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a ghost in the mirror

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Only the presence of Wen Ruohan’s personal physician, Wen Qing, had kept Wei Ying from dying despite his escape from the river. As it had turned out, Wei Ying had befriended her brother, Wen Ruohan’s nephew, at the Qishan discussion conference, which had gained the Wen clan leader’s favor. Wen Qing had saved his life and stabilized him for the trip to Cloud Recesses, writing instructions on his care for the Lan healers.

But while his physical injuries had healed, Wei Ying had never truly recovered.

It had been a year, and Wangji was getting desperate. A year of watching a dimmed Wei Ying wither, barely eating, breaking no rules, never smiling, barely talking. He hadn’t heard ‘Lan Zhan’ pass his lips since the beginning of the Lotus Pier discussion conference, since before he had been found by Jiang Yanli struggling for life, his hands mangled, beaten and whipped and nearly drowned.

Wei Ying did not call anyone by their names anymore; barely spoke to any of them, so there was no need.

Truth be told, Wangji had passed the point of desperation long ago.

He had tried plying Wei Ying with trips to Caiyi, buying him loquats and egg tarts, tanghulu and dragon’s beard candy, tea eggs and spicy cifantuan. He sometimes politely nibbled on the treats, but more often they disappeared, gifted to children in the streets. Nothing made him smile, not even the thanks of the street children. The one time Wangji had tried to purchase Emperor’s Smile for him, remembering the night on the rooftops when he had first met Wei Ying under the moonlight, Wei Ying had tonelessly reminded him that alcohol was forbidden.

When Wangji pulled him to carts in the market with trinkets, no interest sparked. Where Wei Ying would have made conversation with artisans, he simply silently surveyed the wares without comment, his gaze not lingering.

At one stall, Wangji finally asked if he wanted anything.

“‘When there is no desire, all things are at peace,’” was the only response he received, a Lao Tzu proverb.

The idea of Wei Ying lacking desire as though at peace in death disturbed him, so he purchased trinkets for him anyway. Bright red ribbons that went unworn. A white jade plum blossom hair stick to represent endurance that only adorned the desk in his room, placed in the same holder as his calligraphy brushes. In desperation, a sandalwood orchid comb, what should have been a clear message of his love, but Wei Ying had only thanked him in that way he had of implying he was unworthy. 

He knew the Jiang siblings were in a similar state. They had declined to leave when the lecture season was over and had not been asked to. Jiang Yanli cooked every meal for Wei Ying. Despite Jin Zixuan’s long-desired courtship, she looked miserable at her brother’s suffering. Jiang Cheng had privately expressed unfilial thoughts about his mother as his rage and frustration grew, even daring to wish for her to suffer lingshi, stating it would be karma for what she had done to Wei Ying.

They, like Wangji, felt helpless, watching Wei Ying grow gaunt, swimming in white robes too large for him after the weight he’d lost, inedia or no, until he had delivered new ones that would fit, ones adorned with cloud embroidery, an invitation. Wei Ying had not commented, simply donned the better-fitting robes and continued as he had. He wore only a battered wooden hairpiece that had been in one of the qiankun pouches, no ribbons or other accessories, just something simple that would hold his hair properly in its crown.

Wei Ying received perfect marks but barely reacted to shufu’s praise.

“This one thanks you, Lan-laoshi,” he had said simply, bowing deeply and properly.

He had shadowy circles under his eyes, but his quarters were always dark by hai shi, and he was always up at mao shi without complaint. Wangji, the Jiangs, xiongzhang, the mind healers, and even shufu had tried to intervene in what seemed to be a slow spiral, to no avail. He felt he was watching Wei Ying fade into the ether.

He kept trying, playing healing music for Wei Ying, who sat passively as he did. Wangji had no way of knowing if he even listened, if the spiritual energy he infused in each note reached him. The conversations his siblings had, their attempts to include him, seemed to wash off him like water. The occasions he responded indicated he listened, but those were rare.

At times he wondered if he should be playing ‘Inquiry,’ if the part of Wei Ying that made him Wei Ying had already died.

Even visits to the rabbits, which he had expected Wei Ying would be overjoyed he had kept, elicited no reaction.

The past weeks had found WangJi up past hai shi in the jingshi, composing feverishly, trying to find a way to express his feelings for Wei Ying. Words wouldn’t do; he could never find the right words, knew even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to vocalize them. The only option was to let his guqin speak for him and hope it was enough.

Otherwise, he had lost Wei Ying forever.

When he was finally ready, he asked Wei Ying after breakfast if he would listen to a guqin composition he was working on and give his opinion.

“This one is not a musician.”

“I still value your feedback,” Wangji insisted, hating that Wei Ying had used bǐrén to refer to himself when he was neither lowly nor unlearned.

Wei Ying only nodded and followed him silently to the jingshi.

Wangji settled in front of the guqin, watching him sit on the other side properly and stoically on a cushion, and took a deep breath before starting to play.

He glanced up occasionally to see how Wei Ying was reacting to the music he had put his soul into writing. His expression of polite interest didn’t shift, and so Wangji turned his full attention to the strings, pouring his emotions into the notes as he played the song a second time.

When he looked up, Wei Ying’s eyes were focused on him for once.

“Does it have a name?”

He felt breathless for a moment; Wei Ying had not initiated conversation in all the time he had been at Cloud Recesses. He rose and held out the musical score he had written with the characters denoting the name of the song at the top.

Wei Ying reached out as though to take it, but instead his fingers traced the characters, ‘WangXian,’ an amalgamation of the characters that made up their names, 忘羡. His hand shook as it withdrew, and Wangji looked up to find his eyes fully present and filled with more emotion than he’d seen from him in a year, filled with tears.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying whispered, and though his voice broke it was like music.

Wangji let the sheets fall to the side, dropped to his knees and took Wei Ying’s hands.

“Wei Ying. Come back to me. Please.”

The tears overflowed then, and he pulled Wei Ying into his arms.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he murmured against his robe, his breath coming in hitches.

“I am here,” Wangji murmured into his hair. “Let me help you.”

Wei Ying cried like a man drowning, gasping sobs wracking him as a year of pent-up tears broke through the dam he had built against his emotions. Time lost all meaning as Wangji focused entirely on him, on holding him and simply being there with him, letting him know he was not alone. He was vaguely aware of moisture on his own cheeks.

By the time the tears were spent, wei shi’s bell had rung, and it was past lunch. They had both missed classes, but Wangji didn’t care; shufu would understand. Wei Ying was sagging in his arms, his breath still stuttering slightly. 

Wangji lifted him to his feet, gently guided him to the ewer of water. He used one hand to pour, knowing Wei Ying needed the hydration, and pressed it into his hand, refilling it when it was empty.

“Lan Zhan,” he murmured after the third cup.

“Wei Ying. What do you need?”

Wei Ying looked at him, his eyes clearer than they had been in months, beautiful even set in a face swollen from crying.

“I’m hungry,” he whispered. “And I’m very tired.”

The first time in a year he had expressed any need, and Wangji’s relief was so great he felt unmoored for a moment. He knew then that his music had reached Wei Ying; he needed no answer, so long as his feelings had reached him, had broken through.

Perhaps now there was a chance he would recover. That was all that mattered.

“I’m sure your sister will be happy to cook for you,” Wangji murmured to him.

The tiny smile he received was like a brightening sky.