Looking down at the letter in his hand, Lan Wangji reread it for the twelfth time, as though he might glean something new from the words this time around.
Lan Zhan! Hello again. I hope you’re doing all right still and no one’s giving you too much trouble. I bet they’re all too scared to try, haha. How is your brother? Jin Ling sends his regards. Well, he didn’t say that, but he should’ve, so I’m saying it for him. Remember to be nice. I know he’s a brat but he’s still my nephew.
I’m in Qishan heading for Ganzi Village - something about a ghost bothering people there. I was hoping I might run into A-Yuan or Wen Ning, but so far no luck.
Say hi to the bunnies for me! Wei Ying.
Lan Wangji set the paper down. It wasn’t so different from the other letters he’d received over the weeks and months. Perfectly innocuous, on the face of it - ordinary, even mundane. The only thing that stood out about it was the fact that it was the last one he’d received.
It had been nearly three weeks, now. Three weeks of ever-growing fear that he struggled to control, that had driven him to Ganzi Village where it seemed Wei Ying had never gone, that had him sleepless and pacing and irritable, struggling to manage himself and maintain his discipline.
Do not crowd him, he told himself for a while. Maybe a letter was lost. Maybe he is distracted.
Maybe he has decided to leave you behind for good, came the dark murmur, but he would not believe that, not of Wei Ying. If only that didn’t leave the darkest thought of all:
Something has happened to him. He is in danger. He is hurt. He is-
No. He would not finish that thought.
Lan Wangji went to speak to his brother.
It was not something he did lightly. Lan Wangji did not wholly approve of Xichen’s seclusion, but nor did he think it was his place to interrupt it - at least not more than was necessary, to bring him food and supplies, as well as once weekly to speak for a short time, as Xichen had done for him during his three years in the Cold Springs Cave. Even that was probably more than Xichen would have allowed himself, but Lan Wangji had not asked, and Xichen had not objected.
It was a fine balance to strike, between respecting his brother’s grief and need for reflection and the danger of losing Xichen to himself. Lan Wangji hoped he had been managing to hold it, but he might be about to throw that balance entirely.
He sat down across from Xichen, taking a moment to absorb his appearance - still pale, his cheeks too thin, but he did not seem to have lost more weight, and his eyes were not so dull as they had been at the start. Without his hairpiece, though, and in simple robes, he looked somehow diminished in a way that made Lan Wangji’s chest ache.
“It isn’t your usual day to visit,” Xichen said quietly.
“No.” Lan Wangji poured them both tea, slowly.
“You are worried,” Xichen said. Lan Wangji dipped his chin a fraction, and concern rippled across his brother’s smooth brow.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said slowly, I am here to make a request.”
Xichen studied him. As long as Lan Wangji could remember, his elder brother had been as a still pond with a warm breeze. That stillness had been disturbed now, muddied, and the breeze had gone quiet. But Xichen was yet here. Was yet speaking, a half a year on, and that was not something Lan Wangji took lightly either.
“A request,” Xichen said. “Of me?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “I am asking if you would leave your seclusion.”
Xichen’s quick inhale was quiet, but not so quiet Lan Wangji didn’t hear it. “Wangji,” he said, mild but pained.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said, standing quickly and bowing, and then paused to gather his words. “It need not be permanent. I must go. Gusu Lan Sect needs someone here while I am away. I know what I am asking. But...”
“Sit,” Xichen said. He sounded exhausted. “Is it Wei-gongzi?”
Lan Wangji held where he was a moment longer before he sat again. “Yes.”
The exhaustion deepened. “Tell me.”
“Wei Ying hasn’t written in several weeks,” Lan Wangji said. “Something is wrong.”
Xichen didn’t ask if he was sure. He didn’t answer immediately, either. At length, he said, “it has not even been a year.”
Xichen’s shoulders fell and he closed his eyes. “Where will you go?”
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji began.
He felt a pang. “Qishan. To begin.”
“You should not go alone.”
Lan Wangji pressed his lips together. “I do not want to trouble Wen Qionglin and Sizhui.”
“I doubt they would consider it trouble.”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “No.”
