His name is Xiao Xingchen. He was a murderer. He deserved to die.
His name is Xiao Xingchen. He was once a good man, but he murdered the one he loved. He died, and he deserved it.
His name is Xiao Xingchen. He was once a good man, but in his ignorance, he murdered innocents. In his ignorance, he murdered the one he loved. Xingchen deserved to die, but his spirit could not leave.
His name is Xiao Xingchen. He was once a good man, a cultivator. He lived in a world of darkness, as he does now. He does not remember his own face, but he remembers the face of another, so dark and beautiful. He loved the man with the face that was dark and beautiful. That man was gone now, dead by Xingchen’s own hand. Xingchen took his own life in sorrow and regret. He deserved to die, but his spirit could not leave.
The first thing Xiao Xingchen feels is the gentle press of hands against the silk of his pouch, cradling the fragments of his spirit like the shattered remnants of some broken heirloom, too precious to throw away. He remembers little of his death – mostly the tide of some great sadness and the chill of steel against his throat – but he knows above all other things that he had wished for his soul to scatter, denied reincarnation as punishment for his sins. Now, within the confines of his little pouch, cradled in hands that are cold like death, he understands that perhaps lingering was the more suitable retribution.
His awareness comes in fits and starts, so often brought forth by violent jostling and the roar of fierce corpses meeting a blade, or the pressure of a hand holding him protectively against a body that bears no heartbeat. The latter always manages to settle him, even when the embrace is more forceful than truly comforting, even when the possibility of a lifeless protector should cause his hackles to rise.
Perhaps he is too despondent to care. Perhaps he deserves whatever comes. Regardless, his thoughts are rarely cohesive enough to sponsor such introspection, and the thought of turning what little focus he has onto his own flaws douses him in a weariness too great for his feeble consciousness to bear, and he fades once more.
Waking always feels as if he is fighting through a fog, rousing from some medicine-induced slumber, only to suffer the same striking recollection that he is a prisoner to his own suicide, trapped within silk confines with nothing but his fragmented thoughts. It’s torture, the noise from outside too random and unfathomable to process within the limits of his sporadic consciousness. He just wants to rest, to seek out whatever lifeless darkness will rise to consume him.
Yet nothing comes.
So Xingchen does his best to will himself away. But the qiankun pouch is of high quality, and his weakness prevents him from dissipating. Still, he does succeed in further fragmenting the remnants of his spirit, and it slowly becomes more and more difficult to piece himself back together, awareness coming more slowly with each attempt. A stone worn into grains of sand, but unable to be taken by the sea.
He prays for oblivion, when he has no strength to strive for it himself. He prays and prays and searches in his pitiful memories for any broken sutra to grant him relief, but there is none. There is nothing but his torment and the jostling of his pouch, shaking him from his sorrow into a frustrated indignation that almost reminds him of the feeling of warmth.
He can recall a mere few of the sensations of a physical body – the sun on his face, the embrace of heavy silk along his waist, the threading breath of wind in his hair, the calloused press of another’s hands against his skin – but his anger rattles something loose, and suddenly he feels more whole than he has since he woke. And he tries to pair the things he knows now, the measly few things that exist within the claustrophobic void of his pouch, to the remembered sensations of his corporeal past.
Anger is heat like fire, rising cruel and violent like lightning. Sadness is long nights and cold rivers. Shame is a deep wound, sharp and then relentlessly pulsing beneath broken skin. Loneliness is lifeless streets and silence. Regret is the empty space in a too-big bed where a lover should have lain.
There should be pleasant things too, he knows, just as a coin must have two faces. But he does not know them in his lonesome darkness, and so their memories dance just beyond his reach, mere twirling shadows. They taunt him like ladies with coy smiles and red cheeks, hiding behind fans and fluttering robes, and the now-familiar frustration sparks to life in the darkness.
Anger is relief, in some pitiful way. It’s something aside from the oppressive sorrow and regret that numbs him even to the blind chaos of the world outside of his silken prison. It gives him focus, a pin-point frustration like a glint of light through the wet blanket of sadness that seeks with such conviction to smother him.
Xingchen knows that he was not an angry man. Indignant at injustice, perhaps, but otherwise passive and gentle. Yet now it is all he has, and so he clings to it with equal conviction because he knows nothing else.
But, one day as he warms himself with resentment toward his embroidered trappings, he registers a sound from the world outside. It is a pitiful sound, a sorry wheeze that could nearly be a voice, were it not so mutilated and disused. There are no words, nothing recognizable at least, only whispering breath that trembles like autumn leaves in a cool breeze. It presses against the seams of his pouch, beckoning with a gentleness that makes him seize up, a strange, vague recollection of feeling squeezing against him with persistent affection.
And in a moment of revelation that feels like grace, he can recall the tender sunlight-warmth of contentment, the springtime blooming of hope, the buoyant elation of love like a thousand cranes taking wing. So much pleasantness manages to dull the gunpowder surprise of his captor’s sudden lack of silence, which has thus far been maintained with the utmost diligence.
