my name and I turned around and you were there and I was so, so happy.
Then I woke up and you weren’t there. I woke up and I
I’m happiest when I’m with you.
I think I could build a life around you.
I want to chase and be caught by you.
I want to conquer and surrender to you.
I want to tease and adore you.
I want to play music with you for ten years or ten thousand years.
I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.
Lan Wangji manages to read that last line twice before his vision goes a little blurry and he has to grit his teeth against the desire to fly from Cloud Recesses and find Wei Ying immediately. Because Wei Ying had promised to write, but Lan Wangji had promised to stay and be responsible and dutiful and patient. He has not broken this promise but oh, how he wants to now...he lays the letter carefully on his desk and tries to take a deep breath to compose himself, but it doesn’t work. His heart is so full in his chest, there’s no room for more air. He hiccups slightly instead, and traces his fingers over Wei Ying’s sloppily dashed ink, wishing he can outline the shape of Wei Ying through it.
He hasn’t even signed this letter. Why wouldn’t he --
Lan Wangji lifts his head and Wei Ying is there in the doorway, the image of him wavering slightly because Lan Wangji still has tears in his eyes. For a second, Lan Wangji wonders if this is an illusion, if this is a dream Wei Ying had conjured for him --
Lan Wangji blinks.
Wei Ying is dusty and travel worn and looking at Lan Wangji with such a happy light in his eyes, such a fond smile on his face, that Lan Wangji is on his feet in a flash. And just in time because Wei Ying devours the remaining steps between them and throws his full weight into Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji catches him easily, eager hands pulling Wei Ying close.
Wei Ying is laughing with delight.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, I mean every single word,” he says, his voice slightly muffled because his face is pressed into Lan Wangji’s neck. Lan Wangji forgets how to breathe for a moment. All he can think about is how Wei Ying is here, solid in his arms, his heart beating fast against Lan Wangji’s own.
Lan Wangji wants to hold Wei Ying for ten years, for ten thousand more. And he reels with the knowledge that he’ll have them.
Lan Wangji pulls back slightly, creating just enough space between them so he can press his lips to the top of Wei Ying’s head.
“Wei Ying. Welcome home.”