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see you yesterday

Chapter Text

1.

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying looks up from the paper-man waltzing dizzily on the counter.

“Huaisang, I’m working, so happiness is strictly prohibited. My boss can’t exploit my joy for profit.”

Nie Huaisang laughs, shaking out his umbrella behind him as he steps inside. He’s wearing yoga pants and a fluttery pale pink silk bathrobe. His hair is in a huge glossy bun and his mouth is jewel red.

“Wei-xiong. It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, it has.”

“This place is still…” Huaisang glances around at the faded talismans pasted in delirious collage on the walls.

Wei Ying spends his days in a shop steeped in ghost energy, greeting anyone who ventures in, living or dead. He’s used to it—how the floorboards creak when no one steps on them, how the radio whines to life with mouthless voices, the ghosts who sit around the TV in mismatched armchairs to watch Black Cat Detective reruns from a dust-smeared VHS player. Li Tong sees no problem with owning a haunted shop, selling experimental or forbidden cultivation goods, and hiring a kid who draws the unquiet dead like flocking birds. But Wei Ying is aware that it’s pretty weird.

“Creepy?”

“Yeah.” Huaisang’s reflection flits over the bronze mirror on the wall. He stops to peer at a ceramic frog.

“We don’t even have to try, and we’re the creepiest place for ten blocks every way. Except maybe that Instagram cafe on Essex where they sprinkle everything with adaptogens or whatever. That place isn’t haunted haunted, but it has the nastiest energy.”

“How’s business?”

“Good! We had a run on ghost-traps, so now I’m making them out of these.” He taps the nearest empty can, skinned of its label. “I never want to look at another peach in syrup.”

“I never imagined you in customer service.”

Wei Ying grins. “Oh, I don’t work the counter. I ‘aggravate customers’, apparently. I’m usually in the back tinkering, but my boss is out tonight. Ghoul at a house on West 10th.”

“How come you’re not there?” Huaisang says. “Aren’t you the expert?”

“I’m being forced to sit this one out.” He tugs down his hoodie sleeve to hide his bandaged wrist. Pain darts into the base of his thumb. “There were complications with the last job. She’s too cautious.”

“What happened?”

“Angry ghost. He was pretty attached to the space he was occupying, definitely didn’t want to be evicted! It was fine, I handled it.”

Huaisang raises his eyebrows. “But…?”

Wei Ying shrugs. “It really wasn’t a big deal. Just some bruises and a hole in the wall. Anyway! Enough shop talk, tell me where we’re going.”

“It’s a Halloween party. It’s a party, Halloween is the excuse. One of Mianmian’s friends.”

“Is Mianmian’s friend gay? By coincidence. Unrelatedly.”

Huaisang melts onto the counter. “Wei-xiong, my heart is clear, sparkling glass.”

Wei Ying snorts. “Huaisang, your heart is a dirty rear car window with your Grindr profile picture taped on it.” Sometimes, he has to remind himself that Huaisang is a sect leader.

“We’ve been messaging.” There’s something sweet and hesitant in Huaisang’s smile. “Mianmian said he was tall.”

“Oh! I retract all criticism.”

“Wei Ying—you’re being mean to me, in my time of need.” Huaisang nudges his finger against the jade buyao on the counter. There’s a curse wound around the ornament, a nasty one which makes you feel like you’re being watched when you wear it. Wei Ying collects curses. It’s a hobby. “So, are you coming?”

“Uh,” Wei Ying glances at the clock, “well, technically I’m still on shift. But we’ve already had the rush of people who think summoning ghosts is like dialing another timezone. She won’t care if I close early.”

“Ding ding, right answer. Okay. Costume?”

“Huaisang, I’m going as the purest distillation of myself. What could be more terrifying?”

Wei Ying’s nod to the season is a long-sleeved skeleton t-shirt. Full ribcage, notched spinal column, too-long arm bones which fall past his wrists. There’s a leeringly blank ghost mask in the backroom which covers two-thirds of his face.

Huaisang smiles and pats his shoulder. “Sit down, I’ll fix you up. You want scary, right?”

“There’s no fixing me up. This,” Wei Ying points to himself, “is a terminally condemned building.”

“Oh, Wei-xiong. Just wait.”

As Huaisang spreads out his palettes, Wei Ying hops up onto the counter. “What are you meant to be, anyway?”

Huaisang grins, not nicely. “Me? I murdered my real-estate mogul husband for all his money and made it look like a golfing accident.”

“Wow, okay. Specific.”

“Right? He totally deserved it, the scumbag. Alright, stop fidgeting.”

Nie Huaisang’s hands are gentle but firm as he tilts Wei Ying’s chin and begins to stroke a pencil across his eyelids. “Wei Ying, these eye-circles—”

“Ah, it’s just thin skin. How was Qinghe?”

“Ugh. Formal thing. Discussion conference for our branch sects. Jin Guangyao wants to build these local offices to monitor spirit activity, but all the sect leaders are refusing.”

Huaisang used to call Jin Guangyao—Meng Yao—his third brother. Wei Ying wonders what changed, then lets it slide away like a palmful of sand. Huaisang could be describing yesterday's weather or the lives of people who lived long ago. It’s not Wei Ying’s world anymore, if it ever was.

“Da-ge would’ve known how to deal with it,” Huaisang is saying. “But I… ugh. I don’t know. Everything’s so tense right now.”

“Well, you probably won’t even remember it soon, right?”

Huaisang smiles around his sigh. “That’s the plan.”

Finally he lays down his tools and offers up Wei Ying’s reflection in a little round mirror. He’s outlined and smudged Wei Ying’s eyes black, like sockets of a skull. Painted his nose into a ridge of bone, sharpened his cheekbones with shadows, made his lips a matte black seam. The rest of Wei Ying’s face is pale as death.

Wei Ying takes down his ponytail, shaking out his hair over his shoulders. He grins at his reflection, showing teeth. “Perfect.”

In the back room, Wei Ying stuffs protective talismans into his hoodie sleeve, paper crinkling against the inside of his elbow. He meets his own eyes in the window. Dark and glassy, like crow eyes. I’m a dead man, he thinks. It’s almost funny. The ghost who makes the fax machine rattle—ashy taste of cigarettes—gives him a thumbs up.

Back in the shop, Huaisang is in front of a crooked shelf, head ducked down. “Why do you have light sticks?”

“You pair them to your phone. The red light shows if there’s resentful energy nearby. It also does blue light and purple light, and… maybe some other colors? I forget.”

“What are those for?”

“Nothing? They’re just cool.” Wei Ying gestures across the shop. The lure flags, rough paper talismans, knitted spirit-nets, protective phone charms, mirror-traps, and all the rest. “A lot of these things look like junk, but they all work. I wouldn’t let her sell garbage.”

“How much of it is your stuff?”

“Pretty much all of it. I have a lot of ideas.” Wei Ying turns out the lights, but leaves the TV. The paper-man lies unmoving on the counter. “Okay! I’m ready, let’s go.”

Wei Ying locks up, and they step out into the alley. The air smells metallic. Nom Wah is busy, warm and lightbulb-yellow inside, but the other shop fronts are steel-lidded eyes. On Pell Street, the wind sways awnings and flags, and the tall lit-up signs in Chinese swim together like glass beads in a kaleidoscope. Gutters are ponds, full of floating cigarette butts and paper. The rain has driven people inside, and they pass bright restaurants packed full of bodies, windows fogged and streaming moisture. Smokers huddle under cover and shout to each other across the street. Car tires slice through the puddles, lifting water in low tidal waves.

Chinatown dwindles, giving way to smoggy red brick, fleets of Citibikes, and eccentric trees. The sidewalks are wet yellow shallows, ankle-deep with leaves. It’s crowded everywhere tonight, people in costumes becoming weird apparitions against the ordinary faces of buildings. The ghosts are only a shimmer, iridescent outlines, but there are so many, drifting through the slashing rain and steam billowing from street vents.

As the street widens out, it fills up with scaffolding and billboards. Past the 2nd Avenue subway, they’re buzzed into a red-brick building. It's old—the brass plaque over the entrance says it was a school, built in 1886. It’s also haunted, like half the buildings in New York are haunted, which Wei Ying discovers when he nearly steps through a ghost with a sweet old face like oak-tree bark, smiling at something he can’t see.

Climbing up to the third floor, Wei Ying can hear tangled voices through the blue door. Bass throbs into his shoes. Inside the apartment, people are arranged on the furniture, some costumed, some not. Faces Wei Ying doesn’t know, bunched like flowers. A skeleton sits propped in an armchair, and cotton cobwebs waft from the ceiling. The ironic shrugs of a Halloween party thrown by ghost-hunters. Behind the people, Wei Ying has an impression of warm wood and exposed brick walls and gym equipment. It’s huge. Must cost a fortune in rent.

“Hey,” says Mianmian. She’s in gauzy black, her crown a dark gleam in her hair. Her skirt looks made of real feathers. She saw Qi Bingxue dance in Grand Swan Lake at the Lincoln Center and messaged Wei Ying in all caps after. “Happy birthday! You look—”

“Deathly?”

“I was thinking Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

“So cruel. On my birthday!” Wei Ying pouts at her, full lower lip. “Hey, Mianmian…”

She thumps his shoulder. “You said you didn’t want a party! You said, and I quote, ‘why would I celebrate one more year on this grim march to the end’.”

“Ah, that’s an overly literal interpretation of what I said. You—”

“Come help me,” she says, drowning Wei Ying out. “Lei Sheng had his kitchen refitted, I can’t find anything.”

Wei Ying trails after her, sock-skating on the shiny wood floor. “Who’s that?”

“You’re in his apartment. He teaches zhuanqi meditation at the school. I don’t know why I’m telling you, you’ll forget in five minutes.”

“Hey! My memory isn’t that bad.”

“I had to introduce my sister to you three times. It absolutely is.”

The kitchen smells of citrus, spikes of scent. A huge plate of fruit stands on the counter: dalmatian slices of dragon fruit, crisp watermelon wedges, clementine segments like open fans. Bottles and juice cartons jostle for space on the marble island. People are chatting and reaching around each other for drinks.

Mianmian snaps leaves off a pale, sagging mint plant, and garnishes three tall glasses. She slides one over to him. “Before you get into the tequila with xiao Sang. I wanted mojitos, so...”

“Thanks.” The lime wedge and mint leaves bob like lily pads. Wei Ying feels the sour-sweet in his jaw. It’s tart going down, and makes his empty stomach ache. “Uh, is everybody here a…”

“Yeah. But xiao Sang is the only sect disciple, everybody else is unaffiliated.”

Most of the local cultivators aren’t part of any sect or clan. A lot of them are rogue cultivators; but there are tiny schools and shops and community centers where they share practices—some traditional, some not. Wei Ying is known for being unorthodox, but so is the guy who’s a little too into spirit-grass. Yiling Laozu Wei Wuxian is dead. As far as anybody knows, he died five years ago in a Jin cell.

“Are you worried?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “It’s fine. Just—more raids lately.”

“I heard,” she says, low. “Nobody’s going to recognize you through all that, though, unless you’ve got secret Yiling Laozu merchandise you’ve been dying to break out.”

“Shit. I’ll put the branded t-shirts back in my closet.”

“Probably for the best.”

“Are you okay?” he says. She’s carefully peeling a fat mauve grape, the curling skin like thin paper. “You’re...”

“Oh, yeah.” She laughs. “My mom always used to, it’s a habit.” She takes a knife and begins slicing them into halves. “How’re you doing?”

Wei Ying was waiting for this. He ignored her messages for two months, then resurfaced with a pathetic sorry this is late! sounds great and five heart emojis. Those weeks are a dark, bleak smear, the end of summer sour and distended like overripe fruit.

“Good,” he says, and she frowns a little. “Good! Busy, you know?” That seems emphatic enough. She tips her head; Wei Ying can’t read it. “Always plenty of undead who need to shriek and bang doors at 2am.”

“So annoying, and yet relatable.”

“How’s school?”

Mianmian teaches at the cultivation school on Hester and Bowery. Wei Ying saw her once with her gaggle of students on a night-hunt, their bright voices chiming out near Marble Cemetery.

“New kids are great,” she says. “Thirteen and fourteen, mixed ability. We’re using your ghost taxonomy.”

“That’s funny. I keep meaning to update that.”

“But when people hear about me, all they ever want is gossip about that guy.” She mimes vomiting.

“Gross.” Everything about Jin Guangshan is gross. “And how’s Liqiu-jie?”

She shakes strands of hair out of her face and sips her drink. “Oh my God, are you going to give me shit about that too?”

Wei Ying grins. “It’s a collective effort, I’m just today’s representative.”

“We’re not—”

“Oh, okay.” He makes a performance of glancing toward the living room. “Maybe I should ask her?”

“Wei Ying!” She smacks his shoulder. “Don’t you dare!”

He ducks behind the island, throwing up his empty hand. “Mianmian ah! Mercy!”

“Get back up here,” she says, but she’s smiling. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re okay. Xiao Sang was getting ready to go break down your door. Except, uhm, we don’t know where you live.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says, and empties his glass. “Aiya, so dramatic.”

“I just…” She shakes her head. “You know, after what they did to you before, I…”

Thought they’d come back to finish him off.

“Yeah.” Wei Ying's voice cracks across it, brittle as eggshell. “But fuck them, right?”

“Right,” she says, fierce. “Fuck them. Hey, take this fruit plate.”

Wei Ying is so uselessly grateful for her. For her steady, searching kindness. He wishes he knew how to trust it, but—well. He murdered her best friend. At any time he’d deserve much, much less.

As they walk into the living room, she shifts a glass to the crook of her arm and reaches out to squeeze his hand.

They do shots of syrupy mixto tequila between salt and lime, because Huaisang insists, and then Huaisang hands him a vodka cranberry. People are dancing. Somebody smashes a glass and cheers go up.

Soon, Wei Ying is curled on a squeaky couch with his knees bent so that his feet don’t touch a total stranger, and his oyster-pink vodka is almost gone. Solo cups crowd the table beside his head and the floor, all stamped with his mouth’s black seal. Wei Ying kicks one over when he swings his feet around, swears, then remembers it’s empty. Nie Huaisang is sitting on the floor, holding a glass like it’s a flower-pot.

“Huaisang, are you drinking wine?”

“It’s good wine.”

“Strong argument. Counter-argument, this is a Halloween party, and watching you drink nice wine is making me question a lot of things. Including our friendship, that you’d cast judgment on me impl—implicitly like this.”

Huaisang smiles. “It’s also your birthday. Do you want some?”

“Ugh! I hate birthdays.”

“Well, it’s nearly over. See, look—” Huaisang points at the clock on the wall, the hands poised at one minute to midnight. “Seven, six, five, four—”

“That clock is definitely fast, it’s not even eleven, why are you—”

“Three, two, one—happy unbirthday!

“Huaisang, if you sing, I’ll dunk you in a puddle.”

Huaisang props his face in his hands, elbows splayed on the table glass. “It’s been so long, Wei-xiong! You never replied when I unsubtly tried to set you up with one of my friends, I can’t believe my matchmaking efforts are being squandered.”

“I’ve been busy,” Wei Ying says. “Sombody’s got to invent talismanic teleportation this century. Hey, how’s the painting? Did the guy who DM’d you about becoming your ‘patron of eros’ follow through?”

“Ugh, no, such a disappointment. All that stuff about opening my budding flower, and nothing.” Huaisang’s eyes are bright. “Hey, I’ve got a tiny exhibition of the gongbi pieces coming up next month. It’s on West Broadway, you should come!”

“Will there be…”

“Oh.” Huaisang pats his open mouth with his hand, all apology. “I invited two of the branch sect leaders and, uh, Jia—”

Wei Ying feels his smile thin. “Well, they won’t even know I’m there, right? I can be your art installation non-entity. Champagne flutes waltzing through the air, something something, invisible superstructure which acts upon and through… ah, you know.”

“There’ll be ordinary people there, too. Non-cultivators.”

“I’ll think about it.” He won’t.

Huaisang came to New York three years ago. Rented a place in Brooklyn, started selling gestural, erotic ink paintings out of galleries. It was never a secret he’d rather be an artist than a cultivator. All the same, Wei Ying didn’t expect him to see him sidling down Mott Street carrying a heavy bronze lampshade, thousands of miles from the place they last met. He couldn’t have known Wei Ying was alive and hiding here. Wei Ying wonders if, somehow, he did.

Nobody else came, so Huaisang kept his secret.

A year later, Huaisang’s brother Mingjue died of qi-deviation. It was sudden. Soon after, Huaisang became sect leader, a thing he never expected to be. He can only leave so much to his disciples, so he goes to China for the discussion conferences, the weddings, the thirteen-course banquets. It’s Huaisang who shows Wei Ying snaps of his nephew, Jin Ling, small and aggravated at five. Huaisang brings him fragments of news from Lotus Pier. Huaisang tumbles in and out of that world, trying to be a whole person of two halves. He leaves the sect leader behind at the airport.

There’s a stained silence. Staring at his fingernails, Wei Ying says, “How is he?”

“Oh,” Huaisang says. “Doing okay, last I heard. He’s really busy, and we, uh, don’t see each other all that much, so.” The corner of his mouth tips up, sorrow-tugged. “But things reach me from time to time.”

“That’s good.”

Jiang Cheng works too hard. He always has. And now he’s leader of a sect that was nearly ruined in the war. He’s probably worked sixteen-hour days for the last five years. Raising the unburnt timbers of Lotus Pier on his shoulders. Training his new disciples. Being jiujiu to his only living family.

“I’m sure he misses you,” Huaisang offers.

Wei Ying laughs. It’s funny that five words can cut in so far, for being so untrue. “I imagine he’s trying hard to forget I existed. Maybe he already has.”

He thinks about Jiang Cheng kneeling alone in the ancestral shrine for Qingming festival. He thinks about Jiang Cheng leading Jin Ling by the hand through the heart of Lotus Pier, and hopes that Jiang Cheng kept Shijie’s room as it was: sun-flooded, full of framed photos and big watercolor paintings, all her shelves of fiction and cookbooks. He thinks about how if his own pavilion hadn’t burned when the Wen came, Jiang Cheng would have burned it. Go and die, the last words Jiang Cheng said to him.

“Ah, nothing to be done about it, right?” His stomach is ethanol and acid, bubbling. “Hey—I’m twenty-six, Huaisang. How did that happen?”

“Wei Ying, are you—“

“I’m fine! I’m fine. C’mon, let’s go, the night’s still young—unlike me, I’m already over the hill. I’m hungry, do you want to get food? Let’s get food.”

“Now?”

“Uh-huh.” Wei Ying’s body has been winding up, a coil of waspish energy, even if he’s not entirely inside it. “It’s imperative that we go right now. And you’re paying.”

“Okay, okay, whatever you want.”

The rain needles at his face as they step outside. Wei Ying pulls on his hoodie and tugs the hood over his head. He steps around a ghost in a pin-striped suit dawdling at the curb.

Every place has its own ghosts. New York has a thousand ways to tell you it doesn’t care, but its ghosts care so much. They care about their favorite spots in the park, shared soup dumplings in a humid kitchen, football games, delayed J trains, text messages sent in anger, songs that sound like longing, people they loved and hated and lost. They go through their private motions on subways and bridges, in kitchens and bodegas and nail salons and the middle of the street. They’re the traces of life that death remembers, rehearsed quietly—except when they’re not quiet. Except when they’re very, very angry. Wei Ying has never been able to ignore them—their quiet remembering, or their rage. But he’s learned to live with them, more or less.

“Hey, do you have cash?” he asks Huaisang. “I could really go for Lan Zhou dumplings—or McDonald's, why do McNuggets taste better on nights when it's raining?”

“Yeah, sure—”

Wei Ying dodges crowds of living people and spirits, dragging Huaisang along by a silk sleeve. Veering to cross the street, he bumps into somebody stood at the bus stop under a powder-blue umbrella.

“Sorry!”

When he looks back, there's no one there. Straight away, he knows: that's a sect disciple. Just standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a bus. They can't see each other.

Wei Ying lets out a thin laugh and stumbles on, around the corner.

This street is darker, the sky wet ink. The buildings seem to lean in, like steepled fingers. Rain streaks into the stark orange beam of a streetlight, and damp air is thorny in Wei Ying’s nose and throat. Somebody’s gripping his wrists tight enough to twist his skin between their fingers, dragging his hands behind his back, and he’s fighting, he’s fighting—

“Wei Ying?”

He’s not there. Not then. He’s standing on a street corner with Huaisang, and it’s an ordinary Halloween in New York, and his life’s already over.

“Actually—“ Vocal crackle, like broken radio signal. Wei Ying swallows, and smiles. “Let’s, uh, let’s just walk for a while, okay?”

“Oh,” says Huaisang. “Sure.” That’s the great thing about Huaisang: the total lack of judgment. Huaisang doesn’t care that he’s a car crash in human skin.

Wei Ying rarely remembers things from that time. His memory is the gravepit where things go to die, and that’s fine, that’s for the best. But every so often something claws and gasps its way back out. He almost asks who it was, the disciple, but Huaisang didn’t notice. And anyway, what would be the point?

Cold scrapes at his face. His sneakers are damp at the toes. They walk along East Houston, past the playground ringed by stooping trees and storefronts with sprayed black tags like electrocardiograms, ducking between umbrellas carried by shiny raincoats and people in costumes, shouting and laughing. Cars streak past as light, a constant thunder.

Huaisang’s talking about mulberry fiber and his latest painting, inspired by city grids.

“—know, I feel like it’s been done? Ugh, sometimes I want to set fire to everything I’ve ever painted.”

Wei Ying forces himself to pay attention. “This place looks different to everyone,” he says. To him, it looks like refuge. And also like the place that’s going to eat him alive.

“Yeah,” says Huaisang. “That’s tr—“

“Here.” Stepping between garbage bags like shiny wet boulders, he tugs Huaisang down the next street and into a bubble tea place announced by blue neon.

Above the framed menu pictures, a wooden sign says ‘COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS’. A ghost lingers near the back wall, faded against the candy-stripe wallpaper. She has wistful eyes and a dress with a giddy flower print. Wei Ying gives her a smile which must look tired on his face. Only a few nights a year are as restless as this, but he feels unhinged every time. The nowhere feeling of hollow electric lighting on vinyl floors. Eyes that aren’t eyes.

“I’ll get it,” Huaisang says. It’s only fair, he’s loaded. “Usual?”

“Sweet as they can make it.” Huaisang dubs it ‘horrific’, then spends ten minutes taking photos of his taro slush as the cup sweats onto the table. They share takoyaki, Wei Ying’s side piled with beni shoga.

“Hey,” says Huaisang. “Um—I have a favor to ask.”

Wei Ying flicks a boba pearl along his back teeth and chews. “While this straw is in my mouth, I’m maximally receptive to any and all requests.”

“Uh, so.” Huaisang fidgets with a loose strand of hair, winding it around his knuckle. “It’s about da-ge.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I told you about, um. How he died.”

“Yeah.”

Not long after it happened, Huaisang asked him to come over. Wei Ying got the F train down to Prospect Park, and the Huaisang who opened the door was pale-lipped, his mascara wept onto his cheeks like water-feathered brushstrokes. He wrung his hands restlessly as he described how Mingjue died—rage and bloodfoam, unrecognizable. The day before, he bought me pineapple buns on his way home from the gym. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. They got drunk on boxed wine, and Wei Ying put him to bed. What am I supposed to do? Huaisang murmured, as Wei Ying turned out his bedside lamp. What do I do? The next day Huaisang went back to Qinghe, unable to ignore his responsibilities any longer.

“I keep thinking about it,” Huaisang says, “and, and, it doesn’t… it just doesn’t make sense.”

“But isn’t that how it goes in your family?” Disciples and their sword-magic and their ancestral burdens. Sometimes Wei Ying is almost glad to be an exile.

“Would you—” Huaisang hesitates. “You know our cultivation isn’t… normal.”

“Yeah.”

“And that’s your specialty.”

“Abnormal cultivation, my entire wheelhouse.”

“It happened so fast—I don’t know if it was the saber-spirit or, or something else. But I need to know, I have to, I can’t—”

One of the women behind the counter leans around to catch Wei Ying’s eye and says, “We’re closing.”

The place has emptied out. The Roman numeral clock tilted on a shelf says nine thirty-five. “I thought you closed at ten-thirty.”

“It’s ten-thirty now.”

“Your clock’s wrong.”

“You have phones.”

“Okay, okay.” Wei Ying gulps down the last of their takoyaki and they slope out into the night. The cold and traffic noise are a sudden drenching.

“Would you... come to Qinghe?” Huaisang says, as they start to walk. “Examine him?”

There’s the punchline. Wei Ying looks behind them to make sure they’re not being followed.

“Huaisang,” he says. “I shouldn’t even be able to speak to you. So examining your brother’s body with demonic cultivation is absolutely, definitely in the category of ‘things Wei Wuxian is forbidden to do’.”

“I know it’s a risk,” Huaisang says. “I know—”

“As far as they know, I don’t cultivate—ever. That’s the only reason the Jin haven’t sent disciples to hunt me like a jiangshi.”

Huaisang is silent as they go around the corner. Wei Ying sees the basketball courts behind the crumpled wire fence, white lines marking the shadows like dressmaker’s chalk. He has a memory of early summer years ago, the light a sunset blush. Shouts, and the buoyant thunk-thunk of the ball. Sitting on a wall with Huaisang, drinking bubble tea and eating Cheerios from the box.

He sighs. “Let me think about it, okay? I want to help. If it was only about me, I’d do it. But it would put other people at risk, too.”

“What people?”

“Nie-zongzhu.” Wei Ying lets his voice turn sharp. “Ask me no questions and I won’t have to lie to you.” Huaisang is still a sect leader. Jin Guangyao’s little brother. Some things he can’t know.

“Okay.” For a moment Huaisang’s eyes glint, like the shine down a switch-knife. “That’s fair.” Wei Ying thinks nobody else ever sees it, how Huaisang’s face is the fine, overwrought fan he flutters in front of the sharper, stranger person underneath. He loses nothing by showing himself to Wei Ying. After all, who could Wei Ying tell?

So he tucks it away with the other things he knows about Huaisang, and says, “Wasn’t his sworn brother a Lan? Wouldn’t he have noticed something odd?”

“Er-ge... he doesn’t understand this stuff. Not like you.”

Wei Ying’s smile tastes bitter. “Yeah, that’s... why they cast me out. That, and I killed a lot of people. In case you forgot.”

Huaisang’s shoulders square. He says, “I didn’t forget.”

“Good.”

Every day of Wei Ying’s life is this highwire walk: pay the bills, guard his little broken family, occupy his empty body that was thrown away, try to sleep through the night, and watch for signs that it’s all about to be torn down.

A breeze lifts, flickering the loose strands of his hair across his face. He hears Wen Qing: no unnecessary risks, Wei Wuxian.

“Wei Ying... are you okay?” The wind files the edges off Huaisang’s voice.

“What? Of course. I’m fine.”

“You didn’t reply to any of my messages. Not for ages. I thought you were…”

“I’ve been busy. You know, taking extra shifts, going toe-to-toe with rowdy ghouls.” Which is true. Wei Ying doesn’t remember the rest. Long stretches of drinking, and the sour, shallow sleep that comes after. He started sleepwalking again. He used to do that in the Burial Mounds. He’d sit at his worktable and paint ward-seal talismans on the grainy wood with no paper or ink, deep asleep.

Huaisang chews his cheek. “Listen, if you need—“

“It’s fine, I’m fine. If I need money I’ll sell a kidney, that’s why we have two. Besides, you’re going to need it for all those beautiful robes. It’s Jiang Cheng’s birthday next week.”

Huaisang can usually be baited into talking about a new robe he had commissioned, but he’s solemn as he twists his boba straw. “Do you miss it?”

“Miss what? I hated those robe fittings, they took forever. And I always came out feeling like a pin-cushion, they w—”

“Not that." Huaisang's empty cup clangs into a trash can. "I worry about you.”

“Why? I’m fine. I’m fine, I’m fucking spectacular.”

“I gave you the number for that therapist, did you ever do anything with it?”

“Huaisang, I’m not going to see your therapist, I’m pretty sure there’s a conflict of interest there. Have you talked to her about me? If so—”

“She’s not my therapist. She’s a therapist that my therapist recommended.”

Wei Ying’s breath stumbles. He hopes Huaisang hears a laugh. “First of all, feelings only happen to other people. And second, I don’t need to talk about them with a stranger who bills by the hour. What could I even say? If I wanted to spend fifty minutes dancing around the truth I’d ask Mianmian whether she’s dating Liqiu. That’s free.”

He doesn’t want to think about sects and disciples and the time before. Why talk about it? Why shovel it back up? Let buried things be buried.

“Don’t you ever want—” Huaisang says, and then stops.

“What?”

“They did terrible things to you. Don’t you ever want to repay them?”

Wei Ying’s nails scrape the sides of the cup as his hand tightens. “No. Things happened, I can’t make them have un-happened. So we’re all better off with this arrangement.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Too bad. I can’t change it. The seal on me is watertight.”

“What if it wasn’t?”

“But it is.”

Huaisang shakes his head slowly, and that’s the worst, that’s the thing which turns Wei Ying’s stomach over in a queasy roil of anger. “Wei Ying, how long are you going to do this?”

“Do what?”

There’s nothing like that look. Somebody riffling through your whole life like it’s a pack of cards and they’re finding only twos and threes. What a shame, what a waste. He stares back into Huaisang’s eyes, all that pity, and for a moment Huaisang is every cultivator who’d look at him like he’s filth—except they can’t see him at all, except he’s invisible, he’s nowhere and nothing to them.

Huaisang hates confrontation. He backs down, but his last line is a sly razor-slice between the ribs. “I just don’t like seeing you unhappy.”

Something frayed in Wei Ying snaps. “Then don’t look.”

He can’t stay here. He’s sick, shame coiling up hot and tight in his chest, the same filament that’s glowing, incandescent, in his face. He tosses his cup into the trash, and then he’s walking away—no direction, just distance.

“Wei Ying!”

The streaking traffic lanes and clotted voices fade out against the jostling, knifing disorder in Wei Ying’s head. How long are you going to do this? How long? How long?

One block, two blocks, five. It’s a blur, tipsy-sour. Hostile lights clash in his eyes, faces accuse. His phone buzzes against his thigh. He crashes into someone and nearly falls head over feet.

“Fuck—”

Finally, his anger has leaked out through his soles. Cold, woozy, Wei Ying ducks under an awning.

Nie Huaisang 22:49
sry my bad my bad

Nie Huaisang 22:50
come back to the party ok
no talking just drinking promise!!!

His thumb hovers over the keyboard. How long are you going to do this? The thought of going back to that apartment and dredging up another smile to wear is like pushing against concrete. He locks his screen.

When he looks up, there’s a ghost staring at him. A boy with pale clothes and hunched shoulders. His face looks like Wei Ying’s face, framed by shorter black hair in a jagged chop.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says. “Do I—who are you?”

The ghost-boy shakes his head and walks away. Disappears down a sidealley.

“Wait—”

A shiver runs over Wei Ying’s skin, like a breath in the hairs of his arm. He follows.

The alley snakes through to the next street, lined with sagging wet cardboard boxes and steel doors tagged with bubble-writing. The puddles look black and fathoms deep, like you could fall through them into elsewhere. A lightbulb on a wall buzzes, sputtering on and off.

“Great place to get jumped by ghosts,” he mutters. The feral ghost swarms in the subway always think he’s a house standing empty. Wei Ying walks faster, nearly tripping over a crumpled soda can.

At the end there’s a drop ladder, running up to the fire escape for an apartment building. The boy’s shoes ring dully on the iron as he climbs.

Not a ghost, then.

“Hey!”

The boy’s pulling himself onto the fire escape. Wei Ying starts to climb. This is weird—he knows it’s weird, chasing somebody while cosplaying a ghoul. But he has a bad feeling, his sense for the imminent and terrible sharpened with experience.

At the top, the boy looks down at him. He has the emptiest eyes Wei Ying has ever seen, and Wei Ying has to look at his own reflection. Flat glass, no shine. “Go away!”

“Wait—” Wei Ying clambers onto the roof and jogs forward, insides taut. The tiles slope down, and they’re dark and rain-slick. His sneakers slip a little. Wei Ying grabs the chimney to steady himself, soot grainy against his hand.

The boy turns back. “I told you to go aw—”

He’s holding a knife. There’s an array spray-painted on the tiles in white, and it’s tugging at Wei Ying’s blood. Oh, fuck.

“Sorry! I’m very persistent.”

“Why?”

“Well, because I think you might not be okay. Something to do with how we’re standing on a roof and you have a knife and a demonic array.”

Wei Ying has met dozens of demonic cultivators. Their magic is bullshit and posturing, mostly, but now and then he gets a real one. Usually bad news, like Zhao Yi. This is an array for a big energetic exchange. The kind that wants blood.

His heart flutters at the top of his throat, a caught moth. He takes a few steps forward. “So… I want to help. I can help, okay? I can.”

The boy shakes his head. “Go, just go!”

Wei Ying knows that look; this kid is serious.

He bites his finger and draws a talisman in the air. It hangs there, luminous like blue neon; then spins itself into a strand of energy. Like a thrown rope, it loops itself around the boy’s torso, pinning his arms to his sides. Shitty but effective. Wei Ying lashes the strand around the chimney and ties a double knot.

The boy struggles. He’s almost glowing with rage, his mouth shaped like a snarl.

“Hey, fuck you! Whoever the fuck you are, I don’t need your fucking help—”

“Okay,” Wei Ying says to himself. “Okay.” Vitriol is fine. He can’t—won’t—watch somebody destroy themselves with the cultivation he invented. “Sorry, kid! Your bad luck for running into me. I’m a meddler.”

As he steps forward to take the knife, his soles slip on the tiles again. He’s still a little drunk, and he’s tired—three hours of thin sleep, four hours of staring into his phone or the fridge or blank paper or vacant space, ten hours on shift, time gutted of all meaning except that it’s always wrong, he’s always wrong, lagging behind or going too fast, he’s tired; and he overbalances. “Oh, fuck—“

“Hey!” The boy shouts, straining against the wire, but it doesn’t matter.

Wei Ying lurches over the edge in a swoop of cold air. And then he’s falling, and falling, and falling—

 


2.

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

Like a glitch; like stairs in the dark, his toes feeling for a step that isn’t there. He’s not where he expected to be. “Huh.”

“Wei Ying?”

In the doorway, Nie Huaisang is shuffling his umbrella. His cavernous silk sleeves sweep along his arms.

Wei Ying blinks. “Huaisang, I’m banning all mentions of the anniversary of my birth. I’m an ageless being, and you’ll address me as such or not at all.”

“Okay, ageless one,” says Huaisang. “Are you coming to get shitfaced?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

Hair untied, Wei Ying sits on the counter to let Huaisang paint his face. As he closes up the shop he sees himself in the backroom window, backlit by the naked bulb. Pale and uncanny, his own doppelganger. On the way out he nearly trips over a box of peach-wood pieces for carving. Loose wires jut out of the corridor wall. He’ll get around to sorting and repairing it all someday.

They walk a few blocks. Wei Ying has never seen the apartment, but he knows its front door will be mottled like blueberry skin. Inside, the wash of furniture and faces looks arranged.

“Hey.” Mianmian appears. Odile, Grand Swan Lake. When she tilts her head, her eyelids have a hard, dark glitter. “Happy birthday! You look—

“Deathly?”

“I was thinking Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

Wei Ying knew she was going to say that. The exact rhythm and intonation. Like he’s watched it before, the tenth loop of a Douyin.

Mianmian frowns. He’s staring at her. “Wei Ying?”

“Sorry,” he says. “Just a… nevermind.”

He helps Mianmian in the kitchen. Answers her questions, teases her about Liqiu. Follows her to the living room. Huaisang is pouring tequila.

Shots and half a bottle of vodka later, he’s drooped against the cushions. Conversation ping-pongs around him, and it’s like foreign language, just sound and tone. Huaisang sits on the floor cross-legged, cupping a wine-glass in both hands.

“Huaisang, are you drinking wine?”

“It’s good wine.”

“Okay, but—“ Wei Ying trips over it again. They’ve done this before. But they haven’t. “Ah, doesn’t matter. I’m too tired to form sentences.” He hauls himself upright as Huaisang settles between him and somebody’s feet.

“Hey,” Huaisang says. “Do you remember the first time we got drunk together? I didn’t even realize how drunk you were until you started mumbling you’d forgotten how to work your phone.”

The Lan cultivation lectures. Wei Ying’s memory is tattered, but he remembers smuggling round-bellied baijiu jars and his phone into their dormitory at Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng and Huaisang on his bed, robes like wilting lilies, as he tried to take a selfie of all their flushed, laughing faces. He doesn’t remember how the night ended.

“You were so unkind to me,” he complains. “My brain was melting and you just kept laughing.”

He elbows Huaisang, who snorts and drapes an arm around his neck. Huaisang is like this with everybody, but sometimes he looks at Wei Ying a certain way. They messed around once, at a lunar new year party on somebody’s crisp white bed. The kissing was nice, except that he’d been observing himself kissing Huaisang rather than feeling it with his body like a normal person, and when Huaisang tucked a hand under his t-shirt, right over the ruler line of his core scar, he shook in his skin like he’d been electrocuted and then laughed it off and said he needed another drink.

“Worth it even for the punishment,” Huaisang says. Wei Ying doesn’t remember that; but why would he?

Mianmian’s friend comes toward the couch. He’s wearing a dark blue t-shirt and he has nice arms.

“Hi,” Huaisang says, his voice long like it gets when he’s tipsy.

Wei Ying drifts. Huaisang is telling Mianmian’s friend about the worst hookup he ever had, the one with the guy who wanted to play Scrabble so that he could spell out something dirty on the board, some kind of labored linguistic foreplay, but he kept getting only consonants out of the bag.

Huaisang steals somebody’s joint, and Wei Ying gets a couple of hits on it. Then Wei Ying is lying facedown, and Huaisang is doing something nice to his hair, and it's gently abrading all the folds out of his brain like a rock tumbler. His brain feels smooth and polished. The music thumps through his belly, a second heartbeat. He’s drunk enough that he can almost forget the yawning dead place where his core isn’t.

Wei Ying rolls onto his back. Huaisang has braided his hair into a loose plait, and it’s tucked soft under his neck. He hacked it all off after—after. But it grew back. It’s so long now. He tips his head until all he can see is white ceiling.

“I’m hungry,” he says.

Huaisang points vaguely. “Fridge is over there.”

“Don’t eat my raspberries,” Mianmian’s friend says.

Liqiu and Mianmian are curled together on the other couch, legs criss-crossed. Liqiu says something, her face nudged against Mianmian’s neck, and Mianmian laughs. She looks up at Wei Ying as he passes, and her smile isn’t for him, but it’s sweet—like an incidental sunbeam swaying through a window. It spills into him, golden, and he smiles too.

In the kitchen Wei Ying opens the fridge, closes it. He claims a half-full bottle of vodka from the table. He treads another circuit of the living room. He goes up the stairs. There’s a clash happening in his body, between the vigilance which says he can’t stay still, and the gloating buzzy numbness which says he should lie down on the beige carpet.

He’s in a bedroom. A face appears in the doorway, then a body. It’s Mianmian’s friend, also a cultivator.

“You’re Wei Ying, right?”

“Yeah,” he says. “And you’re…”

“Lei Sheng,” the boy says. “You work at that place on Doyers Street.”

“Uh-huh,” Wei Ying says, slowly. “Employee of the month, every month. I’m the only one who works there, so. Limited competition.”

“I’ve never met a demonic cultivator before.”

“There are a lot of them, believe me.”

“Yeah, but you’re…”

Shit.

“Whoever you think I am,” Wei Ying says, loud enough to drown out the next thing, “I’m definitely not.”

He walks out. He steers unseeing into the bathroom, and fumbles the latch lock, bottle clamped between his arm and hip.

Muzzy light comes through the frosted glass window. Wei Ying gets into the bath, one of those old claw-foot tubs, and lies down. His spine grinds like a handful of marbles against the porcelain. He rests the bottle on his stomach.

He doesn’t use the other name, the one Jiang-shushu and Yu-furen gave him. He put away that person five years ago; tore him out, let him go. He’s Wei Ying, with a life too small to notice. Except, apparently, it has been.

Fuck. He takes another deep swig of vodka and clambers out of the tub. Can’t stay here.

Wei Ying slips out unnoticed. As he goes down the steps to the street, rain hissing softly around him, he sees a dog—big dog, lumbering up the sidewalk. And maybe it can smell fear at twenty feet, because it yanks right to the end of its leash and lunges toward him, growling and barking.

He’s a thin blade of terror. He’s the thing pinned and held by it. Sound is muted yet huge in his ears. Wei Ying surges down the sidewalk.

The bus stop is ahead, a lonely box of cold light. Beside it is a blue umbrella—one of those beautiful oil-paper parasols, old-fashioned. Somebody in white.

It’s the last thing Wei Ying sees, before the yawning brightness of headlights.

 


3.

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

“Hi,” Wei Ying says weakly. His bones feel wrong.

Huaisang sidles toward the counter. “What’s the matter?”

“I feel like I’ve… done this already.”

“Done what?”

“This, all of this. You, just now, and—”

“Like déjà vu?” Huaisang clicks his tongue. “Probably just tired. You look like you haven’t slept in fifty thousand years.”

“Thanks.”

Wei Ying is tired. It’s always this swampy, cotton-wool fugue, the feeling of being roughly assembled from misfitting parts, a jigsaw-person. He’s been sleep-starved and ghost-sick enough to hallucinate before, though it wasn’t like this.

“You still up to the party?” Huaisang’s attention is turning into scrutiny. Wei Ying gathers himself up, assembles a broad grin.

“Of course! The only redeeming quality of this holiday is alcohol I don’t pay for.” Wei Ying pulls the ghost-mask over his face.

Streets go by. People treading on the upside-down world rain creates.

The apartment is a ringing cave of noise, too familiar. Mianmian’s glittering eyes, the red-brick walls, torn limp mint and swimming lime, the boy with the blue t-shirt. Wei Ying drinks a lot, feeling a half-step outside himself. His conversation with Huaisang keeps faltering. He’s distracted. The echoes are like a hall of mirrors Wei Ying is stumbling through.

Huaisang goes in search of food. Wei Ying hears him in the kitchen with Mianmian’s friend, their laughter leaping and echoing. Wei Ying is wrestling a screwtop open, hot hand slipping on the neck, when Mianmian nudges him with her foot.

“Hey. You okay?”

“Uh-huh. Yep! I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

Wei Ying gives up on the bottle. A lot of words have flowed up his throat, and he should crush them back down. He says, “Mianmian.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m gonna to say something, and I...” The room’s tipping and swaying, hurricane-wild. “Just, just listen, okay? Just—”

She folds out of Liqiu’s arms. “I’m listening.”

“Uh. I think I’ve done all this before. This party. More than once—a couple of times, actually.” He’s hearing his head voice, skull-damped, lagging behind his mouth.

“Okay?”

“But the first time, I fell—off a roof. I fell. I think I…” There’s a wild quiver of a laugh caught in Wei Ying’s throat like a soreness. “I think I died. I think I’m dead.”

“What?”

“I know, okay, I know this sounds really—”

“You’re joking,” she says, eyes lightening.

“I’m not. It’s definitely something I would joke about, but—it’s not a joke.”

“So… the fact that you’re all in one piece means you probably didn’t fall off a roof. Unless you’re mincemeat under here.” She tugs at his hoodie sleeve. “Doesn’t feel like mincemeat.”

“I know,” Wei Ying says. “I know. But I’m also ninety-nine percent sure that it did happen, and I don’t know how that can be true—”

“Is he okay?” Liqiu leans forward out of her slump.

Mianmian presses the back of her hand to his forehead. “I think he’s taken something, he’s having a bad time—”

“I’m fine! I’m fine, I’m fine…” He’s laughing. “Sorry to have worried you—you’re right, it’s nothing, I’m—”

“Wei Ying—”

“I have to go.“

Wei Ying heaves himself up, leaning on the couch arm, and staggers away. Blood whirls in his head. Dead man. Funny, funny.

Outside, he stares at the sullen, light-stained street without seeing it. Pulls off his mask.

Mianmian is right. It’s impossible. He’s tired. Maybe asleep, maybe tripping, maybe out of his mind. Wei Ying starts for home, stepping out between parked cars to cross the street.

The streets are full, thick with ghosts. People ignore them, their eyes passing right over. They get used to explaining the strangeness away. Wei Ying wonders what that’s like, not to see the unquiet dead on every street corner. Idling in parks, whispering in movie theaters after the lights go down, shouting unheard at people who are no longer there. Wei Ying can’t remember the time before, when it was quiet.

The stairs to Wei Ying’s apartment are full of onion fumes and plate-clatter. Garbage ripens in the hall. Wei Ying hears a shout from the open door of number eight.

“Hi. Everything okay?” Mrs Tan is hanging clothes on a washing line strung from the window and glaring upward. They struggle to understand each other, but with hand gestures Wei Ying gets the gist: she’s pissed off at the family upstairs playing the radio too loud. Wei Ying scrawls noise-dampening talismans on scrap paper and pastes them to her ceiling and she pats his cheek and tells him to eat more, probably.

There are ghosts on their landing, like always: Second Uncle and Fourth Uncle, playing xiangqi. The soft clack of stones echoes between the walls.

“Hi, hi.”

Fourth Uncle winks. Second Uncle is engrossed, hands clasped in front of his nose. It always ends in arguments, Second Uncle cursing while Fourth Uncle howls with laughter, thumping his own chest.

The apartment is dark, except for the dirty orange stain of streetlight through the blinds and a pensive lamp in the kitchenette. Wei Ying shuts the door and slips off his shoes.

“Hey, A-Ning.”

At the kitchen table, Wen Ning looks up from his tablet. “Wei Ying, hello. Did you have a good evening?”

He’s wearing a scarf and fingerless gloves. Wen Ning gets cold a lot: his circulation is thready and slow and sometimes it’s like his body forgets it’s alive. There isn’t a WebMD for people who used to be corpses and still are a bit.

“Uhm. Weird evening. Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Nearly finished with this chapter.”

Traipsing into his tiny bedroom, Wei Ying drops his keys into the bowl as he checks his phone.

“That’s great," he calls. "I’ll test you when you’re done!”

Eighteen text messages from Unknown that are just character soup, because when ghosts get into electronics they can only flash the circuitry. One message from Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang 22:23
u ok……?

Wei Ying taps out a quick reply. In the wall, a pipe clunks and hisses.

Wei Ying 22:47
yeah fine
sorry to bail need sleeeeep 😴

The low, red glow from the corner near his bed is like old firelight. Wei Ying pasted up a few talismans for some peace from the non-corporeal, but it’s not enough. The city is so restless tonight.

“A-Ning, Halloween is terrible.” He raises his voice enough to carry. “How can one place have this much spiritual traffic? I’m going to sail into the middle of the ocean and live out my days in peace until fish eat me from the toes up.”

“It is quite busy.”

“Yeah, must be extra annoying for you, ah?”

“I don’t mind.” Wen Ning appears in the doorway, smiling his gentle, round-cheeked smile. “Are you hungry?”

“Hey, it’s okay.” Wei Ying ushers him along, back toward the kitchen table. “A-Ying is a big boy who can make his own food.” To demonstrate, Wei Ying opens the cupboard and rips a cup noodle out of its packaging. “Go back to what you were doing.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m great, I’m good. I’m just going to eat this and go to bed.”

“Okay.”

Nie Huaisang 22:51
got u got u
brunch 11am?

Wei Ying 22:54
tai pan
you’re paying

Wei Ying boils water and pours it over the dry block of noodles, then scrapes out the laoganma jar on top.

Nie Huaisang 22:56
😙
o m g this guy is so hot n also into me
but i can tell he’s gonna be so oo o loud

Wei Ying 22:59
rip huaisang’s ears

Nie Huaisang 22.59
pray for me!!!!

Wei Ying 23.00
go go go

When it’s ready, Wei Ying carries his dinner to the couch, which creaks like an unoiled door hinge. He reaches for his crinkled paperback of Roadside Picnic and tucks his cold feet between the seat cushions.

As Wei Ying is settling, a small shape comes through the wall.

“Xian-gege!”

Of all the ghosts who come to visit, A-Yuan is the one who makes Wei Ying want to curl up around the hollow pit inside him and just not be. A-Yuan was four years old when the attack happened. So now he’s four forever: big eyes, sticking-up hair, striped t-shirt and red shorts. A bruise on his knee where he knocked it against a table leg.

Bending his paperback spine-up, Wei Ying leans over his knees. “Hi! How was your day?”

Wei Ying has found that the best approach with ghosts is to talk to them like they’re normal people, experiencing time and space in the normal way. They live a lot in their memories and move through a spiritual topography Wei Ying only sees when he’s channeling deeply, but they can speak and understand fine. They just—get stuck sometimes.

A-Yuan is really stuck. More than any child-ghost Wei Ying has met, which might have something to do with how it happened. He’s stuck in the evening before everything went to hell. All of them were sitting around the dinner table, and something smoky and wistful was playing from Wei Ying’s phone, and A-Yuan was perched between Wei Ying and Granny, eating egg rolls with greasy fingers. It’s a happy memory, at least. He’s a happy kid and he knows he’s loved.

“You look funny, Xian-gege.”

“Was going for scary, but I’ll take it. Hey, A-Yuan, what’s this bone called?” Wei Ying tugs the neck of his hoodie down his shoulder and jabs at the chalky shape along his upper arm.

“Arm? Arm.”

“It’s your ‘humerus’. Broke mine after I fell off my sword when I was thirteen.”

“Humerus. Can I try some?” Limited enthusiasm for bones. A-Yuan is considering his dinner.

“It’ll make your mouth explode,” Wei Ying says, but he digs up a big helping of noodles and sauce and wafts it in front of A-Yuan’s wide-open mouth until it passes right through.

“Good?”

A-Yuan tilts his head. “It tastes like red,” he says precisely. He has a whole range of food descriptors that are colors and some that are sounds. Wei Ying can’t tell if it’s a ghost thing or an A-Yuan thing.

“Tastes like red,” he says. “You’re right. Better or worse than the dan dan noodles you tried last week?”

“Um. Worse.”

“But better than the xian cai A-Ning got you to try yesterday?” Five years ago, yesterday. They’ve had this conversation a lot of times before. A-Yuan doesn’t remember. He never does.

“That was bad.” A-Yuan makes a face.

“Ah, that’s only because you didn’t try xian cai the way my shij—”

Wei Ying has to stop, his throat dry and cold around a stone of grief. A-Yuan says, “Gege?”

“It’s nothing.” Cheerful face. “Hey, do you want to read for a while?”

The book is about a brave hen who goes on adventures. A-Yuan points at the pictures and adds his own story about another hen who's a doctor. Wei Ying looks up when there's another presence, smiling a sweet wrinkly smile at them.

“Hey, here’s Popo. Hi, Popo.”

“A-Ying. You look so tired.” Granny always says that. Wei Ying has spent the last five years looking like shit.

“Oh, these are just my natural eye-circles,” he says.

“You must sleep, A-Ying.”

“Uh-huh, that’s the plan. Bye, A-Yuan! Be good.”

A-Yuan waves as he’s led away by the hand through a solid wall. “Bye, Xian-gege!” He won’t remember this tomorrow.

When they’re gone, Wei Ying smears at his face with the heels of his hands and his breath shakes like rough vibrato. He doesn’t cry in front of A-Yuan, that’s the rule, because it’s selfish, because A-Yuan doesn’t know that he’s dead, four-year-olds aren’t supposed to grasp that, and he doesn’t need to see grown-ups lose their shit for reasons he doesn’t understand. Most nights Wei Ying can hold it together, but sometimes it crushes his insides like thin paper in a fist, how unfair it is.

Wei Ying gulps down the rest of his cold noodles, the sloppy ones coiled in red shiny oil at the bottom of the cup. Then he curls up against the arm and adds amplifying strokes to a talisman design in his Notes app. Sadness is sloshing between his ribs.

“A-Ning, are there any of those miniatures left?” Uncle Four liberates them from hotel minibars.

“Oh. I think so.” Wen Ning would like to say ‘no’. Nobody but Wei Ying likes his drinking. “Are you alright, you sound—”

“I‘m fine.” He’s too tired to get up, though. Can’t even lift his head.

Wei Ying closes his eyes. His chest hurts, dull pulses like the tide tugging a boat against its mooring rope. It pulls and pulls. It breaks.

Somebody says, Wei Ying? But Wei Ying isn’t here, he’s in a million pieces which glitter like fish scales. He’s too tired to gather them up.

A-Xian?

Sorry, sorry.

 


4.

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying gasps, his heart falling over its feet. He bangs his hand on the counter.

Watching Nie Huaisang approach has the feel of a dream he can’t stop. His vision swings like choppy river water.

“You okay?”

Wei Ying is breathing from the top of his chest, sharp little sips. “Huaisang, what's happening, where—“

Huaisang’s mouth makes an ‘oh’ shape, eyes wide. “Wei Ying?”

“No,” he breathes. It’s the same, it’s this again. “Not again, why is this—“

“Hey.” Huaisang has his hands up, palms out. It’s meant to be soothing, but it makes Wei Ying feel like something wild baring its teeth. “Are you okay? What did you take?”

