Lan Wangji does not mean to return to Yiling.
But when there is a request for help in that direction, he is the first to volunteer. It's a trivial matter, which is why no one else has paid the request much heed, and he goes to play a final song for a ghost and wishes it well as it passes on. He stays for long enough to pay his respects at the temple that the ghost had been vandalising, helps to do some heavy lifting that would require donkeys and pulleys for the local folk but takes barely a few heaves from himself, and heads back towards Cloud Recesses via Yiling town.
He passes by the restaurant where he had eaten with Wei Ying and A-Yuan only a couple of months ago. They're not inside, of course; that would be too much of a coincidence. But he eats a simple lunch, and asks if he can order some food to be taken with him.
The owner recognises him – probably because there are not too many cultivators dressed all in white who pass by this area, especially not ones who overpaid by a vast amount as they ran out of the door on their previous visit – and hastily agrees. "It will take some time to prepare that amount of food though, Young Master."
"I will wait." Lan Wangji nods, and sits with his back to the wall to watch the people in the street, wondering if he'll catch a glimpse of Wei Ying walking past, or even Wen Qionglin or Wen Qing. The town is medium sized, with barely anything to note about it, though Lan Wangji would say that it takes a determination of sorts for it to exist so close to so much resentful energy and still go about its everyday in so ordinary a fashion.
The owner returns to refill his teapot twice before the food is ready. "The food is best served hot though, Young Master," he says, holding some wrapped parcels out with reluctance. "It's really not as good cold."
"Then I will ensure it is served hot," says Lan Wangji, and places a heating talisman on the side. He overpays again, and refuses the change.
The man's eyes are wide. "Thank you, thank you, Young Master. Please do come again if you're travelling this way."
Lan Wangji carefully stows the packages in his qiankun pouch, and heads towards the mountain on his sword. The bustle of the town drops off shortly, the high-pitched voices of children playing in the street the last to fade away.
There were wards here, last time, he remembers, though he doesn't recall what kind. Wei Ying had taken them through with barely a breath and an impatient flick of his hands as they had flown up the mountain, and Lan Wangji had wanted to ask him about them but also not wanted to break the fragile serenity of that one day they'd had together, and now he's caught in them before he even realises it.
They're more subtle than what he had been expecting. A gate, similar to the one at the entrance of Cloud Recesses, would have been the most simple. It's not until Lan Wangji thinks that he should have arrived at the Wen settlement by now that he realises he's facing the wrong direction. The sun is to his side now, instead of behind him, which means that he's circled partway around the mountain. And judging from the altitude, he's no further up than he was some moments ago.
It must be some kind of maze array – which is much more complex than a spiritual energy gate but admittedly much more effective.
A gate can be broken, with strong enough cultivation. A maze has to be solved.
Lan Wangji lands. He can feel vestiges of spiritual energy around, but not enough to give him any clues as to where the array was set, or its boundaries. He walks, keeping an eye on the direction of the sun. The mountain feels like it shifts minutely every time he looks back at the path, wending in a direction that should lead him into midair, off the side of the mountain. He's making progress, he thinks, although not as quickly as he would like. It's odd that he can't even tell where the edges of the maze are.
It's not until Lan Wangji sees the first green sapling that he stops. Nothing grows on the Burial Mounds. In the natural world, grave sites are fertile ground for new growth, the decay of human bodies providing rich food for both animal and plant life, but the resentful energy of the murdered piled in their mass graves leeches life out of anything that tries to take root here. It's why all the trees are wizened stalks of bark that punctuate the landscape, long shrivelled inside, and the undergrowth remains only as black tangles of twined thorns and the occasional patch of faded grass. It's why hardy turnips are the only thing that the Wen settlement can manage to grow.
But here is a tree, alive amongst all the husks, small and with sprouting leaves. It's not even the right season for sprouting leaves.
Lan Wangji reaches out to touch it, to see if it's real. A branch flexes under his hand and springs back into place. He marvels, and takes note, and keeps walking.
There are more trees, further on. They're not fully grown, but they reach Lan Wangji's head. These didn't exist the last time he was here; there's no natural way for trees to grow that much in so little time, never mind the fact that there's no way for trees to grow here at all.
A breeze whistles past. The last time Lan Wangji had been here, the wind had sounded like a rattle, whipping its way through dried branches that knocked together, whispering its way through all the cracks of Wei Ying's cave and the seams of his own robes, heavy with protections though they are. Now, even though the weather is cooler, the wind sounds like a whistle, like the high reedy beckoning of a dizi in the distance.
Lan Wangji is both hopeful, and wary. He follows the sound, leans towards it as it moves ahead of him, even as he holds Bichen tighter, ready to unsheathe.
The trees get thicker and larger, impossibly grown. If he had been here with his brother or uncle, they would have told him to stop, that it was too suspicious. They would have investigated the trees, which must have been grown with a spell of some sort. They would have paid more attention to the direction of the sun, or even backed off and left the mountain altogether.
Lan Wangji is not his uncle, and he is not his brother. He follows the whistle into the woods, and the woods swallow him up. He loses track of the direction of the sun completely, as the leaves overhead block his view, occasional glimpses of dappled sunlight the only indication that it's still late afternoon.
He wonders, briefly, if this could be an illusion but if it is, it's an incredibly skilled one, and Lan Wangji still can't sense where the spiritual energy is coming from to sustain it. That doesn't discount it from being one – if anyone could create something that looks so tangible and real, Lan Wangji would stake his reputation on it being Wei Ying – but it doesn't feel like an illusion. The leaves feel real when he rubs them between his fingers, springy and slightly damp. They leave behind a slight residue, and a quick, bitter smell of green things growing.
He doesn't know how long he's been walking for when the trees thin out suddenly. Lan Wangji finds himself right at the base of the Wen settlement; Wen Qing is standing there with her arms crossed. She doesn't look surprised to see him.
"Wen-guniang," says Lan Wangji, and bows.
She bows back, but she doesn't look happy about it. "Hanguang-jun. To what do we owe this honour?"
"I was nighthunting in the area," says Lan Wangji. It sounds like an excuse now that he's said it out loud. It was always an excuse, he supposes. He has nothing to lose by being honest with Wen Qing. "I wanted to visit."
She purses her mouth. "We are not well equipped to entertain." It is not a rebuke, but only just.
Lan Wangji takes out the wrapped parcels from his qiankun bag. "I do not mean to impose."
She looks at him for a long time, and then sighs. "You're almost as bad as he is. I won't refuse your generosity, Lan Wangji, but only because we cannot afford to." There is no doubt as to whom 'he' refers to.
