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see you yesterday

Chapter Text

“I need to think.”

“Okay. Okay, Lan Zhan.”

 

After, Lan Wangji walks home in a murmuring fog. He sits in his kitchen, his tea breathing itself cold, his thoughts spattered across the table. He listens to the rain.

Wei Ying. Wei Wuxian.

The thing he used to dream about, the red-eyed ghoul assembled out of crawling newsprint and ghost lure talismans. The boy who raised an army of fierce corpses, the vengeful spirit that strolled through the Yiling Supervisory Office with the patience of an old curse and cut open Wen disciples like fish.

Do not associate with evil, says his uncle's voice, uninflected. Tablet stone.

He believes Wei Ying told him the truth. It is, to an extent, the same story the sects tell. Wei Ying’s cultivation made his mind sick, then turned it inside out. He killed hundreds of people. He doesn’t deny it. Lan Wangji almost understands why he was painted a demon—the story needs that kind of evil, not a boy with rainwater eyes who looks surprised if he’s treated with kindness.

It frightens him that Wei Ying still uses those methods. Could you do that? Wei Ying asked him. Watch everything that happens here, and just shrug and go about your day? No, but Lan Wangji has never been a grenade missing its pin, a falling arc everyone watched to see what it would rip apart.

What am I to you?

He stares into the pale green pond of his teacup. Sometimes when his mind wanders he feels the tire-scream of the truck about to hit him, the eggshell crack of a ceiling about to fall. He is tired—his spirit feels wrung and heavy as sopping laundry. How many more deaths he can withstand? It is so hard to think.

The rain goes on, a flickering curtain outside the window. What am I to you?

I don’t know.

As a teenager, he read library books about bodies in space which can’t be directly observed—too distant, too strange. They can only be predicted by gravity, by the way they bend space and time. An entire history in waves. For years he has looked at himself and seen ripples, a gravitational pull he couldn’t understand, curving him away from his old shape. Then Wei Ying stumbled into view amid yellow bus handrails, grinning as though afraid to stop, grinning at him. The living answer to a question Lan Wangji couldn’t ask.

He loved Wei Wuxian. Loved him, tried to save him; then forgot him. No—was made to forget him, surely, with magic.

Lan Wangji opens the Jin sect database. In the search box, he enters his birth name.

His skin tightens. One result. He changes the search: all Gusu Lan-affiliated persons. Again, one result. He almost laughs. He is the only Lan disciple with a record.

Lan Zhan (LAN WANGJI) / 001886339A / Cat. 5

He opens it, and stares at the record screen. At all the maddening blank space, as his heart begins to fail.

 



39.

 

His phone calculator blinks 42.00, then 5018.21. It flickers, rheumy mist curling in from the corners, and crashes.

“Cool,” Wei Ying mutters. “Great, that’s so encouraging.”

He sits on the counter and tries to think, thumping his heels against the wood. His heart jumps every time there’s a new message—but it’s just spirit-noise, the characters frizzing like hairs.

ok ok ok ok ok ok
wei wuxian
qsjka39#;l’3r

Ghosts drift around the walls, each one a parenthesis hanging open. They’re getting louder, and the noise transmutes into pressure—fingers jabbing the backs of Wei Ying’s eyes, a forcep squeeze around his head. His lungs ache, and he coughs painfully into his sleeve. He hasn’t been exposed to this much resentment since the Burial Mounds, and he’s brittle with anger and grief that aren’t his own. 

hello
ai bkhwh’f’9
ha ha…………….ha HA!!!!!
ok ok ok ok ok ok ok

“Quit it.” 

They won’t stop. 

He sits in the backroom to meditate. Gives up after ten minutes. His insides are leaden, cold stones lugged in his belly, and when he tries to stand his left hip grinds in its socket. The fall into the Burial Mounds broke his back, hips, legs, and wrists—and then he had to walk, and run, and crawl. He healed what he could with resentful energy, but there are still phantoms, sometimes. 

why am i how can where am i don’t want
wei wuxian
NO get me you ftsitrdlgb;kjn;;k;

WEI WUXIAN

His phone buzzes in his hand, and keeps buzzing.

Fogged screen. Lan Zhan’s number. Wei Ying jolts, brain blanked, and his thumb smears across the screen in its blind search for ‘accept’.

“Lan Zhan?”

“Wei Ying.”

He could be falling through the air, tumbling a hundred feet, but he feels caught, pressing Lan Zhan’s voice to his ear, like listening for the gasp of the sea in a nautilus shell.

“Hi.” His hands are shaking. “I, um. Didn’t think you’d ever call again. Hi, I’m… hi, Lan Zhan.”

He leans against the counter. A bike streaks past the window, the yellow gaze of its lamp arrowing through the rain. His heart is beating so fast he can feel his pulse under his tongue. His whole jaw thuds. He hears:

“I have one as well.”

“One... what?”

“A Jin sect record,” Lan Zhan says neatly. “I have one too. The files have been deleted. But it follows yours, sequentially.”

“Why would you have one?”

“I’m… uncertain. I have no memory of being in Lanling at that time.”

“Oh.”

Lan Zhan spent three years in seclusion—probably, according to the internet. But if that was a punishment, it came from Gusu Lan, not Lanling Jin.

Blindly passing shop shelves, Wei Ying climbs onto the cold brick ledge under the window. His lungs are shaky, air swooping in and out of him. He stares into the dark rectangle of his phone like it’s a cracked fairytale mirror that might show him Lan Zhan’s face.

“You, uh, fought in the war, right? You must have.”

“Yes.”

“We were probably in different places, but—do you remember me? Did we ever… talk? Did we—”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember much of the war.”

“Oh. I… okay. I mean, probably not much you’d want to remember, right?” He hears Lan Zhan hesitate, the stop in his breath. “Did you—get hurt, was it an injury?”

“Xiong-zhang says that I was unwell.”

“Unwell.” Chilly term. Gluey sleep and pill bottles arranged in a bedside still-life. “That's all?”

“Yes.”

Lan Zhan’s footsteps stop, and there’s only the scatter of rain on his parasol, gray-blue sound. Wei Ying leans his cheek against the window, his reflection hovering above the sidewalk. The sky is an upturned bowl of dark ink.

He says, “But we definitely knew each other before tonight, didn’t we?”

“Yes.”

Thinking about Lan Zhan’s song folds him up inside. He wonders why Lan Zhan played it for him, why he knows it at all.

“It hurts,” Lan Zhan says, “when I try to remember you.”

“Hurts you?”

“My back.”

Wei Ying frowns so hard his temples ache. “So that, that says magic—like a curse, or… do you think Lanling Jin Sect did something to you too?”

“It’s possible.”

“It would have to be a mind-suppression seal, right? What else would…” 

“I think so.”

“Yeah.” A seal strong enough to bind Lan Zhan for years would have been made with a blade. Wei Ying is sick at the thought of Jin disciples doing that to Lan Zhan. “Can I…” Hesitating, “I could take a look, if you want? Next time we see each other—I mean, if you want to see each other, see me, it’s okay if you d—”

“I want to see you.”

“Lan Zhan—” A sea-surge of happiness crashes through him. “You—that’s, I’m—I’m really glad.”

“I will be there soon,” Lan Zhan says. “Is that okay?”

“Here? Yes, of course, Lan Zhan, it’s more than okay—”

Lan Zhan is coming back because he needs Wei Ying to get out of this loop. It isn’t complicated, except the part where Wei Ying is an exile and a murderer. But, god, he’s so glad, all the same.

He can hear Lan Zhan walking again—steady rhythm, matted voices, cars sloshing through roadside rivers. I want to see you. I want to see you. 

“So I, um. I don’t remember you. At all.” Shadows flap down the alley like kites in strong wind, dipping and wrinkling. Wei Ying watches them go. “And I was thinking that was… because I just don’t remember anything, or anyone, really, I’m just the sinkhole where memories die. But actually it’s weird that I don’t remember you. I… feel like I’m meant to. Like I’ve known you a really long time.” He laughs at himself. “Sorry, what a—what a line, huh? I know how it sounds. Ah, you can tell me to—”

“Wei Ying.” When Lan Zhan says his name it goes into him like through a vein. “It feels like that to me as well.”

“Okay.” He’s smiling helplessly. "Um... Mianmian thought it was weird too.”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “Though she has never mentioned you.”

“Well, it’s not like we could see each other before. But she’s done… so much to keep me safe, I owe her infinitely.”

“She believes in you.”

“Yeah. God knows why, but… yeah.” Wei Ying tips his feet and tugs on his sneaker laces, just to feel his wrist tendons pull. “Lan Zhan... I really thought I’d never see you again.”

“I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

“No, god, no, it’s fine, you,” even saying it feels like tempting fate, “Lan Zhan, you should hate me. You should th—”

“I don’t.” There’s a space. As Wei Ying opens his mouth to speak, Lan Zhan says, “I think of you as my friend.”

It breaks between Wei Ying’s ribs, high tide, his heart swaying like a boat with each new happy swell. “Lan Zhan.” All his words have turned to foam. “Me too.” He could shout, it feels so huge and important in his chest. “I’ve, um. Really never had a friend like you.”

“Is that good?”

“Yeah. It’s good.”

Then his sore lungs catch, and he coughs into his sleeve.

“How is the energy?”

“I’m fine, don’t worry.” He wheezes for air. “A bit swamped, but...”

“Wait for me,” Lan Zhan says. “Try to take it easy. I am nearly there.”

So Wei Ying takes slight, inching breaths. Listens to Lan Zhan walk, and the shuttling of the city.

“Hey, Lan Zhan.”

“Yes?”

“We’re gonna crack this.”

“I know.”

From his own mouth it sounds like bullshit. Lan Zhan makes it real, makes him believe it. With a burst of energy, Wei Ying shunts himself down from the ledge.

The ghost with his face is in the aisle between the shelves. Starker than it's ever been. 

“No,” Wei Ying breathes. “Not yet, listen, I don’t—”

The shop begins to scream. Resentful energy slithers around their feet, vines between his trinkets, crawls its fingers up the walls.

“Wei Ying?”

On the other side of the shop window, Lan Zhan stands under his blue parasol, phone in hand. His face changes in horror.

Wei Ying!

His voice has never sounded like that.

It’s okay, Wei Ying wants to say, but then he can’t speak at all.

He’s running out of time.

 



40.

 

Lan Wangji 21:02
What was that?

Wei Ying 21:02
ghost

Lan Wangji 21:03
Mo Xuanyu?

Wei Ying 21:07
no
not mo xuanyu

Wei Ying 21:09
come to the shop
i’ll try to explain

Lan Wangji stares out of the cab window. The street is a navy satin shine, lamps whirling past. He has no food; he doesn't have the detector. He needs to get to Wei Ying.

His father’s watch shows four-fifteen. Slower and slower.

He keeps seeing the half-lit, bloody-mouthed figure who stood over Wei Ying, staring down at him like a mourner at a grave. Resentment made his dark robes flutter. He looked like Wei Ying—like Wei Wuxian, but not as Lan Wangji has dreamed him. Gray, shattered. Tear tracks cut through the dust on his cheeks.

Some ghosts can change appearances. There will be ghosts who wish to harm Wei Ying, and how better to hunt him than in that shape. If it is a trick, it is exquisitely, viciously observed. Those were Wei Ying’s eyes, gored with pain. Lan Wangji would know them anywhere, in any face.

The cab pulls up. Lan Wangji steps onto the curb, and Wei Ying is in the shop doorway. Lit from behind by talismans, a dusky red halo. Lan Wangji thinks, that’s Wei Wuxian. He doesn’t look very frightening, leaning against the doorjamb, hoodie sleeves like mittens over his hands.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says carefully.

“Hi,” Lan Wangji says.

“Are you… okay?”

“Yes. I’m okay.”

“Oh, um—come in.”

As he steps through the door Wei Ying holds open for him, Wei Ying’s arm shimmers—like interference, like a picture sparkling over a bad connection. A hundred minor interactions which aren’t how light should behave when touching a solid body. Lan Wangji doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. He knows the resentful energy is dense here, and getting worse.

After the door jangles shut, he says, “The ghost.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying skips his finger over a little wooden carousel on a shelf, dark wisps tangling into his hand. “Yeah, I was going...” He turns the crank. The horses bob to a tinny nursery rhyme. He glances at Lan Wangji. “Sit, sit, you’re making me nervous.”

Lan Wangji sits in a tulip chintz armchair, backpack leaning on his ankle like a familiar cat. Wei Ying doesn’t sit. He leans against the shelf, gaze fixed on the carousel.

“It’s me,” he says. “From the night I… That night.”

“How?”

Wei Ying is alive. How can he have a ghost?

“Don’t know. We figured time was broken, but… I don’t know.”

“And he is trying to...”