The wheezing whispers continue, the breathy sighs rich with longing, a one-sided conversation sweeter than birdsong even in its lamentable grating rattle. Eventually the wordless confession begins to wither away, the speaker seeming to grow more and more weary with the exhaustion of expression, and Xingchen feels the loss in a surge of acidic panic, filled with desperate yearning. In those short moments, he felt more complete than he has since his death, and he chases the sensation, thirsting for it.
Perhaps, he considers contentedly, lingering in his prison of embroidered silk was not such a cruel fate after all.
So he listens, diligently focusing on the world outside, hoping for those sweet breaths once more.
They come infrequently, most often following intensive battles against all manner of spirits and monsters, almost as if seeking to ensure Xingchen of his safety. Xingchen has long since decided that he need never fear for his safety, not while tucked within his protector’s robes. But the wordless, wheezing reassurance is comforting nonetheless, and he always laments the long silence that undoubtedly follows.
No other voices ever accompany his protector, aside from the occasional ambient conversation overheard on the road or on the outskirts of villages. Xingchen wonders if his protector speaks to him because he is lonely, since he always seems to avoid populated areas. It is more uplifting, though, to imagine that his protector speaks to him because he fears that Xingchen is the lonely one. Only then does his old anger return, and he curses his inability to speak, to ensure his protector that his quiet company is enough.
The recollection of a stern-faced man with a secret smile reserved only for Xingchen blooms to life in his memory, slotting into place as if it had always been there. It’s a memory of stoic silence and tender whispers saved for the darkest places along the road, of kisses that tasted like home and soft touches from coarse fingers, of passionate meetings and passionate partings. Xingchen recalls that beautiful man and recalls that he loved him. He recalls that he sought to save that man’s life and walked away in blind darkness. He recalls that he regretted nothing but the very end, when his everything was unraveled by a demon that he thought was his friend. He recalls the grief of knowing that the man he loved had died by his hand, but still he cannot remember his name.
His nameless love, who was murdered by his hand but through the machinations of a devil made flesh, who became a fierce corpse at the will of the same man who orchestrated his death. Xingchen wonders what ever happened to the corpse of his love, who had been so well heeled and under that monster’s control, bending to his whims as a witless weapon. He was hopefully destroyed as retribution for Xingchen’s stubbornness. And truthfully, that would be a far kinder fate than the torture of serving Xue Yang.
Xingchen knows all of these things, with more memories blooming forth with the passage of time. The recollections are still fragmented, foggy and windswept and elusive, but they are there. Many are hollow, missing more substance than they seem. The hollowest are often the ones that should lie closest to his heart, but the pain of missing knowledge, of his inability to remember, wears him into sorrow. His love’s forgotten name is the greatest of his failings, and it stings like betrayal, so he resolves not to think on any of it, keeping his attention on the world outside his pouch.
Still, he hardly notices that with his broken memories filtering back into his consciousness, his spirit seems more cohesive than it has since he awoke the first time with a conscious thought. It seems that he is healing, his stubbornly constant focus on the world outside his prison forcing him to leave his wounds to stitch themselves shut without his defiant interference. Slowly, he is becoming Xiao Xingchen again.
It sounds to be a fine day.
Xingchen can hear birds chirping in cheery conversation, he can hear the flapping of their wings and the tender rustle of leaves in the breeze. It sounds to be one of those fine mornings when the air is cool and fresh like the start of autumn, not yet stained with the smell of pre-winter decay. It sounds to be a morning where the sun is just a bit too bright, so warm in between the patches of shade, filtering yellow and orange and crimson through the boughs overhead. It sounds to be one of those beautiful days where one can feel at peace with the entire world, when the mind quiets and allows for happy contemplation, when the feeling of a lover’s hand in one’s own is the purest sense of accomplishment.
He finds that he misses days such as this. They always made the world seem less cruel.
Inside his pouch, Xingchen feels safe and revels in the memory of warmth, but he is suddenly startled by his protector coming to a jerking halt.
Then, a voice he does not recognize calls: “Daozhang?”
The man sounds young, but not especially youthful, as if he has lived a life tempered by too much hardship to fully embrace the vitality of youth. Still, there is an undeniable poise and kindness in his tone, and any sense of threat drains from Xingchen involuntarily. His protector, however, does not seem convinced, and Xingchen feels his pouch be pressed against his chest as he straightens and squares his shoulders. There is the sound of a fingertip against the hilt of his blade.
“Ah, daozhang. We did not mean to startle you,” the young man soothes, and there is the rustle of fine robes that suggests a respectful bow. His voice is sweet like chimes in a gentle breeze. “It has been six years since we last met, and our meeting was at such an unfortunate time, so you may not remember. I am Lan Yuan, Lan Sizhui. Son of Hanguang-Jun and Master Wei Wuxian. You are well met, daozhang.”