“I didn’t. I haven’t taken anything. This isn’t—in my head, this is—” He hauls Huaisang in by the silk lapels. Breathes the dizzy sweet sting of his perfume. “Is this you? Are you doing this? Did someone—spike my drink, or—”

“Spike your—what?” Huaisang pulls against his grip. “We haven’t even started drinking yet! Well, I had three glasses of wine with dinner, but that doesn’t count. Did you start early?”

“Not this time, the first time—”

It’s a loop. Wei Ying isn’t imagining it. This is the same night, over and over.

He makes his hands let go of Huaisang, and turns away.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

He’s dead, and this is the afterlife. He’s losing it, and this is in his head. He’s been cursed, and this is impossible magic. One of those things Wei Ying knows about.

Patting Huaisang’s shoulder, he says, “Sorry! I, uh. You know how retail makes me crazy.”

“Yeah,” says Huaisang, hesitantly. “You—yeah. Do you... still want to go?”

Wei Ying has a theory. He tests theories all the time, although it’s usually whether putting another huo radical in the fourth quadrant of an array will make it combust like a firework, or whether he can last through a shift on espresso and wasabi peas after thirty hours awake.

“You know what? I’m not in the mood, let’s go somewhere else, okay?”

And Huaisang, because he’s the kind of friend Wei Ying doesn’t deserve, says, “Wei Ying,” and then, “Ugh, okay.”

“Let’s go to the river. Where’s that urban beach you showed me? Is that near here?”

It is, but it’s choked with people, so they walk along the waterfront. Manhattan Bridge is ahead, industrial in outline and strung with light, shining thin yellow talismans onto the water. A train rumbles like stage thunder.

Wei Ying can feel something slinking around in the river. Maybe a water demon, like the one Wei Ying hunted near Corlears Hook last month. Wei Ying gives it a soft warning whistle. He’s a fuckup in a hoodie that hasn’t been washed for days, but he’s also a necromancer on his own turf with thousands of ghosts who'd come to his call. Things in this city usually know to mind him.

It's just a sliver of memory, something about the way the light wriggles on the black river. It makes him think of summer lakes, and the humid night-time smell of water and lotuses. Jiang-shushu's warnings about swimming alone after dark. Then the vertigo of the sheer distance between there and here, and everything that’s gone.

“Hey,” says Huaisang. They’re standing at the railings, looking out toward the tall, rain-misted monuments across the river. “Um—I have a favor to ask.”

Wei Ying rises on tiptoes and leans against the cold rail, letting it take his weight. The water is hypnotic. It almost distracts Wei Ying from the slow, strangling feeling of a conversation he's had before. “You want me to go to Qinghe.”

“How do you know th—”

Wei Ying taps his nose. “The dead, Huaisang, they tell me things. They whisper to me in the n—“

“Ugh, don’t be a dick,” Huaisang says, and pushes him.

It isn’t a hard shove, but under Wei Ying the railing creaks—and bends like a swan’s neck, like metal fired molten. Wei Ying grabs for a stable part, misses, and overbalances.

His head cracks against a post, and the water crashes into him. The cold takes everything else.

 


5.

The bell.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying coughs up a lungful of water and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. His dry sleeve. He was at the pier. He was at the pier, and he—

Maybe it's Huaisang.

Wei Ying runs. His soles scuff on the tiles of the back corridor. It feels like he’s still in the water, the current winging around his body like ribbons. Swaying, giddy, Wei Ying throws out a hand to catch himself on the wall.

Just as his palm grazes it, Wei Ying remembers the broken wall plaster, the split and ragged wiring twisting out. He hears a muffled pah! and the lights get very bright.

Electricity is whole-body white noise.

 


6.

The bell.

“Happy birthday!”

“Oh, come on! Fuck—” His hand is smoking. It’s not resentful energy. There’s a burnt, acrid smell, which is Wei Ying.

Try again.

“Hey! Wei Ying!”

Halfway down the backstairs, Wei Ying treads on his sneaker laces and loses his footing.

The fall is so fast, and yet so, so slow.

 


13.

The bell.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying slams his hands down on the counter. “Fuck!”

“Um,” says Huaisang. “What's wrong?”

The backstairs established as his nemesis, Wei Ying clings to the wall going down, fingers clawed into the gritty pits between bricks, one cautious step at a time. It takes him ten minutes to get down a single flight, but he manages it.

Mott Street is a jumbled panorama of light, red and gold in nostalgia shades. Rain turns to champagne foam as it runs into the drains. Headlights swing around the corner. Wei Ying starts off the other way.

Wei Ying’s foot tips into vacant space, and he barely has time to think, oh fuck, and then, this is hilarious, before he falls down an open sewer.

 


14.

The bell.

“Happy birthday!”

“Fuck!” Wei Ying touches his neck, the ladder of his vertebrae, unbroken. “Okay, give up on the stairs.”

It’s time magic. Has to be.

Wei Ying reaches for the ghost energy that’s the hissing marrow of the bones of this place, like tugging blankets over his head, and snaps his fingers. Huaisang freezes.

It’s so much harder than usual, like trying to swim upriver, all Wei Ying’s strength against the ferocious shoving of time. Wei Ying’s ears fill with a rising drone of voices.

Wei WuxianWei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian

Wei Ying slaloms out into the dark night air and starts up toward the main street. Shadows hang from the fire escapes like cage bars. The alley desaturates, and Wei Ying doubles over in front of painted shutters. Blood is drumming at the surface of his skin. The voices crawl over him.

He doesn’t end the spell. It frays and snaps like twine.

“Wei Ying!” Huaisang leans out of the shop, waving an arm. “How did you—”

“I gotta go.” A warm slug of blood slides down Wei Ying’s upper lip. “Sorry, I—” He dabs his nose with his sleeve and starts to walk.

Demonic cultivation laughs at gravity, solid walls, meteorology, flesh-decay and the natural end of life, but time is something else. Back in Yiling, Wei Ying tried to ripen loquats faster, and the results were never the same twice. Ripe and gold as autumn ginkgo leaves, or slumping fruit pulp, or black and pastel mold, or pale ash. Stopping time for a half-minute is a prank, it’s a curio, something ordinary cultivation can’t do. Anything more is like trying to stop the ocean tide coming in.

It’s never been this hard, though. That little thing.

Nie Huaisang 21:04
😐😐😐
u get that was weird right
u ok?

Wei Ying walks and walks, and then falls over dizzy climbing the stairs to his apartment, knees full of water. As he’s slumped against the handrail, ponytail pouring around his face, Uncle Four says, “Wei-gongzi, are you alright?”

“Fine!” he calls. “I’m fine, wow, these never get any easier!”

He heaves himself through the apartment door.

“Hi, A-Ning!”

“Wei Ying, are you—”

“Sorry!”

Time to talk to some ghosts. The door to the fire escape is finicky and Wei Ying’s hands are tired and stupid, but he gets it open.

A chill greets him there, the air fresh with rain. Their building is a prewar walkup, and the outside staircases groan like arthritic bones. Wei Ying weaves between his herb pots as he hauls himself up by the wet iron railings to the roof.

A huge, gleaming view of the streets and rooftops unrolls in every direction, spiky with graffiti. The sky is swollen yellow-gray, old bruising. Wei Ying sits on the railing, and windows crowd all around him, bright slices of other lives. Below, a siren rises and falls. Cars flicker past, tail-lights red and yellow, like schools of koi in a pond. The strangeness of a city, things tangled and separate.

Wei Ying whistles a few notes, and waits.

Some ghosts are just a velveteen shimmer, oil swirling in a drain. But there are the clear, familiar ones, too. A slinking cat-spirit who likes to curl up near the roof vents. A see-through old lady watering her flower boxes with a cracked plastic watering can. A faded man in overalls drinking beer on a rickety chair on the fire escape. Wei Ying hasn’t helped them to move on yet, but he will. It’s a matter of working out what they want.

As Wei Ying sits there, their voices flicker and break in the breeze. It's like white surf on riverbank stones, or hot late-summer night insects. It’s nice. It’s the loneliest fucking thing in the world. He’s cold and tired and lonely, and it’s his birthday.

“Loud tonight, huh?” he says, and a girl with a ponytail and high-waisted jeans gives him a deadpan stare. Sometimes Wei Ying gets sensory detail, and she comes with a burble of finger-picked guitar. “Like a giant concert, and everybody thinks they're the act.”

“You’re so not the act,” she says.

“Hey, you’re talking to me, right?” She makes a disgusted noise.

Dozens of ghosts are drifting this way. They like attention—that’s one thing Wei Ying has in common with the transient ghost population of New York. They like somebody who sees them and listens.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says. There’s a crowd now. “Ah, so. Any other demonic cultivators I should know about? Like—big stuff? Really big, impossible, reality-breaking stuff?”

Like people, ghosts mostly don’t know when they’re being used. But they feel a certain way if they’ve been tapped for spellwork—stale and watery, a little frail. These ghosts are vibrant. Their voices jump and clatter, rain on a tin roof.

“You’d tell me, right, if you were hanging out with other demonic cultivators? You’d let me down gently?”

There’s something weird about their energy, Wei Ying thinks. It’s like hovering his finger over a hot stovetop, the anticipation of burning in all the cells of his skin. Inconclusive.

Wei Ying has never seen a curse like this, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Demonic cultivation was impossible until it wasn’t, until a kid on a mountain of corpses was desperate enough to invent it.

After a while the ghosts drift away, flotsam and jetsam in the night air. Wei Ying’s eyelids sink. He fights it. Tiredness makes him heavy, and then it makes him dizzy.

From all that distance below the ground moves, and Wei Ying moves, like he’s being spilled, limbs gone liquid. He tries to catch himself on the railing but it isn’t where he thought it was, and the slick, creaking iron slips against his palms.

Wei Ying tips forward into empty air. Fear grips him, a rollercoaster swoop, followed by a ferocious gut-kick when he realizes that nothing’s going to stop this. Then he’s falling, and—

 


15.

The bell.

“Happy birthday!”

Whiplash punches the breath out of him. His body is shocky, juddering with every wave, the blood-crash of adrenaline. Wei Ying looks down at his hands on the counter, their stupid trembling.

Black umbrella. Flourish of silk bathrobe. Huaisang’s red, red mouth.

If this is a curse, it’s wound tight. “Okay. Okay.” Wei Ying lets his head sink until his forehead touches the cold, scarred wood. “Aaaaahhhhhh.”

“Wei Ying?”

No time to rest. “Sorry!”

This time, Wei Ying shoulders Nie Huaisang aside and makes a break for it. The fucking bell jangles again.

Outside, the rain is coming down. Wei Ying’s scalp prickles with cold as his hair gets wet. He starts to walk.

Nie Huaisang 21:02
what the fuckkk
wei ying
WEI YING

Li Tong is out of talisman paper. Wei Ying moves from one streetlamp to the next, each bulb a droplet of sodium-vapor light, like a breadcrumb trail. The asphalt shines.

Wei Ying 21:12
i need supplies
its urgent
at the shop?

Lao Yang 21:16
20 minutes.

Yang Zaihan is an alchemist. He runs his shop out of a bodega basement, trading in spell materials. He used to lead a small sect in Runan, until the Qishan Wen killed all his disciples and he fled. He doesn’t talk about it and Wei Ying doesn’t ask, but it reeks of shame. They have that in common.

Wei Ying 21:29
urgent thing came up
sorry

Nie Huaisang 21:30
hmmmmmmm 🤔

Wei Ying steps into the bodega, through a blast of hot recycled air. It’s a small place, with a low ceiling and a stringent smell of cilantro and mop-liquid. They have a black cat who sleeps between the jalapeño baskets. Wei Ying always notices the ranks of pink sugar-dusted conchas, ridged like seashells.

“Hi, Josefine,” he calls, and she stops stacking canned beans to nod at him.

“Hey, Wei Ying.”

“Is he in?”

“Yep. Head down.”

Wei Ying steps around the pallet of cans she’s shelving and ducks through the beaded curtain. It’s a steep staircase down. Wei Ying takes it slow.

“Lao Yang? It’s me, your favorite!”

Yang Zaihan is sitting in his usual chair, feet up on the table. He isn't in his pale gray hanfu; he's wearing an old jean jacket. He rustles down his newspaper and takes in Wei Ying.

"Haven't heard from you in a while."

During his first winter here alone, the heating broke in Wei Ying's apartment. The landlord ignored his texts. Then, after two weeks of sleeping in every layer he owned, Wei Ying got sick. Hot, sweat-clammy, then cold, upside-down feeling. Everything had eyes and was displeased with him. Wei Ying walked to the shop to buy paper for warming talismans, and woke up on the carpet. Holding his wrist, Yang Zaihan said, "Where's your core, kid?" and he mumbled, "Gave it away," and Yang Zaihan said, "Shit." They had an argument Wei Ying doesn't remember after he said that yes, he was really fine and no, he didn't know when he'd last eaten, and no, there was nobody to call. Wei Ying spent the next three days delirious in a sleeping-bag and blankets by the stove, getting shaken awake to swallow bitter alchemical mixtures, Tylenol, and congee. Yang Zaihan knew who and what he was, and didn't care. He never mentioned the crying or the nightmares.

The delicate, peaty smell reminds Wei Ying of afternoons when he was half-recovered, penciling funny faces on old newspaper, his fingers black and tacky from the print. There's a steel kettle on the stove. Shelves bow under string-tied white packages and boxes and jars. One wall is entirely wooden drawers, pasted with red labels.

“Laobanniang keeps me busy.” Wei Ying shuts the door, lifting it off the faded rug and wedging it into the jamb with his foot.

“Not that busy. I heard you took some big marks down on your own.”

“One or two.”

Yang Zaihan rumbles with laughter. “Zhao Yi hunted that ghost for ten days, and you dealt with it in one night.”

“Zhao Yi needs another profession. Even a ghost in a resentful frenzy knows to stay the fuck away from him.”

“You’re not wrong. Alright, what's so urgent?”

“I need your best paper and red ink,” Wei Ying says. “Uh, thirty talisman papers? And a large ink-stick.”

“What have you got for me?”

“Aiya, do I get nothing on credit? Employee discount?”

“You know how it is,” Yang Zaihan says, and Wei Ying does. Lanling Jin sends disciples to raid shops and warehouses they suspect of trading in black-market cultivation goods. Dealers have to skimp and scramble to survive. Wei Ying has bought from most dealers in the city. Yang Zaihan’s stuff is good. “And you’re freelance, at best.”

“Screw over your gig-work necromancer, I get it.” Wei Ying slumps into the other chair, damp jeans clammy against his thighs. “What do you want? A couple of alarm talismans?”

“Four alarms and four for breaking locks—as I assume you’ll be using my paper and ink.”

“Hey, my genius is worth more than your paper and ink.”

Yang Zaihan snorts. “Four and four, genius.”

“Okay, okay. Who wants these, anyway?”

“I don’t ask.”

“Sure, fine.” There are over two hundred talisman designs on Wei Ying’s phone that he’s never taught to anyone else. Some he’ll do for barter. Some he’ll never give away. You can't control how the things you make are used, but Wei Ying hopes—he hopes.

Yang Zaihan glances at his own phone, which is lit up with a notification banner. “Are you working tonight? There's talk about a demon, a ghost, something that sounds like a goblin but might be a feral cat…”

The local network of rogue cultivators track spiritual activity. They request Wei Ying for the weird cases, the difficult ones. Wei Ying always said yes. Then two months ago the days began to lose shape, bleached gray like eclipse-light, and Yang Zaihan stopped asking.

“Can't, sorry.”

“Because of this urgent thing.”

“I’ll be around tomorrow,” Wei Ying says. “If tomorrow ever happens.”

“What?”

“Oh.” Wei Ying shakes his head. “Nevermind.”

Yang Zaihan goes into a drawer and brings him strips of yellow rice paper and a brush and ink. “I’m making tea, you want some?”

“Okay.” Wei Ying is already mapping the shape of the talisman in his head, the path for the energy, like carving bamboo for irrigation pipes.

Yang Zaihan says, “Hey, kid.”

"Ah?" Wei Ying jolts out of his concentration. In front of him there’s the usual pu'er tea in a chipped blue china cup, and four steaming baozi in a tupperware box, a little dry and puckered from the microwave. "Oh—thank you."

“Eat up,” says Yang Zaihan. “You’re getting scrawny again.”

“It’s been a lean month, I’ve got bills to pay.”

Wei Ying digs into the baozi while he contemplates lock-breaking talismans. Twenty minutes later he lays down his brush and blows across the ink to set it faster.

“Done,” he says. Yang Zaihan folds down the newspaper again and leans over. “Here.” Wei Ying offers up the little stack of yellow papers. “Four and four.”

Yang Zaihan tucks them into his jacket pocket. In return, he brings Wei Ying a thicker stack of blank papers and a lightweight brick trussed up in cloth. “Paper, ink. You want a bag?”

“Thanks.” Wei Ying watches him tuck them into a brown paper bag, and accepts it from him. “This ink better be higher grade than the stuff you gave me last time.” Wei Ying tied himself in knots explaining the burns on his hands to Wen Qing.

“No one else complained.”

“Your other buyers use it for weak stuff. I need to know it’s good, I don’t want to find out when my summoning array explodes in my face.”

“It’s good.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying fiddles with the bag's jagged edge. “Hey, uh—you still have it, right? You haven’t sold it?”

This gets him a funny look. “I’m not a fool. If I sold that thing—to anyone—I’d have Lanling Jin breaking down my door next hour.”

“You and me both,” Wei Ying mutters. “Thanks... for keeping it.”

Yang Zaihan folds his arms. “So you don’t want it back?”

“No.” Yes. “It’s fine, I don’t… I don’t need it.”

“Hm,” Yang Zaihan says, but that’s all.

“Well—see you.”

“En. Go on, get lost.”

By the time Wei Ying reaches his apartment, he has almost the full array sketched in his head. Wen Ning looks up from his tablet.

“Wei Ying, hello. Did you—”

“A-Ning, have we done this already tonight? Me walking in the door, you saying hi, have we—”

“No? You’ve been gone all evening.”

Which evening? Wei Ying feels dizzy. “God, I think I’m…”

“What?”

“Ah, nothing.” No point. “A-Ning, I’m going to do some evil sorcery on the roof. If you feel anything, don’t freak out, okay?”

Wen Ning nods and smiles. “I’ll try not to be alarmed.”

“Great!”

Wei Ying is the first and best demonic cultivator in the world. If there’s a solution, he’ll find it.

He climbs up to the roof with his paper bag and supplies scrounged from the kitchen and a bucket of water. Wei Ying slices his finger on his pocket knife and draws a concealing talisman, the slip of yellow rice paper cupped in his cold hand. When he has twenty of them, he cuts a hole in each and threads them onto a long piece of string. Then he stashes them in the paper bag, so they can’t get them wet. He once tried laminating talismans, but it dampened the energetic pathways. Too much spitting and smoking.

Wei Ying unwraps the ink-cake. He can smell the charred lampblack, the tang of the fish-skin glue. The best stuff is made by a workshop in Shexian affiliated with the Gusu Lan. The Lan control the supply, but a few years ago somebody started selling it on the black market at twice the price. Even in the flat beam of Wei Ying’s torch the color is so rich, it's like a hallucination of red. Funny to think of stuffy Lan disciples guarding warehouses full of it.

A scrappy talisman on rough paper should take care of any dust or fumes. Wei Ying cuts the brick into pieces and begins to grind it on his inkstone. Ink is usually ground with water; Wei Ying uses water and his own blood, which he keeps in jars in the fridge. Wen Qing disapproves, but cultivator blood is potent and makes a thicker ink. Good for surfaces.

Wei Ying used to hate grinding ink. Eleven o'clock became an eternal hour in a sticky-hot room with Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng's calligraphy tutor. Thunder rolling down the granite sky. The late plum rain. Now it's almost meditative, ink-stick circling and circling on clay.

Wei Ying pushes up his damp sleeves and kneels down on the wet ground. A drying talisman lifts the moisture from the roof, like peeling away a navy skin. Wei Ying dips his goat-hair brush and begins to paint.

The array takes a long time. Wei Ying gets the command characters wrong and has to scrub them off. A curse-breaking array needs as much power as he can give it, so Wei Ying refines the design as he goes, using what he knows about this curse. It’s a time-trap, which shouldn’t even be possible. It has one target. It hinges on death.

Unfurling the bundle of talismans and string, Wei Ying gives each talisman a flick of energy. They glow as they float away from his hands, rising like red sky lanterns, and Wei Ying pushes them outward to make a perimeter around the array. If anybody looks up, they’ll see an empty rooftop.

As Wei Ying paints the last stroke, the array illuminates, seething red. The impurities from the concrete burn off, smelling like singed hair. The array starts to pull—on the air, on the stone, on the thronging ghosts, on him. Black wisps of energy rise all around in a crown of fumes. Wei Ying breathes in and out, steadying breaths.

The energy gets higher and higher. It coils into Wei Ying, seething down his meridians, and he has to press his palm to an anchor talisman to keep the energy from swarming him inside. Ghosts are so hungry, even the mildest ones, and they’ll take whatever they can get. Sometimes Wei Ying has to be a bad vessel.

The spell peaks, the energy thick and close as fog. Wei Ying waits, and waits, but he doesn’t feel anything. He looks down at his hands and arms. Resentful energy is smoking off his skin, but it’s thin vapor, spell residue.

“Fuck!” Savagely, Wei Ying tips over the whole bucket of water onto the array. It dies hissing like a fire doused.

Okay, so Wei Ying can’t break it yet. But curses leave a fingerprint, like a maker’s seal mark on porcelain. There must be a trace somewhere of who did this to him.

Wei Ying tries three more configurations. He goes through all his ink, and has to lean against the brick wall while his vision bruises and shrinks, ghosts screaming in his ears. Nothing.

It’s not a curse.

Sitting on the wet fire escape steps, Wei Ying empties tiny bottles of whiskey until he can’t feel the cold, or much of anything.

“Come on,” he mumbles to nobody, and then, because it doesn’t matter if he’s heard, “Come on! If you’re gonna kill me—”

“Wei Ying?” A soft voice feathers up like mist from below. Wen Ning is leaning out of the window. “What are you doing?”

Wei Ying laughs, which feels like rattling shards of glass in his mouth, and raises the bottle in a toast. “Taunting death! An important part of every birthday.” Wei Ying empties it. His hand is shaking. “Fuck.”

“Are you alright?”

“A-Ning, is your sister around?”

“Jie’s working tonight. She’s with Mrs Nazimova. Said she’d be late.”

“Okay.”

Wei Ying goes down the fire escape, clutching the rail the whole way. He makes it to Mrs Nazimova’s apartment, and raps on the door. His breath fogs from his mouth.

The door opens, and there’s Wen Qing. Her hair’s in a little bun, wisps falling in front of her ears. Her red blouse is a brilliant ink-daub of color.

She steps out. “Wei Wuxian, what are you doing here?”

“Qing-jie, I…” He’s shaking, probably from channeling so hard into the array. It feels like he’s going to rattle himself to shrapnel. “I…”

He sinks onto Mrs Nazimova's folding chair, where she once sat to tell Wei Ying about her domovoy, her household god. His thoughts are jangling and shivery, collapsed chords. Wen Qing's mouth flattens and she crouches in front of him, hands laced together on her knees.

“I’m listening.”

Wen Ning and Wen Qing are the only ones who see his bad days. When Wei Ying can’t get out of bed, Wen Ning brings him tea and tomato eggs, and asks him very nicely if he'd take a shower, please. When he comes home after a difficult exorcism—a dead family gone so wrong—and can’t say a word, Wen Qing takes care of A-Yuan and keeps the other ghosts away and maybe plays her pipa to help him sleep. Sometimes there are needles. They sit up with Wei Ying through insomnia and nightmares and manic jags of night-time spellwork. There are little drawings left on his bedside (‘Wei Ying, please drink water!’). Medicinal tinctures for too much yin energy in the bathroom cabinet. Their two smiling faces at the end of the day when everything seems cruel and pointless. Wei Ying owes them more than he can ever repay.

Confronted by Wen Qing's brisk, knowing eyes, it dies on Wei Ying’s tongue. “Ah, it’s nothing, I’m fine—”

“Sure, you look fine.”

Wei Ying looks down, avoiding her. One of Mrs Nazimova’s plants is dead, gray dried-out stems keeled over. Without thinking, Wei Ying feeds it a little pulse of energy. Wake up, wake up. A pallid stalk rises out of its very deep bow, twitching up to touch Wei Ying’s fingertip.

“Wei Wuxian, stop reanimating parsley and talk.”

“Alright,” Wei Ying says. “Okay. Um. I think I’m… there’s something really wrong with me.“

“What is it?”

I’m dying. I’m dead. Wei Ying laughs. It’s not a good laugh, and she can hear that.

“How much have you had to drink?”

“Nothing, this time. I think, I don’t—”

“This time?”

“I’ve done this night a lot of times,” Wei Ying says. “It’s pretty fascinating, actually, except that it’s happening to me and it keeps happening and I don’t know how to make it stop.”

She frowns. “You’re not making sense.”

Her hand hovers by Wei Ying’s wrist, feeling his meridians. Stuck, stagnant.

“No, I know, it sounds—crazy, and it’s entirely possible this is just in my head, but I—”

“Wei Ying,” she says, a neat scissor-cut. “Slow down.”

“Yeah, sorry, I—”

“Come upstairs.” She stands up. “You need sleep. Have you eaten?”

“I had baozi at lao-Yang’s place.”

She wrinkles her nose. “And probably only that, for ten hours. What did he want?”

“I needed supplies. Boss is out ghost-hunting.”

“Hm.”

She steps down into Mrs Nazimova’s apartment. Wei Ying can hear the lilt of her voice, not the words. After a minute she climbs back out onto the fire escape, shutting the door behind her.

“Is Mrs Nazimova okay?”

“She’s frail and lonely. Go on, idiot, up you go.”

“Yeah. Qing-jie ah, I don’t—”

The stairs are more slippery than Wei Ying thought, rain turning to a film of ice. As he swerves around a plant pot, his shoe skids on the iron with a cartoon squeak, and Wei Ying spills over the rail—

“Wei Ying!”

 


16.

The bell.

“Happy birthday!”

No! Fuck—” Solid ground under his feet. Not vacant air, his body in freefall.

Wei Ying breathes down the nausea pushing up his throat, and clenches his unstable hands. “I’m getting out of this. I’m getting out of this night.”

"Wei Ying?"

Is it a spatial jump, or a leap through time? No wounds, but Wei Ying remembers the dying. Wen Qing could—

He doesn’t even make it home. Wei Ying hears a grinding screech, and there’s a fucking scaffold pole, falling—

 


17.

A girl dressed as Sailor Neptune elbows him heedlessly into traffic. Wei Ying has time to look into the taxi driver’s eyes and feel bad.

 


22.

A motorcycle skid-screams onto the sidewalk. It’s fast. Nearly painless.

How do you solve a curse that isn’t a curse?

 


25.

This time, Wei Ying doesn’t try to get back to Wen Qing. He just walks, as far as he can.

Two hours later he falls down a staircase in a park and lies there in the wet, slimy leaves. There’s broken glass under him, in him.

If this is the afterlife, he’s screwed.

 


26.

Outside a bar he just keels over, pain punching at his sternum until Wei Ying thinks it’ll crack, and laughs when someone asks if he needs an ambulance. The sidewalk is gritty-wet under his cheek.

There’s no getting out. No escape.

 


27.

He blinks. Touches his cheek—clean, dry. It's unreal.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying sinks down, putting his back against the counter. “Please, Huaisang. Just—go away.”

“Huh?”

There’s a long silence. Wei Ying listens to the distant drone and brake-wince of traffic.

The bell rings out again. With a groan, the door drifts shut.

Wei Ying rubs his palms over his knees in the grainy denim, and watches his own belly rise and sink with breath. His mouth is dry. He doesn’t feel dead, but he must be.

He closes his eyes, and that’s all there is.

 


28.

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying tears the paper-man on the counter into shreds and looks at Nie Huaisang.

“Wei Ying?”

“This is really messed up.”

“What is?”

“Everything. Fuck.” Wei Ying can hear his voice rising, helium-giddy. “Never mind, it doesn’t—doesn’t matter. I need a drink, let’s go.”

It doesn’t matter. None of it does.

Then he’s standing in the red-brick apartment, unsure how he got here.

“Wei Ying?” Huaisang is looking at him strangely. “What do you want?”

“Anything but beer,” he says. “The strong stuff! I’m gonna drink like this party’s for me.”

Mianmian folds her arms, eyes crow-sharp. “You said you didn’t want one.”

“I did say that.”

“So I was actually supposed to understand that you did? Even though you went out of your way to emphasize that you really, really didn’t?”

“Mianmiaaan,” he whines, “don’t be mean to me, you can’t, it’s my birthday…”

“Wei Ying. You’re being shitty. You can’t ghost us for two months, then show up and complain we’re not mind-readers. We thought you were—”

Dead, maybe, or halfway there, beat up in a cell in Goldscale Tower. Wei Ying’s stomach is a peach writhing with worms.

Mianmian shakes her head. “It’s good to see you.”

Wei Ying bites his lip, hard enough to feel the split, the glassy sting, as Mianmian walks away to join Liqiu on the couch.

Huaisang just says, “Let’s drink.”

So Wei Ying drinks, and drinks, and drinks. It’s a good time to celebrate, if he'll be turning twenty-six forever. Wei Ying roams between gaggles of people, dancing, forgetting names, laughing at jokes that aren’t funny, so far outside himself that he might be six full feet below his own shoes.

As Wei Ying is drifting toward the kitchen, feeling abstract and too hot, he bumps into a body.

“Woah,” says the boy, steadying him by the shoulder. He’s okay-looking. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Wei Ying says. “Hey.”

“Having fun?”

He can do this. Wei Ying offers up his surest smile. “Yeah! Although, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for my chili vodka cocktails. I'm unappreciated in my own time.”

They dance together, the boy’s hands heavy on his hips. When Wei Ying laughs, the boy is looking at his mouth, his bitten lip.

Wei Ying says, “Do you want to...”

He isn’t even horny. He just wants to be touched, with intention. Wei Ying feels like he might slip out of his body, his skin as thin as dead leaves. Any waiting ghost would slide into him so easily, a hand into a tired, scarred glove.

When the bedroom door is closed behind them, the boy comes close. His thumb draws Wei Ying’s cheekbone, fingers tucking against his jaw. “God, you’re gorgeous.”

Wei Ying nearly laughs. He’s pale and bruise-eyed like a ghoul even when his face is unpainted. “Thanks.”

“Can I…” The boy’s eyes dip. That look makes Wei Ying’s lips hum.

“Yeah. Yes. Okay.”

And it is okay, just okay, when the boy kisses him, and pushes his tongue into his mouth, and tilts up Wei Ying’s face with both hands. It’s okay, it’s fine, it’s better than nothing. Wei Ying is alive and somebody wants him, even if it’s just for now.

And, oh, he’s tired and the room is seasick motion and Wei Ying has a fistful of shirt to tether himself steady while the boy takes off his hoodie, rolls it down Wei Ying’s arms and throws it away somewhere, and begins to mouth at his neck. Wei Ying wonders if it’s necrophilia if the other person doesn’t know you’re a corpse, and laughs to himself.

“What’s funny?”

“Ah, nothing.”

They’re on the bed. There’s chipped paint on the ceiling. The boy slips his fingers under Wei Ying’s t-shirt, stroking up the small of his back, and Wei Ying remembers why he doesn’t let anyone see under his clothes. Ordinary people have surgical scars, sure. But they don’t have brands. They don’t have marks from torture.

He flinches a little when fingers graze the scar behind the roundness of his hip, made with a blade, and then flinches a lot as they drag around to his belly. Core scar. Wei Ying hates it being touched, hates it, even though it’s white dead tissue, no feeling in it at all.

“You okay?”

Wei Ying looks at this face, brand-new but too familiar, and he imagines his lips are still painted black and have left a smear across that mouth, like a finger swept through wet ink. Ruin.

“Sorry,” he’s saying, but he’s laughing. “Sorry.“

Wei Ying tips off the bed, staggers up, and leaves. Locks the bathroom door. Washes his hands and doesn't recognize his own eyes.

Then he’s in the starkly bright kitchen, staring at bottles of spirits and their stained glass shadows. He’s drunker now, which is better and worse. When Wei Ying’s drunk, really drunk, it’s like that silty suspension just before he falls asleep. Wading into the shallows. His brain stops fidgeting. Things don’t make sense, but Wei Ying accepts it, the loops and whorls of unlogic. Everything’s very funny and sad, and he alone knows this.

Reaching for a white bottle which might be rum, Wei Ying knocks his hip against the marble island and curses. The stacked cups beside him tip and clatter onto the floor.

“Wei Ying, I think you’ve had enough.”

“Ah, it’s fine, it’s fine—” Wei Ying reaches for the rum. Faster, Huaisang slides it out of reach. “Huaisang, don’t cut me off, that’s not what friends do…”

“My plans for this evening don’t include carrying you like a sack of potatoes or a midnight trip to the ER, okay?”

Wei Ying laughs. “We definitely won’t get that far.”

“What?”

“Ah, doesn’t matter.”

The boy who led Wei Ying upstairs wanders past the kitchen. Huaisang nudges him. “Did you have fun? How was it?”

Wei Ying can’t say, I ran away. He can’t say, my entire body is a fucking warzone, and apparently the only thing worse than not being touched is being touched. He can’t say, I’m like every ghost in this city, hungry for what I can't have.

“Oh—ha ha. Well, you know I don’t have any shame, but I think he’d be embarrassed if I said too much, you know?”

Huaisang laughs. “Of course, of course.”

Wei Ying looks down. A self-sick feeling twists inside him.

Being upright is too hard, so Wei Ying crumples onto a bar stool. He folds his arms on the table and sinks his spinning head down into their cradle.

Time hiccups, and Wei Ying remembers.

“That guy knows who I am,” he says.

“Huh?”

“Mianmian’s friend. Knows my name.”

“Oh.”

“And if he knows, the Jin probably know, so. Not great.”

It fell out of Wei Ying’s brain, twenty-some deaths ago. They’re going to find Wen Ning, all because Wei Ying couldn’t resist showing off, tinkering in Li Tong’s backroom. They’re going to find Wen Qing, who escaped, and all the Wen ghosts. Uncle Two, Uncle Four. Granny. A-Yuan.

Maybe that’s what this is. A Jin trap, a net made of time, to hold Wei Ying until they can take him away. Or maybe Wei Ying is just really, really dead.

Huaisang winces. “It’s probably fine, though. Right? I don’t think they’ll—”

“You don’t think? What am I supposed to do with that? You’re so cosy with them, but you don’t know if they’re about to raze everything to the ground?”

Huaisang’s eyes go dull. “Sorry, I.” He tilts his chin down, shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

Wei Ying bites his tongue, guilty, but it’s already leapt from his mouth. He lets his head sink again. He’s queasy, that swollen-throated feeling, and his temples thud.

“Wei Ying…” A glass is set in front of him. “Drink some water, okay?”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying raises himself and sips a few mouthfuls. It’s cold, and Wei Ying’s teeth ache in their roots. “Hey, Huaisang. Huaisang.”

“Mm?”

“I think I’m being punished.”

“For what?”

Wei Ying wheezes a little laugh. “For what! How many convicted necromancers do you know, Huaisang? Have you been cheating on me with other necromancers who’ve been cast out by all the sects? Am I just a number to you?”

“Wei Ying,” Huaisang hisses. “Not so loud—”

“It’s fine, no one’s going to believe…”

He needs more booze. Wei Ying jerks to his feet and lunges for the white bottle. His sneaker skids, and Wei Ying sees the dish-towel on the floor—who the fuck has silk dish-towels?—as he falls.

The crack goes right through his skull. Wei Ying’s tooth cuts the edge of his tongue.

“Wei Ying! Oh, fuck, fuck—”

He’s lying down. Around him it’s muted, a dreary blur which stirs like soup. Is there blood? Wei Ying doesn’t know.

He hurt Mianmian and Huaisang this time. Do the loops keep going? Are those the last conversations they ever have, before Wei Ying dies on a kitchen floor?

Wei Ying’s eyes are ringing. His jaw. There’s a slow, slow vibration through his body, like a deep chthonic hum. His legs have gone away. His mouth is open but the shapes of words are gone. Huaisang is screaming, maybe.

“Oh, god—”

“What happened, is he—”

“Wei Ying! Wei Ying, don’t—”

“I’m—”

 


29.

“—sorry.”

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying can’t look at Huaisang. He just leaves, shambling his way down the stairs, and out the back door. His face is wet. He smears at it with his sleeve.

That last one was worse, somehow, than the others. Huaisang’s terrified face.

It’s raining. Huddling into himself, Wei Ying starts to walk. He crosses streets in a daze.

After a while, he looks at his phone. 21:49, says his lock screen. Wei Ying is standing in front of a laundry, dark except for a neon sign, with high-rise towers leaning over him from all sides.

Nie Huaisang 21:02
wei ying?

There’s a figure ahead. Just standing there, watching him. A boy in pale clothes. The not-ghost. Wei Ying goes toward him.

“Hey!” he calls, “hey, are you okay?”

The boy laughs, thin heaves of his chest. His eyes are drunken and glassy.

“What’s your name?”

“Mo Xuanyu.”

Mo. Mo family, branch clan of Lanling Jin. Of course. Of course. Rage grabs Wei Ying by the neck.

You—what are you doing here? What have you done to me—”

Every ghost around Wei Ying bristles like an electric current. Their voices get louder. The boy stands his ground. “I need you.”

Wei Ying’s body is a nest of live wires. Resentful energy rises from him like exhaust smog. “Did the Jin tell you to do this?”

Mo Xuanyu’s eyes are wide. “No!”

“Undo it! Now!”

“I can’t! It’s done. I need you.”

“For what? Why do you—”

He’s gone, like a mote in the eye blinked away. Frantic, Wei Ying stares at the rain-gauzy street ahead and behind—gone.

“Where are you? Come back!”

Resentment seethes in Wei Ying’s meridians, pouring into the empty place where his core used to be. His skull is full of screaming.

Wei Ying, calm down, somebody tells him. His heart is going so fast, and then it slumps, like a flame guttering in a draft. Wei Ying folds down onto the curb, arms hugged around his knees, cheek against his damp jeans. He’s so tired. He’s so tired.

There’s a bus, suddenly. Bright light, faces in a row. There’s something appealing about it—motion, escape—and as the doors close Wei Ying staggers up and raps hard on the glass.

“Hey!”

The bus driver gives him a filthy look. Wei Ying almost doesn’t care. The doors hiss open again. Wei Ying struggles with his wallet, swipes his card.

The bus inhales and rumbles into motion. It’s full of ghosts, of course. Wei Ying tries to ignore them.

“Okay,” he murmurs. He grabs the rail with two hands. “This is okay.”

He’s talking to himself out loud, which should be a bad sign, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe if Wei Ying rides this bus to the last stop, he’ll have lasted long enough to get free. Probably not.

Next loop. He’ll solve it next loop, when he doesn’t feel like he’s been scraped hollow.

Wei Ying looks up. Standing halfway back there’s a boy, and his face is impossible. He’s wearing white, his body made of crisp, beautiful lines. Light squirms, liquid, in his long black hair, which is pinned half-up. He looks so serious.

Wei Ying starts toward him. Then the bus turns a corner, pulling Wei Ying’s injured wrist, and Wei Ying loses grip on the rail and stumbles straight into the boy—who doesn’t stagger at all, but repels Wei Ying with a sharp look.

“Oh! Sorry.”

The boy crosses to the other side of the aisle, putting distance between them. There’s a card on a coiled lanyard tucked under his thumb on the pile of books he’s carrying. Wei Ying leans close enough to read the larger text.

“Lan Wangji,” he reads. “That’s you?”

The boy frowns. “Yes.” His voice is soft.

Wei Ying raises his hand in a stupid little wave. “Hi! I’m Wei Ying.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t blink. He seems disconcerted—or angry? It’s hard to tell.

Wei Ying reaches for something, anything. He wants this person to keep looking, because otherwise he might disappear. Even if Lan Wangji is looking at him like he’s lost his mind, which probably Wei Ying has.

“You just finished work? School?”

A long pause.

“Study,” Lan Wangji says. "At the library."

“What do you study?”

“Music.”

Something about that thrums in Wei Ying’s memory, and then it’s gone. “That’s cool, that’s really—okay, I would definitely ask you a million questions about that, on any other night. I’m just, uh, I’m kinda out of it tonight. And every tonight, I guess. I don’t usually get this bus, the driver who works on weeknights hates me because I—” Had a breakdown on the back seats.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Wei Ying will be back in the shop soon.

“Oh, and also because somebody died on here—had a stroke, he’s right over there—and now he’s just a nuisance who breathes down people’s necks, even though he’s not corporeal enough to manage even the lightest spiritual breath-vape. So sometimes I tell him to get lost, which seems antisocial if you can’t see who I’m talking to.”

“You can see his ghost?” The faintest creases appear beneath Lan Wangji’s eyes.

“Yeah. Yeah, I can see them all, they’re everywhere. Impossible to escape, actually!”

Wei Ying starts laughing and then he can’t stop. It feels like being sick. “Sorry, sorry, I’m just having—god, the worst night, and it’s apparently never-ending, so I’m not in a great place right now.”

Lan Wangji stares at him.

Then the bus swerves. The wheels are skidding but there’s a strange lack of friction—rain turning to ice—and Wei Ying realizes what’s about to happen.

“Shit,” he breathes.

They’re going so fast, the lights streaking by like comets. Even after two dozen deaths, Wei Ying’s body fizzes with fight-or-flight, get out, get out, get out. He knows there’s no getting out.

The impossible boy is still looking at him. Wei Ying smiles and breathes out shakily, feeling insane. Only moments left.

“You’re not going to remember this,” he says. “But it was nice to meet you, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji blinks. The change in his eyes might be shock. “How do you know that name?”

“Huh?”

“I didn’t give it to you.”

It just came out. Lan Zhan. “Oh. Uh. That’s weird, isn’t it?” They’ve never met. Why is a stranger’s birth name in his mouth?

They’re careening toward a tower block, and there’s nothing to break the momentum. Around them people are screaming, clutching at rails, trying to get the windows and doors open. It’s funny, Wei Ying thinks. Imagine believing you have a chance.

Lan Wangji—Lan Zhan—hasn’t moved, except to glance out the window at the city streaming by too fast.

“Lan Zhan, you’re not—“

“No,” Lan Zhan says, and he’s so calm, holding the rail and his blue paper parasol. “This happens all the time.”

All the time— “Wait. You too?”

Then it hits.

 

Chapter Text

 

1.

 

The book thumps onto the carpet.

Lan Wangji looks up from his writing and sighs. The library’s ghost fidgets when bored, and Lan Wangji is the only patron here, with many inviting books to send flying off the table.

He bends to retrieve it. On the Recollections of Spirits. The cover has a red label which says restricted.

“Closing time!”

The librarian is walking between tables, turning off the desk lamps and tucking in chairs. It’s later than he thought.

His watch says eight o’clock. When he checks his phone, it offers ‘21:02’ in beaming numbers. His lockscreen is a photo of two dozing, sunlit rabbits in a meadow at Cloud Recesses. There’s the edge of a sense-memory: May-warm, grasses hissing, junior disciples flocking and flapping like egrets further down the hill.

“We’re closing,” the librarian calls to him.

“Apologies. I lost track of time.”

He packs away his laptop and notebook, and puts on his white wool coat. It was an indulgent purchase; it drapes beautifully. He stacks books onto the trolley and takes five volumes with him, all red-stickered.

At the counter, the librarian smiles at him. Her T-shirt depicts a smoking skeleton in formal wear and she’s wearing a peppermint jade bracelet. He thinks her name is Alice.

“Hi! How’s it going?”

“Slow progress,” Lan Wangji says. It’s an understatement but not an outright lie.

“Sorry to hear that,” she says. “I think everybody goes through it, honestly. I spent, what, fifteen months like that on my PhD dissertation? Thought I’d never break through the block.”

“How did you?”

She grins. “I didn’t! Quit and dropped out, and printed out the part of my dissertation I had finished just so that I could ritually burn all the pages in a park. Quitting is a talent which should be nurtured.”

Lan Wangji believes that self-knowledge is good, but that isn’t encouraging. He nods.

Her eyebrows go up when he hands over his books, but his ID card identifies him as a disciple of Gusu Lan sect, and authorized to read and borrow restricted items. Luo Qingyang got him the additional clearance. He hopes it will not reach his uncle.

She checks out his books and pushes the stack toward him. “Well, you’ll get there,” she says. “Here you go. Good night!”

“Thank you. Good night.”

The doors groan behind him. He’s standing in the darkened entrance, looking out at the rain. The ‘restricted’ sticker glares at him from the top of the pile tucked against his chest. These books would be forbidden to him at Cloud Recesses. Studying them would earn him disciplinary action.

He should speak to Xiao Xingchen.

Their arrangement is unusual. Xiao Xingchen is an independent cultivator and not formally a master of the New York College of Cultivational Studies, but he agreed to Lan Wangji’s request to supervise him for his doctoral portfolio. There are few people doing experimental research in cultivational musicology, which is why Lan Wangji argued with his uncle to come here, rather than stay in Gusu where he’d done his degree. He was the youngest cultivator ever to begin a doctorate.

He won’t be the youngest to finish one. His work was interrupted by the outbreak of the war. Rumors of an attack, a message from his brother calling him home. He arrived two hours before the Cloud Recesses burned. Then there was the campaign against the Qishan Wen, and its aftermath. His uncle was reluctant for him to come back to New York, but Lan Wangji did not want his sect to lose face. He meant to see the work through.

Xiao Xingchen’s cultivation is very strong. He is a renowned expert in exorcisms, with a foundation in the erhu as a spiritual instrument. Lan Wangji has learned much from him. Regrettably, he cannot help with Lan Wangji’s current problem.

Lan Wangji steps outside, raising his parasol. Rain turns the city into a dark, gleaming mimic of itself. Water falls in twisted ropes from roofs and sluices down the sidewalks, bearing along trash like folded paper boats. He steps carefully between vegetable crates being unloaded from a truck and a lurching golf umbrella. The karaoke bar on the corner blares music.

Sirens crawl by in the distance. It’s loud. Friday night. Halloween night.

As he walks, the piece he’s been composing winds and flicks like a ribbon between the noise. He doesn’t know how to explain to Xiao Xingchen that instead of submitting the final work of his portfolio—a foundational composition which improves upon his sect’s long-established suppression technique—he has been reading probably heretical music theory.

His phone chimes. New email—Lan Xichen. He taps it open.

Re: Hello!

Dear Wangji,

I hope you’re well. Forgive this late reply—every time I sit down to write to you, I’m interrupted by a petitioner or an urgent call. I find myself almost wishing I could roll back the invention of the telephone, but the history books tell me I shouldn’t envy the days of long-distance butterflies.

The junior disciples have been building new hutches in the meadows, as we’re now up to our ears in rabbits. They (juniors and rabbits) miss you, and they (juniors) ask after you often. How are your studies? Are you still teaching at the martial arts center?

I’ve just returned from an informal visit to Lanling. A-Yao is hoping to make some headway in the negotiations over trade agreements, but sect relations are rocky at present. You will have heard that Jin-zongzhu passed away unexpectedly. I won’t pretend at grief; we were, I think, all conscious of his strengths and failings. The circumstances around his death are suspicious. He had many enemies. All the same, Lanling Jin must have a leader, though A-Yao’s accession won’t be a smooth and untroubled path.

It’s proved difficult even to gather the sects for talks. Jiang-zongzhu is preoccupied with recruitment, and Nie-zongzhu is gone more than he is here (I believe he’s in your corner of the world—if you happen to see him, please ask him if he would respond to my messages at his earliest convenience). There’s a discussion conference next week in Yunmeng, and I find myself with hardly a spare moment in the day for quiet reflection, when so much time is taken up with politics.

Uncle tells me you might be coming home soon! Is that true? It’s been a long two years, A-Zhan. I will be glad to have you back. Uncle would like to speak to you, so please make time to call him.

Yours,

Lan Huan

The phone keyboard swims before his eyes, a troubled sea. It is meant kindly, but Lan Wangji feels a weight laid upon his shoulders. He understands that he’s being prepared to return to Cloud Recesses as head disciple. He knows that he can bear those expectations and excel. It’s only that he can’t leave yet.

He crosses the road beside a man dressed as a blue hedgehog. On 1st East Street, he approaches the pastel-pale building, and presses the buzzer for the first floor apartment. The intercom crackles like balled-up newspaper and dies.

He waits. The front door rattles open, and a young face with slim tortoiseshell glasses and milk-white eyes grins at him. A-Qing, Xiao Xingchen’s ward.

“Oh—hi!” She gives him a lazy bow over her hands. “Ugh, it’s broken again. As you can tell.”

He bows. “Hello, A-Qing.”

“Xiao-ge isn't here. Somebody’s kid is sick, and they can’t—uh, well. Things are difficult with money, so he’s gone to see if he can help.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Lan Wangji could offer to pay their medical bills, whatever they are. He has more money than he knows how to spend. He gives away as much as he can without drawing sharp questions from his uncle. But the inward curl of her voice warns him off, like a cat arching away from his hand.

“Nah, they really don’t want money, he already tried.”

“Okay.” He bows again. “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”

“Wait,” she says. “Do you wanna come in? I was about to feed the rabbits.”

“Mn,” he says, and she smiles.

The apartment is small, cluttered, and warmly-lit, with plants clambering and draping over every surface. Xiao Xingchen has lived here for years, though he’s perpetually in danger of losing his home to rising rents. An independent cultivator’s life is difficult, eking out a living as an exterminator-for-hire. The people most vulnerable to ghost attacks often have other problems, and the local community is stretched thin. Xiao Xingchen’s living room is full of fruit cups, blankets, and toothbrushes.

Lan Wangji feels a prickle go over his nape. It pulls his gaze up, and he sees glowing talismans lined up like mahjong tiles over the doorway and along the top of the wall.

“Are those new?”

A-Qing turns. “Oh, yeah. Got them from a different shop, actually—this tiny place on Doyers Street. A lot of the stuff they sell is weird, but their talismans are way better than the others—there’s a guy there who makes them, they’re his designs.” She points to yellow papers piled on the table. “Don’t think Xiao-ge has noticed the difference.”

“May I?”

“Sure.”

He picks up one of the talismans. The diagrams are wild, so abstract in form as to be scarcely recognizable, but the paper thrums between his fingers.

“Impressive,” he says.

“The owner’s called Li Tong. I don’t know his name, the guy who made them. He didn’t look like—you know—but sometimes you just can’t tell, I guess?”

“Mn.”

Uncle did not want him to come back to New York, for many reasons. First among them, that the city has become a hotbed of unorthodox cultivation. For every Xiao Xingchen upholding the proper ways, there are three teenagers reckless enough to try summoning a yishi gui with spirit-luring talismans painted on parcel paper. Lan Wangji found their bodies, in a basement gutted as if by a hurricane.

Most of them are young, poor, and unconnected. Some are desperate; some are bored. Some were rejected by the sects, or expelled for improper behavior or illegal methods. Some never tried to become disciples. It’s the next war, he heard a Lan disciple say, after an incident in a Gusu suburb. A girl had tried to bring her brother back to life, and attacked Lan disciples when they destroyed her spell array. Then the disciples glanced at Lan Wangji, and looked away. Guilty by association.

A-Qing leads him through the small kitchen, which smells of fry oil and garlic, and out the back door, to the fenced area of grass and paving which runs alongside the building. They crouch beside the wire rabbit run, and she unlatches the door. The rabbits are a bonded pair from a rescue center: Tiaotiao, with one mottled-gray ear and one brown, and Yuebing, a sleepy sand-brown Lop.

The rabbits hop out and across the wet grass to him. Tiaotiao tries to clamber up his leg, claws skidding on his silk skirts, leaving wet prints. A-Qing laughs. “Eh, they like you more than us, gongzi.”

“If only because I feed them apple and leave.”

“Yeah, you’re the sweet rabbit uncle, and I’m the horrible mother who tells them off when they chew my phone charger cables.” She gives him Yuebing, who leans up his chest to sniff his black sweater. She gestures to the bench under the patio umbrella. “Go sit down. You want hot water? Tea? Marble soda? I made Xiao-ge buy me booze from the 7-Eleven, but he looked so miserable doing it, I don’t think I can ever drink it.”

“Tea, thank you.”

Lan Wangji listens to the rain, sitting in a dark garden with a little warm animal body in his lap. There’s noise from the street, but the wind tumbles it away. The rabbit’s heart is a live quiver under his fingertips. He thinks of his rabbits at home, less docile than this, and for a moment he misses the Cloud Recesses so fiercely it’s like his heart is turning over.

A-Qing brings out two mugs and sits beside him. She passes him the mug painted with llamas. The other one says ‘Kiss The Priest’. The osmanthus oolong tea has a bright peach scent.

“How’s that suppression thing going?”

“Finished, I think,” he says.

“That’s cool,” she says. “I like that one. Hey, maybe your uncle will be pleased.” He glances at her, and she laughs. “Or, like, less cross than usual?” Lan Wangji once showed her a photo of his uncle on his phone and she cackled in delight. I’m his goatee’s number one fan, you better tell him that.

“Possibly.”

“Hey, what about the other thing you were working on?”

Last week, after a long day of frustrated research, he told her he was composing something else. He was vague about its purpose, but she understood that it wasn’t entirely orthodox.

He shakes his head. “No time.”

“Eh,” she says. “The stuff you’ve written—he says it’s, like, literally flawless. He says you’re the best student he’s ever supervised.”