“Then ask someone else.” He said nothing, and Xichen set down the cup he’d been holding without drinking and leaned slightly forward. “Wangji. You have made your request. This is mine. I watched you throw yourself into danger for sixteen years. And now-”
He paused. For a moment his face was an agony of expression; Lan Wangji looked away to give him a chance to bring it back under control.
“Do not go alone.”
He could not refuse. Not when he had just asked Xichen to make such a sacrifice on his behalf. It was a small thing, a reasonable one, and his brother had every right to ask.
He nodded. Xichen closed his eyes again, some tension leaving his body. “I will do it, then,” he said. Lan Wangji stood again, bowing low.
“Thank you, Xiongzhang,” he said. Xichen’s smile was weak and tired, a shadow of its former self.
“How long do I have?”
Lan Wangji hesitated. He itched to leave quickly, at once, but- “Will two days suffice?”
“If it must.” Xichen stood slowly. “But in that case I must ask…”
“I will take my leave.” Lan Wangji paused, searching for the right words again, wishing they came more easily; that he might better have the ability to say to his brother what he was thinking. “Xiongzhang…”
“I know,” Xichen said after a moment. “Thank you, Wangji.”
He bowed once more before leaving. He had agreed not to go alone, but he had meant it when he’d said he did not want to bring Wen Qionglin or Sizhui into this, at least not yet. He searched his mind for others he could ask, who would help him, who would help Wei Ying. Jin Ling was far too young. He had no interest in going to Nie Huaisang, and even if he’d known how to find Song Lan he did not think he could make that request.
The arrows of his thoughts were pointing in one direction. It was not a direction he liked. But he wasn’t seeing another.
Lan Wangji tried to avoid harboring hatreds, but he was not immune to them. Most of the others he had held the feeling for were gone now; this one wasn’t.
It looked as though he was going to Yunmeng.
Jiang Wanyin did not refuse. Lan Wangji was almost disappointed, even though his doing so would likely have meant going to interrupt Sizhui’s travels. For a short time as he drew near Lotus Pier he had entertained the wild idea that Wei Ying might be there - that perhaps he’d gone wandering to his old home from Qishan and Jiang Wanyin had pounced on him there.
He had not, and Jiang Wanyin agreed to go with him, though perhaps only out of shame. If that was it, as far as Lan Wangji was concerned it was deserved. He had the gall to act as though it was Lan Wangji’s fault that Wei Ying might have come to harm. As though he should have chained him, caged him-
You haven’t been keeping him on a collar and lead in the Cloud Recesses?
He thought back to that day, watching Wei Ying walk away, Lan Wangji’s heart following after him. How often since he had worried and wondered and held his breath between letters, each one a relief.
But it would have been worse, he reminded himself again and again, to watch him diminish in captivity, his wild spirit trapped, confined. Wei Ying wanted to wander. He deserved that freedom.
Wei Wuxian’s self preservation instincts could fit in a thimble. A small thimble.
Jiang Wanyin had no right to criticize. Jiang Wanyin had abandoned Wei Ying, walked away from him, and if Wei Ying had never said as much to Lan Wangji, he knew there was still a part of him that ached for the loss.
He doesn’t deserve it, Lan Wangji would have said. He doesn’t deserve you.
He suspected Wei Ying would not appreciate the sentiment.
Well, now he was stuck with Jiang Wanyin. At least he didn’t have to talk to him more than was absolutely necessary.
Or at least, that was the plan.
His ears were ringing.
His ears were ringing, and his fists were clenched in his robes, and the back of his neck was hot, and his heart was racing.
He was angry. Furious. He should not be, he needed to control himself, to calm himself, but every time he tried there was Jiang Wanyin’s voice echoing in his ears.
What help did you give, Hanguang-jun? What use were you?
They might’ve listened to you.
He was my brother first.
The words hit like hammer blows. Lan Wangji wanted, desperately, to charge after Jiang Wanyin and do - something drastic and unfortunate. He wouldn’t - he had enough control over himself for that - but he still wanted to, and the want itself was a problem he needed to master.
What help did you give, Hanguang-jun?