Xingchen is bewildered by the information. He recalls Hanguang-Jun – Lan Wangji – in a sudden rush of sensation. That tall, stately, beautiful man of stern principle and few words who was so widely respected during the Sunshot Campaign, somehow sharing parentage of a child with the Yiling Patriarch? The thought is preposterous. Wei Wuxian is dead, long since destroyed by his own derangement. But Xingchen seems to remember hearing tell of a boy taken in by Hanguang-Jun in an apparent fit of madness following the death of Wei Wuxian, when Lan Wangji was punished and confined for defying a sect that he seemed ready to tear apart with his teeth in grief. This must be that boy. Xingchen’s heart aches for Lan Wangji and his sweet-spoken child.
“Daozhang, you may remember my uncle. Wen Ning,” Lan Sizhui says.
A timid, stammering reply from another voice that must be the Ghost General follows, and Xingchen nearly misses it with the reeling of his thoughts. Wen Ning? Wei Wuxian? How much has he missed?
Wen Ning has the sort of nervous, stutteringly sweet voice that sounds as if it would belong to a long-legged colt if such creatures had means to speak. It is so different from the earth-splitting roar of the notorious Ghost General that Xingchen remembers from the years following the Sunshot Campaign, before the destruction of the Stygian Tiger Seal and the fall of Wei Wuxian. The memory and the reality before him are incredibly difficult to reconcile.
Xingchen’s protector grants a shallow bow, seemingly satisfied with the exchange of pleasantries. But there then comes the metallic scrape of the sword at his waist being unsheathed, and panic rises within Xingchen, sharp and acidic.
Yet no great lunge follows, no steely shriek of clashing blades; only the light scrape of what seems to be a sword tip against hard-packed earth. A pebble pings brightly against the blade.
Lan Sizhui hums curiously and moves closer, soft footfalls and rustling cloth signaling his approach.
“Ah,” he says, apparently still at ease. “We were passing through on our way to visit my fathers. They are taking a short respite from their travels in Yunmeng, with Sect Leader Jiang.”
A question must have been carved into the dirt, then. Xingchen calms. A fight would have been most regrettable.
There is more quiet scraping, and the sound is so similar to the scratching of a chicken in a yard that Xingchen’s mood brightens with foolish amusement. The thought is ridiculous, but he has not known humor for so long that he stubbornly refuses to abandon it. Startlingly, the feeling brings to mind a fresh memory from long ago, of a round faced woman with mischief in her eyes who would have found the observation to be hilarious beyond measure. They had trained together, on the mountain. She was his shijie, but he could not recall her name.
“Both die and baba are well and in good health. Thank you for your concern,” Lan Sizhui says with a cheery brightness that can be nothing but genuine, yet still remains well within the bounds of Lan restraint and propriety.
If the boy claims that both of his fathers are well and in Yunmeng, and that his parents are Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, Xingchen surmises that Wei Wuxian must indeed be alive. Alive, not a wasted spirit forced back into the corpse of the body that was once his own. Not like that demon had done to the man that Xingchen had loved, controlling him through some sorcery that Xingchen is afraid to consider the consequences of.
But unlike his love, Wei Wuxian’s body had been destroyed upon his death. Wei Wuxian could never have become a fierce corpse, and yet he exists, alive and apparently well. Xingchen cannot reconcile how such a thing could be possible, but he supposes that he should not be surprised. If anyone was capable of reviving themselves and returning to the land of the living, surely it would be the necromancer Wei Wuxian, the Yiling Patriarch.
Another moment of scratching, and Wen Ning shuffles closer, mumbling: “A request?”
“If I’m capable, I’ll help you however I can. Just name it, daozhang,” Lan Sizhui replies, voice gentle but determined.
After a long moment of silence that sounds too somber for the quiet raucousness of the forest around them, the sword carves into the earth once more. The request must be wordy, as the three men are silent, waiting for ages until the scratching of the blade is done.
Lan Sizhui draws in a slow breath but seems to acquiesce to whatever the request seems to be. Xingchen hears the unfurling of cloth, and the muted, accidental thrum of some stringed instrument as it removed from its coverings. Hands come to cradle his little pouch, careful not to jostle.
And then there is music. A guqin plucked with expert fingers, making the instrument sing. It is beautiful, but there are whispers in each note, ghostly words that appear within Xingchen’s understanding without his comprehension. This must be Inquiry, he realizes with a start. He has heard it before, as a living man who could only admire the quality of the song as he waited for interpretation from someone with far more knowledge of the art than he. Inquiry is the language of ghosts, and suddenly he is fluent.
What is your name? the music asks.
In his thoughts he replies, and without his bidding the notes pluck out: My name is Xiao Xingchen.
“He says he is Xiao Xingchen,” Lan Sizhui conveys automatically, and Wen Ning makes a funny little gasp of interest.
How did you die?
I died by my own hand, he answers through the music and Lan Sizhui. The fingers holding his qiankun pouch twitch before a thumb smooths apologetically against the silk. It is comforting.