She takes him up through to where Granny and a few others of the elderly are tending to a long fire. They remember him and fuss, in a way that he knows factually that elderly people do but the elders of Gusu Lan have never. They make him sit down and pinch his cheeks, and tell him he looks very tired, offer him some of their latest batch of wine and then press tea into his hands when he declines, ask if he had to travel far that day, urge him to tell them about the matter that brought him in this direction. He cradles a roughly hewn wooden teacup and lets them; it is not only the warmth of the fire that he can feel soak into his skin.
They seem in cheerful spirits, especially when A-Yuan notices the commotion and rushes up to hug Lan Wangji around the leg. He's prepared for it this time – and sitting down at least – and he even extends a hand out to steady him.
"Rich-gege came back!" A-Yuan exclaims, squeezing Lan Wangji around the calf exactly once and then promptly running away again.
Lan Wangji watches him go. "He's looking well," he says softly. Wen Qing sits opposite, breaking ingredients into a small pot she has over the fire that's evidently medicine-related rather than food. He looks back, to see her watching him.
"He's doing as well as can be expected," she says evenly. "A completely average height and weight for his age."
If he hadn't spoken with Wen Qing before, Lan Wangji might have thought that she was being dismissive. But he knows, now, what pride she harbours, and to keep a child in such harsh conditions at a healthy height and weight is no mean feat.
"Is Wei Ying here?" He asks.
"I was surprised it wasn't the first thing out of your mouth," she says, wiping her hands. She peers into her pot, and holds out the end of a stick to him. "Here, you might as well make yourself useful."
He takes it, and stirs as instructed. He waits for her answer.
"He's not here," she says eventually, measuring out water for her pot. "He comes and goes, as he's needed. Like you, I'm told."
"You come and go to where you're needed. I'm told."
This is the reputation he's built for himself since the end of the Sunshot Campaign, yes. He doesn't feel like it's anything to boast about.
"Do you have a way to contact him?" asks Lan Wangji, ignoring the disappointment settling in his chest.
A-Yuan comes tumbling back; he'd evidently run off to find the straw butterfly that Lan Wangji had bought for him last time, as it's clutched in his hands now. It's a bit grubby and battered, as all well-loved children's toys should be, and A-Yuan climbs into Lan Wangji's lap with a little sideways look as if seeing if he'll get pushed off, and then makes it fly around Lan Wangji's face when all that happens is Lan Wangji pulls him in further, to be more secure.
"Your gege is doing important work for me," says Wen Qing, smoothing back stray wisps of A-Yuan's hair. "Don't distract him too much."
Lan Wangji guides the chubby fist down so that the butterfly flits around his collarbone instead of his face. "Here is fine," he says firmly.
"Nyoom," says A-Yuan quietly.
"Mm," says Lan Wangji in agreement.
Wen Qing goes back to preparing her ingredients as Lan Wangji stirs. "He already knows you're here."
"He told you?" Lan Wangji thinks back, to how she was standing there when he arrived. So she was waiting for him, then. The array must include some kind of message when an intruder appears. It sounds increasingly more complex the more Lan Wangji thinks about it.
"Yes." She pauses. "I don't think he'll be back today."
There's something in her tone that indicates there's something she isn't telling him, but Lan Wangji doesn't know her enough to pry. If there's any chance that Wei Ying will be back, he will stay to see.
He waits, and helps Wen Qing brew her medicine and listens attentively to A-Yuan as he narrates the story of his butterfly flying through Yiling and talking to people. He helps with the dinner, and refuses his portion of the dishes that he brought with him; it's easy when he explains that he doesn't eat meat, although it certainly makes them grumble at him for buying things for them that he can't even partake in. He hands A-Yuan off to Granny when she goes to tuck him in, and goes to help Wen Qing pick some more herbs for her work. It is the least he can do, even if Wei Ying isn't here.
The herb patch is near where the crops are, and Lan Wangji frowns down at it. He doesn't know much about gardening in general, much less medicinal gardening, but he asks anyway. "The trees, and the herbs," he says, trying to consider his words carefully. "I am surprised at the amount of growth since the last time I was here."
"You and me both," says Wen Qing, but there's a hard edge to it. "You can ask Wei Wuxian, when you see him. It's his doing."
She leaves him after they have tied up neat little bundles of green that go into her basket, ready to be dried and stored for use. "If you're staying for the night, you might as well stay in the cave. We don't have any spare beds, so you can use his if he doesn't get back before you sleep."
Lan Wangji isn't entirely comfortable with her offering up a bed that isn't hers, but he picks his way up to the cave. It's already late, and the vestiges of the day stretch the shadows long and wavering through the cave. He thought it might be even more cluttered than the last time he'd been here but it feels emptier, or perhaps Wei Ying's force of personality was what filled it.
There's a bedroll on the floor, which is at least more than the thin blankets that were here last time, but there's a musty smell, as if its occupant hasn't been here in a while. Lan Wangji sits to meditate, carefully trying not to move anything. He won't take the bed unless he's sure that Wei Ying won't be back tonight.
He's pulled out of his meditation with footsteps near the cave entrance. Lan Wangji breathes in, exhales, and opens his eyes. He's been meditating for long enough that his knees are locked into place, and full darkness has fallen. It must be past his usual bedtime by now.
"Hanguang-jun?" The voice that calls into the darkness isn't Wei Ying; it sounds like Wen Qionglin, actually. Lan Wangji stifles his disappointment.
"Here," Lan Wangji says. He unfolds himself and hesitates. There were candles, he knows. He just didn't light any before starting his meditation, when there was light. He goes for a light talisman tucked up his sleeve instead.
He can hear roughly where Wen Qionglin is from his footsteps, so it's not a surprise when a face appears near him when he finally manages to get it lit. He's holding two pails of water, setting them down carefully on the uneven stone.
" I thought you might like to be able to clean up." Wen Qionglin also puts down two towels – rough and undyed but clean – that he had slung over his shoulder. He looks much better than the last time that Lan Wangji saw him. His skin is still ashen, and he doesn't quite move the same as a living person, but the spark in his eyes and his soft-spoken voice is still human.
"Thank you." Lan Wangji hastens to bow. It's not that the thought hadn't occurred to him... well, no, the thought hadn't occurred to him. "You didn't have to. I didn't mean to create more work for you."
"It's no trouble. I'm much stronger now than when I was alive."
"Still. The river isn't close."
"Oh!" Wen Qionglin smiles – or at least Lan Wangji assumes that's what the bared teeth is meant to resemble even if he can't fully control the muscles of his face. "It's much closer now."
Wen Qionglin heads back down after that, leaving Lan Wangji with his dimming light talisman and two buckets of water and more questions to float around in his head. He sighs, and looks around for some matches. It is a much less intimidating cave when there are a handful of candles lit, flames merrily bobbing. That's probably what Wei Wuxian does, given that there are candles scattered everywhere but most of them seem to be used to some degree.