“I mean—he’s pretty good at it. He’s done it several times. He got you too, with the wall? I don’t think he even noticed you were there, he was just focused on me.” Wei Ying turns the crank again. The horses go up and down. Then the twinkling music throttles and dies, but the horses still twitch in place. “I tried... talking to him, tried controlling him. On the roof, before he pushed me off. Didn’t work.” When Lan Wangji regards him in silence, “It’s okay, Lan Zhan. Haven’t tried outrunning him yet. How fast can a ghost go, really?”

“Why?”

Wei Ying swallows, a deliberate motion of his throat. Then he says, “I used to be head disciple of Yunmeng Jiang Sect. Did you—does my file…”

“No, nothing.”

A Jiang. Lan Wangji aches like a sick tooth. He made Wei Ying walk into a Jiang sect office.

“They took me in when I was a kid. We grew up together. Me, and Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Yanli. Even after I defected, they still tried to look after me. They still tried. We were going to stick together forever, that’s what we used to say.”

Jiang Yanli was a named photo in Wei Ying’s file. He was tried for her murder.

Wei Ying says, “I don’t remember what happened that night. I know that my shijie was there, when all those cultivators came to kill me. And I know when the magic got out of control, it hit her.” His cheek flickers, cracking the mask of his face. “I killed her. It’s my fault.”

“I knew that she was killed,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “I didn’t know how.” 

Wei Ying doesn’t seem to hear. His expression is dislocated. The glare of bone where it shouldn’t be. “That was when I… that was the end. I think I was just gone, after that.”

“And you believe the ghost is…”

“I don’t know.” The tremor of Wei Ying’s hand wobbles the shelf. “I’ve never... because it was my fault, so what right do I have to talk about it, or feel sad, or... And I’d help them all over again, the Wens. Which is as good as saying that I’d let her die again.”

“Why did you help them?”

Wei Ying’s revenge upon Qishan Wen disciples was the first recorded use of demonic cultivation in history. So furious it needed a new kind of magic.

“I had to. Like, it wasn’t noble and selfless or whatever, I owed them—so much, everything, and I couldn’t, I couldn’t ignore them, they were being… You know what the Jin Sect were doing to them?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “It was shameful. Abhorrent.”

“Then why didn’t Gusu Lan stop it?”

“We are… indebted to the Jin. They helped us to rebuild after our home was burned—at great expense, in wartime.”

“So you just—do what they say?” He can hear anger tugging at Wei Ying’s voice, like a fish on a line. 

“Many of our disciples were killed by Wen cultivators,” he says. “Our home was burned. Xiong-zhang’s position is difficult. It does not excuse—”

The anger lights Wei Ying’s eyes. “Don’t you Lans have a rule against mistreatment of prisoners?”

How does Wei Ying know that?

“At times we... fall short of our sect teachings.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying gazes away into the gloom of the shop. Shakes his head. “Well… when I found Wen Qing and she told me what was happening, what the Jins were doing, I had this sense of—like, flash forward. I was imagining looking back, wishing I’d done something. And I couldn’t—I didn’t want any regrets. That’s all.”

“No regrets,” Lan Wangji echoes, and a needle of pain goes up his spine. “Then you defected from your sect?”

Wei Ying nods. “They couldn’t keep... it was an impossible position.”

“Do they know you’re alive?”

“No. Which is good. Jiang Cheng should have that, at least.” Wei Ying’s mouth gives an odd puppet-jerk. “Huaisang said he hunts demonic cultivators now.”

Lan Wangji had wondered why Wei Ying hides himself, when he shows little regard for his own safety. Here is an answer: because he believes his brother is happier thinking he is dead. 

“Wei Ying...”

Like a door-slam, “It’s fine.”

It isn’t, Lan Wangji wants to say. It isn’t, it hurts you. Instead he says, “How is the energy?”

Not so bad in this loop, it seems, but Wei Ying’s meridians are still staticky and clogged when Wei Ying sits in the other armchair and lets Lan Wangji take his wrist. He doesn’t talk.

The fall of Wei Wuxian was witnessed by hundreds, but his ghost’s agony seems so private it scalds. Grief can be a body numbed under ice. It can also be a fire raging—chewing, peeling, cracking, breaking. Roof tiles clacking on gravel, walls bending like playing cards, flames billowing against the black sky. Wei Ying burned that night. He burned until there was almost nothing left. But he only speaks about his grief to lay it out for judgment, or laugh at it. He seems embarrassed, waiting for a flinch. 

Lan Wangji releases him. Nods at Wei Ying’s murmured thanks.

“I am sorry,” he says.

Wei Ying frowns. “For what?”

“For accessing your file without consulting you.”

“I’d have denied it,” Wei Ying says bluntly. “That’s why you did it, right? It’s okay—I don’t blame you. When did you, um… what was it?”

“Many things.” The inventions. Wei Ying’s ghost eyes, and the darkness trailing him like a shadow. Their song, from Wei Ying’s fingers and mouth. “You’re not very good at hiding.”

“Oh.” Wei Ying laughs, low. “Then—does it worry you? What I might do?”

He told Wei Ying he would not report him. What if Wei Ying loses control again? Now that the seal is broken, Lan Wangji doesn’t believe the Jin Sect will choose exile a second time. 

There is a solution his mind wants to hide from itself, like a secret in a coy palm. Wei Ying would be comfortable in the Jingshi. He would be unable to leave it, for his own safety, but he would want for nothing. Lan Wangji imagines bringing him tea and breakfast congee—Wei Ying with a plum-colored bite on his throat, safe from everything that would harm him, reading in Lan Wangji’s bed—and feels a guilty squirm of horror.

“I can’t judge what you’ve done,” he says. “But... I believe you can control it.” 

“You do.”

“Yes.”

“Hm.” Wei Ying’s shoulders hitch. He looks down, then up, eyes glittering. “Lan Zhan ah, you keep surprising me.”

That scrape of eye contact makes Lan Wangji’s stomach hot. He doesn’t know how to tell Wei Ying—how to articulate the ferocious thing in himself. He has to reckon with the great, wild force of it every time he looks at Wei Ying. He did not know he could want someone like this, but perhaps he only did not remember.

He says, “I have another.”

“Surprise?”

“Yes.” No reason to hide it any longer. “I have not been forthcoming about a condition of my survival.” He takes out On the Recollections of Spirits from his backpack. “I cannot leave the library without this. If I try, the loop ends.”

“Um. Okay?” Wei Ying flips through it, the gust of pages stirring his hair. Reads, skips, reads. Makes a derisive noise. “Huh. This is… super academic. Also, whew, every now and again I’m reminded that sect cultivators are years behind the curve.” He drags his gaze up. “So, what’s special about it? Or is this magic also totally arbitrary, in addition to being impolite?”

“Most likely,” Lan Wangji says. “But there is something.” He leafs through to page 252. “Here.”

“Wait, fuck, this is—”

“Yours.”

“I thought all this was gone.” Wei Ying’s fingertips slalom around the photograph’s edge. “I thought it all got, you know, got burned or destroyed or whatever—”

“Lanling Jin Sect have it.”

“Huh?”

“They have this, and all your papers, in a vault.” The moral opposition was all a smokescreen. “Anything they could scavenge.”

He watches Wei Ying absorb that. “I don’t… Wow. Okay.” Wei Ying taps the page under his hand. “Do you… know what this is?”

Lan Wangji nods. “You restored consciousness to a fierce corpse.” An incredible accomplishment.

“God, I can’t believe somebody put this in a book. Like, what a great fuck-you, but they probably got arrested for it.”

Almost certainly.

“I’d forgotten this.” Wei Ying coils his ponytail around his hand and tugs, face lined with thought. “Maybe we can use it to help Mo Xuanyu? But there’s no body to put his ghost back into. And I’m good, but I can’t make one out of nothing.”

“If there is a ghost,” Lan Wangji says, “could there also be a body?”

“Maybe? I don’t know what happens when you get trapped in your own special time paradox. Like, ontologically. How would we even find out? Locate him in a bunch of different loops? That means crashing out of loops until we hit the jackpot and… I don’t know about you, Lan Zhan, but I’m so, so tired of dying.”

“Yes.” Lan Wangji is tired of dying. He is tired of watching Wei Ying die.

“How’d you find this, anyway?”

“It’s classed as restricted material in the school’s library.” Lan Wangji palm-irons his skirt over his knees. There’s an agitation in his wrists, his chest. “Luo Qingyang helped me to access it. I didn’t know it contained your writings when I requested it.”

“So it’s for your work?”

“I am interested in spiritual memory and... whether it can be restored.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying is wide-eyed, “wow, you could help a lot of ghosts pass on if you worked out how to do that, it would be… kind of world-changing, really. But—controversial, I know. This is all just academic, right?”

“Mn.”

Do not associate

“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.” Wei Ying’s smile is gentle. “I can decipher this part for you, if you want. You’re not—it’s fine to understand it, it doesn’t mean you’re doing demonic cultivation.”

“Okay.”

So Wei Ying pulls out paper and transcribes his notes into legible characters. Then he breaks each musical phrase into its components, with their meanings. It’s far from the music Lan Wangji’s sect uses to speak to ghosts, but there are principles in common.

“—you’re creating a kind of spiritual channel, like a meridian. Here,” Wei Ying circles his rough transcription with a fingertip, “it’s between a body and its soul. For you, it’s between you and the ghost. It’s a two-way street so if, hypothetically, you were going to help a ghost remember, you’d need to be careful about resentful energy overload. That’s one risk—it’s not a filter. It’s just an open door.”

“Understood.” Lan Wangji focuses on the page, trying to commit it to memory.

“And the other risk—more relevant for you—is they’ll take whatever you give, and your spiritual energy… you better give that to the right ghost, or have a great contingency plan for when everything goes to shit.”

“Mn.”

The realization lurches him: he is learning demonic cultivation from Wei Wuxian.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying leans back, head tilted. “I know this is… It’s fine, if you don’t want to look at this stuff. No pressure, okay? Is this… about that ghost you mentioned?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry, I’m just excited. Nobody shares my hobbies, Lan Zhan, except for teenagers who think it’s edgy to trap cat ghosts. And you could do so much with this, in this city alone.”

Perhaps if Lan Wangji had lived somewhere else, the idea would not have occurred to him. But the dead are so restless in this place, and the limitations of orthodox cultivation so evident. He has always known it was unnatural, all these spirits, all this anger, but it is Wei Ying who showed him just how strange it was.

How strange—

Wei Ying is up and pacing. “So! What do we have? A boy we can’t find, who shouldn’t exist. And a book with my unhinged scribble about jamming a soul back into its body. Not a lot to go on. I think we have to do... some kind of restoration? I don’t know. And I think we’re running out of loops, which is—”

“I have a theory,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Ying looks delighted. He leans his elbows on the counter with a sinuous bend of his back, chin perched in his hands. “Okay! Let’s hear it.”

Lan Wangji follows him. “You said that significant resentful energy is needed to power this loop.”

“Sure is.”

“And you believe the origin is a single point.”

“Best guess, yeah.”

“Much of the resentful energy in this area originates from one place. The abandoned building on South Street.”

In his eighteenth loop, the building’s ghosts attacked him—killed him, rather than let him go near. That infestation has gone on for years. The result of an accident, Luo Qingyang said. Gas explosion, the public was told. A seething reservoir of resentment.

Wei Ying begins, “Lan Zhan, I,” and stalls.

“I met Mo Xuanyu there.”

“We don’t know it was Mo Xuanyu.”

“You hid the Wens in an abandoned building,” Lan Wangji presses. “Was that it?”

Silence. Then:

“Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs. “You don’t miss anything, do you.”

The place where the last of the Wen clan were killed. Where many cultivators died, including Jiang Yanli. Where Wei Ying broke the Yin Tiger Seal. And perhaps also the place where Lan Wangji defended him from thirty-three Lan elders.

Lan Wangji says, “I should have realized as soon as I recalled Mo Xuanyu. I was… distracted.” Wei Ying doesn’t answer. A lump swells in his throat like a blood clot. “Wei Ying?”

“Sorry—sorry. Fuck.” Wei Ying’s head sinks, ponytail tumbling, and he grips each opposite elbow, arms walled in front of himself.

“You don’t want to go there.”

“I don’t go there, ever.” He speaks so quietly Lan Wangji has to lean nearer to hear him. “I haven’t, since. I don’t think about it, I don’t—” His face is closed, a blank steel shutter in a night-time street. “I don’t know what we’ll find. And it was years ago, why would...”

“Can you think of anywhere else?”

“No. You’re right. You’re right, it’s obvious, I should have...”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji begins, and doesn’t know what more to say. What to do, in the face of Wei Ying’s distress. He hates it, this uselessness. He wishes Wei Ying would look at him. “It will be dangerous.”

“I know.” Wei Ying says. Finally he lifts up his gaze, and there are pinpricks of stubborn life behind it. “We’ll go.” His arms fall. “But first I’d... like to introduce you to some people.”

“Who?”

“My family.”

“Your...”