Lan Sizhui begins another question, only plucking two notes before he is interrupted by Xingchen’s sudden, incomprehensible desire to ask a question of his own. The question surges up from nowhere in particular, but as soon as he asks it, he feels as if he has managed to close his fist around the end of a rope that will pull him to safety at the water’s edge.
Where is Song Lan? Where is my Zichen?
The name comes to him unbidden but settles into place like the keystone of an arch, holding together so many fragmented recollections. Song Lan. Zichen. Zichen. A name for the face in his memories, for dark hair and dark clothes and skin like moonlight. A name for whispered affections and the taste of kisses and heat, so much heat. A name for passion and devotion and so much love that he feels close to bursting.
Xingchen wishes he could weep.
Lan Sizhui gasps, plainly shocked, and Wen Ning asks what the matter is, concerned for his nephew.
“I… There’s never been a question in response before. At least, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Perhaps my die would know?” Lan Sizhui is rambling a little, obviously rattled. “The spirit is strong.”
Xingchen is jostled by a frantic movement, his pouch dropped into one of his protector’s hands. His protector leans forward, and an odd sound drifts up from the ground. It seems he is scratching questions directly into the ground with his fingers, now.
Lan Sizhui breathes deep before replying to the silent inquest, voice tight.
“He asked… ‘Where is Song Lan? Where is my Zichen?’”
Suddenly, Xingchen feels his pouch cradled close, feels the hands that hold him tremble like leaves. Those wheezing wordless sounds that he has come to cherish come fast and frantic, seemingly repeating the same stubborn mantra over and over, braced and buttressed with gasps like relief. His protector sounds desperate, a bizarre contrast to his typical stoicism, but he is writing in the earth again, and music soon follows.
I am right here. I am right here. Xingchen. Xingchen. I am right here. I am with you.
Understanding suddenly floods him, and he feels as if his heart is breaking even as it bubbles over with more happiness than he thinks he had known even in life. His Zichen, his Song Lan, his love has been protecting him since his death, and he never considered such a possibility. How could he not have known? How has he never come to this realization? Certainly Song Lan was deeply under Xue Yang’s control, but surely such repressions were not entirely impenetrable. Certainly Song Lan could have broken free.
And yet, for all this time, he has presumed that such escape was impossible. He so cruelly underestimated a man that he knows inside and out, whose strength and valor and stoic poise have held his heart in such formidable fashion for years. His doubt was such an injustice, but not nearly one so vile as his determination to erase himself from existence, to leave his qiankun pouch nothing but a useless scrap of empty cloth.
He nearly left Song Lan behind. He nearly left him alone again. It has been some time since he recalled their parting after he gave Song Lan his eyes. He remembers the shame, of being too fearful of Song Lan’s indignant anger at his gift that he simply left, abandoning Song Lan to healing in lonesome solitude. He remembers the grief, remembers the fumbling attempt of a final parting kiss as Song Lan slept deep beneath the weight of anesthetics. He remembers the pain of leaving Song Lan and can imagine Song Lan’s pain in turn. And yet, he had nearly tried to leave him once more.
The guilt is overwhelming, and all Xingchen can manage is a pitiful reply on the strings of the guqin: I’m sorry, Song Lan. I’m sorry.
No, not sorry. It’s okay, Xingchen. I’m here, comes the quick response.
Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning are cautiously quiet, diligent in their duties as interpreters, careful not to pry. But after some scratching in the dirt, Lan Sizhui breathes deep like he’s conceding something great and puts away his guqin, rising to his feet.
“I’ll take you to him, daozhang,” Lan Sizhui says, footsteps retreating.
Song Lan holds Xingchen close and follows.
The journey is long and silent and awkward. Wen Ning takes it upon himself to chatter stiltedly in his charming stammer, talking with Lan Sizhui about all manners of nonsense, asking the younger man about people whose names Xingchen does not recognize. They must be of the younger generation, he concludes, judging from the happily familiar way Lan Sizhui speaks of them.
The name Lan Jingyi means nothing to Xingchen, though it clearly means something to Lan Sizhui, considering the way his voice goes sweet and sparkling, fondly exasperated as if breathed through a smile. Perhaps they are cousins, or brothers, or friends so close that they might as well be brothers. Jin Ling is the other, and the name sounds vaguely familiar, though Xingchen cannot remember why. The memory is passing and faint, so very old. But Lan Sizhui plainly has more recent memories of this Jin Ling. His voice goes tender and so very soft when he speaks of him. It sounds as if there is something between them, perhaps a love different than that of brothers. Perhaps it is more akin to the love Xingchen once shared with Song Lan, though Lan Sizhui’s voice is so timidly affectionate that he doubts either of them understands their feelings for the other yet.
Xingchen does not know, but he mourns that closeness, wants it once again, laments that he may have lost it forever. He lost it when he left Song Lan his eyes and abandoned him on a mountainside, miraculously unblinded and healing in the care of Baoshan Sanren. Ruining Song Lan’s faith in him was agony, just as leaving him had been. But Xingchen had known that his beloved’s grief was too much for him to heal, and so he had asked his master to instead heal his body, to give Song Lan his eyes as a parting gift and an apology.