The water is clean, when he ladles some of it up, planning to use the towel to scrub himself up. He remembers that last time he was here, one of the uncles was saying that the tea perpetually tasted of dirt, even after boiling it a couple of times. He lets it trickle back into the bucket through his fingers. It's clear, with no thin streaks of dirt. So that's new too.
Perhaps that's got something to do with the growth of the woods as well.
Lan Wangji stays up in the hope that Wei Ying will be back late at night, and wakes up, slightly woozy, slumped against the wall of the cave where he must have dozed off eventually.
He remembers dreaming, faintly, which is only notable because he rarely remembers dreaming. He was in the woods on the way up to the Burial Mounds, although he's not sure how he could tell it was these specific woods. Wei Ying was there, but not there, an elusive shadowy figure that Lan Wangji chased after. The sound of laughter and dizi lingered in the air, suspended in echoes. Lan Wangji could always see the edge of Wei Ying's robes or the end of his hair ribbon as he ran, always just slightly out of reach. He tried to call out, he remembers, but his mouth had been sealed shut like someone had cast the Silencing spell. Wei Ying didn't hear him, didn't look back, just kept slipping in and out of sight between the trees until Lan Wangji lost him.
The dream trickles away from him, like water scooped up between his hands, seeping away between his fingers no matter how much he tries to hold on to it.
He stretches out his neck, his back, his waist, all of his muscles protesting. It must be well past his usual waking hours if the sun is already piercing the cave. The bed was right there, but he couldn't bring himself to use it. He didn't even take his hairpiece out and let his hair down, so he's going to have a headache by this evening. And worst of all, it looks like Wei Ying didn't come back last night.
In the privacy of the cave, all by himself, Lan Wangji allows himself a sigh. He eyes the untidy piles of paper, and allows himself to write a letter to Wei Ying. A brief one, as he assumes paper is a scarcity and a luxury for them here.
Wei Ying. I hope that you are well. I had hoped to see you in Yiling again; I will return with this same hope. Lan Zhan.
He folds it neatly, writes Wei Ying's name on the front, and weighs it down with the contents of his money pouch.
He uses the remaining water from lastnight to wash his face, tugs on the rumpled back of his robes until the talismans sewn in smooth out the wrinkles, and walks out to face the day.
The Wen settlement is quiet but cheerful. One of the aunties waves him down for a bowl of only slightly too watery congee and refuses to let him decline it. People dip in and out of breakfast, some staying just to hurriedly eat before going off to do their tasks for the day, others staying to enjoy the bright sunshine and talk in a low murmur. He eats in silence and lets them bustle around him. The difference is palpable from the last time he was here.
Last time, these were people putting on a cheerful face, barely just surviving. Now, it's like the cheerfulness has settled in comfortably, taking root as they've started to make the place their own.
He goes to see Wen Qing before he leaves. On this entire trip, he'd come here with the assumption that Wei Ying would be here, that he'd be able to see him immediately; he wants to stay until Wei Ying returns, but the case that brought Lan Wangji in this direction was meant to be simple and his brother is expecting him back at Cloud Recesses today so that he can join the contingent to Lanling.
"Do you know when Wei Ying will be back?" Lan Wangji asks Wen Qing. It's too direct, too blunt, but he can't bring himself to care.
"I am not his wife nor his keeper," she says archly. "I keep telling him that he shouldn't stay here at all, but he listens to me as much as I listen to him."
Lan Wangji nods. He and Wen Qing are kindred spirits in that regard, he thinks. "If I come back, I would like to stay for as long as it takes to see him again."
If she thought he was being too obvious before, she says nothing about it now.
"Are you... safe here?" It is a badly worded question, and Lan Wangji knows it even before he's finished saying it. Formidable as he is, the Ghost General alone can be defeated if there are enough people and yet Wei Ying has decided that he is able to leave them with just him.
"As safe as we can be. The woods protect us."
Lan Wangji nods, but adds, "If I was able to get through the woods, then there may be other cultivators who can as well." Not many, but if they had enough numbers, or tried for long enough, or if someone particularly proficient was leading them...
"You got through the woods because you were allowed through, Hanguang-jun," says Wen Qing, not unkindly.
Oh. Lan Wangji should probably have realised that earlier – but it actually does make him feel better about it. There's one last thing before he goes. "About money and provisions –"
"I would not say no, for the sake of my family," says Wen Qing briskly. "But I also cannot ask it of you. Gusu Lan is still one of the Sects who would wish us dead."
Lan Wangji knows this too well. There have been numerous discussions both within the Sect and with other Sects about what to do with the Wen settlement; he has excused himself from many of them by virtue of travelling and taking care of requests for aid.
"I left some in the cave," he tells her, and takes his leave.
He keeps an eye out in the woods, just in case Wei Ying is making his way up at the same time. The sapling trees sway in the wind, moving in the same direction as if with one mind, leaves ruffling like the crinkle of stiff robes. There are no animals here yet, he notes, although with the accelerated growth, he expects that there soon will be. Perhaps he can bring some of the rabbits, next time.
There is the sound of running water at some point, somewhere off to his side and slightly behind him, and Lan Wangji remembers that Wen Qionglin had mentioned that the river was closer now. He wonders if they found an underground spring or if this is part of the mystery of the woods.
Lan Wangji is surrounded by trees, the Wen settlement completely out of sight behind him, when he hears the same thing he did on the way up. A thin melody, so faint that he could imagine that it's part of the wind.
There is no response. He follows the tune, although he can't say how since he wouldn't be able to pinpoint a direction that it comes from if he were asked. He comes out at the bottom of the mounds, which is definitely not the same place where he noticed the woods beginning on his way up.
He still has no idea what kind of protection this is, which undoubtedly makes it far stronger than anything he could have imagined. Intellectually, he wants to sit Wei Ying down and discuss it, in detail, hear about how he came up with this, ask how no one has thought of it before. But he knows that realistically, the less he knows about the details of it, the better – he's not going to have to lie about it when someone inevitably asks about how to get in. He places a hand on the nearest tree, just in case there is anyone who can hear him: "Thank you."
During the time Lan Wangji is at Lanling, there are no fewer than three conversations on how to route Wei Wuxian and the Wen remnants out of Yiling.
All eyes are on Jiang Wanyin, who has cast Wei Wuxian out of the Jiang clan and yet sits with his fists clenched on his knees until they are white and bloodless. The rest of the attendees are split on whether he is angry at Wei Wuxian or angry at the idea of attacking him. Lan Wangji knows this because they talk about it in not unquiet voices the moment they think that Jiang Wanyin can't see them.
Jiang Wanyin is a Sect Leader, and therefore he has to be in these meetings. Lan Wangji is not, and therefore he doesn't. Oh, he's an honoured guest, and his word carries weight, but he would rather not have to sit and listen to this. His brother can fill him in and solicit his thoughts in the evening, and relay them back to the gathered assembly through any filter that Zewu-jun sees fit.
