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every story has a price

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Today, Lan Wangji is playing a song Wei Wuxian has never heard. It’s soft, melancholic, full of longing notes that ring through the Jingshi and linger in the air. Notes that slip past Wei Wuxian’s carefully crafted defenses, notes that slide between his ribs and curl around his heart, notes that do not hide the aching, the pain, with which they were composed. There are tears on the strings of Lan Wangji’s guqin, glistening in the golden lantern light, and yet the song continues.

Wei Wuxian’s cheeks are wet, too. The inspiration for this song is unmistakable. “Did you ever wonder where I was during those thirteen years?”

“Every day.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile is soft — a little wavery and a lot watery — though Lan Wangji cannot see it with his face turned down toward his guqin. “Would you like to find out?”

Lan Wangji misses a note; he keeps playing. “Would that be wise?”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, no need to worry! It’ll be safe, I promise. No death or dying will be involved.” Wei Wuxian stands and makes his way over to Lan Wangji and his guqin, then kneels before it. He lowers his voice. “There are people I would like you to meet. Friends.”

“Ghosts?” Lan Wangji’s fingers pause their melancholic dance across the strings of his guqin. He plays the first note of Inquiry, letting it hang in the air between him and Wei Wuxian.

“Of a sort,” Wei Wuxian admits. “Though I don’t believe they’d answer your call. They’re finicky. Particular.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, “if you would like to visit, then I would be honored to accompany you.”

***

There’s a shrine in the back hills of Gusu. It’s tucked away in a grove near the cold springs, but the path has grown over with flowering bushes and all sorts of undergrowth.

As a student disciple, Wei Wuxian had stumbled across the abandoned shrine during one of his many adventures through the wilds of Gusu. It had captured his attention immediately — the quaint stature of it, the carefully and lovingly crafted wooden door, the blossoming flowers all around.

What matters is you, and not the state of you had been carved over the entrance. In Yiling, when he had been stuck in the Burial Mounds, he had often turned that quote over and over and over in his head. When he died, he had met the person who wrote it.

***

Wei Wuxian stands hand in hand with Lan Wangji outside of the shrine. Without Wei Wuxian’s constant care, it’s fallen back into disrepair; flowers still bloom all around, but they’re stem-to-stem with weeds and tall grasses that overrun the path. In contrast, the writing above the door remains as perfect as ever.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, squeezing Lan Wangji’s hand. “Have you ever been here?”

“I have not.” He squeezes Wei Wuxian’s hand back. “I take it you have?”

“Mn. As a student, I stumbled across this shrine while…” Wei Wuxian pauses and turns his head to face Lan Wangji. “Wait. Is there a statute of limitations to breaking the rules?”

Lan Wangji’s amused huff is breathtaking. His smile? Even more so. “Wei Ying, I believe I could find it in my heart to forgive you for your past transgressions.”

Wei Wuxian breathes out an exaggerated breath of relief. “Thank the gods.” He tugs Lan Wangji forward, stepping over weeds and brilliant white flowers, and pushes the door to the shrine open. “I stumbled across this shrine while running away from the cold springs,” he admits, “where I may or may not have seen you bathing. I wasn’t peeking, though! It’s not my fault you had your glorious pecs all out and shining in the moonlight.”

“Ah,” Lan Wangji says. “Yes, that was my fault.”

Wei Wuxian laughs, stepping over a wayward branch. He stops in front of the altar, Lan Wangji right next to him. “I’m not sure if this will work. I didn’t meet them until after I had died.”

“It will not hurt to try.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan. Always so wise. You’re right.” Wei Wuxian reaches his free hand into his robes and pulls out a flower. Like the ones outside the shrine, its delicate petals are a soft white. He places it on the outstretched hand of Xie Lian’s figurine.

Then, he raises his gaze and fixes it upon the mural carved into the wall. Tucked into the bottom left corner of the wall is the carving of a skeletal fish. He crouches, momentarily letting go of Lan Wangji’s hand, and gently presses it in. The fish sinks into the wall, then pops back, swinging forward and revealing a hidden compartment. Wei Wuxian reaches into his robes again and pulls out a couple of fish bones, which he places gingerly inside before pressing the fish carving back into place.

He stands and takes Lan Wangji’s hand once more. “That outta do it. Hopefully.”

“Little Red, I am shocked and outraged at the distinctive lack of gifts for me.”

“Are you, though?” Wei Wuxian spins around, laughing in delight at the sight of Hua Cheng in the doorway, draped in red and silver. Xie Lian waves from his spot next to him. He Xuan lingers in the back, not making eye contact. “Hua Chengzhu, Crimson Rain, have you missed me?”

“Not particularly.”

“He won’t admit it,” Xie Lian says, “but he’s taken to learning how to play the flute.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “You do miss me! I knew it! You can’t hide things like that from me, Hua Cheng. Little Red knows best.”

“Little Red can learn to be quiet before I descend again.”

“More time for me to introduce my handsome and amazing husband to Xie Lian and He Xuan, then.” Wei Wuxian squeezes Lan Wangji’s hand. “Lan Zhan, this is Xie Lian,” he says, gesturing to the god in white, bamboo hat on his back. He gestures to the demon in black behind Xie Lian and Hua Cheng. “And that’s He Xuan, Black Water Sinking Ships. He lost a bet to me last time we were together so that’s why he’s refusing to make eye contact.”

“I don’t know what you’re referring to,” He Xuan says, petulant, as he stares at the wall behind Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.

Hua Cheng snorts.

Lan Wangji dips his head in acknowledgement. “It is nice to meet Wei Ying’s friends.”

“Lan Zhan, if you’d like to know what I was up to during those thirteen years, well, you can ask them! I’m sure they have plenty of stories to share.”

Hua Cheng raises an eyebrow. “Is that why you summoned us, Little Red? To regale your trouble-making tendencies to your lover?”

Wei Wuxian rubs the back of his neck. “That sounds about right.”

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Lan Wangji says, then. “I would love to hear stories of Wei Ying’s time with you.”

“Oh, we have plenty of stories.” Xie Lian’s smile is brilliant and teasing. “But there’s a price you have to pay for each one. Is that alright with you, Young Master Lan?”

“Price?” Wei Wuxian frowns. “Aren’t they my stories?”

“Whatever the price is, I will pay it.”

“Lan Zhan, that’s terribly romantic of you. So romantic. I’d kiss you right now if I didn’t think Hua Cheng would turn me into a swarm of butterflies. But are you sure? Their prices are weird.”

“A game of dice,” Hua Cheng says. “That’s the price. If you win, we will tell one of Wei Wuxian's stories. If you lose, you will tell us one of yours.”

“I will play.”