“And afterward I promise we’ll… well, whatever’s there, we’ll find it.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t understand. Wei Ying has no one. “Alright,” he says. “Show me.”

He lets Wei Ying lead him out.

The night is charged and dazzling, lights fanning away into the distance, weather-smeared. Lan Wangji can only absorb it a little at a time, like a starred sky through a lens. His mother used to let him look through her telescope, and he remembers a circle of night before his right eye, black fabric strewn with salt. He doesn’t know if it’s a true memory, or if he saw the telescope at the cultivation college and imagined it back into life.

“Not far.” Wei Ying’s arm loops through his. The familiarity dizzies him.

“You live nearby?” he says.

“Mm-hm.” Wei Ying blinks against oncoming headlights. “Not sure how long it’ll last, real-estate developers circle everything like vultures. Somebody once asked if I could put ghosts into a building to stop it from getting bought up and demolished for a high-rise—the answer to that question is ‘yes’, Lan Zhan, and I absolutely would, but I think it probably sets a bad precedent. Also, embarrassing when I have to come take them back out.”

It is clear, when they arrive, that Wei Ying lives in what independent cultivators call a ‘legacy haunt’. Ghostly, yes, but not feral. The tenement building peeks its face between brighter-painted siblings, staircases roped around it like iron creepers. Every fire escape and windowbox froths with plants. Lan Wangji feels himself being watched.

“Well,” Wei Ying says. ”Come on up!” 

Lit by round lozenge bulbs, the pastel stairwell climbs past doors with darkened glass or illuminated rims. They pass a landing barricaded by bikes and garbage bags, another full of upturned crates and plastic coat hangers. The energy here is heavy, but not malevolent.

Wei Ying smiles back at him as they round a corner. “Has a vibe, doesn’t it?”

“It does.”

“High turnover—people don’t like to live here for very long. Except Mrs Nazimova—and the anthropology student on the second floor, they don’t care because the rent’s cheaper than everywhere for about twenty blocks. And some people are just... fine with ghosts.”

As they climb up to the next landing, Wei Ying tosses his voice toward the top rail. “Hi! Don’t be alarmed, this is Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji can’t see anyone. “Who’s there?”

“The uncles. We’ll do proper introductions.” Wei Ying shakes the front door open by its lock, paint-flecks falling. “Um, I’m gonna go in for a second to talk, okay? Didn’t want to explain this by message, so...”

Lan Wangji nods, confused. He thought Wei Ying lived alone.

Voices smudge through the door, blue and lilting. Soon, Wei Ying leans his head out.

“Lan Zhan, you can come in.”

Behind a flimsy partition wall, they slip off their shoes and his coat is hung up. Beyond it is a small kitchen within a dark room, like an illuminated island, the countertops crowded with mismatched families of oil bottles, spices, and food tubs used for storage. A table occupies half the space.

“Wen Ning says he remembers you, Lan Zhan. From before.”

The boy at the table watches them with an uncertain smile. His skin is milk-gray like a cataract. Veins in his neck and jaw stand out in inky webs. Wen Qionglin. Wen Ning. The Ghost General. Not burned to ashes—but here, somehow, in Wei Ying’s apartment.

“Hello, Lan er-gongzi.”

Wei Ying says quietly, “Lanling Jin didn’t destroy him. They kept him and Wen Qing locked up, before Wen Qing got them out. Now they live with me.”

Of course, Lan Wangji thinks. Of course it was a lie.

The fridge whines. In the uncomfortable silence after it thins out, Lan Wangji bows over his hands. “Forgive my rudeness, Wen-gongzi.”

“That’s alright.” Wen Ning’s gentle smile is eerie. “It must be a surprise.” He glances at Wei Ying, a silent exchange Lan Wangji can’t decipher. “Wei Ying said you might stay a while. Would you like to have dinner?”

“Wen Ning likes cooking for people,” Wei Ying says, “but we don’t usually have alive company—”

“And Wei Ying doesn’t always remember to eat,” Wen Ning adds.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “He doesn’t.”

“Wei Ying can hear you!”

Wen Ning dims the tablet he is holding, expression not giving at all. “Wei Ying knows my feelings about this.”

“Hey, sometimes money’s tight, and—”

“Sometimes it isn’t, but he still doesn’t eat enough.”

“Ah, Wen Ning, A-Ning, how could you? We’re practically family, and you wound me like this?”

Lan Wangji says, “You shouldn’t be wounded. He’s correct.”

“Lan Zhan, you too?” Wei Ying mimes being struck in the heart, which is excessive. “Anyway, you have to stay until Wen Qing gets here, you should meet her too.”

“I would like to stay.”

There is something Wei Ying isn’t telling him. This isn’t new, but the magnitude of the things Lan Wangji isn’t being told has remained at a constant.

Wen Ning says, “Lan er-gongzi, do you have any allergies or…”

“I am vegetarian.”

“What?” Wei Ying tugs at his wrist. “Lan Zhan, you didn’t mention that! Well, it’s okay, anyway—Wen Ning is too.” And Lan Wangji is pulled away, into a living room with a couch like a melt of brown sugar and an old television squatting under a tilted hat of books. “A-Ning, where’s my good paper?”

“Where you left it, I imagine.”

“Ugh!”

The bedroom they enter can only be Wei Ying’s, etched in red light from protective talismans. Books lean cheek-to-shoulder on shelves. A pinboard is papered with sketches and psychedelic film posters. Milk crates brim with odd antiques and knickknacks. There is hardly space to step inside, but Wei Ying zigzags to the desk with ease: floor, crate, bed, box, floor.

“Nobody else has come here in five years,” Wei Ying says, “so—he’s wary. When the Jin raid places for evidence of demonic cultivation, they’re actually looking for him. Keeps us on our toes.”

“No one else knows?”

“Nope.”

“Luo Qingyang?”

“No. Not because I don’t trust her, I just... Jin Zixuan’s death was my fault, but it was Wen Ning who—you know. And he was her best friend.”

“I see.”

Wei Ying is rummaging in a drawer, its contents being disgorged onto the floor. “Um, Lan Zhan...”

“Here,” Lan Wangji says, passing over all of his talisman paper. “Do you need—” Wei Ying’s pocket knife is already a cold beaky glint in his hand. “Wei Ying.”

A dark bead slips down Wei Ying’s index finger. “It’s fine,” he says. He slides away his knife and pats his thigh. “Plenty more in this old carcass!”

Watching him write, Lan Wangji recognizes it as the revealing talisman Wei Ying cast in his apartment. “What are you doing?”

“Introducing you to everyone!”

In the main room, Wei Ying teeters on furniture to paste talismans on walls and activate them. “It’s not a circle,” he says, “but the coverage is pretty good, should be enough.” Unlatching the front door, he whistles three long, shivering notes, then calls, “Hey, come on in.” 

And two men stroll in, one carrying a xiangqi box tucked under his arm like a book. Ghosts, Lan Wangji realizes—but within the perimeter of Wei Ying’s talismans they are visible, seem almost tangible.

“Lan Zhan, this is Er-shu and Si-shu. Now you can meet them properly.” Lan Wangji bows. They greet him with cheery waves, their voices warping like echoes. “Hey, A-Ning, did Qing-jie say when she’d be back?”

“Soon,” Wen Ning says, upending ziptop bags of frozen dumplings. “I just called her.”

Lan Wangji’s mind keeps catching on that name, Wen Qing, like a wood splinter shrilling under a fingernail. One of the Qishan Wen Sect’s finest cultivators, a brilliant medical theorist and practitioner. He recalls meeting her. She came to the Gusu lectures at the forcing of Wen Chao.

Shortly before the war, Wen Qing published one of the most controversial papers in the history of modern cultivation: her treatise on core transplantation. It has been cited many times, usually to attack it on moral grounds—but no one has found fault with the theory. Lan Wangji set it aside then as dangerous speculation. It is very real now, when he has felt the quiet, haunted roads of Wei Ying’s meridians. A projected survival rate of fifty percent, Wen Qing wrote. The shock of core loss, the grueling surgery and probable complications, extensive and irreversible damage to primary and secondary spiritual vessels

It might be coincidence. Lan Wangji fears it isn’t.

More ghosts are arriving. Many are dressed for cold—puffer jackets, animal-print bucket hats, gloves. As they exchange greetings, Lan Wangji is left with the odd impression that they recognize him.

He asks Wen Ning, “How did you find each other?”

Wen Ning shrugs. “Oh, I just knew.”

“Not that I made it hard,” Wei Ying says, “coming back here. But he was pretty sure… I guess because I brought him back originally.”

“How...” Perhaps it is impolite to ask about a person’s partial resurrection.

Wei Ying drums his fingers on the countertop. “Well, you’ve seen the music. Experimental, no guarantees. I scraped his soul back into his body and tied them together, best as I could. So right now I’d call him, uh…”

“Existentially unstable,” Wen Ning offers.

“Right. Like, he’s fine as long as nobody looks too close, and we’re working on getting him to being an actual alive body. Turns out reversing cell death is super hard, who knew? But Wen Qing is a genius, we’re gonna make it happen.”

“I see.”

Wei Ying laughs. “Sorry—this is just the normal stuff we talk about over dinner. We think it’ll make a funny TV show some day. A semi-corpse boy who gets up to wacky hijinks while training to be a nurse, and his necromancer sidekick who fixes him up when his arm falls off.”

“My arm has never fallen off,” Wen Ning says calmly, slicing napa cabbage leaves.

This is veering into strange territory, so Lan Wangji says, “May I help, Wen-gongzi?”

“Oh, no, no—you’re a guest! Besides,” Wen Ning glances past him, “I think there’s somebody who wants to meet you.”

A voice like a bell, “Xian-gege!”

“Hi!”

And Wei Ying crouches, arms folded on his knees, as a little boy comes running through the living room.

“Lan Zhan,” he says. “This is Wen Yuan.”

A-Yuan. The young ghost Wei Ying spoke about, who is like a living child seen through frosted glass. Wen Yuan might be three or four, his large eyes black and liquid, t-shirt stripes strobing as he moves. The sight of their two faces smiling at each other sends achy warmth streaking down Lan Wangji’s throat. It’s familiar, though he doesn’t know why.

“Hello.” He is aware that the other ghosts are watching them fixedly.

“A-Yuan, this is Lan er-gege. Say hi, gege.”

“Hi.” Wen Yuan gapes up at him, then reaches for a handful of his skirt. The small hand drifts through, but it stirs the silk like a breeze. “Oh!”

Wei Ying nods at him. “It’s okay, A-Yuan. Do you like Lan Zhan’s skirt? How many colors is it?”

“Six colors,” Wen Yuan says confidently. “Blue and… Xian-gege?”

“Yeah, kiddo?”

“We’re having dinner?”

“We sure are.”

“You sit with me.” He stirs Lan Wangji’s skirt again. “And Xian-gege! Here and here.” He runs soundlessly to the kitchen.

Wei Ying stands up. “He’s not usually like this with new people. I mean, he wasn’t, when he was... Sorry, you can sit where you want, obviously. Don’t let a tiny tyrant tell you—”

“Xian-gege, here! You have to—”

“Oh, do I?” Wei Ying lumbers over and pretends to tickle Wen Yuan, making him shriek, and scrapes out chairs as directed. Wen Yuan strides around the table, reciting a name as he pats his hand through each chair back—“and Popo, and…” 

His face empties. He stumbles still. Then he tilts his head, eyes brightening, and follows Wen Ning, bubbling with questions—what are you doing, what’s that, can I try. Wei Ying stows the chairs under the table and returns to Lan Wangji. 

“All the Wen ghosts have memory problems,” he says quietly. “I think it’s because of how they died. But A-Yuan is, uhm, he’s a really leaky kettle, the memories don’t stay for long. We’re trying to help him move on, but it’s hard because he… doesn’t want to go. Can’t even remember why he’s stuck. And the rest stay for him, so... it’s a lot of ghosts.”

Lan Wangji says, “What happened to his parents?”

“He only had Popo until we found him in the Jin prison.” Another orphan of the war. “He’s the son of Wen Ning and Wen Qing’s cousin. I don’t think he had any siblings, but maybe they just didn’t survive. In the Burial Mounds we used to joke I’d grow him some.” Lan Wangji cannot imagine a child living there. A dead place, where many things are buried but nothing grows. “But in the end I couldn’t even...” Wei Ying blinks and blinks, glances away. “I don’t know why he’s still here. He shouldn’t be here. But he’s my kid, he’s ours. If he never wants to go, that’s okay. I just...”

“You worry about decay,” Lan Wangji says.

“Yeah. I don’t want to have to—you know.”

“Mn.”

Like the ghost who comes each evening to hear Lan Wangji’s music. Unable to remember, unable to leave.

“We had dinner the last night he was alive,” Wei Ying continues, “so… he might say stuff that doesn’t make any sense. He’s kind of here, kind of there. They all are, really—they don’t know it’s been five years. Just... nod and go with it, okay?”

“Of course.”

“Oh, here’s Popo!”