Everything he had said was intended to cut. Lan Wangji remembered Wei Ying saying he’s been this way ever since he was a child, saying whatever as long as it hurt. But if before his calculated words had failed to strike home, this time-
Jiang Wanyin was right. Lan Wangji knew that. He had known it kneeling on the ground as his skin broke under the whip, and for three years in the Cold Spring Pool, and for thirteen after that. In the regret he carried under his heart like a stone.
What use were you?
Not enough. None.
You failed him.
(You’re failing him again, now. Look at you. He’s gone, you don’t know where, you don’t know what happened, he could be-)
He jerked away from that thought, hard, before it finished. The anger had evaporated, though, leaving behind only the weight of self-reproach. He could have done more. He should have done more. They might have listened to you, and he had said nothing.
He should have been there, standing with Wei Ying, all along, and that he’d done it on the steps of Koi Tower was too late.
Lan Wangji forced his hands to open and filled his lungs, holding his breath until it cooled before letting it back out. His anger did no good. His regret did no good. The only thing he could do was concern himself with the present, the here and now.
He was my brother first.
Yes, Lan Wangji thought, and you gave him up.
The door slammed open, and he looked up, stiffening, one hand half going for Bichen. It was only Jiang Wanyin, though, his face a stormcloud, looking as though he was ready to start a duel right here, and Lan Wangji almost thought he would indulge him.
“I found something,” he said, trembling fury in his voice.
“What is it?” Lan Wangji asked, snapping to attention, all his anger forgotten; it was the fear that surged, because something could mean anything, could mean-
“He was here. Some people - cultivators, probably - took him north.”
He froze. Took him. At once his heart leapt - it was word, it was a trail to follow - and in the next moment plunged. His dread took concrete form at last, now undeniable. Someone had come for Wei Ying. They had taken him. They had probably hurt him.
He had allowed himself to think there might be other possibilities, but this…
The world had hated Wei Ying for a long time. Minds changed slowly, if they changed at all. He had let Wei Ying go forth, alone, just as he had let him stand alone all those years ago, and back then where had it ended, where had his single log bridge road ended?
His throat closed. No, he told himself again. Not this time. Not this time.
It was occurring to Lan Wangji that he did not understand Jiang Wanyin.
This was not a wholly new realization. He had always found Jiang Wanyin utterly incomprehensible. But he was discovering even more ways ihat was true. He was cruel. He was capricious, and irrational, and full of bitter anger that seemed to overwhelm any hypothetical virtue he might have.
He had acted, again and again, in ways that caused Wei Ying harm, that had led to his death, and even after his return he had continued to treat him coldly at best and more often with open, violent hostility.
He was also, Lan Wangji could allow, seemingly genuinely concerned about him. In his snapping and snarling Lan Wangji thought he saw, at least sometimes, a hint of worry.
It wasn’t enough. Could not be enough. Jiang Wanyin could harbor whatever feelings he wished, but until he bothered to actually demonstrate them in some meaningful way, as far as Lan Wangji was concerned, he did not deserve any credit for them.
“How could you let him leave?”
Jiang Wanyin’s voice shattered the privacy of his thoughts. His voice, and the accusation that was thick in it. Lan Wangji’s stomach twisted.
“I told you,” he said flatly. “Wei Ying said he wanted to go. I was honoring his wishes.”
Jiang Wanyin’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Fuck his wishes,” he said, vicious and ugly. “When have Wei Wuxian’s wishes gotten him anywhere good?”
Lan Wangji said nothing. It seemed suddenly that there was nothing he could say.
“I’m right,” Jiang Wanyin said, as though he’d argued. “You know I’m right. If you’d asked, he’d’ve stayed.”
Lan Wangji knew the truth of that. He almost had, too. Had almost raised his voice to say Wei Ying...come back to Gusu with me. But he had clamped his lips together and held it in, because he did not want to be the chain holding Wei Ying back. Did not want to be the walls penning him in. He would stay, if Lan Wangji had asked, but that did not mean he would want to.
He did not decide to speak, but the words spilled from him like water. “I know.”
“If you had just - what?” Jiang Wanyin cut off abruptly, looking stunned. Lan Wangji did not meet his eyes, keeping his gaze focused on the fire instead.
“I know,” he said, more deliberately this time. “If I had said...I didn’t.”