“He hasn’t had many.”

She laughs. “Right. I think he’ll take more after you, though. God, I hope they’re not boring.”

He nods. “They would be fortunate to study with him.”

“Well, congratulations!”

“Thank you.”

His compositions will be added to the collection in the Gusu Lan library pavilion and become part of sect teaching and practice. He will graduate with accolades from his studies with Xiao Xingchen, and return to Gusu to become a full Lan disciple. His brother and uncle will be pleased. It is an achievement.

There is no reason it should feel like this. Empty; a little bitter. A flat mouth-taste.

“You better come back, okay?” A-Qing says. “He’ll want you to come for dinner one last time. You just have to pretend our cooking isn’t the worst you ever had.”

“I would like that.”

They sit a while longer, talking about her studies. A-Qing began cultivating late but she’s determined and clever, even if she sometimes abandons sword-form to kick her opponent’s shins. Eventually, Lan Wangji tucks Yuebing back into the pen and latches the door, and A-Qing walks him out. He bows to her. She grins again.

“See you, gongzi.”

“Good night, A-Qing.”

There are too many people on the streets, being sudden and noisy. Lan Wangji keeps to the inner side of the sidewalk as he heads toward the nearest bus stop. The subway would be easier, but after months of night-hunting in the deepest Canal Street tunnels, he prefers to stay above ground. The NYC Transit Authority lets the subway infestation continue, only suspending lines for tunnels to be exorcized when the ghost attacks get into the local press.

Double lanes of traffic roll past. At the bus stop he watches the digital board, dotted regions of light which make up a woman’s face advertising Chanel perfume. To his left a man is having a loud argument in English on his phone.

Someone slams into his shoulder from behind, and he staggers. He hears noisy laughter, and the person reels on. Lan Wangji turns to glare, but he sees only a darting flutter of silk, and running feet. It looks like the person is being dragged along, but there’s nothing ahead of him.

The bus arrives, sighing as it sags down to the curb. Lan Wangji nods to the driver as he swipes his card. It’s crowded and humid, and he decides to stand rather than squeeze into close quarters with another body. Facing an advert for drug addiction services and another for a credit card, he reaches for the nearest rail, the curving bright yellow bars like a children’s climbing frame. The light is fluorescent white and makes his eyes feel swollen. He looks down at his shoes and takes out his phone.

Friday, October 31. Has it been another year? The anniversaries are like debris strewn across the months. He unlocks the screen and opens his messages, scrolling backward through the conversation with Luo Qingyang.

Luo Qingyang 15:26
i asked them to set them aside for you
closest thing to ‘‘‘‘‘‘forbidden’’’’’ texts the school has
go figure
i know teenagers who play with worse things

Pain sparkles across Lan Wangji’s back, and digs in below his left shoulder-blade like a long fingernail. He rolls his shoulder.

Luo Qingyang 19:29
anyway still good for coffee on sunday?

He met Luo Qingyang in the school library while he was searching the shelves for a volume on melodic contour and the motion of yang. They hadn’t spoken in years, since she publicly renounced the Jin sect. “Lan er-gongzi?” He looked up from the row of battered spines and there she was, wearing the muted heron-blue robes of the school’s teachers, a crisp sliver of turquoise between her crossed collars, and smiling at him with only a little hesitation.

She invited him for coffee. She didn’t mind that he was quiet, carrying the conversation but leaving room for him. Her stories of Lanling Jin Sect were appalling. She told him about struggling to disentangle her cultivation practice from theirs. The half-grief of losing her sect brothers and sisters, though they’re still in touch. He remembered her being cheerful and quick to make peace. He learned that she was clever, kind, angry, and fierce in her convictions. She doesn’t regret leaving the sect. She only wishes she’d left sooner.

Lan Wangji 21:54
Thank you for the books, they are helpful
yes to coffee - do you have a place in mind?

He tucks his phone away. The rain comes and goes like fingertips drumming on the parasol’s skin.

Even at a distance, the lone glittering spike of his apartment building juts into the sky. Sometimes at sunset it looks like a gold ingot. Gaudy. He crosses the paved courtyard, and the doors slide open. In the smugly-lit reception, Americans in business suits drink cocktails at the bar. Lan Wangji steps into the elevator and presses ‘44’. The disciple who arranged his apartment rental did not check the floor number.

He would have been content with something small and clean and relatively quiet. Instead, his uncle informed him it would be taken care of, and he arrived to a large, blankly furnished condominium in a glass high-rise which towers over Manhattan Bridge. Lan Wangji, who has lived all his life in beautiful wooden houses that creak when it rains, feels unrooted in it. It has a balcony, where he grows basil. It faces east, with a view of the river, and the natural light in the morning is pleasant while he meditates. It feels like a hotel room.

He takes off his coat and shoes, and puts his parasol in the stand. He washes his hands. Notifications are sliding onto his phone screen.

Luo Qingyang 22:19
thanks to the school coffee machine my criteria are
1 not burnt
2 that’s all
same place as last time?
imagining butterscotch sponge cake right now

Lan Wangji 22:21
Yes. 10am?

He peels and minces ginger and garlic, and slices wrinkly fresh tofu skins. He’s learning the third movement of Ravel’s Miroirs and the left-hand arpeggios tumble through his brain, roiling and rising, as he watches the decisive motion of his hand and the knife-blade.

He fries bok choy, the leaves glistening forest-green as they wilt. The warm sharp smell of ginger makes his stomach pull with hunger. Then he tips in water and the sliced tofu skins and covers the wok.

While it cooks, he opens a window and waters his orchid. Most of the chrysanthemum bouquet he bought himself last week from the florist in Koreatown turned lanky and brown and has been thrown away, but he moved the two surviving red flowers to a thin-necked jade vase. They are two upturned faces, their color a beautiful shock.

Luo Qingyang 22:29
make it 10.30?
liqiu sleeps in so i make her breakfast

Lan Wangji 22:31
Of course.

Qingyang tells him about her girlfriends. She’s been with Liqiu for four months, but Liqiu doesn’t want to name it, still grappling with her parents’ expectation that she’ll bring home a husband. What about you? Qingyang asked him. Do the Lan sect expect you to settle down with an elder-approved wife? She already knew, somehow, that he was gay. He said, It would be preferred. No one would force him to marry for politics, of course. But it would be useful if he married a disciple of a large and respectable sect and had several children. Prudent.

He told Lan Xichen, who also knows, that he would try dating while in America. The experience has been uninspiring. Men who couldn’t believe he looked like his picture, men whose eyes glazed when he talked about his interests, men who were strange about his accent, his work, his sect and its rules. A few were keen and polite, and the dates were pleasant, and afterward he’d find that he’d been clenching his jaw hard enough to make his temples ache. None of the relationships lasted more than a few weeks. Long enough for them to realize that he wasn’t going to simply crack like sheet ice and spill out all the soft parts of himself for them to paw through.

There has been no one for a while. He finds hookups unsatisfying, and no one holds his interest for very long. He is not casual with touch. Sex is intense, and sometimes the distrust runs in both directions. He does not trust his partner. He does not trust himself. He settles for bland safety, but his mind is relentless. Even when he is taking another person apart, he thinks of lesson plans for his jian classes, the flautist busking in the subway, a first line from a book of poetry (these days I waken in the used light / of someone’s spent life), the green onions he needs from the store.

He thinks of Lan sect rule 43, do not engage in promiscuity. Rule 57, do not act impulsively. He thinks of the rules as he breaks them. He rolls them under his tongue like filaments of sugar he’s about to bite through. Rule 71, treat one’s self with respect. Rule 16, do not engage in habits which harm one’s own person. Rule 29, do not be greedy. But sometimes there is a moment when he does not think.

As he eats dinner, he scrolls through WeChat messages between a local cultivator group about spirit activity down in the tunnels of Worth Street Station. He struggles to ignore incidents only a few blocks away, but he has hunted every night this week, and the long hours are beginning to tell. When he glances out of the window, the city lights are like toybox sticker glitter, splintered by the water on the glass. Life, elsewhere.

He lights an incense stick in the living room and turns on the low lamp. Sitting at his guqin, he tries the new strings, which are very good. It was a relief to find a master luthier in Flushing for the restringing, after a yaojing snapped two beyond repair. The proprietor was overwhelmed to see a seven-hundred-year-old guqin in perfect condition, its antique duanwen like webbed cracks in ice. They spoke about a Ming dynasty qin on display at The Met, the vibrational properties of yang tonewood, and whether nylon-core could compare with traditional silk (it can’t). Lan Wangji agreed to go to a guqin yaji in November.

Warming up his fingers, he can almost imagine that he is in the Jingshi. The far-off street traffic is like the hushing of the bamboo behind the house, and insects burring. A blanket of percussive sound. His memory offers lamplight gleaming on the dark wood floor and the wutong lacquer.

Lan Wangji opens the balcony doors and plays Evocation.

He didn’t plan to move to a neighborhood teeming with ghosts. Cities are cities: he expected the density of lives, the accretion of deaths—strange deaths, cruel deaths, sudden deaths, layer on layer. But the resentful energy is so thick here. On bad days it lies over everything like river fog. Streets fester. The protective arrays and talismans over his windows and doors keep out anything feral, but it makes for busy night-hunting.

Not all ghosts are angry. Some are lost. Some are waiting. Some have been forgotten. Lan Wangji has mastered the Lan spirit-music techniques, and he needs to put only a little spiritual energy into the music to draw them to this room. He has found that they are surprisingly good company. His loneliness and theirs are not very alike, but there are… points of contact.

There’s a playful twang on his fourth string.

Hi!

Lan Wangji smiles. Hello, he plays.

This ghost comes every evening. It lags behind the others, and perches like a sparrow on the forehead of the guqin—sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours. He believes it is very young. He knows it is badly damaged.

It is common for ghosts to forget things about their lives, often the most important things. It is rare for ghosts to forget everything. What is your name? he asked, when the ghost first trilled on the strings. I don’t know, came the reply.

How old are you?

I don’t know.

How did you die?

I don’t know.

Where is your family?

Don’t know.

He persisted for a while, trying different questions. The ghost’s answers were always the same, but then it grew quiet, upset by how much it did not know. Lan Wangji did not ask again.

Now the ghost says, Who are you?

My name is Lan Wangji. You may call me Lan er-gongzi.

Lan er-gongzi, the ghost plays, slowly. Okay!

The ghost doesn’t remember their conversations, but it remembers Lan Wangji’s music. Tonight Lan Wangji plucks out ‘Good Little Rabbit’, which his mother used to play for him, and the answering notes are a fizzy burst of laughter.

Do you like that?

Yes, play some more—

He runs through other short, silly songs he knows. Other Lan disciples would be aghast at the use of a spiritual instrument for frivolous music, but Lan Wangji doesn’t consider this frivolous or beneath its dignity. It’s never trivial to offer comfort to the dead. To a child who shouldn’t stay but can’t leave.

At the end of the song, he rests his hands on the strings at the instrument’s shoulders and waist. The ghost is plucking the third and fourth strings at the tenth hui in dawdling patterns, like a child’s babble. Lan Wangji listens, feeling a peace that is more keen because it is a little bitter.

Then he plays, How can I help you?

Don’t know.

He’s asked this question many times. There’s never an answer.

The cultivation principles are clear. As he cannot satisfy this ghost’s last wish, he should suppress and eliminate it before it can fester in its resentment and turn feral. But two years have passed, and the ghost shows no sign of growing resentful. Lan Wangji’s strongest sense of this ghost is laughter, strings high and bright, and their evening meetings have become a gentle rhythm of his life.

Play it again!

Treatises and journals offer no solutions. Liberate, suppress, eliminate. He should have accepted that for an answer: sometimes there is no answer. But the failure gnawed at him. Why are there so few tools for liberation, and so many for elimination? Why should the dead go unsatisfied? And so, with the end of his time in the city looming, he began to write music that might help the spirit to remember itself.

He has destroyed every draft of the tablature. A ghost cannot be commanded to remember, so returning a spirit to a fuller sense of itself requires an offer of energy, and that is strictly forbidden by the Lan precepts. Since the war, some three hundred rules addressing demonic cultivation have been added, but they are redundant. All sub-clauses of Gusu Lan rule fifty-two: do not associate with evil.

And still, for weeks phrases of a melody have been folding around each other in Lan Wangji’s head. He has worked out some of the theory, and that is harder to destroy.

His fingers move almost of their own accord.

Ohwhat’s that? Already the ghost feels nearer. Lan Wangji has a sense of a small body occupying space, kneeling up with hands on the hardwood table. It’s so nice.

Do not associate with evil. That was first in the reading of Lan Wangji’s offenses. He had three years in solitude to contemplate it. Do not associate with evil. Reject the crooked path. Be filial. Respect your elders. Do not break faith.

Lan Wangji once held the rules to himself like an armful of porcelain which would shatter if dropped. He remembers the safety in that, and the fear. Then the war came—moments in time, dilated as if through a fisheye lens. The wooden pavilions on fire. The Wen flag flapping over his home like a great dark bird. Hot, cramped tents and mosquito bites seething on his calves. A grassy field which might have grown rice but instead was charred and blood-sodden. He doesn’t remember the end. He remembers going home and sitting in the Jingshi and not knowing where to begin again. Something in him had been cauterized too fast even for him to feel it.

The Gusu Lan rules are not fragile and they are not absolute. He saw they could be set aside, for a sect to survive, for a war to be won, for a new power to be appeased. That they should be set aside, sometimes. The world doesn’t end when he misses curfew.

And yet—

Do not associate with evil. It isn’t a rule which can be bent. Only dropped and shattered.

He stops playing.

What was that? The ghost asks.

He stares at his own hands on the strings. It is nothing.

Oh. Okay.

Lan Wangji rises from his kneel. He reads Lan Xichen’s email again. He walks into his bedroom. Then he scrolls through his contacts and calls his uncle. He stares at the dialing icon as it burrs loudly in the quiet.

The call is routed to the internal administrator. “Hello?”

“Lan Wangji, to speak to Lan lao xiansheng.”

“Hanguang-jun,” says the disciple. “Of course. I’ll see if he’s available.”

While he waits, Lan Wangji takes the string of his breathing and lets all the tension go, his lungs open and slack. He breathes in, and out.

He hears the rolling crackle of a call picked up, and his uncle says, “Wangji?”

“Hello, Shufu.”

“Is it not late there?”

He glances at his watch. Nine o’clock. The clock at his bedside reads ‘22:51’.

“It is,” he says.

“En.” His uncle sounds weary. “Are you well?”

“I am.”

“Good.”

There is a silence, but not a stiff one. Lan Wangji is aware of the sensations of his body. His hair against his neck. The soft weight of his sweater sleeves. The soles of his socked feet. Eventually he says, “How are things in Gusu?”

“The delegation from Wuzhou has just departed. Talks were satisfactory. Preparations are underway for the discussion conference in Yunmeng next week.”

“That is good.”

“Yes.”

Lan Wangji loves his uncle. They both try, but there is a space between them that is difficult to speak across. When his uncle looks most disappointed, Lan Wangji wonders what he wishes he were seeing. His nephew at sixteen, spine like a pillar, reciting cultivation principles with blank textbook precision before his peers, but not able—or willing—to have an ordinary conversation with them.

Perhaps that is unfair.

“What progress have you made? I hope you are not considering another extension.”

“I have

“Two years, Wangji. More than that. I expected you to have concluded your work by now. You are needed here.”

The bed creaks secretively as Lan Wangji sits down, facing the window. The glass is soundproofed, so he can’t hear the city drone and clatter. The East River is a black space between two light-flecked shores.

This sterile silence is not like the Cloud Recesses, because the Cloud Recesses are not silent. The lacquer-eyed finches in the bamboo. Murmuring streams and the pouring waterfall on the way to the back hills. Voices rising from the Lanshi. Disciples walking the hardwood boards between the pavilions. A lamp-lighter on the white shells and stones outside his house as night comes down.

The sounds were different, after they rebuilt. Fewer disciples. Unfamiliar birds. Younger, darker wood. Lan Wangji was relearning his home when he left it.

He touches the face of his watch. Its silver hands stand at a perfect right angle. He lit incense and burned joss paper for his father this morning, on his balcony. He recited the Lan prayers. He did not know what else to say.

“Wangji.”

“Yes.” His voice is nearly a croak. He clears his throat. “I will submit the final piece tonight.”

“Good. And then you will come home.”

“Yes, Shufu.”

As he speaks, he feels movement in his chest. The cold of a ghost moving into a room where he is standing—he feels haunted, already, by both choices. Staying and leaving.

“As soon as possible would be best,” his uncle says. “I would like you to attend the discussion conference in Yunmeng.”

“Yes, Shufu.”

“Bring only what you need. We will settle the rest later.”

Uncle assumes he will have no goodbyes to say. No roots or attachments to hold him here. Nothing left unfinished. Lan Wangji imagines himself drifting away, like the steam that lifts up from roofs after summer rain. He wonders if Uncle will let him come back for his doctoral defense, or if he will have to defend by video call.

“Send Xichen your flight details once you have made arrangements.”

“I will.”

The movement in his chest becomes a wrenching sensation under his sternum. Oh, he thinks. That hurts. The window blurs.

“Good night, Wangji. Sleep well.”

“Goodbye, Shufu.”

The call ends. He rises, leaving his phone on his bed.

In the living room, Lan Wangji takes out his laptop. He emails Xiao Xingchen the audio files and sheet music for the suppression work, with a brief note: Please consider this the final work for my portfolio. I am grateful for your guidance. He rolls up the written guqin tablature into a scroll and ties it with blue ribbon, to be hand-delivered tomorrow. It’s finished.

He should search for flights back to China and begin packing. Uncle wants him home soon. Instead he kneels down at his guqin and sets his hands on the strings. He thinks his ghost is still here.

I am sorry, he plays. Sorry that I could not help you.

He does not like to imagine his days without their evening meetings. The clumsy, unseen fingers plucking his guqin strings, saying, play it again, please, please? His repertoire of silly songs, which the ghost laughs at every time like they’re new.

It’s okay.

He could shatter this ghost with a chord. That would be correct, that is the procedure, but he cannot bring himself to do it, when this fragment of a soul has nowhere to go but oblivion. Yet it seems equally cruel to leave it. Ten thousand years of history haunt this city, and no one will remember a single, frail ghost after Lan Wangji is gone.

The pain in his chest is very bad now. It feels like his heart is furling inward, a flower at nightfall.

Are you okay? Tension frays the ghost’s plucking. What’s happening?

He is having a heart attack. Lan Wangji never laughs, but he almost could, it’s so strange. He should call an ambulance.

When he pushes himself up, his breath comes in shocked gasps. His skin is pins and needles, entirely. Stumbling through to his bedroom, he falls onto the mattress. One numb hand pressed to his chest, he unlocks his phone and dials.

“New York City 9-1-1, do you need police, fire or medical?”

He hears laughter. Someone says, Lan Zhan!

“Hello?”

Lan Zhan, are you—

“Who’s there?”

 


 

2.

 

A book falls off the table and thumps onto the floor.

Lan Wangji blinks. He is muzzy, his tongue cotton-stuck. His heart feels sore and uprooted, his pulse climbing into his throat and throbbing in his palms and fingers. He has been reading too long.

“Closing time!”

He glances at his wrist, but his father’s watch is slow again. His phone says 21:01.

Standing up, he divides his books between the trolley and his own pile, and gathers his things. At the counter, the librarian smiles at him.

“Hi! How’s it going?”

“Slow progress,” he says, then pauses. Have they spoken like this before? No—he has seen her shelving books, but they have never exchanged more than a greeting.

“Sorry to hear that,” she says. “I think everybody goes through it, honestly. I spent, what, fifteen months like that on my PhD dissertation? Thought I’d never break through the block.”

“How—” He’s about to repeat himself. Has he had this conversation with someone else?

“How… what?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. This week he has been night-hunting late, but he still wakes at the usual hour. He must be tired beyond what his cultivation can counterweight. “Apologies.”

“You okay?”

“Mn. I would like these, please.”

She checks out his books, with a little eyebrow raise. Lan Wangji watches her hands and says nothing. If he were a demonic cultivator he would not be so blatant as this.

“Well, good night!”

“Good night.”

He picks up his books (‘restricted,’ shouts the sticker) and carries them to the doors.

He knows this situation is ridiculous. He will speak to Xiao Xingchen and tell him that he needs more time. A few weeks, to try to solve the mystery of his ghost.

And if he succeeds, then what? Present his supervisor and his sect with forbidden music? Hide it, and lie? Lying is also forbidden.

Under his parasol, Lan Wangji goes north. The walk has the feeling of the very recent past, though he hasn’t come this way for a week. Most days Lan Wangji uses the library at NYCCS, but he began coming to this one for its quiet reading room and unusual holdings in his field. The karaoke bar on top of a Sup Crab is full of flashing light, and someone is singing in Chinese, off key. Cardboard boxes and trash bags crowd near the curb. Red lights clot in the distance where the road rises a little.

His phone chimes. New email.

Dear Wangji, I hope you’re well

His brother writes emails like longhand letters. Lan Wangji skims it. Uncle would like to speak to you, so please make time to call him.

On 1st East Street, he presses the button for Xiao Xingchen’s apartment and waits. The door shakes alarmingly, and opens.

“Oh—hi!” A-Qing clasps her hands and dips her head. “Ugh, it’s broken again. As you can tell.”

He bows. “Hello, A-Qing.”

“He isn't here,” she says. “Somebody’s kid is sick, and they can’t—uh, well. Things are difficult with money, so he’s gone to see if he can help.”

Lan Wangji blinks. The conversation has grown a shadow—he remembers this, even before he’s heard her speak. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He doesn’t offer help. He knows, somehow, that it would be unwelcome.

She shrugs. “You wanna come in? I was just about to feed the rabbits.”

“Mn.”

In the kitchen she shows him unusual talismans from a shop downtown. As he takes one from her and runs his thumb over a command stroke, his back twinges.

In the garden, A-Qing gives him Yuebing and Lan Wangji strokes his long velveteen ears. A-Qing brings out two mugs of tea.

They sit here often, talking about recent night-hunts, or his jian students, or the lack of bakeries selling good white sugar cake. It should be peaceful, but there’s an unquiet, loose-tooth feeling he can’t get rid of.

Lan Wangji takes out his phone and stares at the lockscreen. Friday, October 31. 21:32.

“Hey, gongzi, you okay?”

Friday, October 31.

It isn’t just the familiarity of the anniversary. He remembers this night, before. Their conversation in this garden, his bus ride home, cooking dinner, the congregating ghosts, his uncle’s implacable voice against his ear, and then—

“I’m sorry,” he says, rising so fast that Yuebing grunts in displeasure. “I must go.” He tucks the rabbit back inside the cage and latches the door.

“Oh,” A-Qing says, quickly putting down her mug. “Sure. I’ll, um, show you out?”

After they say goodnight, Lan Wangji walks. Then he stops under a narrow awning, leans his parasol against the wall, and pinches his wrist hard enough to bruise.

He shakes his head at himself. He knows already this isn’t a dream. It’s too sharp and too mundane, and time doesn’t move like this in dreams.

But is it possible for time to repeat?

At the bus stop, the digital board thrusts splinters of light at him. He hears the same argument he’s already heard, his memory a half-step ahead of the spat English phrases. This time no one crashes into him. No one apologizes or laughs as they stumble away, so something is different. The bus stop clock says 21:52. In a moment he’ll see the bus. The bus he caught before.

Behind him, a car horn punches the air and tires screech on the wet road. Then there’s a terrible smashing-metal noise, and two dense impacts joined together, thunk-thunk.

Someone says, “Oh my God—”

A car is stopped across the street. The front is so dented it looks like ruched silk, and it’s steaming. The yolk-glow of its headlights falls over someone lying in the road. Curled up, as though asleep.

Lan Wangji’s parasol falls out of his hand. He runs forward.

Light bursts across his eyes. Brakes howl. Then—

 


 

3.

 

The book falls off the table. Lan Wangji gasps.

He is sitting down. The library is arranged serenely around him. Again.

“Closing time!”

He looks down at his body, which is whole and unharmed and doesn’t hurt. His arms feel like wet ropes as he touches the table and finds it solid. His palms are slippery.

His phone says 21:02. Friday, October 31.

This is the third time. Remembering is like catching carp with his hands, cold shapes flickering between his fingers. The bus. The body. Running into the road. He was killed by an oncoming car.

He’s being lobbed through time like a pebble. Nine o’clock in the library, again and again.

Curses aren’t taught in depth at Cloud Recesses, but they’ve been a staple of Lan Wangji’s night-hunts for the last two years. His neighborhood breeds more curses than any place he has ever known. This curse is novel, because it’s impossible.

Cultivators have spent centuries arguing over whether magic can alter time. Lan Wangji read a literature review on the subject last year—the forays into quantum mechanics are new, but ultimately nothing more than theory and the influence of too many movies. There is no creature or spell that can drag a person backward through time, or trap them inside it. It’s never been done. Even if the theory were sound, the energy required would be monumental.

Unfortunately Lan Wangji’s situation will not improve because he’s deemed it impossible. So he considers other action.

He has only half his usual equipment for night-hunting. Bichen is in the qiankun pouch of his backpack. He has a spirit-net, a sheaf of talisman papers, and a tin with bottled ink and a brush. He could stop at his apartment, but that multiplies the risk of death; and every new repetition is a risk until he understands what’s happening to him and why.

He tells the librarian, “I believe there is something here.”

Hands on hips, she says, “You mean, apart from the regulars? Huh. If there is, it’s been awfully quiet.”

He doesn’t repeat himself. She keeps looking at him, and then she says, “You’re really serious. Okay. This is outside my area of, uh, usual stuff, so I’m going to stand over here and let you do your thing.”

He nods to her. Then he summons his guqin onto one of the tables. He plays, Who are you?

There’s a faded, drowsy ghost in the reference shelves who answers first, but Lan Wangji dismisses him. Thank you. Go back to sleep.

He plays again. He waits.

“Anything?” The librarian calls.

“No.”

“Are you… okay?”

“Yes,” he says. “I’m sorry for keeping you here.”

“No problem. Better to know, right? We do get weird things in here from time to time.”

Lan Wangji dismisses his guqin and looks up. “What things?”

“Oh, we had a mao gui in here a few weeks back. It was following one of our patrons—old guy, came all the way down on the subway from Queens. I think he knew he’d been cursed. He was really thin and he looked so tired, and his hands were shaking when he was getting the books down. And then—it was weird, he kept gasping and crying out, but nobody could see anything. It was lucky Mian—Luo-laoshi was here, she knew how to deal with it. That cat did not want to let him go, let me tell you.”

Illegal curses are a growing problem. But there is yoking one cat-spirit to a living person, and then there is creating a time anomaly which spans at least a mile and thousands of people. They are very different degrees of magic.

“I mean, we’re lucky,” she says. “We’ve got all these protections in the walls, most things don’t get in. All the fucked up stuff is out there.”

“It is.” Lan Wangji has seen it. And now it seems to have latched onto him.

He bows to her. “Thank you for indulging me. Good night.”

“No problem.” She smiles. “Good night!”

Outside, he sits on the dry steps covered by the overhang. He leans his parasol beside his shoes.

His phone chimes. Dear Wangji, I hope you’re well. His brother’s email. Uncle would like to speak to you, so please make time to call him.

He walks north. He presses the buzzer for Xiao Xingchen’s apartment. The intercom wakes with a burst of static and dies.

The shape of A-Qing comes forward, her hair and face rising like bubbles out of the gloom. She rattles the door until it opens.

“Oh—hi!”

He bows to her. “A-Qing, have you.” There is no reasonable way to ask this question. “Have you noticed anything strange about this evening?”

She wrinkles her nose. “Strange? Like, ‘ghosts drowned a guy in the river again’ strange?”

“Stranger than that.”

“Nope,” she says. “Just a... normal Friday, apart from all the costumes and stuff. What’s wrong?”

“Ah,” he says. “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”

“Anything you want me to tell Xiao-ge?”

“No—thank you. Goodnight.”

No one crashes into him at the bus stop. No one dies in the road. The bus arrives. He looks at his phone. 21:52.

On board, he sways as it wheezes and bends around a corner. He stares at the credit card advert without reading a word.

He walks to his building and rides the elevator up to his apartment. He takes off his coat and shoes, and puts his parasol in the stand. He washes his hands. So far, so good.

In his bedroom, he undresses. He stands in front of the full-length mirror and looks at his body. His skin is unmarked: he can’t find any cracking or discoloration which might be a curse mark. He turns around and lifts aside the fall of his hair to look at his neck and the upper half of his spine. Nothing there.

His clothes smell of the city, so he folds them into the laundry basket and puts on a clean under-robe. Most of the time he wears street clothes rather than disciple robes, and his forehead ribbon is tied neatly around his wrist. His sect has enemies, and being visibly identifiable as a Gusu Lan disciple isn’t safe here. But in private there is comfort in the familiar, and the silk is smooth and welcome against his skin. He recognizes that he is self-soothing. It seems warranted, as he has died twice tonight.

He makes tea, the last of his favorite bi luo chun, going through the motions. Every half-minute he must consciously relax his jaw. When the tea is ready, he opens his laptop and begins to search.

Due to petty scholarly schisms, there are seven different academic cultivation journals. The contents are frequently useless. How to test candidates for innate talent (usually written by a Jin obsessed with blood lineage). Which elixirs will break through a bottleneck. Whether grains are evil. The optimal frequency of masturbation. Lan Wangji quickly determines they have nothing relevant.

He reads an eccentric preprint about the energetic properties of liminal spaces and a scanned article with shadow-pitted pages about how cultivation level affects time perception. Then he is distracted by chatter on Weibo about a curse which has been striking people blind in Tangqi.

If Lan Wangji’s curse was created by a cultivator, it won’t be discussed in the pages of the Quarterly Review of Cultivational Practice. It will be in a WeChat group chat between local demonic cultivators, or one of those Facebook groups about to be closed down for inciting teenagers to dig up graves. An anonymous Twitter account claiming bragging rights for cursing the Second Jade of Lan. And the underlying theory would be highly restricted.

He finds the number for the Gusu Lan library pavilion.

“Wangji,” Lan Qicheng says. “How may I assist?”

“Good morning, Lan-laoshi. I would appreciate your help with a research question.”

“What question?” Tart, clipped. Lan Qicheng reminds him of a street-vendor in Caiyi who doesn’t break eye contact as she beheads pineapples with a meat cleaver. Lan Wangji would rather be dealing with Lan Suyin, the previous librarian, but she was killed by Wen Xu in front of him.

“Does the library hold any literature on curses which affect time?”

Glowering silence. He might as well have asked for the manuals on sexual techniques. Lan Wangji quietly sips his tea.

“Curses which—”

“Yes.”

“Hm. I will look. Please wait.”

“Of course.”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes and concentrates on his breath. There will be a solution, he tells himself.

Some minutes later, Lan Qicheng’s voice cracks through his calm. “Regrettably, we do not hold any material on that subject in the main archive.”

“I see.” Lan Wangji barely hesitates. “And in the restricted archive?”

“You do not have authorization to consult restricted class materials. That requires the approval of Lan lao xiansheng.”

Uncle will not give approval. Futile even to ask.

“No need,” he says. “Thank you, Lan-laoshi, for your assistance.”

“Goodbye.”

The call terminates. Lan Wangji drinks his tea, watching the city blink.

He allows himself to consider that he is experiencing a mental break. It would not be the first time.

His brother’s soft voice says, You’ve been unwell, A-Zhan. Lan Wangji has never been able to fill the gaps in his memory. He has only outlines: negative space, like a paper-cutting laid against a window.

What did I do? Nothing. Everything.

In the early days he would forget where he was and why the doors to the Jingshi were locked, and he would try to get out. His brother would lead him back to bed, and play heart-cleansing music for him until he slept. Lan Wangji was supposed to be in seclusion, reflecting on his mistakes, but he couldn’t remember why he was there, or where he had been before.

A-Zhan, please rest. You’re still recovering.

From what?

The elders also used to say his mother was unwell.

He doesn’t know if he is sick now. It feels very real. Shouldn’t he know if the walls of reality are folding around him like paper?

He kneels at his guqin and tries the strings. But when he plays, the notes ripening into sound, it isn’t Cleansing.

Coming back to America after the war, he’d been out of seclusion for only two weeks. New York was loud and disordered, the subway chaotic, his English halting. A-Qing brought him an orchid and three bags of White Rabbit candy as a housewarming gift, and they ate takeout quesadillas at his glass dining table. Later, Lan Wangji took out his guqin and, with an audience of weary cardboard boxes, he played this piece from beginning to end. He knew that it was his. He had no recollection of ever composing it, or if it ever had a name.

A boyfriend once said to him, everything you write is so sad. Lan Wangji supposes that is true but he does not know how it could be otherwise. It is simply the texture of life. To write differently he would have to be someone else, with a different life. It bothered him, though. It felt condescending and exposing, and after that he didn’t play his compositions for anyone, except the ghosts.

The strangest thing about this piece is that he knows it’s a duet, and the other part is for dizi, which is not a common instrument among cultivators, nor one he has ever composed for. The most terrible thing about this piece is that there’s another person inside it, and Lan Wangji doesn’t know who they are, or how they came to be there. He tries not to think about it.

He doesn’t get to the end of the piece. Pain blooms again in his chest, like a bitter green weed pushing through a crack in a slab. Then he is lying down, and it feels like his heart is trying to break his ribs from the inside. A sledgehammer. A fist.

He reaches for his phone. His thumb shakes, skidding on the screen. He presses it to his ear and—

 


 

4.

 

The book drops onto the carpet. Lan Wangji shocks into awareness of his body.

Friday, October 31. Just after nine, again.

The librarian checks out his books, the motion of her hands hypnotic in its familiarity. Outside, Lan Wangji holds up his parasol against the rain and looks toward the Bowery. He thinks the shrill sensation at the base of his throat is panic.

He calls Lan Xichen.

For a long time, his brother was the only person allowed to have a smartphone in the Cloud Recesses. Sending so many pig stickers is perhaps beneath the dignity of Lan zongzhu, but Lan Wangji has been grateful for this open channel between them, these past two years. He is grateful now, though he hardly knows how to explain.

“Wangji, hello. What a coincidence, I was just emailing you. How are things?”

He says, “Xiong-zhang, I,” and has to stop.

“Wangji? What’s happened? It’s late for you, are you alright?”

“Have you… experienced anything strange?”

“Strange?”

“Anomalies in time. Repetitions.”

“No, I haven’t. What is it, what have you—”

“Something has happened. I am…” He is breathing too fast. He pushes his next exhale down to his belly and holds it there, then inhales slowly, counting it out. “Repeating. I have—done this evening three times before.”

“What do you mean?”

“Each time it ends with my death. Then it begins again.”

“With your death?” Mercifully, his brother does not ask if he is joking.

“I do not know how to stop it.”

In that long, taut pause he hears his brother’s breathing, the rhythm syncopated with his own. A yellow cab growls past.

“Alright,” Lan Xichen says. “I’ll—Don’t go anywhere, stay on the line. I’m going to speak to Uncle. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Footsteps; his brother’s breaths. It’s getting colder, but Lan Wangji is sweating. His heartbeat feels too light—apologetic, a moth-wing flutter.

“Wangji, are you still there?”

“Ge,” he says. His voice sounds thin, like someone has cored it with a knife. He lays his hand over his heart, pushing qi through the meridian. He’s cold and nauseous.

Then his vision squeezes and half of it goes black. He tries to lean against the wall and falls down anyway. It hurts. It hurts.

Lan Wangji imagined dying during the war. In his tent the night before an attack, listening to Jiang disciples mutter outside. It was reasonable to prepare himself. They were losing ground, losing people. He guessed it would be in the midst of fighting, surrounded by enemies. Wen disciples whooping and jeering. Not his body failing as he lies on a wet, foreign sidewalk.

“Wangji? Wangji!”

He is still holding his phone. Beside him, someone says, “Are you okay?”

No. He does not think he is okay. His phone slips from his hand and clatters onto the asphalt beside his head. The lights above are stretched and hazy, like strands of sugar. His hair is getting wet.

 


 

5.

 

The book tips off the table and thumps down.

Lan Wangji shudders. “Why this one?”

No answer, of course.

His body feels like it has been crumpled and then unfolded. Pressure but no pain. This must be a curse. Curses can be solved.

“Closing time!”

The restricted sticker is a red, unblinking eye. He picks up the book and runs his fingertips over the front and back cover. Is it the book causing this?

He makes himself get up, and approaches the library desk.

“Hi!” The librarian says brightly. “How’s it going?”

It occurs to Lan Wangji that there may be multiple universes where she has watched him die. There does not seem to be an appropriate way to address this. He tries to put the words together.

“Have we—spoken before, like this?”

She gives him a confused smile with a plastic service veneer. She must deal with plenty of eccentrics, and no doubt he’s presenting as such. “Oh, uh, I don’t think so. Why?”

He shakes his head.

“Do you… want me to check that out for you?” He’s still holding the volume of music theory.

He hands it over with his library card, and she tips the book side-to-side in front of the scanner until the barcode chirps.

“Has anyone requested this book recently?”

She looks at him. Lan Wangji is used to being stared at, usually in ways he doesn’t like. This is a different kind of look.

“No,” she says, slowly. “It’s pretty niche. Although—I guess not niche for you?”

“Mn.”

“Yeah.” She’s looking at his borrowing record on the computer. He realizes that she’s trying to work out if he is, to quote an unaffiliated cultivator he once met, a ‘sect narc’. “Funny you asked. The Jin office on Madison Avenue wanted us to create a watchlist of anyone who requested this one from the stacks.”

“Why?” The monograph discusses the encoding of spiritual memory as musical notation. Dry material, so he assumed it was restricted simply because it deals with ghosts. These days, that is enough. Between the Jin and the Jiang, tolerance for unusual practice is at an all-time low.

She taps a few keys. She nods, and looks squarely at him. “I didn’t tell you this, okay?”

“Okay,” he says.

“So… there’s music by Wei Wuxian in it. Just an excerpt, and it’s not credited to him, but—that’s what it is.”

She does not use the title, which is usually said like a curse. Yiling Laozu. Lan Wangji feels cold. He does not know where to look.

Two kinds of people cultivate with music. The Gusu Lan, and their branch sects and splinter sects; and demonic cultivators, in imitation of Wei Wuxian. The author’s idea of a joke, maybe, to include music from the only cultivator whose work is subject to a total and unequivocal ban.

“I see.”

He hands the volume back to her. Obviously, it is cursed.

“Do you—not want it after all?”

“No,” he says. “I—no.”

“That’s… fine, uh, I’ll take it off your account.”

“Thank you. Good night.”

As Lan Wangji steps back into the corridor, the dreary hum of the electric lights rises to a gritty, hot-wire whine. Something hisses and bursts, and he—

 


 

6.

 

This time, he gathers up his belongings and walks to the fire exit. Pushes down the bar, shouldering the left door open.

The corridor ahead is dark. Passing closed doors like sleeping faces, he creates a new spreadsheet on his phone.

1. Heart attack
2. Struck by car
3. Heart attack
4. Heart attack
5. Electrocution (?)

The counting helps.

Then the building explodes, which does not.

 


 

9.

 

The library itself must be cursed, because he cannot seem to leave.

“Closing time!”

Nothing carries over from one repetition to the next. In one sense it is a relief, but it is inconvenient for everything else. Lan Wangji creates his spreadsheet again.

1. Heart attack
2. Struck by car
3. Heart attack
4. Heart attack
5. Electrocuted (?)
6. Immolated
7. Bludgeoned by falling light
8. Bludgeoned by falling ceiling fan

Death equals failure. If there is any intention in this—curse, in these repetitions, if it is more than a random anomaly, there is something he hasn’t done. Something he’s missed.

Lan Wangji puts on his coat. He picks up his parasol and backpack and heads for the main exit, avoiding the library counter. As he walks between the high bookshelves, something creaks. He sees the shelf begin to tip—gold characters flash on book spines—and tip still more, and then it crashes down upon him.

Failure.

 


 

13.

 

The cause of death appears to be random. Lan Wangji abandons his spreadsheet.

He tries to exorcize the book. He does not find a spell peeling away from the pages. He does not find an enraged spirit, or a spiteful demonic seal. There is, as far as he can find, no resentment around it at all. It is ordinary, except that it contains music by the most evil cultivator in history.

The librarian is giving him strange glances. He cannot blame her. He is behaving strangely.

Again, he leaves by the fire exit. As he opens the back doors, he sees a truck whorled with red graffiti swerve across the curb. There is nowhere to move.

Failure.

 


 

14.

 

Lan Wangji picks the book up off the floor. He stares at the red sticker.

Then he opens it and runs his finger down the list of illustrations in the front. He reads:

25b. Unattributed fragment LJ1016.2: Composition for bamboo flute (D-key). Page 252.

Page 252 is a color photograph on glossy insert paper. ‘Fragment’ is accurate: it looks like the back of a takeout menu. Thai, possibly.

The music is written in black ballpoint. He sounds it out in his head—eerie, not beautiful. Music for the dead. There is no doubt who wrote this. Lan Wangji knows it, as he knows the sound of his brother’s voice. Knows he must have heard Wei Wuxian play. They were both there, at the end of the war. He must have, even if he can’t remember.

Below the notation there’s writing, and a smear which might be food or blood. Wei Wuxian’s handwriting is abysmal; Lan Wangji can’t decipher some of the characters at all. Then he realizes it’s a wild cursive script. A shorthand.

He reads something about the liver as the seat of anger and spiritual consciousness, and the cycling and purging of resentful energy, and tethering the soul. This is the music Wei Wuxian used to put a soul back into a corpse, the first and only time it has ever been done.

Do not associate with evil. To the sects, this scrap of music is as evil as it comes.

At the left edge of the photograph there are faint inked marks. He raises the page closer to the lamp. He sees a scratchy grid shape with two unstable circles and two legs of a cross. Tic-tac-toe. Below it there’s a delicate sketch of a butterfly with spread wings. Lan Wangji touches it with the pad of his thumb, as though he might feel the lines. It’s beautiful work, he thinks vaguely. His fingers are shaking.

“We’re closing,” the librarian calls, and Lan Wangji withdraws his hand. Closes the book, and gets his breathing under control. Then he takes his coat and backpack and parasol, and walks to the library counter.

“The music written by Wei Wuxian. How did it come to be in this book?”

The librarian blinks. “How do you—”

“It could not be anything else.” Ah, his heart is going very quickly.

She gives him the same wary look as before.

“I am not a snitch for the Jin sect,” he says firmly, meeting her eyes. “This is my field of research.”

Finally, she nods. “Okay,” she says. “Well, I don’t know exactly. I know the Jin are pretty mad about it, because they have all his papers in a locked vault. But somebody got hold of a few, somehow, and managed to publish them online.”

“I see.” Only a sect cultivator could have done that. Someone close to the Jin sect?

“Anyway, the Jin have decided anybody who wants this book is a criminal and a corpse-digger waiting to happen.”

“Naturally,” he says.

“Yeah.” Her eyes crease a little. “I mean, everything about you just screams ‘demonic cultivator’.”

“What gave me away?”

She has a mellow laugh. “Mianmian said you were funny. You want to check this out?”

“Please.”

As she hands it back to him, she says, “I won’t report you, don’t worry. Like we’d tell them anything.”

There’s a lively hatred for the Jin among unaffiliated cultivators. Lan Wangji sympathizes. “I’m glad to hear it,” he says. He tucks the volume into his backpack and zips the mouth shut.

“Well,” she says, “have a good night!”

“Thank you,” he says. His pulse is still thudding. “You as well.”

He pushes the book deep into his backpack and leaves the library.

Standing on Hester Street under his parasol, he takes several breaths of the damp, diesel-sour air. Still alive.

He walks past the closed tea shops and mobile phone stores, the tenement buildings zig-zagged by staircases. Past the playground, the ranks of bikes, and the beige-brick high school around the corner. He steps aside for shouting children in Halloween costumes, breathing the smell of frying pork and dumplings from a shop.

The businessmen are drinking and raucous in the foyer of his apartment building. Lan Wangji takes the elevator to the forty-fourth floor. In his apartment, he takes off his coat and shoes, and puts his parasol in the stand. He washes his hands.

When he empties his backpack, the book is like a burning coal. He wants nothing to do with it, but it seems he is stuck with it. And on the walk back it reminded him of something.

He opens the balcony doors, letting in a gust of rain-shot air. Then he sits down at his guqin, and plays. He plays bright, sharp-plucked yang music. The command says, come here.

And the ghosts come, rattling the doors as they enter. The air thickens with them, stirring and glistening like broth. One hisses at the protective talismans over the threshold. He strums a warning and it darts away.

Something dips the strings near his left hand and he catches it with a snaring vibrato. It struggles. Who are you? What do you want?

He ignores the questions. Is there something wrong with time here?

Wrong with time? The notes shimmer like piano strings pitched sharp by humidity. I don’t know anything about that.

He asks a few more, catching and releasing them like fish. Why is time repeating?

I don’t know, I don’t know.

Often, the dead can perceive things the living cannot, but that is not so now. It is possible Lan Wangji is the only person in the city, living or dead, who is aware—except for whatever, or whoever, is causing it.

He changes tack. I’m looking for, he begins, and pauses. Something powerful. Do you know of anything like that?

Lots of things are powerful. Some spirits do not like Inquiry and will try to wriggle out of it. Then: Oh!

What is it?

It’s a pull, like a tug of current in a river. The ghost’s weight moves off the strings—away. Lan Wangji pulls it back.

Have to go, the ghost plays.

Why?

Calling, have to go, have to go—

Who is calling you?

Another tug, and they are all moving away. They pour out of Lan Wangji’s living room and into the night air like a great exhale, like wild geese rising from a river. He doesn’t feel any resentful energy, but he knows it is ghost magic.

Lan Wangji stops playing. He rises and steps out onto his balcony.

There’s the city, steaming and high-shouldered. The rain is easing. His stomach gulps with vertigo as he looks down. Forty-fourth floor.

What are you?

The structure gives a slow, terrible screech and shudders beneath him, making him stumble. He has time to think, ah, tedious, before his balcony tips, tips, and falls.

 


 

15.

 

“Goodnight!”

“Goodnight.”

Lan Wangji leaves the library with the music theory book in his backpack. He walks back to his apartment.

Opening his laptop on the kitchen table, he logs into the Gusu Lan night-hunt database.

Lan Xichen has tactfully, respectfully, pushed the Gusu Lan—if not into the twenty-first century, at least into the latter decades of the twentieth. A few years ago, his brother ordered the disciples to begin digitizing the sect’s night-hunting reports, so they could be searched and studied. The records go back over a thousand years; the only gaps are what the Qishan Wen burned. It represents the collective practical wisdom of the Lan ancestors—their methods for dealing with every kind of phenomenon, from the nine-headed serpent Xiangliu to a water ghost in a village well.

As his tea brews, Lan Wangji pulls up the curse classification, with such entries as ‘transformations’ (‘sentient’, ‘non-sentient’, and ‘unknown’) and ‘illusions’ (‘hostile’ and ‘benign’). He ignores ‘afflictions of the spirit’ and ‘afflictions of the body’. He sets aside ‘misfortunes not otherwise classified (NOC)’ for now.

An hour later, he’s skimmed through over a hundred ‘abnormalities of the physical environment’ and learned more than he ever cared to know about snowstorms, earthquakes, and downpours of frogs, cats, locusts, and teacups caused by demons, ghosts, and ghouls. The ‘dimensional abnormalities’ are no more helpful: a nan gui so furious he manifested a dimensional pocket to lure people for sex, a staircase you could fall through into Biling Lake, a di fu ling who turned his daughter’s grave into a hungry maw, and a curious reference to an incense-burner in the Lan archives. He doesn’t find a single report of an anomaly in time, or victims traversing into the past or future.

It might be a new spirit bred from the city’s resentment, something not yet categorized. Or not a spirit at all.

As Lan Wangji reads, he thinks—not for the first time—about how much sect cultivators don’t understand, and the limits of their curiosity. He knows his own approach is more involved than other Lan disciples would think wise. He wonders when ‘do not associate with evil’ became a reluctance to study it, even if it might save lives.

Eventually he leans back, rubbing at his tired eyes. His tea is cold. He closes his laptop and rinses his cup. He has exhausted what his sect can offer.

Lan Wangji 22:24
May we talk?

New York has many unaffiliated cultivators. Some he knows through Luo Qingyang, others he has met while night-hunting. They treat him with respect, usually, and suspicion, occasionally. His name and title are well known—he is aware of his lengthy Wikipedia entry—though he keeps to himself and avoids groups. At best, independent cultivators are indifferent toward sect disciples. At worst, they are disdainful or hostile. They consider the larger sects to be corrupt, pedantic, elitist, and set in the old ways. The war did little to improve relations, and now the specter of ‘unorthodoxy’ hangs over everything. What is allowed, what is forbidden. Unstable ground.

The war was won with demonic cultivation, and that was the beginning of it all. Lan Wangji has dim memories of seeing the earth swallow itself as ripe, black-smoking bodies heaved out of the soil, their pale, reaching fingers like ginseng roots. Corpse magic, ghost magic. He knows that Wei Wuxian fought for them against the Qishan Wen, though Lan Wangji doesn’t remember ever seeing him in the field. When it was over, Wei Wuxian became corrupted by his cultivation and died in prison, and the sects believed that would be the last of it. A cautionary tale against heretical paths.

It wasn’t. People calling themselves ‘demonic cultivators’ began adopting those same methods. Forming groups, swapping designs for banned talisman and untested arrays online—some of Yiling Laozu’s old work, finding its way into the wild. A town in Yueyang was overrun with raised corpses. A summoning ritual went awry in Nagoya. A cultivator-made facelessness curse ran rampant in Los Angeles. Mundane authorities are losing patience with the sects, blaming them for what they can’t control.

Luo Qingyang 22:31
now?
sure let me find someplace quiet

Lan Wangji’s phone buzzes with her FaceTime request. He accepts.

“Hello, Qingyang-jie.”

She’s wearing dramatic makeup, her eyes black-winged and haunting. A crown perches in front of her high bun. Halloween costume, he guesses. Light winks across the white tiles behind her. He hears a faint churn of voices and music.

“Hi, Lan Zhan, what’s up?” Her voice has a tall bathroom echo.

“Do you know of any specialists in curses?”

She frowns. “Are you okay? Is this for a case?”

“I am… exploring options.”

“Okay. Uh, well.” The picture shakes as she paces away from the tiles. She tucks her glossed lip behind her teeth, her eyes ticking left as she thinks. “I can think of one person, they’re brilliant, kind of a curse connoisseur. But, uh, slight issue, you can’t see them. Or contact them directly.”

“I see.”

A demonic cultivator. If Lan Wangji was to meet them, Lan sect rules—and Articles 15 to 27 of the Lanling Treaty between the sects regarding unsanctioned cultivation practice—state that he should capture them and turn them in at the nearest sect office. Lan Wangji could tell her that he has no interest in marching a small-time rogue cultivator to the Jiang sect office on Leonard Street, but he doesn’t know if she’d believe him.

“Sorry,” she says. “You understand, right? They have to be so careful.”

“I understand.” A demonic cultivator with a record, then.

“But they have an email address for anonymous consults, I think. Let me see if I can find—uh, one second—” The call mutes, and his screen blurs like fogged glass.

He waits.

It clears. “Hi?” A hallway slants behind Luo Qingyang as she moves the camera. “Huaisang is, um, busy, and I don’t have the details, sorry.” She taps her fingers on the wall. “Are you okay? Do you want me to come and meet you?”

“Thank you. There’s no need.”

“I’ll ask them to contact you, but it might be tomorrow morning. They’re… not great at answering messages sometimes. Or often.”

Morning seems half a life away. Like thinking of spring in midwinter. He nods.

“Everybody else I know is…” She shakes her head. “Well, you’ll know more than them, so I doubt they can help you.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Take care, yeah?”

“Mn. Good night, Qingyang-jie.”

Lan Wangji lowers his phone. Another dead end.

Panic will not help, but—it is difficult to be calm at this moment. He closes his eyes. He takes stock of his rabbit heart and stiff jaw, and tries to breathe. For now, he is still alive.

He startles at a clicking sound. It’s the spirit-detection device on his desk.

The device looks like a Geiger counter. Boxy and hazard-yellow, with a needle display and a black swab. It can measure units of atmospheric resentful energy above a calibrated baseline. Wei Wuxian made the original calculations and built a rough prototype, which Lanling Jin claimed after his death and began manufacturing. It’s said that none of the Jin devices work as well as the original. Lan Wangji believes it.

The clicks meld into continuous sound, getting higher. He watches the needle flick beyond the furthest mark and back to the midpoint—again, and again. The energy is coming in waves, steep spikes. If it were a ghost the resentment would be erratic, but this is measured. Someone is doing spellwork.

Lan Wangji dislikes demonic cultivators. Too often, he has seen what they leave behind: enraged spirits and wreckage. They are selfish, arrogant, and amateur, playing with what they don’t understand. This is not an amateur, which is worse. Someone is reaching into the guts of this place and using it to power—what?

He touches the device. The plastic is cool and smooth against his palm. He watches the needle tick back and forth like a metronome. Counting, counting.

Is it you? Did you do this to me?

This hasn’t happened before, he realizes. Someone else is moving differently between repetitions, aware that they are repeating. Is the cultivator inside their own curse?

Where are you? Who are you?

Lan Wangji picks up the device and leaves his apartment, shrugging on his backpack. He rides the elevator down and exits into the square. The energy is coming from the east, so he walks east, past towers of lit-up windows.