This ghost is elderly, and one of her hands trembles, but she heaves a laughing A-Yuan onto her hip. “Too big!” she exclaims. “Far too big! Tomorrow you’re carrying me!” Then she looks at Lan Wangji and nods.

“Hello, Lan er-gongzi,” she says. “So nice to see you again.”

“Again?” Wei Ying’s eyebrows arch high. Lan Wangji shakes his head, and they both look at Granny, who smiles so deep into her wrinkles that her eyes almost disappear. 

“He came to visit us, in Yiling, you remember? That warm day... and after, we had dinner. A-Ying, your memory!”

Is that why they are familiar? Why A-Yuan is so familiar? 

“Lan Zhan—you came to see us?” The hope in Wei Ying’s face is like new color. “Wen-popo, what was he like?”

“Oh, so polite. Very proper. This one,” she jostles A-Yuan, who giggles, staring at Lan Wangji, “hung on him like he was the moon.”

“Really.” 

Lan Wangji searches himself for even a scrap of recollection. Finds nothing. Uncle would have forbidden him to go, but he went regardless. To Yiling, as the furor was rising. It wasn’t the last time he fought his family for Wei Ying. He wishes he could recall that day—all the Wens alive, and Wei Ying among them.

He is so distracted that he almost doesn’t notice the swinging front door or the young, living woman who steps through. She looks past all the ghosts, straight at him. 

“Lan Wangji,” she says crisply. “I didn’t expect to see you again.” 

The ghosts hush. Lan Wangji waits for her to slip off her shoes and leave her bag slouched on a kitchen chair, then bows over his hands. “Wen-guniang.”

Beside him, Wei Ying chimes in, “No introductions needed, I guess. Oh, but—do you… remember Wen Qing?”

“Not well,” Lan Wangji says. “A little.”

“Lan Zhan’s memory is full of holes,” Wei Ying explains. “Like mine!”

“Wei Wuxian,” she says. “It’s not remotely something to be proud of.”

Wen Yuan weaves between them like a brightly colored streamer. “A-Qing jiejie, we’re having dinner!” She smiles down at him, and his attention flies to Wei Ying. “Xian-gege, come here, I want—”

He runs away, into the living room. Aluminum rods for dividing curtains snake along the ceiling, and the uncles are hanging lanterns made of wire and rice paper—when lit, they glow like red planets. Craning his neck to gaze at them, Wen Yuan staggers after Fourth Uncle, who laughs.

“Ai, A-Yuan, be patient with this uncle—”

“Xian-gege!”

“Okay, okay...” Wei Ying follows him, calling back, “Qing-jie, be nice!”

“I’m always nice,” Wen Qing retorts. She opens the fridge door, wriggles out a nearly-empty bottle by the neck, and sighs at it. “This was full last night.” Taking down a glass from a cupboard, she glances sidelong at Lan Wangji. “I bet he hasn’t offered you anything. You don’t drink, do you?”

“It is better for everyone if I do not,” Lan Wangji says, which makes her smile. 

“We have tea, or hot water." She touches Wen Ning’s back as she passes him. “Wei Ying drinks a sickly brand of pineapple juice, which I can’t recommend.”

“I am fine. Thank you.”

Wine splashes into the glass in a messy crimson bloom. Something about the scene reminds Lan Wangji of tense exchanges in sect receiving halls. Even before Wen Ruohan’s death, the sects feared Wen Qing would succeed him as leader of Qishan Wen Sect and rally them to carry on the war. He understands why. She has a presence that fills rooms.

She says, “What are you doing in New York?”

“I’m finishing my doctorate.”

“I’d have thought you’d finished that years ago.”

“Not yet.”

“And you just ran into him?”

“He is helping me with a problem.”

“Of course he is.”

She sips her wine, making Lan Wangji wait. The glass clicks onto the countertop, and her eyes flick to Wei Ying and back.

“I don’t know how it is that you can see him. I’m sure I don’t need to warn you—if you do anything to endanger us, I’ll make sure you don’t survive the night.”

Both Wen siblings stare at him, stony-eyed. Wen Ning is holding a cleaver. Lan Wangji thinks it imprudent to mention that he already hasn’t survived the night thirty-nine times. “I would accept that.”

“I have a feeling you would, too.” Wen Qing watches him with knowing, skin-stripping eyes. “Of all the people to bring here—the fucking Second Jade of Lan. Well, if it means he eats an actual meal, I’m cautiously in favor.”

“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying’s voice, “hey, slow down, you—”

“Oof!”

Lan Wangji turns. Wen Yuan is tumbled on the floor at Wei Ying’s feet, wearing the shocked look of a child who hasn’t decided if it hurts yet.

“Is he—”

“He’s fine,” Wei Ying says. “Just—fell down.” Wen Yuan picks himself up and wanders away to look at the lanterns. Wei Ying doesn’t move, but his face flashes something awful. It’s gone next moment, eclipsed by his shiny smile. “Ah, Lan Zhan, is Wen Qing bullying you?”

Tell me, Lan Wangji thinks. Whatever it is, tell me. 

More people arrive, and A-Yuan rockets toward the door to have his cheeks pinched by aunties. Everywhere is noisy, cheerful chaos. Lan Wangji is introduced to many Wens, all of them ghosts. He doesn’t remember them, but they accept his presence without question. He notices more than a few indulgent glances at Wei Ying, who they treat like an eccentric nephew. Wei Ying, who roams around replacing his exhausted talismans, smiling and talking all the while, and comes back ghost-pale, hands shaking.

“I’m fine,” he tells Lan Wangji. “Later, okay?”

The apartment is wreathed in smells, windows thrown open, walls sweating like skin, by the time Wen Ning calls, “Come eat!” Lan Wangji lets Wei Ying lead him to the kitchen.

“A-Ning, this looks amazing.”

“I cheated,” Wen Ning confesses. “Jie also picked up a takeout order from the Xi’an place—she helped them out, remember? Don’t tell anyone.”

“Won’t say a word.”

Lan Wangji has never seen a stranger meal. Eight people, living and dead, bulge around a table for four, while chairs bearing ghosts trail through the living room. He sits in a corner between Wei Ying and Wen Yuan, legs caged behind a table leg. Chopsticks and elbows compete for space with wine bottles, mismatched cups, and sauces in tupperware. He had wondered how Wen Ning could feed some forty people, but the ghosts have brought their own food—half the dishes are non-corporeal, and more keep being conjured. A bowl bobs past his face, moved by translucent hands. 

Wei Ying, busy talking rather than eating, pauses to whisper, “Oh, if the aunties ask you why you’re not married, just pretend not to hear.”

Lan Wangji swallows his tart mouthful of eggplant and sets down his chopsticks. “That would be impolite.”

“Well, I’m unmarriagable, so if you’re not careful they’ll try and set you up with a nice girl, who will be entirely dead, because all the nice girls they know are dead. Lan Zhan, I’ll still come to your ghost wedding, okay?”

“Thank you, Wei Ying.” Laughter quivers Wei Ying’s side against his. Are you so oblivious, Lan Wangji wonders. He begins to pluck cubes of cumin lamb from the nearby dish and nestle them onto Wei Ying’s plate. “Eat.”

“Okay, okay,” Wei Ying says. Their chopsticks clack together, and he grins. “Sorry.” His face is close. “I bet your family meals aren’t like this, huh.”

Lan Wangji thinks of the last meal with his brother and uncle before he left again for America. He was still thawing after three years in solitude, and their silence was like a winter morning, the world sleeping under ice. Disappointed, at the bottom of every bowl. Disappointed, a shadow between teacups. The mild arrangement of his brother’s face. Uncle’s voice was unusually soft when he asked what time Lan Wangji would arrive.

“They are not like this.”

“You mean, extremely weird.”

“Mn,” says Lan Wangji. “It is not bad.”

The noise bubbles merrily like broth, waxy air breathing on the windows. A-Yuan laughs, a zebra-striped hat slipped down over his face. The uncles are in lively debate. Wei Ying skims in and out of conversations, chopsticks paddling in his noodles while he gestures with the other hand. When he does eat, he eats ravenously. Lan Wangji drifts in it all, feeling warm and quiet. 

Dishes are scraped of all but sauce-smears. As someone uncorks another bottle of wine, Wen Qing’s voice towers above the clatter.

“Now, a toast—”

Wei Ying wafts a hand at her, groaning, “No, no, you said you wouldn’t—”

“I said no such thing—to Wei Ying, a toast, on his birthday.”

A jungle of cups, glasses, arms, and flushed faces sprouts across the table. Wen Qing’s expression is unassailable, but her eyes smile.

“Happy birthday, Wei Wuxian,” she says, raising her glass. “We won’t ever forget.”

“Ganbei!”

“Happy birthday!”

“No, no,” Wei Ying pleads, but he offers his cup to be tapped and empties it. Wen Ning immediately refills it.

Lan Wangji waits for last, as the noise floods back. “Happy birthday, Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s cheeks have a ripe peach glow, wine and embarrassment. “Thanks for spending it with me. Even though you had zero choice.” His mouth is pretty and wet, and Lan Wangji cannot think of anything but kissing him. 

Gradually, the meal dissolves. People slump in their chairs, patting their stomachs. Someone plugs an old iPod into speakers, bubblegum pop growling with spirit interference. The uncles are arguing.

Wei Ying brings Granny hot water thermoses, and Wen Ning talismans scribed in blood. He chatters to aunties, disappears ghost food, washes dishes, and chases out spirit interlopers (“Lan Zhan, you’re a guest, there’s no need!”). Two bulbs fizz out in the kitchen—“Bad electrics,” Wen Ning says, thumbs flying as he texts their landlord—so Wei Ying draws light talismans and clambers on a chair to fix them to the ceiling. He’s talking very quickly, voice pitching high. Gray wisps curl around his wrists.

When he disappears into his bedroom, the music doesn’t fully drown out his stifled coughing. Lan Wangji starts after him.

“Leave him.” 

Wen Qing is cross-legged on the living room floor, smiling tiredly at an animated Wen Yuan while he pretends to read to himself.

“It is making him sick,” Lan Wangji says, low enough that only she can hear. 

“And how do you think he’ll react if you make a scene?” she says flatly. 

“Is this normal?”

“No. The last time he was like this, he was running a fever of a hundred and four.”

“You help him manage it?”

“When he allows. Which is in a limited capacity.”

Talismans painted in Wei Ying’s blood hum from the walls. The splinter throbs in Lan Wangji’s thoughts. I owed them so much, Wei Ying said. Everything. And the implacable black print of Wen Qing’s paper, A projected survival rate of

He says, “Was it truly a fifty percent chance?”

For a moment Wen Qing doesn’t react. Then she says, “I know Wei Ying didn’t tell you about that.”

“I read your paper. But you answered a question I didn’t ask.”

She makes a hill of her folded hands on her knee. “Fifty percent. He still wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I don’t know if you’ve ever been wheedled and begged by Wei Wuxian for three days straight—I don’t recommend the experience. He’s stubborn as a donkey and twice as annoying.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t doubt Wei Ying asked her to do it. But her theory made the procedure possible, long before Wei Ying thought to ask. It wasn’t an idle academic exercise. She must have wondered if it would work.

Fifty percent. Wei Ying’s life, on a coin toss.

“Ironically, he’d have recovered better if his cultivation hadn’t been so strong. Might as well have removed a lung.” Wen Qing sighs. “Not only is he definitely not going to cultivate to immortality, we’ve almost certainly cut thirty years off his lifespan. But he’s never complained about it, the idiot.”

“Who has his…”

She shakes her head. “Ask him. Not my story to tell.”

Wei Ying saunters out of his bedroom. His hair is down loose, which almost distracts from how pale he is. “Lan Zhan, you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“Wei Wuxian, your jokes get worse every year,” says Wen Qing.

“Ah, Qing-jie, you’re so fond of me actually.”

“Did you drink my wine?”

“Listen. I’m not responsible for things I do between the hours of three and five AM, that’s accountability-free time...”

Then Wen Yuan hurtles toward them—“Xian-gege!”—and Wei Ying hustles him to the couch with a book. It is a terrible couch, the springs twanging like snapped guqin strings. Lan Wangji sits on Wei Ying’s other side to listen, lulled by their voices.

“—and he lived in a big palace, which—”

“How big?”

“Huh, well. At least as tall as the clouds, so tall you could see it from space—”

“How tall is space?”

Twice, A-Yuan’s face fogs over with forgetting. Wei Ying doesn’t frown or press him. He simply begins again, answering the same questions with different answers, smile tireless.

“Hm! As big as sixty elephants—and one giraffe.”

“How big is a giraffe?”

Lan Wangji offers to take over, and A-Yuan settles between them as he begins to read. The other voices are background color, busy and vibrant despite coming from the mouths of ghosts. Wei Ying leans against his arm, breathing ponderously. Sometimes their eyes meet over A-Yuan’s head, and it’s warm, and a little melancholy.