After all, it was Xingchen’s obstinate pursual of that demon Xue Yang that had resulted in the retribution that blinded Song Lan and killed the disciples of his temple. What little family Song Lan had ever had was lost because of Xingchen. Relieving Song Lan of his traitorous presence was the least he could do to repent, even if it felt as if he was tearing his heart from his chest with each heavy, stumbling step he took down that mountain and away from the love of his life.
He thought that Song Lan would never want to see him again, and yet here he is, a lingering spirit in a silken pouch cradled in the dead hands of the man he loves more than life itself, more than peace, more than reincarnation. And his heart breaks and breaks and breaks with each gentle touch, each muted whisper, because Song Lan sounds not like hatred, but like painful longing. Xingchen longs just the same, and wishes with every bit of energy in his spirit to speak freely to Song Lan again and map his face with gentle fingers.
He wishes, and spends most of their long journey dreaming in silence and listening to the world outside.
Days pass on the road, and each night Lan Sizhui is kind enough to play Inquiry so that Song Lan can speak to Xingchen. The conversations are awkward, stilted, and so unsure. They do not know what to say to each other, and they tiptoe down a cliff edge between saying too much and saying nothing at all. But Xingchen will not allow himself to ask the questions that want to badly to float free from his heart through the strings of the guqin. Not like this. Not when Song Lan will have to lay himself bare to a stranger to have himself be heard.
So Xingchen resigns himself to silence.
Until one day the world outside grows loud and raucous. Water slaps playfully against wooden timbers, carts are pushed down bumpy trodden streets, and vendors hawk their wares with voices that could rival thunder. This place is full of life, so boisterous and vivid, and Xingchen finds himself somewhat overwhelmed with the vibrancy of sound after so long in the quiet companionship of Song Lan.
Song Lan seems flustered too, as he clutches Xingchen’s pouch protectively to his chest and tries to deftly avoid the push and clamor of the street. Even in death he is terrified of the human touch and the press of the unclean masses, and Xingchen finds the soft familiarity of Song Lan is soothing to his heart.
Before long some of the volume subsides, and Lan Sizhui ceases to call politely to the people he seems to know. Xingchen hears Lan Sizhui shuffle to a stop, give a gentle greeting to someone who offers a mumbling but jovial response, and then the groaning of a heavy door splits the anticipatory quiet.
Song Lan tenses, his hand closing firm around Xingchen’s pouch, and Lan Sizhui says sweetly: “Daozhang, welcome to Lotus Pier.”
There is a long moment of stillness until Song Lan seems to sway forward onto his toes, but he pauses before taking a step to gentle his grip on Xingchen, thumb brushing apologetically against the silk. In that moment Xingchen curses his fragility, wants to rage against his imprisonment, as he wants nothing more than to curl his fingers between Song Lan’s to lend him whatever strength he has to offer, little though it may be. He does not know why Song Lan seems to feel such trepidation. He does not know why Song Lan has brought him to Lotus Pier. Xingchen finds that he knows very little, and every possible answer he can conjure to his questions seems absurd.
He knows very little, but he knows beyond any creeping shadow of a doubt that whatever the reasons may be, he trusts Song Lan.
Their little party advances, and Song Lan walks like he’s a young swordsman treading upon a fresh battlefield, stiff and uncertain. But Lan Sizhui encourages him gently, narrating as they venture deeper into the Jiang Sect compound, unnecessarily describing various buildings as if just to soothe Song Lan’s nerves. He mentions the training grounds, and Xingchen can hear the whistle and thud of arrows striking packed-straw targets, can hear the bark of a senior disciple running drills with his juniors. Xingchen imagines the place smells like sword oil and exertion, the air flavored with dust. Lan Sizhui points out the kitchens, and Xingchen recognizes the clatter of cooking pots and the laughter of servants as they rinse rice and prepare the day’s next meal. Xingchen struggles to imagine the scent of this place, but he believes with conviction that it would be the finest smell he has ever known.
After a while it grows quiet, only the patter of feet on dock boards and the occasional splash of koi striking their tails against the water’s surface, and Xingchen feels as if they have stepped into something soft and quiet, treading directly into the beating heart of Lotus Pier. It is a peaceful place, he decides, built with sturdy bones and stubborn spirit, so very like its master, Jiang Wanyin. Xingchen remembers stories of Jiang Wanyin following the Sunshot Campaign, tales of his fearsome heroism and battlefield prowess, whispers become legend of his heartless justice against the man he once called brother. It is a wonder that Lotus Pier can seem so peaceful with such a man at its helm, though Xingchen hopes that some of that peace has tempered Jiang Wanyin in the years since he rebuilt it as his own. Perhaps the watery quiet has soothed him, as it soothes Xingchen now.
