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Stone, darkness. This is what Wen Ning knows.

He does not sleep, he does not eat. His arms, held aloft in a web of chains, do not fatigue. Any human would have lost themselves by now, but Wen Ning has not been human in some time. How long, exactly, he is not certain.

For him, time is measured in the muted conversations he hears through the walls of his prison. The Jin cultivators speak freely, condemned to dull shifts with nothing to do to pass the time besides converse with one another. They only ever talk about themselves. Wen Ning has been here long enough for one of his guards to have gotten married and father a child. She recently said her first words.

Sometimes, they talk about the Ghost General. The asset, they call him, or the corpse, or the dog. It is nothing compared to what he calls himself.

“What if it escapes?” the new guards always ask.

“If you do your job right, it won’t,” is the smooth, easy answer, hissed by a snake’s tongue.

The shackles that bind him were forged in a poor imitation of what Wen Ning recognizes as Wei Wuxian’s work. It would be an easy matter to break free, but it is better this way. Here, he cannot harm anyone, no matter how he hears whispers of ambitions of using him as a weapon. There is only one person who ever could, and he is gone.

Gone, like his sister. He watches her burn, over and over, as he stares sightlessly into the dark. Wen Ning wonders what else is gone, now.

“Come on, I just want to see it,” comes a needling voice, quiet and distant. This one is new. It pulls Wen Ning out of his haze.

“The sect leader said—”

“Aren’t you curious? Haven’t you ever wondered what it looks like? It’s the thing that murdered so many people.”

“Well—”

A pause, the whisper of metal. “Open the gate,” the newcomer spits.

Not a moment later, a series of clicks resonate through the chamber. For the first time since he was brought here, light filters into Wen Ning’s cell. It is nothing more than the flicker of torches, but it may as well be the harshest rays of sun for how it blinds his eyes.

“Look at you,” says the stranger. A pair of boots stride into Wen Ning’s vision. “Rotten and ugly. Eugh, the smell in here is disgusting.”

Wen Ning does not react. This, at least, is something he can control.

A hand waves in front of his face. “Hello? Too stupid to talk without your master to tell you what to say?”

Wen Ning stays silent.

“Pathetic. To think that not a single trace of the mighty Qishan Wen sect remains except for a single puppet.”

Not a single trace.

No one…? He knew it was too much to expect his family to be granted amnesty, but—

“I’ve only heard stories,” the stranger continues, quite content to carry on a one-sided conversation. “I wish I could have seen it. I heard the siege of Yiling was incredible. Not a single person spared. A bloodbath.”

The chains just barely clink together as Wen Ning’s fingers, stiff from death and disuse, begin to curl.

“That’s right.” Sadistic glee oozes from each word. “Now you’re listening. I heard their throats were slit. They just piled the bodies together. Men, women, children, all of them. Left them all to rot.”

No, Wen Ning thinks.

“They didn’t fight back, I heard. Some couldn’t, I mean, what could a child have done? I always wondered what it would be like—”

There is an emptiness in the space where blood once ran in Wen Ning’s chest, and now—a phantom burning, spreading its fingers along his skin and fogging his mind.

The last thing he remembers is thinking, A-Yuan.

 


 

Once Wen Ning comes back to himself, he stands in a forest clearing. Sunlight dapples through the leaves, shining along the blood that coats his hands and splatters his threadbare robes. Lengths of chain trail behind him.

I’m sorry, jie, he tries to say. The winds eat away at his voice. Wen Ning begins to walk, following the trickle of a stream nearby.

I let you down again.

 


 

There is an air of unease in Gusu.

It is reflected in the brittle edge of Lan Xichen’s smile. His hands are full with the fallout of Lanling Jin’s attempted coverup of the continued existence, the escape and subsequent rampage of the Ghost General.

Lan Wangji does not listen to the whispers of secrecy and betrayal. He listens instead to the whispers of the Yiling Patriarch’s name—if his dog is around, the rumors say, its master cannot be far behind.

He knows the way his throat tightens and pulse quickens is foolish, but it does little to dampen the flicker of hope that sets his chest alight for the first time in ages.

“Wangji,” his brother says as Lan Wangji reaches the gates of the Cloud Recesses. It will be the first time that he has left in three and a half years.

Lan Wangji stares back, as if daring Lan Xichen to tell him no.

Pleasant expression wavering, Lan Xichen simply says, “Be careful.”

The criss-crossed map of scars on his back pulls tightly over Lan Wangji’s skin as he travels. He is aware he is not the only one searching for the Ghost General—countless groups of cultivators form parties, determined to find glory in destroying the second most feared monster in recent memory. It is said that Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin himself has left a blaze of lightning-fire in his warpath.

He listens to them, too. They spread themselves out blindly, complaining each morning that they cannot even find the smallest of ghouls to hunt—as if something or someone else reached them first.

It is a simple matter to turn to the common folk instead. Some he has helped years before, some have only heard of him by title and broken reputation alone. Even so, most greet him warmly. They know their lands best, after all: they are the first to know when something has changed.

"A town not too far from here got hit by something," one farmer tells Lan Wangji. "Haven't seen anyone from there in the markets lately."

When Lan Wangji follows the man's directions, he finds a neatly dug grave and a collection of villagers who have only just become confident enough to leave the safety of their homes.

"It was a vengeful ghost," an old woman says. "It killed anyone who tried to get help. And then it was gone. Couldn't have been by one of your types." She levels a look at Bichen. "There wasn't anyone parading around and bragging after."

In thanks for their information, Lan Wangji offers what assistance he can to the town. After so much time spent suffocating in the Cloud Recesses, it satisfies something in him that has felt too empty for too long. He listens to a young woman talk as he lifts sacks of produce to her cart.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “My uncle fell and broke his shoulder a few weeks ago. He’s always up at night crying in pain. I couldn’t leave to get anything for him, but one morning there was a bundle of medicine outside our door. It was right around when the ghost went away.”

Such is how Lan Wangji’s search proceeds: he follows requests for help, arriving to find that the problems have already been solved just days prior. By who, no one is ever certain. When he passes by other cultivators, they mutter to themselves, puzzled that there have been no sightings of the Ghost General, no mysterious slaughter of innocents, no path of destruction.

They search only for a rabid beast—to them, that is all the Ghost General is.

Lan Wangji cannot say he ever gave much thought to the Ghost General, beyond simmering embers of jealousy that it was him walking by Wei Ying’s side, but—

In Yiling, Lan Wangji remembers the gentle, shy way that Wen Qionglin offered him tea, eager to provide any sense of hospitality even when the drink was no more than meagerly flavored water. He remembers watching the man lift long-dead trees, how he bowed his head and fixed whatever damage he caused without a single complaint. His head was bowed just the same as he sacrificed himself to the mercy of the great cultivation sects for crimes he had no control over committing.

Lan Wangji searches for Wen Qionglin.

For a month, Lan Wangji follows a winding trail, edging closer and closer to Gusu. It’s odd. Briefly, he wonders if he has been misled the whole time.

His efforts pay off when he climbs a lonely mountain and finds rows of freshly dug graves, echoes of resentful energy, and the almost-familiar silhouette of a man in tattered robes kneeling by the edge of a creek. His hands remain frozen, half in the water. Dirt and ichor mar his forearms, only partially scrubbed off.

A deep discomfort crawls under Lan Wangji’s skin as his eyes catch on the shackles and chains attached to Wen Qionglin’s wrists and ankles. They rattle when he stands, slowly, stiffly, and the discomfort grows when Lan Wangji sees that his clothes are the very same as the last time he saw him, convicted on the high steps of Koi Tower.