“How big?” A-Yuan pipes up.

“A palace can have many rooms.”

“Like a room for animals to sleep?”

“Yes.”

Wei Ying asks, “Where do the rabbits sleep at Cloud Recesses?”

“They have hutches in the meadow,” Lan Wangji says. “During winter we bring them inside.”

A-Yuan’s eyes shine like black beads. “Rabbits?”

Lan Wangji shows him photos, warmed by his delight. A-Yuan’s small fingers are drifting through the phone’s edges, trying to touch a rabbit’s ears, when Granny calls, “A-Yuan, bedtime.” 

It is almost midnight. Lanterns are dying out. The ghosts dwindle and flicker as the talismans burn low.

Lan Wangji watches their ceremony of goodnights, A-Yuan and his family. It isn’t very different from the repetitions of the living, the daily rituals which also say I love you. A-Yuan is loved so fiercely. They stay for him, Wei Ying said. Dozens of ghosts unable to move on until this little boy leaves the world first.

Slowly, they all process to the front door, A-Yuan holding Granny’s hand. Granny says something to Wen Qing that makes her smile, then turns to Wei Ying.

“A-Ying, you look so tired.”

“Yeah. I’ll try and sleep soon, Popo.”

“Goodbye, Lan-gongzi,” she says, and Lan Wangji bows to her.

“Goodbye, Wen-popo. Goodbye, A-Yuan.”

A-Yuan beams. “Gege.” Then his face blanks, eyes half-lidded.

Wei Ying’s smile doesn’t waver. “Bye, A-Yuan. Be good.” Soft faultlines in his voice. 

“Bye, Xian-gege!”

A-Yuan waves, and Wei Ying waves back, until they fade at the threshold. All the ghosts follow.

The quiet settles.

Then Wen Qing says, “Well, I’m going to crash,” and Wen Ning nods at her side. “Lan Wangji.” The look she gives him is half-wary, half-warm. “Wei Ying, try to go to bed before dawn.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying’s eyes linger on them too long. “Sleep well, okay?”

Wen Ning says, “Nice to see you, Lan er-gongzi.”

“You as well, Wen-gongzi.”

Lights go out. Doors shut. The apartment grows dim, yawning with echoes. Wei Ying’s talismans are cinders on the kitchen ceiling. 

“That’s how it went,” Wei Ying says. “The last time they were all alive.” He’s straining for breath. “Next time I woke up, everything was so quiet. Everybody was gone.” 

“Wei Ying.”

“Yeah?”

Lan Wangji takes his hand and begins to absorb resentful energy from him. Wei Ying doesn’t startle at the touch, only blinks in weary surprise.

“Lan Zhan, I’m not even—”

“You were coughing.”

“Wow. Nothing gets past you.”

“It isn’t your problem alone,” Lan Wangji says. “We will manage it together.”

These weren’t resentful ghosts, but Wei Ying has been sustaining powerful ghost magic for hours. Drawing out the sickly energy is tiring work, and Lan Wangji is glad to do it. He thinks he has seen a mere fraction of what Wei Ying would do for the people he loves. 

Afterward, he feeds Wei Ying spiritual energy. Wei Ying’s gaze is slanted down at their hands, and he smiles when Lan Wangji lets go. 

Lan Wangji says, “How do you feel?”

“Better,” Wei Ying murmurs. “Good.”

“You deserve to feel good.”

Wei Ying hugs him, and the room turns on itself, a spinning globe.

It’s clumsy, like two hands working out how to clasp. Slowly, he folds his arms across Wei Ying’s back, his fingers framing the sharp slice of Wei Ying’s shoulder-blade. Wei Ying’s face pushes against his neck.

Lan Wangji is dizzy again, the vertigo of falling up, up, up, into this impossible person. His heart keeps strange, wild time. Their two warm bodies make a warmer join, two pulses thudding like hands knocking on either side of the same door. When Wei Ying droops a little, Lan Wangji takes his weight, blurred and heavy with longing. It is real, still real.

He knows he has walked very far from the straight and well-lit path, standing in a little kitchen with the horror of the cultivation world in his arms. He leans his temple against the warm curve of Wei Ying’s head, breathing the spice-smoke soaked into his hair, and finds it to be simple. I loved you before. I love you still.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s night-vigil voice is softer than his sidewalk one, but just as alive. “Is this okay?”

“Yes.”

“You’re really good at this.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t think that can be true. He hasn’t hugged anyone in years—not since the day he returned home to learn his father was gone, when his brother hugged him and it was the awkwardness of two adults who hadn’t touched since they were in smaller, narrower bodies, easier to tesselate. “Mn.”

A pipe clunks loudly in the wall. Wei Ying shocks from his spine. “Ah, sorry. Jumpy.”

They separate. Lan Wangji’s back is hurting, has been hurting for hours, but he will bear it. It is nothing to bear it, when Wei Ying looks at him like this. His heart quivers in an updraft—rising, glowing. 

They are being crashed together by something outside themselves, and that is heavy; it has the weight of fate. Lan Wangji is trying, trying not to be too much. He knows he could be overwhelming, the helpless spring thunder and sheeting downpour of his feelings for Wei Ying, but he expects nothing. He doesn’t know what Wei Ying wants.  

“Come and sit,” he says, and he leads Wei Ying by the hand to the terrible living room couch. It groans and sags as they sit. Wei Ying yawns into his cupped palms.

After a moment of agony, Lan Wangji reaches his arm around Wei Ying’s shoulders. Wei Ying gives a low hum, then shuffles closer, bending up his legs and tucking himself against Lan Wangji’s side. 

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s always a temporary fix. Ghosts just really wanna get inside me, ha ha.”

And without a golden core he is almost undefended. Lan Wangji still feels the murmur of Wei Ying’s heart meridian in his fingers, dull and sleepy even when Wei Ying is a sparkler fizzing light. Not my story to tell. Wei Ying didn’t lose the heart of his cultivation. He gave it away.

“Wei Ying.”

“Mhm.”

“Why did Wen-guniang remove your core?”

Wei Ying’s head rolls up like a stone fighting gravity, his pupils huge. “How—” Then, “god, you’re so sharp.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment. “Do you just stare through people?”

“I listen to you,” Lan Wangji says.

“Aiya, that’s even worse.” Wei Ying settles against him again, face averted. “Lan Zhan... you can’t repeat this. Not ever.”

“I understand.”

“Promise me.”

He doesn’t remind Wei Ying that lying is forbidden by his sect. The rules which dwell in him have no meaning to Wei Ying. He wants there to be trust between them. “I promise.”

Wei Ying picks at the loose threads over his knee. “When the Wen sect attacked Lotus Pier… they meant to wipe us out. They killed Jiang-shushu, and Yu-furen, and all our disciples. All those kids. Because of me. They came to punish me.”

Perhaps that is true, but the Wens needed no reason to destroy sects. By that time a dozen sects were already gone, and the pavilions of Cloud Recesses were blackened husks.

“We got away, barely—me, Shijie, Jiang Cheng. Then Shijie fell sick, and... I only stepped out for medicine for five minutes, but Jiang Cheng was gone. Wen Chao’s thugs dragged him back to Lotus Pier. I didn’t get there in time, before Wen Zhuliu crushed his core.”

The sect leader of Yunmeng Jiang. His brother. “And you…”

“He doesn’t know,” Wei Ying says. “Hopefully he never will.”

“How could he not know?”

“Oh. Long story.”

Donor must be conscious for the duration. “Was it,” Lan Wangji clutches at the awful words, “did it hurt?”

“Don’t ask me that, Lan Zhan. That’s not important. What matters is that he’s alive, and healthy, and our—and the Jiang Sect survived the war, and they’re strong now. He’s doing great, isn’t he? He’s doing so well. I think they’d be so pleased, his parents. If they can see him, I bet they are.”

“Your parents as well,” Lan Wangji reminds him. “Wouldn’t they—”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “I wasn’t their son.”

“But they must have adopted you.”

“Legally, yeah. But not… ah, it’s not a big deal. I was somebody else’s son, not theirs. Lan Zhan, don’t look that way—seriously, you have no idea how lucky I was. I thought I’d be bouncing between foster homes forever because who wants a kid who’s fidgety and attention-seeking and can’t shut the fuck up. And suddenly I had a whole sect. The other kids in the orphanage would’ve given all their teeth for what I had.”

More than a disciple, less than a son. Children don’t live well as things in between.

“I can’t repay everything they did for me,” Wei Ying says. “I’d need six golden cores, I’d need... But it was the only thing I had to offer, after I brought them… horror. Death. Like, you know those stories about families who take in a baby, not knowing it’s a demon? And then it ruins them—eats up everything until there’s nothing left.” Wei Ying swallows. His smile is thin as wire. “They didn’t know. How could they have.”

“Wei Ying.” Of the spiny, poisonous words Wei Ying uses for himself, demon might be the worst. Almost as awful as believing he must pay back every kindness ounce for ounce from his own body. With his life, if the coin fell that way.

“And… you know. I loved him. My d—my shidi. I just wanted him to be well.”

Lan Wangji tightens his hand on Wei Ying’s waist. It’s a tangle—horror, the awful weight on his chest, how confusing and beautiful Wei Ying feels under his arm. Night drains color away, and that intensity becomes touch and sound. 

“Sorry,” Wei Ying says, throaty. “Talk, talk, talk. Are you tired?” 

“Mm.”

“Way past your bedtime, huh?”

“Which one?”

“Ha—right. You want to rest with me a while?”

Yes, forever. “Only for a while.”

“Okay.”

The sharps of Wei Ying’s elbow and hipbone dig into his side as Wei Ying settles. Cars rumble outside, streets unsleeping, like hands cupped around the apartment’s silence.

“Hey, Lan Zhan.”

“Yes?”

“This is nice, right?” The syllables run together, soft as water.

“Yes.”

Wei Ying’s head sinks onto his shoulder, a quiet surrender.

The room around them is disorientating, but one talisman still glows sunset red above the door to Wei Ying’s bedroom. It blinks at Lan Wangji as he tries to keep his eyes open, seeming to hold all the evening’s ruddy warmth like a coal. Wei Ying’s breaths are downy and humid against his jaw.

Then the red behind his eyelids rises; he’s standing in it, and there’s someone ahead, wading hip-deep.

Wei Ying?

It’s okay, Lan Zhan.

Wait, I

I won’t be gone long.

He opens his eyes.

In seclusion, he had bad dreams. Leaning over a body without a face; drowning in a black lake, water piling onto his head. Come the morning, he’d kneel in the Cold Pond Cave and read the Lan precepts until his temples thrummed, until pain shrieked in his back—pain?—and he’d have to rise and drag himself around the uneven perimeter of his prison, hearing his feet and breath echoed by ice. He remembers sitting on a flat bulk of granite and letting a rabbit nose at his cold fingers and scramble into his lap. Water fell in a clumped dew on her back. He stroked it away with his sleeve. He didn’t know why he was weeping.

It seemed a senseless thought at the time, when his cultivation was strong, when he’d lived through each bone-deep Gusu winter and hardly felt the cold. I don’t think I’ll be warm again. A season had gone, and wouldn’t come back.

A day, a week, a month. Time went forward, trailing wet magnolia hearts and white blossom pickling in drains and young, sharp light. Lan Wangji watched it happen, feeling gray and stiff and grief-eaten. He couldn’t fathom going on, and then he did. He stepped out into the world’s loud belly, all the thoughtless songs of human life, and walked, and kept walking. But someone remained in that cave, kneeling. Not upright—bent and shaking with pain. It couldn’t let him go. It couldn’t remember how. A bone broken and never set, an orphan cut away from its roots.

It hurts, now, to remember. There is still more he has forgotten. He knows that too will hurt, but it is not senseless pain. It is pain that means, there was someone I loved.

Wei Ying fidgets his feet, mumbles dreamily. Lan Wangji thinks he could die like this, and be happy.

 

 


 

 

Bedclothes crinkle under him. Wei Ying stirs, licking around inside his dry mouth, and doesn’t know where he is.

Huh.

The room is in indigo darkness—talismans out—but the window frames a muted, blinking square of the city at night, light enough to see shapes by. There’s a body beside him, in the usually empty space of his narrow bed, and it’s breathing. 

Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan is lying there, sleep still heavy on his eyelids. 

“Hi,” Wei Ying croaks. “What time is it?”

Lan Zhan reaches for his phone and unlocks the screen, casting them both in chalky glow. “Nearly half three.” His voice rests lightly on the dark. He places his phone facedown.

“How did I get here?”

“You walked.”

“Oh. You really let me sleep, huh.”

“You seemed peaceful.”

Half three. “Hey—Lan Zhan, we’re still here. Past midnight.”

Lan Zhan’s black, long eyelashes dip. “Yes.”

“Okay.”

They lie facing each other. Surrounded by the dark woodland of bedroom clutter, their bodies are makeshift walls, Lan Zhan’s phone light between them like a campfire.