He goes, instead, for a walk around the tower, and ends up seeing Jiang Yanli doing the same thing, walking the other way. Ah, yes. This must be difficult for her as well.
He ends up doubling back and walking with her, her humming to herself and him in contemplative silence. She's walking slowly, only recently been allowed to start moving around so much after childbirth. She tells him, eventually, about how difficult it is for her to sit through these meetings. Her voice is even, though she looks determinedly away from him as she speaks. Her husband, Jin Xizuan, tries to temper the suggestions for her sake but there's not much he can do when he's outvoted by the elders and his own father. She's organising the three-month celebration for their newly born son instead, aware that it is a distraction and yet still grateful for it.
Lan Wangji tells her that he went to Yiling to try and see Wei Ying.
"Is A-Xian all right?" she asks immediately.
"He was away at the time. But I believe that he is." Lan Wangji has no choice but to believe.
"Oh." She looks as disappointed as he felt. "I want to invite him to the celebration. I know he's not – I know A-Cheng said they had a disagreement, but – well. He is still my brother. And I couldn't possibly get away from Lanling with Jin Ling for long enough to visit him there. Do you think that's selfish of me, Hanguang-jun?"
Lan Wangji doesn't know why she thinks he would have a good answer for that. "If you would like to invite him, I think he would appreciate it very much. If you would like, I can carry the invitation to him myself."
"Oh! Would you?" She looks at him, her head tilted birdlike. "That's too much of a favour to ask of you, I feel."
He inclines his head. Between the two of them, Lan Wangji is the selfish one, for being glad that he has a reason to go back to Yiling.
After the discussions, he is back at Cloud Recesses for barely more than a day. He looks through a whole bundle of letters that have come in asking for cultivator help. These watch towers that Jin Guangyao is building have been unpopular – no Cultivation Sect likes the implication that they have been taking care of their territories badly, let alone the additional work of manning the towers and sending out people to take care of things they see no glory in doing – but Lan Wangji has found them effective and needed.
He lets his brother know that he will be away for an unspecified amount of time.
Lan Xichen lets him go with only a touch of concern. "Don't overwork yourself, Wangji. Take some of the junior disciples with you if you need."
"No need, xiongzhang."
Lan Xichen sighs. "I do know that you will work more effectively by yourself, but there is more than one reason to have travelling companions."
Lan Wangji knows what he's saying, but he has always been by himself and he doesn't see the need to be with other people. He packs for a longer trip, and tucks in the letter from Jiang Yanli in alongside the watchtower letters.
He takes care of the letters first, because even though his heart is a compass that takes Yiling as its north, he is still a cultivator, with the ability to help the dead and the living they left behind, and the responsibility to help if he can.
By the time he gets to Yiling, it's over a full week later and he has laid to rest several fierce corpses that arose naturally from funeral homes, restored a small family graveyard that has been disturbed by wild animals, and delivered the final wishes of a lingering ghost to his remaining family.
He stops by Yiling again, and orders food from the restaurant again - even if Wei Ying isn't there, the Wens will appreciate it, he hopes. As it's being prepared, he walks around the town, but there's no sign of Wei Ying or anyone else he knows. There's a whole street of peddlers of people dressed in dark robes, positing as Wei Ying's disciples and touting various inventions of his.
Lan Wangji goes down the line, inspecting the wares of each one. "Fake," he declares after one look at a talisman where the lines are just gibberish. "Also fake," he declares the next one. The third one surprisingly has real talismans. There's a few he hasn't seen before but from looking at them, it should work. Also, Lan Wangji spent months of his youth looking at Wei Ying's handwriting. He recognises it here. "Real," he declares, and buys a stack of the ones he's not familiar with.
The fourth has some sort of compass, and he does remember Wei Ying mentioning something about that, and having a prototype in his cave, so he hefts it for a moment. It looks similar, but there's no spiritual energy within it though, and there's no order to the etchings on the metal. "Fake," he says, setting it back down.
The owner of the last stall looks caught between letting him pass by, and just packing his wares up and leaving as the people on the previous stalls mutter darkly behind his back.
Lan Wangji looks down. These are talismans to ward against evil, apparently, although there is no spell written on these talismans, only a crude ugly drawing of what is apparently Wei Ying. Is that how common people think talismans work? That a malevolent spirit or ghost would come across a piece of talisman paper with a 'scary' drawing on it and turn and flee?
"Fake, and also inaccurate," he tells the man.
"Ahaha... Young Master," the stall owner says nervously, trying to downplay it. "I'm sure fine folk like you have much more effective talismans, but these work just as well for us ordinary people! They're just to ward off the occasional evil spirit, you know, very effective..." Anyone can see clearly the expression on Lan Wangji's face, which started off stony and then calcified practically into jade within a breath.
Lan Wangji takes the entire sheaf, and smacks down a silver ingot into his palm. "For your troubles," he says curtly, and then sets the entire lot on fire right there. He walks back to the restaurant before he can do something completely undignified, like attempt to arrest the peddlers for taking advantage of Wei Ying's inventions and selling fake goods.
His bad mood is still lingering when he starts to head up the Burial Mounds. The woods welcome him at the base this time, ushering him in. Somehow the coolness of the shade washes over him, leeching the anger out of him, as he steps his way through the undergrowth. There doesn't seem to be a set path anymore, with the woods stretching as far as he can see either way, which should be impossible since they're on the side of a mountain, but he puts one foot in front of another and trusts that it will spit him out at the right place.
Lan Wangji strains his ears to catch a sound of the melody he's heard the last two times he walked through the woods, but there's nothing like that this time, apart from the natural rustle of leaves and branches. He comes out at the top of the path near Wei Ying's cave, the opposite end of the settlement to where the Wens are. It should be logistically impossible for him to arrive further up the mountain and now be walking down into the settlement. He tries not to think about it too hard. It would be just like Wei Ying to achieve the impossible.
He peeks into the cave, but there's no one there, and this time Wen Qing is waiting for him halfway down the path.
"You're back," she says.
"We're still not in any condition to entertain, you know."
"I understand. Is Wei Ying here?"
This time, she hesitates. "No. And I don't know when he'll be back." She points at the cave. "You might as well."
The note that Lan Wangji had left is gone, and several other things have been moved, which must mean that Wei Ying has been here in between, the two of them missing each other's paths.
When he's dropped his things off in the cave, he goes to find Wen Qing again. "Do you know where Wei Ying is?" He asks, this time. He has to be careful with his questions; she's been patient with him so far and answered them all, but Lan Wangji is not blind to the amount of information she's omitting.
"Yes. He hasn't abandoned us, if that's what you're thinking. He just isn't here all of the time. And he doesn't need to be, so that's good." Wen Qing sounds particularly waspish today; he can't tell if it's because of him or something else that's happened to her today.
"You obviously knew I was coming through the woods," says Lan Wangji. "Is there any way to send him a message? I have a letter for him from his shijie."