None of this was anything Jiang Wanyin needed to know. None of it was anything he deserved to hear. But there was something to saying it anyway. Perhaps because of that hint of worry, or the anger in Jiang Wanyin’s voice that echoed his own at himself, because he had known, he had known there was risk but he had said nothing.
All his reasons for letting Wei Ying go seemed so thin now, where they had seemed so necessary before.
What if Wei Ying had been waiting for him to ask? What if, just as he had been waiting for Jiang Wanyin’s permission, he had been waiting for Lan Wangji’s invitation, and he had simply been too hesitant to ask, and now the cost-
No. He will be safe, if not unharmed. He will be there. And this time you will take him home, and if he wants to leave he will not go alone.
Jiang Wanyin was giving him a strange look. Somewhere between anger and anguish, and Lan Wangji felt a startling twist of pity, in the same way he had earlier after the trap that had drained their spiritual energy. When Jiang Wanyin had been on the verge of panic, frozen in place. Not sympathy, but some pity.
All that matters is getting to the bastards that took him, Jiang Wanyin said, gathering himself, and on that, at least, they could agree.
Lan Wangji didn’t take a full breath until he was kneeling next to Wei Ying’s prone body and felt his breath, his pulse, both weak but steady enough. He was alive, alive if not well, alive if not whole, and he was dizzy with the relief.
He had not let himself consider any other outcome, but now that he was here the possibility loomed up like a hungry ghost. He could have died. You could have come here and found only his body, or they could have cut his throat in front of you and you would have been here to watch his life spill out into the dirt and then he would be gone, again.
The air left his lungs. He reeled, on the edge of panic, and forced himself to focus and begin transferring spiritual energy into Wei Ying’s limp body, something to sustain him until they reached the Cloud Recesses and a physician could see him.
He saw Jiang Wanyin move forward out of the corner of his eye, taking one step toward them, Sandu still unsheathed. He moved without thinking to put himself between him and Wei Ying, some instinctive part of him remembering another place, another time, Jiang Wanyin approaching with bared blade.
Stay away from him, he almost snapped, but held it back, keeping his eyes on Wei Ying’s face. He needed to keep him safe, and Jiang Wanyin wasn’t safe.
They couldn’t stay here in this place of blood and death. He needed to get away from here. Somewhere safe, where no one could touch him, hurt him any more than he already had been. He paused the energy transfer and moved to gather Wei Ying in his arms and carry him home. He felt too light, and too fragile. Vulnerable.
Lan Wangji’s heart was still racing, the fear he had been holding at bay consuming him.
“Lotus Pier has physicians,” Jiang Wanyin said, and Lan Wangji turned toward him, nearly incredulous. On the verge of saying something harsh. Perhaps as simple as you said you were done. Or, more likely, do you think I would trust you with him?
In the end, he only said, “I can manage from here.”
Go back to Yunmeng. You are done with me and Wei Ying; I am done with you.
Wei Ying was going to be fine.
That was the thing that Lan Wangji needed to focus on. He was going to be fine. It would take him time to recover, and he was sorely in need of rest, weakened from his ordeal, and Lan Wangji knew the physical damage would not be the end of it. But he would be fine.
Some part of him seemed unwilling to absorb that.
Wei Ying was sleeping now, his breathing slower and deeper than it had been, wounds bandaged, but Lan Wangji could not - would not - move away from him. He sat close by, eyes fixed on his face, feeling as though to look away was to risk him vanishing.
Xichen’s voice. “Yes,” he said, and heard his brother approach, though he didn’t rise to greet him. Xichen drew up to stand next to him, looking down at Wei Ying’s sleeping form.
“You found him,” he said.
“It took too long.”
“The physician tells me that he will heal.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. He turned his head, reluctantly, to look at his brother. “Are you well?” he asked, aware that it was belated.
“I will not complain.” Xichen’s voice remained gentle, but there was a finality to the words that closed the door to further questioning. “I understand you went to Lotus Pier.”
Lan Wangji felt a frown starting, and controlled it. “Yes.”
“Sect Leader Jiang accompanied you, then?”
“Reluctantly.” His voice sounded faintly sour.