Suddenly the quiet is shattered by raucous laughter, bright and ringing like bells, and Xingchen hears Lan Sizhui sigh fondly, as if the sound is comforting and familiar.
“That would be baba,” Lan Sizhui tells Song Lan cheerily, though it almost seems like an apology.
They round a corner, and a livid voice joins the laughter.
“Ah ha, Jiang Cheng,” comes the lighthearted, teasing reply that sounds as if it is given through a smug smile. “Don’t blame me for how terrible you are at weiqi. I suppose I’m simply a more cultivated gentleman than yourself, noble Sandu Shengshou.”
There is a growl, then the sound of a fist striking a wooden game board, and then the wild clattering of weiqi stones as they are uprooted and scattered to the floor.
The man who must be the infamous Wei Wuxian makes an affronted noise, and Xingchen cannot stop the thought that this was truly not what he was expecting from the greatest of calamities, the Yiling Patriarch. Wei Wuxian sounds frivolous and tricky with hidden intelligence, but inexorably kind, and Xingchen finds it difficult to reconcile what he hears with the blackened legends this man left in the wake of his passing.
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian scolds. “This set was a gift from Xichen-ge! Lan Zhan, look what he’s done! I’ll never find all the stones!”
A low, patient hum of acknowledgement is quickly chased away by the bitter voice of Jiang Wanyin spitting out a retort.
“Don’t bring Hanguang-Jun into this!”
“He’s my husband! How can I not bring him into this?”
“He’s not the one who was cheating at weiqi!”
“Cheating?! How can you cheat at weiqi? It’s not my fault that you’re an idiot!”
Lan Sizhui sighs and knocks upon the doorframe, and whatever retort that was sitting hot and acidic on Jiang Wanyin’s lips dies, and instead he barks: “What?”
“Forgive me, Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui calls politely, and Xingchen imagines that he is bowing despite being hidden by the door. “I’ve brought a guest for my fathers. I hope you will pardon my presumptuousness.”
There is a beat of silence, and then a sudden thundering of footsteps approaching before the door is slammed violently open. The start of a word is knocked from Lan Sizhui’s tongue at the impact of another body, and the young man grunts in exertion.
“A-Yuan!” Wei Wuxian cries, voice tinkling with fond happiness and laughter. “My little boy, I had no idea you were coming to see me! And Wen Ning too!”
“Hello, baba,” Lan Sizhui says sweetly. He sighs as if he is content.
“Ah, um, Master Wei. Hello, Hanguang-Jun, S-sect Leader Jiang,” Wen Ning stammers, but he seems happy.
Wei Wuxian begins to ramble, a million words spilling from his lips by the moment, but his excitement ebbs when his gaze must finally fall upon his son’s guest. Song Lan stiffens for a moment before bending into a shallow bow, and the Yiling Patriarch gasps out a surprised ah.
Wei Wuxian composes himself, his tone becoming jarringly proper.
“My apologies, daozhang. It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time, I’m glad to see you’re well.”
Xingchen is jostled by another shallow bow, but it is not enough to free him from his astonishment. Song Lan is acquainted with Wei Wuxian? When did they meet? In what capacity did they share an association? The questions bubble up like boiling water, rolling and chaotic.
“Baba,” Lan Sizhui interrupts awkwardly, his tone cautious. “Daozhang met us on the road while we were traveling in Yiling. He requested to speak to you regarding a sensitive matter. Regarding… a friend.”
A jerky movement has Xingchen pressed protectively against Song Lan’s chest, and suddenly he feels as if he is under some great scrutiny, a butterfly on a pin. For the first time, he has the urgent fear that even Song Lan cannot protect him. Not now, not from this man.
“I see,” says Wei Wuxian, and his voice has dropped low in recognition, no longer summertime bright with joy. He sounds dark, dangerous. He sounds like the Yiling Patriarch of legend.
Xingchen trembles within his pouch.
“What is all this?” Jiang Wanyin demands from within the room, clearly confused and flustered at being uninformed in his own house. “Wei Wuxian, explain yourself.”
“It’s not your concern, Jiang Cheng.”
“Bullshit. Don’t keep secrets.”
“I’ll explain later,” Wei Wuxian tells him bluntly as he begins to walk away, deeper into Lotus Pier. “Come on, Lan Zhan.”
There is a rustling of robes, silk sliding against silk, and the soft pad of feet as Lan Wangji trails after his spouse dutifully, apparently unsurprised by the abrupt turn of events.
“Follow,” Lan Wangji tells Song Lan, his voice deep and frosty like lake water in winter, and Xingchen muses that he truly is the peerless Hanguang-Jun.
Still, a nervousness like static buzzes within Xingchen’s thoughts, fueled by the sharp clench of Song Lan’s fingers. Yet Song Lan follows as instructed, and Xingchen is powerless within his pouch, prisoner to whatever intentions these men have. So he tries to settle and trusts Song Lan. He trusts and trusts and trusts.