The needle flattens and stays there. Lan Wangji stops in the middle of the sidewalk, watching the device’s face. Now and then, the needle wavers, but it is only the ordinary background levels of resentful energy—which in this area are twenty times higher than the New York average. Of course a demonic cultivator would come here, he thinks.

He is angry. Angry at the person who has cursed him. Angry at these repetitions, this futility. Angry at himself.

He dies on the sidewalk, the tanggu-pounding of his heart like a countdown. He thinks, I will find you.

 


 

16.

 

He wonders if this cultivator is watching him. If this is amusing.

 


 

17.

 

It cannot be a coincidence.

 


 

18.

 

His father’s watch says six o’clock. He can’t find any sign of the demonic cultivator.

He goes in search of more dangerous ghosts.

On South Street, there is an abandoned apartment building. The narrow block stands apart from the others, surrounded by a high chain-link fence. The outsides are wrapped in netting and rope-tied tarps which slap in the wind. The lower part is smoke-stained, and a great open wound has been gouged into it, leaving only stilts of concrete and rubble to bear it up. It seems impossible it could still be standing.

Nearly all of the resentful energy in the area originates here. Lan Wangji has known other places like this, where the resentment is too great to be suppressed or eliminated, and cultivators can only surround them and keep people away. Places that belong to the dead. This place also belongs to them. They’re here with him, their resentment touching his face and neck like cold lake fog.

As he approaches the fence, a security guard in a temporary cabin clunks down a takeaway cup and waves at him. “Sorry, sir! You can’t go any further, this is off-limits.”

Lan Wangji approaches. “Why?” He has been hunting in the area many times, but never seen it guarded.

“Scheduled for demolition,” the guard says. “Contractors are going in early tomorrow morning to pull the whole thing down. New building due to go up on the site. Luxury condo tower.”

“I see,” he says. “Do you know what happened here?”

“Gas explosion. Tore out the lower floor. Nobody’s been inside since—looks like it might collapse anytime. They’re just speeding up the inevitable.”

“Were there deaths?”

“Yeah. Just a bunch of homeless people squatting in it at the time.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond to that callousness. He glares at the guard, and goes back the way he came. Then he walks around to an unlit part of the fence and leaps over it, landing lightly in a scuff of dust.

He asked Luo Qingyang about the site when he first arrived. The Jin control it, she told him. There was some big explosion—and now there’s a ton of ghosts. It’s a no-go zone.

On his previous visits it was always sealed, with protective talismans strung all along the magical cordon lines. City authorities gave it over to the Jin after the ghosts became too violent to ignore. Evidently the Jin have sold it to real-estate developers. According to municipal codes, the degree of haunting makes it unfit for habitation, but the Jin have always known how to profit where they should not.

Lan Wangji sits cross-legged on the ground and summons his guqin. He doesn’t need to see his fingers on the strings. He could pluck out Inquiry even in utter darkness.

As he plays, he feels the ghost arrive. The dip of the strings at the guqin’s neck tautens them under his fingertips, like the air has grown heavy.

You’ve got something on your back, it plays. Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji nearly startles. How do you know my name?

The notes flutter in dissonant laughter. I guessed. They say Hanguang-jun goes where chaos is. Chaos is here. And other things too.

A cultivator. He pushes more energy into the strings, a harsh vibrato. Who are you?

I’m nobody. I’m just nobody.

Why are you here?

I’m looking for someone, but he’s not here. Guess he really fucked me over.

Now the resentment is hissing through, like television static. This is not a quiet ghost. It is very angry.

Who?

I’d get away from here if I were you. Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji clenches his jaw, and persists. Who are you?

No reply. A ghost should not be able to resist Inquiry, but this one flees like shadow chased by light under a door.

The hissing is growing louder. It is the building, he realizes. It does not want him here.

Ghosts are silent—except when there are very many of them, or their resentment is gathering into something truly dangerous. Sometimes that is all the warning you get. Lan Wangji unzips his backpack, reaching for Bichen.

It is loud, suddenly. Then dark.

 



19.


There is no one to call. No one to tell who won’t think he is sick. Hallucinating.

Lan Wangji understands that he might be dead. That he may have died in his apartment eighteen repetitions ago, and everything since has been a theater of the mind. A neurological blitz, in his last moments. He is certain this is not reincarnation.

The end of his life doesn’t sadden him as much as perhaps it should. Eventually this repetition will stop—and then there’ll be something else; or there’ll be nothing.

 


 

23.

 

It doesn’t stop.

 


 

24.

 

Lan Wangji walks back to his apartment. What else is there to do? He stands in the entrance hall of his building and considers the many ways that his apartment might kill him, watching the elevator numbers tick down from 54 to 1.

Uncle would like to speak to you, so please make time to call him.

Lan Wangji steps into the elevator and presses ‘44’ with his thumb. The doors glide shut and the elevator begins to rise. Lan Wangji rests his back against the mirrored wall and closes his eyes.

There’s a loud clunk. The elevator lurches, and stops. It lurches again, and Lan Wangji cannot take his next breath. Over the door the red digits flicker between 23 and 24.

Then he’s plummeting. Death by falling elevator. How obvious.

 


 

25.

 

He leaves the library. He stands on the sidewalk looking at the streaming intersection traffic without seeing it. The rain is cold, seeping into his hair, and flicks at his nose and cheeks. His parasol is under the library table.

His phone chimes. Dear Wangji, I hope you’re

He calls his brother.

“Wangji, hello. I just emailed you, did you g—”

“Yes.”

“How are things?”

“I am well.” It is not a lie. He is in good health, twenty-four deaths notwithstanding. “How are you?”

“Good! We had a successful night-hunt last night.”

“We?”

“Myself and A-Yao. I’ve been in Lanling for the week. It was a mountain demon—quite a nasty one, too. Two nights’ work to track and eliminate it.”

Lan Wangji listens to his brother describe the hunt. It is good, he thinks, that Lan Xichen is moving on. Lan Xichen’s sadness after Nie Mingjue’s death was a wide and silent river he didn’t know how to span. His brother seems happier: there’s a smile in his voice. Lan Wangji can set aside his misgivings about Jin Guangyao if he makes Lan Xichen happy. Jin Guangyao has always been polite to him, and although he has no desire to call Jin Guangyao ‘brother’ as he requests, they can be civil to each other. Warm, even. Lan Wangji will try, if he ever sees his brother again.

“But don’t let me go on and on,” Lan Xichen says. “How’s your work going? Your final piece?”

“Finished.”

“Congratulations! That’s wonderful—you must be pleased, Wangji. I know Uncle will be glad to hear. Does this mean you’ll be coming home soon? You must let me know when you’re arriving, I’ll come to meet you at the airport.”

“Xiong-zhang, you—”

“No, no, it’s fine. My didi is coming home, I can find the time. Ah, the juniors will be delighted to see you.”

“Mn.”

A silence.

Lan Wangji clasps his wrist with the other hand, and his curled fingers bump against the cold glass face of his father’s watch. Their father left few things behind, and Lan Wangji has worn it every day since it was left to him, even after it began to lose time.

He wonders if Lan Xichen will broach the subject. He feels it whine between them like a mosquito. October 31. For Lan Xichen it is yesterday, already the past.

“Well,” Lan Xichen says. “I shouldn’t keep you. You must be tired.”

Gentle irony. Lan Xichen is overworked; Lan Wangji has nightmares. They break curfew often enough that it became a joke. How many lines must we write, Lan Wangji messaged his brother last week. None, his brother replied. If I have to work at night as punishment for working at night, I will lie down in the rabbit meadow and not get up. Spare your poor brother, Wangji.

“Mn. I hope your day goes well.”

“Thank you, Wangji. I’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye, xiong-zhang.”

Lan Wangji ends the call. As he turns, he sees his own face shiver along the dark glass of a shop window.

He has been told that he looks like their mother—his eyes, particularly. Lan Xichen says that he has her fine hair, and the shape of her jaw. Lan Wangji can see the resemblance sometimes, and sometimes not at all. The three dimensions of her face are lost to him. Now it is always photograph-flat. Shallow, like an image cupped in water. Photographs are all they have. Their mother was taken to hospital and she did not come back, and a few days later her house was empty.

Lan Xichen looks like their father, and he is the best of their parents. Lan Wangji looks like their mother, and he is a disappointment.

The subway sign comes out of the dark like something guilty. Lan Wangji descends the stairs. He pushes through the clanking turnstile. He walks down and down, and stands on the platform, breathing the warm smell of the subway, the trains, like hot metal dust and butter; steel and sweet organic decay. Trying to outrun the curse seems futile, but he does not know what else to do.

A train comes. He steps on with the crowd, and tucks himself into a corner. The train shudders as it accelerates—shudders and rumbles and sways, like a private rhythm he is overhearing.

Perhaps this is a punishment. Perhaps the heavens are angry with him.

You weren’t in your right mind, his brother told him. So much happened, and you were… lost.

Slices of memory. The dark, low-hung morning when he woke in the Jingshi and found the doors locked from the outside. It was a Wednesday. The clouds were like the black pluming smoke from a great fire and grief bent him over. Even before he was told, he knew. He knew something terrible had happened.

The silent, escorted walk to the cave where he spent the first months of those three years. How the summer light, scalding hot on his hair, felt like mockery. Like a mark: this one, here’s the sinner.

The cold procession of those days in solitude. Grief has always been familiar, a gray wash over the world, a ragged little voice. Mother, father. But this grief didn’t have an object. It clanged around his raw insides like iron Baoding balls, striking off his heart, his liver, his kidneys, and left all of him ringing. A song he had to hear to the end every time, but he didn’t understand the words. He still doesn’t.

His uncle said he fought the Lan elders to protect Wei Wuxian from them. A war criminal. A demonic cultivator. An enemy of all the sects.

Why? Why, why?

No one would answer. No one has ever answered.

His face is strange in the window, cheek blotted out by residue of an old sticker. He watches his own eyes glint blankly as they reflect the lights in the tunnel.

Sometimes, when people speak of unorthodoxy, Lan Wangji doesn’t think of corpses rising out of fields, or three children in a basement, or how his brother’s voice sounded when he told Lan Wangji what he’d done. He thinks of his uncle saying, years ago, she walked a dark and crooked path. He didn’t know Lan Wangji could hear him. He was talking about their mother.

He doesn’t know why his mother killed one of the Lan. Uncle would never say—just as he won’t say why Lan Wangji turned against the people who raised him and love him, for a man he barely knew and doesn’t remember. You’ve disappointed me so much, his uncle said. Lan Wangji dreams about it often.

Stations pass. People enter and leave. The train goes on.

He wonders if his mother’s days felt like this, toward the end. The constant sense of confinement, the night rigid around him like four walls. Every day the same as the last, minor variations just reminders of the dominant theme. Knowing that death is waiting, so patiently, for there to be no more time.

Another station. Another. He watches himself in the glass like a stranger.

A pitchy whine pierces into his ears. The train is braking hard, though the next station is minutes away. Then the carriage jolts, like something jumping out of its skin.

“All passengers, this is an em—”

 


 

28.

 

He gathers up the music theory book and his backpack and his parasol and walks out of the library.

“Hey! You can’t just—”

The doors close behind him. Lan Wangji feels silent inside, like the blank hush after a lightning strike, waiting for thunder. He is tired. He is angry.

A jack o’lantern with light sunk low in its belly leers at him from an upstairs window. He feels drowned out by the drone of cars, yawing voices, train clatter.

In this city the line between indifferent and hostile is thin. Lan Wangji has seen its underside, the places that howl. Sometimes he feels like the howling is coming from inside him, from his throat and belly and the marrow of his bones. Hungry.

People pass him like specters as he walks to the river and along the pier. He listens to the call connect.

“Wangji, hello. I emailed you earlier, did you g—”

“Ge.”

His brother’s breath jumps in shock. “Is everything alright? A-Zhan?”

Lan Wangji stands at the rail and watches the water. The river is oil-black and it swims with dispersed light. He can smell the salt.

“A-Zhan, talk to me.”

“You do not disagree. With the things they say about her.”

He hears Lan Xichen close a slide door. In his brother’s world it is an ordinary morning in November. Nearly noon.

“What’s brought this on?” They do not talk about this.

“Why?”

“Wangji,” his brother says. A silence. “Did Shufu say something to you?”

“No.”

“I know sometimes he…”

“He didn’t.”

“Okay.”

His brother breathes softly through his nose. It’s not quite a sigh, more like punctuation. “You can’t beat your way of thinking into people, A-Zhan.”

“I know.”

“It’s their right to feel as they do. That doesn’t mean I agree.”

His brother works to keep the peace. As sect leader, he should be impartial. Lan Wangji knows there is freedom in being the second brother, second disciple, but he also believes some things are more important than diplomacy.

His brother says, “It’s still the last day of October there, isn’t it.”

“Yes.”

“I lit incense yesterday on your behalf.”

“Thank you,” he says.

“Six years is a long time.”

“Yes.”

Lan Wangji has never known what this anniversary should be. Their father died in the middle of the war. He slipped away while they were fighting for their lives. When they returned it was difficult to grasp that he was gone, amid so much loss.

“He’d be proud of you,” his brother says.

“Would he?”

“Yes. He’d be glad you’re going on with your life. We’re not defined by our mistakes, Wangji.”

“Mn.” Sometimes he thinks all that remains of Qingheng-jun is the choice he made, in the many forms it took.

“We’re not defined by them, but we do…” A pause. “We live with their consequences.”

Lan Wangji was three or four when he first realized something was wrong. Lan Xichen would walk with him around the mountain paths, and the other families they saw seemed shockingly, glaringly real. Those families went outside, all together. They laughed and played and argued where everyone could see. They had ordinary, everyday ways.

His parents were ghosts haunting two houses. His brother would lead him by the hand to visit their mother once a month, sunrise to sunset, and it was like a spell, like they summoned her when they stood together on those steps, waiting for the doors to open. A-Huan, A-Zhan. Lan Wangji used to wish he could gather those hours back up, to have them all over again.

The nearby swing-seat is dry, and it creaks as he sits on it. The overhang casts deep shadows. His hands and pale coat look gray.

“You’re angry,” his brother says.

Lan Xichen can always tell. When they went once a year to have tea with their father, Lan Wangji would sit quietly and properly as he’d been taught and not know how to make his tongue work, so his brother would speak for them both.

He tips his head up. The night clouds are chemical purple, dragging across the dusty, backlit darkness. “I don’t know,” he says, which is true.

“Alright.”

Lan Wangji knows his parents loved him. But later he understood the quiet devastation in those scenes. Horror tucked in the corners of rooms, almost out of sight. He understood that the sect elders thought his mother was evil. He understood that loving her had destroyed his father. He understood that their uncle was strict with them for good reason, and that they would never, ever speak of it.

Then, at twenty-two, Lan Wangji put aside everything his uncle had taught him for a man so wicked that his name is rarely said, out of fear of his ghost.

“Ge.”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t I remember?”

“You were unwell, A-Zhan. You know that.”

“Yes.” That doesn’t explain why so much time is simply gone. Why, when he woke in the Jingshi, he was so tired, so confused. Why his brother had to tell him where he was and what day it was. Tell him what he’d done.

He says, “Why him?”

People say Wei Wuxian bewitched him, but the Lan elders saw fit to punish him. Lan Wangji was punished, so he wasn’t bewitched. He chose.

“He wasn’t who you thought he was,” his brother says.

“I don’t remember anything about him.”

Everything he knows about Wei Wuxian is second-hand. Gossip, rumor, or history written by those who hated him. A heretic who dishonored the living and the dead. A lower-class criminal who never knew his place. A creature out of a nightmare. The Jin have worked hard to suppress everything else. His uncle told him, Do not go looking. There is nothing to find.

“That’s… it’s for the best, Wangji.”

“Why?”

Music with no name but a living person inside it. A voice that laughs, Lan Zhan! The way a flautist in the subway can make him feel like a shadow has fallen over his head. Thirty-three elders who trained him to hold a sword and clapped at his first guqin recital.

“Tell me.”

“You… It was your decision. You asked to forget.”

He says sharply, “Lying is forbidden.”

“It is.”

“Why would I ask to...”

“Your conscience is your own.” He can hear Lan Xichen struggling for the words. “You… thought it was important. Worth the cost.”

“Ge, please, I—”

“I’m sorry, A-Zhan. I wish I could—I know it seems confusing, and unfair, I...”

The pain in Lan Wangji’s chest is quite familiar now. He is twenty-six and healthy, the strongest cultivator of his generation. He can mend deep tissue damage as easily as sewing up a snagged cotton seam. But his heart is tearing.

Time’s up.

He swallows, because his throat is dry. He says, “Ge.”

“Mm?”

He feels a strange, wild urge to open his mouth and let out whatever sound is bunched behind his teeth. Instead he says, “Tell me about your day.”

“Oh,” his brother says. “Alright.”

As he begins to speak, Lan Wangji lies down on the swing-seat. He tilts his phone away and covers his mouth so that his brother can’t hear him struggle to breathe. He closes his eyes.

 



29.

 

He must have done something wrong, the first time. He will go back to his apartment. He will make dinner and speak to his uncle. This time it will be correct.

“Good night!”

“Good night.”

Lan Wangji leaves the library. He walks north.

Uncle would like to speak to you, so please make time to call him.

The intercom crackles. A-Qing rattles open the door.

“Hello, A-Qing.”

They look at talismans in Xiao Xingchen’s kitchen. They sit in the garden, and he makes himself talk. The weight of Yuebing on his lap is soothing.

He leaves Xiao Xingchen’s apartment. He waits for the bus. He holds the yellow rail and stares at adverts without reading them. The city swims by, dark and unreal. He blinks against the white light. He is tired.

Someone bangs on the plexiglass. “Hey!” The driver scowls, but the doors snap open, and a boy stumbles up.

The bus grumbles into motion. Lan Wangji stares at his hand on the rail and tries to feel more solid in his body. He adjusts his grip just before they turn the sharp corner. Then the boy trips and crashes into him.

“Oh!” The boy bounces back a little, grabbing for the rail. His smile is so bright that it is off-putting. It looks brittle. “Sorry!”

Lan Wangji moves to the rail on the other side and turns his face toward the window.

Undeterred, the boy follows. He is near Lan Wangji’s age. His eyes stand out from his face, dark and ringed and sleepless. His hair is tumbling out of its long ponytail, and it sticks to his neck in wet, black strokes, like wild calligraphy. He leans close, looking at Lan Wangji’s library card. He smells warm.

“Lan Wangji,” he reads. “That’s you?”

“Yes.”

“Hi! I’m Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying. Lan Wangji’s body is buzzing, suddenly. He feels like a wasp made of paper. Wei Ying.

“You just finished work?” Wei Ying asks. “School?”

“Study,” Lan Wangji says. “At the library.”

“What do you study?”

“Music.”

“That’s cool,” Wei Ying says, and seems sincere, “that’s really—okay, I would definitely ask you a million questions about that, on any other night. I’m just, uh, I’m kinda out of it tonight. And every tonight, I guess! I don’t usually get this bus, the driver who works on weeknights hates me because I…” He trails off, fidgeting with the damp sleeve of his hoodie.

“Oh,” he continues, “and also because somebody died on here—had a stroke, he’s right over there,” pointing over Lan Wangji’s shoulder, “and now he’s just a nuisance who breathes down people’s necks. Even though he’s not corporeal enough to manage even the lightest spiritual breath-vape. So sometimes I tell him to get lost, which seems antisocial if you can’t see who I’m talking to.”

“You can see his ghost?”

No one can see ghosts. But Lan Wangji can feel them, and this boy feels a little like a ghost. He’s at once too present and a soft, melancholy space.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “Yeah, I can see them all, they’re everywhere. Impossible to escape, actually!” He laughs. “Ah, sorry, sorry, I’m just having—god, the worst night, and it’s apparently neverending, so I’m not in a great place right now.”

This is wrong, Lan Wangji thinks. This is not how the night should go. This boy was not here before.

Was not here before. He—

The bus brakes, and there’s a swoop like the feeling of weightlessness in Lan Wangji’s stomach. The roads are growing icy and they’re sliding, too fast, out of control. People begin to shout.

Yet Wei Ying is smiling. “You’re not going to remember this,” he says. “But it was nice to meet you, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji is so tangled by the strangeness of that statement that he almost misses this stranger saying his birth name, which he did not offer. “How do you know my name?”

“Ah?”

“I didn’t give you that name.”

Lan Wangji is certain they’ve never met before, because he would remember. He would remember a boy with that hectic sun-glint smile. He would remember this half-ghost.

“Oh. Uh. That’s weird, isn’t it?”

The bus shakes and groans in the throes of its terrible speed. There is panic around them. Lan Wangji braces himself, glancing for a moment at the delirious lights beyond the window, then back at Wei Ying. He feels so awake.

Wei Ying stares at him. “Lan Zhan, you aren’t—”

“No,” he says. They have only moments left. He doesn’t look away. “This happens all the time.”

Wei Ying’s eyes go wide. “Wait—you too?”

Impact.

 



30.

 

“Wei Ying,” he breathes.

Lan Wangji picks up his backpack and On the Recollections of Spirits and runs out of the library.

“Hey! You can’t—”

Outside, he tries to gather his thoughts. He remembers scenery tumbling by—lights in restaurants and apartment windows giving way to a dark avenue of trees and orange lamps. The skate ramps under the brick struts of the bridge. He runs that way, stepping around other walkers and weaving impatiently through crowds. He wishes sword-flight was not prohibited within American airspace.

Traffic stops and starts on the street. Lan Wangji stands opposite the place where the bus crashed and doesn’t know where to look. He takes out his phone, but it’s useless. He should have asked for a number, WeChat ID, email—something. All he has is a name.

He does not think about the other things he suspects Wei Ying of being.

Minutes tick by. Few people walk this way at night, and the crowding headlights make it difficult to see. Lan Wangji blinks, and looks down at his phone.

When he looks up, Wei Ying is standing a little further along the street. His arms are tucked close to himself against the cold and rain, and he’s glancing around. Poised at the curb-edge, he’s about to cross the road through a break in the traffic. He doesn’t notice Lan Wangji. He doesn’t notice a yellow cab speeding toward him.

Lan Wangji sprints. “Wei Ying!” He dodges somebody staring heedlessly at their phone and then leaps the rest of the way. “Wei Ying!” He thinks he will not get there in time. Then he knows he will.

He seizes Wei Ying’s wrist and hauls him backward.

“Ah—” Wei Ying wobbles on his heels. As his body tips chaotically, the taxi whips past, lashing his hair away from his face. “Shit!” He pats his heart with his free hand. “Ah, okay, that was—”

“Reckless,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Ying turns.

“Oh.” He sounds breathless. “Lan Zhan, it’s you!”

“Mn.”

They look at each other. Lan Wangji is still holding his thin, warm wrist. Wei Ying’s mouth rises in that smile, a little softer than before.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. “Okay.”

 

 


Chapter Text

30.

 

“Reckless,” says the voice beside him—and there’s Lan Wangji, Lan Zhan, with his pretty blue parasol, and his wool coat as white as cuttlefish bone, and his still, dark eyes.

“Lan Zhan, it’s you!”

“Mn.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. “Okay.”

Lan Zhan releases him. Wei Ying can feel the shapes of Lan Zhan’s fingers in his skin, like chiseled grooves in wood. His wrist throbs under the bandage.

He says, “You remember me, right?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. This is…” Wei Ying feels stupid, fish-mouthed. “Uhm, maybe skip the bus?” Lan Zhan nods. “Great! Let’s go somewhere to talk.”

A crowd of people passes them, forcing them to the edge of the sidewalk. There’s a half-assed Spiderman, and one of them’s definitely a cactus. Maybe a Pokemon, hard to say. Funny, improbable shapes coming out of the dark, like the beginning of a puppet show.

Wei Ying says, “This holiday is so weird. Some years I think about just sleeping through it—guess I should really have done that this year, huh?”

“Perhaps.”

Wei Ying doesn’t think Lan Zhan will appreciate a McDonald’s—and they get spiritually liminal after ten at night—so Wei Ying takes him uptown to the little corner cafe with the German name, the one Huaisang likes for brunch because of their Yemeni breakfasts.

“What do you want?” he asks Lan Zhan.

Green tea for Lan Zhan and a latte for Wei Ying. As the server rings it up, Wei Ying gets distracted by passing plates of butter-laminated malawach and boureks rolled up tight like little bronze rugs. They’re short on groceries money this month, scraping by until Wei Ying’s next paycheck, so he’s been skipping lunch on shift, letting the customers and his backroom tinkering distract from how hunger scoops its hands through his stomach. It’s fine, usually, but he’s tired, and confused by the loops. Like jetlag.

“Eight ninety-eight,” the cashier says.

Wei Ying gropes for his battered wallet, trapped stiff in his back pocket. “Sure, uh—” He hands over a wedge of crinkled cottony notes, and stuffs more into the jar. He can’t remember the last time he bought coffee, but if he’s stuck in an unprecedented time anomaly the least he can do is tip well.

He leads Lan Zhan to a table in the corner. Lan Zhan has hung up his wool coat near the door. He’s wearing a black turtleneck and maybe the most beautiful skirt Wei Ying has ever seen. The silk falls in layers of misty gray and blue, like water folding in a breeze. Lan Zhan sits in the opposite chair, and knocks a ribbon of long hair back over his shoulder.

A waitress brings their drinks. “Thanks,” Wei Ying says, but she’s looking at Lan Zhan. Wei Ying has noticed other people looking at Lan Zhan, as they walked outside and stood in line.

“Sure,” she says. After she’s gone, Wei Ying grins.

“Guess you’re used to that, huh?”

Lan Zhan pours tea in one fluid movement and places the teapot down. “No,” he says quietly.

“Because you’re, ah—you’re taken?”

Still without looking up, “No.”

“Okay.”

Aware that he’s staring, Wei Ying folds his hands around his coffee cup and breathes in. The round, dark smell is like a flick behind the eyes. He blinks, the steam leaving hot damp prints on his cheek and nose and eyelids. He’s been jittery since Lan Zhan hauled him away from the road.

“So,” he says, when he can’t keep silent any more, “how long have you been… looping? Is there even a word for this?”

Lan Zhan looks up. Under the bunch of Edison bulbs strung up like ship’s rigging, his eyes are dark brown and sometimes a little gold, a shimmer of honey. Something in Wei Ying flinches and gives at the same time. “I have been calling them ‘repetitions’.”

“Well, I prefer ‘looping’,” Wei Ying says, “so I’m gonna go with that. How many times have you looped?”

“Twenty-nine,” Lan Zhan says. He doesn’t even need to think about it. “This is the thirtieth.”

“Huh—” Wei Ying starts to count on his fingers, but the loops have bled together in a dirty watercolor wash. “It’s twenty-nine for me too, I think. God, that’s a lot. Have you met anyone else who’s stuck like this?”

“No,” says Lan Zhan. “But there may be others.”

“Right, how would we know? It’s not exactly something you announce on the street. ‘Hey, I’m trapped in the most deeply cursed Groundhog Day imaginable and I’ve done this night twenty-nine times already, it’s a downer every time.’ Pretty unlikely.”

“Yes.”

This Lan Zhan isn’t much of a talker, but that’s okay. Wei Ying says, “Do you have any theories?”

“Some.”

Wei Ying waits, but Lan Zhan doesn’t offer them. “Cryptic! Well, now there’s two of us we’ll definitely figure it out, right?”

Lan Zhan seems less optimistic. “Mn.”

Wei Ying takes a deep sip of coffee, his foam flower blurring against his lip. He licks it clean. “Okay. What time does your loop start?”

“Nine o’clock.”

“Me too. Nine exactly. If time is even real here, ha ha. What’s the longest you’ve lasted?”

“Two hours and thirty-eight minutes,” Lan Zhan says crisply.

So neither of them have made it to tomorrow yet.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, “that sounds—I think that’s my longest too? I just started walking in no particular direction, and tumbled down some stairs in a park like a clown. Shortest?”

“Less than ten seconds.”

“Ugh, yeah, I had one that was nearly instantaneous. Tripped and cracked my head on a shelf. Game over, just like that.”

Lan Zhan nods.

“Do you think it keeps going?” Wei Ying leans his chin in his palm. “The loop, after we die, does it collapse, or does it just go on and on? Is there a universe where right now people are looking at the contents of my skull on a kitchen floor? Or—will be looking, in about two hours? But I can remember it happening, so it must be in the past… ah, this is so confusing, linear time is fucked.”

“Unclear,” Lan Zhan says, and there’s a first sign of life, his eyebrows drawing together. “I… would hope not.”

“Yeah. For one thing, there are enough ghosts in this city without adding, like, twenty-nine ghosts of me and twenty-nine of you.”

“You said that you can see them.”

Wei Ying did say that, didn’t he, to the only person around who’ll remember it. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything. Maybe other cultivators can see ghosts. Wei Ying hasn’t taken a poll, but there’s a statistically significant chance he’s not the only one.

“Uh—yeah,” he says, “they’re, uh, they’re pretty routine for me. I’ve almost given up apologizing every time I stand inside somebody.”

“I see,” Lan Zhan says. His face is perfectly still.

“You don’t believe me.”

“It is difficult to believe.” Lan Zhan gives a circumspect glance to the left, where their nearest neighbors are deep in a conversation about Survivor, and says, “I work extensively with ghosts. I have never met anyone who could see them.”

“You’re a cultivator?” Wei Ying says, but his brain is outsprinting his mouth. Lan Wangji. Lan Zhan. “Wait, wait—you’re a Lan! You’re one of the Gusu Lan. You’re a sect disciple.”

Lan Zhan can see him. Wei Ying doesn’t know how that’s possible—a Lan. There can’t be a loophole for a Lan. Is the magic broken? Is it gone?

“Is that a problem for you?”

“Ah?” Wei Ying shakes his head. “No, no, it’s fine, it’s whatever, I don’t—”

This must be a glitch. Magic going haywire, something about the loop, or the dying. The seal can’t be broken, it’s too strong, but maybe it can go wrong. It must have.

Lan Zhan says, “You are familiar with the sects?”

“Mhm.” There’s a sinewy flutter under Wei Ying’s sternum, getting wilder. “Pretty familiar.”

“I thought independent cultivators had little to do with them.”

“Oh, yeah, usually! But I, uhm. I used to be one.”

A little truth, Wei Ying thinks, is easier than pretending they don’t have that in common—an entire shared language of lineages and politics and tradition. Plenty of unaffiliated cultivators used to be sect disciples. It’s not very strange.

Lan Zhan pauses, his cup halfway to his mouth. “Which sect?”

Wei Ying grins. “Does it matter? Wow, this night just gets weirder and weirder. You’re a Lan.”

Under Lan Zhan’s eyes, Wei Ying feels exposed from the inside out, like a clammy spirit is knocking on doors in the hallway of his body. But Wei Ying has been hiding a long time. He can handle one polite, soft-spoken sect disciple.

“So we should compare notes, right?” he says. “There must be things we have in common, something that links us. What happened before you died? The first time.”

“I was at the library,” Lan Zhan says.

“Which library?”

“At the cultivation school on Hester and Bowery.”

“Right, that one.”

Lan Zhan continues, “I worked until nine. I took the bus home. I made dinner, and called my uncle. Then I died.”

“How?”

“A heart attack.”

Wei Ying gapes at him. “Oh my god, really? But you’re—how old are you?”

“Twenty-six,” Lan Zhan says.

“Oh. Me too.”

Matter-of-fact: “I believe it was a spontaneous coronary artery dissection.”

“You mean, your heart just—tore?”

“Yes.”

“That’s… Fuck. I’m sorry.”

For Wei Ying, death wasn’t entirely a surprise. His body is an old coat with stones in its pockets, and it was wearing itself down to gauze and smoke long before something came to kill him. But Lan Zhan must be strong, if he’s a Lan. He shouldn’t be dying like that.

Lan Zhan nods, and doesn’t offer anything else. Probably a bad way to go. “And you?”

“Uh,” Wei Ying says. “Well, I went to a Halloween party with a friend. Do you know Nie Huaisang? I guess you must do.”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying can’t read that tone at all. “I know Nie-zongzhu.”

“Mm, so, Huaisang and I left to get food. We ended up at a bubble tea place, we’ve been there before. Then I left him, and… then it’s, ah, it’s kind of blank. I don’t know how it ended.”

“You cannot remember how you died?”

“No,” Wei Ying says. “Sorry.” Even now, when he reaches into that murk he brings up a handful of nothing. Cross-hatched gray and clots of stoplight red. A face, maybe. “My memory is so, so terrible most of the time, and, uh, all the dying hasn’t really helped.”

Lan Zhan silently unzips his backpack and slides out a slim silver laptop. Waking it, he places it between them. Then he creates a spreadsheet and begins to type. The first column is titled ‘Loop’. The second is ‘Cause of death: Lan Wangji’. Wei Ying sips his latte and shakes out his damp hood to help it dry.

When Lan Zhan is finished, the table runs thirty entries long, and its twenty-nine occupied lines are a prim procession of deaths. Wei Ying slides his gaze down column two. “Collapsing balcony… train crash… You can just—remember these? Every one?”

“Dying is quite memorable,” Lan Zhan says, reaching for his tea.

“Not for me.” Wei Ying keeps going. “Lan Zhan, this is—a lot of heart attacks. First time… and then a lot of other times.”

“Mn.” With brisk flicks of his finger, Lan Zhan creates a new column. This one is called ‘Cause of death: Wei Ying’. He says, “What can you remember?”

Wei Ying’s least favorite question. “Oh, well. First time—big blank, we covered that. And then also—no, wait! Second time I suffocated, choked on my drink, extreme betrayal by alcohol. Third time, I got hit by a car. I got hit by a bunch of cars. Not all at once. And a motorbike! One of the times I drowned, which is crazy. Maybe loop four?”

He watches Lan Zhan, a stranger, type this out in cold neat characters, white keys clicking softly under his fingers. It’s surreal.

“And there was a bunch of loops where I just—couldn’t leave where I was? I kept falling down the stairs, it was so weird, just over and over, and the loops were so fast—”

“Here?” Lan Zhan points to a regiment of lines near the top. “None of these lasted more than a couple of minutes.”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, “yeah, I think so? I thought Nie Huaisang might be causing it—he’s always there, at the beginning of my loop, so I was trying to get away from him. It... wasn’t totally rational.”

“Is Nie-zongzhu aware of this?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “He hasn’t noticed anything. He doesn’t remember that we’ve met each other thirty times tonight.”

“How did you escape?”

“Don’t know. What were you doing, when you got stuck?”

“I was in the library,” Lan Zhan says.

“You couldn’t leave—and then you could?”

“Mn.”

Wei Ying pinches the meat of his lip in his teeth. He isn’t the only one hiding things. He almost feels better about how much he’s going to have to deceive Lan Zhan.

“One time,” he offers, “I just tried to walk as far as I could. I thought maybe the curse had a, like, a radius? And if I could escape it, I’d be fine. You’ll be surprised to hear that it wasn’t fine. That was… three or four loops ago, I think?”

“I took the train,” Lan Zhan says. “Loop twenty-five.”

“How far did you get?”

“Not far.”

“Shit.”

“Mm.” A muscle lifts in Lan Zhan’s cheek, a dry little expression. There’s a tilted camaraderie in this, a green peashoot growing out of this grim, jumbling heap of absurdities.

Wei Ying says, “One of the times, I think I… I think I had a seizure or something? I just sat down, and then everything went dark.” With his hands, he mimes lights blinking out. “Nothing. I think that was twenty-seven.”

Lan Zhan types. “Is there any history of seizures in your family?”

“Don’t know. Any history of heart attacks in yours?”

“No,” Lan Zhan says. “None.”

“Yeah. Oh—the loop before the one where we met, I cracked my head on the floor in somebody’s kitchen. It was a nice kitchen. People saw. That sucked.”

Lan Zhan dutifully types everything Wei Ying dredges up into the spreadsheet. Together they look at their two columns side by side.

“Some of them match,” Wei Ying says. “See? Both run over, both electrocuted...”

“But none of the others,” Lan Zhan says.

“Right. Most of them seem… random? Actually, some of them, it’s like we’re being fucked with—getting stuck on the stairs, or in a library? Is there something we’re supposed to be doing? Is this somebody’s weird sense of humor?”

“I don’t know.” Lan Zhan’s eyes saccade as he stares at the spreadsheet. There’s a line deepening between his eyebrows like a paper fold. “A lot of falls,” he remarks.

“Huh,” Wei Ying says. “You think I fell the first time?”

“You tell me.”

Maybe the first time counts for a lot, Wei Ying thinks. It would make sense—that’s when everything broke. If only his memory wasn’t just so much broken glass, nothing but incidental glimmers.

“What else?” Wei Ying grabs for another strand to follow. He needs Lan Zhan to stick around, because the thought of being alone now is like tipping off a ledge above a hundred feet of emptiness. “When’s your birthday?”

“January twenty-third,” Lan Zhan says.

“Okay. Ah, mine’s today.”

“Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” Wei Ying says. “I’m having an entire Scorpio season in a single night, who even knew that was possible? Anyway, I guess I’m one of those people who was born and died on the same day—like Shakespeare. That’s a thing, isn’t it, statistically? You’re slightly more likely to die on your birthday—although maybe chalk that up to alcohol and risk-taking behaviors.”

“I have heard that,” Lan Zhan says.

“Where were you born? Gusu?”

“Mn.”

“I was born here,” Wei Ying says. “Well, not here here, I was born in Chicago. My parents traveled a lot, never long in one place.”

“Your parents do not belong to a sect?”

“No. Well, my dad did, but then he left to be with my mom. She was an independent cultivator. Were your parents both Lan disciples?”

“My father was,” Lan Zhan says. “My mother was… also an independent cultivator.”

“They’re not around anymore?”

“No.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “Sorry.” Lan Zhan nods. “My parents are dead too. Nighthunt gone wrong.”

“How old were you?”

“Six.” Wei Ying shrugs. “It’s okay—it was a long time ago, I don’t even remember it.”

He was found in Yiling, eventually. He thinks Mama and Baba told him to wait, so he waited. He waited and waited, and they never came back.

“That is very young,” Lan Zhan says. “Do you have other family?”

“Uh, well, I was on my own for a while.” He hopes Lan Zhan won’t ask about that. Wei Ying ran away from an orphanage and back to Yiling, afraid his parents wouldn’t know where to find him. “And then I got adopted and became a disciple.”

Jiang Fengmian found him. Hello, Wei Ying. Jiang Fengmian was his parents’ friend, so Wei Ying thought it would be okay to go with him to Lotus Pier, which wasn’t very far from Yiling, and live among Yunmeng Jiang Sect until they came back.

Wei Ying wasn’t told his parents were dead. His life wasn’t sliced clean through, bisected into a warm ‘before’ and cold ‘after’. He heard Yu-furen shout it at Jiang-shushu, the thin knife-cuts of her voice dulled through a door, and he didn’t know what it meant. More waiting, probably. It took years for him to understand how long the waiting would be.

Lan Zhan says, “Where are your adopted parents?”

“Died in the war.” Cause of death, Wei Ying.

“You have no living family?”

“None that want to know me,” says Wei Ying. “What about you, any other family?”

“I have a brother,” Lan Zhan says. “Elder. We were raised by our uncle.”

“So you’ve lived mostly with your sect?”

“This is my second time abroad,” Lan Zhan says. “How long have you been in New York?”

Wei Ying smiles. “Oh,” he says, “I’ve been here, what, five years now? It chews up every penny I make, this place. You?”

It’s a funny dance they're doing, forward steps and side steps, advancing, evading. Wei Ying hasn’t fought with a sword in years, but his body remembers, the muscle-memory of sunrise drills so deep it sleeps next to the bone, and he thinks Lan Zhan would be hard to beat. Lan Zhan is lake-calm, his posture straight as a sentry, and he never raises his voice, but Wei Ying feels himself being steadily, ruthlessly pressed.

“Two years,” Lan Zhan says. “And three years before the war. Why did you come here?”

“Who wouldn’t want to live here? Sometimes I watch a cockroach crawl over my pillow and it’s the highlight of my week.”

Lan Zhan says, “Why are you no longer with your sect?”

“Irreconcilable differences,” Wei Ying says, and doesn’t stop smiling.

“What does that m—”

“God, this is weird, isn’t it?” Wei Ying slouches against the table lip. “Like speed dating, but with the imminent threat of death. Hey, maybe that’s what the concept needs—keeps things lively, huh?”

“This will be more difficult,” Lan Zhan says, with the finest metal edge, “if you refuse to tell me things which may be relevant.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t be like that.” Wei Ying’s palms prickle, sweaty. His neck feels hot. “It doesn’t matter, right? We’ve established that we have things in common, but nothing that explains getting stuck in a death loop together. And we didn’t know each other before this, so it doesn’t seem like a personal thing.”

Except Lan Zhan isn’t nobody. He’s an inner disciple of one of the most powerful cultivation sects. And Wei Ying is—well, he’d be even more notorious, if he wasn’t publicly dead.

Lan Zhan looks at the laptop again, the document of their shared woe, and his face glows neon in the screen-light. He seems frustrated. Wei Ying breathes, and keeps his mouth shut.

That lasts a few minutes, as Wei Ying turns it around in his head like a shopping channel jewel, examining it in every facet. He’s staring at the line which says ‘Train crash’ for Lan Zhan, and ‘Fell down stairs in park’ for him.

“Hey,” he says. “Do you think we’re dying at the same time?”

Lan Zhan glances at him. “It seems likely.”

“Right, based on all this.” The timings seem to work, but is it exact? What causes a loop to end? Is midnight an absolute limit? “Hm, more to investigate. We need to find out if—”

“Are you a demonic cultivator?”

Wei Ying’s breath makes a glottal click, a clock hand stopped. His brain froths, white panic, behind his smile. “How rude, Lan Zhan! You have to wait until at least the second date before you ask somebody if they’re a demonic cultivator.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah.” How does Lan Zhan know? Can sect disciples smell unorthodoxy now? “I am. Is that a problem for you?”

“Did you curse me?”

Wei Ying laughs. He can’t help it—it’s another absurdity on their very tall heap.

“Did I—no! No, this isn’t me.” Lan Zhan doesn’t blink, mouth firm as brick. “Oh my god. Okay, okay.” Wei Ying raises his left hand in a three-finger salute. “I, Wei Ying, promise that I did not curse you, Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, a person I’ve never met until literally five minutes ago, to endlessly die and repeat this night.” He lets his hand bang onto the table. “Good enough?”

“If you did not do this—”

“I didn’t!” Wei Ying protests. “Lan Zhan, if I had this much power I wouldn’t waste it cursing people, there are so many cooler things I’d be doing. No, that’s not true, I’d be fixing the entire subway system so taking the J during afternoon rush-hour doesn’t make me want to weep.”

“Then there is another, powerful demonic cultivator in this area, performing advanced rituals.”

“Huh,” Wei Ying says. “How do you know?”

“I detected them,” Lan Zhan says. “A number of repetitions ago.”

Wei Ying’s insides pull toward his spine. He’s going to have to be so, so careful around this person. “Oh, uh,” he says. “No, that was me. I know I’m not exactly helping my case but—I promise, Lan Zhan, I didn’t put a spell on you.”

Lan Zhan’s mouth thins, an expression Wei Ying is beginning to recognize. But Lan Zhan simply says, “We should exchange phone numbers.” So maybe this death speed-dating is going better than Wei Ying thought.

All the same, he hesitates when Lan Zhan asks for his phone. His hand skitters toward it, the beat-up old model Yang Zaihan gave him years ago. The screen is smashed, the gritty sunburst of cracked glass familiar under his thumb. Wei Ying jokes that he doesn’t have a memory, only an external hard drive, but it really is a hand-sized slice of his brain, one that remembers his work schedule and Wen Qing’s birthday and all his talismans. It’s slightly haunted. He doesn’t like other people touching it.

“Let me,” he says.

Lan Zhan’s exhale might be a sigh, but he unlocks his phone and passes it over. Wei Ying taps in his number, texts it, and waits. His phone gives a weary, existential hiccough. “Okay. Now you have my number, and I have yours.” He hands Lan Zhan’s phone back. “I guess we’re gonna have to memorize them—unless you’ve found a way to make things stick between loops?”

“No,” Lan Zhan says.

“Just as well, right? Better to start over clean each time! Can you imagine? At this point I’d just be, like, a pile of bone-dust with two sad eyeballs on top. Lan Zhan, if that happens, will you look after my eyeballs?”

Lan Zhan says, perfectly deadpan, “I will not,” and delight flickers in Wei Ying’s chest. It’s like he’s swallowed a mouthful of fireflies and they’re glowing and dying as they bump around between his ribs. He laughs.

“Such a shame, such a shame!”

It’s a shame they’re meeting like this, and it’s a shame Lan Zhan is an inner disciple of the stuffiest and most upright cultivation sect ever founded, and it’s a shame Wei Ying is a murderer and a traitor and a heretic and has nothing to offer him, nothing that would make Lan Zhan look at him again except in disgust, because Lan Zhan is so interesting. He seems like somebody Wei Ying would want to know, if things were different. If Wei Ying was different, maybe Lan Zhan would want to know him too.

“What now?” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying skates his thumb down his cup’s handle, round like a china ear. “I think,” he says, “you should show me how your night went, that first time.”

Lan Zhan’s gaze falls to a middle distance beyond Wei Ying’s shoulder. Wei Ying gets it. Lan Zhan seems quiet and private, and Wei Ying is elbowing into his life. They’re strangers. Wei Ying is a demonic cultivator, and cagey about everything else. Until minutes ago, Lan Zhan thought Wei Ying had cursed him. Frankly, Wei Ying is lucky Lan Zhan hasn’t tried to arrest him.

“Ah,” he says. “Lan Zhan, listen.” Their eyes meet, and Wei Ying’s belly squirms, tender like a bruise under a thumb. “When I don’t answer your questions, I’m not—I’m not being contrary, or having fun at your expense—or, I am, but only a little bit. There are just… things I can’t tell you, I really can’t. I’m sorry.”

Lan Zhan blinks slowly. “It is alright,” he says. “I apologize if my questions were… invasive.”

“No, no, it’s okay, really. We’re not exactly meeting under normal circumstances, everything about this is so ridiculous, and you’re—we’re—just trying to connect the dots.”

Lan Zhan nods.

“So, let’s walk it through. Show me what happened before you died. The places you went, the things you did. Yeah?”

“Yes,” says Lan Zhan.

“Library first?”

“Mn.”

Their shoulders bump together as they walk under Lan Zhan’s parasol. The street is a blur, it’s electric shadows and rain-shine, bodies and flicking feet. Wei Ying imagines he can hear the laundromat ‘OPEN’ signs hissing with light. He feels awake. He feels brighter. He knows Lan Zhan is a danger to him, but the relief of finding someone else is staggering. It carries him along, a boat on a steady river that’ll take him where he needs to go.

His brain rattles, full of pottery shards of things he hasn’t yet fitted together. “You said you were studying at the library—but you’re at NYCCS?”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. The next street is quieter—Wei Ying doesn’t have to strain to hear the navy silk thread of his voice. Trees queue like commuters beside the sidewalk, water plinking in their few leaves, laying spiny shadows. Wei Ying treads over soft leaf mulch and knuckled twigs, smelling sweet rot.

“And your degree is music?”

“Doctorate.”

“Wow,” Wei Ying says. “Okay.” He remembers poring over brochures for doctoral cultivation programs in China and the US, dog-earing pages. He’d fail the practical requirement of any program he applied for now. They’d laugh him out of the room, and maybe also kill him.

“Cultivational musicology,” Lan Zhan says. “Experimental research.”

“Do you like it?”

“Very much,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying looks up from swerving between people in time to see his eyes lighten.

“Ah, that’s great, I’ve read a ton of stuff about spiritual music by stealing Huaisang’s institutional access. Who are you studying with, who’s your supervisor?” Wei Ying has read most people in the field. Academic curiosity, and only a little like picking a scab.

“Xiao Xingchen.”

Wei Ying breathes in. “He studied under Baoshan Sanren, right?” He doesn’t say, I think he’s kind of my uncle. I think he knew my mom.

“Yes.”

“We’ve never met,” Wei Ying says. “But I’ve heard he, uh, does good work. And his research is—that paper on contrapuntal music and energy transfer, I ate that for breakfast. But I thought he didn’t take students?”

Lan Zhan dips the umbrella to avoid a lancing branch. “I asked him to make an exception.”

“Of course. Who’d say no to you?”

“He did,” Lan Zhan says.

“Really?”

“Mn. I was persistent. I had decided that no one else would do.”

“Really.” Wei Ying’s sense of this person tips a little. “So, what’s your dissertation?”

“A portfolio,” Lan Zhan says, “with analysis.”

“So you take the music into the field, test it, and then write about how well it works? What do you play, by the way?”

“Guqin. And yes, more or less.”

“Very traditional,” Wei Ying says. “Just what I’d expect of a Lan. What does your music do?”

“It suppresses resentful ghosts,” Lan Zhan says. “It is more efficient than the music my sect currently uses.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. Bitterness tugs at his ankles, slowing his feet like a swampy beat. “That’s… I’m sure that’ll be useful. Probably makes for nice easy exorcisms, ah?”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying is being condescending, but the dogma is so stupid. ‘Suppress and eliminate’—it’s always ‘suppress and eliminate’. Sect disciples don’t try to help restless ghosts, they don’t care to make the effort. To them it’s just low, dirty work, the tedium between one nighthunt in pursuit of glory and another. Wei Ying will work on a ghost for weeks, noisy but no real danger to anyone, and find one day that disciples have swept in and purged it, a soul shattered like back-alley crockery.

“Yeah—I mean, who cares about the dead and their anger, right?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. They walk on in silence.

The school stands quietly between drowsing teashops. It’s unassuming, just a faded red-character sign over the entrance, but Wei Ying gets a shimmer of something, an old sense lifting its hoary head. Magic and spirit wards, ozone and appetite. The unquiet ghosts would love to get in here.

“I always wondered about this place,” he says. “The way people talk about it, sounded interesting.”

“The library is open to any cultivator after school hours,” Lan Zhan says.

“Oh, I know.” It’s a nice place, a nice school. And Wei Ying isn’t nice.

Wei Ying once gave a guest lesson at a cultivation school in Ezhou. He likes kids, likes the way their brains go laterally and they say whatever, their funny and contrary thoughts, their big feelings. He was the first young master of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, and he stood in front of that class of twenty kids in their day-blue robes, seven and eight years old, and told them about cultivating spiritual energy and taught them to make simple flare talismans and answered their questions, and he felt like a real cultivator, a proper Jiang disciple. They looked at him like he was.

A few months ago, Mianmian asked him if he’d consider teaching talismanic magic at this school. Just a few sessions, for the kids with a real aptitude. He declined. Maybe Wei Ying has something to offer those kids, maybe not—it doesn’t matter, because he pollutes everything he touches. He’s a walking curse, really. Wei Ying doesn’t blame Lan Zhan for accusing him of causing his misfortune. Maybe Lan Zhan is right.

Lan Zhan tries the front door. It leans away from his hand, unlocked, and he steps into the lightless corridor.

The library is straight ahead. It’s cosy—wooden tables with hooded reading lamps, huddling between uneven shelves that creak under their armfuls of books.

“You’re back.” The person behind the desk looks young, her hair in a baggy, streaming bun. She smiles at Lan Zhan.

“Hi!” Wei Ying says. “Okay if we take a look around? We think there might be something here. We’ll be really quick!”

“Hi,” she says. “Um. Sure, go ahead.”

As Wei Ying wanders in, he hears Lan Zhan say, “I did not expect you would still be here.”

“Lots to do,” she says. “School’s trying to cut costs, we lost our funding for an assistant librarian, so it’s just me. Are you admitting you’d planned to break into my library?”

“With the best of intentions,” Lan Zhan says, and she laughs.

Wei Ying feels like he should be taking notes: here’s Lan Zhan with someone he likes. “So,” he says, “where exactly?”

“There.” Lan Zhan points to a table in the corner, near the night-blacked window.

“Okay.”

The table’s blank. Wei Ying does a couple laps of the library, listening to it hum to see if it sounds hungry. More hungry than the city always is. As he steps between two bookcases, something hisses by his ear and he turns. There’s a ghost hunkered like a frog under the nearest table.

“Oh, hi.” He glances at Lan Zhan, who’s watching. “Uh, Lan Zhan, there’s a—”

“Ghost,” Lan Zhan says. “Yes.” He seems surprised.

“Okay, just as long as he’s a known entity and not an aggressive interloper. Or one of those library ghosts who hurls tables when people leave banana skins in the bookshelves. For example.” That papery line presses itself into Lan Zhan’s brow. “Ah, that was a weird one, don’t ask.” Wei Ying turns to the librarian. “Your ghost—how’s he been? Any signs of aggression lately?”

“He throws more stuff than he used to,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like he’s trying to get my attention, but I don’t know what for.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying sinks down to his knees on the coarse brown carpet. He whistles one long note, and the ghost twitches. “Hey, come on out.”

It’s an old man with sulky eyes, his spirit flimsy as a bodega napkin. His resentment is thin and saline on Wei Ying’s tongue.

“Hi. What’s the problem?”

The ghost stabs a finger toward the red plastic clock on the wall near the desk. Can’t talk, probably. “The clock?” Vigorous nod. “In the wrong place?” No. “Wrong time?” Yes. “Okay. But... it’s not wrong.” Wei Ying holds out his phone, lit up. “See? Ten-fifteen.”