“He did not wish to return here with you and Wei-gongzi?”
“No,” Lan Wangji said. “He did not.” Though even as he said it, a part of him twinged. It was not a lie, exactly, but it wasn’t a whole truth either. Jiang Wanyin hadn’t asked, certainly. Had made no indication of a desire to join them. But he thought perhaps the wish had been there, submerged.
‘Submerged,’ Lan Wangji reminded himself, was not enough.
“Hm,” Xichen said. After a moment, he added, “your word will be needed on some matters, when you can come.”
I will not leave him here alone. Lan Wangji held his tongue but did not move, turning his gaze back to Wei Ying.
“I understand,” Lan Wangji said. “Not now.”
Xichen didn’t answer, but Lan Wangji could hear the disapproval in his silence. I can’t, he couldn’t say. Not now, it was so close, Xiongzhang, so close, there was a knife, there was blood, I can’t lose him again, I can’t leave yet.
“Was I wrong,” he said.
“About what?” Xichen asked.
“To let Wei Ying go. To let him leave.”
“That is not my question to answer.”
Lan Wangji knew that. But he had still wanted an answer nonetheless.
Wei Ying stirred, murmuring something in his sleep, and Lan Wangji leaned forward, his breath catching. Xichen smiled very faintly, though it didn’t entirely touch his eyes.
“We’ll speak further later,” he said, and left, closing the door quietly behind him. Wei Ying’s eyes opened, just barely, a sliver of color visible.
“Lan Zhan?” he said, voice raspy and weak, and the breath shuddered out of him.
“Wei Ying,” he said. “I am here.”
“Hmm.” He sounded drowsy, bleary, but not as though he was in pain, at least not at the moment. That was good, that was...good. “Where’s...here?”
“The Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said. “The Jingshi. I brought you back.” There was a lump in his throat. “You are safe.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying’s face scrunched up and then relaxed, his eyes opening a little further. “I remember…” he trailed off, and shuddered. It was a slight moment, but it was enough to leave Lan Wangji cold, especially when he quickly moved on to say, “this is much better than the last place I was sleeping, ha.”
He could not laugh, and did not smile. Just looked at him, hungry, hurting, the fear still nestled inside him, claws sunk into his lungs.
“Stay,” he said abruptly. Wei Ying blinked.
“I...don’t think I’m going to be going very far right now, Lan Zhan. Even if I tried.”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “Not now.”
“With me,” he said. The words were harder than they should have been, but then, asking for the things he wanted never had been easy. “If you want to wander, I will wander with you. But you should have…”
A sanctuary. A home. A shelter from the world that wants to hurt you.
“Wei Ying,” he said.
Wei Ying still looked blurry, a little dazed, and maybe he should have waited. He could feel his ears getting warm and felt a bit of the old urge to get up and leave, but it was not half as strong as the urge to stay right where he was.
“Your uncle’s going to pitch a fit,” Wei Ying said. Lan Wangji felt his mouth tighten but said nothing. After a moment Wei Ying started to push himself up on his elbows, pain showing at the corners of his eyes; Lan Wangji frowned at him and he slumped back down. “Lan Zhan,” he said, with perfect seriousness, “are you sure?”
I can’t lose you. I couldn’t bear it. He nodded.
“Then yeah,” Wei Ying said, almost a sigh. “I’ll stay.” Like it was the simplest thing. Like maybe he’d just been waiting for Lan Wangji to ask.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he said. Wei Ying’s eyebrows pulled a little together with sudden, transparent worry.
“What’d he do?”
Lan Wangji wrestled with himself. He did not want to. Selfishly - if Wei Ying did not remember, perhaps he needn’t say. It might be kinder. He did not want to give Wei Ying hope, when Jiang Wanyin had made abundantly clear that he had no intention of extending a hand.
“He came with me,” he said. “To find you.” He added after a moment, “at my request.”
Wei Ying’s surprise ached. “Oh,” he said. “Really?”
For another few moments, Lan Wangji struggled against conflicting urges. At length he said, “I believe he was concerned.”
“Huh,” Wei Ying said. There was something fragile in his eyes, though it vanished after only a moment. “I hope he wasn’t nasty to you, Lan Zhan.”