They all settle in a quiet room so far removed from the gentle clamor of the main compound that all Xingchen can hear is the lazy slosh and splash of water beneath the floorboards. The timbers around them creak quietly in the breeze, and he imagines that the sound would be pleasant under different circumstances. Now it just sounds ominous.
Wei Wuxian sounds fond and sweet as he asks Lan Sizhui to fetch some tea and ink and paper, and then Xingchen hears his hands settle upon the tabletop that spreads out like a million miles between them. The silence is oppressively awkward, balanced on a cliff edge, a moment too fragile to breach despite resting on the cusp of a revelation. So they all remain quiet, and Xingchen swears he can hear the movements on the other side of the table, so very far away. Lan Wangji, so stoic and silent, hums gently at the hand that slides across his knee beneath the table, seeking out the touch with his own. Hearing their tender, well-worn affection makes them seem even further away, the gap between him and them so very wide, and Xingchen aches with longing for the understated love of fingers entwined.
It seems as if nothing can breach that space, but then Lan Sizhui returns, and Song Lan begins to write.
Xingchen finds himself set aside, on the table, or perhaps on the floor by Song Lan’s knee, and he misses the protective pressure of those broad hands on his pouch. But they are otherwise occupied, the soft rustle of brush on paper the only sound in the silence. Each of Song Lan’s meticulously scrawled characters grates upon Xingchen’s impatient expectation. At last, the paper is slid across the table with a sound like a snake in tall grass, waiting to strike as Wei Wuxian reads.
Wei Wuxian sighs, and the paper skitters back onto the table.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, weary. “I think I’ll need something stronger than tea.”
Lan Wangji hums and rises with an elegant rustling of robes, and Xingchen can hear the bright clinking of liquor bottles and porcelain before he dutifully returns to his husband’s side, placing the offering before Wei Wuxian with the sort of care usually only known to temple altars.
“I imagined that you would find me for this eventually,” Wei Wuxian tells Song Lan. “But you should know, I rarely tread that path any longer. I’ve developed a new core. It’s still more feeble than before, but its strong enough to keep me from resorting to that, at least.”
Xingchen sulks in his confusion as Wei Wuxian thumps his fist against his chest, presumably over his golden core. It is news to Xingchen that apparently Wei Wuxian has a new, weaker golden core. As far as he knew, before his descent into the depths of demonic cultivation, Wei Wuxian was rumored to possess an exceptionally powerful core, a once-in-a-generation exception on par with Hanguang-Jun himself. Perhaps his demonic cultivation had ruined his core. Perhaps his resurrection influenced its redevelopment. Xingchen does not know, and though he had been hoping for answers, he is only sprouting more questions.
The paper shuffles back to Song Lan, and he writes for a while before Wei Wuxian speaks once more.
“I was only successful once, twenty years ago; there’s no guarantee I could succeed again. Besides, his spirit was nearly shattered, almost nonexistent. The strain may destroy him once and for all.”
Song Lan’s scribbles sound far more frantic this time. Xingchen knows that they art talking about him, and hates that they are talking about him as if he is some problem to be dealt with. But he hates even more how much the burden of him wears on Song Lan.
“Oh?” Wei Wuxian posits, sounding more engaged in their conversation than he has thus far. “Lan Zhan, have you ever heard of such a thing? I certainly haven’t, and there’s no way A-Yuan would misinterpret a question in response.”
“He would not,” Lan Wangji confirms, unwaveringly confident in his son's ability.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian begins, “if he has the strength, then it may be possible. But strength alone means nothing. He must be able and willing. He may or may not be willing, but what about you, daozhang? Are you willing to take the risk? You may lose him forever.”
Song Lan drags the paper back to himself, but pauses for a long moment before he collects the brush and pens his reply. The characters are drawn slow and steady, the bristles whispering across the page like they are spilling all of his secrets.
When Wei Wuxian collects the paper this time, a takes a deep breath and holds it for a long, tense moment before sighing it all out through his nose, sounding defeated.
“Very well,” he concedes, and Xingchen is flustered at being in the dark, clueless. He feels like a child whose parents are speaking over his head, enforcing his ignorance.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji warns, frigid but plainly concerned.
Xingchen can hear the soothing smile in Wei Wuxian’s voice when he replies.
“Er-ge, trust me. It’ll be fine.”
Xingchen envies his confidence, and envies even more the reluctant but accepting hum that Lan Wangji grants him. He hears their hands slide together, rough from decades of sword work and guqin strings, and the sound of lips pressing against knuckles, or maybe against fingertips. He hears the soft gasp pulled between Lan Wangji’s teeth, nearly too quiet to hear. Despite the tenderness of the gesture, Xingchen’s thoughts twist up into brambles of jealousy and longing, tearing at him with bitter thorns.
He wants that. He wants Song Lan. He wants and wants and wants. But he is a prisoner to his own selfishness, a prisoner to his own weakness, a prisoner to the sting of his own blade against his throat. He abandoned Song Lan, so he truly has no right to desire so much.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian calls. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll need some things. I’ll send Wen Ning and A-Yuan out for the most of it.”