Headshake. More pointing.

“What time does it say?” The ghost draws on the carpet. “Two. Okay.” The ghost mimes sleeping, hands tucked against cheek, then somebody stamping around with heavy feet. “You’re trying to sleep… but somebody wakes you up?” A jab toward the counter. “She wakes you up. Because it’s the wrong time?” Nodding. “Got it.”

Wei Ying gets up. “Can I see that clock?”

Lan Zhan says, “What is it?”

“Not sure. I think there’s a distortion, maybe.”

Fetched down, the clock smokes with resentful energy. It whispers and shivers in Wei Ying’s hands. He stares at it for a long while, and just as his eyes are beginning to water, the hands slice together like scissor-blades, from ten-twenty to two.

“There! Okay, I saw it.”

The resentment is wound pretty tight, snaked around the plastic hands and coiled through the clock’s metal guts like wisteria. Wei Ying hums to it as he pulls it loose, mumbling, “Come on, come on,” when it fights him.

There’s nowhere for this energy to go, except Wei Ying. The Yin Tiger Seal cost him so much, cost him everything, but it was a fucking good siphon. Now Wei Ying has talismans, sometimes, and the unhappy cavities of his own body. He’s lucky it’s only a resentful dribble. It curls between two of his ribs, cold as an ice cube burn.

“All done,” he tells the ghost, turning the clock around. “Ta-da! Right time now.” The ghost sniffs and wanders away. “You’re welcome!”

Returning to Lan Zhan, he says, “Time! Interesting, right?”

“Mn.”

Wei Ying gives the place one last look over, but there’s nothing else of note. “I think that’s all for here. Sorry.”

They bid the librarian goodbye. As they step out, a thought needles its way to the top of Wei Ying’s brain. “You haven’t exorcised him. The ghost.”

“There did not seem to be any need,” says Lan Zhan, adjusting his backpack strap. “He is not doing any harm.”

“Huh,” says Wei Ying.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Just—surprised. So, where did you go next?”

“My supervisor’s home,” says Lan Zhan. “It is not far.”

Heading uptown, things get livelier. Music thumps from curbside cars. A bus with sweating windows has a standoff with a herd of taxi cabs. A troupe of white bedsheets walks by, and a ghost on the corner laughs at them. Wei Ying asks Lan Zhan about Xiao Xingchen—mild questions, arm’s length talk.

“He will not be there,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying should feel relieved. As if Xiao Xingchen would ever want to meet him.

They turn onto a street where the tenement buildings are painted like seashells. At the third along, Lan Zhan goes up the steps and thumbs the buzzer. It makes a rasped, dying noise.

“You go here a lot?” Wei Ying asks.

“We have supervisions here,” Lan Zhan says. “And sometimes dinner. He has been very generous.”

Soon, a figure surfaces from the other side of the misty glass and shakes the door open. It’s a girl in teal overalls, her hair tucked back with a fox pin. Her eyes are entirely white. “Oh—hi, gongzi,” she says, and dips a bow to Lan Zhan, who does the same. “And you brought…”

Wei Ying also bows. “I’m Wei Ying, hi!” All this bowing—he’s out of practice. He imagines Yu-furen slapping his shoulder. Sloppy.

Lan Zhan says, “This is—”

“Call me A-Qing,” the girl says. “You looking for Daozhang? He’s not here.”

“Actually, uh, looking for something,” Wei Ying says, “not quite sure what yet. Do you mind if we come in and look around? It won’t take long!”

A-Qing tucks her hands into the pockets of her overalls and grins. “That’s fine.”

As they follow her into a little kitchen full of cooking smells, Wei Ying sees familiar talismans over the door. “Hey, I made those!”

“Uh-huh,” A-Qing says. “We met before. In your shop.”

“Ah, sorry, I have the worst memory for faces—worst memory for everything. How are they? Are they okay?”

“You were right,” she says. “They’re way better than the usual ones. We have this stupid ghost who hangs around the garden sometimes, scaring the rabbits, but I haven’t seen him in, like, a week.”

“That’s good!” Wei Ying likes this part of his work, seeing the small good it can do. “I’m still refining them, so come back in a week, I might have some better ones for you.”

“Will do,” she says.

A-Qing brews tea, and they talk a little while. Wei Ying likes her. She’s blunt and funny, and she says rude things about sect disciples, which Lan Zhan doesn’t seem to mind. They end up sitting on a bench in the apartment’s thin garden, holding A-Qing’s rabbits. The sugar-brown rabbit, Yuebing, freezes when A-Qing hefts him into Wei Ying’s arms. Wei Ying feels him tremble, the pant of his soft, sleek sides.

“It’s okay,” A-Qing says. “He’s only weird with strangers at first.” Yuebing squirms and huffs as Wei Ying strokes his ears, but he settles. Tiaotiao is dozing, loafed on Lan Zhan’s lap.

A-Qing goes back inside to take a phone-call. Lan Zhan says, “We sat out here. Can you sense anything?”

“Nope,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan seems to have accepted that he’s a walking ghost detector. “All quiet.” A car alarm screams out in the street, and stops. Somebody shouts. Hyena laughter, receding. “No ghosts, I mean.”

Above them, the building’s windows make odd constellations, receding to yellow pinpricks against the sky. Wei Ying watches the mist of his own breath. The ghost’s resentment throbs under his ribs.

“Lan Zhan—do you think we’re dead dead?”

Lan Zhan stirs his fingers along Tiaotiao’s back. He has calluses, the skin of his fingertips dense and satiny. “I don't know.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying’s brain fidgets again through the possibilities—dead, alive, halfway, or nowhere. “Hey, what’s that sound?”

“Tiaotiao,” Lan Zhan says. “Clicking his teeth. A sign of contentment.”

“This is pretty nice.” Wei Ying spends so much time with the dead, it’s good to have a soft, living creature in his arms. He feels papery and scattered like talisman ash, but he’s solid enough for Yuebing. “You’re good with them.”

“I see them often,” Lan Zhan says. “And I have rabbits at home.”

“You mean, here?”

“At the Cloud Recesses.”

“How many?”

“Many.”

“What? Lan Zhan, are you joking?”

Lan Zhan takes out his phone and lights it up. His lockscreen is two white rabbits sleeping in a sunny field. Then he unlocks it, opens his photos, and scrolls until he finds the picture he wants. The wide shot shows many rabbits—at least twenty lying in the grass, white and round like tangyuan.

“No way,” Wei Ying says, “oh my god, they’re so cute, and there’s so many! Lan Zhan, I bet you talk to them so seriously. I bet they like you a lot.”

“They do,” Lan Zhan says, and his gaze is softer. The slight tuck of his cheeks, the crease under each dark gold eye—it’s a smile, he’s smiling. A laugh fizzes out of Wei Ying, soda-sparkling.

The next photo shows Lan Zhan in white Lan robes, holding a white rabbit while a dozen more try to conquer the mountain of his lap.

“Okay, you have to stop. I’m getting cavities just looking at this, all my teeth are falling out—”

There’s a shine on the screen, so Wei Ying reaches out to tilt it, and his fingertips graze Lan Zhan’s knuckles. Hot feeling goes through his hand. He feels Lan Zhan flinch. They’ve touched plenty in passing while sharing Lan Zhan’s parasol—shoulders, arms, elbows, Wei Ying tripping over Lan Zhan’s foot—but this is different, just the two of them on a bench in the dark, bare hand to bare hand.

“Ah, sorry,” Wei Ying says, quickly folding his arm around Yuebing, hiding away his guilty fist. “Do you... miss them?”

Lan Zhan nods.

“In a few years you’re going to have, like, hundreds.” Lan Zhan looks untroubled by this. “Lan Zhan! The Cloud Recesses will be overrun!”

“The junior disciples enjoy looking after them.”

“Even worse!” Wei Ying complains. “Making me think about little Lan disciples holding rabbits, how dare you, Lan Zhan—it’s unconscionable, intolerable...” Lan Zhan is still smiling with his eyes.

He isn’t what Wei Ying expected.

Eventually Lan Zhan says, “Time to go.”

A-Qing grins at them as they leave. “Bye, gongzi. Nice to see you, Wei Ying.”

“Bye!”

When they step out, the wind cuts through Wei Ying and he shudders. It’s getting colder.

On the way to Lan Zhan’s bus stop, they pass a little ramen place, cheery as a lantern and wreathed in the smell of miso and rich fatty chashu pork. The jovial writing on the glass advertises karange buns and black tantan ramen for Halloween. In the window a tattooed man slouches over his bowl, slurping noodles in cloudy broth with a ladle. Wei Ying’s stomach gnaws itself.

The bus stop is also ordinary, all its ghosts quiet and orderly. They watch a bus arrive.

Lan Zhan says, “It is strange that none of the independent cultivators have noticed anything.”

Wei Ying pulls his gaze away. “What about sect disciples? Nothing, right?”

“It… did not occur to me to ask,” Lan Zhan says. He seems surprised at himself. “But there are sect offices nearby. The Jiang office is nearest, I think.”

Wei Ying’s pulse becomes a low buzz of dread, like voltage noise from a substation. “It’s fine,” he says. “I think we can assume that if the independent crowd hasn’t noticed anything, the sects definitely haven’t.”

The sidewalk passes under scaffolding, both of them redrawn in muggy orange shadow. Wei Ying can smell the dust, like stale old breath, from the sliced iron struts and mangled wire bouquets where the building’s face has been cut off.

“The sects are well-resourced,” Lan Zhan says. “I think it is worth inquiry.”

Wei Ying can’t enter a Yunmeng Jiang sect office, or any sect grounds, but he can’t say that to Lan Zhan, because Lan Zhan might arrest him in the street and drag him away. “Lan Zhan, don’t waste our time. We—”

“We should cover all avenues.”

“Then why haven’t you asked them already?” Wei Ying retorts, as they emerge into ordinary street glow. “Because you know they don’t know anything.”

“Wei Ying—”

“Am I wrong?” Wei Ying starts off the other way, around the corner. He can’t. He can’t. “Come on, let’s go. Where next?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t follow. When he turns back, he can see another argument mustering on Lan Zhan’s tongue. Then Lan Zhan glances up and says quickly, “Wei Ying, I would suggest you do not stand there.”

“What?” The lamp overhead glares in Wei Ying’s eyes, swallowing everything above. “It’s fine, it’s not like things are gonna fall out of the sky and—”

 



31.

 

Lan Wangji blinks at the library table and sighs. Evidently he was not fast enough.

As he takes out his phone, it buzzes in his hand.

Unknown 21:02
ughhh!!!
be careful what u wish for i guess!!!

He adds Wei Ying as a contact, and gets up to leave.

‘Wei Ying’ must be an affectation. An assumed name. Demonic cultivators often imitate Wei Wuxian. They claim to have been taken as his disciples in Yiling, or to have studied from his most secret manuscripts. They dress like harlequin ladybirds, red on black, and carry black bamboo flutes. Wei Ying’s imitation is subtle but still tedious, because Wei Ying isn’t a teenager enraging spirits in a subway station. He’s unlike any cultivator Lan Wangji has met.

Lan Wangji 21:04
Did you not say you have already been killed by falling objects?

Wei Ying 21:05
ok ok!! yes i forgot
rub it in 🙄

Lan Wangji 21:06
are you alright?

Wei Ying 21:06
im fine
u?
what was it?

Lan Wangji 21:07
I am fine too.
An air conditioning unit.

Wei Ying 21:07
ugh we were doing well
tgat loop lasted ages
idk why it ended

Lan Wangji 21:08
Why are you reluctant to go to the Jiang office?

Wei Ying 21:08
i’m not

Lan Wangji 21:09
Then we should go there next.
I think we are meant to go there.

Outside the library, he looks at his phone again.

Wei Ying 21:13
yeah
where should i meet u?

Lan Wangji 21:14
Corner of Canal and Bowery.
In front of the temple?

Wei Ying 21:14
k

Wei Ying 21:15
so.......
are we ascribing intention to this tying now
thing

Lan Wangji 21:15
I suppose so.

Wei Ying 21:16
we should give it a name
The Anomaly
no wait
Loop Fast, Die Young
Loopsy Daisy

Lan Wangji decides not to dignify those with a response.

Wei Ying 21:19
lan zhan?

Wei Ying 21:20
we'll workshop it

On the Bowery, Wei Ying charges toward him. “Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji is trapped in this unending night with the most powerful demonic cultivator in New York, who arrives to their meeting place damp, out of breath, and wearing that lighthouse smile. Each time Wei Ying uses his given name, it is a tiny glowing shock.

“Wei Ying.”

“Hi,” says Wei Ying. “Sorry—again.”

“No need,” Lan Wangji says. “Let’s proceed.”

They go west on Walker Street, and Wei Ying talks, even faster than before. He has theories, he wonders if Halloween has any significance, if the map of their deaths forms a symbol or a character, how they might find other people who are looping. Along the way he is distracted by bizarre costumes, numerous ghosts, and a restaurant which sells “the best chicken pho, you have to try it sometime, Lan Zhan!” Lan Wangji has never met anyone who talks so much. There is a Lan rule against unnecessary speech. Even ordinary people do not voice their every passing thought.

“Wei Ying,” he interjects. “Look where you are going.”

Wei Ying looks up from drawing on a tourist map of Manhattan with Lan Wangji’s ballpoint, using his flat palm as a rest. “It’s fine, I’m—” He is about to cross the street, but hops back from the headlamp streak of a motorcycle. “Okay, yeah, I do die in the middle of the street a lot.”

“We have little room for carelessness,” Lan Wangji says.

“Lan Zhan, I’ve never been careful in my life.”

That is obvious. “Mn.”

“But I’ll try, for you.” They step out of geometric shadows, into the orange beam of the next streetlamp. The circles under Wei Ying’s eyes are like graphite shading, but his smile is warm and reckless. Lan Wangji doesn’t know how anyone can bear to smile like that.

They break apart and come together, apart and together, between people, trashbags, and fire hydrants, like braiding hair strands. Wei Ying has a loping, easy walk, shrug-shouldered, his messy ponytail fanned over his hood. Lan Wangji is learning to pick out his shape in a crowd.

“The Jiang office is this way,” Lan Wangji says, pointing down Lafayette. In the distance, a firework whines and bursts like a dandelion head, scattering gold seeds. Shadows blink and shift on Wei Ying’s face.

“What about the Ouyang office on Broadway?”

Lan Wangji gives him a dubious look. Baling Ouyang Sect wouldn’t notice a ghost if it were mounting an opera in the middle of their receiving pavilion.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says quietly. “We’ll—go there, then.”

No stream of chatter as they near the Jiang office. Lan Wangji guesses that Wei Ying has had bad encounters with sect disciples. Perhaps with Jiang disciples, who have orders not to tolerate any unorthodoxy because their sect leader hates it. But Wei Ying doesn’t look like a demonic cultivator. He has none of the symbols they adopt, like the Yiling sect crest which has became popular online. He doesn’t have ‘Wei Wuxian’ tattooed on his neck, or illegal talismans on the backs of his pale, narrow hands. There’s no reason disciples would trouble him.

They stand in front of glass doors emblazoned with the Jiang lotus. The building is new and corporate, a starch-collared neighbor to the stern but weary law courts and attorneys’ offices.

“I’ll stay here.” Blinking at the entrance lamps, Wei Ying looks younger than he is. “You go ahead, you don’t need me trailing after you.”

“You’ll get wet.”

“It’s fine!” Wei Ying gives a taut headshake. “I’m already kind of damp, it’s all just degrees of saturation. You don’t need me, I’ll just complicate things. They’ll tell you more if I’m not there.”

“Wei Ying.” Why is he being so resistant? “Is there someth—”

“Ah,” Wei Ying says quickly. “I guess I could wait inside, though.”

The glass doors part with a sibilant hiss. Wei Ying says, “Go ahead, Lan Zhan. I’ll be right behind you!”

Lan Wangji pauses to unwind his ribbon from his wrist. He ties it in place, silver filigree resting in the centre of his forehead like a cool fingertip. He smooths the long silk ends against his hair. Jiang disciples do not have to do anything he asks, except out of courtesy. Their two sects are not close. He will be using his name and reputation in a way he usually does not, without knowing what those coins are worth, how tarnished they are. His punishment was a Lan affair, but people talk.

Another set of doors, mahogany, open like courteous arms into an elegant, candlelit room. Green drapes are knotted at each pillar. Silk lanterns hang down, night-time flowers glowing from the inside. Lan Wangji can hear the giggling splashes of a fountain. The benches on either side are varnished like avocado pits, and mirrors line up on the left-hand wall. Lan Wangji’s reflection falls briefly into the space between one pane and another.

Behind him, Wei Ying is staring at the doors they walked through.

“Are you—”

“I’m fine,” Wei Ying says.

Lan Wangji approaches the front desk, and the boy sitting behind it glances up. The look thickens to a stare, and Lan Wangji knows he has been recognized.

“Good evening,” he says. “Is there a disciple of Yunmeng Jiang Sect available to speak with me?”

“Hanguang-jun!” The junior disciple gets up to bow, jerky like a wooden figurine. “I didn’t know you were—are you visiting? Do you have an appointment?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “I apologize for the lack of warning. If this isn’t a convenient time, I will go.”

“No, no—” The disciple looks panicked. “Let me—I’ll ask. One moment, please.”

Lan Wangji dips his head. Wei Ying is turned away, staring at a hanging painted scroll.

Presently, a disciple comes from the next room. She looks Lan Wangji’s age—most Jiang disciples are young—with a round, vigilant face. Her sword gleams at her side, moonlight blue and silver.

“Hanguang-jun.” She bows over her clasped hands. Lan Wangji does the same. “I’m Xue Liyin, disciple in charge of this office. We, uh, weren’t expecting you.”

Lan Wangji waits for her to acknowledge Wei Ying. Though he is not a sect disciple, they should give him some face as Lan Wangji’s companion. Then Wei Ying turns, and Lan Wangji nearly steps back in surprise at the white plastic mask hiding most of Wei Ying’s face. Its mouth stretches in a tall Munch scream, like melted wax bending.

“Hi!” Wei Ying says. “I’m Mo Xuanyu. Nice to meet you, thanks for taking the time.”

Xue Liyin’s eyebrows lift.

“Getting into the holiday!” Wei Ying continues. “Don’t mind me, I’m just Lan Zhan’s plus one.”

“Right,” says Xue Liyin, with great skepticism, but they bow to each other. “This way.” She arcs her hand toward the doors ahead. “Please.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “It’s fine, I’ll just stay h—” Below the mask, his mouth fixes in a cobbled smile. “Uh—sure, okay, never mind.”

From the next room, they hear noisy firecracker laughter. Xue Liyin bites her lip, but she opens the doors and shows them through. This room is even finer, with lotus lakes painted on dewy silk screens and flute-like purple gladiolas leaning out of jade vases.

“Oh, shit—”

Disciples lounging on benches and cushions scramble up like guilty cats. They seem to be using spiritual power to hurl wads of paper into a distant recycling box. Lan Wangji has heard that Jiang disciples are... irreverent, though he has little personal experience of this. Freer than other sects, people say, with strange ideas about decorum.

He glances at Wei Ying, but Wei Ying’s head doesn’t turn. In the shadow of the mask, Lan Wangji can see his pulse jumping in his throat. Is Wei Ying excited? Afraid?

“Hanguang-jun—” The Jiang disciples hurry to bow over their hands, and Lan Wangji responds in kind.

Some of them stare at Wei Ying, who gives a damp wave. “Mo Xuanyu, hi, nice to meet you.” His voice is strange. Perhaps it is the mask.

“This isn’t an official visit,” Lan Wangji says.

“Of course,” says Xue Liyin, in a voice which says bullshit it isn’t. “How can we assist?”

“I’m interested in whether you have found any unusual activity tonight.”

“We’ve just come on shift,” says a disciple. “I’ll, um, fetch the logs for the last few hours.”

Xue Liyin says, “Are you looking for anything in particular, Lan er-gongzi?” She knows he isn’t asking about low-level spirits.

“No.” Lan Wangji can’t imagine what they might be looking for, and Wei Ying is silent. A dark, moon-headed shape in his periphery.

Yunmeng Jiang Sect doesn’t use Wei Wuxian’s device for detecting resentful energy, or any of his talismans. Their methods are strictly traditional. They take complaints, and share reports with their partner office on Lexington Avenue. To Lan Wangji it seems less effective than the wide, twitching spiderweb of unaffiliated cultivators who scan the streets and speak to locals, looking for danger. Ghosts turn fierce very suddenly here. There is so much resentful energy, frothing and churning like a seastorm. Yunmeng Jiang cannot simply put up spirit nets and consider that enough.

A disciple shows them the log, characters strident as if carved into a tree. It is the usual Halloween roster of promising leads and obvious hoaxes. Lan Wangji reads a report of a ghost in a tattoo parlor uptown, and takes a photo with his phone.

“We also heard about, um, something at Columbus Park?” the disciple says, tapping the book. “But we didn’t find anything at the scene when we attended.”

“Waste of time, I think,” another adds. “The report said it appears and disappears, but we waited, and… nothing.”

Lan Wangji photographs that as well. “Anything else?”

They shake their heads.

“I am grateful,” he says.

Xue Liyin turns to him. “Lan er-gongzi, is there any message you wish me to pass to Jiang-zongzhu?”

Jiang Wanyin does not like anyone—unless it is his nephew, who is a child—but he particularly does not like Lan Wangji. He will not appreciate being informed of this visit, though his disciples are duty-bound to report that Hanguang-jun was in their sect office, asking after ghosts.

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “Thank you for your help.”

“No trouble,” she says. “Let me walk you out, Lan er-gongzi, Mo-gongzi.”

In the reception area, they exchange final bows. Lan Wangji leaves, and Wei Ying follows.

They walk a block in silence. Lan Wangji’s spine twinges like an untuned string, the pain pooling dully in the small of his back. It has been going on a while—when did it start?

He wonders why Wei Ying doesn’t talk.

Outside a Starbucks, Wei Ying pries the mask away from his face and tosses it into a trashcan, where its hollow eyes stain plastic bag red. Sweat sticks his hair to his neck like a child’s scribble.

Lan Wangji says, “Does Yunmeng Jiang Sect have you on a blacklist?”

“Something like that.” Wei Ying’s voice is dazed and thick as blood, and now it is not the mask.

“Are you so notorious?”

“No,” Wei Ying says. “No, I’m nobody. Where should we go now?”

“Who’s Mo Xuanyu?”

“Don’t know. This way, right?”

Stepping down between parked cars, Wei Ying walks into the street.

“Wei Ying, wait—”

Lan Wangji lunges for his arm, misses. His heart kicks, kicks, kicks him into the road, running after Wei Ying. All around him is the rising orchestral scream of disaster.

 

Chapter Text

32.

 

Nie Huaisang’s hand flutters in a wave on the other side of the window. Like a theater scene change, the rain replaces him with a cyclist, and Wei Ying’s smile falls from his face.

Nausea swings his stomach like a pendulum. He’s frozen—like Yuebing, that first moment he realized Wei Ying was going to touch him. His body’s stopped, even as his mind stammers. Time has dashed to catch up to him, laden with putrid, sick-smelling armfuls of the past. Here, this is yours, this horror. Did you forget?

Jiang colors—jade green and blue like the veins in Wei Ying’s wrists, lilac, and violent, lush indigo. Lotuses on the doors and screens. The sound of water. A tiny, gleaming mosaic of Lotus Pier, thousands of miles from where it belongs. Wei Ying stares at the tired shelves in the wooden counter, but he’s still seeing that beautiful room and those young faces and his own trespassing feet.

Maybe Wei Ying taught them how to swim in the little eastern lake. Maybe he watched them shoot longbows as the trees turned sunset colors. Maybe he was their da-shixiong, once. Or maybe they never knew him at all, except as the demon in the story, or the murderer who—

He slaps himself across the face, hard.

It does break the thread, the loose end of that thought left to hang. Wei Ying rubs his hands on his arms, just to move, just to work out the steel-spring tension bunched in his shoulders. His stinging cheek feels like a new burn.

He won’t think about it. None of it belongs to him anymore. Only the horror.

What’s important is that the seal is gone. Something—somebody—cracked a seal that was supposed to be unbreakable. He’s visible now, he can be seen and heard, he can be noticed. He needs to remember that.

Wei Ying lets his breath sigh out. Loop thirty-two feels pretty bad already, but he can’t stay here. Lan Zhan will be waiting for him.

There’s drunken singing in the alley as he locks up the shop, syllables wobbling distantly away. Wei Ying heads toward the Bowery, tapping Lan Zhan’s number into his phone.

Wei Ying 21:10
sorry!!
my fault again
wasnt looking where i was going

Streets gargle traffic in the distance. Lan Zhan is typing.

lan zhan 21:11
Are you alright?

Wei Ying 21:11
im fine! !!
done this 31 times alresdy right 😒😒😒
its really old news at this point
ok where should we meet

lan zhan 21:13
Same place?
The next stop is my apartment.

Wei Ying 21:14
right
you died at home the first time

lan zhan 21:14
yes

Wei Ying 21:15
omw!

Rain speckles against Wei Ying’s face, and on his phone screen. He tugs his hood over his hair, stepping around puddles and their bobbing trash.

Wei Ying 21:18
totally normal thing to type btw
‘u died at home the first time’
like
‘oh death 18 i fell off a bldg’
lan zhan
i deal w death stuff all day evry day
i’m extremwk blah about death stuff
extremely
but this is a lot even for me

Wei Ying 21:20
do u think this could go on & on
or do we have a finite no of loops

lan zhan 21:21
No indication either way.
It does not seem finite.

Wei Ying 21:21
yeah
its ok tho
we’re gonna get out of ths!!!

Wei Ying dodges a white umbrella, and the arm thrusting out rain-puffy pamphlets about salvation and the end of days. He almost feels sympathetic. Even without death scarved around his neck, there’s something apocalyptic about Lower Manhattan streets at night. Vacant and light-polluted, the glass-faced towers reflecting dark clouds. Sometimes everywhere smells like smoke, though nothing is burning.

Lan Zhan waits under his parasol in front of the Mahayana Temple’s pavilion facade. A heron beside a roaring river. A quiet, steady beacon.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says, ducking under cover.

“We are dying at the same time,” Lan Zhan says. “Every time.” He didn’t survive any longer than Wei Ying did, then.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. “So we’re definitely linked.”

“A curse on both of us?”

“No.” Wei Ying has been thinking it over, while they walked in every direction, weaving through hundreds of lives. “It’s not a curse. It’s way, way bigger than that.”

“How do you know?”

“I tried to break it.” Wei Ying pushes out a breath, turning their cavern of air humid. “That’s what I was doing, when you detected me.” Lan Zhan has already guessed that, probably. “Trying to get it off me—or, if that didn’t work, get a lead on who cast it. I know curses, Lan Zhan, I really do, and this isn’t one, it’s too complicated. Curses are simple—there’s a logic, right? You touched something you shouldn’t, your hands fall off. You insulted the wrong yao, now your tongue’s a fish, or you vomit frogs when you try to talk. But this spell—it has so many variables, and it affects so many people, even if they’re not aware of it. It’s huge, it’s infinitely complicated, we’re going to need a different word for what this is.”

Lan Zhan is quiet, and then he nods. “I researched it extensively. It doesn’t resemble any magic I know, or that has been recorded.”

“Right, right. I’ve never seen anything like this either.” Wei Ying wriggles his numb toes in his sneakers, trying to move his blood. “Okay, so, setting the, uhm, completely wild metaphysical conundrum of this thing aside for a second… our biggest problem, practically, is that it doesn’t have a source, there’s nowhere to trace it back to. It’s just... everywhere.”

“Yes.”

Wei Ying says, “I don’t know if it’s something, but… my first loop had two wrong clocks in it. I remember that. And there was the ghost in the library... and now an appearing and disappearing ghost, maybe?”

Lan Zhan rubs the wrist holding the umbrella. “You think it’s causing other anomalies.”

“I think it’s worth considering. Also, is that a vote for ‘The Anomaly’ as a title?”

“No.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything about the Jiang sect office, which is nearly worse than raising it.

The tattoo parlor ghost doesn’t amount to anything. Probably a prank. Wei Ying is used to those. Funny, ghosts are so funny, till they’re mouthing at somebody’s qi like it’s a saltwater popsicle.

They head downtown.

Wei Ying sometimes breaks into Columbus Park on nights when he can’t sleep, and it’s a dusty Polaroid of the daytime park, bustling with ghosts. A xiangu sits peeling a clementine at a folding table with rickety plastic chairs. Her flourish of red cloth advertizes palm readings and birth charts for fifteen dollars, blessing notes for five. Old men in short-sleeve shirts argue over mahjong. Court workers smoke under the trees. Kids clamber up the slides and fight over the swings. Somebody’s playing music from a tiny speaker, the soft hollow roar of a conch cupped to Wei Ying’s ear.

There’s a bench nearby, under a tree dropping yellow leaves like video game coins. “Lan Zhan, you want to sit?” Wei Ying slices his finger with his knife and sketches a talisman in the air. It glows hot, and the bench steams. “We might have a while to wait.”

Lan Zhan says, “I haven’t seen that design before.”

Wei Ying stuffs the folded knife away. “You wouldn’t have. It’s one of mine.”

“You make experimental talismans?”

“Emphasis on experimental, yeah. This one needs more testing—I, uh, did set my sleeve on fire that one time. Selling it feels shitty, so I think I’ll post it online when it’s done.”

A wrinkle of an expression, unfathomable. “How many talismans have you posted?”

“About fifty? Just basic stuff.” Wei Ying quickly brushes singed, crinkly leaves off the bench.

“Such as?”

“Hm, well—an improvement to the standard light talisman, one for patching wounds, one for keeping stuff cold, uh, dampening noise, repelling insects, waterproofing things, one that puts a compass in your palm… you know. Small, harmless.”

Sect disciples sneer at talismans. There’s no honor in talismanic magic, people used to tell Wei Ying, back when honor was a thing Wei Ying gave a shit about. Wei Ying has always been good at talismans, and if he didn’t care that they were suspect before he lost his core, he definitely didn’t after—not when they could heat bathwater for A-Yuan, or sterilize Wen Qing’s needles for stitching a wound, or gum up the leaking roof slats of Granny’s house.

So Wei Ying is ready for Lan Zhan’s disapproval. But Lan Zhan says, “I would like to see the others sometime.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “Sure.”

They sit together under Lan Zhan’s parasol, and Wei Ying presses his chilly hands to the heated planks. He’s very aware of where his leg isn’t touching Lan Zhan’s, that electric gap. The soft hissing of the rain encloses them like a curtain.

“Busy tonight,” he says. “Ghost-wise, I mean.”

“I can’t see them,” Lan Zhan says.

“But you can feel them, right?”

“Some.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying hunches up, though he’s trying to ignore his body’s complaining about the cold. “I think people have degrees of sensitivity? You can learn to sense them a little, probably, I don’t know. I just get the full 4K, surround sound experience.”

Lan Zhan says, “Is it difficult?”

“Sometimes?” Always. “Days like today, when people are unsettled, invoking things, doing stuff they don’t normally do, the ghosts get unsettled too. I guess I don’t need to tell you that. It’s loud, and… there’s just more—more of it. The angry ones get angrier, the hungry ones are hungrier, and so on.”

The breeze rattles dry leaves, a handful of dice. Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, but he’s listening. His silences have different qualities, Wei Ying is learning, and this one feels like an open window—there’s a whole bright room beyond, and Wei Ying can see only a little of it, but the window is there, ajar.

“Living in a city wasn’t the best choice I ever made.” Not that it was a choice, exactly. “There’s, what, ten thousand, twenty thousand years of history piled up here? A lot. And it’s only getting denser, and noisier.” Maybe Wei Ying is imagining it, but all the voices seem louder. “Sometimes I think I’m, I don’t know, it’s so much, and I can’t—”

He’s whining. Wei Ying swallows the rest like bitter dregs. Lan Zhan doesn’t need to hear this. Lan Zhan is here because he thinks Wei Ying has answers, and Wei Ying is taking advantage of him. None of this will reassure Lan Zhan, or make him feel like Wei Ying can solve their situation. And if Wei Ying can’t solve it, why would Lan Zhan stick around?

Tiredness irritates his eyes. Wei Ying doesn’t let himself rub them. “Anyway.” He makes a cheerful face, stretching a smile over his teeth. “There are a lot of ghosts, everywhere! Rats are psychopomps, did you know that? Seagulls too. I think it’s the only way cities don’t get choked by ghosts. There’s this huge rat who hangs out near a service exit in East Broadway, and I want him to take me when I go—if I, you know, ever get out of this loop.”

Lan Zhan looks like he can’t tell if Wei Ying is joking or not. Wei Ying smirks, and looks across the playground. The ghosts are distorted, like shirts billowing on a clothes-line. He nudges Lan Zhan’s arm, and ducks out from under the parasol. “Hey, here we go.”

Laying the parasol aside, Lan Zhan kneels without ceremony on the wet tarmac, skirts puddling beautifully around him, and sweeps his hand across. A wooden stringed instrument appears in a shining dust of blue motes.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “That’s your...”

“Its name is Wangji,” Lan Zhan says solemnly. A firefly glows and dies under Wei Ying’s clavicle.

The guqin is beautiful, but Wei Ying can’t linger on it. His skin suddenly feels tight and cold, turned to fish-scale.

Seconds later, a ghost fountains up out of the night air, rising in slo-mo. Its resentful energy stinks of gasoline and wet rotted trash, the smell boiling in Wei Ying's nose. He wades in, whistling to get her attention.

“Hi, I’m Wei Ying! What’s your name?”

She screams at him, which makes his eyes black out for a second. “Cool, great,” he says, dizzily. “You’re gonna have to enunciate, I missed that the first time.” She screams at him again, her hair coiling around her head in black seaweed fronds.

“Wei Ying?”

“Wait, Lan Zhan. It’s okay.” He tells the ghost, “You’re angry, I get it. I’m here to help.”

Her resentment makes his bones hurt when he breathes it, a deep unforgiving hurt, a looping babble like spooled razor wire. It’s a long story, remembered in shrieking pieces—a husband and a child and a void where a marriage wasn’t. A life shriveled midway through its bloom. She died lonely and unmourned.

“Better?” Wei Ying asks. He can see her clearer now, her pudding-bowl hair and shiny tracksuit pants and ski jacket. “Hi. Wow, that was a lot. I’m sorry.”

She opens her mouth, and Wei Ying thinks she’s going to talk. Then she disappears like a popped soap bubble.

“Um.” When he glances back, Lan Zhan’s face is a question. “Yeah, don’t know.”

He’s about to ask for talisman paper, maybe draw an array, when the telltale feeling runs up his arms again.

“Wait, I think she’s coming back—”

The ghost pours out of the dark. She screams, and screams, and screams. Resentment kicks Wei Ying in the stomach and his body jackknifes. When he recovers, she’s gone.

“What?”

Then she’s back again, and screaming. It’s repetitive. Like a—

“She’s looping!” he calls to Lan Zhan.

Which is so, so interesting. But the screaming is getting old, Wei Ying thinks, as he skates on slick leaves and nearly tumbles. Every time the resentful energy is thicker—howling, stomach-eating rage. He calms her down, and then she disappears.

The loops are getting shorter. Faster. At first Wei Ying thinks his eyes are blurring, but it doesn’t go away when he blinks—she’s overlapping with herself. There are other images of her layered behind one another, like accordion folds of a paper lantern. It’s wrong—the wrongness of seeing a body opened, intestines coiled and butcher-pink. Watching it makes Wei Ying feel sick, and he’s never been squeamish about looking at things no one should see.

But he stands his ground, and whistles all the air out of his lungs, like, I hear you, I can help, let me help, please note that optimally I would be alive for the helping part

He can’t hear himself any more. The screaming is so loud, god, it’s so...

Wei Ying!

Lan Zhan plays a chord Wei Ying feels through his bones, huge and resonant. He’s shaking, everything’s shaking, and a booming wave of light crashes into the ghost, and she bursts

 



33.

 

Unknown 21:02
!!!!!!!!!!!
WTF
was that

Lan Wangji 21:04
I don’t know

Wei Ying 21:04
never seen thst bf
holy shittt

Lan Wangji’s ears are ringing as he walks to their meeting place. He can still see Wei Ying shrouded in resentful energy, controlling a raging, impossible ghost with only his voice.

“Lan Zhan!”

He raises his parasol, and Wei Ying steps under. Wei Ying is a little flushed from running, his gasps of breath audible above the traffic when he stands this close. His gray eyes shine like river pebbles.

“Thanks,” he says. “Did you see that, how much energy that was—”

“My view was obscured,” Lan Wangji says. “By the explosion.”

“Right, yeah, that sucked. But—wow! I don’t fully understand it, but I’m pretty sure we just observed something nobody else has ever seen. Time breaking in real, uh—in real time? Okay, let’s go, let’s go!”

Wei Ying hooks his arm and drags him along. The narrow streets become a pageant of tail-lights, sidewalks cluttered like hallways, and faces streaking on glass. Lan Wangji can’t tell if his heart is thudding with worry or hope.

Columbus Park stands quiet when they jump over the railings, its trees all dark, open arms. They wait.

The ghost doesn’t appear. Wei Ying circles the benches, stopping only to talk to their unseen spectral audience. Lan Wangji waits, leaves falling around him like silk scraps. Finally, Wei Ying returns shaking his head.

“Gone,” he says, the word a dropped stone. “Looks like your elimination was permanent.”

“She would have harmed you,” Lan Wangji says.

“I guess we’ll never know.” Wei Ying walks two paces away, wringing the root of his ponytail. “Fuck! I don’t get it. Nothing is permanent, but this is?”

Wei Ying seems truly unhappy with the ghost’s destruction. Lan Wangji also feels heavy with it, but his concern is first for the living. He won’t apologize for doing what is necessary, even if Wei Ying believes he can befriend every ghost south of Midtown, hungry or not.

He says, “We now know it is possible to break a loop.”

“Yeah, by blowing it up.” Turning, Wei Ying sighs. He looks pale, brittle with cold. If anything lasted between loops, Lan Wangji would give him the umbrella. Wei Ying seems not to notice his own shivering. When Lan Wangji asked him about it, he said, What's a little rain, Lan Zhan? I hardly feel it. “Well…” Wei Ying gives the place where the ghost appeared a final look, and Lan Wangji sees a kind of determination set in. “Let’s keep going with your loop. We’re not done yet.”

Lan Wangji nods. “This way.”

“Your place?”

“Mn.”

Their breath makes kettle steam as they walk. Lan Wangji’s apartment building looms ahead of them, hard-shelled and glittering, and Wei Ying’s head tips up as if pulled by an invisible string. “Oh,” he says, like the punchline to an unfunny joke, “you live in that thing.”

“I did not choose it.”

They cross the courtyard. Wei Ying says, “Everybody I know hates this building.”

“They should,” Lan Wangji replies. Wei Ying’s mouth tucks into his cheek, a tiny crooked smile.

“Does it really have a dog spa?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“But probably, right?”

“Mn. Probably.”

He leads Wei Ying into the lobby. Wei Ying sighs at the gusting heat, then casts a droll look toward the bar and its noisy drinkers.

“So I got called in here once, to deal with a ying gui in an apartment on one of the top floors. Really gross, god, it smelled so bad—and the guy from building management complained that I took too long, even though they’d had five—five—cultivators fail to deal with it.”

“Did you?”

“Of course! I told them I would. Also I really needed the money.”

Lan Wangji is beginning to understand how very different their lives are. They watch the elevator arrive, a shiny glass heart sinking through the building’s core on arterial wires.

Wei Ying says, “Your spreadsheet… said something about an elevator?”

Lan Wangji nods. “I have died in it once.”

“Only once.” Wei Ying hums. “What are we now, loop thirty-three? I like those odds. A one in thirty-two chance of dying, versus the absolute certainty of stairs? I know which I’m gonna choose.”

Just before the doors close, men wearing dark suits follow them into the elevator. Wei Ying presses his back to the mirrored wall, and Lan Wangji steps forward to avoid any incidental contact with strangers. They face each other, tucked into the corner, and Wei Ying glances up at Lan Wangji through his eyelashes and smiles with half his mouth, a look which says, this is cosy, isn’t it. Lan Wangji smells rainy air and incense from his hoodie.

The elevator lurches up, groaning. Wei Ying drums his fingernails on the wall, and taps his foot in a springy rhythm. One of the men in suits glares at him. Wei Ying notices, and stares back until the man looks away, jaw tight. Wei Ying rolls his shoulders. When he smiles again at Lan Wangji, it’s a little sharp.

They exit onto the forty-fourth floor. Wei Ying glances around the lobby area. “How the other half live, huh?”

Lan Wangji knows he is fortunate to be so comfortable, but his sect’s wealth troubles him often. It feels unfair. Obscene, sometimes. “This way,” he says.

Wei Ying ambles after him, and slouches against the wall as Lan Wangji unlocks his apartment door. “I’m just surprised, I guess? Of all the places for a Lan disciple to be...”

There is no Lan sect office in New York. “I sought special dispensation to come here,” Lan Wangji says. “My uncle was reluctant.”

More than reluctant. Lan Wangji has rarely seen his uncle afraid, but kneeling there in the Hanshi, with Lan Xichen to his left, he thought that was the thing he felt, raking the space between them with its hooked fingernails. When Lan Wangji said, it cannot be anywhere else, he thought his uncle winced as if scratched.

He does not know why he said that to Wei Ying.

All of Wei Ying’s attention is as bright as car headlamps bearing down on him, but without the fear. “You’re pretty far from home, Lan Zhan.” He nods, swallowing past the cotton gauze in his throat, and opens the door.

The apartment is gray, murmuring to itself in the dark. He doesn’t need it, but he snaps on the hallway light for Wei Ying. “Shoes off.”

“Of course,” Wei Ying says, bending to untangle his sneaker laces. “Lan Zhan, I’m not an animal.”

Lan Wangji flicks the kitchen switches—flood of light—then realizes he has forgotten to remove his coat. As he washes his hands, the silhouette of Wei Ying darts beyond the light's border, toward the windows.

“Wow! So much space. And look at that view.”

Wei Ying’s breath leaves a damp ghost on the glass, framed by fingerprints. He examines the calligraphy scrolls on the wall, recognizing all the poetry. He browses ornaments. He admires Lan Wangji’s jade plants, and the frothy vines of his climbing onion, and brushes a fingertip down his orchid’s white, tongued fans. Like a bee in a hothouse. Lan Wangji watches him, amused.

“Do you name your plants?” Wei Ying asks. Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I do. But then I got a lot of plants, and some of them I think I’ve named, like, nine times because I keep forgetting what they’re called. They should pay rent, they get more living space than I do.”

“You like gardening?”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, eyes lighting like matches. “There’s only so much you can grow on a fire escape, but one day I’d like a real garden. Good soil, and trees for shade, and rows of vegetables—oh, trellises for beans—and a herb patch, and a lot of flowers. And a pond, with lotuses, and frogs, and dragonflies as big as your hand. I’d like it to smell amazing—like, you walk out in the evening of a hot day, or just after it’s rained, and this wall of scent hits you, and it’s so good it’s almost too much, you know?”

“Mn.” He imagines Wei Ying in a garden. Hands gloved in soil, smiling over something green and tender.

“It’s a pipe dream, it’s not realistic. But it’s nice to think about.”

Moving to the bookshelves, Wei Ying runs a finger along the middle row of spines, a slide on uneven piano keys. “Wow, you have a lot of monographs. Oh, Gao Panlong. And you have Jiang Ming’s work—and Anna Huang. And Lu Huibin, great, I’ve only seen the early article he wrote on the use of ink with non-traditional conductive media, not the whole book.”

“I have a generous research stipend,” Lan Wangji says. He is about to ask if Wei Ying would like to borrow it, then realizes how ridiculous it would sound.

Wei Ying turns, his gaze drifting like a kite. He lands upon the photo of Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji in its cherry-wood frame. “That’s your brother?”

“Lan Huan, courtesy name Xichen.” They are fifteen and eighteen. Lan Wangji was still growing into his height. He looks severe, his brother cheerful.

“Ah, I can see the resemblance,” Wei Ying says. He points to the next framed picture, angled to the other like a watchful chaperone. “And that’s your uncle, right?”

“Yes.” His uncle is smiling, barely.

“Lan Zhan, I can feel how displeased he is with me and he’s not even here.”

Lan Wangji says, “He has strong convictions about the correct path to walk. In cultivation, and in life.”

“I bet.” Wei Ying stops in front of the smallest, silver frame. “And this is...”

“My mother,” Lan Wangji says.

She is holding him in his first hours. Lan Xichen thinks it was taken by the hospital midwife, but he doesn’t remember. The colors of the photograph are both darkened and faded, as if time repainted it long ago. Adding shadows, subtracting light.

“That’s you?”

“Yes.”

She looks so tired. She’s smiling at him.

“Sorry,” Wei Ying says quietly. “I don’t mean to—”

“It’s alright,” he murmurs, blinking away the tug of memory like gentle fingers on his forehead. As he does, he realizes that Wei Ying is shivering.

“Your clothes are damp,” he says. “Would you like dry ones?”

“Oh, ah, it’s fine—”

Lan Wangji has begun to distrust that little word, ‘fine’, from Wei Ying. He is already walking to his bedroom.

His clean laundry offers up a blue wool sweater and a soft cotton t-shirt, and he unearths a pair of dark-wash jeans he has worn only once. He does not like the stiff feel of denim, strongly preferring other fabrics. He is taller and Wei Ying is slighter—he thinks they will fit, just. He carries them to the bathroom and lays them over the heated towel rack.

Wei Ying is looking out at the lights, but he turns when he sees Lan Wangji’s reflection cross the window. “Lan Zhan, you really don’t have to—”

“You are cold,” Lan Wangji says. It is simple enough.

“Are you sure?”

“Mm.”

Wei Ying begins undressing even before he is in the bathroom. His hoodie falls onto the floorboards, an inkdrop blotting over ruled lines, and now he is dragging his t-shirt up by the hem. As the door bangs shut between them, Lan Wangji sees the lower half of his back, his skin pulling over the struts of his ribs. There is a wide scar curved across his hip, raised and shiny like a mended satin seam. It looks precise. It looks deliberate.

He gathers up Wei Ying’s damp hoodie and spreads it on a drying rack near the radiator. He does not think about Wei Ying’s skin. He waits.

The bathroom door swings wide again. “Lan Zhan, this sweater is the softest thing I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Wei Ying strides out, arms full of his other clothes. Lan Wangji’s sweater is big on him, baggy at the shoulders and waist. The jeans are long, and fall a little low on his hips. His loose hair is unbrushed, wisping from the rain, the black hairtie now a frayed bracelet. Again, that reckless smile. A hot prickle rolls through Lan Wangji, clinging to his nape like humidity.

“How are they?” he asks.

“Great,” Wei Ying says. “Great, thanks.”

They drape the other clothes on the rack. As Wei Ying strips off his sodden socks for dry ones, hopping and toppling, his stomach growls. He clutches an arm across his middle, like barring a door. “Sorry.”

“We should eat,” Lan Wangji says.

“It’s fine, Lan Zhan. We have work to do. Besides, what’s the point in eating? We don’t even know how long this loop will last.”

Lan Wangji notices he doesn’t mention inedia, so perhaps Wei Ying’s core is weak. He thinks of Wei Ying looking in the ramen shop window with hunger straining in his face. How Wei Ying’s wrist felt under his fingers. And he is tired of behaving like prey for this magic, waiting for the next death to snap its teeth. “I am hungry,” he says. “Could you eat?”

“Oh, uh,” Wei Ying says. “Sure, yes, okay.”

“Cooking will take a while,” Lan Wangji says, “and I do not think it will be to your tastes. I suggest takeout.”

Wei Ying cocks his head, hair spilling. “How do you know what my tastes are?”

“You like spicy food,” Lan Wangji says, then stops. It came out naturally, as familiar to his tongue as water—but Wei Ying hasn’t said anything about it. A sliver of ice clinks into his stomach.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, slowly. “I do. Did I… Sorry, I guess this is my bad memory again.” His expression is hesitant, a little lost.

“You did not tell me,” Lan Wangji says. “I… guessed.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying shrugs a shoulder. “Well. Good guess! What about Malaysian from that place on Baxter—you know that one? Their food is so good, and there’s a girl in there who always calls me ‘leng chai’ and gives me extra curry puffs.”

Lan Wangji nods. The middle of his spine aches, one sublime note of pain which dies slowly away.

They sit at the kitchen table to look at the menu on Lan Wangji’s laptop while he orders on his phone. Wei Ying fidgets, tapping his toes on the stool’s lowest rung. Lan Wangji can smell himself on Wei Ying—his cottony detergent, and faint notes of his apartment and the perfume he wears, sandalwood and vetiver. It’s distracting.

“Let me send you money for it,” Wei Ying is saying. “We’ll go halves, at least.”

“Wei Ying. As you have seen, it is no hardship.”

Their eyes meet. Lan Wangji thrums with it.

“Sure?”

“Mn.”

When he puts down his phone, Wei Ying is off looking at the upright piano, and Wangji on its hardwood table, and the instruments on the walls.

“These are all yours? So you play guqin—and xiao, and piano, and violin, and...”

“Guqin and piano,” Lan Wangji says. “The others only a little.”

He lets Wei Ying pelt him with questions. Wei Ying’s enthusiasm is wild and scattershot. It arrows at unlikely targets. Lan Wangji thinks Wei Ying has told him at least a dozen lies since they met, but he believes Wei Ying’s interest isn’t feigned.

Still wandering like a tourist in a museum, Wei Ying picks up the ash-blue incense burner on the sideboard, holding it in the dish of his palms. “This is pretty.”

“Ru ware,” Lan Wangji says.

Shock slaps the smile from Wei Ying’s face. Lan Wangji almost wishes he would drop it. “What?”

“It was a gift.”

“Fuck, this must be worth…” Several million dollars, probably, despite its imperfections. Made for an emperor’s court, and now it sits in Lan Wangji’s living room, too precious to be useful.

“Jin Guangyao.” The words tumble out. “He thought I would like it. The Jin Sect has quite a number of pieces.”

A gift for his last birthday. Jin Guangyao was in San Francisco to look at property, but he flew to New York just to visit Lan Wangji. They met for lunch at Kajitsu. I hope that you will think of me as a brother, Jin Guangyao said, as sliced shavings of a pickled radish, golden yellow, drooped between Lan Wangji’s chopsticks. Xichen-ge is very important to me. Lan Wangji rode the subway home, feeling queasy and smothered by a sympathy he did not want or understand, the gift a burning coal in his backpack.

“Oh.” Wei Ying puts it down with a sharp tok.

“You disapprove of them.”

“Disapprove,” Wei Ying says, and it is a cold tunnel echo. “Yeah.”

“Why?” Many people are envious of Lanling Jin Sect. That is not why Lan Wangji feels disquieted when he thinks about the money which paid for his home, or his brother mentions A-Yao.

Wei Ying says, “Sometimes I think...”

When he doesn’t continue, Lan Wangji prompts, “What?”

“I’m not sorry about what happened to the Qishan Wen. I don’t have any regrets about that. But there are things Jin Sect have done that are as bad as anything Wen Ruohan’s people did.”

Wei Ying looks up at him, as if daring him to argue. Anger buzzes and clings like a wasp around Wei Ying’s stiff jaw and the poise of his mouth. His eyes are dark and hard.

“My friend Mianmian, she—”

“You know Luo Qingyang?” Of course. Wei Ying is the remarkable curse expert, the demonic cultivator Lan Wangji could not meet in person or know by name. They have to be so careful.

“You do too?”

“We are... friends.” Lan Wangji does not know why it is difficult to say, except that for years he did not have friends, and Luo Qingyang has never explicitly stated that they are, so there is room for doubt. “She has told me about her experiences with them.”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “I know your sect are close to them, but th—”

“We are not,” Lan Wangji says. Then he thinks of his brother, and Jin Guangyao, and how the Cloud Recesses were rebuilt. He thinks of diplomacy, and complicity. He amends, “I am not.”

Something slides between them like a vibration down a plucked string. Wei Ying looks as though he speak again, but then Lan Wangji’s phone grumbles noisily in his pocket.

“Excuse me.”

Leaving the front door ajar, Lan Wangji goes down to meet the delivery driver. In the elevator he thinks about the complicated rage in Wei Ying’s face, and finds no conclusions. Where did you come from? What happened to you before this?

He shoulders open the apartment door, a fattened carryout bag in each hand. “Wei Ying, the food is here.”

For an instant he’s looking at a body with nothing inside it. Wei Ying is on the floor, sloped against the couch with his knees bent up, a crab tipped onto its back. His phone is illuminated in his hand. His face looks empty.

“Wei Ying?” Have you already gone?

Wei Ying flinches. His mouth splits like a mangosteen between thumbs, into a wide, energetic smile, and Lan Wangji’s heart drops with relief. “Lan Zhan! Hey, let me help—” He uncurls and leaps up.

Together they lay out the takeout boxes, dishes, and chopsticks on Lan Wangji’s dining table, and sit down to eat. Wei Ying ushers mee goreng into his bowl, noodles glistening as they tumble, and says, “So, Lan Zhan—”

Lan Wangji puts down his box of claypot tofu and mushrooms. “No speaking while eating.”

“Ah?”

“One of the rules of my sect.” He pushes the plastic box of crimped, translucent chai kueh toward Wei Ying.

“Oh, right,” Wei Ying says, rolling his eyes. “Lans and their rules.”