The moonlight casts a ghastly pallor along Wen Qionglin’s already-unnatural skin. Lan Wangji cannot deny the way his heart beats just a touch faster, emboldened by fragile what-ifs. His chest aches in the spot where a boy with golden laughter once lived.

Wen Qionglin does not speak, and neither does Lan Wangji. The battle-rage that used to cloud the Ghost General’s eyes is absent, but Lan Wangji cannot read further into his blank expression—if Wen Qionglin is surprised by his presence, or frightened, he cannot tell.

The air is still between them, as if the world holds its own breath while they watch one another. Finally, Wen Qionglin falls to his knees, bowing his head. Lan Wangji can just barely hear him rasp, “H… Hanguang-jun.”

“Wen Qionglin,” Lan Wangji responds. He takes two steps forward, twigs just barely crunching under his boot. As he approaches, the stench of rot grows stronger.

There is a moment of silence before Wen Qionglin says, “Please… please, before you do anything, please listen to me.” His voice creaks like old wooden floors, unused and forgotten.

“I am listening,” Lan Wangji says, uncertain of what to make of the man in front of him. He understands why he lowers himself so, but it bewilders him a bit too. It is strange, for this to be how their first conversation proceeds.

“I apologize.” Wen Qionglin’s speech falters, almost lost among the rustle of leaves tousled by the wind. “I did not know… how to approach you.”

“You were looking for me,” Lan Wangji ventures, voice careful and even so as not to betray his own surprise.

“Yes.” Wen Qionglin moves only to inhale enough air to speak—if not for that, he could be mistaken for a statue. “Or rather… I had hoped… to garner your attention.”

“By helping people?”

“I…”

The fierce corpse’s hands curl over the ground, thumbs rubbing over his knuckles in what might have once been a nervous gesture.

“I could not just… leave them be, when I sensed… other corpses. It would have been wrong.”

Lan Wangji tilts his head, contemplating. It would have been safer for Wen Qionglin to simply hide away, and yet. “You have my attention,” he says.

Wen Qionglin’s long, sharp nails—claws, almost—dig into his skin. His words slow down to an even pace. Practiced, perhaps. “Young Master Lan spoke up for me and my sister at Koi Tower. I could never thank you. And I… I apologize that I could not control myself after. I understand if you seek to punish me. For then, and for… my recent transgressions.”

A haze lays over Lan Wangji’s memories of the aftermath of the Sunshot Campaign. He cannot recall the exact words he used to defend the Wen siblings against the collected leadership of cultivator society. They were victims of circumstance, he knows, with the whole world turned against them.

Mostly, he remembers the way his brother’s ever-present smile grew wan, the minute shake of his head.

“Before… before you do,” Wen Qionglin continues, “I have one request. I… When I was… imprisoned… a guard said something to me. Of anyone, I thought Hanguang-jun would be the only one who could offer me a truthful answer.” Impossibly, his head lowers further, hair limply falling to mingle in the dirt. “Is any of my family left? Is… A-Yuan…?”

Cold realization washes over Lan Wangji. Did they kill him? he hears as Wen Qionglin trails off. It is too horrific a notion to voice.

Wei Ying thought they would, Lan Wangji does not say, keenly remembering the heat of the child’s tiny, feverish body cradled against his chest in the wreckage of the Burial Mounds. He isn’t certain that Wei Ying would have been wrong.

“He is alive,” he says instead. “Safe.”

Wen Qionglin’s head shoots up. Not even death can hide his desperation. “Where—where—do you know where he is?”

“I do.”

“Please,” Wen Qionglin begs, “may I see him? Is it possible?”

Lan Wangji hesitates.

Wen Yuan—Lan Yuan, now—was perhaps the one light in Lan Wangji’s life that kept him going as he laid prone, back bleeding and raw and consumed by grief. Beyond occasional nightmares that he cannot name, Lan Yuan does not remember anything of his life before.

Lan Wangji wants to say no, spurred by an instinctual protectiveness for the child he has raised as his son. He is loath to bring any painful memories back for Lan Yuan.

But he is not so cruel as to keep a man from seeing his last living family member. He also does not want to have this conversation with Wen Qionglin kowtowing before him.

“Stand.” Lan Wangji produces a handkerchief from his sleeve, offering it to the fierce corpse to clean himself off with.

Fresh dirt clings to Wen Qionglin’s wet hands and forearms. As he rises, his chains drag along the ground. His shackles clatter against one another as he takes the handkerchief and begins to wipe the dirt away, eyes averted all the while.

“He may not remember you,” Lan Wangji warns.

Finally, Wen Qionglin looks up. A twig sticks out from his hair.

“There is an inn just to the west of Caiyi Town. I will book a room there in two weeks.”

Wen Qionglin makes to bow again, but is stayed by Lan Wangji extending his hand. “Thank you,” he whispers, clutching the handkerchief. “I have… no way to repay you.”

“Unnecessary.” Lan Wangji pauses, and then says, “...I have some questions.”

“Of course. I will answer, if I can,” Wen Qionglin says.

“Do you know…”

Even now—over three years after the fact—it is difficult for Lan Wangji to speak of. Sharp pins prickle along his throat. It burns as he swallows them down.

“Do you know what happened to Wei Ying?”

Wen Qionglin looks at him. His expression betrays none of his thoughts. The longer he stays quiet, the further Lan Wangji’s heart sinks in his chest.

“I felt Young Master Wei die,” he finally says. “I’m sorry, Young Master Lan.”

It was foolish to hope for anything different, Lan Wangji knows. He bites his cheek, too struck to fully process Wen Qionglin’s words. “Your chains,” he forces out, pushing through the heavy weight that pulls down on his shoulders, dragging along his scars. “I can remove them.”

The ugly metallic chime of said chains moving against one another rings throughout the clearing as Wen Qionglin holds out his wrists. “Ah… if Young Master Lan would be so kind… I would appreciate it. I have tried myself, but…”

This close, Lan Wangji can see the scratches that cover the closed hinges of the shackles. There is some sort of enchantment engraved into the metal.

It looks like a bastardization of Wei Ying’s work.

His breath catches, shock quickly turning to disgust. He is not unaware of the workings of cultivator society—he is the second son of one of the major sects, after all. He sleeps on the grounds of those who allowed innocents to die. It should not be a surprise that after convicting Wei Ying to martyrdom, Lanling Jin would then steal his ideas.

Bichen slices easily through the shackles and chains. “You were held captive,” Lan Wangji says as they fall to the dirt, a question-and-not.

Wen Qionglin keeps his gaze fixated on his newly-freed wrists, fingers rubbing at the skin. A dark imprint follows the path of his fingers, like some sort of bruise, before fading back to a lifeless grey. “I am a weapon,” he says. “They wished to wield me.”

“You did not try to escape, before?”

“Where would I go?” The corner of Wen Qionglin’s mouth twitches. Lan Wangji cannot tell if it is a smile or a grimace. “I went to Koi Tower with the intention of dying for a final time.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth parts and he realizes he is entirely out of his depth. “What changed?” he asks quietly.

“I…” The corpse hunches his shoulders, shrinking in on himself. “The guard’s comment implied… that A-Yuan was… It… made me lose control. I am not proud of myself, Young Master Lan. But now I am here. Again, I… understand if you intend to punish me. I will not resist.”

The cool mountain air fills Lan Wangji’s lungs as he looks at the last vestige of Lan Yuan’s old life—of Wei Ying.

“In two weeks,” he says, “I will have a room at the inn by evening.”

He turns, mounting Bichen in a flurry of robes, and enters the sky.