He rises to his feet in a rustle of robes, and that warm, blinding confidence has returned to his voice when he speaks again. Xingchen can hear the smile, and it sounds as if it can cut like a knife, like it can charm the gods, like it can bend mountains to pray at his feet. It sounds like the Yiling Patriarch.
“But most importantly,” Wei Wuxian says, “we’ll need a change of venue.”
That night, Xingchen listens to the quiet of the world as Song Lan shifts and squirms on his bed, playing at being human. Jiang Wanyin had sent a serving girl to escort Song Lan to a guest room, and he had dutifully performed all of the little evening rituals before sinking down against the pillow. There was no need for such things, as a fierce corpse needs neither sleep nor food by Xingchen's estimation, and yet Song Lan had done everything as expected, as if he were still alive. Xingchen had reveled in the familiarity of it all, thinking of evenings long ago when he had lain stretched out on a bed in a drafty inn, flushed bare skin pimpling against the chill as he watched Song Lan bathe, his dripping hair spilling over the edge of the wash basin like ink.
But this time he can only listen to the quiet splash, the rustling of robes. He hears Song Lan settle alone onto his pallet while Xingchen sits on a side table in the cold void of his qiankun pouch, thinking back on the achy creak of so many beds as Song Lan leant down to taste his lips.
The short distance between them feels like the breadth of nations, and loneliness sinks dark and heavy into Xingchen's thoughts. He sits and listens to Song Lan's tossing and turning, his uneasy restlessness in the face of what he's lost, in the face of his lost mortality. If only he could reach over, ease his discomfort and drag his mind from nighttime expectations, distracting him with far more pleasant occupation.
He listens for what seems like long hours, sulking in his uselessness, until the sound of Song Lan rising from the bed captures his attention with urgency. Song Lan shrugs on an outer robe with a soft rustle of cloth before walking towards the door. He pauses for a moment in the doorway, but soon returns to the table to collect Xingchen. The gesture warms Xingchen like sunshine and eases the knotty weight of his loneliness.
Together, they venture out into the nighttime quiet of Lotus Pier.
The docks among the pavilions are long and winding and empty, silent in anticipation of the storm that is calling its warning in the distance. Raindrops slap against the surface of the water sprawling out beneath the compound, thudding against lily pads and knocking against the heads of lotus flowers. Song Lan holds him close, protecting, and hurries beneath the broad eaves to hide him from the burgeoning downpour. Gentle fingers wipe the water from the silk of Xingchen’s pouch, but pause as a pair of voices drifts from within a nearby room.
“Wei Ying, please.”
There is a rustle of robes and a sigh.
“Lan Zhan, my love, my husband,” Wei Wuxian’s voice is soft and sultry, sliding like silk through the thin paper of the doors, and Xingchen fears that they have stumbled into something far too intimate.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji warns, and Wei Wuxian quickly drops the pretense with a sigh, sounding so weary and pleading and impossibly soft.
“Lan Zhan, you know I have to do this. I want to do this.”
“It’s dangerous, Wei Ying.”
“I’ve done it before.”
“Once, yes. But I remember the strain it put you under, even at the height of your power.”
Wei Wuxian huffs, and Xingchen hears the press of a chaste, tender kiss. It makes some constricting feeling twist around him, and he imagines it would taste like longing.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, careful and so very tender as if whispered against his spouse’s lips. “Think if you had never been able to see me again.”
Lan Wangji sucks in a wounded breath, followed by the sound of fists closing desperately into robes. Xingchen imagines Lan Wangji clutching Wei Wuxian close, imagines the intimacy of shared breaths, of words pressed into kisses. He imagines, and longs.
“Lan Zhan, think if you had been so close as they are now. Think if during all those years you played Inquiry, my spirit had fluttered back to you but you could never hold me in your arms. Imagine if I was only here to haunt you.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji sounds broken.
“That’s why I need to do this, Lan Zhan.”
There’s a rustle of bodies pressing close, of lips against lips, growing heated and slick. Eventually things still once again, and Lan Wangji heaves a long sigh, sounding as if it is pulled from him by force.
“I…” Lan Wangji begins, low voice uncertain. “I just don’t want to lose you, Wei Ying. Not again.”
“You won’t, my love. I know you’re afraid, but this time you’ll be with me. I won’t leave you again.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes, starting to sound riled and passionate.
Xingchen reels from the conversation, suspecting but refusing to acknowledge the possibilities suggested by the overheard discussion. He feels as if he has been intruding, a voyeur, but there is the edge of a revelation in the things he has heard, even if he is too hurt by the sorrowful longing in Hanguang-Jun’s voice to explore it too deeply. The sadness there feels like it should be respected.
Song Lan has scarcely moved, but a sweet moan from Wei Wuxian jolts him into action. He clutches Xingchen to his chest and retreats back to his rooms.