There's a moment where she weighs up her options. "I can try," she says. That's all Lan Wangji can ask for.
He stays for two more days. He helps with the farming, and the childcare, and the repairs on one of the roofs that is leaking a bit in the rain that they've been putting off because while Wen Qiongling is strong enough to help, his limbs no longer have the fine muscle coordination required. They finish the food that he had brought with him on the second day, so he gets ready to go down to the village for more.
"Is there anything else you would like from the village?" He asks Wen Qing on his way down.
She squints at him. "I thought you were leaving."
"And then I will return."
She frowns at him.
"It is not pity," he adds, in case she thinks that it is.
That just makes her frown some more. "How long are you planning on staying for?"
"Until Wei Ying returns," says Lan Wangji, almost surprising himself. He hadn't realised that he'd made that decision. He should head back to Cloud Recesses soon, realistically. Jin Ling's three-month celebration is soon, he'll be expected at that too, and he hasn't even managed to deliver the invitation to Wei Ying yet.
"I know the other clans are still thinking of ways to deal with Wei Ying. And you. If they come to a decision when he's not here, you'll be unguarded. I will endeavour not to be a hindrance."
Wen Qing barks a laugh at him. "We're not unguarded, Lan Wangji," she says, not unkindly. "We – oh, never mind. You really should ask Wei Wuxian. Having a fully-fledged cultivator around is helpful. You're not being a hindrance. But that still doesn't mean you should stay."
They're not familiar enough to discuss this sort of thing, not really. It sounds as though Wen Qing is absolving him of any responsibility of being here; she of all people understands the fine line between morality and loyalty to one's family. She understands him more than his own family, he thinks.
"Is there anything you would find useful from the town?" he asks again.
"I'll make you a list," she says. "We can sell some herbs as well. They fetch a better price than the turnips."
Her list unabashedly includes things they can't afford by themselves, and Lan Wangji is glad for it. It takes a while to round up everything that Wen Qing wants, plus the stops to sell the herbs and a couple of jars of medicine to the nearest apothecary.
On the way back, there's no maze. Lan Wangji stops. If the wards are down, it could mean that they've been taken down... or that someone has broken through them. He leaps onto Bichen and flies up, low enough that his sword slashes through the tips of the trees. The Wen settlement arrives in sight in almost no time at all and Lan Wangji lands, heart thumping, ready for any kind of confrontation, but there is none.
Some of the Wen wave at him, bemused at his speed. Neither Wen Qing or Wen Qionglin are there, which is what he would expect if they were under attack. Everything's fine.
He doesn't see Wen Qing on his way up, so he drops off the things she requested in a basket outside her hut, and makes his way up to the cave, his heartrate slowly convincing itself to drop back to normal. It ricochets straight back up when he hears Wei Ying's voice echoing out of the cave.
"Ow, Wen Qing, that hurts!"
Lan Wangji bursts in. Again. At least his sword isn't drawn this time. "Wei Ying."
"Ah!" Wei Ying startles at his voice, jumping back away from Wen Qing. "Lan Wangji! I wasn't - hello! You're back early."
"Early," says Lan Wangji. "Am I?"
"Oh, no. I mean. Fancy seeing you here, are you here to visit me?" His voice is bright and tinny, and unlike Wei Ying but also very much like Wei Ying when he was trying to get Lan Wangji's attention by lying through his teeth in the Library Pavilion when they were teenagers.
Lan Wangji's eyes sweep up and down, taking in Wei Ying. He's covered in... foliage. There are vines twisting up his arm and leaves sticking out of his hair. His hair on one side is damp and plastered to the side of his head as if he's just been rained on, but Lan Wangji is sure that there was no rain today. There's a branch poking out of his robes and the smell of crushed grass everywhere.
Wen Qing is standing in a small pile of assorted leaves and small branches, holding a rope of vines that looks like she's just cut it off him, and a knife in the other hand.
"You are cursed?" asks Lan Wangji.
"Aha. No!" The tone makes it sound like technically he's not cursed, but also that he's not telling the whole story.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji.
"I'm not lying!" says Wei Ying. "It's just. Hmm. It's just a long story."
Wen Qing sighs. "Well, he's seen you now. I won't bother with the rest." She hands him back the rope of vines, tucks away her knife, nods at Lan Wangji and leaves. From the expression that Wei Ying makes at her over Lan Wangji's shoulder, she's mouthing something at him. They're not subtle.
"So, you came back to visit!" says Wei Ying, throwing himself down in a sprawl onto his bed.
Lan Wangji tucks himself onto the floor next to him, trying not to think about the fact that last night his head lay where Wei Ying's elbow is now. "I was nighthunting in the area," he says. It sounds like less of an excuse this time. Maybe it's the practice. "I didn't encounter the wards on my way back up; I thought there might have been trouble."
"Ah, no, I made it safe for you to go in and out," says Wei Ying. "It takes ages otherwise, even if you know the route."
Oh, that makes sense. Lan Wangji is blinded, for a moment, by the trust. He's not going to, but there's every chance that he could have brought people up here with him. If his brother asked, he doesn't know how he'd answer.
"...Thank you," he says. He doesn't have any other words that adequately express his feelings.
There are so many things that he wants to ask Wei Ying, has wanted to ask Wei Ying over the last few days, but now he's here and in front of Lan Wangji, he can barely remember a single one. He looks... well, not good. He's still a little too skinny and his skin a little sallow, but definitely not as gaunt as the previous time he'd seen him.
"You said that you're not cursed," he says, as the most important thing.
"Well, no," says Wei Ying. "I did this to myself. You know me, experimenting with talismans and the like all the time."
"Is it to do with the woods?" asks Lan Wangji.
"Oh, you noticed, hmm?" Wei Ying sits up properly, looking pleased with himself.
"Did I notice that the previously barren lands of the Burial Mounds started growing trees in the last few months?" asks Lan Wangji. "Maybe so."
Wei Ying laughs. "Don't tease me. It took a lot of research, you know. If the Wen are going to stay here on any sort of long-term scale, then we were going to have to make it habitable. And grow something other than fucking turnips. Yes, I know, they're nutritious, Wen Qing tells me at least once a week. But a person can die of boredom, you know! What's the point of living if you have to eat turnip three times a day?"
Lan Wangji looks down at his hands, and suspects he didn't do as good a job as he had hoped of hiding his smile when he looks up again to see Wei Ying grinning knowingly at him.
"So yeah, I did some stuff that counteracted some of the resentful energy, and helped the soil along, and the trees are part of it too. They're more there for protection and occasional firewood than anything else at the moment, since they're not really big enough for logs or building or of anything like that."
"Wen Qing tells me that you come and go as you're needed," says Lan Wangji. "Is it safe to leave them with just the maze array?"