 


 

The days pass by in a blur. It is difficult returning to the Cloud Recesses when exploring the world beyond is so liberating, but Lan Wangji has duties he cannot ignore forever. At the very least, the way the younger disciples’ faces light up when they see him makes it a little easier—one disciple’s in particular.

Said disciple sits next to him, his posture almost perfect but brimming with the barely-contained energy of a curious six year old.

(“Hanguang-jun,” Lan Yuan had said, trying and failing to hide a yawn, “where are we going?”

“We are going to meet someone,” Lan Wangji answered, trying and failing to ignore the way his heart falls at the use of his title.

“Is it a secret?” Lan Yuan asked. He always was a bright one.

“Mm.”

And very much against the rules, but Lan Wangji has gotten much better at rule-breaking in the past few years.

Wei Ying would be proud.)

Lan Wangji cannot deny his own curiosity, but under it is fear: fear that he is making a mistake, that he is putting the child under his care—his child—in danger. It is not that he believes Wen Qionglin to be a threat.

It is just the simple truth that Wen Yuan lived through hardships that Lan Yuan has no memory of. Lan Wangji is afraid of what he might remember.

He is afraid he might not remember anything at all.

The sun began its descent hours ago, leaving only the gentle dance of candlelight to play along the walls of the inn. Every so often, a gust of wind from the open window sends the flames into a flurry.

Lan Wangji would have expected Lan Yuan to begin to sway with sleep by now, but the anticipation and excitement of the unknown keeps him alert. At the table, he practices his penmanship diligently, looking eagerly up at the door every few minutes.

As the wicks burn down, Lan Wangji’s scars begin to ache with a new apprehension.

Was Wen Qionglin lost? Or worse—caught?

Just as the hour turns to nine and Lan Wangji’s internal clock begins to tick down, something thuds outside the window. Lan Yuan startles and leans closer to Lan Wangji. His hand remains poised in the air, character half-finished.

“You may stop,” Lan Wangji says, breathing deeply to abate the worry thrumming through his veins.

“Okay…” Carefully, Lan Yuan puts the brush away. He places his hands in his lap, balled into little fists, and stares nervously at the window.

Thud. Thud. Scratching, and then:

An ashen arm, pulling itself over the sill, and then another. A head of dark hair pops up, peering owlishly into the room.

Lan Yuan gasps wordlessly, grabbing onto Lan Wangji’s sleeve and hiding more fully behind him. It breaks Lan Wangji’s heart.

He cannot imagine how it must feel for Wen Qionglin.

“It is alright,” Lan Wangji murmurs, placing his hand on Lan Yuan’s shoulder. He nods to Wen Qionglin, granting him permission to fully enter.

Wen Qionglin drags himself into the room more gracefully than Lan Wangji would have imagined. To an outsider, he would certainly be a frightening sight, with his monstrous, unnatural claws and ragged clothing. Since the last time he saw him, however, Lan Wangji notices his hair seems tidier, and the wind blows in a strong scent of pine. The undercurrent of decay still remains, but it is far less prominent than before.

An unspoken tension hangs in the air as Wen Qionglin stands near the window. He begins to raise his hand, but stops partway through.

The grip on Lan Wangji’s sleeve loosens, just a little.

“A… A-Yuan,” Wen Qionglin says. After a moment of silence, his hand continues, reaching into his robes to take out a small paper butterfly. “Do you… ah… do you… remember me…?”

Lan Wangji cannot spare the thought to figure out how he would have gotten such a thing—he is occupied instead by watching Lan Yuan’s eyes begin to well up with tears, face scrunching up in the same way as when a rule or idea confuses him.

He sniffs, once, twice, and nearly stumbles as he runs to clutch onto Wen Qionglin’s leg.

“You left,” Lan Yuan—Wen Yuan—sobs. He cries into the dark fabric of Wen Qionglin’s robe and then into his chest as the fierce corpse leans down to embrace him. “You left—everyone left…

“I know,” Wen Qionglin whispers, stroking his back, “I’m sorry, A-Yuan, I’m sorry. Ning-gege is here now. Have you been well, A-Yuan?”

As Lan Yuan nods and cries harder, Lan Wangji diverts his gaze, feeling very much like an intruder.

It has been some time since Lan Yuan last clung to Lan Wangji and cried. On late nights, kept up by dreams he could not explain, Lan Yuan would sneak his way to the Jingshi to curl by Lan Wangji’s side, heedless of the reprimands and harsh whispers in the morning that Hanguang-jun was in seclusion and not to be disturbed.

Lan Wangji did not think it was something he could miss.

Eventually, Lan Yuan cries himself to exhaustion and falls asleep in Wen Qionglin’s arms. For a few minutes, Wen Qionglin stays knelt on the floor, rocking back and forth in an easy, practiced motion.

“He looks just like a little Lan child,” Wen Qionglin says, looking up to meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. In the newfound quiet, his soft tone carries through the room.

“He is Lan Yuan,” Lan Wangji responds. “Officially.”

Wen Qionglin’s expression continues to be blank, impenetrable. “Does anyone… know?”

“Yes. The elders and the main family.” After a moment’s breath, Lan Wangji adds, “He is my ward.” My son.

Shifting his hold on Lan Yuan, Wen Qionglin continues to stare, unblinking. “What happened?”

“It… is not pleasant.”

“I am aware, Young Master Lan. Please.”

Lan Wangji begins his recount of the events of the siege on the Burial Mounds. He does not include how he stumbled through the burnt ruins of hobbled-together houses, lashes bleeding through his robes, nor why he was not present to stop anything.

It still hurts too much to think of.

Even if Wen Qionglin’s face remains still as he listens, his grip tightens on the small, precious body in his arms.

“Thank you,” he says once Lan Wangji finishes. His hand, a weapon in its own right, comes up to brush Lan Yuan’s bangs out of his face—a gentle motion, for all that it is rigid. “You are a good man. I am glad that he is in your care, Hanguang-jun. I know you will raise him well.”

Lan Wangji does not need to be a genius at reading fierce corpses to hear the traces of sorrow and loss in his words. Guilt begins to gnaw at the edges of his conscience—of course he would have saved any child, but in his grief, he always thought of Lan Yuan as a way to further preserve Wei Ying’s memory.

But Lan Yuan is a Wen, too.

“In two weeks,” Lan Wangji says before he can truly think it through, “meet here again.”

If he were not paying such close attention, he might have missed the minute way that Wen Qionglin’s eyes widened.

“Thank you,” Wen Qionglin whispers again. He glances down at Lan Yuan and says, “He should… probably sleep in a bed.”

It is easier than Lan Wangji would have imagined to work in tandem with Wen Qionglin to prepare Lan Yuan for sleep. Miraculously, Lan Yuan does not wake, and soon, Wen Qionglin is left hovering and uncertain at the foot of the bed.

“I… I should go,” he says, falling back to propriety even as his gaze remains tethered to his last remaining family member.

“You will see him again,” Lan Wangji assures him. On nighthunts, he is able to push through the confines of his usual sleep schedule. Here, however, there are no monsters. He has felt the claws of somnolence sinking into him throughout the evening, but has yet to go through his own nighttime routine. It is not something for Wen Qionglin to see.

They are hardly more than strangers, after all.

(Wei Ying would tease him, Lan Wangji thinks. As the wind rattles the window, it carries with it the echo of Wei Ying’s chiming laugh.)

“Of course. I can’t thank you enough…”

“Thanks are not necessary.” They each watch Lan Yuan. In the morning, there will be difficult questions and difficult answers, but Lan Wangji finds that he does not regret a thing.

Wen Qionglin’s lips pull back as far as they are able. If it is a smile, Lan Wangji can only imagine how it might have looked in life.

“Take care,” Wen Qionglin says, turning to make his way towards the window.