They might’ve listened to you, if you’d spoken up more.
He shook his head slowly. Wei Ying frowned at him like he suspected something,
“Let me play for you,” Lan Wangji said. The frown faded in favor of a small and eggshell-seeming smile.
“Sure, Lan Zhan,” he said. “That sounds nice. But you don’t need to look so worried. This is nothing, really.”
He shook his head. “Not nothing.” Wei Ying opened his mouth, and Lan Wangji leveled him with a frown. “Don’t argue,” he said. “Let me play for you.”
“Bossy,” Wei Ying groused, but he seemed to let it go. Lan Wangji brought out the guqin and laid his fingers to the strings.
He’d barely played six notes before Wei Ying was asleep again, but he didn’t stop, letting the music carry him, center him, as he sat and watched over the piece of his soul that lived outside of him.
Of course Jiang Wanyin could not leave well enough alone.
He was here, standing outside the Jingshi, voice raised in righteous indignation, and he’d woken Wei Ying from his rest. Worse, woken him to a state of wide-eyed alarm that had him starting up from the bed before Lan Wangji pushed him gently back down.
“It is only Jiang Wanyin,” he said.
Wei Ying looked confused. “What?”
“I’ll send him away,” Lan Wangji said. “Close your eyes. Rest.”
“Wait,” Wei Ying said, but Lan Wangji was already standing and walking - deliberately slowly - toward the door. He hesitated, almost reaching for Bichen, but decided that was probably unnecessary.
He stepped outside and closed the door firmly behind him. Jiang Wanyin stared at him with his usual expression of frustrated anger, jaw set, eyes narrowed.
“Why are you here,” Lan Wangji said. It was not polite. He hoped his voice carried the even less polite leave now, or I will make you.
Jiang Wanyin’s mouth twisted. “Why do you think.”
“I couldn’t say,” Lan Wangji said. He was not going to tolerate Jiang Wanyin’s half-hearted side-stepping. The other man looked as though he was about to snarl.
“Not to talk to you, that’s for damn sure,” he said. Lan Wangji’s temper stretched, threatening to snap. He wanted Jiang Wanyin gone, before he did more damage than he already had. He was too aware of Wei Ying inside, wounded and vulnerable, and this man with too many ways to hurt him further, and he would not need Sandu or Zidian to do it.
“What are you,” Jiang Wanyin sneered, “Wei Wuxian’s bodyguard?”
Lan Wangji raised his chin and said, clear and hard, “if I have to be.”
I will protect him from you. From everyone. From the world, if I have to, but I can start with you, Jiang Wanyin.
“Lan Zhan,” he heard behind him, and pivoted sharply around. Wei Ying was out of bed, and standing, though he looked as though he might not stay that way for long. As though a stiff breeze - or a harsh word - might knock him over. He smiled, a little, and then turned his eyes to Jiang Cheng and said, “no shouting in the Cloud Recesses.”
Jiang Wanyin looked stunned. He was staring at Wei Ying with a strange look on his face; the anger, for once, had left.
“You look terrible,” he said, and Lan Wangji glanced toward him, irritation flaring up. What sort of thing was that to say-
“Ai-ya,” Wei Ying said, his voice mournful. “Do I really? Lan Zhan, why didn’t you tell me?”
Lan Wangji frowned at him. “Lie down.”
“If I move I’ll fall over,” Wei Ying said, as though that was a perfectly sensible reason, when as far as Lan Wangji was concerned it just meant he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed in the first place. He’d only done so for Jiang Wanyin, clearly. Because he’d felt the need to - what, step in the middle?
Who did he think he was defending? Lan Wangji didn’t need it. Jiang Wanyin didn’t deserve it.
“Wei Ying,” he said, not quite pleading.
“I hope you’re not being mean to Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying said. “I know he was shouting, but he can’t help it. That’s just what his voice does.”
You’re defending him, Lan Wangji thought, not quite incredulous. You’re defending Jiang Wanyin. From me.
He didn’t have time to dwell on that, because whatever store of will had been holding Wei Ying up gave out, and he began to collapse. Lan Wangji caught him almost instinctively, and his heart lurched when Wei Ying gave him a smile like he’d expected it.