Lan Wangji expects him to go on talking. Since they met, Wei Ying has talked and talked—a tireless rattledrum of questions, theories, jokes, teasing, and non sequiturs. But Wei Ying sinks into the act of eating like a fry cook on a restaurant back-step, his eyes glazed. They are both tired, Lan Wangji realizes.

The food settles a warm weight in his stomach. As they eat the silence drifts, but doesn’t tug at Lan Wangji’s sleeves begging for talk. What time is it? Lan Wangji doesn’t know.

Wei Ying’s chopsticks clatter from his hand and he slumps back in his chair. “Ah, that was so good.” His color is better, a pretty ripe-peach flush over his cheekbones. His eyelids dip, drowsy. “Thanks, Lan Zhan.”

“You are welcome.” The feeling that comes as he looks at Wei Ying is too fast to parse. It is like hands making oblique movements inside him, like the shape of an incantation—something for heat, maybe. Wanting, Lan Wangji understands. But this is taut and pliant at once—and, God, it stuns him.

“Should we…” Wei Ying gestures to the oil-spotted cartons and smeary bowls.

“Leave them.”

“Sure?”

Lan Wangji reminds himself the mess will die with them. “Mn.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying cracks his knuckles. Points to the open bedroom door. “So, that’s where you died, first time?”

Lan Wangji nods. “You may go in.”

“Lan Zhan, how forward!”

The bedside lamp makes a yellowy lake of light, and the room seems to huddle to it. It’s sobering, to look at his bedroom like a crime scene. Lan Wangji imagines the black tape outline of his body on the bed.

“Your apartment’s pretty ghost-free," Wei Ying says. “I guess you’ve got—oh, yeah, there they are.” He cranes his neck to take in the painted characters on joss paper pasted to the ceiling. “Hey, are these yours?”

“Yes.”

“They’re really good. I’ve seen a lot of terrible protective magic in my time, Lan Zhan, so I can say that with authority.” Wei Ying roams around, head swiveling. “I can’t see anything strange, but... hm, there’s something here. Lan Zhan, do you have any talisman paper? And ink?”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji finds ink and brush and paper and water. On his return, he stops in the doorway. A boy is sitting on his bed, wearing his clothes. He can imagine Qingyang’s teasing. His brother’s surprised smile. He has never brought a boy back to his apartment.

He places the spellwork materials on the desk. Wei Ying hops up from the bed, and their shoulders nudge together as he leans for the inkstick.

“Wow, this is the nice stuff,” he says. “I have to barter hard for this.” Wei Ying drops into the deskchair with one foot tucked under him, and begins to grind ink. He has a scar on his middle knuckle. A half-moon, a smile. “But I guess Lans get it at cost, ah? Hey, Lan Zhan, will you be my talisman ink dealer?”

Lan Wangji watches the steady and repetitive circling of his wrist. How his teeth dent his smiling lip. “What will you give?”

“What do you want?” Wei Ying says, and looks up. Dry, the thick, dark curtain of his hair sways across his back. His tongue, tucked against his lip, is a pink camellia petal.

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, but the air feels burned by the question. Wei Ying gives a slight, awkward laugh, and tips his face into his palm. He begins to paint his talisman.

Sitting in silence, Lan Wangji listens to the whisper of the brush and the shuffle of Wei Ying’s breathing. In here the evening feels deeper, the walls like the glass of an aquarium, the shadow of Wei Ying’s hand a swimming phantom. It’s a strange peace, when his heart is humming so furiously.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says at last, stretching out his wrist.

“May I see?”

“Sure.”

He stands beside Wei Ying. The characters of the talisman are so deconstructed they are hard to recognize. It reminds Lan Wangji of city power lines, the painted strokes like an anarchy of wires and transformers, tangling in bundles where Wei Ying has looped them into amplifying chains.

“It reveals hidden things,” Wei Ying says. “I’ve used it five thousand times, it’s extremely refined and totally safe. Uh, well, it’s usually simpler than this—fine if you know what you’re looking for—but I had to add some extra components.”

“Alright.”

Wei Ying doesn’t cast it straight away. He says quietly, “You spoke to your uncle just before you died, right?”

“Mn.”

“What did you talk about?”

Wei Ying is not prying. Wei Ying is trying to understand.

“I told him that I had concluded my work here.” Lan Wangji sits on the bed again, and finds his memory already sitting there. “We agreed that I would leave soon. This weekend.”

“That’s… really soon,” Wei Ying says. “You’ve lived here for two years, how can you—”

“He has been… I sought an extension last term, and was considering requesting another. He is opposed to my being here any longer.”

“What’s the hurry?”

“My brother and uncle are already stretched thin.” The timestamps on his brother’s messages growing later and later. Worry pinching for spare flesh around his uncle’s eyes, the last time they spoke by video call. “Our sect has recently accepted many young disciples. My uncle wishes for me to take up a teaching position at Cloud Recesses as soon as possible.”

Wei Ying says, “Is that… something you want?”

“It is complicated.”

“Why?”

“There are… still things I wish to do here.” Not only help his ghost. He would like to join the guqin yaji in November. Go for coffee at weekends with Luo Qingyang. Teach his jian classes. Have dinner with A-Qing and Xiao Xingchen, even if the cooking is very bad.

“So he can just let you have more time, right?”

Lan Wangji will not fidget. “Uncle does not wish for there to be any delay.”

“Isn’t that unreasonable?” Wei Ying says. “It’s not like you’re going to skip town and, I don’t know, join another sect.”

“My brother is sect leader," Lan Wangji says. “I must take up my role as well. I enjoy teaching, very much. And it is important.”

“Sure, but.” Wei Ying rests his hands on his knees. “If you’re not ready...”

“It is impossible.” He does not know how to explain it to Wei Ying, who is so free and so alone. Lan Wangji loves his brother and his uncle. He loves his sect, his home. You cannot love something only when it serves you, when it is sweet and easy. You also love it when it is difficult, when it demands, when it is overbearing and severe and unfair. Lan Wangji is not alone, and so he is not free to do as he pleases.

But perhaps Wei Ying understands, because he says softly, “Okay.” He makes a show of fluttering his talisman to dry it. He doesn’t stare at Lan Wangji, for which Lan Wangji is grateful. “So you just lay down here and, uh. Had a heart attack?”

There are parts obviously missing from that story, but caution pins Lan Wangji’s tongue. Wei Ying seems to take the silence as agreement. “Okay, so...”

They both watch the talisman flare and burn. Ashy tatters fall from Wei Ying’s hand, sparking, fading. Nothing happens.

“Fuck,” says Wei Ying, eloquently.

Lan Wangji leaves him muttering over another half-drawn talisman. Details of that first death are coming back, flitting up like dark moths from the bedcovers and the window frames. Goodbye, Shufu.

Passing his piano, Lan Wangji looks at the open spread of sheet music on its top, the notation of Ravel’s huge, shimmering waves of sound. A boat on the ocean. It always feels like he’s wrestling with it, too rigid. He doesn’t think playing will calm him at this moment.

As he is pouring his second cup of tea, Wei Ying emerges.

“Had a talk with a ghost on somebody else’s balcony—hard to do, leaning out the window. Nothing there.” Wei Ying rakes his hair away from his eyes with impatient fingers. “I feel like my talismans are wrong, but they’re the kind I’ve been using for years, and they usually work...” His arms droop to his sides like tired tulip stems.

Lan Wangji says, “Would you like tea?”

“Do you have anything stronger? Any kind of alcohol, really.”

“Baijiu?”

“Sure, anything. Wait—I thought Lan disciples didn’t drink?”

Lan Wangji takes the plump-bellied bottle of Jian Nan Chun from the tall cupboard. “It was a gift.” Given to him by an auntie for exorcising a hungry ghost in her walls. “I do not have proper glasses,” he adds.

“Lan Zhan, I’ll drink out of anything, I’ll drink it out of my cupped hands, you can pour it directly down my throat, I don’t care.”

Lan Wangji tries not to dwell on that image. He breaks the red seal and pours a measure into a tall glass. The thick ammonia smell stings the inside of his nose and jabs sickly-sweet at the top of his throat.

He brings it to Wei Ying, who takes the glass in both hands like an artifact. “Lan Zhan ah, you’re saving my life.”

Lan Wangji says, “Demonstrably, I am not.”

Wei Ying laughs, and sags down cross-legged on the living room rug like a child expecting a story. “Right, right.”

It is strange, having Wei Ying here. Wei Ying doesn’t fit, exactly—he’s incongruous, like the red chrysanthemums on Lan Wangji’s table. Sometimes the apartment seems to grow, brimming with Wei Ying. Sometimes Wei Ying is smaller, a remote planet sliding out of focus even as Lan Wangji looks at him.

Lan Wangji puts his back to the door jamb. “You should show me your loop next.”

“Oh, okay.” Wei Ying suddenly downs his liquor in one go, a ripple in his throat, and thumbs at the wet corner of his mouth.

Startled, Lan Wangji amends, “We need not leave right away.”

“Lan Zhan, we might be dead in five minutes.”

“There are things we can control and things we cannot. We will not make better decisions if we are exhausted or rushing.”

“In that case—” Wei Ying goes to refill his glass. When he returns, he says, “Would you play me something? On the guqin.”

“Something.”

“Anything.”

So Lan Wangji kneels at the table and plays. The piece is a form of meditation through song, one of the first advanced works Lan disciples learn. It’s simple and graceful. Easy to play, but difficult to play well. It makes him think of hazy, amber evenings in fall, and the ache of lying down after a long day.

As the last open note trembles warmly, he lets himself look up. Wei Ying is blinking fast. His face looks raw—his shiny eyes, and the slight crumpling of his mouth, as if tasting something bitter. His hands are clenched in his lap. His knuckles stand out under his skin like rope knots.

“Wei Ying?”

“Ah, sorry, Lan Zhan, sorry—” Wei Ying smiles, but his eyes don’t. “I’m fine, don’t know why I’m…” He tosses his hair and laughs. “That was… well, anything I could say would be pretty inadequate, but—that was amazing.” Swiping a hand quickly at his face, he looks at the balcony doors. “Hey, wow, that’s a lot of ghosts. They’re really into the traditional stuff, huh?”

Settling his hands in his lap, Lan Wangji says, “Would you like me to let them in?”

Wei Ying knocks back his baijiu, and coughs, thumping his heart. He shrugs. “They might know something.”

“I have already asked.”

They knew about you, Lan Wangji thinks. Only you.

“Let them in anyway,” Wei Ying says. “It’s warm in here, isn’t it?”

Lan Wangji tugs open the balcony doors. The wind has kneaded the air cool and soft. It flutters his hair.

“What’s this?”

He turns back around, and Wei Ying is pretending not to dismantle the straight-edged tower of tablature sheets and volumes, even as he slides out a loose leaf. Lan Wangji can’t imagine how Wei Ying knew to choose that one, out of dozens.

“‘Evocation’,” he says. “My sect uses it to call to spirits. Can you read it?”

“A bit? Explain it to me.”

He joins Wei Ying on the floor. Wei Ying nods along as he talks.

“It’s interesting to see how it translates when you’re using spiritual power.” Wei Ying is sprawled on his side, legs in parley with Lan Wangji’s knee. He’s close enough to touch. “There’s a lot more you have to do—see, this part, the compulsion?” He taps the early passage. “I don’t have that, because… uh, how to explain it? I’m already speaking to them in terms they respond to. Like, reciprocity? Not a transaction, more like, ‘I know you, you know me, we’re alike’.” He whistles, and it is the same grave, shivering sound he used with the ghost in the park. “It’s not a sure thing, sometimes they just tell me to fuck off, and in those cases I can break out the stern voice, musically speaking… but it’s that kind of appeal.”

Lan Wangji should not encourage this. Wei Ying is talking about demonic cultivation, as though it is not forbidden. Do not associate with evil. Instead he asks, “Do you play any instruments?”

“Ha,” Wei Ying says, a soft knife scrape. “I used to.”

Curiosity chews at Lan Wangji with toothy gums, but he is watching Wei Ying’s shoulders, rigid as armor. He is about to change the subject when Wei Ying says, “Not seventeen instruments, like you. Just one.”

“What was it?”

“Dizi.”

Like Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji recognizes the feeling as disappointment. Wei Ying is so vibrant, so clever and unexpected, except where he is a shadow of another person. Why him, Lan Wangji wants to ask. Why him, when you could be anything?

But he says, “I have one.” The lacquer box is close by, and he lifts out the bamboo flute from its setting. It’s an antique, early Qing—he thinks Wei Ying will not appreciate knowing that. Age has mottled the dark wood with amber. “Would you like to try it?”

“Ah… okay.” Wei Ying levers himself up to take it. For a moment he simply weighs the flute in his hands, looking it over. “Wang Wei, huh?”

The poetry carved at the top. The bright moon shines among the pines. “Mn.”

Wei Ying’s fingers move tentatively over the holes, stopping and unstopping. Raising it to his mouth, he plays a handful of cautious notes. Then a scale, a few trills, warming up.

“It’s been a few years,” he says, “so don’t laugh!”

Lan Wangji knows the song immediately. He has often heard it at home—a quartet of musicians in a train station, one of them marking time with his foot, competing with the rusty shriek of subway trains. Their eyes meet, and Wei Ying’s mouth tries to shape toward a grin, gently teasing.

Wei Ying’s playing is rusty, his vibrato sometimes thin and uncontrolled, but once he must have been very good. The music is bright, full of energy, his best phrases clear and gold. Notes go missing when he tumbles through a rapid passage, running out of breath, improvising a little, only to recover into sweet, sunny legato. As he finishes, the fading note shakes wildly with his laughter.

“Terrible,” he says, “terrible, I told you—”

“Not terrible,” Lan Wangji says. “Thank you.” And he means it. He thinks this old flute has never been played like that.

Wei Ying’s smile doesn’t widen but it softens, deepening its creases. “You’re welcome.”

He’s lovely, Lan Wangji thinks helplessly.

Then Wei Ying drops his gaze, and his posture sags like paper crumpled in the hand. He’s smaller, suddenly.

“Ah, where did I leave the...” Jerking to his feet, Wei Ying disappears to the kitchen with his glass.

The flute rolls away from where he sat. Lan Wangji rises and stops it with a finger, and finds the wood warm from Wei Ying’s hands. He puts it away carefully, as though he could preserve it like this.

He hears Wei Ying pour more baijiu: the clink of glass, and a splashy, happy glugging. Lan Wangji takes out his phone and unlocks it. It beams at him: 23:46. Nearly midnight. This is the longest they have lasted in any loop, including his ill-fated train journey. He remembers his own face in the window, feeling see-through. The stations passing like lit-up islands. What is different now? Is it Wei Ying?

Behind him, the guqin's strings ripple, so faint that he nearly misses it.

Then it comes again: Hi!

His ghost has never come without being called. Moving up to his knees, disconcerted, Lan Wangji rests his hand on the guqin’s brow. Hello, he plays. I am here.

His insides feel heavy, coiled rope and lead, expecting Wei Ying’s shape in the doorway. Wei Ying is kind to ghosts, and he knows more about them than anyone Lan Wangji has met. But Lan Wangji has seen what demonic cultivators do to the dead. He knows all demonic cultivators go the same way, mangled and violent. They have since the first one. Without exception, says a voice. His uncle’s.

He sees Wei Ying in that swarm of resentful energy, half-engulfed. When Wei Ying laughs, when he teases Lan Wangji, it is easy to forget what he is. Wei Ying is a fuse waiting for fire. No—he is the fuse and the fire, and what it will destroy.

Go, Lan Wangji plays. Away from here. Hide.

The strings stop moving. Frozen like an unjointed doll, Lan Wangji listens and waits, until he thinks the ghost has left. He can’t hear anything from the next room.

“Wei Ying, are you...”

Pain webs across his back as he walks toward the kitchen, worse than before. He doesn’t understand it. An old injury, or something new? The fine wires go right through him, stitching his back to his front like two hands strung together in cat’s cradle. It tightens, and his lungs feel flattened.

From here, Wei Ying is a grayer sketch in the gray darkness, face reflecting a little light. The rim of his empty glass glints like an eye. He looks sad, Lan Wangji thinks, except sad is too small a word for it.

Wei Ying says softly, “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji fumbles for the light-switch. It feels urgent, as though Wei Ying might be gone next moment. The switch snaps down, and the five ceiling bulbs sputter, spitting like angry mouths. Then the light surges, hot and white as day.

He hears glass shatter. Sparks fountain down, and he’s slammed back against the wall. He can’t move, every muscle bunched tight and humming.

The last thing he sees is Wei Ying, blown out black like a photo negative, or an afterimage of the sun.

 

Chapter Text

34.

 

“Wei-xiong?”

Lan Zhan on the kitchen floor. His eyes were still open, but there wasn’t anybody in them. Instead of Lan Zhan’s warm perfume and the tangled scents of takeout, Wei Ying smelled burning.

He blinks, and there’s Nie Huaisang’s face, like a question mark.

“I’ll catch up, okay? See you later.” He can’t even remember half the excuses he’s given Huaisang.

“Okay?”

The bell over the door jangles. Wei Ying sighs.

Lan Zhan isn’t dead, he’s alive. He’s alive. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. The name clinks and rattles in Wei Ying’s head, a loose silver coin.

Just before he died, Wei Ying thought he felt something familiar. He can’t explain the grief that corkscrewed through him—like a fool, standing in Lan Zhan’s shadowy kitchen with an empty glass, pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth and marching the sadness back down. He hopes Lan Zhan didn’t see.

Still this funny dance. Lan Zhan is hiding things from him, but, well, fair is fair. He’s hiding a lot more from Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying 21:05
shit
i thought we were doing pretty well

Lan Zhan ☂️ 🐇 🤔 21:05
So did I.

Wei Ying 21:06
prob me doing sth stupid
you got electrocuted right

Lan Zhan ☂️ 🐇 🤔 21:07
Yes.

Wei Ying 21:08
sorry lan zhan

Lan Zhan ☂️ 🐇 🤔 21:08
Not the first time. I am fine.
What happened to you?

Wei Ying 21:09
i uh
forgot youre not sposed to touch ppl whove been electrocuted

Wei Ying locks up the shop.

Odd, quiet Lan Zhan. The life of each smile counted out in slow, warm blinks. Lan Zhan, who collects old instruments, and is loved by rabbits, and plays music for ghosts, and dies of a torn heart.

On the way to their meeting place, Wei Ying’s curiosity gets the better of him.

According to Lan Zhan’s Wikipedia entry, Wei Ying is stuck in a time-loop with ‘one of the strongest cultivators of a generation’ (many sources cited). Wei Ying skims the table of Lan Zhan’s notable nighthunts, which is fifty-six lines long. The article confirms the things Lan Zhan told him, and more besides. Lan Zhan not only has a title (‘Hanguang-jun’), but he’s known as one of the ‘Twin Jades of Lan’, with his brother. The photo of him is old—Lan Wangji, aged eighteen, the caption says. He’s standing on stone steps, hand tucked in the small of his back, beautiful and solemn in pale blue robes, with the forehead ribbon he wore in the Jiang sect office.

People used to talk about Lan Zhan a lot. The appetite for sect-watching was higher before the war, and Lan Zhan was famous. Wei Ying finds posts all over Weibo about him. How he looks, how good he is, how selfless. Bets on whether he’ll ever marry, and who. There are unkind remarks, too—people calling him cold and stiff and stuffy. ‘Arrogant’ is used a lot.

Then, five years ago, Lan Zhan disappeared from public life. Nobody knows why, but that hasn’t kept them from speculating. His Wikipedia article has a bland statement about an absence, but says it’s ‘disputed’. Wei Ying taps the link to the discussion.

unsubstantiated speculation

Please stop adding these edits to the article! No sources cited anywhere; this is all speculation! — Howlerhappy (talk)

It is a FACT that lwj has been in seclusion and the evidence is this statement from Gusu Lan in june (https://mbd.baidu/newspage/data/news_1005491564…). — Bunny168 (talk)

Ok but why are we saying lwj was “forced” into seclusion when cultivators go into seclusion all the time. Check articles for other lan disciples. Thx. — Jem (talk)

for 3 years?????????? — Preceding unsigned comment added by 49.248.161.142 (talk)

That linked Lan statement doesn’t say ‘seclusion’ anywhere. It’s the kind of bland official statement the sects put out all the time. Gusu Lan aren’t going to disclose if LWJ is in forced seclusion. — Preceding unsigned comment added by 41.160.161.92 (talk)

The GLS statement gives no reason for Lan Wangji’s absence from the spring discussion conference. At this point, his disappearance is noteworthy in its own right. We should at least refer to the speculation. — Sohessey (talk)

But those things arent true. We shouldn’t give it room here. Thx. — Jem (talk)

@Bunny168 Very loaded vocab being used eg “imprisoned” when we have zero evidence of proceedings against lwj. — Zlqq244 (talk)

lwj is the most active disiple!! not “absent” if hes locked up!!! — Preceding unsigned comment added by 96.8.253.262 (talk)

@Zlqq244 I agree, and I’d add that the exercise of GL sect law is notoriously opaque (as wiki articles on the topic will attest), to the frustration of many, myself included. GLS don’t comment on their own proceedings (cf the expulsion of Su She), definitely not when it’s against inner disciples. Unless we get comment from someone close to this we can’t know if there was an offense, and what GLS did or didn’t do to Lan Wangji. I suggest we roll back to a neutral statement about the public absence and lock the article to let the controversy time itself out. — Ahconfucius (talk)

Scrubbing this again. A lot of heat from anonymous IP users. This article is now semi-protected due to persistent disruptive editing. Take a break, people. — KingCanary (talk)

Wei Ying tries to find the earlier text of the article, but there’ve been too many edits and his phone takes forever to load a page. It’s hard to believe somebody as upright and proper as Lan Zhan could be locked up for wrongdoing by his own sect.

He taps back and browses to Weibo. In a post from two years ago, somebody lays out possible subtext in an unrelated statement by Lan Xichen. Other people wade into the symbolism of a white robe Lan Zhan wore on a visit to Qinghe, the only formal sect gathering he’s attended in the last two years. And at the bottom of a 60-part Twitter thread about the conspiracy theories (Lan Zhan had a secret lover, Lan Zhan is married, on and on), there’s this:

Ran knife emoji @yo_ran
Replying to @linsister
so…..…are we just not going to mention w*i w*xian?

Wei Ying stares at it until it blurs.

He’s never looked for posts about ‘Wei Wuxian’. He watched the video of Lanling Jin scattering his ashes in a grand ceremony while all the sects cheered, and that was enough. He knows they’ve suppressed most information about him, except that he’s a murderer and the founder of a heretical cultivation path. Why would this person think Lan Zhan has anything to do with him? They’ve never met before this evening.

He wonders if Lan Zhan has tried to find out about him. Wei Ying doesn’t use social media. He’s barely online. He runs Li Tong’s online store through a shared account, handles customers on her WeChat, and posts his talisman designs anonymously from internet cafes. He wears a mask outside a lot and doesn’t let people take photos of him. He walks different routes to work and shops at a rotation of stores. Just in case.

But he kept ‘Wei Ying’, the name his parents gave him. Of the things they left to him, it’s the only one he could cast off, unlike the shape of his palms or the color of his eyes or the texture of his hair, and that’s why he kept it. He’s Wei Ying, for better or worse. Besides, there are other people with that name, and maybe the characters are different. There’s a little space there, the space created by doubt and everything he can deny. You can fit a life in those gaps, Wei Ying knows. Half of one, anyway.

A notification banner slides across his screen, pixels bursting where the screen is cracked.

Lan Zhan ☂️ 🐇 🤔 21:21
I may be a few minutes late.

Wei Ying 21:22
ok
?

His feet walk him to the temple, the journey nearly rote by now. It’s stupid—they’re stuck in time, they keep dying—but Wei Ying looks forward to this part of the loop, that first view of Lan Zhan standing in front of the temple’s gold-limned face, waiting for him. The anticipation is like seeing light spread out in the sky, thin but brilliant, just before the sun hoists itself over the horizon.

He looks through the choppy streams of traffic, and there’s Lan Zhan. When Wei Ying reaches him, he holds out a polystyrene clamshell box.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says. “You got me food?” He unclasps the lid. Six bronzed dumplings nestle together inside. “Oh, that’s—Lan Zhan, that’s really kind of you. But you don’t need to do that, honestly.”

“I’m aware,” Lan Zhan says mildly. “I wasn’t forced.”

“Well—okay. Thank you.” He’s hungry, he realizes. And Lan Zhan brought him food, knowing that he would be. Warmth clouds him—steam in his face, heat in his chest. He pinches a thick-skinned dumpling by a crimped edge and pockets the whole thing into his mouth. Smiles around salty pork that scalds his tongue. “Oh, these are good.”

He’s more in his body when he’s with Lan Zhan. He doesn’t know how he feels about that yet.

He offers Lan Zhan the box. “Want some?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “They are for you,” he says, and it echoes through Wei Ying like a shout in a tunnel. For you, for you.

They string their way between hoops of streetlight. If Wei Ying turns his head a little left he sees Lan Zhan’s hair, shining and smooth like a black satin ribbon. Lan Zhan’s face. It could be a date, he thinks. They could be heading to the Metrograph to catch a movie, or the food hall at Canal Street Market, or at the end of one of those odysseys which starts at a curbside taco truck and takes you forty blocks to a bar in late evening, feet sore, full of food, marinaded in sunshine. But Lan Zhan would never associate with someone like Wei Ying out of choice. Lan Zhan is the second young master of Gusu Lan. Wei Ying is what he is.

“Hey, Lan Zhan. How come you don’t wear your…” He taps his forehead.

“It tends to provoke reactions,” Lan Zhan says. “Disciples have been attacked by unaffiliated cultivators. My sect granted an exemption last year.”

“Wow,” Wei Ying says. “I knew it was bad, but…”

Gusu Lan works hand in glove with Lanling Jin. Wei Ying knows that much, from Nie Huaisang’s meandering gossip and the little Mianmian has said about it. People have strong feelings about the Jin Sect, but Wei Ying didn’t imagine it would extend so fiercely to the Lans.

He leads Lan Zhan back toward the shop, pointing out the regular ghosts. Wei Ying knows these streets so well. The rest of Manhattan is gridded, sheets of graph paper laid from riverbank to riverbank, but down here streets skew and stitch together. His alley bends back on itself like a watermelon rind with three knife cuts. It’s a faded sleeve of little deep-sunk restaurants and subterranean bars that throb like wrist-pulses late into the night, eight-dollar barber shops and dental-white massage parlors. The concrete slab of the post office. The year never seems to change here. By day it’s overgrown with tourists, clogging doorways as they listen to stories of the tong wars. By night it’s shuttered and sleepy—aunties leaning in a doorway to smoke, a motorbike thrumming at the mouth to Pell Street. Its pores leak exhaust and the smell of fried chicken skin.

It used to seethe with ghosts, but cultivators dealt with the worst of the hauntings in the fifties. Now Wei Ying takes care of the famished ones who hang around the restaurant kitchens, the child ghost who ransacked the medicine shop’s tea drawers, the water ghosts who crawl out of puddles to scare tourists. He keeps it safe, this tiny corner of the world.

Near the end of the alley, they stop in front of the shop’s window. The glass is pocked by rain. Wei Ying unlocks the door.

“So, uh. My loop starts here. We don’t need to stay long, I’ve checked this place pretty thoroughly.”

Lan Zhan says, “You work here?”

“Yep.” Wei Ying winces when the door jangles the bell. If they ever get out of this loop, he’s going to rip that fucking bell down, first thing.

He watches Lan Zhan take it in—the crowded wooden shelves, the droning TV with its huddle of armchairs, the red talisman light, the unnatural gloom. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re probably wondering, why does this place feel like a morgue?”

Lan Zhan has already found the answer, over the door. “You have no threshold wards. These are..”

“More of a spiritual welcome mat.”

A dark-eyed look. “You let everything in? Even if it’s dangerous?”

“Better here than somewhere else, right?” Wei Ying cracks his knuckles. “I know how to handle them. And it’s useful! For research.”

“The proprietor allows this?”

“Laobanniang doesn’t mind. She’s almost never here. I make her a lot of money with basic protective stuff, and she lets me blow up her backroom.” Lan Zhan arches his brow. “That’s mostly an exaggeration, there was only one actual detonation and it wasn’t really my fault. But our business is basically online commerce anyway—people order stuff and I ship them ten kinds of talismans with a free phone charm. Hey, nobody uses phone charms anymore, Lan Zhan, and I don’t think we’ve collectively mourned that passing in the way it deserves.”

“Is your employer a demonic cultivator?”

“Nah. She just likes money, and I guess I looked like an opportunity.”

That sounds bad, but it’s really one of the kindest things anyone’s done for him. Even if the pay is shit.

He shows Lan Zhan the backroom—the nest of open-beaked boxes waiting to be fed, the decrepit fax machine, and the ghost who smells like an old ashtray.

“How long have you worked here?” Lan Zhan is looking at the half-finished peachwood carvings and scrapped talismans on the table.

“Only a few months,” Wei Ying says. “Before that I was working at a supermarket. One of my friends hated that job, she said it was making me misanthropic, which isn’t a word anybody has ever used for me before. But, you know. You do what you have to.” Wei Ying used to slope home from the store feeling gray and vicious, and fray Wen Qing’s last nerve doing experiments in his bedroom at night. Then he ran into Li Tong on a nighthunt.

“Do you like it?”

“So much.” It’s really true. “I’m still being exploited, but I care a lot less. It’s good to have an outlet, I didn’t realize how much I needed it until… Ah, my brain just goes and goes, like a fucking wind-up toy. Now I don’t have to tell people random astronomy facts when they just want to buy milk and condoms in silence. I can do my experiments, and I’ve got plenty of people to talk to.”

“Customers?”

“Ha. We don’t get a lot of those in here.”

Lan Zhan pauses. “Ghosts?”

“Um. Yeah.” The slight crease in Lan Zhan’s forehead gets deeper, but it’s too late to take it back. “Sometimes we just... hang out, watch old cartoons. They’re sweet, mostly, the ones we get round here. They bring me stuff sometimes—cool objects they found. They’re like magpies.”

It sounds pathetic. Lan Zhan nods. Wei Ying’s insides twang with shame.

Tour concluded, he delves into the backroom shelves, assessing the available tools. “Do you think there are more places where time is distorting?”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, without hesitation.

“So do I.” Wei Ying chooses one of the smaller light-sticks. “I think I’m going to take this.” He pairs it to his phone, then opens his modified calculator app. The numbers roll like slot machine reels: 42.12. “Phew. Pretty high.”

Lan Zhan leans in. His perfume is crisp and gorgeous. “It detects resentful energy?”

“Right,” Wei Ying says, trying not to like how close he is. “The distortions have a lot of energy, so I’m hoping it’ll pick them up, even if it’s just a crude differential.”

He extracts talisman paper from Lan Zhan to draw a few revealing talismans. He wonders if he could use the symbols to make ghost-vision goggles for Lan Zhan, and laughs to himself.

“Okay, I’m ready.”

Emerging into the alley, Lan Zhan holds up his parasol. Wei Ying locks the door and steps under, and they set off shoulder to shoulder. It’s a funny tension—something becoming familiar, and the way it makes Wei Ying’s nerves sparkle every time.

“The next place is a party?” Lan Zhan asks as they walk.

“Houseparty, yeah. Huaisang dragged me along.”

Somebody buzzes them into the red-brick building. Before stepping inside, Wei Ying looks up at its windows, a dozen yawning yellow eyes. It’s weird to come back here. He’s mostly avoided this place since the first few loops—all those risky faces, and the pulsing bass driving loneliness into the air like a scent. He digs for his mask, scrunched up in the pocket of his hoodie, but doesn’t put it on.

As they climb the staircase, Wei Ying says, “Uh, this crowd isn’t wild about sect disciples, so just—try to be unobtrusive, okay?”

“I will try,” Lan Zhan says.

How can he? Lan Zhan is famous. Maybe Wei Ying should tell him to stay outside.

“They like Nie Huaisang,” he adds, “but that’s because Huaisang also isn’t into being a sect disciple, let alone a sect leader. And he throws great parties. And Mianmian vouched for him, that he wouldn’t squeal on everyone who’s tried resentful energy.”

“I’d heard that was prevalent.” Lan Zhan’s voice drags its heels. They seem to feel the same way about it.

“Most people have dabbled, even if they decide it’s not for them.” Wei Ying wishes they only dabbled. “Undead resentment, the party drug of our generation.”

He knocks on the blue door, sighing away a wave of deja vu. There’s a shout behind it, and it opens. Mianmian, in dark ballerina costume.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says.

“You came! Happy birthday!” She glances past him, and her expression flags. “Lan Wangji?”

“Hello,” Lan Zhan says softly.

Dragging off his sneakers in the doorway, Wei Ying tries to convey reassurance and a total lack of panic. “It’s okay—Lan Zhan’s with me.”

“Sure,” Mianmian says. “That makes sense.” It very much doesn’t, at all, and they both know it.

The party is working itself to a peak, the crowd crackling and noisy, still part-sober. Lan Zhan hangs up his coat, but keeps his backpack. They follow Mianmian toward the couches draped with people.

“So,” Wei Ying says. “You two also know each other?” He hopes it sounds casual and not like an accusation.

“Wei Ying—” Mianmian gives him a look. “Do you… not remember?”

“You know I don’t, my brain is Swiss cheese that’s been jammed through a sieve.” So much about the sects is hazy now to Wei Ying. Places he went, people he met. The petal layers of courtesy and obligation. Even his first night with the Jiangs is a dark rhombus of a train window rushing past his window—faces, gone. “Should I?”

“It’s okay,” Mianmian says, but her voice is edged. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve... known each other since the Before Times,” her name for when she was a Jin disciple, before she quit and told them all to go fuck themselves. “Then we ran into each other at school.”

“Ah—Hanguang-jun?” Nie Huaisang was talking to Mianmian’s friend, but now he twists around to look. His eyebrows rise, and then he quickly bows over his hands. It loses some dignity when he’s wearing a pink silk bathrobe and trying not to spill the alcohol in his plastic cup. “I... didn’t expect to see you here.”

Lan Zhan also bows. “Nie-zongzhu.”

“Oh my god, this is so formal,” Wei Ying says. “Hanguang-jun.” Reading it in the luminous window of his phone isn’t like hearing it out loud. “I can’t believe you have a title.”

It’s beautiful, of course. Wei Ying had a title once, a backhand slap of a name. It grew and grew until it swallowed him. But Lan Zhan wears his quietly, like blue silk tied on his wrist.

They’re introduced to Mianmian’s friend, Lei Sheng, and other people. Everyone seems stunned by Lan Zhan, but only Huaisang and Mianmian know how weird it is that every now and again Lan Zhan turns his head to glance at Wei Ying, a person he can entirely see.

Eventually, the pleasantries lull. This party feels like a collision, and Wei Ying isn’t sure yet if he’s watching from the sidewalk or crumpled under the wheels. Huaisang says, smiling, “Lan er-gongzi, you don’t drink, do you?”

“No.”

“I do,” Wei Ying says. He can’t do this sober, suddenly. “I’ll drink for both of us.”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s voice nudges him.

“Oh, yeah.” They’re trying to be lowkey, but they have a job to do. He turns to Lei Sheng. “Do you mind if we also, uh, inspect a clock?”

Mianmian says, “Is this for a case?”

“Uh huh.”

Lei Sheng gives him a cagey look, but says, “Knock yourself out.”

“Cool, great.” He tells Lan Zhan, “Booze first, horological interventions second.” Lan Zhan sighs. “I’ll drink fast!”

“Wei Ying.”

“Yeah, okay, I know. Drink fast, die in twenty minutes of tumbling down the stairs. I’ll be good. But also quick.” It’ll calm him down, he hopes. He feels like a frayed, spitting wire.

He follows Huaisang, who waits until they’re sat beside the coffee table, surrounded by a thicket of limbs, to say, “Wei Ying, what’s going on?”

“Oh, the—that?” He looks over to where Lan Zhan is having a very polite conversation with Liqiu. It’s like watching two tall, solemn cranes gently bend their necks toward each other in a classical ink painting. “I have no idea.”

“The seal’s gone?”

“Yeah.” It hasn’t sunk in, even now. Somewhere he has a brother and a nephew, though he has no right to call them his, and he could see them if he looked for them. They could see him too. Along with every other sect disciple. “Huaisang, are you a hundred percent sure you haven’t heard anything from Lanling? They haven’t… changed their minds, have they? Have you seen any of them around?”

“I don’t know,” Huaisang says. “I’m afraid I really have no idea.” He dabs the crease of his mouth where his lipstick has feathered a little, and offers a rueful smile. “Wei-xiong—”

“It’s fine.” Wei Ying pushes it all down, a suitcase of panic bulging under his lungs. “It’s fine. Pour, come on.”

The tequila fizzles and slops in the cavern of his stomach, but it hits him fast. He’s blood-warm and loose when he goes back to Lan Zhan. Seeing him, Lan Zhan excuses himself to Liqiu—he walks away from a person deserving of his time, toward Wei Ying. It feels like stealing.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says. “I’m mildly tipsy. Let’s investigate.”

The clock on the wall is slow—three minutes to ten, lagging half an hour. Lan Zhan lifts it down from its nail, and they sit outside in the stairwell to inspect it. The sounds of the party are muffled through the wall.

“That’s weird,” Wei Ying says. “It was running fast when I saw it, I’m pretty sure. Midnight.” Huaisang sang him ‘happy unbirthday’. Teasing, a little mean.

“Like the clock in the library,” Lan Zhan says. “You’re certain it was fast before?”

“Not certain certain.” Lan Zhan’s head tilts. It’s slight, but he might as well have snorted. “In my defense, I was drunk, and Huaisang was forcing me to reflect on my mortality, which was awkward at the time and now seems cruelly poignant.”

As they watch, the clock hands twitch. “Hey, look—there’s a tiny distortion. You saw that, right?” The hands tick over to ten o’clock, then jump back three minutes.

“Mn.”

“Adorable. I’m into distortions that don’t scream at me.”

Wei Ying’s detector goes haywire when he brings it out, but not in a way that’s useful. The lightstick glows a steady red, and his phone’s calculator reads 4106.09 before it blinks to ERROR and the app crashes. “Great. That’s a bust, then.”

As Wei Ying is whistling to the energy, trying to work out why it feels different, a ghost heaves herself up by the wall corner, onto the landing. She’s old, her hair white as scallion roots, carrying a cloth bag like a baby. She looks out of breath.

“Oh, hi.”

“Who is it?” Lan Zhan asks.

“I saw her before.” In his memory, Wei Ying looks up from his feet climbing steps, to a face worn deep into its smile. “First time around, right here.”

She stops at the front door, and disappears. Two minutes later, she puffs her way up the stairs again. The distortion seems to stretch from the second floor to the third. It’s less angry than the one in the park, but being near it feels like Wei Ying has stuck his head under an icy waterfall.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says, on loop three. “Hello? We’d like to help, can you—” Her rheumy gaze touches him, but she looks confused. “Huh. I... don’t think she knows what I’m saying.”

Lan Zhan moves to kneel on the landing, and there’s his guqin, its glow like light on new snow. Wei Ying almost startles when it appears. “What are you doing?”

Lan Zhan pauses. “A Gusu Lan work called ‘Inquiry’,” he says. “For communicating with ghosts.”

He talks to ghosts too. Wei Ying doesn’t know why it’s such a comfort, a bright thing he’s caught in his cupped hands. Lan Zhan talks to ghosts. He nods. “Go ahead.”

Lan Zhan plays a pensive melody, then waits. Without his fingers moving, the strings twitch. Hesitant music, like a strain heard from a practise room.

“She is going home,” Lan Zhan says. “She went out to buy beer and oranges. Her husband is waiting.”

Except, when they ask Lei Sheng, he tells them the apartment is for sale. It’s been on the market a while. She can’t go home, because her husband died a year ago and she followed two weeks after, and all their things were sold or thrown away. No living family.

Wei Ying unravels the resentful energy that’s been winding the clock’s minute hand backward. Then he draws a talisman to unlock the apartment door.

It’s one of the smaller apartments in the building. He turns on his phone’s flashlight, which shines a tilted yellow corridor into the dim. The kitchen smells sourly of paint, the walls white as aspirin, waiting for color. Dust sinks through the beam, dream-slow.

“She was the one to find him,” Lan Zhan says. He isn’t touching his guqin, just kneeling on the carpet, looking up at Wei Ying.

“Yeah.”

Wei Ying pastes up a revealing talisman. Useless for the distortion, apparently, but it lets Lan Zhan see the ghost. They watch her hang the cloth bag from her wrist and open the fridge. Outlines of bottles glint green as she tucks them away, like beloved books into their right places. Leaning around the door, she calls, but Wei Ying can’t hear her. She listens, closes the fridge, and calls again.

Just before she walks into the next room, she stops with her hand on the doorframe and bends like she’s catching her breath. Her face is a soft void—she already knows.

“Tell her he’s gone,” Wei Ying says. “And we’re sorry.”

The notes Lan Zhan plays make Wei Ying’s skin feel thin; they go into him like fish hooks. For a long moment, the ghost looks at Lan Zhan. Then she opens the door, and her face wrinkles in a deep smile, and she fades.

She doesn’t come back.

“Is that all?” Wei Ying says. “To break her loop—unlocking a door?”

“Preferable to an explosion,” Lan Zhan remarks.

“Yeah.”

Wei Ying feels heavy. He’s stood in hundreds of rooms like this, raw with their new absence. Sad cases, funny cases, bizarre ones—the ghosts go, but they leave their stories in Wei Ying. There’s never been anybody else here, though. He’s always worked alone.

He meets Lan Zhan’s eyes, and the heaviness passes between them like a scrap of paper with a secret. Wei Ying’s neck is stiff wire, and the resentment is still trying to creep into him, and he thinks about how the ghost looked before she opened the door—but with Lan Zhan here it isn’t so desolate. Just quiet, and sad.

They slink back through the apartment full of people, and Lan Zhan hangs up the clock. “Is there anything else here?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Until now Wei Ying has relied on being able to feel trouble before it comes, but he can’t sense the distortions unless he’s literally face to face with one. He glares at his light-stick, simmering between red and bruise-blue. “Let’s get g—”

Mianmian appears at his left, smiling very brightly. “Hi! I’m going to borrow Wei Ying for a second. He wants more alcohol.”

That’s the face you don’t argue with. “I do!” Wei Ying says. “I always want alcohol, especially with my very good friend Mianmian. One second, Lan Zhan.”

He’s pulled into a walk-in pantry, shelves of mason jars and tupperware climbing the walls. Mianmian closes the door with a sharp twist of the squeaky handle. The light is harsh.

“Wei Ying.”

“Mianmian. What’s up?”

“Wei Ying,” she says, and the black shimmer around her eyes is a little mesmerizing, “neither of us are idiots. Is this okay? Are you?”

He can’t bullshit her, not about this. “I, uh. Don’t know.”

“He can see you.”

“I know. I know, it’s so weird.” Wei Ying leans his hip against a shelf with a blender and pulls on his ponytail. “It just... happened.”

“Can other people see you?”

“Um. Yeah.”

“How?”

“No clue. I’m working on it.”

“Fuck, Wei Ying.”

“Yeah,” he says. “‘Fuck’ is right.”

They didn’t prepare for this. Wei Ying has twice taken Wen Ning and Wen Qing into hiding when Lanling Jin stepped up its raids, on Mianmian’s information. She listens, she notices things, and she talks to the right people. But she can’t protect him from every sect disciple in the world.

“And Lan Zhan?” she says.

“I don’t think he’s going to do anything.” It’s obvious how Lan Zhan feels about Wei Ying’s cultivation, but even when he was inside a sect office he didn’t say a word.

Mianmian dips her head. “Oh, if Lan Zhan was going to report you, you’d already know. But he’s never reported anyone for demonic cultivation, and I know he’s seen some stuff.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. He wants to trust Lan Zhan—since they crashed into each other on the bus and Lan Zhan looked at him with faint irritation, and it felt like stepping off a boat onto a steaming pier in Yunmeng, summer-sticky, smelling fish and salt and river mud, shouting to fishermen and the granny selling golden doupi, the way Wei Ying used to and never will again. It pinches his heart stupid, how much he wants to trust Lan Zhan.

“Actually,” Mianmian says, “what I meant was—is he just… fine with it? With you being… you?”

Wei Ying shrugs. “He doesn’t know who I am. He thinks I’m just, you know, a weird, loud demonic cultivator who’s way too into ghosts.”

“Wait, what? He doesn’t remember you at all?”

“Why would he?”

Mianmian’s hand is out, palm faced up as if holding the obvious thing Wei Ying is missing. “Wei Ying, what the hell? That’s Lan Wangji. Do you really not...”

Another strike against Wei Ying’s terrible memory. Everybody’s batting today. “Nope! Listen, I have to go, but it’s really fine, it’s not a big deal. Like, okay, he’s just barely putting up with me—but we have a thing we need to do together, and then he can look forward to a Wei Ying-free life.”

“Yeah,” she says, the word pulled long, “he definitely seems like he’s dying to get rid of you.”

That aches. The idea of Lan Zhan wanting him there. “Sorry, I have to—”

The doorknob squeaks in his hand. Mianmian touches his arm. “Wei Ying. Be careful, please. If they can see you—”

“I know,” he says. “I’ll do my best!”

Hurrying out, he almost careens into somebody standing in front of the cupboards. “Oh—Lan Zhan?”

“I apologize,” Lan Zhan says slowly. “I didn’t know you were in there.”

“No problem! We’re done.” He realizes Lan Zhan has moved right to the party’s outer edge, and seems a little zoned out, gaze slow to move. “Are you okay?”

“It is crowded,” Lan Zhan says.

“Not into crowds? That’s okay. Nor am I, these days. Sorry for forcing you into all this.”

“It’s alright.”

They head out. As they join East Houston, Lan Zhan slows until they’re no longer side by side. He’s staring at a bus stop.

“What is it?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Nothing. I… nothing.”

“Hm.”

Wei Ying’s skin is prickling. He whistles the ghost and its resentment away, and smiles when Lan Zhan glances at him. “Okay, next stop. There was another messed up clock on the wall, so… be prepared for that.”

But when they get there, the shop is closed, lights off. Someone has scotch taped a sign on ruled paper to the window: INFESTED. DO NOT ENTER.

“Shit,” Wei Ying says, and tries the door—unlocked. It looks like people left in a hurry: the tables are littered with bubble tea cups, dirty plates, balled-up napkins. Chairs stare at each other. “It wasn’t like this before.”

“Another distortion?” Lan Zhan says.

“Has to be.” There’s a flicker near the ceiling. Resentful energy is silently licking around the walls. The light-stick in Wei Ying’s hand blinks red, then dies. ERROR. “Yeah—she’s here.”

The ghost bangs the door open behind them like a gale. Wei Ying remembers her print dress against the striped wallpaper, but now she’s blotchy with hungry vapors, so thick they don’t need a revealing talisman for Lan Zhan to see her.

“Hi,” he tries. “Can you hear me?” She stares at him. When her mouth moves, it sounds like a bad radio station, her voice sliced by static. “Guess that’s a ‘no’.”

She hears Lan Zhan, though. Freezes at the sound of the guqin, and crumples her hands together as she ripples the strings.

She isn’t feral like the ghost in the park, but she is looping—leaving and coming back, getting more agitated. It takes three loops for Lan Zhan to hear her story, and by then her resentment is lapping coldly around their feet. She has to catch a train tonight. She’s been waiting a long time. But when she tries to leave, she realizes her ticket is wrong.

“Wrong?” Wei Ying asks.

“Blank,” Lan Zhan clarifies, and Wei Ying sees the unmarked paper slip in her hand.

“Oh. That’s a new one. Something up in the subway?”

“Perhaps.”

Ghosts go to the abandoned City Hall subway station to catch the train. The tunnels are full of them, waiting for their time to leave. It’s wild down there, and tickets get lost and stolen, or bartered away to lying demons, but Wei Ying has never seen a blank one.

“I hunt in the tunnels,” Lan Zhan says. “There are disturbances daily.”

“I hear they’re pretty lively,” Wei Ying says. “Or... the spectral equivalent of lively.”

“You don’t go down there?”

“Can’t. Too loud.”

Lan Zhan’s fingers wait on the strings. He’s looking at Wei Ying. “Loud?”

“Yeah. I, uh, lost it a bit last time I went in.”

Wen Ning found him sitting on the platform edge and called Wen Qing. He’d been gone four days. Wei Ying, what are you doing? And he said, Waiting for the train. He wouldn’t listen when Wen Qing said it wasn’t his train. I’m going to see my parents, he told her. He couldn’t really hear her, the ghosts were screaming so loud. And my shijie. It’ll be here soon. He fought them when they tried to bring him out. Finally Wen Qing put a needle in his neck, and Wen Ning carried him back to their apartment. You’re banned from going in that subway, Wen Qing told him, when he woke up groggy and sick. I don’t care what you think is down there. It’s not for you.

So he hasn’t gone down again. If he had, he’d know—time must be really broken, if it’s affecting the spirit world too. “Guess we need to get her a new ticket.”

It’s been a while, but Wei Ying knows the diagrams. As he draws with blood onto talisman paper, Lan Zhan joins him at the table, watching the resentful energy. “Hurry,” he murmurs.

“I am,” Wei Ying says. He can hear it moaning. “I’m not a spiritual ticket machine, Lan Zhan. Ugh, thank god they don’t use QR codes.”

They go out into the narrow concrete passageway behind the shop, and Wei Ying burns the ticket on a plate. When it’s scattered to nothing, the ghost bends down, and clutches the ticket to herself. Three rising notes on the guqin.

“She says ‘thank you’.”

Wei Ying nods. “Tell her, have a good journey. I guess it’ll be a long one.”

Lan Zhan’s beautiful hands play, then wait for an answer. “She says she is ready to go.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying’s smile feels slippery, like it could be smeared off with a fingertip. “Yeah. That’s good.”

They watch her fade. The light-stick in Wei Ying’s hand gutters red-blue-red. It doesn’t know any more than Wei Ying does.

Lan Zhan says, “There are more distortions along your path than mine.”

“Yeah.” That’s an understatement. The places Wei Ying went before he died are spitting with resentful energy. “But what about that ghost in the park? That’s not on our routes.”

“Could there be someone else?”

They look at each other. Wei Ying blows out his breath. “Ten billion questions, huh?”

Lan Zhan makes a thoughtful noise. “Show me the end of your loop.”

“Okay. This way.”

They stand outside the basketball courts, the lines white thread on fabric squares. One is illuminated by a streetlight, the other stretches in patchy shadows, gray as chicken bones. It’s hissing like a nest of snakes, which could be a cause for concern, maybe.

“Uh, so, we hung out here.” Wei Ying gestures with toneless hands. “We talked. We walked around. Then we argued.”

“What did you argue about?”

“Huaisang thinks… that I haven’t dealt with some stuff. But—I don’t know, it’s over, it’s finished, whatever, there’s no point in dwelling on any of it.”

“What things?”

“My many mistakes.” What more can he say, without telling Lan Zhan everything? How it broke like glass in his hands, how everything burned. The whole procession of ghosts.

“Mistakes,” Lan Zhan echoes.

“So,” Wei Ying says. “I died around here, I think. I can’t... recall going anywhere else, anyway.”

“You still don’t remember?”

He tries. He really tries, but it’s out of reach. “Sorry. All this dying is really… you know.”

“Yes.” Lan Zhan’s voice is soft and grave. It must be wearing on him too, dying over and over, but he hasn’t complained at all. Wei Ying smiles at him.

“Lan Zhan, don’t give up! We’re going to solve this, it’ll all make sense. I don’t know how yet, but it will.”

“You’re certain there will be a rational explanation.”

“Not rational, maybe. Probably. But—an explanation, yeah, I do.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “None of this should be possible.”

“Right,” Wei Ying says, nodding, “too much energy, it’s…”

“No,” Lan Zhan says. “First principles. Manipulating time is impossible.”

Wei Ying had almost forgotten—they don’t teach this stuff in cultivation school. He grins. “Oh, Lan Zhan. I’m gonna disappoint you so much.”

Lan Zhan frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Come with me.” Wei Ying uses a blood talisman to unlock the gates to the basketball court. “Okay, stand there.” Lan Zhan stands under the hoop. “Look at me. Keep looking!”

Wei Ying snaps his fingers and—fuck, if holding Nie Huaisang was hard, Lan Zhan’s spiritual power wants to run him down like a freight train. He turns and sprints, grabbing for resentful energy like he’s tearing up fistfuls of matted, rotten grass. At least there’s a ton of it here. The wind is cold in his teeth, and beyond the perimeter he can see the city, toothy buildings behind a dark crackled veneer like a tea egg. His internal organs are rioting, all he can hear are screams, but he thinks about how Lan Zhan transforms a little when he’s surprised, and that carries him further.

The magic snaps like an elastic band, and there’s a heaving, sloshing wave of energy as time rights itself. Wei Ying lies on the wet asphalt, pain digging through him like a scavenger’s fingers. He splutters, and there’s warm, tangy blood in his mouth.

“Wei Ying—”

It takes Lan Zhan at least ten seconds to jump the whole distance between them, so Wei Ying didn’t do too bad. He tips over laughing and Lan Zhan is knelt beside him, eyes bright and shocked.

“Hi.” Wei Ying coughs, and swipes his sleeve across his lips. “How far do you think that was? Also, time-travel sprinting—thoughts? Not a great spectator sport, or the best spectator sport?”