Lan Wangji frowns. "The maze array. The trees."
"Oh! I see. Well, that's a logical assumption, I suppose." Wei Ying twirls his dizi around his fingers. "I'll let you in on a secret. It's not a maze array."
That would explain why Lan Wangji couldn't find any way to counter it. Wei Ying shifts again and rustles all the leaves in his hair as he does so. It can't be comfortable sitting around with those in, and Lan Wangji reaches out to remove the branch that's sticking out of the sleeve of his robe.
"Don't." Wei Ying jerks away from him suddenly, but Lan Wangji already has his hand around the branch and he's pulled forward when Wei Ying rears back. The branch is still in his hands, and still stuck in the sleeve, almost as if... as if...
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji, reaching forward, his voice low and urgent. "Wei Ying, show me."
"Lan Wangji, it's fine. It's -- fine." Wei Ying cuts off when Lan Wangji pushes his robe sleeve up. The branch is thin, with only a couple of small offshoots and some budding leaves on it. It's also coming straight out of Wei Ying's arm, near the elbow.
A wounded noise comes out of Lan Wangji's mouth, like someone had punched him in the gut. His hands hover, right where branch meets skin, as if he isn't sure if he can touch. "You said you weren't cursed."
"I'm not! I promise."
"How is this better?" Lan Wangji is aware how frantic his voice sounds. It is merely an accurate reflection of his state at the moment.
"I told you! It's deliberate!"
Lan Wangji grits his teeth. "Deliberately cursing yourself is still a curse."
Wei Ying places a palm on each of Lan Wangji's knees. Lan Wangji stares at them for a moment, shocked out of his anger. Wei Ying has always been familiar, but never like this. His face is close enough that Lan Wangji can feel the warmth of Wei Ying's breath when he exhales. He's smiling.
"Lan Wangji. I have to say, it's flattering that you're worried. But it's not a curse - or anything else bad - I promise."
"There's a branch sticking out of your arm," says Lan Wangji. He feels like that's undisputable evidence.
"And it's not a bad thing. Please, will you let me explain?" There's a note of steel, just barely there, and it makes Lan Wangji frown.
"Yes," he says. It occurs to him finally that he has seen many instances of people not letting Wei Ying explain. He almost became one of them.
"You saw how it was last time. Or, the time before last, I guess. Everything was bare, nothing grew. We were struggling. Well, it's obvious when you think about it. You need to exchange life in order to get life."
Lan Wangji inhales sharply and Wei Ying tsks at him. "It's not what you're thinking. We're not up here doing human sacrifices or anything like that."
Lan Wangji wants, desperately, to interrupt. He doesn't know what's come over him. He never feels the need to interrupt someone.
"But that's the basic principle of magic that I started out with, anyway. There's a lot of resentment built up here, and the resentment leeched out the life, which meant that there was no way for the resentment to leave, I'm sure you know all of this. But that doesn't mean it's done for! So, well, it's a... a magic transaction I'm doing with the Burial Mounds."
"A transaction with the Burial Mounds," repeats Lan Wangji. Wei Ying makes it sound as if the Burial Mounds are alive. Perhaps it is. There's a light in Wei Ying's eyes that's captivating.
"Long story short, I did a little feng shui. I promised it life and a way to get rid of the resentment, and in return we get green things and also protection for the Wen settlement, and one day this could be a proper farming village."
"Hm," says Lan Wangji. "I have time for the long version. The one that explains exactly why you have a branch in your arm."
"It's part of me now," says Wei Ying. "And I'm part of it. The Burial Mounds. But also the trees. We're the same thing now. So please don't pull it, it hurts."
Wei Ying isn't giving Lan Wangji a huge amount to go on, but Lan Wangji is the brightest cultivator of his generation. It's not hard to put it together, even if it's not a technique that he's ever heard of, even if he didn't even know that something like this was possible.
"You gave up yourself, in exchange for life to flourish on the Burial Mounds," he says softly. He reaches to touch the tiny budding green leaf on the end of the branch.
"More or less," says Wei Ying. "I can feel that, you know."
Lan Wangji folds his hand back down. "But then - why was Wen Qing pulling it all off you?"
Wei Ying rolls his eyes, a sight so familiar that this alone reassures Lan Wangji more than everything else. "You weren't supposed to find out, obviously. I was just hoping you'd come, see I wasn't here, go home. But then you told Wen Qing you weren't leaving until I came back, so I figured I'd be here when you came back, except it took longer than I expected to try and get rid of all the leaves so I could look normal because it hurt, and you got back earlier than we thought, so here we are."
"You didn't want to see me," says Lan Wangji then, as he starts to process what Wei Ying has just told him. "I'm sorry, I've intruded. I didn't – I didn't realise."
"I did want to see you. I did. I just didn't want you to see me. There's a difference."
Lan Wangji lets that statement curdle in his stomach, until it turns into fermentation instead. Still uncomfortable, he decides, but... productive. He looks over at the small discarded pile of leaves and branches. "These – they were part of you. You cut off parts of yourself so that I didn't have to know?"
"Aiyo, stop that, Lan Zhan! I can hear you beating yourself up from over here." Wei Ying forcibly tilts Lan Wangji's chin away with his hand.
Lan Wangji stares at him numbly. Slowly, he raises a hand to the damp patch in Wei Ying's hair and presses his hand against it. He's half expecting his fingertips to be covered in blood when he pulls away, but it's sticker than that, and clear, mostly. Like tree sap, he realises belatedly as he rubs his thumb against it. Wei Ying is watching him carefully, warily, like a wounded animal. Like Lan Wangji would be a danger to him.
"Oh, Wei Ying. What did you do to yourself?" asks Lan Wangji softly.
"I don't think I'm really human anymore," says Wei Ying. "Or not fully, anyway. Do you want to come and see?"
"Yes," says Lan Wangji finally, following when Wei Ying leads him out of the cave. The rest of the Wen greet him cheerfully, as if nothing is out of the ordinary, as if this is old news. He wonders when this happened, if it was right after he left the first time. He wonders if it would have happened if he'd stayed. He wishes he'd stayed.
"Xian-gege," squeals A-Yuan as they pass him, where he's pulling up little fistfuls of the patchy grass and then trying to weave them together.
"Hey, I work hard to grow that grass, A-Yuan," says Wei Ying, not that he sounds actually bothered by it.
"Trees! You promised we could play in the trees," says A-Yuan, and then his eyes slide over to Lan Wangji as he comes up behind Wei Ying. "Oh."
Wei Ying sighs. "What did I say?"
"You said we could play in the trees once Rich-gege left," mumbles A-Yuan sheepishly. Lan Wangji looks between the two of them, trying to figure out what he's missing.
"Well, Rich-gege knows now, so I'm going to show him and then you can play with the trees later. Stop tearing up my hard work, hmm?"