He freezes, along with Lan Wangji’s breath, at a small, sleepy mumble of, “Ning-gege…? You’re leaving?”

“Ning-gege has to go.” Pausing to kneel by Lan Yuan’s side, Wen Qionglin smooths the child’s hair with a brush of his knuckles. “I will be back soon.”

“Why can’t you stay?” Terrifyingly, Lan Yuan’s bottom lip begins to tremble. He tugs on Wen Qionglin’s hand and then looks to Lan Wangji. “Gege, can he stay?”

(“Why can’t I see Mother?” “She… can’t come back. I’m sorry, A-Zhan.”)

In four simple words, Lan Yuan crumbles the resolve of two grown men. Lan Wangji swears he can hear Wei Ying’s phantom cackle ring through his ears.

“He can stay tonight,” Lan Wangji acquiesces. An old, ever-present hollow in his chest aches anew.

It is with a few more tears and whispered assurances that Lan Wangji ends up lying in the same bed as the Ghost General with Lan Yuan between them. They both lie stiff as boards—Wen Qionglin, because he has no need to move or settle, and Lan Wangji because of the immense unease that always comes with being close to someone unfamiliar. The bed is not at all meant to fit two adults and a child. Lan Wangji’s skin crawls with the dissonance of feeling the cold press of what should be a warm body against his side.

The unpleasant mix of pine and putrefaction does not help any. Strangely, Lan Yuan appears to have no issue with it. He clings to Wen Qionglin’s arm and rests his head on the corpse’s shoulder, tossing and turning every so often.

Lan Wangji resigns himself to reciting rules in his head to drag himself to slumber until he hears a small groan. Immediately, his eyes open and he glances over to see Lan Yuan’s brows furrow, seemingly still deep asleep. Wen Qionglin shifts to cradle Lan Yuan, as if his arms could protect him from whatever dreams plague him.

“Xian-gege…”

Heart in his throat, Lan Wangji meets Wen Qionglin’s gaze. He wonders if they are thinking the same thing.

I miss him, too.

Lan Wangji misses Wei Ying so deeply, so thoroughly, it is as if he has lost a limb of his own. It feels wrong, sometimes, when he never truly had Wei Ying in the first place. Like a moth covets flame, Lan Wangji longed—longs—to feel Wei Ying’s radiance shine upon him.

But he is gone. And unlike Wen Qionglin, he is not coming back.

Tomorrow, Lan Wangji will take Lan Yuan back to the Cloud Recesses. He will tell Lan Yuan that he cannot share with anyone where they went or who they met. He will answer Lan Yuan’s questions, and dry away his tears, and tell him stories of the most wonderful man he has ever known, and pretend that everything is normal.

Once Lan Yuan’s breathing evens, Lan Wangji enters a fitful sleep of his own.

By morning, Wen Qionglin is nowhere to be seen. All that is left is the waft of pine, the paper butterfly tucked under Lan Yuan’s hand, and Lan Wangji’s handkerchief, neatly folded on the low table.

 


 

One visit becomes two, and two becomes three.

Wen Qionglin is an excellent listener, as it turns out—he nods and asks questions whenever Lan Yuan tells him about all of the things he’s learning, or about what it’s like living in the Cloud Recesses, or just whatever crosses the child’s mind at the moment.

Somehow, Wen Qionglin always has a new gift for Lan Yuan. Lan Wangji does not ask how he acquires them.

He also does not ask where Wen Qionglin goes, but it is difficult to miss the reports from aggravated cultivators who continue to leave nighthunts empty-handed, or how villages and towns that have been afflicted with monsters are somehow fine by the time the cultivators from the Jin watchtowers arrive.

Wen Qionglin does not speak of his travels. Perhaps recognition is not high on his list of priorities, or perhaps he would simply prefer to focus on Lan Yuan during what little time they have together. Once Lan Yuan falls asleep, there is little room for conversation—Lan Wangji would ordinarily be content with the silence, but in the time between, he has found his mind drifting to the fierce corpse more often than not.

He knows that Wen Qionglin is kind, that he has a strong sense of right and wrong, that his soft-spoken exterior hides a spine of steel. He seems like the type of person Wei Ying would like.

It is no wonder Wei Ying kept him so close.

But Lan Wangji realizes that outside of his brief visits to Yiling, he really has no idea what Wei Ying’s life was like. He would be lying if he said he did not want to ask Wen Qionglin more—about the Burial Mounds, about Wei Ying, about Lan Yuan, about himself.

He does not know how or when to broach such subjects, so he holds his tongue.

Over time, however, he watches how Wen Qionglin’s robes, already thin and shredding, gain new tears and holes. Lan Wangji could kick himself for not realizing it earlier: no matter how Wen Qionglin manages to get small trinkets for Lan Yuan, buying clothing is a whole other matter entirely.

So it is one week before their fourth meeting that Lan Wangji brings Lan Yuan to Caiyi early in the afternoon, along with a group of younger disciples. Already, he toys with the danger of discovery by arranging these visits with Wen Qionglin, so he had proposed the trip as a means to teach the children about the artisans and craftspeople who help support the Gusu Lan cultivators.

If he pulls Lan Yuan aside when they visit the tailor to choose fabric for their “friend,” then no one—especially not a gaggle of excited six and seven year olds—would be any the wiser.

“Do you think he’ll like it?” Lan Yuan asks once they gather the packages and head to the inn for the evening. The golden light of sunset glimmers over the river that leads to Biling Lake, casting their room with a warm glow.

“Mn.” Setting the bundles down on the table, Lan Wangji allows himself a smile. “It is partially from you, after all.”

Warmer still than the sun is the grin that blooms on Lan Yuan’s face. “And from Hanguang-jun!”

It is so uncomplicated in Lan Yuan’s mind. Lan Wangji thinks of all of Wen Qionglin’s profuse thanks, his belief that he is indebted. If only it were as simple as Lan Yuan made it out to be. “Hm,” Lan Wangji hums, neither agreeing or disagreeing. “Do your readings. He will come soon.”

Pleased, Lan Yuan happily pours through his book as the sky fades to a dusky blue.

Soon enough there comes the tell-tale scratch of Wen Qionglin’s claws against the windowsill. He hoists himself up and in, kneeling immediately to gather Lan Yuan in a hug as the child runs into his arms. The sight makes something in Lan Wangji’s chest twist, not unpleasantly.

“Hello, A-Yuan.” The corpse glances up, nodding at Lan Wangji. “Hanguang-jun.”

“Wen Qionglin,” Lan Wangji greets. Slowly, he has gotten better at reading the other man—his eyebrows raise slightly, like the use of his courtesy name is something unfamiliar.

Knowing his reputation, it probably is.

Drawing back, Wen Qionglin retrieves a small wrapper from his robe—there is a new tear along the collar. He carefully places the small object in Lan Yuan's hands. "This is candy, but don't eat it tonight. It's too late."

Lan Yuan stares down at the wrapper and nods solemnly, as if he has accepted a most dire mission. He pads over to place it on the table, looking at the parcels and then to Lan Wangji.

Inclining his head, Lan Wangji watches Wen Qionglin's eyes widen as Lan Yuan carries one of the packages to him. The rest of his face remains frozen.

"For you," Lan Yuan says. "You can open it now!"

"You're… you're sure?"

"Yes!" Lan Yuan bounces on his heels, more excited at the prospect of giving a gift than receiving one.

It would be easy for Wen Qionglin to tear the wrapping apart, to rend it to bits as he does flesh. Instead, he slowly, slowly undoes the package, gaze focused and intent. He pauses, hand stilled, once the sheen of dark green fabric is revealed.