He didn’t want Jiang Cheng to come in. Fully intended to bring Wei Ying inside and shut the door in his face, but Wei Ying spoke up and Lan Wangji could hear in his voice that he wanted Jiang Wanyin there. And if he tried to close the door on him now, he would probably just start shouting again.
He took a deep breath. “Shut the door behind you,” he said flatly, focusing most of his attention on Wei Ying, who was trying to tell him that he didn’t need to lie down, that he was fine, that he was worrying too much-
“Stop arguing with him,” Jiang Wanyin snapped, his voice cutting abruptly across Wei Ying’s. “You just about fell over a second ago. Stay put or I’ll break your legs and you won’t have a choice.”
Threat, Lan Wangji’s mind blared, and he turned his head to fix his gaze on Jiang Wanyin and say if you touch him I will remove your hand.
Wei Wuxian’s near wail of despair cut him off, and his heart skipped, but the look on Wei Ying’s face was not of pain or of fear, but the pitiful expression Lan Wangji knew was anything but serious. “You’re on his side now?” he said to Jiang Wanyin, in a tone of utmost betrayal. “The two of you are ganging up on me?”
Thrown, Lan Wangji said automatically, “no one is ganging up on you.” Certainly he was not with Jiang Wanyin.
“Are so. Look at you. Even making the same face.”
Lan Wangji turned sharply back toward Jiang Wanyin. He looked shocked, and a little appalled. Lan Wangji was quite certain that was not the expression he was making.
Then Wei Ying started laughing. Weakly, and he stopped almost immediately, but something released in Lan Wangji’s chest - a tension he’d been holding without realizing it. He hadn’t heard Wei Ying laugh in what felt like an eternity. Hearing it now…
It was good. Even if he faded fast, after that.
Lan Wangji did not tell Jiang Wanyin to go. He checked Wei Ying’s breath, the flow of his qi, the beat of his heart.
He could see what Wei Ying had done. Quickly, and naturally, and seemingly instinctively.
Jiang Wanyin did not deserve Wei Ying’s love, or his care, or his protection. But he had it just the same.
He stood, slowly.
“Why are you here,” he asked, once more.
Jiang Wanyin was silent for what seemed like a long time. Say it, Lan Wangji thought. Or don’t. But if you do not - I will not let your cowardice be Wei Ying’s burden.
“I’m here,” he said at last, “to see Wei Wuxian.”
Yes, Lan Wangji thought, with something like resignation. I suppose you are.
Wei Ying is loyal. He loves you. Even after everything you’ve done he will not let you go, and I doubt I can convince him.
“Wei Ying calls you his brother,” Lan Wangji said.
You have done nothing to earn it. You have done everything to lose it. For his sake only-
Jiang Wanyin swallowed. There was a shine in his eyes, and his mouth set in a determination that was strangely familiar, though it took Lan Wangji a moment to realize from where.
“Yes,” Jiang Wanyin said, and the fierce conviction in his voice was an echo of Wei Ying’s. “That’s because he is.”
He could not put off Xichen’s important business forever.
Wei Ying was mending. Slowly, but he was mending. He could force himself away, at least for a little while. His urge, once it was done, was to hurry back, but he made himself sit with his brother instead.
He knew, vaguely, that Jiang Wanyin was with Wei Ying, and was trying very hard not to worry about it.
“Will you go back into seclusion now?” he asked. Xichen studied the cup he was holding, and at length set it slowly down.
“Yes,” he said. Lan Wangji tried to press down the sting of disappointment. He had hoped...selfish, perhaps, but he had hoped that drawing Xichen back into the world would ease his bruised (broken) heart, or at least give him something to hold that was not his sorrow and guilt.
He nodded. “Thank you, Xiongzhang,” he said, “for what you have done for me.”
Xichen inclined his head, and silence fell between them.
“Eight months,” he said. Lan Wangji paused.
“Eight months,” he repeated. Xichen nodded, and Lan Wangji relaxed.
“I know this is not the burden you expected to bear,” Xichen said after a few moments of silence. “It suits your nature poorly. I failed-”
“I failed,” Xichen repeated. “Many people. But perhaps what I owe is to labor to do better.”