“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says, “for bringing me here. I understand—that it is a risk.”

“It’s fine, Wen Qing will knit my intestines into a very cute sweater later. Did you have a good time?”

“I did.”

Wei Ying thinks of Lan Zhan at the kitchen table among living and dead Wens, sometimes awkward and bemused, but not out of place. The soft, serious way he spoke to A-Yuan. How polite he was to every ghost, and there wasn’t one sign that he thought them any less than people. How Wen Qing won’t actually do anything to Wei Ying’s insides, because it’s obvious Lan Zhan isn’t going to tell anybody where they are.

“I just… I wanted you to meet them. The people I did it for.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes are dark, oceanic. He says, “I’m sorry for what it cost you. All of you.”

Wei Ying presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth, a chlorine sting in his nose. “Yeah,” he says, voice sticking to his throat. It means something for Lan Zhan to say it, because no one else ever has. The last of the Wens didn’t deserve what happened to them.

They liked Lan Zhan—they knew him. That’s good, because Wei Ying is fucked. When A-Yuan crashed into him, like he already had both feet in the spirit world, he thought, I’m disappearing. He’d suspected, but now he’s sure. He doesn’t know how to tell Lan Zhan. I’ll be a ghost soon, but it’s okay, I don’t want you to worry. I’ll still get you out.

He sits up. Lan Zhan follows, bending his legs into an elegant angle under his skirt. Wei Ying watches him rub delicately at the corners of his eyes, and smiles.

Lan Zhan stifles a yawn against his wrist. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” Just another tiny firefly instant of warmth, bright as it’s disappearing. “Do you want me to… take a look at your back?”

“Yes.”

And Lan Zhan unfolds, lowering his feet to the floor beside the bed, back beautifully straight. He gathers all his hair, like closing a fan, and drapes it forward. Kneeling behind him, Wei Ying tries to speak steadily through the rattling of his heart.

“The talisman should, uh, should show if there’s Jin magic on you. But if it makes you—if you—just say and I’ll stop, okay?” 

“I will.”  

Wei Ying cuts his left hand. With his right, he feels for the hem of Lan Zhan’s turtleneck and fumbles it up. He makes himself inhale and exhale; suddenly his brain won’t do it for him. Under the sweater there’s a layer of blue silk, and he smells the waning, sultry notes of Lan Zhan’s perfume. He tucks the silk shirt up too, pinning clumped fabric at the base of Lan Zhan’s neck, and tries not to stare. He can feel the heat of Lan Zhan’s skin without touching it.

“No marks,” is all he can say. No scars—not ones he can see, anyway, but a complete seal wouldn’t be visible like this.

“I looked,” says Lan Zhan and, god, his voice has sunk an octave. Wei Ying thinks about pressing his thumb into the river valley of Lan Zhan’s spine to feel the vibrations as he speaks, how the grain of Lan Zhan’s skin would feel to his fingers, to his lips, and flushes from his throat to the crown of his head.

He draws the revealing talisman in the air, blood hissing into each stroke.

“Modified version of the usual,” he says. “You can make this talisman reveal a bunch of things, but you really have to be specific where magic’s concerned.”

The whole figure ignites heatlessly. Shadows flicker in arches under Lan Zhan’s shoulder-blades. The movement of Lan Zhan’s lower back gets faster, muscles dimpling and smoothing.

“There’s nothing,” Wei Ying says quietly. Nothing—only smooth, bare skin.

But there should be. The talisman should show marks, scars, something.

Lan Zhan slowly nods. “You’ve cast it upon yourself?”

“A long time ago. It works.” Wei Ying has—had—a mocking yellow maze, collarbone to navel. It wasn’t carved, but apparently the Jin thought it would be funny to center the exile seal on his Wen brand scar. “I didn’t have a memory seal, though. Just the one to make me disappear.”

He folds down Lan Zhan’s clothes, patting them awkwardly against his back. “Sorry. I really thought…”

“It’s alright.” Turning around, Lan Zhan settles into a kneel. “May I see the design?”

“Sure.” He unlocks his phone, locates the design, and quickly scrawls in his modifications, then turns it over to Lan Zhan. “Altered for Jin magic, see, there? And a spell which seals memory.” Lan Zhan stares at it intently. “We’ll figure it out, okay?”

“Yes.”

His phone is passed back. Lan Zhan touches his hand, fingers blushing with energy, and the edges of his wound pinch gently. The bleeding clots. He squeezes Lan Zhan’s fingers—thank you—and then neither of them let go.

Lan Zhan has guqin calluses on his fingertips, a little rough. Unfolding each slim finger, Wei Ying finds harder skin in the webbing of his thumb from a sword. A starburst of scar tissue at the base of his fourth finger. A life’s wild cursive script.

“Palm reading?” Lan Zhan asks.

“Ha. Generally useless in my line of work. But I do know bodies. Dead ones, anyway.”

“Only dead ones?”

“Mostly. Uh—but,” Wei Ying’s face gets hot, “whatever they said about me, I extremely don’t do that with corpses.”

“I assumed,” Lan Zhan says, voice arching like he could laugh. “Then, what do you see?”

His broad palm is cris-crossed like a leaf, with a long and deep life line.

“Ah, well. You’re gonna live forever, obviously.”

Then Lan Zhan rearranges their hands, showing Wei Ying his own too-thin fingers and ugly scars. “And you?”

I think I’m already dead.

“Lan Zhan, I can hardly read my own fate.”

But he can. As soon as he gave up his core, death had the scent of him like a bloodhound. He should have died in that green valley; or on a mountain of ghosts, on a battlefield, at Qiongqi Path, in an abandoned apartment building, in a Jin cell. There’s just one way this night ends.

“Hm.”

Wei Ying takes a deep breath, chest tight. It has to be now—in case there isn’t a later.

“There’s no good time to ask this, so...” He wets his dry lips, and lets the words fall. “Will you look after them for me?”

“Look after?”

“My family.”

Lan Zhan says softly, terribly, “Wei Ying.”

“No, listen. You have to escape this loop, obviously, but if we can do that—”

“We are both getting out.”

I'm not getting out. “Please. It can’t be anybody else.”

It’s manipulative—bringing Lan Zhan here, spending time they don’t have. But he believes Wei Ying’s story. He can speak to ghosts. He’s strong and good and he cares about the things which keep the dead here. He’ll be able to take care of everybody when Wei Ying is gone.

Maybe if these loops have a purpose, it’s this. Maybe they were meant to find each other for this.

“Please.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes are grave. “Yes. I will.”

“Thank you.” It’ll be okay. The Wens will be okay. Relief seeps hot around Wei Ying’s heart. “Lan Zhan, thank you. Thank you.” He’ll help Lan Zhan escape, and then—nothing, maybe. The loop will break, and probably swallow him with it. Wei Ying has a good idea where he’s going after that.

“It’s okay,” he tells Lan Zhan, who’s statue-still. “It’s really okay, it’s not… I should have been dead so long ago, Lan Zhan. Really, I’ve been living on stolen time.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything. Then he reaches for Wei Ying, and Wei Ying goes.

He barely registers Lan Zhan lying down until his head is weighing on Lan Zhan’s chest, moved by its swell and sink. Arms gather him up, like a heap of shattered things Lan Zhan has decided to fit back together, and Lan Zhan cradles the base of his skull, fingers scooped into his hair. Wei Ying can’t remember being held like this before. Doesn’t know what it means, except that it feels safe, and surrounding, and so kind.

The dark smears and stretches. He blinks away the bleary film of sleep. God, he’s so tired. He thinks it won’t be much longer. A few more loops, maybe. Or maybe this is it.

He watches the water-streaked window. It’s easier to talk to distant lights, knowing Lan Zhan is listening.

“After… after they let me go, Lanling Jin, there’s a long time I just don’t remember. Like when you get injured but there’s no pain yet, because it’s too much, too much to feel right away. I don’t remember feeling anything, except that I wasn’t going to live, because there was no way things could just continue, after… after that.”

“Nothing at all?”

“No. I wasn’t a person, then. I was just... a thing that hurt.” It was kind, that forgetting. Sometimes it seems cruel, but that was a kindness, like white shrouds laid over the dead. “Even the parts I do remember, I was so tired, dragging this body around. It didn’t want me, I didn’t want it. I was so, so tired. I thought I’d just fall out of the world. I hoped I would.”

He doesn’t know where he was. They’d done something to him but he couldn’t remember what, only that it was terrible.

Then: he was standing on a street. Night time, sulfur light. They’d dressed him in civilian clothes: gray sweater, beige slacks that might have been crisp once, creased and spattered to the knees with dirt. Buildings loomed above him. A store yawned its yellow mouth to show a family of mannequins, posed and faceless. People washed past, voices gnashing.

The first thing Wei Ying remembers in his life is a street at night. Tall streetlamps frowning down at him. Then he was somebody—a name, a disciple, a brother and not. Then he was a nightmare, in his own head, in everyone else’s. Then he was nobody again, standing on a street at night.

“At some point, I was here. Found a place to—I can’t say ‘live’. A place. It felt... inevitable, coming back. I hated it, but I had to be here. I didn’t know why.” That was the winter he got sick and met Yang Zaihan. Lao Yang, who scraped him off a dusty floor and gave him somewhere warm to sleep. Shame step-crawls its fingers up his spine.

“Then I found Wen Ning and Wen Qing—well, they found me, I thought they’d been... And then the uncles and aunties, and Popo, and...”

“And Wen Yuan,” Lan Zhan says.

“A-Yuan didn’t come back for a whole year. I didn’t know what had happened to him. I never saw his body…” His throat is wet clay, closing. “I hoped he’d moved on. But one day he was there, in my apartment, talking to Popo. That was, ah. That was hard.” 

“Anyway, it felt like the decision had been taken out of my hands. Maybe there’s a reason I’m still here, or maybe not. But these ghosts needed somebody to help them, work out what they were waiting for, and time just… went on, and it’s been going on for five years. Sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes it’s the kind of bad I don’t have the words for. Sometimes...”

Sometimes it feels like a joke that he’s still here. The great and terrible Yiling Laozu, who can’t get out of bed today.

“I’m not telling you this because I want you to feel sorry for me. I deserve this. I’m telling you because I think it’s my fault, that we’re stuck like this. I think I actually should be dead. I’ve been living on stolen time—since I was a kid, really. And now it’s caught up to me.”

Lan Zhan says, so quietly, “What do you want?”

“Want?” 

“For yourself.”

What use is wanting, Wei Ying thinks. The things that happen aren’t the things you want to happen. If you want people to live, they die. If you want them to be safe and happy, they suffer. If you want them to know they’re loved, they feel hated and abandoned.

“Oh. I don’t know. Why even think about it? I have to look after A-Ning and Wen Qing. I have to help Popo and A-Yuan and everybody to move on. I owe them that. I want to do that, for as long as I can. I’m so lucky to have them. I’ve already taken so much more than I should ever have had.” 

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s hand firms on his spine. “You’re going to survive this.” 

Wei Ying lifts his head, and his arms curl across Lan Zhan’s chest. There’s a memory in his body of the wooden piers baking through Yunmeng summers, and how he’d lean up from the water to rest his head in his pillowed arms when he got tired of swimming. You could smell the dark green algae underneath the boards, pungent and growing. It was easy to doze there, the sun full and hot on his back, surrounded by a thousand lotuses with wet pink skirts. Simpler desires. The way his body feels when Lan Zhan touches him.

He looks at Lan Zhan, warm and pinned in Lan Zhan’s gaze.

It’s like wonder, this feeling, wonder and surprise that there’s somebody alive like this, and he’s in Wei Ying’s bedroom—sleepy, glowing in shadow, real. They titled Lan Zhan Hanguang-jun, but Wei Ying wonders if they have any idea, any fucking idea, how bright and warm and funny and good he is.

What do you want?

He breathes in, and holds that slight, daring breath in his chest.

“Lan Zhan,” he says. “I really like you.” His heart swallows, afraid and happy. “I know you don’t—not like that, and that’s okay, that’s—I just wanted to tell you. I’m glad I lived long enough to meet you. Again.”

They watch each other in silence. Lan Zhan’s eyes are motes of light, and then he says—

“Wei Ying,” and his voice shakes, “Wei Ying—sit up.”

“Oh.”

Stomach sunk and crawling, Wei Ying hauls himself up. Lan Zhan rises too.

“I’m sorry,” he tries, “I’m—god, just... forget I—”

In the half-dark, Lan Zhan’s lips touch his. 

Time fumbles. Within the mallowy stretch of that moment, Wei Ying feels something in himself break, totally shatter, then reform into the mundane, infinite fact of a body being touched, his body, his face held in Lan Zhan’s warm hands, his nerves and skin lighting.

Their mouths move tensely together, like whispers for no one else’s ears, and break apart with a tiny wet click, lip from lip. Wei Ying, the stupidest person in the entire world, hears his own sigh tip out, a low ah.