"I—" His head rises, glancing between Lan Yuan and Lan Wangji. "This is… I can't… I have no way to—to pay y—"

"No need," Lan Wangji says, cutting him off. He does not want Wen Qionglin to entertain the notion of monetary compensation for even a moment. "It is a gift."

“I helped choose,” Lan Yuan adds. Lan Wangji can spot the exact second that Wen Qionglin folds.

“This is…” Running his hand over the fabric, Wen Qionglin flounders for words. “Thank you, I… I…”

“Ning-gege, you should try it on.”

“I… right now? A-Yuan, I-I’m not sure…” He looks to Lan Wangji, seeking either aid or permission.

“If you wish,” Lan Wangji says, “you may.”

He does not want to force Wen Qionglin to change, but secretly, he would like to see him try them on, as well. He does not deserve to walk around in years-old rags.

It will give Lan Wangji an idea of what to adjust for the next set, too.

Slowly—reluctantly, perhaps—Wen Qionglin heads behind a set of screens for privacy. For a few minutes, there is the shuffle and rustle of clothing, and then nothing.

From his spot seated next to Lan Wangji, Lan Yuan begins to fidget. The longer the silence continues, the more concerned Lan Wangji grows, as well.

Are the robes not to his liking? Do they fit too poorly?

“Ning-gege,” Lan Yuan calls, his valiant attempt at patience lost. “Can we see?”

“Ah…” Behind the screens, there is another light shuffle. “I’m sorry, I… I can’t… my hands…”

Something prickles at the edge of Lan Wangji’s mind. “Do you require assistance?” he asks with dawning dismay at his own shortsightedness.

For a moment, there is no response. And then, so small and quiet that it could have been mistaken for the settling of the inn, he hears, “Yes.”

As Lan Yuan starts to stand, Lan Wangji places a hand on his arm. Wait, he says, relief easing some of the weight from his shoulders when the child does not protest; he sits again, fiddling with the hem of his sleeve.

Lan Wangji’s suspicions are confirmed once he passes the screens and comes upon Wen Qionglin, half-dressed and gaze averted. His hands hold the ties of the innermost robe, limp and loosely tangled, and a hot, ugly mix of shame burns along Lan Wangji’s neck.

He has seen how Wen Qionglin’s fingers move in gestalt, how they curl in tandem, how much effort and concentration it takes for him to complete the delicate tasks that Lan Wangji would never think twice of—like something as simple as tucking Lan Yuan’s hair behind his ear, unwrapping a parcel, or securing the folds of his clothing.

He feels like an ass.

“May I?” Lan Wangji asks. Wen Qionglin’s hair falls in his face as he lowers his head and nods, just barely.

As he begins to loop the inner ties, Lan Wangji’s knuckles brush against Wen Qionglin’s skin for a brief moment. His skin feels like jade, cool and smooth, and a dark, inky blush follows Lan Wangji’s touch. It is mystifying—fascinating.

He makes quick work of knotting the ties and assisting Wen Qionglin with the rest of the outfit, mind racing and ears blazing. Outside of destroying or exorcising undead, Lan Wangji does not fully know how they work.

But even if he did, Wen Qionglin is no ordinary undead.

(Would Wei Ying know? Would he have known why Wen Qionglin’s skin can flush, a mimicry of the way Wei Ying could set Lan Wangji aflame? Would he know why Wen Qionglin can dance so gracefully, so viciously in battle, yet his fingers move as if they are frozen?

Would he know how to help him?)

“I’m sorry—”

“I apologize—”

They cut each other off, looking one another in the eyes for the first time since the start of this… experience. Wen Qionglin hides behind his hair again, hunching as if to make himself smaller. It looks a little ridiculous, given how tall and well-built he is.

But most importantly, the robes fit well enough, albeit not perfectly. They are of a practical cut, meant to be durable, but still fine. In the low candlelight, the dark green and black patterning contrasts with Wen Qionglin’s pale grey skin. His nature lies unhidden in the veins of jet that crawl along his neck, but in clean, untorn clothing, he looks less a monster and more a person.

“I cannot fix them tonight,” Lan Wangji says once he realizes Wen Qionglin will not speak first. “I have no tools to do so. But… tomorrow, we can meet here again. I will see what I can do.”

Wen Qionglin stays quiet. “You are very kind,” he finally says. “I’m sorry I… I am…”

“You have no need to apologize,” Lan Wangji says. “I should, however. I was… thoughtless.”

“But I…”

As if sensing the cycle growing between them, Lan Yuan’s voice rises from beyond the screens. “Ning-gege? Are you done? I want to see.”

“Ah… yes, of course, A-Yuan.”

When Wen Qionglin emerges, Lan Yuan gasps and claps in delight. “Do you like them?” he asks.

“Yes,” Wen Qionglin answers. He takes a seat across from Lan Yuan, slowly folding his rigid limbs. “You helped, A-Yuan?”

“I chose the fabric,” Lan Yuan says. “So at night you can be c… c…”

“Camouflaged,” Lan Wangji supplies, returning to his spot next to his son.

“Camouflaged! So you can be safe.”

“Thank you,” Wen Qionglin says slowly. “That is very thoughtful.”

Lan Yuan has always been perceptive—during their visits, they do not speak of Wen Qionglin’s status as a fugitive, but it is difficult to miss the continued murmurs of the missing Ghost General in the Cloud Recesses. Try as he might, there is little Lan Wangji can do to shield Lan Yuan from the truth.

From the cant of Wen Qionglin’s head and his considering stare, it seems that he has come to this realization too.

“There is one more thing,” Lan Wangji says, pushing the second package towards Wen Qionglin.

“A-another?” At Lan Wangji’s nod, Wen Qionglin’s lips part as if to say something more before they close again and he focuses instead on meticulously opening the parcel.

“A hooded cloak,” Lan Wangji explains once the black swath of fabric is revealed. “In case you must head into town or pass by others.”

“I… Thank you, this is…” Wen Qionglin’s brow twitches—confused? Concerned? Lan Wangji cannot tell. “You have done so much for me, and… I feel I have done nothing to deserve it.”

“You are important to A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says. You are important, he thinks to himself, unbidden. It surprises him, for a moment, but…

For as little as they have discussed him, Wen Qionglin is perhaps the only other person in the world who remembers Wei Ying as anything more than a monster or disgrace.

“So long as you stay safe,” Lan Wangji continues, heart pounding from his epiphany, “I am content.”

Wen Qionglin’s mouth parts again, eyes round and wide and staring not unlike a fish.

“Can I come tomorrow?” Lan Yuan asks, clearly having overheard their hushed conversation. He looks up towards Lan Wangji with a face that could melt even the most stoic of hearts.

“No,” Lan Wangji says, even as his core coils in on itself at Lan Yuan’s profound disappointment. Already, they rouse suspicion with these trips. He cannot risk Lan Yuan any further. “You must wait.”

“That means you have to tell me everything you’ve been learning tonight,” Wen Qionglin says, masterfully directing Lan Yuan’s attention away. “And I want to hear more about that boy you were making friends with.”

Immediately, Lan Yuan perks up and begins to recount the latest antics of one of the other Lan disciples who has a penchant for trouble. Amidst their voices, as moonlight mingles with the warmth of flame, a blanket of peace that Lan Wangji has not known for some years settles over his shoulders.

 


 

Once Lan Yuan falls asleep, Lan Wangji shares a new meeting spot with Wen Qionglin—another inn, a few towns over.

The next day, Lan Wangji stops by Caiyi’s tailor once more to acquire a few supplies before beginning his journey along well-beaten roads. It would be faster to fly to his destination, but he prefers this: seeing the world from the ground, watching others go about their daily lives, just being… people.