Lan Wangji’s heart ached. He did not know what to speak. Finally, he said, “you shoulder the weight of morality.”
Xichen’s smile was tired, but there was still some warmth in it, even if it faded quickly.
“Wangji,” he said slowly. “I would ask. What would you have done, if your search had come to a different end?”
His stomach went cold, and he fell very still. “Do not ask me that.”
“I am asking.”
He had dreamed, last night. He had dreamed he was standing in that courtyard, watching the knife move and trying to lunge, to stop it, but he was fighting the air itself and it was too late, too late. He killed the man who had held the blade, but all he could do was cradle Wei Ying in his arms as the life bled out of him, and his world, so lately mended, cracked in two.
He had woken imagining he could smell the blood and feel it on his hands.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Do not ask me that,” he said again, desperate. It was not something he could let himself contemplate too closely. Not something he could allow himself to consider.
“Wangji,” Xichen said gently, “no one is invulnerable. I need to know-”
He jerked his head from one side to the other. “You know,” he said. “You already know.”
A painful silence hung between them. “Yes,” Xichen said at length. “I suppose I do.” He sounded resigned. There was guilt, some. But not enough to shake away the truth.
Perhaps it was selfish. No: it was selfish. But Lan Wangji knew his heart, and he could not bear the unbearable twice.
When he returned to Wei Ying, he gave him a quick once over to see that he was well and unharmed. He seemed to be, at least - pensive but not unhappy, though when he saw Lan Wangji looking he smiled.
“Lan Zhan!” he said. “You’re back.”
“Yes,” he said. He checked the bowl of soup and was relieved to see that it was empty. “Have you been resting?”
Wei Ying made a gesture at himself. “Unfortunately,” he said. “I’m already so bored, Lan Zhan.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. “Too bad.”
“Merciless,” Wei Ying said mournfully. Lan Zhan just looked at him, and he sighed. “All right, all right. But that just means you’re going to have to come up with some ways to entertain me.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said noncommittally, though he was already thinking about it. He settled down, reaching out without thinking to press his fingers to the inside of Wei Ying’s wrist. Needing, after his conversation with Xichen, some reassurance. Wei Ying gave him a bit of an odd look, but said nothing.
“Jiang Wanyin was here,” he said, half a question. Wei Ying glanced sideways at him.
“He was,” he said slowly. Lan Wangji thought for a few moments about how best to ask if that had been all right in a way that would get an honest answer. Wei Ying shifted a little, his expression turning serious. “Lan Zhan, I know that you don’t...get along very well. But it’s all right. Really. Jiang Cheng is…”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “He is...important to you.”
The smile came back, though it was crooked. “Mmhm.” He cast his eyes down toward his fingers on Wei Ying’s wrist. It was quiet between them for a few moments, though not uncomfortable. Then Wei Ying took a breath and said, “he asked me to come to Lotus Pier.”
Lan Wangji did not let himself tense. He told himself it was a good thing. Told himself if it was what Wei Ying wanted, that it was good, or could be. (Had better be. If Jiang Wanyin didn’t behave himself…)
“I want to go. You don’t have to come.”
“I will,” Lan Wangji said immediately. Wei Ying gave him another little smile.
“I figured you’d say that. Maybe Jin Ling and A-Yuan can join. Family dinner. Wen Ning should be there but I feel like that probably has to wait.”
Lan Wangji thought that would probably be a very long wait, but he did not say so. Only nodded, barely.
Wei Ying’s expression softened and he turned his hand, wrapping his fingers around Lan Wangji’s wrist. “Lan Zhan,” he said quietly, “it’s going to be all right.”
It is now, Lan Wangji thought. He leaned down and kissed Wei Ying, lightly, gently, half expecting him to pull away, but the look on his face when he drew back was soft and warm and touched with something like awe.
“I wanted you to stay,” he said, halting. “I should have asked.”
Wei Ying swallowed. “I think...I think I needed to go,” he said. “But I’m back now.”
Something in his chest that had been held taut released, a burst of warmth blooming under his sternum. He could feel his own smile.
Yes, he thought. And I am here.