A-Yuan watches them walk away with narrowed eyes. "Rich-gege is going to play with the trees?"
Wei Ying stifles a laugh. "Yes, yes, it's Rich-gege's turn first, all right?" It is not, from the pout that A-Yuan gives them, all right.
The border of the trees seems like a wall when he's approaching them from this side, but Wei Ying picks what looks like a space between two trees at random and steps between them. Lan Wangji follows.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji as Wei Ying walks behind one tree and then doesn't emerge from the other side. He dashes forward, but Wei Ying is gone, no trace of him, not even footprints flattening the grass when Lan Wangji looks for them. He steadies himself with a hand on a tree trunk as his stomach lurches. How could he have lost sight of him so quickly? "Wei Ying!"
"I'm here, Lan Wangji." Wei Ying's voice reverberates around him, simultaneously like a voice on the wind, an echo, a whisper in his ear. "This is all me now."
Lan Wangji doesn't understand. Or actually, he does. But his mind is rejecting the notion of it; it would be kinder to himself if he could pretend that he doesn't. "You're part of the trees?"
"Hmmm." The wind hums; leaves rustle. "Sort of. I control them. But also I am them."
Lan Wangji looks at his hand on the tree trunk. It's narrow, not yet full grown, its width less than that of Lan Wangji's shoulders. The bark is rough but not dried under his palm, and immediately pulls his hand back. "This is you?"
"I can tell you've got a hand on the tree. I can tell you're standing on my grass. I can't feel it though, it's not like you're touching my chest." His voice is laced with laughter, and Lan Wangji can feel his ears getting hot already.
There's another breath, and then Wei Ying is back, coming out from behind a tree that Lan Wangji knows for sure he wasn't behind just a moment again. He looks different, and it takes Lan Wangji several moments of just looking at him to realise why.
There are sticks in his hair now - no, Lan Wangji looks closer and realises that they're twigs, tiny, sprouting out of his crown, replacing the ones that he snapped off for Lan Wangji's sake earlier. He's barefoot now, somehow, and Lan Wangji comes to himself as he realises that he's staring at Wei Ying's bare feet. It feels unbearably intimate, and he has to drag his eyes back up to Wei Ying's smile.
"What are you?" He has no way of asking that doesn't sound rude, but he's lucky that Wei Ying has never been put off by his directness.
"Hmmm, I'm not really sure. I think a yao, technically?"
Lan Wangji frowns. That definition doesn't seem to do him justice. He has fought yao before, possessed trees and rabid dogs turned into monsters with resentful energy or spells.
"Don't look like that, Lan Wangji. You know I'm all about breaking the rules. I'll be the first yao you come across that you don't have to suppress." Wei Ying beckons him, and Lan Wangji follows. His own footsteps, light as they are, crunches over sticks and leaves scattered in the undergrowth. Wei Ying is somehow the silent one for once. It's not long before they reach a small river. It's not particularly wide - Lan Wangji could cross it in three steps - but it's full, and running merrily down the mountain.
"Water carries resentful energy," he says softly. Wei Ying is an absolute genius. He's a genius, a pioneer, and yet this is something that he will probably never be able to talk to anyone about.
"Yep!" Wei Ying kicks at the water a little bit with one bare foot. (Lan Wangji is, perhaps, still a little off balance from seeing the lines of his ankles.) "Three or four years, I would say."
"Three or four years?"
"There's too much resentment for the Burial Mounds to be purified manually. Any cultivator living here for an extended period of time would have their golden core corrupted by the energy before they could feasibly purify enough to make a difference. The Sects knew that, that's why they've warded the place to stop it from spreading and then let it be. But if there was a constant source that just leeched it out, little by little, that would be sustainable. That's how long I'm estimating it will take to neutralise the area."
"Wei Ying is a genius," says Lan Wangji, because he doesn't see a reason to just think it to himself inside his head instead of letting it be known.
Wei Ying slips, and catches himself, one foot wholly in the stream. "Lan Zhan! You can't just say things like that when I'm off balance," he says, hopping back out. He looks pleased though, to have been acknowledged. The force of his smile is blinding. Lan Wangji can do that for him, at least.
They keep walking. It feels like the woods never end, but Lan Wangji assumes now that it's some sort of magic that allows them to keep walking and never quite know where they are or reach the end of the woods. Wei Ying tells him about the magic he had to do, the experiments he tried first to make sure that the magical theory was solid. He tells him what trees feel like – ageless, and connected to other plants in a way that humans don't care to understand. He sighs, and wistfully says that he could have accomplished it quicker if he'd had access to cultivation texts the likes of which are in the Cloud Recesses library.
Lan Wangji is too busy being astounded that Wei Ying cobbled together enough cultivation theory to accomplish this entirely by himself.
This feels familiar somehow, and it takes Lan Wangji a while to remember why. It feels like that dream he had, the last time he was here, with Wei Ying constantly walking away from him and he reaches out before he even realises what he's doing. Except this time Wei Ying isn't dancing out of reach; this time, his hands close in on Wei Ying's robes, real and made of coarse cloth, and thankfully real in his hands, and then Wei Ying is there as well, facing him, looking quizzically down at where he's clutching Wei Ying's waist.
"Lan Zhan? What is it?"
"Wei Ying," he croaks. He's not sure what's come over him. "You're here."
Wei Ying's expression turns from amused to concerned. "Yes. I'm here." He pats Lan Wangji's hand with his own, gingerly. His hand feels real too, slightly cool to the touch, callused fingertips and palms, skin rough against the back of his own.
"You're real. Not just a... hallucination of the woods."
"No." Wei Ying tugs at his hands gently until Lan Wangji lets go. He doesn't want to let go. But then Wei Ying is holding both his hands in both of his own, and facing him, and pushing him to sit down in the grass.
"You hid from me the first time. And the second time," says Lan Wangji. It's not meant to be accusatory, just fact, but Wei Ying flinches anyway.
"You're the greatest cultivator of our generation, Lan Zhan. And of the previous generation too, I think. If you were in my position, I'm sure you would have found a better way to sort out... all of this. But I did what I could and I don't regret it. And I can't go back on it now."
"I don't understand why that means you have to hide. From me."
Wei Ying sighs. "I'm not part of... that world anymore. I can't cultivate."
"Your sister doesn't cultivate either," says Lan Wangji, even though he knows it's a false equivalent.
"But you do. And Jiang Cheng does. And almost everyone else I know. And cultivators suppress yao."
"Maybe cultivators don't know everything there is to know about yao yet," snaps Lan Wangji.
For some reason, that makes Wei Ying laugh. "Well, I know that! But the cultivation world is slow to accept change, and even slower to accept that they were wrong. It's much easier for me and the Wen, all of us, to just quietly slip out of sight, out of mind."