Partway through his walk, the sky clouds over and rain pours from the clouds above. Lan Wangji pauses for a detour to assist an elderly woman to her home, retrieving an umbrella from his qiankun pouch to protect her and her basket of produce from the torrent. As he makes to leave, he hears the shrieking laughter of a child, followed by the patter of footsteps as a small form dashes past him into the rain.

“A-Tao! Get back here, I don’t want you catching a cold again!” A woman follows after the child, stopping only briefly to bow to Lan Wangji. “I apologize for the disturbance, sir cultivator, and thank you for helping my mother. A-Tao!”

She runs out towards the sound of splashing, easily hefting the laughing child into her arms. With another apology, she brings the child back inside as a man—the father, perhaps—also emerges, crows feet crinkling at the corners of his eyes. He dries the still-giggling child off, fighting a smile of his own as the woman begins to scold the boy.

Lan Wangji’s heart aches.

“You are sure you won’t stay for a meal?” the old woman asks, drawing Lan Wangji’s gaze away.

“I am afraid I cannot,” Lan Wangji says. “But thank you.”

“At least take these,” she says, placing a small wrapped bundle in his hands. “Some candied fruit for the road.”

Lan Wangji thanks her, graciously taking the gift as well as his leave before the crushing grip on his lungs can grow any further.

(He has an idea of what a family is meant to look like, but he does not truly know. It was not something he ever had.

It is what Lan Yuan deserves, and what Lan Wangji can only attempt to provide.)

He travels quickly to his destination, arriving before sundown. The rain continues to fall, pounding in staccato against the roof. Lan Wangji settles by the hearth, allowing the heat to dry whatever parts of him his umbrella could not protect, and lays out his materials. He busies himself by adjusting a spare inner robe, testing an idea he had to replace the ties. It does not take long and soon all Lan Wangji can do is wait.

An hour past nightfall, Wen Qionglin climbs into the room, hood secured and soaking wet.

“Hanguang-jun,” he greets, standing awkwardly by the wall, like he does not know what to do with himself when Lan Yuan is not there to act as a bridge between them.

Lan Wangji nods his own greeting. “You may dry your clothing here,” he says, tilting his head towards the hearth.

“Ah… thank you.” Wen Qionglin approaches, stiff fingers fumbling with the cloak’s closure before successfully removing it and draping it over the spot Lan Wangji had indicated. A scent of death still surrounds him, but it is far less distinct than before—like his old clothes had grasped the essence of the Burial Mounds and refused to let go, for years and years.

Wen Qionglin still stands, arms now rigid at his sides—unsure, uncertain. He stares down at the assortment of supplies on the table.

“You are… well?” Lan Wangji asks. He feels he should perhaps start the conversation with something that is not outright asking him to disrobe.

“I, ah, y-yes,” says Wen Qionglin. His voice stumbles in a way Lan Wangji has not heard before. “And… you?”

“Mn.”

“That’s… um, good.”

Only the drone of rain fills the air between them.

“...I brought a spare robe for you to change into,” Lan Wangji says when Wen Qionglin does not continue. He gestures to said item. “There are loops and buttons instead of ties. I will… get tea.”

“Oh. Alright. Ah… thank you.” Wen Qionglin still hovers, unmoving.

Wordlessly, Lan Wangji rises and exits the room, heading downstairs to request a tea set from the owner. He walks slowly, aiming to give Wen Qionglin enough time to change in private.

“I am back,” he says outside of the door, knocking lightly with his knuckles, tea set balanced in one hand.

Even with his trained cultivator ears, Lan Wangji has a hard time hearing the soft footsteps that approach. Soon, Wen Qionglin’s blank eyes peek through a crack in the doorway. “C… come in,” he whispers, moving out of the way to let Lan Wangji through.

Wen Qionglin’s clothing lies on the table, folded neatly. Lan Wangji glances at the man, checking that the borrowed robe fits.

His eyes do not linger. It would be improper.

“The loops worked quite well,” Wen Qionglin says. He starts the motions of preparing the tea as soon as Lan Wangji sets the tray down. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” Lan Wangji sits, watching him. He does not know where they are supposed to stand or what the rules of engagement are supposed to be, but he knows he does not want Wen Qionglin to feel that he owes anything. “You… do not have to do this,” inclining his head towards the tea set.

“I want to,” Wen Qionglin answers quietly. “It is… something normal.”

Oh, Lan Wangji realizes.

How long has it been since Wen Qionglin had the opportunity to do something as mundane as pouring a cup of tea?

“Very well,” Lan Wangji says. Without further ado, he begins the process of tailoring Wen Qionglin’s clothing.

When a teacup, full and gently steaming, is placed in front of him, Lan Wangji rests his needle and thread to pull out the folded satchel of candied fruits he had been gifted earlier. He sets it in the middle of the table—an offering.

Wen Qionglin’s hands stay wrapped around his own teacup. He does not drink, nor does he make any move towards the fruit.

“You may help yourself,” Lan Wangji says, nonplussed by the other man’s constant deference.

Wen Qionglin’s lip twitches. “I cannot eat, Young Master Lan. Not human food, anyway.”

Oh, Lan Wangji thinks again, heat blooming along his neck. Of course. What has he seen fierce corpses eat but other corpses—but Wen Qionglin is no ordinary corpse—but—human food? Is Wen Qionglin not still human, despite everything?

“I see,” he says. Lan Wangji does not know what more to say or what to ask without overstepping or making himself seem more a fool. It has been some time since he last felt so unsteady in every turn of a conversation, like the land under his feet shifts with each word. Not since…

“These look very nice, though,” Wen Qionglin says, interrupting Lan Wangji’s thoughts before they can spiral too deeply. His face stays locked in that maybe-smile, maybe-grimace.

Lan Wangji makes a small sound of agreement. He has not yet tried any, either. Instead, he sips his tea and returns to his work.

“Is… is it to your liking?”

“Mm.” He cannot help but remember the tea Wen Qionglin had offered him so many years before. This is much better, of course, but the care remains the same. “Thank you.”

“I’m glad.” Wen Qionglin dips his head, hair falling over his shoulders like a curtain.

As Lan Wangji continues to adjust the clothing, he finds that he does not mind Wen Qionglin’s impassive stare as much as he thought he might. Occasionally, Lan Wangji glances up when he needs to trim a thread—Wen Qionglin’s eyes dart away each time. They do not speak, and Lan Wangji does not mind the silence, either.

“Here,” he says once he finishes adding the last loop. “Try it.”

Stiffly, Wen Qionglin takes the robes and moves behind a set of screens to change. Before long, the rustle of fabric ends and Wen Qionglin steps out, fully dressed. He tests the fastening, stretching his arms this way and that.

“Do they fit to your liking?” Lan Wangji asks.

“They are not tearing or coming loose,” Wen Qionglin says, not truly answering the question.

“There is a mirror, if you like.”

“Ah… no, it is fine.” Wen Qionglin’s stance becomes hesitant once more. “Thank you. You have done so much for me…”

One step forward, one step back. Sometimes, Wen Qionglin seems more akin to the rabbits that frolic in their hidden corner of the Cloud Recesses than anything else.

“…and… I am afraid… that I have one more favor to ask of you.”

Wen Qionglin drops to his knees and lowers his head.

“This is not something I felt I could ask with A-Yuan present.” Echoing the first night they met, his fists clench and his nails press into his skin. “If… if I… if I were to ever lose control and look as though I were going to harm A-Yuan, or, or anyone… please… do not hesitate to destroy me.”

Destroy. Not kill, like a person, but destroy—eradicate, like an object. A weapon. The blank facade and rough, even voice does little to betray Wen Qionglin’s true thoughts and feelings, but his words pay him no such courtesy.