Lan Zhan is so close, his outline unstable in shadow, but his dark eyes feel the same as his fingers on Wei Ying’s face. He murmurs, “Was that—”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying’s throat is sparking like a wire, “oh, I,” and it feathers between them, before Lan Zhan leans in again. It’s soft, wet, and then the hot brush of Lan Zhan’s tongue across the part of his lips makes him shiver, shocks flickering up and over his scalp. The shock of wanting—he’d nearly forgotten.

There’s a luminous intensity in Lan Zhan’s face and, god, Wei Ying could scatter out of his skin. Instead he folds his arms behind Lan Zhan’s neck, and their mouths fall back together, a lush, clumsy fit. It’s sour-stale, they’ve been asleep, but Lan Zhan doesn’t seem to mind. Wei Ying doesn’t. It feels like light is entering his body.

This can’t be happening, he thinks. It can’t.

He breathes into the tiny space between them, “We’ve never done this before, have we?” 

“No.”

“And you… this is definitely, definitely something you want.”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, unhesitating, and when he blinks there’s a glassy shine. “Do you?”

“Yes. Yes—” Wei Ying’s whole face floats in the lake of his smile. “I’m pretty sure I’ll expire if you don’t, which would be so embarrassing, when we’re doing so well, and then you’ll have to add it to your spreadsheet. ‘Wei Ying cause of death—unkissed’. A preventable death, Lan Zhan. But also I don’t understand what’s happening right now, like, this is the most ridiculous thing to happen so far tonight and I’ve literally died forty times, and please, please, make me stop talking—”

“I like you when you’re talking,” Lan Zhan says. “And when you’re quiet.” A smile glimmers around his face like dust in a sunbeam, and Wei Ying has to kiss him again.

“Lan Zhan ah,” he says, “I can’t believe… ” Lan Zhan strokes his waist through his hoodie, and he rises up on his knees to let Lan Zhan touch more of him. As he does, a gritty ache drills through his pelvis. Pain locks up his leg, and he starts to laugh. It gets lost against Lan Zhan’s mouth, messy flutters of air. His belly trembles under Lan Zhan’s palms.

“Ah—” His breathing circles itself, cinching tighter, “ah, sorry, sorry—”

Lan Zhan breaks off, frowning. “What is it?”

“It’s fine, I’m fine, it’s just, fuck—”

Phantoms. Wei Ying gasp-laughs through them now, bracing himself on Lan Zhan’s shoulders.

Lan Zhan’s face shows concern in almost-invisible creases. His eyes move over Wei Ying, seeking. “Where does it hurt?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “It’s okay,” he says, “I’m okay.” It’s funny, funny to feel like this—broken but full, happy and hurting. “Bad bones.”

“Okay,” Lan Zhan says. “Do you want to lie down?”

So Wei Ying does, doll-stiff until the pain shrinks to something tolerable. Lan Zhan mirrors him, body a sweeping curve on the mattress.

The space between them is like thin, warm glass—shatterable. Wei Ying reaches across it, cupping his hand to Lan Zhan’s cheek. 

“God, this is your real, actual face.”

“For a long time, yes.”

He huffs a laugh through his nose. “Sorry, I—You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen, I feel like my hand’s gonna catch fire if I...”

“It won’t,” Lan Zhan says, a little sharp.

Wei Ying thinks about the perfect, forbidding weight of a title like ‘the Second Jade of Lan’. Then he draws his fingertip along the sweep of Lan Zhan’s eyebrow. The graceful dip between his forehead and his nose. The papery skin under each dark gold eye, Lan Zhan’s eyelashes cobweb-soft against his finger.

“Hey, look. No burning.”

“Hm,” says Lan Zhan, and tips him onto his back, so slow and careful. He sips at Wei Ying’s bottom lip, sucking gently where it’s bitten, then licks into his mouth—deep, searching, miraculous. 

For a while, there’s only this: the glance and slow slide of mouth and mouth, and the noises they make, and how Wei Ying shivers alive like an animal under Lan Zhan. When they briefly break apart, he tucks his nose against Lan Zhan’s cheek and breathes the scent of his skin, and it’s a quiet pain and so sweet. Lan Zhan’s hands don’t stay still—they sink through Wei Ying’s hair, cradling the place where the stem of his neck branches into his skull, palms grazing his ears so his hearing deepens and echoes like a subway tunnel. Wei Ying is heavy and light, he’s a mouth Lan Zhan is kissing open, a giddy pulse in a hot throat. He tilts up his face, fingers curled in Lan Zhan’s turtleneck, and his ankle nudges the crest of Lan Zhan’s shinbone, their legs tangling through watery silk. He doesn’t know if he’s alive, but he feels it. 

He knows this might be the last time, the only time.

“You don’t have to be careful,” he mumbles against Lan Zhan’s mouth, “with me, you don’t—”

“Wei Ying—”

Lan Zhan leans up on his elbow, the black satin curtain of his hair swaying beside Wei Ying’s face. His eyes are hot, his mouth a dark blush shape. Wei Ying’s lips feel tender, blazing with touch. He doesn’t want Lan Zhan to stop. It isn’t the complaint of a body tired of being a machine, but something new and brave, the fullness of morning sun in an empty room. He thinks Lan Zhan could be rougher, make him feel it more; he pulls Lan Zhan down for another kiss, and another, like his body could store up this pleasure for the coming cold. Wei Ying wants to remember this for as long as he’s capable of remembering.

But he can also feel the resentful energy getting worse in here, which means it’s worse everywhere. And all that matters now is getting Lan Zhan out of this fucking loop.

“We have to,” it melts between them. Wei Ying tips his face away, despair clawing under his sternum. “Lan Zhan—we have to go.”

Then they’re sitting on the mattress side, Lan Zhan’s arm around his waist, their heads leaned together, and Wei Ying aches at each soft touch of Lan Zhan’s mouth—his cheekbone, his lower lip, his chin.

“Lan Zhan—”

“Wei Ying.” Thumbing back strands of his hair, Lan Zhan kisses his forehead. Lan Zhan isn’t despairing; he’s determined. “Dress warmly. It will be cold.”

“Yeah.”

From the wardrobe, Wei Ying excavates his longer winter coat, silk-lined inside, the black wool pilling at the sleeves. The thriftstore let him have it for ten dollars, after he dealt with a cursed Twister mat that inflicted some pretty extreme bodily contortions.

Lan Zhan nods approvingly, and starts to button it for him as he ties up his hair. “Do you have gloves? A scarf?”

“Lost my gloves. Used my last scarf to tie up a haunted matryoshka doll.” The look Lan Zhan gives him isn’t one of the patient ones. “I know, I know. But you’ll keep me warm, right? Lan er-gege?”

“Mn.” Lan Zhan blushes prettily. Oh, his ears are so pink. Wei Ying thinks he could see that every day and never get tired of it. He keeps looking, like he could burn it into himself.

I want to remember this.

They emerge onto the stoop outside, and he kisses Lan Zhan there, damp air wincing against his cheeks. Then he looks up. The sky is clear and starless, the moon a broken china plate. Wet roofs are growing over dark silver, and the sidewalks and mailboxes have an ice-rink glitter—the first frost of fall. The cold feels unnatural. 

Wei Ying can hear apartments throbbing with music, and the gaggles of walkers are drunker, reeling all around the quieter streets. Ghosts mill around like shapes of breath. There are a lot of them. The resentful energy is thick, starting to claw at him.

He’s tried not to think about where they’re going, but now he has to, because it might make him dangerous to Lan Zhan. More dangerous.

“Wei Ying?”

“I’m okay,” he says. “Can we... make one stop? One more, a tiny detour.”

“Okay,” Lan Zhan says.

“It’s uptown. Not far.”

They set off walking, his hand in Lan Zhan’s warm hand. He keeps looking at Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan looks back, and despite his fear Wei Ying feels brave and stupid and alight, on the brink of laughter, happy to his teeth and fingertips and the roots of his hair.

“Hey,” he says, “I think we’re gonna make it to sunrise.”

“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, not really trying to sound cautious.

“I’d really like to see one with you.” The night stretches away like a horizon they’ll never catch, but he imagines Lan Zhan, lovely in daylight. “God, remember the sun?”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, and squeezes his hand. “Quite presently.”

“Lan Zhan, was that a line? Did you just—”

So dry, “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

And Wei Ying thinks, to everything, to a city cranky with ghosts, to nobody in particular, thank youthank you for this, thank you for him, spilling over with gratitude, I know I’m fucked but that’s okay, thank you, thank you.

They reach the community garden ringed by dark apartment blocks. It’s just a square of green, fringed with flowerbeds and a few brushstroke trees and a bench tagged in white paint. Rain has beaded on the iron gate, and there’s a spray like broken glass when Wei Ying unlocks the gate with magic and pushes it open. The whitish grass snaps under his sneakers.

At the edge, he picks his way between flowers shedding dry skins and crinkling leaves. Behind a skeletal tree he finds the shallow mound of earth and goes down to his knees in front of it. The sodden ground sinks beneath his legs, and he begins to dig. The soil is dense and sticky like clay, heavy to move. His finger joints ache, ice-raw.

“God, fuck, that’s cold.”

Lan Zhan watches. After a moment he kneels too, and helps.

“Lan Zhan, you’ll get filthy—”

“Then I’ll be filthy,” Lan Zhan says, hands already smeared, and leans over to kiss him. There’s nothing Wei Ying can say to that. “What are you looking for?”

“I don’t… There might be nothing here. It might be gone.”

Wei Ying doesn’t remember how deep it goes. They get several feet down, heaping up a soil mountain, and he’s about to wonder aloud if he’s gotten the place wrong when his knuckles knock against a hard plane. He scrapes the dirt away, unearthing the grooved metal lid.

“Is that it?”

“Yeah.”

They dig around the steel box until it’s loose enough in its damp socket to be lifted out, but Wei Ying stays kneeling in the dirt, staring at it. He’s woken by Lan Zhan cleaning his hands with bottled water and sanitizing gel. Then Lan Zhan draws the talisman on his palm to warm him. It glows bright blue in his magic, the perfect heat for skin.

“How are you better at my talisman than me?” Wei Ying complains.

Lan Zhan kisses the crown of his head, hand warm to his cheek and sharp with alcohol scent. “I had a good teacher.”

They sit on the talisman-warmed bench. Wei Ying takes a slow breath and unwinds the seal on the box. It gives, and he lifts the lid away. Brittle leaves of parcel paper crinkle as he parts them, cold from being in the ground, and then—

“Still here.”

All of it. The sash and leather belt chosen for him by Shijie. The qiankun pouch Jiang-shushu had made for his fourteenth birthday, still full of what Jiang Cheng used to call his ‘pet garbage’. The silver Jiang bell he received when he became a full disciple. The hair band with a carved metal lotus, leather creased soft because he wore it almost every day for years. The midnight blue over-robe and a purple under-robe, which he never wore together and only folded so neatly before he put them in the ground. The red ribbon for his hair.

Grave goods for the person he buried five years ago.

“These were yours,” Lan Zhan says.

“Yeah.”

Wei Ying disturbs the lapel of the over-robe. Part of him is afraid it’ll fall to dust when he touches it, but his fingertips skim down sturdy silk brocade.

“It’s the weirdest thing. I used to be this person. I used to… This was my life. Wake up every day and be this. Instead of… wake up every day, and not have a clue who I am. Make it up as I go along. Do it again tomorrow.”

Shijie helped him choose the over-robe color, the same deep blue Jiang-shushu would wear. He didn’t know if it was allowed, if Yu-ayi would take the opportunity to reel off all his faults at dinner, starting with how much he presumed. Shijie just said, It suits you, A-Xian.

“When we came here,” he blinks in the shadow of that memory, “when we came here, I put it all away. Couldn’t look at it. Didn’t deserve to. But I couldn’t burn it, or… so I buried it.”

Like preparing for the end of the world, which in a way it was. The end of a world. It rode on his back while he carried plastic sacks of rice, while he hammered nails and argued with Wen Qing about night watches. A slicing, sober thought: I’m going to die here.

The bell clinks as he gathers it in his hand. “This is a clarity bell. Do you...”

“A little.”

“I don’t know what that much resentful energy is going to do to me, but if it gets really—you could try using this. It’s strong, and you’re even stronger, and maybe it’ll get through to me.”

“You won’t go that far,” Lan Zhan says. “But if you wish, I will hold onto it.”

“I do.”

Lan Zhan slides the bell into the coat pocket where he keeps his talisman paper. Then he runs his thumb down the coiled river of red ribbon. “I like this.”

Wei Ying remembers seeing the color in a seamstress’ shop, so rich his eye wanted to go back to it again and again. Jiang Cheng used to say at least they’d always be able to spot him in a crowd. At some point it stopped being a flag and became a target.

“Yeah.” He smiles down at it. ”I think I still do too. Would you...” He twists away, and Lan Zhan ties it around his ponytail. It flutters when he turns his head. As he does, Lan Zhan’s eyes catch, not entirely present. “Hey.” Wei Ying waves a hand before his face. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know.” Lan Zhan shakes his head, and his face unclouds. “It suits you.”

