After the third time Lan Wangji winds up as the assigned photographer for one of Wei Wuxian’s campus newspaper articles, he stops bringing the digital camera and brings Bichen instead. He’s figured out that no matter how ordinary and non-cultivation-related the assignment should be - the lunar gala, a robotics competition, the dining hall workers on strike - if Wei Wuxian is there, some sort of chaos will break out.
He likes the way spiritual energy looks better on film rather than digital. He especially likes the way Bichen captures it. He can almost imagine he feels her humming in his hands when he raises her and begins to shoot.
When he photographs Wei Wuxian’s talismans with Bichen, both the man and his hands full of light glow, unearthly and luminous.
He should have had her for the robotics assignment but how could he have known? If asked a day earlier, he would have said he wasn’t even sure resentful energy could possess a robot.
Wei Wuxian’s article had ended up as a philosophical meditation on identity and the souls of machinery, and Lan Wangji had been furious. He would have taken different photographs, had he known. He’d seen the beauty in it, too - the heavy machine graceful with crackling light, moving in ways it had never been intended to - but he hadn’t realized Wei Wuxian had.
He’s not used to being around someone who sees things the way that he does.
He finds it unsettling, but he can’t stop taking pictures. Bichen, not precisely a spiritual tool but very nearly one for the way she responds to him, finds Wei Wuxian’s face even when Lan Wangji didn’t mean for her to do it. He does not try very hard to stop her.
“You changed cameras,” Wei Wuxian says the second time Lan Wangji brings Bichen along. “Did your old one break?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head and tightens his grip on Bichen,as if she might drop or Wei Wuxian might try to take her away.
“I like to shoot on film sometimes,” he says. “It has an organic quality.” He avoids Wei Wuxian’s eyes. If he’s about to be mocked he doesn’t want to see it. He’s watched Wei Wuxian teasing other people. Sometimes it seems affectionate but other times it seems harsh. Lan Wangji would not like it if Wei Wuxian spoke to him the way he had to Su She at the last staff meeting, even though Su She is terrible.
They are, possibly, becoming something like colleagues. It’s a tenuous understanding.
“I’ve never used anything fancier than my phone camera, but that makes sense,” Wei Wuxian says with a shrug.
He leans in to look at Bichen more closely, conspiratorial, and their shoulders nearly touch.
“I like it,” Wei Wuxian says. “Old-fashioned and clever and beautiful. Appropriate for you, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji dares a glance. Wei Wuxian does not appear to be mocking.
“Her name is Bichen,” he says, very quietly. An offering. “She was my mother’s.”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian touches Lan Wangji’s hand, near Bichen but not quite touching her. “She’s a family heirloom. I’ll try not to get the two of you into too much trouble tonight.”
Lan Wangji does not say we would follow you, regardless but he tastes the words on the tip of his tongue.
Wei Wuxian gets them into a great deal of trouble on that assignment, which involves a stakeout to try to catch sight of an odd beast haunting the trees on the west edge of campus, but he also gets them out of it again.
He walks Lan Wangji back as far as the main footpath, where everything is well lit and there are no strange night beasts. He bows when they part and Lan Wangji somehow feels as if the bow is meant to encompass Bichen as well.
He nods, flustered, and walks away too quickly. When he is brave enough to look back over his shoulder, Wei Wuxian is already gone.
He develops the photographs on his own in the photography club darkroom in the fine arts building, rather than handing the film rolls over to the newsroom staff to handle. He pretends to be particular about the process. It’s not a lie, but it’s also not the whole truth.
He’s taking too many pictures of Wei Wuxian. There’s no need for it but he (and Bichen, who has her own eye for beauty) can’t seem to help it. He needs to winnow them out before he turns the rest in to Wen Ning to choose from. It would be embarrassing to reveal just how much film Bichen is eating up, capturing the casual grace in Wei Wuxian’s fighting style.
He does sometimes leave in one or two of Wei Wuxian, and once Wen Ning even chooses that one. It’s the day in November when a locker-room prank on the hockey team goes wrong and spirits flood the rink. Not even Wen Ning, who is deeply and sincerely genial 6.5 days a week and then absolutely ruthless on Sunday nights when the printer deadline approaches, can find anything to disapprove of in the photo he chooses. Wei Wuxian hovers several feet in the air in that one, hurling pucks at the dead-eyed goalie with quick, bright flashes of yellow fire. He looks like he might fly out of the page at any moment. Suibian is a flash of steel in his other hand.
Lan Wangji runs his fingers over the newsprint and thinks that you cannot really see the fine detail of Wei Wuxian’s expression. His wide, gleeful eyes and the delighted curve of his mouth. That’s only for Lan Wangji; shut away in the drawer where he keeps the originals of his best Wei Wuxian photos.
There are enough photos there now that it’s beginning to feel strange. He’s worried that he’s bordering on inappropriate.
But they keep getting assigned together, and once Wei Wuxian even casually mentions that he is the one who’d asked for Lan Wangji to be put on that particular assignment with him.