“You’re bleeding,” Lan Zhan says.

“Ah, it’s nothing.”

“Wei Ying.”

He takes Lan Zhan’s offered hand, letting Lan Zhan gently lever him up. The front and side of his hoodie are wet, damp leeching through his t-shirt to his skin. He’s sitting at the other end of the court, a sketchy white paint line running under his splayed leg. Lan Zhan’s parasol covers them both.

“Pretty good, ah? I used to do it for A-Yuan. He found it hilarious when I made the birds stop in midair. It’s localized, obviously. Nothing like what’s happening to us, the amount of energy that must take—”

“A-Yuan?”

“Oh.” It’s so easy to run his mouth around Lan Zhan. “Uh, he’s a ghost who visits me. I knew him when he was alive.”

“That must be difficult,” Lan Zhan says softly.

“Yeah.” Wei Ying’s throat feels swollen, suddenly, like a gutter full of rain. “Yeah, it’s… He’s a good kid. He was unlucky.”

He swallows, still tasting metal. “Anyway. What’s interesting is that it takes a lot more effort than it should—I found that out a bunch of loops ago. I guess because it’s time magic inside time magic? Also because your cultivation level is super high, wow, holding you in place is hard.”

Lan Zhan nods, and helps him stand. Wei Ying can’t even enjoy how Lan Zhan’s hand lingers on his waist because his body is one queasy throb, the chain links of his vertebrae aching. He takes deep sips of cold air, sore in his lungs, and smiles at Lan Zhan.

“I know this will make you think that the loops are me fucking with you again, which is why I didn’t show you before, but hopefully that demonstration shows you why it can’t be me—stopping you in time nearly made my head explode. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to push you backward.”

Lan Zhan says, “I don’t think it is you.”

“Okay. That’s… good.” Lan Zhan doesn’t look pleased, though. The lines of his face and neck are tensed. “Anyway, it is possible! Just not with orthodox cultivation. But it’s extremely inefficient, energetically.”

“I see.”

As they leave the court, Wei Ying has to lean against the gate for a second, his pulse banging on the drumskin of his face. He’s still shaky, and there’s more blood in the back of his throat, which he spits into a flowerbed. Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, until he does.

“Why do you use it?”

“What?”

“Demonic cultivation.”

Oh. Here it is. “Because I need it,” Wei Ying says, flatly. “Why do you cultivate?”

“It’s dangerous,” Lan Zhan says, and it has that tired, echoed quality, like Wei Ying has heard it before.

“So is all cultivation.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t like the comparison, he can tell. “Resentful energy has far greater risks. The—”

“I know,” Wei Ying says. Twined through his ribs, the resentful energy groans in denial. It doesn’t want him to listen. His stomach is churning like a stormcloud, heavy and sour.

“It will corrupt you.”

Wei Wuxian

“I know!” Out of his mouth like a gunshot.

Lan Zhan’s eyes look so dark. “The harm to your mind and body is—”

Harm to your

“Are you trying to convince me to give it up, Lan Zhan? It’s way too late for that.”

Wei Ying thought they were getting along okay, despite the awkwardness, the secrets, the gruelling treadmill of death after death. He thought they were getting along, but he doesn’t know how to understand the look in Lan Zhan’s eyes. He thinks it’s disgust. Lan Zhan is disgusted by him.

Lan Zhan takes two steps forward. Wei Ying wishes he wouldn’t. “Wei Ying…”

“Don’t, I, just...”

It feels like he’s done this before—heard Lan Zhan say these things, cold sweat prickling him all over, his brain a tinnitus whine. He doesn’t understand why this, too, is familiar.

—don’t you carry your sword?

Wei Wuxian—

Jiang Cheng and somebody else, a paper silhouette of a person. They’re in a dark room and it stinks like blood, or it will soon. Wei Wuxian!

There’ll be a price to pay for cultivating the heretical path.

“Wei Ying!”

Don’t look at me like that. Don’t look.

Wei Ying sways blindly away, across the street, and his foot buries into a trashbag like a soft belly. He falls down, grunting as he lands hard on his shoulder and bent elbow—and for a second his brother is on top of him, the rain hissing down and both of them soaked to the skin, Jiang Cheng’s hair swinging in wet rats’ tails around their faces as his hands squeeze Wei Ying’s neck.

Then he’s gone.

The clouds overhead are hideous B-movie monsters. Pain is wriggling through Wei Ying’s head from the base of his skull, a spindly white root worming in.

Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian…

He clenches his teeth, and—

 


 

35.

 

“Good night!”

Lan Wangji almost forgets to reply. “Thank you,” he says to the librarian. “Good night.” Tucked into his backpack, Wei Wuxian’s book never gets any lighter.

How quickly he leaves the library depends on how many messages from Wei Ying splash onto his screen, bubbles of silent laughter. This time his phone is mute, and he stares at it as if that might make it speak.

The loops are trying to keep them together, but Wei Ying ran away. It was the strangest argument Lan Wangji has ever had, because he was certain they’d had it before. The words were different, he thinks, but he remembered the feeling—his stomach blown hollow like a glass bell, only lank air inside. Worry screwed itself up in his throat, but it didn’t sound like worry when it came out. It sounded like blame. Wei Ying’s face emptied itself as Lan Wangji talked.

He will apologize. He is not wrong to be concerned, but he did not say it well. He was startled, watching Wei Ying do magic that should be impossible and then collapse, coughing blood. He was afraid, and he hurt Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji walks, the route a well-worn memory by now. The jungle of people. The two men standing under a blank rectangle of ballerina pink neon, discussing a sidewalk delivery of egg boxes and buckets of dishwashing powder. He deviates from his path to stop at a street cart. He thinks Wei Ying will like their steamed rice rolls.

While standing in line, he glances at his phone. No messages.

Lan Wangji 21:10
Wei Ying?

He arrives at their meeting place. As usual Wei Ying isn’t here yet, so he waits.

Lan Wangji 21:36
Are you on your way?

Holding his plastic carton, he walks downtown to where Wei Ying works. The shop is dark, but through the glass Wei Ying’s talismans glow like strung red lights. He starts back the way he came.

Lan Wangji 21:58
Wei Ying?

The party is the same plunge into noise as before. The walls and floor throb like he’s standing inside a chamber of a heart. Costumes crinkle and waft as he pushes through a crowd, looking for a face he knows. Too many people, too close—like every sect gathering Lan Wangji has hated. A Dracula playfully lunges at someone and knocks into him, apology garbled.

He finds Nie Huaisang perched on the couch arm, a giddy bird of paradise gesturing with his cup.

“Nie-zongzhu.” He offers a quick bow. This is, after all, a sect leader. “Have you seen Wei Ying?”

Nie Huaisang bows, wobbles, sleeves slopping, and catches himself. “Hanguang-jun! I didn’t expect to see you here.” He presses his red lips together, considering, and says, “Up there.”

Following the flick of his eyes, Lan Wangji sees a monochrome jumble in the shadows of the stairs.

“Thank you.”

His heartbeat is uneven as he climbs up to Wei Ying’s step. Wei Ying sits with the bottle pinned between his knees, hands in a loose throttle around its neck. As Lan Wangji approaches, he nudges his toes against the banister, then tucks his feet under him and stands, the bottle swinging from his hand like a child’s raggedy toy.

Lan Wangji follows him to the landing. The room ahead is a bedroom. They go in, and Wei Ying shuts the door.

A skylight throws down dishwater light. Planting his back against the nearest wall, Wei Ying crosses one ankle over the other, a trellis vine climbing up to one closed, drooping flowerhead. He takes a deep swig from the bottle. Absolut Pears, shouts the label.

“You came,” he says.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. He puts the plastic box on a bookshelf. “Wei Ying—”

“It’s fine, Lan Zhan. I’ve calmed down. I don’t need to be minded.”

“I don’t think that you do.”

“But you think I might, you know, lose control and go into qi deviation.” Wei Ying takes another volatile swig, and wipes his chin with his knuckles. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re both dead anyway.”

He blinks tiredly at the floor. Keeps drinking.

Lan Wangji clicks on the nearby lamp, wanting to see him properly. “Demonic cultivation is… forbidden by my sect. There is history.”

He nearly tells Wei Ying, we have a shadow in common. I shattered my sect for him. He wonders what Wei Ying knows about the person he named himself for, beyond the sects’ scarecrow stuffed with rumors. Even so, he must know what happened to Wei Wuxian—and still he walks down this path.

“It’s fine,” Wei Ying says. “It’s fine, I get it. It is dangerous. I’m—I do know exactly how dangerous it is, believe me.”

“I am sorry.” Lan Wangji wishes Wei Ying would look at him. “I did not intend to lecture you. But Wei Ying—”

“I wonder if Mianmian will make me a cocktail.” Wei Ying leans his head on the wall, chin tucked against his shoulder. “She makes an amazing frozen painkiller, I could go for one of those right now.” His voice is airy, pitched strange.

He drinks again. Fine wisps of gray smoke rise from his hand.

“Are you alright?”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “I’m fine.” More smoke, peeling away from his neck and face. Coming out of his mouth like a gasp.

“No, you—”

Wei Ying’s eyes have unfocused, glass steamed up with breath. His head sinks a little, and his shoulders pull up taut, then slump. The bottle slips from his fist with a wet squeak, and thuds onto the carpet.

“Wei Ying—” Lan Wangji catches him by the waist as he collapses. The angle is awkward—Wei Ying’s chin clicks against his shoulder—but he tips Wei Ying’s ragdoll body gently down toward the floor, propping his back against the wall. All this, without the conscious decision to do it. “Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying’s head lolls forward, his ponytail spilling like ink over his shoulder and down his front.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, “hi, sorry, did I...”

“You passed out.”

A wispy laugh. “Oh—hm, yeah, I do that sometimes. It’s fine, I’m really okay.”

The bottle lies on the carpet in a dark spreading stain of its own insides. When he is sure Wei Ying will not melt over sideways, Lan Wangji stands it up and screws on the cap. “How often?”

“Ah, you know.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t know, and suspects he won’t like the answer.

He takes Wei Ying’s wrist. He remembers, viscerally, Wei Ying’s flinch when they touched hands, but he needs to know if something is wrong. He slides his fingertips up until he feels Wei Ying’s pulse.

It’s an odd, sluggish beat. Wei Ying’s qi feels murky, it barely moves. He must be saturated with yin. Lan Wangji concentrates, gathering his spiritual energy, and pushes it across the border of skin to skin, into Wei Ying.

Wei Ying’s pulse doesn’t change. It doesn’t change, even as spiritual energy streams into his meridians. It doesn’t change, and Lan Wangji feels something cold smother what he’s trying to give Wei Ying. He gives to Wei Ying deeply, recklessly, and all of it is swallowed. Resentment nestles into Wei Ying like a lover, cat-content in the cavities of his body, cobwebbing his jingmai. But Wei Ying’s head jerks, and then his arm jerks, trying to get out of the cage of Lan Wangji’s hands.

“Don’t—”

Lan Wangji doesn’t let him go, though he should. He keeps trying, and knows it won’t work.

“Lan Zhan, I—”

“You don’t—”

They speak over each other, and stop.

“You’re sick,” Lan Wangji says urgently. Very sick, to be so depleted.

“Not sick,” Wei Ying says. His face is pallid. “Except for a cold I can’t get rid of, god, how much phlegm can a body produce.” He rubs his palm on his thigh.

Not sick.

Wei Ying said he was a sect disciple. Even low cultivation—or deep spiritual damage—shouldn’t feel like this.

“Then…” Lan Wangji can’t finish his sorry, split-end sentence. Horror is congealing inside him, cold and tar-sticky.

Wei Ying was still, but now his mouth curves. He’s about to lie—Lan Wangji can see it, and so he looks down at his hands, one cupped under Wei Ying’s thin wrist, the fingers of the other laid in a straight highway to the pulse. The lying is worse when Wei Ying smiles.

It doesn’t come. Wei Ying says quietly, “Lan Zhan?”

He says, “Is it gone?”

Wei Ying laughs—pale, awful. “You got me.”

“How did you…” Lan Wangji can hardly bring himself to ask. “How?”

“Ah, well, Lan Zhan, you know how sometimes you put stuff down on the subway, and then you just totally forget to take it with you when you leave? I—”

He glances up. “Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying’s eyelids flutter, and all the humor disappears from his face. “Does it matter, Lan Zhan? It’s gone.”

This morning, which now seems a month ago, Lan Wangji sat on a bamboo mat on his balcony to meditate. The sun was a bright silver coin passed between two witch-gray hands of cloud, and for ten minutes it was a brilliant sunrise, low rays draping over the rail to rest in his lap and cup his face. He has felt stagnant lately, and there was a simple pleasure in the motion of energy through his body.

He’s heard the stories of cultivators who lost their cores. Fear used to trail the Wens wherever they went, because of a Wen disciple who could shatter cores with his hands. Wen Chao reserved it for his most hated enemies. Lan Wangji remembers an abstract for a journal article on the clinical course and outcomes of ten anonymous victims. Seven died of shock within a week.

He says, “How long?”

Wei Ying is biting his lip hard enough to blanch it. “During the war.”

So it was Wen Zhuliu. The Wens caught Wei Ying, and did this to him. Anger trembles in Lan Wangji’s stomach, but he squashes it. There will be time for that later.

With a core, Wei Ying’s demonic cultivation is dangerous. Without one, it’s an unimaginable risk. How can he counter the effects of the resentful energy? What is there to stop it from corrupting him? Lan Wangji’s imagination spits up blue lungs darkened by tar on cigarette packets. The gray veins spidering up the jaws of walking corpses. Wei Ying lying on the basketball court with blood under his mouth.

“It’s nothing,” Wei Ying says. He withdraws—yanks his wrist back, draws his knees up like a propped shield, crosses his arms against his chest. “Just… can I have some talisman paper?”

Lan Wangji nods. He keeps a few in his coat pocket, because Wei Ying asks for it almost every loop. He offers ink as well, but Wei Ying dismisses it as too messy, so Lan Wangji must watch him cut his finger and draw five talismans in his own blood, one after another.

“What are those?”

Taking one from the heap, Wei Ying lays it over his heart and holds it there, fingers spread to let Lan Wangji see. “It’s a labyrinth. Well, an abstraction of one—like, very abstract. I found the architectural design online, an old imperial palace. The resentment goes in, wanders around, can’t get back out.”

The top half, at least, is familiar. “These figures are… the same as a spirit-trap.”

“Right,” Wei Ying says. “Same principle, but modified. Handy for offloading excess, but I can’t rely on it too much—the ghosts get mad if they think I’m wasting their energy. That’s the mistake most demonic cultivators make. Ghosts know exactly what you’re doing with their resentment, and if they don’t like it, they’re pretty punitive. They’re not batteries.”

He holds out the talisman that was pressed to his chest. “It’s full. See?” The talisman’s red ink blurs, strokes swollen. Wisps of energy tangle around where his thumb touches the paper. “Okay, having said that, this... is basically a yin battery.”

As he says, the energy seems contained. It’s brilliant. Lan Wangji asks, “What will you do with them?”

“The energy dissipates over time,” Wei Ying says. “If I don’t use them, I hang them outside my window—like a message. There’s a fine line with ghosts. You don’t want to make them mad, but you do want to tell them not to fuck with you.”

Lan Wangji passes it back. Wei Ying puts it aside and takes another. “It’s okay, Lan Zhan. Say what you’re going to say. I’d feel you disapproving from the Arctic Circle right now.”

“The energy is making you sick. If you don’t have a core, you’re even more susceptible to it.”

“Yeah.”

“But you still use it.”

“People use dangerous tools all the time. If you’re not protected and you don’t understand what you’re playing with, you’re going to get hurt. That’s always true.” Wei Ying’s other hand dawdles on his knee. He meets Lan Wangji’s eyes. “But I can manage it. I’m not an amateur, and I’m not a liability.”

“What ways?”

“Well, the talismans, obviously. Uh, a lot of meditation, and medicine to counteract excess yin—I know somebody—and getting poked full of needles on a regular basis. It’s a whole regime.”

“But you can’t entirely mitigate the risk.”

“No, I can’t.” Wei Ying looks tired, but defiant. “Lan Zhan, I know you’d feel better if there was one less demonic cultivator in the world. You’ve made that clear. But... I don’t have other options. You want me to give it up—could you do that? Watch everything that happens here, and just shrug and go about your day?”

Lan Wangji thinks of his ghost—of the forbidden music he is willing to compose, to set it free. “No,” he says.

“Right,” Wei Ying says softly. “There are people who need help. And not just the living ones—all the ghosts who’ve been left behind or forgotten or fucked over. Sect disciples just smash them up, but I can’t do that. Won’t. They deserve some justice, and peace, if I can give it to them.” His pupils are big and dark. “If you could hear them, Lan Zhan… I think you’d feel the same.”

Lan Wangji has barely heard them. Once in a while he connects a call to that place, listens to a voice play its lonely piece. Wei Ying lives with a whole dead city screaming and crying and pleading in his ears. Watches them by the thousand try and fail, or never try, to do the things they couldn’t do in life, and then offers them himself.

Kneeling in the indecisive gloom, it feels like vertigo. Like tipping his head up to follow the sky’s vertical slope, and finding a luminous autumn planet, like a dust-grain and a star, more beautiful because it is tiny and the darkness is vast and cold. It aches to look at Wei Ying, and Lan Wangji doesn’t mind.

“I’ve heard them,” he says. “And I do.”

Wei Ying smiles. It’s a lunar shadow, the outline of something that could be bright. Lan Wangji can’t look away. “Yeah.”

The air between them feels wrung out. After a minute, Wei Ying puts aside another full-up talisman, and spreads the next over his heart. Then he pinches his nose, and sniggers. “Funny night, huh?”

“Yes. Very.”

“Every time I think we’ve hit the weirdness ceiling, we just smash through it.”

Poised on the lip of the silence that follows, Lan Wangji folds and unfolds his hands in his lap, deciding. “What did Luo Qingyang mean, when she said you could be seen?”

Wei Ying huffs out a tiny breath. “You heard that, huh.”

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”

“Ah, well. Um. She was just surprised.” Wei Ying gazes up at the skylight, throat working. “So, uh… pretty funny actually—I should be invisible to you. I should be literally imperceptible, you should be staring right through me at this wall. You shouldn’t be able to hear anything I’m saying.”

“Why?”

“Exiled. By Lanling Jin Sect. They erased me, I’m off the map. Sect disciples can’t see me, I can’t see them. Can’t hear them, can’t be heard. Can’t stand on sect ground. It’s like I don’t exist. Or, that was how it was supposed to work—did work—for a long time. Until tonight, apparently.” He shakes his head. “What the fuck.”

Many people were punished after the war. The last of the Wens were rounded up. The sects and clans who helped them were dealt with harshly. But exile was—is—rare. In the histories Lan Wangji has read, it was reserved for those who have a death sentence reduced because of a mercy plea. Wei Ying’s crime was terrible enough to earn the harshest penalty—but someone spoke on his behalf to have it commuted. Why has Lan Wangji never heard of him?

“What did you do?” he asks. “Why were you punished?”

“I'll tell you,” Wei Ying says. He still doesn’t meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Some other time, I’ll tell you, okay?”

“Okay.”

You’re a Lan. Wei Ying seemed so surprised. But other sect disciples knew Wei Ying was here before tonight. “What about Nie-zongzhu?”

“Ha.” Wei Ying plucks at a loose thread on his hoodie sleeve. “Huaisang’s been able to see me forever. Just showed up here one day and smiled right at me, gave me the shock of my life. Could be to do with cultivation practice—Nie disciples aren’t like other cultivators, their magic works differently. Or maybe there’s something weird about Huaisang? Jury’s out on that one.”

“And Luo Qingyang?”

“Left her sect. She still cultivates, but she’s not a Jin disciple and it’s not Jin cultivation. I guess it’s hardly surprising that ‘the cultivation world’, as defined by the sects… means sect disciples. They didn’t even consider independent cultivators.”

“I see.” Lan Wangji can believe it. For one thing, there are far more unaffiliated cultivators now than during the war. Disillusionment has swept through the sects since Lanling Jin assumed its high position. Sects have splintered, dissolved, merged. Unorthodox cultivation has grown like tenacious weeds. The Jin Sect couldn’t have anticipated it. No one did.

“Anyway,” Wei Ying says. “Mianmian was… we’re both kind of thrown, because it means something broke the seal.”

“I imagine it would not be difficult,” Lan Wangji says. “If it was cast by Lanling Jin Sect.”

Wei Ying laughs. “Lan Zhan! So catty! Jins and their shitty spellwork, ah?”

“Mn.” Their most promising disciple is dead. And disciples don’t become prominent in Lanling Jin Sect for their ability.

Wei Ying shakes his head, grin wavering. "Well, usually that’s true, but… for this they really, uh. They really meant it. It’s strong.”

“Have you ever tried to break it?”

“Once, yeah.”

“Why?”

“I was drunk. It was stupid. Would’ve killed me, that much energy, if I’d committed to it—which would be, you know, counter-productive. And even if it had worked, what I would have done? Sect disciples would kill me on the spot if they saw me."

"No,” Lan Wangji says. “Why only once?"

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “Well. I had a lot of time to think about it, while I stacked supermarket shelves. Good for perspective, shelf-stacking. Bad for repetitive strain injuries.” He loops the thread around his finger and snaps it. “I figured nobody wanted to see me, and… I don’t know. It seemed better. If I was just gone.”

Each wall around them is its own dusk. Wei Ying’s shadow leans out from his body as he fidgets his leg. Lan Wangji can’t imagine what it would be like, to be severed from his sect—from his cultivation entirely.

"So I've just been here,” Wei Ying goes on. “Being quiet. Stacking shelves. Didn't bother anybody." Lan Wangji can hear it in his voice, that shrunken and colorless life. The kind of life he doesn’t want to imagine for Wei Ying.

“But it’s broken?”

“Yeah. Not sure when it happened. I thought… maybe they’ve changed their minds, about the exile thing. Maybe they heard about where I am and what I’m doing. Maybe they…” Wei Ying shakes his head. “The guy at this party—Lei Sheng—he hinted he knew who I was. And if an independent cultivator can guess, a bunch of Jin disciples probably could too—and they’re everywhere, so...”

He stops, mouth half-open.

“Wait—wait. There was a kid, uh…” Wei Ying’s fingers beat out a frantic rhythm on his thigh. “Not a Jin disciple, he was from one of the branch clans, I think? I saw him just before I got on the bus. He said ‘I need you’, and then he apologized? I don’t know, it was so sudden, he just disappeared… And then I got on the bus, and I met you, and the bus crashed, and… you know, it was a lot. But before that—”

Wei Ying mashes the heel of his free hand into his eye, so vigorously it seems like he’s trying to rub out part of his face. “Ugh, I’m so scrambled—it’s that thing, where what you’re trying to remember is right there, you can almost get it, but not quite.” He sighs. “Shit. Shit.”

“Just rest,” Lan Wangji says. He brings Wei Ying the rice noodle roll box, now tepid. “Eat. I will get you some water.”

Downstairs, he searches the kitchen for a clean glass. He’s reeling from what Wei Ying has told him. Fills the glass too high, thinking about Lanling Jin sealing Wei Ying away, unseen and unheard. The crime was demonic cultivation, he thinks. It’s obvious Wei Ying has been practising it a long time.

Everything Lan Wangji has been taught tells him he should report Wei Ying as soon as they are free of this loop. But he won’t. He believes Wei Ying is good. He knows it.

“Excuse moi,” someone says.

Lan Wangji apologizes, and steps away from the sink. In front of him, the kitchen island is a cheery technicolor of food packets and bottles. Wei Ying must be hungry—no core—but he doesn’t know what Wei Ying would like. He stands there, staring at a decimated fruit plate, smelling fleshy sun and the lemon that keeps the apple boats from browning, and thinks that he would like to know. He would like to know everything about Wei Ying. Even the darkest things.

“Mo Xuanyu!”

When he opens the door, bearing the glass and a heaped paper plate, Wei Ying is on his feet. “He said his name was Mo Xuanyu, that’s where I…”

The Mo Clan—a branch of Lanling Jin Sect. The name was dimly familiar when Wei Ying said it in the Jiang Sect office, though Lan Wangji can’t recall why. As far as he knows, the Mo family are not cultivators. He remembers hearing of only one, and it was years ago. Perhaps that was Mo Xuanyu.

“We need to find him,” Wei Ying says. “I’m pretty sure he knows something, he—”

Lan Wangji hands the plate and glass to him. “You said that he disappeared?”

“Yeah. Ran off, I think.”

“Not a ghost?”

“Don’t think so.” Wei Ying’s shoulders sink. “I have to admit, a ghost would be easier. A flesh-and-blood kid is hard to track.” He sighs. “Okay, let’s—”

“You should eat first.”

“Aiya. Fine, alright.”

Dropping cross-legged onto the floor, Wei Ying balances the plate on his knee. He eats bites of rice roll and dips crackers in the chili oil Lan Wangji scooped onto the plate edge. A half-strawberry paints red juice on his upper lip.

“Lan Zhan, here.” Wei Ying takes a piece of skewered melon and offers it out. Lan Wangji hesitates. “Come on, open up. It’s really good.”

So Lan Wangji leans forward. There’s only a little distance between his lips and Wei Ying’s fingertips. Wei Ying must feel his breath, the inside heat of his mouth, as he takes the fruit between his teeth, tongue tapping against grainy sweetness, and tugs it free. Bites through the crisp meat and tastes both words, honey and dew. Wei Ying watches him. “Right?”

Wei Ying must know—it is impossible that Wei Ying could not know, when it is all over Lan Wangji’s face, as stark and obvious as a red flag.

“Mm,” he says, and Wei Ying smiles, one of his silly, beautiful nose-scrunching smiles.

“Lan Zhan, you’re so…” With a little laugh to himself, Wei Ying takes another piece of fruit. Lan Wangji wishes he would say the rest. Wants to ask—what do you think I am? What could I be to you?

Wei Ying sucks a cube of mango from the stick. His eyes are like shaded water, a depth impossible to guess. “Hanguang-jun, eating melon with a demonic cultivator at a party you weren’t invited to. I’m shocked. How many Lan rules are you breaking right now?”

Lan Wangji feels himself glow from throat to ears, pink sidestreet neon. “Seven,” he says, and Wei Ying laughs. It’s lucky Wei Ying doesn’t ask what they are.

They finish the fruit. He tries not to watch Wei Ying lick a delta of juice from between his fingers. He tries.

“Okay, I’m good.” Wei Ying stands and walks without swaying, which Lan Wangji takes as a good sign. “Let’s go find Mo Xuanyu.”

Time receded in that room, but it rushes back when Lan Wangji stands on the stoop and sees eleven o’clock on his phone. All around them is pure city, the gray of alleys and subway platforms, exhaust and crowded commutes. A siren melts, a red streak in a soup of sound. He listens to Wei Ying talk about a stall in the Flushing food court that’s the only place in New York to get reganmian. The streets look as wild and senseless as always, but not so unfriendly. Pixelated images that might offer themselves to be solved, if he looked again.

He says, “If we escape this…”

“The Anomaly,” Wei Ying interjects. “If we escape The Anomaly.”

“This,” Lan Wangji says, with emphasis, just to see Wei Ying smile wider. “I have… I would like to ask your help.”

“My help?”

“With a ghost. I don’t think it has anything to do with—”

“The Anomaly.”

“Our current situation. But it is important to me.”

Wei Ying clicks his tongue. “Lan Zhan—I owe you, like, ten million favors for getting you killed so many times. It’s literally the least I could do.”

“You don’t owe me anything.” Lan Wangji suspects he has got Wei Ying killed just as much, or more.

“Fine. We got crushed by an air conditioning unit together. That’s a very special bond, and I’m willing to honor it if you are.”

“I will.”

He thinks Wei Ying could help. After they solve this, they could help his ghost could move on together, and then he could leave here with a clear conscience—almost.

They turn the corner.

“But, I mean, if you have a better name, Lan Zhan, I’m all ears.” Wei Ying’s elbow nudges his side. “Hey, maybe we should name it like they do with hurricanes. You know, like ‘Babe’ or ‘Gert’? Time Anomaly Gert.”

“Wei Ying. Please do not make this worse.”

Then a wall falls on them, but Lan Wangji doesn’t care. The wall falls on them—edges fraying with resentful energy—but just before it does, Wei Ying is laughing, and Lan Wangji’s heart is rising in him like a lantern.

 

Chapter Text

 

36. 

 

Wei Ying 21:07
embarrassing

Lan Zhan 21:08
That was the wall?

Wei Ying 21:08
yeah
think i got brained by a bro k
brick
rude

Lan Zhan 21:09
This magic is very impolite.

Wei Ying 21:09
ugh right
hey lan zhan
what’s the weirdest way youve died

Lan Zhan 21:11
Falling encyclopedias.

Wei Ying 21:12
omg no way
thats so rude
turning books against you???

Lan Zhan 21:13
A betrayal I will never forget.

Wei Ying laughs. He thinks he remembers it from Lan Zhan’s spreadsheet. One of many bludgeonings. He winces in sympathy with Lan Zhan’s skull.

He’s texting Lan Zhan from the shop floor. The resentful energy is getting a little high, smoggy and wailing between the walls, and it really wants to get inside him—but it’s fine, he’s handled worse.

Wei Ying 21:14
uhhh .. i dont think we fucked up that time?

Lan Zhan 21:15
Nor do I.

Wei Ying 21:15
interesting

Wei Ying crams his phone into his back pocket. “Get up,” he tells himself, wishing his legs didn’t feel like somebody else’s, stitched to his hips with baggy hoops of thread. His arm shakes when he tries to pull himself up by the counter edge, and he hates it, that useless tremble, like a thin voice complaining. It’s bad enough that he fainted in front of Lan Zhan. “Get the fuck up, god, this isn’t even hard—”

Lan Zhan is waiting for him. He thinks about the way Lan Zhan smiled at him and his chest glows, three fireflies dragging their separate bulbs. He leans against the counter, teetering on marionette legs. Gathers the spiritual energy he has and pushes the resentment out, hacking and spluttering it up like a smoker with a twenty-a-day habit.

Then it’s easier, a bit. He reaches the door. He’s outside, and walking. Cold rain smell.

Walking kicks the thoughts up. Wei Ying treads some of them back down, wet leaves underfoot, but the one that won’t go is Mianmian’s eyes, confused. That’s Lan Wangji. Like they were talking about whether Wei Ying remembered the sun rose every morning.

They knew each other—so what? Wei Ying knew many people, once. None of it was worth anything when they called him ‘Yiling Laozu’, when they came to kill him. Wei Ying is glad not to remember Lan Zhan. He’s glad Lan Zhan hasn’t recognized him, because it means Lan Zhan wasn’t involved. Maybe Lan Zhan was hurt in the war. Maybe he was needed elsewhere. Maybe he was already in seclusion. Wherever he was, he wasn’t there, when the sects came to kill the people Wei Ying loved. There were Lan disciples there that day, a lot of them. If Lan Zhan had seen him on that bus and known him, Wei Ying would have walked away and never looked back.

He’s tried not to think it, but there’s a glass-splinter hope that maybe Lan Zhan disagreed with what his sect did. Lan Zhan is kind and smart and good, and not at all what Wei Ying expected, but it’s a stupid, useless wish. There was Mianmian and his shijie, two voices in a boiling sea. No one else spoke for them. It’s enough that Lan Zhan had nothing to do with the worst day of Wei Ying’s life—more than enough. It’s so fucking lucky Wei Ying can hardly believe it.

Lan Zhan waits outside the temple. Half charm, half wish, and smiling with his eyes. He’s brought Wei Ying a Gatorade and a spicy pork banh mi from a place Wei Ying mentioned once in passing.

“Eat,” he says, and it’s so nice, even if Wei Ying can guess the motive behind it. It’d be inconvenient for Lan Zhan if he collapsed. Again.

Then they walk to the basketball courts, the last place Wei Ying remembers before his first death, and they get to work.

So much of nighthunting is like this—drudgery, slow work. Talking to witnesses who can barely describe what they saw. Examining a hole in a wall or a girl with a curse-stained palm. Walking the same three blocks while a ghost pleads in your ear. Sitting on a bench with bodega coffee like charred river-silt and Wen Ning’s yellow braised chicken in battered tupperware and three firecracker talismans, waiting for something to show.

Wei Ying whistles. He could paint an array, call as many ghosts as possible, but when they come to howl their grievances it’ll be hard to hear the signal for the noise. And he’d rather not faint in front of Lan Zhan again.

The wind picks up, chilling his cheeks, reaping whiskers across puddles. Leaves tumble. Ghosts whirl at him from every side—moaning, screaming, chattering, an orchestra of kitchen arguments and crow-cackles. Wei Ying looks at his crowd of faces—and no-faces—and smiles. “Hi, thanks for coming.”

He knows Lan Zhan is behind him, guqin ready, and it’s a huge feeling, like having the white roar of the ocean at his back. “We’re looking for a boy—Mo Xuanyu? Pale clothes, hair cut to here.” He measures by his chin. “Seen him around?”

Oh, maybe they’ve seen him, maybe they haven’t. Their laughter is full of teeth. The ghosts around here are nastier, they won’t give up easily what they know. Some are old, and not so impressed by one little cultivator with no golden spark, even if he makes ghost music with his mouth.

That’s okay—Wei Ying has spent years learning their songs, and trying some of his own. “I really do want to know,” he tells them, and the song he whistles is a crisp, vigorous little knife. They hate it, but it’s hard to ignore.

Mo Xuanyu? Suddenly they all overlap, glassy whispers. Mo Xuanyu? Who’s Mo Xuanyu, don’t know any Mo Xuanyu—

“Go look for him for me,” Wei Ying tells them. “Come back if you find him.” They drift away like boat sails.

Lan Zhan is kneeling on the ground with his guqin, strings making scattered sound. Wei Ying wonders how Lan Zhan’s clothes never get wet or dirty. Must be repelling arrays of some kind, stitched in. Probably everything Lan Zhan wears is magical.

“Anything?” he asks, rubbing at a twinge in his elbow. Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Me neither. Ah, I could get more, if I—” Wei Ying snaps off the end of that thought before he can think it. Some tools he won’t use.

“What?”

“Nevermind.”

“The ghosts here are challenging.” Lan Zhan comes up to his feet, guqin vanishing. “They often resist requests for information.”

“You nighthunt here?”

“Sometimes.”

“Huh.”

Lan Zhan’s attention is steady, his blink a prompt to continue. Wei Ying can’t believe people on the internet call Lan Zhan ‘cold’ and ‘emotionless’. The book of Lan Zhan’s expressions would be hundreds of pages thick, and so many of them are kinds of warmth.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “It’s just… I’m the go-to person for the stuff ordinary cultivation can’t deal with. Which is a lot, actually! So many interesting cases… ah, the corpse a few months ago, that guy just didn’t want to get back in his grave. Anyway—we might have passed each other so many times, and not even known it.”

“That seems likely,” Lan Zhan says.

“You’re probably the one who took down that huge sewer demon under the Meatpacking District before I could even get to it.”

“Mn.”

“You were? Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying spent weeks designing spray-paint trap arrays, and wading through the city’s reeking, trash-furred intestines to track its movements with alarm talismans. Then he found it floating belly-up in bloody water. “I guess we’ve been waltzing around each other for a while.”

Wei Ying works at a different level to the rest of the cultivators around here—arrogant, maybe, but it’s true. He can take down what half a dozen sect disciples can’t, because he has one foot in a place they can’t see or hear, and tools orthodoxy won’t let them use, and years of experience with the city’s old grief and new rage. But he’s never met anyone else who could kill a greater demon alone.

He prods Lan Zhan into a discussion of his biggest and weirdest hunts. Lan Zhan tells him about a two-bodied poisonous serpent that tried to drink Central Park Lake dry, and a pair of shapeshifters selling human thigh meat from a gourmet burger truck. “By all accounts, it was delicious.” Wei Ying offers an ancient ghoul who hid as an antique wooden puppet, and that time he used music to make a horde of fierce corpses play five-a-side soccer.

“It was a slow night, Lan Zhan!”

“Hm.” That’s a ‘no’ on disrespectful corpse magic, but he can tell Lan Zhan is impressed. The thought of what they could do together makes Wei Ying’s skin rise, pleased and electric.

They cross the stepped plaza. Wei Ying kicks through a drift of wet leaves, churning maple-red and gold. He’s thinking about where to go next, the radii of ghost perception, how much more ground they can cover with two, when a huge shape slashes into view. It’s a dog, huffing and trying to shake itself dry, big jaws hung open. Fear falls into Wei Ying as suddenly as night in a wood.

“Let’s go—back, let’s go back, a different way, fuck, I—”

Lan Zhan’s voice says, “What is it?”

He’s squeezing an arm, which is Lan Zhan, but all the lines between his brain and body have been stopped. Signal failure.

“Wei Ying.”

“I don’t—” Wei Ying lets go. He’s stepping backward, hands spread and out. He’s feeling the dog lunge for his neck, and the raw razor clamp of teeth. The dog stares at him.

Why are you so scared? Jiang Cheng, hands on hips. They’re nine and nine-and-a-bit, and Wei Ying is crumpled and trembling like a spider behind a stall of ribbon-tied books. They’re just dogs, they’re smaller than you, they’re just— Wei Ying knows why, but he can’t explain. There’s a cramped room in his brain, and the door slams, and there’s no light, only noise, so much noise, and the walls say, the floor says, the dark says, They’re not going to stop. And no one is coming.

 


 

37.

 


Unknown 21:02
i know i know
before u say it
careless
sorry lan zhan

Lan Wangji 21:04
You’re afraid of dogs.

Wei Ying 21:05
oh its not like,, a phobia
its nothing
just dont like them

Since they met Wei Ying has been fearless, his own safety like a coin toss he watches indifferently. This was old fear. Lan Wangji thought Wei Ying only didn’t cry out because he was too afraid.

Wei Ying 21:07
that one was pretty funny tho
falling down a fucking sewer
soo oo gross

Lan Wangji 21:09
Did you not say you are familiar with sewers?

Wei Ying 21:10
lan zhan!!!
i wont dignify that w an answer

He brings Wei Ying a yuzu chicken wrap, easy to eat as they walk. They cover blocks one by one, Lan Wangji drawing curious looks when he uses his guqin to play Inquiry. After an hour of empty answers and denials, a shaky old hand tells him about a boy like Wei Ying’s description who was walking one of the piers. A thin lead, but they follow it.

The ghost energy is clammy there, like fingers of green weed in cold water. It quivers around Wei Ying as he starts along the pier, whistling. Lan Wangji follows. The wideness of the river at night is cold to look at, even where the bridge lights drop their gold.

They speak to more ghosts, but no one has seen Mo Xuanyu. Lan Wangji is about to suggest leaving, when something leaps up from the ground like a curtain swish. Wei Ying coughs.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying turns his head. His eyes are a mangled color.

“This one’s cosy.” Unnatural, how an invisible needle jerks the looped thread of Wei Ying’s mouth into a smile. The way he folds his hands in front of him. His heavier step.

“Out,” Lan Wangji says. “Now.”

He’s about to use his guqin, but a satiny white mass leaps out of Wei Ying’s body, and the face is Wei Ying again.

“I’m fine!” he says. “It’s fine, he just surprised me. Ah, some of them are so presumptuous—they don’t even ask if they can come inside, which makes them really shitty hookups.”

He grins. A sticky heat goes up Lan Wangji’s neck. But it’s a joke—it means nothing.

He hasn’t asked if Wei Ying likes men. He hasn’t asked. Wei Ying began flirting as soon as they sat down in the cafe, his voice glossy and gumdrop sweet when he dodged questions. Lan Wangji saw how he smiled at Mianmian, at Lei Sheng, at every person they spoke to. How familiar he was with Nie Huaisang, drooped against his friend’s shoulder as he was poured another drink—more than that, Sangsang, c’mon. Wei Ying flirts with many people, his laughter like a whipcrack, his smile filmy and wide.

It seems more real with ghosts. As they walk, a ghost with scarlet lips and nails hangs near the railings like a dragonfly, then darts closer to Wei Ying. Lan Wangji doesn’t often see them, but this one can make herself visible. Yellow light rolls on her hair, silky dough under the heel of a hand. Wei Ying winks at her; they look animated as they talk. At one point she leans up to tug on his ponytail, whispering in his ear. He laughs.

When she disappears, Wei Ying watches her go.

Lan Wangji asks, “Who was that?”

“We’re old friends,” Wei Ying says. “I’ve known her all the time I’ve been here. She can’t move on, so she terrorizes bad husbands for fun. As hobbies go, it’s pretty funny. But… she doesn’t know anything about Mo Xuanyu.”

And he trudges on, whistling the melody that makes Lan Wangji’s skin feel thin.

Another half an hour goes by. It continues to rain, as it does every loop. Wei Ying is a shadow ahead of him.

“Wei Ying?”

“Hm?” Wei Ying lets him catch up, and Lan Wangji can see he is wet through. His hoodie sleeves hang heavy. One cuff drips. “Ah, there’s nothing here—let’s try someplace else."

Lan Wangji holds out his parasol. Often Wei Ying is happy to presume, but sometimes he won’t step under unless explicitly invited. “You’re cold.” Wei Ying is pale, even his lips.

“It’s okay,” the floor of Wei Ying’s voice buckles when he shivers, “I’m fine, shall we…”

Lan Wangji is aware that all the wild swings of his mind are not rational at this moment, but he’s determined that Wei Ying won’t die of hypothermia in this loop.

“Wei Ying. Come and sit down.”

The covered swing-seats on the pier are empty, creaking in the wind. They sit, and Lan Wangji says, “Show me your heating talisman. Do you have it drawn out?”

“Ah, some version of it, I think.”

Wei Ying unlocks his phone and opens his Notes app. He scrolls through titles (‘compass FINAL 1.13’, ‘shadow puppet DO NOT USE!!!’) and taps ‘new 🔥🔥 2.16 test NEW’. The talisman is neatly drawn, with numbers for stroke order and directional arrows to indicate energetic pathways. “Here,” he says, and offers his phone. “That’s the latest version.”

Lan Wangji takes it and studies the design. It seems sound. “Could it be used on fabrics?”

“I guess? You can tweak the right side to make it hotter or cooler, vary the yang input. Maybe take out that amplifying chain, to be safe.”

Lan Wangji stares at the talisman until it’s stamped in the soft inkpaste of his memory. Then he slides Bichen partway from its sheath and slices his finger. As he does, Wei Ying makes a show of cringing away. “Lan Zhan, don’t set me on fire!”

“I won’t.” He trusts Wei Ying’s work.

He draws the talisman over Wei Ying. The blood conducts, each stroke a tiny ember. Steam billows out of Wei Ying’s hoodie, a lungful of sauna heat, the cotton breathing itself dry.

“Hey,” Wei Ying says, plucking at his sleeve and rubbing his thumb into the cuff. He hunches up his shoulders like a roosting bird. “That’s nice.” Then his eyes turn thoughtful. “Wait, if you... ah, one second—” He takes the phone from Lan Wangji and swipes at it, adding and subtracting strokes. “Now it might last longer.” He nudges the phone back into Lan Wangji’s hand. “Try that.”

Lan Wangji casts the talisman again, gently, on Wei Ying’s hair, and for a moment Wei Ying’s head is wreathed like a hill in fog. Then again on his wet jeans, and his sneakers.

“Oh my god, that feels—” Wei Ying gives a soft moan, folding his arms against himself. “Fuck, Lan Zhan...”

“Good.” Lan Wangji feels humid in his skin. He closes the wound in his finger, trying to breathe away his distraction. “Sit here and warm up a while.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying pats his hair. “Wow, my head feels like a radiator, this is so cool.”

The breeze flying off the river is bitter. Lan Wangji is glad for his coat. They listen to the hiss and slap of the water, the muddy suck of the river bottom.

“I died here once,” Wei Ying says, breath misting.

He drowned, Lan Wangji remembers. One of the early loops.

“So did I.” Listening to his brother’s voice, like a murmur from under the earth.

“Did you drown? No, wait—”

“Heart attack. On this seat.”

Postcard destinations: ‘My fatal tour of New York’. Most people would find it too morbid. Wei Ying says, “Nice view, at least.”

“I thought so.”

Wei Ying straightens his legs, nudging the seat back. When his knees bend it swings forward, steel arms squeaking. “It’s bizarre,” he says. “You’re so strong, but you’re dying of heart failure. While I just… fall off things, or get whacked by cars, or drown in the river.”

“You are also strong,” says Lan Wangji. “Are there... other demonic cultivators like you?”

In profile Wei Ying’s light-freckled face looks amused, or tired. “No. Just a bunch of assholes who get the ghosts all worked up, and create mess for the rest of us.”

“Mn. Like children.” Children wearing garlands of lit firecrackers, believing they won’t be burned.

“God, they are. It’s so embarrassing. I’m professionally embarrassed.”

Lan Wangji understands the feeling. There are many sect disciples he would rather not know.

He says, “You can do things I haven’t seen before.”

“Yeah. I like to experiment.”

“Even without a core.”

Wei Ying laughs, and it’s a cold, vanishing globe. “Sorry, it’s just—it’s so weird, you saying it out loud like that. Only three other people know, and we don’t even really talk about it ever. It’s not, like, scandalous among us, it’s just…”

“Private,” Lan Wangji offers.

“Yeah.”

“Is it difficult, being without it?”

“I’m mostly used to it.” Wei Ying seesaws one leg on the other, and scrapes a fingernail along the fraying denim at his knee. “Really you can adapt to anything, I’ve found.”

Lan Wangji will never get used to hearing Wei Ying crumple up his own pain and toss it over his shoulder like dirtied paper. “It’s considered equivalent to a vital organ.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Wei Ying says. “Can’t run or fight or swim like I used to, but that’s okay. It’s just... it’s chaotic? I used to be able to go without food or sleep for days. I could mend injuries so fast. When I got sick I could just—you know, just shrug it off, no big deal. Predictable, right? I knew how strong I was, and it was fun to push past that. Now it’s... totally out of my hands, I don’t really have any say. Every day you spin the wheel, get a different batch of weird symptoms. I mean, wow, my skin gets so dry—no, okay, that’s a New York in winter thing, that’s not a coreless thing.”

Wei Ying scrapes harder, his nail catching on rough threads. “God, sorry, you’re just... listening to me whine. Other people have it so much worse—it’s so, just, whatever, it’s so unimportant.”

“I think it is important,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Ying glances at him.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, you don’t need to feel sorry for me.”

“I don’t,” Lan Wangji says. It isn’t pity. “Why did you take it up?”

Wei Ying seems to understand what he means. The small catalyst which turned Wei Ying into a demonic cultivator. “Had to. Life or death, literally.”

“How did you learn it?”

“I experimented.”

“With what?”

“Me. And a really angry sword.”

It doesn’t sound like a lie. So he didn’t learn from Wei Wuxian.

“Did you leave your sect because of it?”

“No.” Wei Ying’s voice takes on weight, but he isn’t evading the question. “I think they could have tolerated it, probably. Not like it, but… live with it. It was everything else that was the problem.”

Lan Wangji crosses his ankles as he thinks. He doesn’t know of any sect that would accept demonic cultivation. “Do you miss them?”

Wei Ying looks ahead, across the water. “Yeah,” he says, dropping his knee. His foot lands on the boards with a soft thump. “Yeah.” He wrings his hands together, knuckles still white with cold, and nudges them into a dark tunnel of his joined sleeves. “You miss your sect, too?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, and he does, all over again. “But the distance has been… helpful.”

“I bet you’ve been going wild, Lan Zhan, without all those rules and respectable disciples breathing down your neck.”

“Hm.”

Wei Ying knocks his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s arm. “Lan Zhan! You have to tell me which rules you broke. Alcohol? Gambling? Secret girlfriend? Were you the guy Mianmian dated before Liqiu? I’ve been trying to get her to—”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “On all counts.”

“Hm! Okay.”

He is careful with the words, and still they come stumbling out. “My uncle is… he cares for us. For me, but…” You’ve disappointed me so much. “Lately we have not seen eye to eye on things.”

He would be appalled if he knew what Lan Wangji has been doing. Writing forbidden music. Playing nightly for a ghost he should have exorcised long ago. Sitting by the river with a demonic cultivator.

Lan Wangji worries—and he worries that these things don’t seem terrible to him. He doesn’t know what that means. Perhaps that he is already what his uncle feared. His parents’ son.

“My father died on this day,” he says. “Six years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says. “Was it sudden?”

“He was badly injured when the Wen Sect attacked Cloud Recesses. He fell into a coma and never woke. I was away from home when he passed.”

“That must have been hard.”

“Yes.” But Lan Wangji thinks he was relieved, too. Shattered, and relieved. The guilt was nearly as bad as the grief.

“Were you close?”

“No.” A ghost in a house. Less than that. “I did not know him well. And Shufu... has always impressed upon me the gravity of his mistakes.”

He had a dream, once, that he was standing in the crossed shadows of his parents, and if he stepped out of that threadbare space he would disappear. Sometimes he thinks the best thing he did for his father was outlive him.

Wei Ying is still. “What did he do?”

“He married my mother.”

“That’s...” A beat. “I don’t understand, why w—”

Lan Wangji feels strange, night-bleak. He shakes his head—no, I can’t—and Wei Ying says softly, “Okay, Lan Zhan.”

A train flickers past in the distance, a rattle with a shrill chrome edge. When the sound falls away, Wei Ying clears his throat.

“Not sure what we try next,” he says. “Maybe I can fuck around with the light-stick. I have a theory, but… I mean, I just made it out of spare parts, the materials aren’t great. It’s probably useless here.”

Lan Wangji licks his dry lips. “Are you familiar with the resentment detection devices the Jin manufacture? I have one at my apartment.”

“Not really. They only sell them to sect disciples, right? And getting one through the black market was too expensive. I figured they were just junk anyway.”

Wei Ying insists on walking uptown to find another ghost he knows. This doesn’t prove fruitful. He is visibly tiring, and the air is ripe with the rotted tang Lan Wangji recognizes as resentful energy. Lan Wangji is beginning to sense it everywhere.

“Wei Ying, you should stop.”

“No, come on, we still have more places to try—”

“They don’t know anything. We will have to try something else.”

“Fine.” A gray wisp flickers up the curve of Wei Ying’s ear. “Your place, then, I guess.” As they go, he is still calling down ghosts.

They meet a crowd going the other way, but the sidewalk is too narrow. Before Lan Wangji can say anything, Wei Ying takes a step away from him, and the crowd pulls them apart. When he escapes the loud dragging tangle of bodies, he doesn’t see Wei Ying nearby.

“Wei Ying?”

“Hi—hi, sorry, gimme a second.” The voice rises like a draft from behind a fire hydrant. Wei Ying is a scrap of black fabric on the curb edge, bent over with his elbows braced on his knees. “Just a second, I’ll be—”

Lan Wangji crouches beside him. “What is it?”

“I’m fine, just dizzy, it’s nothing. What were we doing? Your place, right? Great, let’s go...” He takes a handful of Lan Wangji’s sleeve and leans heavily on his arm, trying to stand with shaky legs.

“Wei Ying, sit back down—”

“It’s okay,” Wei Ying slurs, “don’t worry, this is just—”

A girl in a scarlet raincoat slows down. “Is he—”

“I’m fine, I’m fine! It’s no problem, just light-headed!”

She walks on. Lan Wangji says, “Wei Ying.”

“I know,” Wei Ying says. He sinks back to the pavement, breathing hard. His eyes have darkened, and resentful energy flares and pulses around him, bloating shadows like jellyfish. “Fuck, this is—”

Lan Wangji takes down his parasol and zips it inside his backpack. Then he folds Wei Ying’s arm around his own shoulders, bearing him up. “I’m taking you back to my apartment.”

“Okay.”

“I have you. Lean on me.”

He flags down a cab. Helps Wei Ying into the backseat, breathing hot old air, and gives the driver his address. As he shuts the door, the driver twists back to look at them.

“He drunk?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “Just unwell.”

“If he’s gonna throw up in my backseat, I don’t w—”

“He will not.”

They pull away, and Lan Wangji feels the rumble of the wheels in his chest. There’s a queasy scent, chemical pine and sweat, long-stewed. Bars of orange light and shadow roll over the backseat, and Wei Ying’s head drifts toward him.

“Don’t tell me it’s fine,” Lan Wangji says.

“Okay.” Smoke flutters around Wei Ying’s face. “Lan Zhan, this sucks.”

Outside his building, Lan Wangji thanks the driver and leaves a protective talisman stuffed like an old receipt between the leather seats. Then he walks Wei Ying across the cobbled courtyard and through the lobby of his building, not caring if Wei Ying looks like he belongs there or not.

“God, I’m sorry, this is ridiculous, you shouldn’t have to—”

“Wei Ying. There is no need to apologize.”

It’s just the two of them inside the elevator, facing the mirror. Lan Wangji has barely allowed himself to think about how close they are—Wei Ying’s arm slung across his shoulders, on top of his backpack, and his own around Wei Ying’s waist. He feels glazed by it.

Wei Ying says, “Rolling the dice again with the elevator?” He blinks at Lan Wangji, eyes fringed by the shadows of his eyelashes.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. When he looks straight ahead, he’s surprised by what he sees in his own face. The force of it.

Death isn’t waiting for them on the way. They arrive on unlucky floor forty-four, and Lan Wangji unlocks his door. As he helps Wei Ying into the hallway, something shoves Wei Ying back.

“Oh, yeah,” Wei Ying mumbles. “When your own protections decide you’re too lousy with resentful energy to be allowed.”