There’s other useful stuff and, okay, a lot of junk. Shells, black stones a river tongued smooth, the silly things Wei Ying used to collect. Under the robes he finds a plastic envelope of photos and his heart trips, seeing a face through the translucent cover.

Jiang Cheng, wearing lilac. In the first photo his smile is only a little sarcastic. In the second one he’s flipping the camera off.

“This is my shidi. He’s a sect leader now, but… okay, he’s probably still like this, a bit.”

“He is,” Lan Zhan says. “Except he does not smile.”

Wei Ying swallows against the bitter sway of his stomach. “Yeah.”

The next photo is busy—a crowd of Jiang disciples, thirty at least, in their blue robes. They’re frozen alive, windswept on a glittering lakeshore of reeds and gravel. The youngest might be five, only half as tall as the dark seeding cattails bending around them like old men.

“Most of these kids are dead.” Wei Ying starts to count faces. Stops himself. “A few lived. I’m biased, obviously, but they were so good, all of them. The best sect. Sorry,” he adds with a laugh that aches, not really sorry. Lan Zhan squeezes his hand.

“Everybody thinks that I deserted them like it was nothing. It wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t. It was just that other people needed me more than they did. Jiang Cheng… he thinks that I chose them over him—the Wens—and that’s, I didn’t think of it like that, but I know why he did. The thing is… he was going to be just fine without me. I’d already given him everything I could. Everything of use.”

When he sees the next photo, everything in him is loud, then quiet. He hasn’t seen her face in years, except in dreams.

“Lan Zhan—this is my shijie.”

Sitting in a rowboat, sleeves rolled up on her lavender robes, making peace signs under her smile.

Lan Zhan says, “Tell me about her.”

So, sitting on a bench in the dark and early cold, Wei Ying does. He tells Lan Zhan about the letters Jiang Yanli used to write to people all over the place—her beautiful calligraphy, the boxes of letters going back years, envelopes bruised by their international journeys. How funny she was, how she’d wait until he and Jiang Cheng had finished an entire brainless argument to deliver, in her mildest and most loving voice, a perfect undercut that would leave them both stunned and then hooting with laughter. How she and Jiang Cheng used to have long discussions about formal robes for next season that were almost incomprehensible, the two of them lying on their stomachs to scroll through pages of reference photos on the laptop. A-jie! I’ll look like a grape! The stories she wrote in old notebooks, sitting on a wooden pier with a fistful of colorful pens, and never showed anyone. Her voice carrying like smoke from her bedroom’s sun-barred gloom when she had a migraine: A-Xian? How she cooked when times were good and bad, though she must have hated it sometimes. Hey, what are you doing? The sect kitchens, three AM. Her smiling egg yolk apron was flour smudged. I’m stress-cooking, A-Xian, get out or bring me that mixing bowl. How she looked in her wedding dress.

He has to stop to clench his teeth. His eyes ache, salt-sting in the gutters of his face. He’s never cried for her and he won’t now, because he killed her. Grief is for blameless people left behind. Not him.

Lan Zhan says quietly, “Wei Ying.” It’s not pity, but it’s unbearable, it rips Wei Ying open at the seams.

“No—don’t. I don’t have any right. I don’t have any right—”

His body is shuddering and won’t stop. He’s so tired, and the place they’re about to go is where she died, a place he can’t bring to memory because it’s blacked out like a cigarette burn.

“Sorry,” he gasps. “Sorry, Lan Zhan, I’m—”

It’s been packed down somewhere, pacing in its cramped prison, kicking the walls for years and years. The shuddering breaks him open, his chest cracking like ancient tectonic plates, and he has to smother his face with his hands when a sob comes out, and another.

He wishes Lan Zhan would look away. This shouldn’t be seen, this mess spilling out, hot and ugly, still molten. Another thing he’s stolen.

Lan Zhan pulls him close. It’s the most forceful Lan Zhan has been with him, since that time Wei Ying nearly stepped under a car and Lan Zhan yanked him back to save his stupid life, and Wei Ying is glad to be handled roughly when his body is betraying him like this, he’ll gladly give over control of it to someone else, someone who knows what it should be doing. Lan Zhan’s arms are fierce cradles around his shoulders and middle, holding him so tight they’re almost one compound animal. A healthy body and its shaking, weeping parasite.

He cries and the whole sleeping world must hear him. He’s being strangled by a sadness that’s bigger than him, and it’s like panic, like the first time he swam in the deep eastern lake and realized his toes couldn’t even scrape silt floor, that it went deeper down and down, maybe forever. He cries until he can’t, until all he can do is shake with dry, gutted, useless sobs.

He’s still clutching his hands to his face—don’t look—but Lan Zhan has braced all the hurting parts of him together. It’s good Lan Zhan knows to do that, otherwise Wei Ying thinks his ribcage would groan open and his aching head would topple off and roll away. He’s so grateful.

“Breathe, Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s warm face, against his hair.

Eventually, he lifts his head. He’s left dark Rorschach blotches on Lan Zhan’s collar. His face throbs like a red stoplight. 

“I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “God, I’m really—”

“No. No need.”

The way he’s sitting hurts, he’s twisted toward Lan Zhan and it’s wrenching his bad hip. He grunts when the pain sputters, freezing his leg.

“Bones?”

“Yeah,” he manages. “Yeah. Stupid fucking bones.” They pull apart, and Wei Ying winces as he faces front. Lan Zhan breaks the plastic skin on a travel pack of tissues and gives him several. “Thanks.” He smiles, tight-cheeked, swabbing at his swollen face. “Ugh, there’s literally no moisture left in my body. I’ve become a raisin.”

Lan Zhan tucks a damp strand of hair behind his ear. “You don’t look like a raisin,” he says seriously. “You look beautiful.”

“Lan Zhan.”

He drains the water when Lan Zhan offers the bottle. He feels sore and wretched. He feels steadier.

“How is the pain?”

That tugs a laugh from him. Oh, you know. It’s walking around wearing my face. It pushed me off a building and several times it broke my neck. “Sorry, I know, I know you mean my…” He closes his eyes. “It’s okay, it’s fine. It gets… stuck, sometimes.”

“Hm.” Then, “You are allowed to miss her, Wei Ying.”

“I don’t know.” I guess I will no matter what. “I wish I could see her again, doing... anything. Really anything. I was so lucky, Lan Zhan, to be her shidi. I was so lucky. I’ve been a lot of things, but that one is the best. Ah, it’s so stupid, I never even know how to say it—because she’s not, ah, she’s not alive any more, but she’s still my shijie.”

Lan Zhan nods. “I used to say ‘I don’t have a mother’.”

“Oh.”

“It made sense at the time. But it did not feel good to say.”

“It doesn’t seem like anybody helped you to know what you could say.”

Lan Zhan’s mouth does something complicated. “No.”

Show me your pain, I’ll show you mine. Ugly, isn’t it?

“Fuck,” Wei Ying scrubs at his eyes, “sorry, we need to get going, I just wanted to—”

“What is this?”

Behind the photo of Shijie there’s the edge of another one, an arm draped in white robes. Lan Zhan thumbs it out.

Wei Ying and Lan Zhan, side by side. Wei Ying is in Lan guest disciple robes, white embroidered with blue lotuses. Lan Zhan is in Lan blue-white, frown a shadow under his silk ribbon. Hand behind his back, elbow neatly tucked. His cheeks are rounder, the last stubborn handprints of childhood. His sword makes a perfect white stroke at his side. Wei Ying is all slouch, messy-haired, grinning, Suibian propped on his shoulder.

“Well, I guess now we know for sure.”

“I was already sure,” says Lan Zhan. “But this gives us a timeline.”

“I wish I remembered this.” A summer day. Sun gilding Lan Zhan’s hairpiece. “God, look at you—even at fifteen, how did I stand a fucking chance.”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan noses at his temple, presses a kiss into his hair.

Wei Ying feels a bloom of affection for them, these children. Their world isn’t so big yet, or so unkind. They don’t know what’s coming for them.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, studying that young frowning face, “I think you didn’t like me back then. I bet I was so annoying, I bet I drove you insane.”

“Your file said you were… frequently disciplined while in Gusu. I was in charge of discipline within the junior cohort.”

Wei Ying covers his mouth with a pained grille of his fingers. “Oh my god. Oh, no.” He can guess very well what his fifteen-year-old self would have done, confronted with Lan Wangji trying to lay down laws. “I can’t apologize for what I don’t remember, but—Lan Zhan, I…”

Lan Zhan’s eyes smile. “No need.”

Next photo. Lan Zhan, older. Sitting behind a teashop table, his expression unripe at being photographed. The powder blue robe Wei Ying has seen before. Wei Ying took this one—he just knows. Picked up his phone and snapped it, probably teasing him to smile, won’t you, Lan er-gege?

“Lan Zhan,” he says. “I think I…” Had a thing for you, back then, and I didn’t even know it.

Lan Zhan hardly glances at it. He’s reaching for the next, which is from a very different time.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says.

It’s been folded often—a white crease veins down the center, separating two figures. Tents rise like dusty mountains behind them. During the war, Wei Ying realizes. Some field, nowhere.

Lan Zhan’s stare is weary, sword at his side and his white sleeves bound for fighting. But Wei Ying looks like he was snipped out of paper—pale and stiff-jointed, with an expression that simmers.

They’re discordant beside each other. Pristine white. Black and bloody red.

Wei Ying can’t stop staring at it, that red. It’s the same robe the ghost wears when it comes to kill him. Not a cheerful flag in his hair but the armor in which he went to war against a whole world. His face is a wasteland.

His head pangs, cut through, and his vision roils, queasy, like a rainbowed oil puddle with dark things bobbing in it.

Noise, a roar—chaos.

Wei Wuxian

Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian—

Wei Ying!

He yanks himself away from Lan Zhan. Falls up from the seat on legs with no feeling in them.

If he looks down he’ll see blood beating from the hole between his ribs. He’s been shot—he’ll make them pay for that. He’s here to square up every debt, every last one.

“Wei Ying?”

Night. Lan Zhan, straight and slender as needle ice, with Bichen raised. At him. And his own voice says:

Lan ZhanI always knew one day you and I would fight for real.

“You were there.”

“What?”

It shudders out, like he’s retching, “You were—that night, you were there—” Fight for real, always knew you and I, fight— “I thought you weren’t, but you were. You fought me. You were going to—”

Lan Zhan, standing, says, “Wei Ying—”

“Am I wrong? I always get things wrong, my memory is—” His head is ringing. Feels like he’s been hit. “Just tell me, Lan Zhan—tell me, what...”

“I don’t know.”

He trusts Lan Zhan’s judgment, and Lan Zhan decided he should die. It hurts so badly all his nerves are vibrating with it, but it’s clean and certain. If it was anyone, it should have been Lan Zhan.

“I guess they didn’t let you.” Numb-drunk, he forces himself to smile. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll be gone soon.”

“Wei Ying, listen to me.” Lan Zhan surges toward him, eyes like chipped glass. “I tried to help you, that is why I—”

“Help me.”

He doesn’t understand, and then he does.

Lan Zhan’s mother, imprisoned in a house for the rest of her life. Four bleak walls. Punishment for killing one Lan disciple.

“You mean, lock me away forever.”

“No.” Lan Zhan’s voice cracks. “No.”

It must have been so civilized. Quiet, and final. How did she die? Wei Ying doesn’t know.

“Were you angry, when it was only exile? Did you wish they’d—”

How many Lan disciples did Wei Ying kill? Would any punishment have ever been enough?

“No!”

They had to take away Lan Zhan’s memory to stop him. 

Wei Ying is upended, unspooling. Laughter boils up from his belly, scorching everything in its path hollow. “Lan Zhan—you really did forget everything about me. You forgot you hated me.” How funny, how awful. “Oh my god.”

“Wei Ying...”

Lan Zhan reaches for him, and he flinches back, laughter tearing in his throat.

“Please don’t touch me—” He can barely hear himself over all the voices. “I can’t, I just can’t—I can’t stand it—”

Then Lan Zhan’s eyes flick beyond him, empty of everything but fear. Wei Ying doesn’t need to look. He hopes it’s fast.

 



41.

 

Unknown 21:01
Wei Ying?

Unknown 21:03
Wei ying please answer

Unknown 21:04
I don’t remember what happened that night.

Unknown 21:06
I wasn’t trying to hide it from you.
I was there. I tried to protect you

Unknown 21:09
Wei Ying please

Wei Ying 21:10
who is this?

Unknown 21:11
I know you’re angry
I wish I could explain better

Wei Ying 21:12
sry my memory is really so bad
so uh
how the fuck did you get this number

Unknown 21:13
I don’t understand
You gave it to me

Wei Ying 21:14
thats weird

Wei Ying 21:16
how do we know each other?