“I missed you and Bichen, Lan Zhan,” he’d said. “It’s been ages! They made me work with Wang Lingjiao last week on the story about the library budget, and she wouldn’t know composition if it rose from the dead and bit her.”
Wei Wuxian is rude but he is not wrong. Wang Lingjiao should line up a good shot once in a while if only by accident, but she never once has.
Lan Wangji nods in agreement despite himself.
Wei Wuxian hums, satisfied.
Winter break goes on forever. Bichen comes home to Cloud Recesses but she mostly sits on the shelf. Life at home is predictable and easy enough to capture digitally, and he doesn’t have a darkroom there.
An ice storm rips through and leaves the world blinding, dripping with diamonds. He puts on his sturdiest boots and winds a thread of energy around himself for warmth and goes out for a walk. Icicles jangle in the wind and the sound makes him think of the clear, bright bell that Wei Ying sometimes wears tied around his waist when he is on assignment.
(He has insisted on being called Wei Ying since the incident with the water spirits nearly drowning them both in the fountain. Lan Wangji is still learning the way his mouth shapes itself around the new name. Has whispered Wei Ying into the dark of a quiet midnight, with his hand where it should not be with that name between his teeth.)
It is probably because of this that he goes into some sort of altered state and texts Wei Ying - who has only ever messaged him about coordinating meetings for the student paper - three of the best photos from the day.
they’re beautiful but very lonely, Wei Ying texts back a short while later. are you lonely, lan zhan?
Lan Wangji is either never lonely or has been lonely in an unbroken string of days since he was very small, and he cannot honestly say which is true. He looks again at the photos - a bird, a cascade of berries encased in ice, a lantern shining dimly through frosted-over glass - and tries to understand what gave him away.
I will be glad to return to school, he says after some thought. It is very quiet here, not like campus.
i stayed here over break, Wei Ying sends back. it’s quiet here too. i’m talking to all the ghosts in the theater wing basement because that’s how boring it is. you can write to me if you’re lonely
That sounds so much like something Lan Wangji wants that he puts the phone down and does not touch it again until the next day. Wei Ying’s last message is there, unanswered.
Lan Wangji does not know how to answer it without giving away something he isn’t ready to share. Wei Ying is too perceptive.
He doesn’t reply and Wei Ying must take that as some sort of message, because he doesn’t text again for days.
When he does, it’s all business. Or at least it’s what counts as “business” for Wei Ying, who presumably has a major and does classwork but has never said a word about any of that, and seems instead to spend 20 hours a day fucking around with whatever he can do to stay just barely on the right side of the university’s Policy on Necromantic Activities Outside Of The Classroom.
i’m trying to help the basement ghost solve a murder, he sends in the middle of breakfast. she doesn’t speak so it’s a little rough to communicate but i think she was trying to tell me something when she showed up during that orchestra thing we covered. i can’t find her in any of the photos you submitted though. any chance you have any others you didn’t give wen ning?
Lan Wangji does not text during breakfast even when he is eating alone. He was brought up properly. But he does peek at the message. And then he stares into space for a long time.
He knows he has photos of that ghost. He knows because she was hovering fretfully near Wei Ying, and he took so, so many pictures of Wei Ying that evening.
He’d done a thing with a ribbon in his hair that day. It had made Lan Wangji want to get his fingers into it. He’d barely felt his fingers snapping the photos, too occupied with the phantom sensation of how Wei Ying’s tumbling hair would have felt against his palms.
There are so many photos, in the deeply inappropriate Wei Ying photo folder in his desk drawer.
I was shooting with Bichen that day, he finally sends back later in the day. So I don’t have anything on my hard drive. When I’m back at school I can go through whatever I have in my room for you.
i can’t believe you’re gonna make her wait for justice, Wei Ying replies. lan zhan, so mean. can’t we just go in?
Before Lan Wangji can even point out that his dorm room door is firmly locked, Wei Ying follows up.
she’s a GHOST, she doesn’t need you to let her in unless you put a spirit ward up. and if you did i could just pick the lock.
Lan Wangji shouldn’t let himself be distracted by that but does. You know how to pick locks?
i knew three ways to pick a lock before i had my first cultivation lesson, who do you think you’re TALKING TO, Wei Ying sends back. There’s an emoji face but Lan Wangji frankly only understands about three of those and the rest are bewildering.
Lan Wangji sighs. He didn’t put up a spirit ward. He hadn’t expected the campus ghosts to want to go rifling through his belongings. If it’s just the ghost. If she only takes what she needs, so Wei Ying won’t realize just how much space his image occupies in Lan Wangji’s desk and mind. If it will help her find peace.
He bites his lip and thinks and finally makes up his mind.
She can go in, he says. Tell her there’s a red folder in the top left drawer of my desk. Please ask her to only bring you the photos you need and to leave the rest there.
thank you, lan zhan. she’ll thank you too. i’ll let you know if we solve it with your photos!!!
Let me know either way, he sends back.
Then there is only silence for two long days. Finally Wei Ying appears in his messages again.
we figured it out, he says. it was the dean from when she was alive back in the twenties. they’re gonna have to take his name off the the gym since he was a murderous dick. there’s going to be a committee to pick a new name so maybe it’ll happen in five years. anyway she’s resting now. thank you for helping. when do you get back?