Here, there is no resentful energy to cloud his mind. His chains are gone. The last vestments of the Burial Mounds were burnt with the flick of a talisman. The Ghost General is no longer.

All that remains is a man who cares for his family above all else.

When Lan Wangji does not immediately answer, Wen Qionglin continues, “Please. If… if it were to happen, I would not want to exist, knowing that I was…”

He trails off. Lan Wangji can only guess at what he will not allow himself to say.

“I will subdue you,” Lan Wangji eventually says. He does not want to consider the possibility of killing Lan Yuan’s last connection to his past, but he also cannot allow innocents to be hurt. It is the last thing either of them wants.

Without even a flinch, Wen Qionglin’s nails break his skin. “Before,” he says, “Young Master Wei had made a charm to help me remain in control until he…”

Lan Wangji watches, aghast, as a trickle of dark ichor begins to stream down Wen Qionglin’s hand as his nail digs further in, fully piercing his flesh.

“…he never had a chance to make another. I do not know what exactly it was…”

“Please sit,” Lan Wangji says, hoping to at least give Wen Qionglin something to do with his hands that is not harming himself. He reaches into his qiankun pouch and retrieves a strip of cloth.

Wen Qionglin complies, though he keeps his gaze trained on the table. He only looks up, wide eyed, once Lan Wangji takes his hand to wrap his hand over the wound. Wen Qionglin stares at his own hand like he was not even aware he had been hurting himself.

Truly, Lan Wangji has no idea if bandaging it would help, but he cannot sit idly and do nothing.

“Gusu Lan has many methods for calming the spirit.” He finishes the binding and retracts his hands, lacing them together. The memory of Wen Qionglin’s cool skin fades quickly from his fingertips. “I will see what I can do.”

“Thank you.” Wen Qionglin turns his hand, examining the bandage. Seemingly satisfied, he flexes his fingers, curling and uncurling them before laying his palms flat on the table. “I… I really have no way to repay you.”

“There is no need.” He will say it as many times as necessary until Wen Qionglin believes it. Lan Wangji’s lips curl up a fraction and he says, “You make A-Yuan happy. That is enough for me.”

“He… he is not in danger, because of me?”

“I have taken precautions. And… he is a smart child.”

It is a smile, Lan Wangji thinks, whenever Wen Qionglin’s mouth pulls back, taut and strained. “Yes,” Wen Qionglin agrees. “He has the best of all of us.”

Lan Yuan holds a legacy he does not fully understand, not yet. But Wen Qionglin is correct: even at his young age, Lan Yuan’s eyes and mind are bright, his demeanor gentle and warm.

(Like Wei Ying, Lan Wangji always thought whenever a spark of curiosity would set Lan Yuan alight. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say like Wen Qing—Lan Wangji only met her once, in a time where she showed only a fraction of her potential, but even malnourished, tear-soaked and clutching her brother’s body, there was a fire in her that was unparalleled.

Like Wen Qionglin, Lan Wangji thinks now whenever he watches Lan Yuan assist other disciples, offering kind words and generosity.

The grief that Lan Wangji carries with him grows once more, heavy with the names of the Wen remnants he never knew.

His greatest fear is that of all things, this will be what Lan Wangji imparts on his son.)

“You wish to see him more,” Lan Wangji ventures.

“Ah…” Once more, Wen Qionglin’s head bows, as if he were guilty. “Of course I do.”

Lan Wangji has thought of this, too. When he lies sleeplessly at night in the empty Jingshi, his mind entertains fanciful, impossible notions: that Wei Ying is alive with him in the Cloud Recesses, that he could get to see Lan Yuan grow up in a world burdened only by the ghosts of war and not its pyres. Lately, another figure has started to appear in these fantasies—none other than Wen Qionglin, safe and guiding Lan Yuan through life with the memories of those he knew.

Instead, Lan Wangji can only arrange clandestine meetings and hope that Wen Qionglin will climb through the window to spend only a few meager hours with the child they would both go to the end of the world and back for. Wen Qionglin is a wanted man, welcomed by neither the living or the dead. He would not make it two feet into the Cloud Recesses before he was detained or worse.

Gentian-violet colors Lan Wangji’s vision. Wen Qionglin already escaped from one prison. He does not deserve to be confined to another.

“But I know it is not possible,” Wen Qionglin murmurs. “I am happy to see him at all. I waited for three and a half years, before. A few weeks is nothing. As long as he is safe…”

He wants you to be safe too, Lan Wangji thinks. In the mornings, Wen Qionglin does not get to see the sad way Lan Yuan pulls himself up to the sill, staring out at the lands beyond, wondering.

There is no easy answer.

“He often asks about you,” Lan Wangji says. “And your whereabouts.”

Wen Qionglin’s milky eyes seem to pierce right through him. “I go everywhere,” he says, lips twitching again. “One can cover a lot of land when there is no need for sleep.”

An undercurrent of something runs through his words—bitterness? Pain? Resignation? Lan Wangji cannot tell, but his lungs seize with realization.

Three and a half years, trapped in the dark, constantly awake. And however long before that, and now, constantly on the run except for the few hours of reprieve every fortnight.

It would be enough to drive anyone mad, and yet here Wen Qionglin sits before him: calm, alert. The strength he must possess is unfathomable, Lan Wangji thinks.

“You do not rest at all?” he asks, awed.

“It is just the nature of fierce corpses. I simply cannot, Young Master Lan.”

An idea begins to turn in Lan Wangji’s head. He inhales, tentative, and says, “If I may, I would like to try something.”

Wen Qionglin does not answer immediately. When he does, he watches the shimmer and reflection in his long-cooled tea rather than Lan Wangji. “With all due respect, Hanguang-jun, I do not know if sleep is something I desire.”

Nightmares are a familiar friend to Lan Wangji. He understands. Still, he says, “Certain Gusu Lan compositions are meant for peace and healing. For meditation. If you wish to decline, I will refrain.” He pauses, and then adds, “I would hope it would not put you to sleep.”

“Well,” Wen Qionglin says after a moment of his own, “I think it would be a privilege to hear you play, if nothing else.”

With permission granted, Lan Wangji clears a space on the table and summons his guqin. His fingers hover over the strings as he decides what to play.

A song for healing. For respite. For feeling the warmth of dawn, for dreaming of something better.

A song he once thought should only be heard by one other, but that has soothed Lan Yuan back to slumber more times than Lan Wangji can count.

Wen Qionglin does not react at the first few phrases, but soon, Lan Wangji sees him sway in time from the periphery of his vision, inflexible and unnatural, moved by the melody like chimes by the wind.

As the rain plays accompaniment, Lan Wangji’s (Wei Ying’s) song rings gently through the night.

 


 

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, snow white robes gliding over the Library Pavilion's floors, “may I speak with you?”

Lan Wangji sets his brush down and places the book he had been using to prepare his lessons aside. “Of course, Brother,” he says. He knows the tense set of Lan Xichen’s jaw, the line of worry between his brows that he cannot hide. It has never precluded anything good.

With a slight smile, Lan Xichen takes a seat nearby, lacing his fingers together. “How are you?”

“I am well,” Lan Wangji replies. It is only partially a lie. There is an emptiness in him he does not think will ever leave, but it has been more bearable as of late. “And you, Brother?”

He knows the answer already. Relationships with the other sects have been strained ever since Lanling Jin’s secret was revealed. The elders still do what they can to limit Lan Wangji’s involvement, but he hears things all the same.

“I have been better,” says Lan Xichen, weariness etched under his eyes. “But I wanted to check in with you, Wangji. Are you aware that there are… rumors? About you?”