“What?”

“Your apartment’s trying to keep me out.”

The protective array above the door is burning hot blue.

Lan Wangji holds out his hand and pulls with spiritual energy. One by one, the strokes peel off the wall and float down, dissolving like snowflakes into his palm. The blockade across the door gives, and he walks Wei Ying over the threshold. Helps him to remove his shoes, discarding his own coat and parasol.

Wei Ying goes down to the couch like a capsizing ship, head heavy as an anchor. Then, lying there, he turns up his face and says, “It’s okay, Lan Zhan, it’s really nothing, I’ll be fine in a while—”

Lan Wangji ignores this. He carries the thick blanket from the cupboard and tucks it around Wei Ying. He turns up the thermostat. As he returns, Wei Ying begins to cough—loud, hacking, then subsiding into sandpaper wheezes.

“Wei Ying?” He feels colder when Lan Wangji lays a palm against his forehead. “Do I need to call an ambulance?”

Lan Wangji has met NY Presbyterian’s specialist in major spiritual afflictions—she’s competent, at least. But they can’t pass this off as a mundane possession, and she’s a disciple of Anping Rong, a sect close to Yunmeng Jiang. No doubt the treaty on demonic cultivation would compel Rong-daifu to report Wei Ying.

Wei Ying rolls his eyes, but he’s panting for breath. “And tell them, what, I have chronic dying syndrome with a side order of too much ghost energy? Lan Zhan, it’s like that time you tried to ride the train out, and I tried to walk out. We won’t even last to the hospital, let alone five hours in an emergency waiting room.”

“Wei Ying. I would like to help. Tell me how to help.” He takes Wei Ying’s wrist and touches his fingertips to the pulse. So slow, qi knotted and barely moving.

“Hey.” Wei Ying wrinkles his nose, and exaggerates a stony expression. “Don’t make that face. I’m okay.”

“I was not… making a face,” Lan Wangji says, the Lan rule against lying crunched between his back teeth.

He fetches the yellow detection unit. It’s unreliable, that much he knows, but it makes a crescendo of clicks as he brings it toward Wei Ying. He unclips the black swab from its cradle.

“Lan Zhan, are you swabbing me right now? Unbelievable. I’m nobody’s science experiment but my own.” Wei Ying’s eyes follow the path of his hand. “Interesting—maybe that thing actually does work.”

On the unit’s display, the needle quivers to the right and flattens itself to the uppermost mark. “Wei Ying…”

“It’s fine,” Wei Ying says. “I’m just a bit overloaded. There’s a thin line between ‘useful’ and ‘it’s crushing my lungs’, ha ha.”

“Wei Ying—”

“It’s okay, Lan Zhan. Can I have some more talisman paper? I’ll just purge it, and...”

Lan Wangji says, “My sect has songs for cleansing the heart. I could try one, if you’d allow.”

“I mean, you’ll need an industrial grade cleaning agent to get all this out of me. But go ahead.”

He brings his guqin and plays Cleansing for Wei Ying, knowing Wei Ying is right—it won’t be enough. Cleansing is traditional, and rigid in its application. Useful for things Wei Ying doesn’t have, like an unstable golden core.

“No good, huh,” Wei Ying says.

“I will try something else.” He sends his guqin away. Kneels down beside the couch and takes Wei Ying’s cold hand. “Tell me if it’s too much.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, hoarse, “I can take whatever you throw at me.”

He lets his spiritual power run into Wei Ying’s meridians, finding resentment congealed in the jingmai and luomai like tar. This time, instead of trying to drown it out, he invites it toward him. Come on, he tells it, come here, and it does, making strange echoes as it roils through Wei Ying’s body and into his own.

Wei Ying stares at him. “Lan Zhan—”

“It’s alright,” he says. “It won’t harm me.” It won’t—this much resentment makes his meridians feel sleepy and sick, but it burns up like space debris as soon as it touches his core.

“You’ll piss off the ghosts.”

“Fine,” he says, and Wei Ying gives a creaky laugh.

It’s a temporary measure. He can’t stop all the resentment in the city poisoning Wei Ying, but he can delay it.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs, “Lan Zhan… you’re really bright.” He rubs his nose with a hand trailing fumes. Residual resentment is coiling out of his mouth. It rolls up to the ceiling, where it meets Lan Wangji’s threshold wards and extinguishes with tiny pah! pah! sounds.

“Wei Ying?”

“Mm.” Wei Ying coughs into his other hand. “Okay, that’s… yeah, better, actually.” He rubs his chest and inhales deeply. “Oh, I can breathe. Lungs. Neat.”

After it’s done, Lan Wangji keeps giving him energy. Wei Ying’s hand is warmer between his. He’s tired, his temples buzzing, but he wants Wei Ying to be well. It should frighten him, the things he would do for Wei Ying.

He lets Wei Ying go, and settles his hands in his lap. Wei Ying’s mouth bends. “You look like you're about to say something.”

“The question you asked me on the pier,” Lan Wangji says. “I...”

Wei Ying frowns. “About your parents? You really don’t have to, Lan Zhan.”

He’s never said it aloud. “My mother killed one of my sect. My father’s teacher.”

Wei Ying sits up slowly, blanket gathering in his lap. “Do you know why?” He purses his mouth, unhappy with himself. “Sorry, you don’t have to answer if it’s—”

“I’ve never been able to find out. There was… a grievance.” That is all Uncle would say, the word more a silk screen than a window. “The penalty would have been severe. So my father married her, and she lived under house arrest at Cloud Recesses. My father went into seclusion.”

Wei Ying’s face is soft and stricken, but he says, “So you… did you live with her, in her house?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “It wasn’t permitted. We visited her, once a month.”

“Once a…” Wei Ying pauses. “Because of her health?”

“No.”

“Oh.” It seems cruel, and that is how Lan Wangji knows his uncle was terrified of his mother, and what she might make her sons into. “How old were you, when she died?”

“Six,” Lan Wangji says. “I didn’t… it was difficult for my brother and uncle to make me understand.”

Where’s Mama—where’s Mama? Is she in the house, where is she? His brother’s hand, pulling. A-Zhan, back to bed. Please, you have to—come on, I’ll take you, please...

“Uncle doesn’t speak of her. The elders would prefer she is forgotten.”

“What about your brother?”

“He honors their wishes.”

Lan Xichen remembers her better, but Lan Wangji doesn’t ask. Selfishly, he wishes he could sweep those memories out of his brother’s head, into his own. He knows he has forgotten so much. He would go back and shake awake that child who fell asleep in her arms while a black-and-white movie made the shadows dance, and say, this is the last time, after this there will never be any more. Take as much as you can carry, it will have to last your whole life.

“So when you said your uncle raised you... that was while your parents were still alive.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “He took on my father’s responsibilities as sect leader as well.”

“Your father just gave it up?”

“Not formally.”

“Wow. That’s... a lot to put on your brother—a whole sect, two little kids.” Before Lan Wangji can answer, Wei Ying quickly says, “I don’t mean that you were a burden, Lan Zhan, just—”

“I was.”

Waiting outside his mother’s house while the snow came down. By then he’d learned to stop asking where she was, because it upset his brother, but he still believed she’d appear. She went to the hospital and didn’t come back, so he had to call her home. It was ordinary magic, like the spellwork on his robes which kept them clean. If he waited there on her steps, if he sat straight and quiet, she’d open the door. He remembers the cold—not how sharp it was, only how dull it made everything else. He remembers it was silent, and the house stared, its windows black eyes without pupils. He remembers the snow melted where it touched his knees, white on white. A-Zhan, what are you d

“You were six,” Wei Ying says. “Your mom was gone.”

Lan Wangji nods, and doesn’t agree. It wasn’t that grief visited him and made him strange. He was led by the hand into a world where his mother wasn’t and told, you live here now, and part of him refused. Even when the old magic didn’t work. Even when she never came.

There was the silence of the day he didn’t see her. The silence of the following days. His brother crying in the dormitories at night, like an animal shuffling behind the wall. Their father, silent, his face an open wound.

For a few years, Lan Wangji stopped talking. That’s how his brother remembers it—he thinks he still spoke a little, but talking seemed large and unruly, his voice wild, birdlike, not part of him. In every other way he was years ahead of his peers, but all the concern was about why A-Zhan wouldn’t speak. There is a Lan rule against unnecessary speech, and at age six he had decided few things needed to be said aloud. They were safer in his head. His brother told him, it’s an instruction to think before you speak, A-Zhan, not to say nothing. This seemed like squirming away from the irrefutable, the edict in stone—but he dutifully read the volumes on Lan interpretative schools his brother gave to him. His uncle, he thinks, didn’t know how to reprimand him. After all, he’d done nothing wrong. He was a silence in the shape of a boy.

He wonders how his uncle managed in those years. One child full of fierce, baffled grief, the other as shut and silent as a tomb. A sect he never expected to lead. It’s strange to look at the adults who seemed as stern and implacable as statues in your childhood, and understand the weight they were bowed under all that time.

“Complicated?” Wei Ying tucks his head up against the couch arm. His eyes are soft and darkly kind.

“Yes.”

“It sucks, huh, when your parents just disappear. It’s really—somebody should make a rule against that.”

A funny sadness tugs at Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Mn. They should.”

The treatment seems to have been effective, because Wei Ying says he can’t feel any resentful energy inside him, but Lan Wangi wants to be cautious. He writes a heating talisman with ink and paper and presses it to the blanket, over Wei Ying’s shoulder. “Rest,” he says. “I will order you something to eat.”

“Thanks, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying turns his face into the seat cushion and sighs. “Don’t let me lie here too long, okay? We shouldn’t be wasting time.”

“Alright.”

In the kitchen, Lan Wangji orders takeout for them both: crunchy lotus roots, smashed cucumber salad, yang chun noodle soup made with vegetable broth, drunken beef noodle soup, wan za noodles, pickled pepper chicken feet, chili wontons. He debates whether to get another appetizer, and adds spicy beef jerky to the order. He does not want Wei Ying to be hungry.

Wei Ying is dozing when he comes back, curled into himself under the blanket. He’s taken down his hair from the high ponytail, and it splays around his head like a fresh ink splash. Lan Wangji can hear the soft huh-hm of his breathing, tucked beneath the apartment’s murmur. Occasionally Wei Ying fidgets his feet, and stacks or unstacks his knees.

Lan Wangji feels peaceful. He worries about what is happening to them, about Wei Ying, about the resentful energy getting worse, and yet—peace.

He is depleted from treating Wei Ying, so he sits on the mat and meditates. When the food arrives, he unpacks it and sets out dishes and chopsticks for two on the dining table. Then he goes to wake Wei Ying.

Wei Ying has wrapped himself still tighter in the blanket, head tucked down, a blue bass-clef curve. Lan Wangji thinks of a crayfish, hard shell and soft belly. Wei Ying’s face is huddled against his hands, one flat, one a fist. The moon-shaped scar smiles on his knuckle.

Lan Wangji wants to lie down with him. His body is full of what he wants, panging through him bittersweetly. “Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying breathes in. “Mm. I’m awake.” His voice burrs, saxophone static, notes in the key of sleep. “What’s up?”

“Come and eat.”

“Okay.” A jaw-cracking yawn. Wei Ying wriggles out from the blanket and ambles to the table, scrunching a handful of his long hair. “What did you get?”

“Some of everything,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Ying does pause when he sees it.

“Lan Zhan, this is—so much food.”

“Eat what you please,” Lan Wangji says. “There’s no waste.”

There’s something ruthlessly clean about it. Nothing survives but what they remember.

“By that logic, there’s no food. Why even—”

“You’re hungry now.” Lan Wangji anticipated that argument. Wei Ying knew he would.

Wei Ying grins. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

Once they’ve eaten, Wei Ying puts the yellow detector on the floor and sits in front of it cross-legged. He hums to himself as he inspects it. “Lan Zhan, do you have a screwdriver?” Lan Wangji brings him the entire toolkit, and they lay down a sheeting of newspaper.

Wei Ying finds an A4 notebook and a black ballpoint. Turning the notebook landscape, he draws a small cartoon ghost, like a child wearing a bedsheet. “Okay,” he says. “I don’t know what they teach good orthodox cultivators these days—stop me if this is basic to you. The pictures are for me, by the way, not for you.”

“Alright.” Lan Wangji sits opposite him.

“So. This is your friendly neighborhood ghost.” Wei Ying taps the notebook. “He’s a little bit resentful—something unfinished, you know the kind. He’s decaying at a given rate—I’ll spare you the formula—and that decay causes more resentful energy. The more he decays, the more energetic the resentment.”

It’s a principle Lan Wangji has never heard articulated, but it echoes with his experience. He nods.

“This,” Wei Ying scribbles another ghost, but gives it round staring eyes and a furious expression, “is a ghost with a serious grievance, say, somebody who died violently. He’s already decaying fast when he arrives dead on the scene. His resentment is pretty energetic, it causes all kinds of shit. I can perceive both of these, and so can that unit, looks like. So far, so ordinary.”

He flips over the pad and draws a wide, messy spiral, pen nib scratching. “Welcome to our time loop. It’s powered by resentful energy! For that to be, like, at all possible, whatever caused it must be extremely decayed and volatile, and emitting resentment so powerful it’s literally never been observed before.” He scribbles a black shape in the center of the vortex. SOURCE, he writes. “Very interesting. What we’re learning, I guess, is that this level of resentful energy is way more chaotic than the stuff we see every day.”

Lan Wangji nods. “But you can’t perceive it?”

“Nope. Energy this powerful is a ‘silent killer’ thing, seems like. That’s really when resentful energy is the scariest—when you don’t feel it happening to you anymore.”

“Anyway,” Wei Ying continues, “uh… as you might have guessed, the resentment everywhere is getting worse with every loop. I think you shake it off because your cultivation is so strong, but... when this loop started, I had resentful energy trying to climb down my throat. And the distortions,” he draws a small spiral inside his large one, “seem to be places where resentful energy is really concentrated and energetic, with the side effect of making time go haywire.”

Library. Apartment. Tea shop. Park. “Are we causing them?” Lan Wangji says.

“I think we are. Places we’ve been. You’ve only caused one, I guess because it’s harder to get a grip on you? The resentful energy’s just... riding your coattails. And that was in a place you’d been thirty-something times. But I caused one in a tea shop I went into once, walked past twice. I’m potentially causing them wherever I go.” Wei Ying bites his lower lip. “This is all a theory, by the way! We don’t have a lot of data yet.”

“Then the distortion in the park would imply another person looping.”

“Yeah. And if I can make this device detect very high-frequency resentful energy, I can find where they’ve been. Maybe find them, see what they know. Fuck, if I’m right, the source of all this must be a big distortion. So—that’s the next task.”

Wei Ying unscrews the yellow front plate of the unit. As he dips his head, the curtain of his hair drops forward, around his face. He gathers it in one hand and stuffs it down the back of his hoodie.

“Long hair,” he mutters, “why do I…”

“Would you like a hair tie?”

“It’s okay. Sometimes I hate tying it up—just, the way it pulls? Makes my scalp feel weird. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it. Ah, it’s stupid—stupid thing to get hung up on...”

“Not stupid,” Lan Wangji says. Then, senselessly, he says, “I could braid it for you.” He’s thinking of his mother, and how she used to do the same for him.

Wei Ying blinks up at him. “Oh—like, really loose?”

“If you like.”

Lan Wangji thinks he has gone mad, but he finds the spare hairbrush, soft boar bristle. From his bedroom dresser he chooses one of his silk ribbons—not pale Gusu Lan blue, but darker. Sea blue, the color of an ache.

He kneels behind Wei Ying. Wei Ying’s hair is thicker than his own, and almost as long. The rain has put a faint wave in it, and the short hairs at his crown are wiry and flyaway. Lan Wangji gathers it up from his nape and sets the brush bristles to the ends. “I will try not to pull.”

One shoulder shrugs. “It’s kind of inevitable, my hair’s always…” Wei Ying trails off as the brush catches and tugs a little.

“I’m sorry.” Lan Wangji works more gently, teasing out the snarl. “Does that feel okay?”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “It’s okay.”

Lan Wangji is a humming laboratory, glass heart and thin pipe veins. His insides clink and rattle with how hard his blood is beating. The secret heat of Wei Ying’s nape, under his hair, makes him dizzy.

Wei Ying goes back to dismantling the device, but he is unusually quiet. Sometimes his shoulders bunch when Lan Wangji’s fingertips touch his scalp or brush his ear, and Lan Wangji hears a rabbit flinch in his breath. But he doesn’t tell him to stop.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “They really did do it, huh.” And he holds up a sealed plastic tube, full of—

“Is that blood?”

“Yeah. When I heard the Jin Sect was manufacturing these things, I thought, there’s no way, they’ve gotta be fake. And then I thought they must have found some other way to make them, because otherwise there’s literally somebody’s blood in every single one. Well—surprise! Here it is.”

“Why?”

Wei Ying digs the screwdriver under the tube’s seal, prising it up. “Blood is a great conductor of resentful energy. Cultivator blood is the best. And—this talisman,” he uses tweezers to pluck out a sodden red curl of paper inside the tube, and lays it flat on the newspaper, “also only conducts resentment. Amplifies it. So if there’s even a tiny amount in the air, it’ll conduct through to this processing unit,” indicating the circuit board. His laugh is brittle. “Like—this is demonic cultivation. This is literally…”

“People have been imprisoned for far less.”

Wei Ying turns his head halfway, pulling against the brush. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re not surprised.”

“No. I’m not.”

“You know,” Wei Ying says, “nor am I.” It’s vicious in a way he has never sounded before. He folds up the newspaper corner to blot blood from the talisman.

Lan Wangji knows nothing concrete; it’s simply a feeling. Lanling Jin confiscate demonic cultivation material and imprison demonic cultivators. They’ve climbed in power quickly, but they’re not numerous like Qishan Wen or strong in cultivation like Gusu Lan. He thinks of Jin Guangshan, and Jin Guangyao. Their ambition. No, he isn’t surprised.

He asks, “Could this device detect distortions?”

“Not like this. It’ll register it as noise or a different kind of energy, and filter it out. The filtration has to be calibrated pretty finely, otherwise it picks up all kinds of stuff—like, lizard spirits. Spiritual phenomena are messy. I’ll need to do some tinkering.” Wei Ying pats the unit’s plastic back like an old friend, and a fine, frigid chill pushes up through Lan Wangji’s stomach. He realizes his hands are still, and goes on brushing.

When he’s finished, Wei Ying’s hair pours down his hood and his back in a thick gleaming sheet. The brush glides through it easily, and it’s like black velvet to Lan Wangji’s trailing fingers.

“Okay?” he says.

In the last few minutes Wei Ying’s hands have been slowing down, and now they retire to his lap. He hums. “Yeah.”

“Good.”

“I like having my hair played with.” Wei Ying’s voice is mist. Lan Wangji feels so porous. “My sh—someone I was close with, they used to do it for me, when I was younger. It wasn’t like this, though.”

What is this like? Lan Wangji holds his tongue. Setting the brush aside, he divides Wei Ying’s hair into three parts and begins to plait them loosely. The flashes of Wei Ying’s neck between the strands are an illuminated street crossed by pedestrian shadows. Life in motion, blinking—light, dark, light. At the end Lan Wangji ties his hair ribbon in a bow, two crisp rabbit-ear loops, then lets the braid thump gently against Wei Ying’s spine.

“Finished,” he says.

Wei Ying stirs like he’s coming out of sleep. He shakes his head, the braid sweeping side to side, and reaches back to climb his fingers up the length. “Ah, that’s perfect. Thank you, Lan Zhan.” Looking back over his shoulder, he says, “Okay! Now I need you to lend me your brain.”

Wei Ying is a good teacher—Lan Wangji learns more talismanic theory in ten minutes than in all his years to date. So equipped, they devise and discard twelve versions of a conducting talisman and settle on a thirteenth, pingponging ideas between them. Wei Ying, who is brilliant, crows, “Lan Zhan, you’re a genius!” and rushes to write down what Lan Wangji proposed, and Lan Wangji thought he didn’t care for praise but from Wei Ying it makes him blush to his ears.

He doesn’t manage to convince Wei Ying to stop using his own blood, which Wei Ying apparently considers to be in endless supply.

“I have a good feeling about this one,” Wei Ying says, nudging the inked paper slip into the tube of blood with a tweezer foot. “Next loop, we just swap out the talismans in the device and we’re good to go.” He seals it up, and repacks the device’s innards. “Ugh, but I can’t save the design. Remembering stuff is really not my strong suit, Lan Zhan.”

It isn’t. Lan Wangji smiles. “Let us take a break,” he says. Wei Ying should not overexert himself.

“Okay.”

Wei Ying leans over backward, as if tipping a rocking chair as far as it will go. He folds his hands on his middle, a parody of a Lan disciple, and his arm settles against Lan Wangji’s knee and foot. Light quivers down his thick braid with Lan Wangji’s ribbon in it. Lan Wangji thinks about how Wei Ying’s hair felt in his hands. It would be easy to touch Wei Ying, who is very near, and smiling at Lan Wangji with a little mote of light in the curve of his eye.

Lan Wangji feels like a lodestone, magnetized by all the skin he can see—Wei Ying’s face, his neck, his slim folded hands against his hoodie, like sun striking through a black cloud. He is imagining the soft, warm grain of Wei Ying’s lips. His skin imagines, his mouth imagines. He has never wanted someone so much.

You are forbidden, he thinks. And I don’t care.

Wei Ying says, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. His hair is falling around his face. He feels messy, his chest a haze-gold tangle. “Are you?”

“Mm.” Wei Ying’s thumbs tangle together like dancers. “Just feeling quiet. Like, the good kind. I know it’s ridiculous, given the, uh, everything, but… this is the best I’ve felt in—god, I can’t even remember. So. Thank you.”

“I wanted to.”

If they stay like this, Lan Wangji thinks, he is going to lean down and kiss Wei Ying, and on the other side of that is a great gulf, a fall, something he can’t imagine. He says, “Would you like tea?”

“Mm. That would be great.”

A green silence, steeping. When Wei Ying breaks into chatter, Lan Wangji almost feels the walls of his apartment startle—but it’s only the friction of the unfamiliar.

His mother’s house wasn’t silent. Lan Wangji has a few memories of her that are whole enough to live in him like spirits, and in all of them he thinks there is music. Debussy. Old shidaiqu records—Gong Qiuxia, Zhou Xuan. The door opens and a sweet, high voice shimmers from inside, hand in hand with wistful brass. His mother wasn’t a Lan disciple, the sect’s rules left like paired white shoes on her doorstep. She was noisy, her laughter filling her house—Lan Wangji remembers being startled by her laugh, his heart a flock of birds taking flight when he heard her. Every room was messy, and it was a game, once, to tidy up Mama’s astronomy books while she made buns. Zhan’er, come and try this!

Listening to Wei Ying talk while he pours their tea, it feels like a rosy piece of infinity. He could do this forever.

Soon, flutters of music come through the doorway. Wei Ying has liberated the dizi from its box. He smiles, listening to Wei Ying dawdle through something childish. As he carries the tea through, he sees Wei Ying lift the flute to his mouth again.

Then everything in Lan Wangji frosts, his stomach pond-cold. The tray he’s carrying meets the table beside him. Suddenly, he doesn’t trust his hands.

He says, “How do you know that song?”

Too sharp. He doesn’t care. Wei Ying also freezes, fingers splayed across the flute’s body. “Oh, uh—just something that came into my head, I’m a magpie when it comes to music. Why?”

“It’s mine.”

“Yours?”

“Yes. I wrote it.”

“Huh.” Wei Ying lowers the dizi. “Must be pretty famous, ah?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. Pain slices up his back. It spreads out from his spine like ice cracking under a heel. “I’ve never written it down.”

“Then how…” Wei Ying blinks. Blinks again. “What the hell,” he says faintly. “Lan Zhan, I’m sorry if I...”

Lan Wangji doesn’t remember playing it for anyone, but he must have played it for Wei Ying. There’s no other explanation.

He sits at his guqin, skirts pinned in dollops of silk under his knees, and plucks out the next part. He looks up at Wei Ying.

“Is it… what is it?”

“A duet for guqin and dizi.”

“For…” Wei Ying’s thumb taps an antic beat on the flute in his lap. “Huh.” His mouth flickers, not a smile. “I don’t… It’s just something in my head sometimes. I don’t even know where I heard it.”

Lan Wangji’s back is screaming now. He gasps, fingers mangling on the strings.

“Lan Zhan?”

“I’m alright,” he says, straightening up.

They cannot be the same person. Wei Wuxian was a monster—and he is dead. He is dead. He was killed five years ago, in a cell in Lanling. It is concrete, historical fact.

On whose word?

Wei Ying is hurrying to put the dizi away. The box lid closes with a loud snap. “We, um. We should get looking for Mo Xuanyu.”

Pain cuts into Lan Wangji’s shoulders like broken bottle edges. If he asks, Wei Ying will lie. He understands why Wei Ying must lie. But he has to know.

He says, “I have something I must do.”

“Sure, we can—” Wei Ying stops, reading the intention in his face. “Oh. You’re... not coming?” Lan Wangji shakes his head. “To do what?”

“I must look for something.” He isn’t proud of what he’s about to do.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says quietly. “It’s—it’s fine if you can’t tell me, that’s...” It’s difficult even to look at his face. Guilt untucks its claws into Lan Wangji. “Oh, but, Lan Zhan, what if the loop ends when we...”

“We’ve both survived for hours alone.” The thought of being alone again is a dull, cold void, but he hopes he will be allowed this.

“That’s... yeah, of course,” Wei Ying says quietly. “Worth a try, right?” He picks up the yellow unit, strapping it to his middle with one arm. “I’ll... If I find anything, I’ll let you know.”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji watches him head for the door. “Wei Ying,” he says, and Wei Ying turns back. “Take my parasol.”

“Oh. Thanks, Lan Zhan.” Drawing it out of the stand like a sword, Wei Ying taps it against his shoulder and offers a slight, ghostly smile. “Well—see you.” He closes the front door behind him. The sound is like a trap shutting its jaws, final and unkind. His footsteps retreat, and disappear.

Lan Wangji listens to them go. Listens to the silence descend, and waits.

Nothing happens.

Feeling heavy, he carries his laptop into the kitchen, and looks for Wei Ying.

He tries the sect administrative records first. Like most of the sects’ efforts to organize, it’s stumbling and archaic, gumming at his queries like a toothless grandfather. He doesn’t know the name of Wei Ying’s former sect, and without it the field is very wide. Some sects have thumbnail pictures of current and past disciples—he scours them hopelessly for that familiar face.

He tries the alumni records of major cultivation schools. Newspaper articles with photos of historic sect gatherings. The records of the war council at Qinghe are full of names, but there is no mention of a disciple being disciplined or expelled. Official correspondence offers nothing about prisoners captured by the Wen, or the names of any disciples who lost their cores.

If Wei Ying was ever there, he has been scrubbed away. They erased me, Wei Ying said. They erased me. Just like—

Lan Wangji 11:03
Do you have time to talk?

Luo Qingyang 11:07
sure
gimme a second

He picks up her FaceTime request. Memories overlap: smiling face, glittering eyes.

“Hi, Lan Zhan. What’s up?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt your evening,” he says. “I would… like to ask a favor.”

“You’ve paid for coffee for the last three months,” she says. “Call that goodwill in now.”

“I need to access the Jin sect criminal records.”

He’s managed to shock her. “Uh—wow. Unexpected, but I’m here to support you in your endeavors. Can I ask why?”

“Explaining would take a long time.”

“That’s fine,” she says. “I don’t actually need an excuse to do it. Let me make a call. I’ll come back to you either way.”

Lan Wangji waits. His tea is tepid. He drinks it anyway.

If he is wrong, he will apologize to Wei Ying. If he is wrong, he will tell Wei Ying everything.

Qingyang looks victorious when she calls back. “Success,” she says. “I found somebody willing to squeal. I’m sending you their login credentials. He’s an okay kid, so if you’re going to use them to commit a real and discoverable crime under sect or US federal law, just, um, let me know in advance.”

“I will,” Lan Wangji says. “Thank you.”

After she hangs up, the next message in their conversation is a white page with Qingyang’s writing in red marker. She has drawn a smiley face beside the password.

Welcome, says the screen that appears on his laptop. A gold peony watches from the top corner. Enter search criteria.

There are thousands of records. Lan Wangji tries half a dozen queries, and manages to narrow down the results to male perpetrators under the age of thirty whose crimes are classed as ‘severe’. 3604 records found.

It’s futile, he realizes. He doesn’t know Wei Ying’s real name, and there are too many records to look through them all manually. Lanling Jin Sect have been busy these past five years, sentencing every demonic cultivator they can discover.

The cursor blinks at him. His pulse is one held breath after another. Do it.

He types in the name. Stares at the top result.

Wei Ying (WEI WUXIAN) / 001886338A / Cat. 5

Lan Wangji has never looked for more than he was told. But what he was told has never been enough.

He clicks on Wei Wuxian’s record, and the grey peony-stamped window offers dozens of yellow folders. Some are labeled by date, others with number strings he doesn’t understand. ‘Pre-trial’ seems promising, and items scatter across the screen. But when he clicks the top document, an alert window jumps up like an eager student’s hand: Access error: you do not have authorization to view this file [X03.1]. Lan Wangji tries another, and another. Access error.

Most of Wei Wuxian’s file is restricted, even to Jin disciples. Wasn’t he tried and sentenced at Lanling?

With that impediment, Lan Wangji sifts through what he’s able to see. A death certificate dated five years ago, giving the cause of death as ‘court-mandated execution (undisclosed)’. Some preliminary trial records, including a psychiatric evaluation stating that Wei Wuxian is mentally fit to stand trial. Names and photos of his victims. Lan Wangji stares at a scanned photocopy of Wei Wuxian’s fingerprints. There’s a strange intimacy to it, the whorls of his skin frozen in ink.

Also unclassified is a character witness statement by a Jin disciple. Lan Wangji has no memory of Wei Wuxian attending the Gusu lectures, but this cultivator claims Wei Wuxian violated numerous Lan prohibitions, voiced heretical views about demonic cultivation to Lan Qiren, and was eventually expelled for attacking the Jin heir unprovoked. ‘A troubled child who displayed early signs of moral degradation’, it says. ‘Arrogant, envious, violent, and resistant to any correction or reform’.

His phone buzzes like a hornet, startling him.

“Hi, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, and Lan Wangji’s heart lifts, sickeningly. “Doing okay so far?”

“Mn.”

“We’re still alive. Definitely a plus.” Lan Wangji can hear the wind, marbling the line with white noise. “Another positive—the device works! Good, right?”

“Yes.” It clanks from his mouth, robotic, but Lan Wangji thinks Wei Ying must hear his live, thumping heart. “That’s good.”

“So I picked the strongest signal near where I was with Huaisang, and it’s leading me up to a roof, and… Lan Zhan, remember you said it was probably a fall, my first death?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah—I think I fell from up there, that’s how I died. I’m not even sure why I was up there. Like, I use rooftops for spellwork, but…” Something muffled. “Anyway—Lan Zhan, this rooftop is really unstable, the distortion is crazy. Like in the park, but worse.”

“Wei Ying. Be careful.”

“I will! Okay, I’m gonna get closer.”

A metallic clang, clang, clang. Shoes on a creaking ladder—Wei Ying climbing. A scuffle, a flatter sound of footsteps. The noisy gusting of the wind.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. Punched-out syllable. “Oh, shit.”

“What is it?”

“Fuck. Let me, um.” He sounds winded. “Switch my camera on.”

Lan Wangji lowers the phone from his ear as the screen into tumbling shadows. There’s a hiss like frying oil, and light bursts from a talisman suspended in the air, flashlight white.

“I, uh.” Shock bleaches Wei Ying’s voice. “Shit. It’s Mo Xuanyu. What’s left of him. There’s a lot of blood.”

Even with Wei Ying’s talisman, it’s hard to see. The roof slopes, dark tiles shining wet in hopscotch lines, and Lan Wangji can make out the outer strokes of an array. Painted thick and red. Red everywhere.

It disappears. The roof is blank.

“What the f—”

The swoops of red come back, flickering and strobing like a bad TV picture.

“That’s a ghost,” Wei Ying breathes. “That’s Mo Xuanyu, what the fuck—”

“You can see him?”

“No—shit, he’s gone.”

There, gone, there—

“God,” Wei Ying says. “Okay. This is so fucked up. I think I… followed him up here? I remember he was really mad, and when I used a talisman to stop him, he screamed at me—I was being shitty about it, but, well, I know a demonic array when I see one. I don’t think he knew who I was. And then I fell off the roof, like an idiot, and… he must have gone through with the ritual anyway.”

“What was he trying to do?”

“It’s a sacrificial array. It’s hard to read, but… uhm, so, at its most basic, it’s an energetic exchange. Like, literally, you turn yourself into pure resentful energy. Complication—uh, it kills you. Destroys you, your soul, everything.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t ask how Wei Ying knows this. His stomach is rising and sinking, painted horses on a carousel. “Why would he…”

“I think he was, uh, trying to break the seal on me. See this?” The picture shudders. Wei Ying is pointing to a jin radical in curving seal script near the edge of the array. “And, um, there’s a couple characters I think are meant to be my name.” He doesn’t point to them, and Lan Wangji can’t see the full design.

There are two ways to break a seal. Both are difficult. One requires perfect knowledge of the array: draw it in reverse, then circulate the energy backward. The other—smashing the seal—requires a massive burst of energy. It is what makes seals a foundational form of spellwork.

Mo Xuanyu was ready to destroy himself to bring Wei Ying out of exile. Wei Ying, a small-time demonic cultivator who works in a dusty store and does exorcisms for money.

“The thing is…” Wei Ying flips his camera. The talisman lights his face from above, gaunt shadows like paint streaks around his nose and jaw. His eyes have a dull, eerie shine. “The thing is, this array should have obliterated him. His soul, everything. Just—gone, totally. But it’s not. He’s not. When I met him the second time, he must have been a ghost. Which is, like—still dead, not good, but definitely not destroyed.”

“I met a ghost on South Street,” Lan Wangji remembers. He is used to hostile ghosts, but that one stands out. “Outside the abandoned building. They knew my name.” They say Hanguang-jun goes where chaos is. Chaos is here. And other things too. “They said they were looking for someone, but he wasn’t there. They were... angry.”

“Which loop?”

“Eighteen.”

“That could have been him,” Wei Ying says. “Could have been. Some branch clans can’t perform soul-calming ceremonies. Maybe Mo Xuanyu never got one.”

“But how is it possible for him to be a ghost?”

“The ritual seems to be—like, it’s already happened, but it hasn’t? He’s destroyed, but he’s not? He made a ton of resentful energy, and then—chaos, some weird time distortion. So he’s stuck, going around and around. Can’t undo the ritual, can’t escape…” He sighs. “Fuck. Poor kid. If we can help him, we have to try.”

The picture lurches. Lan Wangji sees a ribbon of dark horizon and stacked roofs. Graffiti scribble and sequin lights.

“Okay, I’m gonna take a closer look at this distortion.”

“Wei Ying.”

“It’s okay, Lan Zhan—I’m not near the edge, so you don’t have to worry. Probably.” He’s walking, breath jumping a little with effort. “How’s it going with your thing?”

Lan Wangji’s throat is dry as chalk. “Wei Ying, I...”

“Oka— I’m —nswer—”

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying shakes his head, but as he does the image freezes, a sideblown snow of pixels. “Sorry!” His voice comes through tinny and cracked. “I —nk the dist— up here’s fucking with the signal. Lan Zhan?”

“I’m here.”

“I’m gonna hang up, but I’ll come fi— when I’m done, okay?”

“Okay. Be safe, Wei Ying.”

The picture jerks into motion, still syrupy. Wei Ying is smiling, despite everything. “Bye, Lan Zhan,” he says. “Hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Then he’s gone. Lan Wangji stares at his screen, eyes burning in its glare.

Dread twists through him as he turns back to his laptop. The last folder in Wei Wuxian’s file is titled with a numeric string. Lan Wangji clicks it open.

More case files. Photographs of the Ghost General, taken from far away with grainy zoom. Taken in Yiling, he thinks. A written submission by an expert witness on the heretical magic required to return consciousness to its body after death. Most of the other documents are barred by the access error. Lan Wangji is beginning to read the message in Jin Guangyao’s smile-dimpled voice.

At the end of the folder there’s an image, a tiny jpeg. Lan Wangji opens it, and sees another photograph. The quality is terrible—phone camera, low light. He taps up the brightness of his laptop screen until it pencils shadowed features onto the figure in the center. As he does, the pain in his back strikes up, a thousand needles sharp.

It’s a boy. Bruises swell his cheek and lip, and he stares straight ahead at his photographer with dark, hating eyes. His back is against a wall. Queasy yellow paint. The clearest thing in the photo is the blood on his forehead. Lan Wangji brightens his laptop screen more.

People say that Wei Wuxian was hideous, that the ugliness of his spirit was obvious in his face. You could see it in his eyes, they say.

But he isn’t.

It’s the face that smiled at Lan Wangji from his phone minutes ago. He’s seen that face shut in fear and alive in laughter, teasing and angry and gentle. Looked at it from every angle, distant and close, alone and in a crowd. Wei Ying. Wei Wuxian.

You asked to forget. His brother’s voice. It was your decision. He pushes his laptop back. His hands are trembling—shock, not surprise. How long has he known, and looked away?

When he stands up his back is burning, his heart is a collapsing star, and he thinks—he knows—that somewhere Wei Ying is already dead.

 


 

38.

 

The bell over the shop door jangles.

“Happy birthday!”

Wei Ying staggers, eyes still full of violent light streaks. He was falling. He fell.

“Hey, Huaisang. Uh, there’s some stuff I need to take care of, so head over without me, okay?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine—go and, um.” Wei Ying puts on cheer, but it feels sticky and cloying. “Go get railed by Mianmian’s hot friend, right?”

Huaisang smiles widely. “Right. See you later, Wei-xiong.” And then he’s gone.

Wei Ying rubs his face. He doesn’t know how Mo Xuanyu knew he was here, alive, or how Mo Xuanyu got that ritual. He scrawled that array on scrap paper in A-Yuan’s green wax crayon, one night near the end. A knife to stow in his sleeve, the last of all his last resorts. He never meant for anyone to see it—use it. What happened to Mo Xuanyu, to push him to that? Why did Mo Xuanyu want him?

He’s dizzy. His blood feels like it’s running up a long hill. He sits on the floor and calls Lan Zhan.

“Hi, it’s me. Obviously.”

“Wei Ying.”

Neither of them speak. Then Lan Zhan says, staccato, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah. I’m—yeah. Another clumsy tumble off the roof, never gets old.”

Except it wasn’t. Except it was—

The silence gapes like an open, ugly mouth. The insect things which crawl on Wei Ying at night, telling him how it’ll all be ruined, murmur, something’s wrong.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, “you’re even quieter than usual.”

Lan Zhan still doesn’t speak. Then: “I have been searching the criminal records of the Jin sect.”

Wei Ying’s pulse is a rising siren. “I didn’t know they…” He hunches over. “Online records, that, that seems shockingly modern.”

“The sects began to digitize them after the war.”

“So there’s, what, a database of Jin Guangshan’s terrible decisions?”

“More or less.”

“How did you—oh, Mianmian?”

“Yes.”

Lan Zhan is typing—soft, neat clicking, a memory of the cafe on its heels. Wei Ying can hear traffic behind it. Lan Zhan is outside. Can’t have walked far. Maybe he’s sitting on the step outside the school, parasol handle tucked against his arm.

“What were you looking for?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. He says, “What is your courtesy name?”

Higher, higher, siren red. Fuck. “Why do you want to know?”

“You know why.”

“No, you don’t…” Wei Ying’s stunned, numb mouth doesn’t work. Oh, fuck. “Lan Zhan, you really don’t want to know.”

“Wei Ying.”

Lan Zhan turns on his camera. Wei Ying doesn’t know what he’s looking at, and then he does. He does. That’s him. That’s—

“This is Wei Wuxian’s file.”

It’s a droning newscaster voice leaking from an upstairs window, reporting a calamity. Static hisses in Wei Ying’s ears, drowning every other sound.

“Sorry,” he stammers. “Sorry, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry—” His lungs feel squeezed, his ribs lacing together like fingers to crush them. “I know you’re... so, so angry, and I understand, obviously, I won’t—I just. Please don’t tell them. Lan Zhan, please don’t.”

“Tell them what?”

“That I’m here, and practising demonic cultivation. I know you think it’s evil, I’m evil, but I promise I’m not doing any harm. Just… stupid stuff, little things. Nighthunts, sometimes. That’s all, really, I promise. I promise. You can hate me, you can think I’m—I get it, I understand. But if they take me away… there are people here who need my help. Nobody else will help them, they’ll be alone, so please, please, don’t—”

“I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thank you.” He sways where he sits, adrenaline and relief unstitching him from the inside. “Oh, god. Thank you, Lan Zhan.”

He has to get up, he has to move, his body wants to run—but he stays on the floor. Run where?

Lan Zhan says, “You invented demonic cultivation,” and Wei Ying thinks he could laugh.

“Sounds impressive, when you say it like that. But it was actually just pretty desperate. I don’t, um. I don’t recommend it.”

Lan Zhan is silent. Wei Ying wraps his arm around his knees, like ungainly luggage clutched to his chest, and closes his eyes. “You can ask me anything, Lan Zhan. Anything you want, and I’ll tell you. Unless it puts somebody else in danger.”

If they ever get out of this loop, he’ll have to disappear. But that’s okay, he’s done it before. He’s good at disappearing, these days.

“You...” Lan Zhan stops. “You lost control. They say you—”

“Yeah, I did. I did. But the thing is, Lan Zhan—my memory of that time is, fuck, it’s so bad, it’s a wreck, but there are things I know for certain. And I know they came here to kill the people I was trying to protect.”

The quiet waits for him to speak. He gathers himself up. Keeps going. “We hid in the Burial Mounds, in Yiling. You... know about that?”

“Some.”

“It was… ah, I can’t even describe it. Terrible. And good, sometimes, and... desperate. We almost had something there. We almost had… houses, and crops, and fruit wine Fourth Uncle made, and dinner time by lamplight. Like a real village, on the world’s most haunted mountain.”

“And the Wen cultivators?” Lan Zhan asks.

“Cultivators? What about them?”

“I understood there were... many cultivators among that group.”

“There was Wen Qing—and Second Uncle cultivated a little, I guess, but he didn’t have a spiritual weapon, and he mostly preferred talismans. And me… whatever I was. The rest were people. Just people. They lived through a war. They did things to stay alive, like we all did. They didn’t deserve to be hunted.”

“They weren’t…” He’s never heard Lan Zhan so halting. “They didn’t cultivate as you did.”

“I was the only demonic cultivator there, Lan Zhan. I wasn’t teaching them anything. I tried to hide it from them most of the time.”

“I see.”

“And then… it all fell apart so fast. So fast. I got invited to Lanling, but the Jin attacked us on the way. We weren’t meant to get out of there alive. And I got—I was so angry, and I thought they were all in on it, all of them, I didn’t know what was happening. So Wen Ning killed Jin Zixuan. Because of me. My fault.”

“The Ghost General,” Lan Zhan says.

“No, Wen Ning. What a stupid name, Ghost General, like I had a fucking army, instead of—aunties and radishes. God, he used to sit in the market in Yiling and try to sell the stuff we grew, and nobody had a clue who he was. He got drowned out by every vendor hawking watermelon or kids’ toys.”

Wen Ning wanted to study medicine like his sister. He befriended every cat he met. He was gentle with everyone. And Wei Ying turned him into something you’d see in a nightmare, in a horror movie, and then soaked his hands in blood.

“After that I knew, I knew we were all dead, but—I had to do something. Try to—so we left. Came over here to hide. You can imagine us on that airplane, Lan Zhan—all the uncles and aunties, and Granny, and Wen Ning and Wen Qing, and me with a little kid squashing my knees, trying to watch a two-hour documentary about blue whales. Wen Ning held my hand half the way, even though I was sweaty and gross and going out of my mind. We thought the Jin were going to grab us at the airport, or they’d be waiting for us on the other side. I had to do some completely insane talismans to keep us hidden. But we got here, and I found this place nobody lived in because it was haunted, and I fortified it with ghost magic to within an inch of its life, and we hid there.”

It was never about escape. The sects knew where they were. It was just—more time. Whatever they could get.

A-Yuan would run down the hallway and you could hear his feet thunder through two floors. Water stains made the wallpaper bloat. Moss grew in the window gaps like acidic green fizz. They taped cheap rugs to the rotting plastic tiles with packing tape. Banged nails into the rickety walls. Filled the hallways with bulk cans and dry noodles and bottled water. And then they waited.

Granny taught them to fold jiaozi wrappers. Fourth Uncle and Wen Ning made a dining table out of salvaged wood. Second Auntie fed pigeons rice from the window. At night A-Yuan tiptoed into the room where Wei Ying sat rigid with despair and they played paper games. Afterward Wei Ying would watch gray light slowly climb the sky, A-Yuan’s warm sleeping body tucked against his chest, lumpy as a quince in mildewy blankets, and think, I’ll do anything, I’ll do fucking anything, but he has to survive this. We’re all dead, but he has to live.

Wei Ying would have died for all of them, but he never got the chance.

Lan Zhan says, “When the sects came, what happened?”

“My memory gets… this is where I just can’t remember things. They surrounded us, and it was a week of—hell. Hell. And then Wen Qing—I guess she’d been weighing it up, and she—they all decided. So she stuck a needle in my neck, and that was it, I, I was just out, I was unconscious for days, and I couldn’t stop them. The people I was trying to protect gave themselves up, they walked out of that place and surrendered themselves. They hoped that if they did, the sects would leave me alone. I could have told them—the Jin never keep their fucking promises.”

The resentment in the air shivers and bends toward him. Wei Ying tries not to hold onto things—what’s the use, the past is the past, better to walk forward. But he lives with the ghosts of the people he didn’t save. He sees them every day.

He touches his numb face. His cheeks are dry and foreign. He goes on. “When I came round, I realized they were dead, all of them. All those people. And, yeah, I did—I lost it. I wanted to kill every fucking last one of those disciples. They murdered those people for nothing, for having the name ‘Wen’. They...”

Lan Zhan must know that part. How many people Wei Ying killed. Who he killed. A-Xian!

“The last thing I did was break the Yin Tiger Seal. Destroyed it, I think. The magic went crazy, destroyed everything. And then they took me away.”

After that—space. So much nothing. It’s history, not memory. Lanling Jin Sect killed the remnants of the Wen Clan, and Yiling Laozu Wei Wuxian. The last of the evil, defeated.

All he can hear is foaming blankness.

“Lan Zhan?”

“I am listening.” Lan Zhan’s beautiful voice comes through quiet. “Much of this is new information to me, it is…” His breath rustles the line. “I am trying to understand.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. “That’s okay. Thank you, for listening to me.”

“Your record... states that your trial at Lanling lasted fourteen days.”

“Yeah. Total circus. I don’t remember a thing.”

“You were found guilty. Sentence was given and carried out.”

“I don’t know why it was exile. I don’t know why they let me go, when I—”

“Someone spoke for you.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

Who would speak for him? “That doesn—”

Lan Zhan interrupts him. “What am I to you?”

“I don’t know.” They knew each other, but he doesn’t know how. “I’m sorry, I don’t know—”

“I don’t remember you. I think I...” Lan Zhan’s voice cracks. “I think…”

“Lan Zhan?”

“I need to think.”

“Okay. Okay, Lan Zhan.”

And the line clicks, dead.

Wei Ying lets his phone fall to his side. He doesn’t mean to let go, but it slips from his sweating hand and clatters onto the floor, and he laughs a little, stomach shaking, all of him shaking. When he picks it up there’s a new crack in the glass, a tiny frozen detonation. Well.

The alley outside stands quiet, bleak with light. He vomits into a drain, and it feels like he might spit out his heart.

He’ll never hear from Lan Zhan again, and that’s the best he can hope for. That Lan Zhan doesn’t tell anybody, just disappears. A startling apparition Wei Ying was so lucky to know, once. Somebody kind enough to leave him alive, knowing he doesn’t deserve it.

The last things people say to him are never ‘goodbye’. I need to think.

He’s in the alley, then he’s inside, washing his hands and acid mouth in the chipped basin. Dream logic. No mirror, because it fell and smashed weeks ago and he never replaced it—but a shape moves in the dingy sheen of the white tiles. Wei Ying feels see-through.

The thing is, the stupid thing is—he misses Lan Zhan already. All these places he showed Lan Zhan, now Lan Zhan is in them like a ghost, or a color of light. I think I liked you, Wei Ying realizes, too late like always. I think I really, really liked you.

He locks up the shop. It’s raining, still. It’ll never stop raining.

Wei Ying 21:34
hey
you want n thing fr the store

Traffic sounds. Rivers of water. Streets like huge vacant galleries at night. Around and around.

Wen Ning 21:36
I thought $ was tight until 14th?

Wei Ying 21:37
its ok
my treat
whatever you want

Wen Ning 21:38
Are you sure?

Wei Ying 21:39
200% sure
i wei ying have never been surer!

Wen Ning 21:41
Cherries?
I think they’re on sale.

Wen Ning loves cherries. They were the first thing he ate after six months of Wei Ying and Wen Qing’s experimental treatments, when the frozen machinery of his body woke up and remembered how to work. Heart, lungs, creaky stomach. You’ll make yourself sick, Wen Qing said, and he did, and it was terrible and so funny. His skin was still pale as a cadaver, and that made it funnier, the dark ruby stain of his lips and fingers, and they pretended nobody was crying. These days Wen Ning eats cherries by the pound. In the summer, with enough concealer and blush to make him look alive, he and Wei Ying are just two kids browsing Mott Street market stalls—the pyramids of grapes and cherries and lychees, and glistening fish tiled on a table like a roof with dozens of white staring eyes. Wen Ning bartering for salmon and baby bok choy. Everybody thinks Wen Ning is such a nice boy, but he barters like a demon.

Wei Ying 21:43
you got it
mario kart when im back?

Wen Ning 21:44
Sounds good :)

Wei Ying 21:45
great ill be there soon
🦞
ps. pls name todays lobster

Wen Ning 21:47
Old Blue Eyes

Wei Ying 21:47
feel like youve used that 1 before

Wen Ning 21:47
No that was Mr Big Blue

Wei Ying 21:48
ah youre right
old blue eyes thanks you 🦞

Wei Ying blinks in the white fluorescence of the store. He doesn’t remember taking a basket. The air is sweet, perfumed with ethylene from ripening bananas. A fly buzzes around the ceiling. The cherries are plump and so glossy they look unreal.

He fills up his basket with food that won’t survive the night. He’s waiting for this loop to end.

I have to think.

Wen Qing likes Fuji apples. Wei Ying likes peaches, and the kind of oranges that mist you with citrus scent when you push your nail under the skin. They bicker over pears and rambutans and mangos, but by unspoken agreement they leave Wen Ning all the cherries. Go on, jie, Wen Ning will say, bag crinkling in his outstretched hands, and Wen Qing will shake her head. I’m busy. You better eat them before they spoil, A-Ning.

They should be dead, the three of them. Sometimes you’re meant to die but you don’t, and the living is harder than you ever imagined. Wei Ying also had to relearn everything, after, and it started when Wen Qing hammered on his door so hard at three am she nearly battered it down, after breaking herself and her brother out of a Jin cell and fleeing seven thousand miles on fake passports to a place that was never kind to them but knew them like the grave. How did you find me, Wei Ying blurted at her. He did, she said, pointing at Wen Ning. He just knew. Then she hugged him, but maybe she was just collapsing. Fuck, Wei Ying said. Fuck, hi, what the fuck, you’re

Sometimes you don’t die but you’re different, built from things you shouldn’t have survived.

Blades of mango, shrink-wrapped. Rubber-banded scallion bunches, two for a dollar. Last Saturday they were crowded up in their tiny kitchen, making scallion pancakes. They were all quiet that day—they’d argued about money and Wei Ying’s skipped meals, and the air was still scalded. Wen Qing sat at the counter with her chin in her cupped hands, reading an article on cultivational medicine she could have written in her sleep. Wei Ying was rolling out dough, brain all cobwebs, and Wen Ning was watching him, wise and bright as a sunflower head, one arm in a sling because of a mild case of necrosis. One of the pancakes burned black, and the smoke alarm didn’t stop screaming even after they threw open all the windows and flapped at it like it was a trapped bird. It wasn’t defiant, or glorious. Wasn’t like victory or a fuck you. It was kind of terrible, and beautiful.

Wei Ying 21:57
hey a-ning

Wen Ning 21:58
Yes?

Wei Ying 22:01
love you, buddy

Wen Ning 22:02
I love you too :)
Is everything OK?

Wei Ying 22:04
of course!
see you soon

It isn’t so bad now. It isn’t anything. Wei Ying is hollow. He’s tired. He hopes Lan Zhan will be okay.

He goes around the corner, past the tall fridges, the huddle of ghostly shapes behind clouded glass. He could get expensive ice cream. Eat it fast, before the loop’s over. Ice cream in the rain. That’d be different.

He looks up, and somebody’s waiting for him there.

Red and black robes. Stream of red in his hair. It’s Wei Ying’s own face, but empty—like something burned away. There’s blood around his mouth. The whites of his eyes are red-fogged from weeping.

He doesn’t say anything. He just stares at Wei Ying—and it’s so loud, and then it’s dark.

 

 

 

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?