Lan Wangji stares at that message for hours. In the end he just sends his return date.
They don’t talk again for the rest of break but Lan Wangji thinks about Wei Ying using his spare time to right old wrongs. He’s seen Wei Ying help spirits to find peace before. His hands are gentle. He bows his head and thanks them for letting him be of service, perhaps the only time he is truly serious.
Someone should be that gentle with Wei Ying himself. Someone should stand beside him so he is not trying to right all the injustices of the world on his own.
Every time Lan Wangji thinks about Wei Ying he feels simultaneously violent and tender in a way that should not be possible. Wei Ying makes him a contradiction, sets him against his own heart.
He is going to have to throw the photos away when he gets back to campus. He can’t risk Wei Ying seeing them next time. He can’t - be like this. Think about Wei Ying like this, dream of touching his face and kissing his hands, make himself come with Wei Ying’s name fluttering in his throat, and still be his friend.
It will end badly and Lan Wangji thinks it would be a whole new kind of loneliness that he does not wish to learn.
He arrives back on campus in the late evening, hungry enough from a long day of train travel and semi-edible train food that he thinks for a minute he’s hallucinating the smell of something delicious when he walks into his room.
It only takes a moment to figure out that he’s not. He eases his bag off his shoulder and closes the door behind him quietly, quietly. The sleeping huddle of shadows on his bed that did not move when he came in can only be Wei Ying. Who else would have picked his lock? Who else would have remembered his return and brought the bag of takeout that sits on his desk, making delicious smells that make his stomach growl?
There is something else. A flash of red. His stomach tries to simultaneously sink to his feet and rise into his throat - to flee from his body by any means necessary.
The note on top of his folder of photos, in Wei Ying’s objectively terrible handwriting, is short.
I asked her to bring only what I needed but I guess she thought I needed to see everything. I think she was right, but try not to be embarrassed. Don’t you think I’d take pictures of you if I had your eye for it?
Underneath the note and the red Wei Ying Folder is a sheaf of sketches. They’re each dated but Lan Wangji doesn’t need the dates to tell they go back to the beginning of the fall, because they’re all of him. He shuffles through them and watches the passage of time in his clothing, the increasing length of his hair as the months wore on. How the earlier sketches are just quick scribbly things and the later ones detailed. How guarded he looks in the earlier sketches and how the wariness melts from his face as they go on.
Wei Ying has captured him falling in love, he thinks, and wonders if he realized what he was doing at some point along the way or if it only shows like this, seen all at once.
He did not know that Wei Ying could draw.
There is so much to learn.
He would very much like to unpack Bichen and take a photo of Wei Ying in his sleep - the vulnerable skin of his inner arm sprawled flat on the sheet, the slight flutter of his eyelashes. Lan Wangji can only look at it in quick glances before he starts to feel overwhelmed. But it is possible that between the photos and the sketches and the lockpicking they are at a sort of Mutual Creepiness Impasse right now. He should wait. They should talk.
He slides the photos and the sketches back into his drawer. He will give the sketches back if Wei Ying makes him but he’d rather not. He wants to look at them some more later, maybe forever.
He sits down gently at the edge of the bed, trying not to startle Wei Ying too much.
Wei Ying rustles awake in a flurry of blinking and yawning and then sharpens as he remembers where is. He holds out a hand mutely and Lan Wangji takes it, lacing their fingers together by some unspoken understanding as if that is a thing they do now.
Wei Ying looks up at him sweetly.
“You came home,” he says.
Lan Wangji nods.
“I brought you soup. Do you want soup? Do you want to come talk to the fox spirit in the park with me tomorrow? Can I kiss you?”
Lan Wangji tries for a moment to separate out his answers and then realizes there is no separation. He wants that. All of it. The soup and the kissing and the reckless adventure.
“Yes,” he says simply, with his face doing something unfamiliar that he suspects of being a smile.
When Wei Ying finally kisses him there is a whole world in it. Wei Ying is so solid in his hands. Whispering his name between kisses is nothing like saying it alone, it turns out. Nothing like that at all.
Lan Wangji does cast a spirit ward on his room, after the kissing and the soup but before he takes off Wei Ying’s shirt and maps his body with his tongue. The campus ghosts have proven to be overly involved in his love life. He believes in privacy.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying howls when he hears this, nearly in tears from laughter, “you took eighty-seven creeper photos of me when you were supposed to be working, what the fuck do you know about privacy?”
“They were of your face, mostly,” Lan Wangji says, doing his best to sound prim. “The ghosts don’t get to see your dick.”
Wei Ying goes still and sharp and hungry all at once.
“Are we doing something with my dick right now?”
Lan Wangji stares at him flatly until Wei Ying gulps and starts to shimmy out of his pants.
Lan Wangji’s life is perfect. He’s going to have to find a different darkroom to develop nude photos of Wei Ying because the campus photo club has rules, but it’s a small sacrifice.