Lan Wangji hums noncommittally.

“Please tell me you are not rendezvousing with a secret lover.”

“Ridiculous.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Lan Xichen adds, each word carefully measured. “You know I would be happy for you if you found someone.”

I would be happy to see you move on, he means.

“But with everything going on, and the elders… Just… I don’t want you to make things more difficult for yourself.”

“I do not have a lover,” Lan Wangji says. This is not a lie.

He has found someone—someone who is secret, who he rendezvouses with. Someone who hums lullabies for his son and who holds a stronger conviction than most anyone else Lan Wangji knows.

Wen Qionglin is most certainly not a lover, but he is perhaps someone Lan Wangji might now call a friend.

(Move on. He can almost hear Lan Xichen begging him. Move on. Don’t be like our father.

Lan Wangji will never stop loving Wei Ying. That is the simple truth. It flows through him, in his blood, in his soul. He is not like their father, he thinks. His love is not a shackle. Loving Wei Ying is freeing. It always has been.)

Lan Xichen looks at him for a long moment, mouth pinched between a frown and a smile. “Be careful,” he says, because he has always been too good at reading Lan Wangji.

“You have no need to worry about me,” Lan Wangji assures him.

“Oh, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, tinged with the special melancholy of a man who grew up too quickly, “I will always worry about you.”

 


 

“Ning-gege, what happened to your shoulder?”

“Hm?”

Leaves crunch under Wen Qionglin’s boot as he twists to look at his shoulder. Close to the back, a large tear reveals ashen skin and a deep gash, crusted with something black and flaking.

Lan Yuan gasps and tugs at his sleeve. “Ning-gege! Why didn’t you say you were hurt?”

“Ah…” Kneeling to meet Lan Yuan at his level, Wen Qionglin says, “I hadn’t realized. It is very difficult for me to feel such things.”

The golden light streaming through the trees dapples over Wen Qionglin’s hair, sheening an undercurrent of brown matched by Lan Yuan’s. In its warmth, there is a glimpse of the life he once had.

“I’m sorry, A-Yuan,” Wen Qionglin continues. “I-I didn’t realize… That is, your gift…”

“It’s okay,” Lan Yuan says reassuringly, patting Wen Qionglin’s hand. He turns his bright eyes to Lan Wangji. “Hanguang-jun can fix it.”

“Only if it is not too much trouble…”

With a final glance over the clearing’s wards, Lan Wangji nods. In the light of various rumors, they decided to vary the timing and locale of each visit. The difficulty with choosing outdoor areas to meet is that there is an inherent risk of discovery, even in a remote location with multiple levels of precautionary talismans around the perimeter.

The lack of any clean surfaces on which to work is another issue.

It is not the first time Wen Qionglin has come to one of their gatherings sporting some sort of injury, but the lesion that he sports now is far more gruesome than any of the small scrapes and bruises he has shown in the past. He always insisted that so long as the skin remains mostly intact that they would resolve on their own.

(“I do not know the specifics,” he had said that night once the music faded, running his fingertips over the bandage Lan Wangji had wrapped his hand in. “Young Master Wei thought it might have to do with resentful energy. Like a normal golden core will heal its owner, this energy does the same for me.”

The odd phrasing had been less apparent to Lan Wangji at the time. He was still shocked that he could spear through his own hand and not notice. “Does it hurt?” he asked.

“No,” Wen Qionglin replied. “That is one of the benefits of fierce corpses. It is much easier to continue fighting when you cannot feel pain.”

Lan Wangji sat, speechless, struck once more by the nature of Wen Qionglin’s existence. No food, no sleep. No pain—no sensation.

“It is not all bad,” said Wen Qionglin. Lan Wangji could not tell who he was trying to reassure. “I can feel energy, in a sense. If another fierce corpse struck me, I could feel the resentment. If you were to strike me with your blade, I am sure I would feel it.”

“If it does not hurt,” Lan Wangji started, curiosity speaking before he stopped, unsure if it would be acceptable to ask.

“What does it feel like?” Tilting his teacup, eyes fixed on the liquid inside, Wen Qionglin said, “It feels like burning. I felt your music, too.”

“I am sorry,” Lan Wangji said, guilt rushing cold along his skin. “I did not realize…”

Smiling—it is a smile for all that it is misshapen, Lan Wangji is certain—Wen Qionglin said, “Do not apologize, Young Master Lan. It was nice.”

“Yet it burned?”

“Yes,” Wen Qionglin said. “Like sunlight.”)

“I can fix the robe,” Lan Wangji says, following Wen Qionglin’s lead and kneeling beside him. The dirt is a less than ideal place, but he has dealt with worse. “But… this injury…”

“Is it very large?”

“Yes.” And deep. Through the residue peeks a flash of bone.

“Do you know how to stitch wounds?”

Lan Wangji is trained more in the act of using music and cultivation to heal, but in war, everyone learns the basics. “I have not done so in quite some time.”

“It will be difficult since I cannot see,” Wen Qionglin says, “and stitches were never something I was very good at… but I should be able to walk you through the steps.”

Over Wen Qionglin’s shoulder, Lan Wangji watches Lan Yuan’s face scrunch in a serious expression. “Can I watch?” he asks.

“That… that is up to Hanguang-jun,” Wen Qionglin defers.

“Ning-gege said we were doctors.” Turning his large, shining eyes to Lan Wangji, Lan Yuan bounces eagerly on his heels. “I want to learn! And then I can help Ning-gege too.”

As Lan Wangji’s heart melts, Wen Qionglin says, “It will be very unpleasant. Are you sure?”

“Yes! Please, Hanguang-jun?”

“You may listen to Wen Qionglin’s instructions,” Lan Wangji decides. The other man is right: it is unpleasant, and while a corpse might be better to practice technique on than a living person, Lan Yuan is still too young for Lan Wangji to be comfortable with him watching. “When we return to the Cloud Recesses, I will find medicinal texts for you.”

Lan Yuan pouts but complies, moving to sit more comfortably before Wen Qionglin.

“I am very happy to hear that you want to learn to heal, A-Yuan,” Wen Qionglin says, patting Lan Yuan’s head. “When you are older, I will teach you more.”

A radiant grin splits Lan Yuan’s face. He settles, ready to listen.

Wen Qionglin’s rough voice guides Lan Wangji through the process of cleaning the wound and stitching the flesh back together. It is far from how Lan Wangji imagined spending his evening, but he finds he does not mind.

For all that he claims to not be an expert, Wen Qionglin holds a wealth of knowledge. Not only on medicine, but history: his own and the ones he has learned in his travels. He begins slowly, shyly, but over time he speaks more comfortably, with and without Lan Yuan’s presence as their meetings continue and the seasons change.

Lan Wangji learns too of Wen Qing, their grandmother, their uncles and other family members. He felt their compassion for only a night—even among the dull, barren landscapes of the Burial Mounds, they shone with a vivacity to match the emblem etched on their clothes. Of course Wei Ying was drawn to them.

Rarely, Wen Qionglin tells stories of Wei Ying. Lan Wangji did not think it was possible, but he thinks he falls more in love with Wei Ying with every tale. Once, he might have seethed with envy that it was Wen Qionglin who saw the sides of Wei Ying he was always determined to hide from the world. Now, all that is left is relief—relief that even though he is gone, there is still more of him to discover.

Soon enough, Lan Wangji counts the days until each visit with Wen Qionglin. It has been so long since he had anything to look forward to.

Yet one morning, when a frantic disciple knocks hurriedly outside of the Library Pavilion and rushes him to the Mingshi, Lan Wangji realizes:

Like all good things in his life, it does not last.