"I'm here to invite you to Lanling," says Lan Wangji. He'd almost forgotten that was what he's here to do. "Your shijie gave birth to a boy. His name is Jin Ling. It's his three-month celebration soon. She hasn't forgotten you."
Lan Wangji can see the line of Wei Ying's throat move when he swallows. "Jin Ling, huh. I bet he's really cute."
To be honest, Lan Wangji had made his salutations to the baby in a completely perfunctory manner, and recalls very little about the future Jin heir. "He is very fat," he says eventually.
Wei Ying laughs again. Lan Wangji has never drunk alcohol, but he imagines that this is what it would feel like. "Oh, Lan Wangji. You know just the right thing to say."
Lan Wangji is gratified that Wei Ying thinks so, when he does not, in fact, ever seem to know the right thing to say around Wei Ying.
"I wish I could go. I can't leave the Mounds anymore, that's part of the deal. I stay here and protect the mountain and in return the mountain protects us. You'll have to let my shijie know. I'll write her a letter, explaining everything. Please tell her to destroy it afterwards. You understand, don't you?"
"The fewer people know, the safer you are," says Lan Wangji, nodding.
"I'll have to send them a present. Two. Something for shijie and something for the baby. How soon is the celebration?" Wei Ying is already looking around him, gathering up various lengths of wood and appraising them.
"Two weeks. I will have to go straight from here."
"Two weeks! That gives me barely any time," grumbles Wei Ying, assembling various blocks of wood in front of him with a critical eye.
"Perhaps if you had not spent almost a week avoiding me..." says Lan Wangji, with almost no inflection, just to make Wei Ying laugh.
"I have been very productive this last week! I've been on the lookout for spies, you know. The Jin sect is the worst. They've been trying to send people through in small groups."
Lan Wangji scowls. He's sure that this course of action hadn't been decided upon yet. He tends to be very apprised of what the Jin Sect's plans are, since Jin Guangyao confides a lot in his brother, and Lan Xichen in turn keeps Lan Wangji up to date. "You're sure it's the Jin sect?"
"Mhmm. They've been trying to be discreet by not dressing in Jin colours, but people let their guard down when they're alone in the woods and don't know that the trees can hear their little secrets."
That's news for Lan Wangji to think about. Either Jin Guangshan is sending out orders without letting Jin Guangyao know, or Jin Guangyao is sending out orders without letting Jin Guangshan know. One of these is more problematic than the other, and this is the sort of thing that Lan Wangji hates getting involved in, but is important enough that he probably needs to bring it to someone's attention. "I should make a report on that."
"Oh, I've been sending them in circles for a couple of days. I'll spit them back out at the bottom of the Mounds whenever you leave and then you can talk to them yourself." Wei Ying's grin is a little bit feral, and Lan Wangji can't stop staring at it.
"What if they start cutting down the trees?"
Wei Ying shrugs. "Oh, they've tried everything already. Don't worry, Lan Zhan, it's not as if they're cutting off one of my limbs. I can always grow more. I don't know how to explain it, but plants dying is a natural part of life. They're not scared of it like humans are. If a whole mob came and tried to burn down the woods all at once, they might just find that they can't find the wood this time. Or the Wen settlement. The mountain will stop them."
"No burning," says Lan Wangji, with alarm. He probably needs to keep a closer eye on if there are any plans to raid the Burial Mounds now, so that he can warn Wei Ying.
"No, no burning. See, I really have made the Wens as safe as they can possibly be."
Wei Ying leans back against a tree trunk, his legs played out and his robes rucked up, a smug look on his face. This is what Wei Ying looks like when no one's looking, when no one's on his back about decorum or representing the Sect, or being well behaved: carefree and smiling, sprawled on the ground.
Lan Wangji reaches out to pick a leaf out of Wei Ying's hair; only remembers at the last moment that it's a part of him now. His hand hovers awkwardly in mid-air, close enough from Wei Ying's face that Wei Ying must be able to feel the heat from his hand. Wei Ying turns his face, and presses a kiss to the middle of his palm and Lan Wangji is pretty sure that he makes a noise like someone just punched him in the gut. His hand chases Wei Ying's face when he turns, almost of its own accord, until it cups the line of his jaw. Wei Ying leans into it, and watches him from beneath his lowered eyelashes.
That's enough for Lan Wangji. He surges forward, brackets Wei Ying in the frame of his arms as he presses his hand against the tree trunk, inhales the mossy, fresh smell of Wei Ying, and kisses him.
He feels, rather than hears, the gasp that Wei Ying makes, an exhale as his mouth parts under Lan Wangji's. It's Wei Ying's turn to clutch at his robes this time, and Lan Wangji feels himself pulled forward, off balance, and leans his weight into Wei Ying. His mouth is hot, their teeth clack together and Wei Ying shivers under him when Lan Wangji bites down on his soft lip. He has wanted to do that for a while, he thinks. He licks it experimentally afterwards, and Wei Ying gasps but not in a bad way, so he does it again.
He is here, kissing Wei Ying, and Wei Ying is reeling him in and kissing him back this time. His eyes fell shut at some point when he hadn't noticed, too busy concentrating on how Wei Ying's mouth is open and wet and making encouraging noises.
He doesn't know how long they spend like that, until he makes to sit up so that he can get a better position – his knees are too far away, really, this leverage is terrible – Wei Ying chases his mouth back with his own, and Lan Wangji just pulls him into his lap and Wei Ying squeaks as he falls into Lan Wangji and then he's laughing with his eyes open and bright and all of it is aimed at Lan Wangji, and oh, Lan Wangji thinks he's laughing as well.
"Lan Zhan! You're laughing," says Wei Ying delightedly, as if to confirm, and pokes one finger into the side of his cheek. Lan Wangji feels at once not himself and the most sure of himself he's ever been – he turns and he bites Wei Ying's finger and Wei Ying squeaks again. He likes it. He will have to find out what makes Wei Ying squeak. And then he purses his lips around Wei Ying's finger and pulls off it slowly, the tip of his tongue swirling gently against the pad of Wei Ying's finger and Wei Ying watches him with wide eyes, and exhales with a shudder.
This is much better than the last time he kissed Wei Ying against a tree.
Wei Ying smooths back Lan Wangji's hair, tucking an errant lock behind his ear, his fingertips tracing the shell of Lan Wangji's ears around until he can tip Lan Wangji's head up under the chin to look at him.
They're not kissing anymore, but somehow this is just as good. Wei Ying's face so close to his that their noses brush and then they do, Wei Ying bumps them together gently and giggles at Lan Wangji. He gets to look into Wei Ying's eyes, and Wei Ying is looking back at him, and smiling at him. He gets to do this, apparently, the two of them tracing each other with their eyes as if they have all the time in the world.
"Ah, Lan Zhan. I've wronged you all this time," says Wei Ying, settling himself so that he's more comfortably in Lan Wangji's lap, his knees draped over one of his thighs. "I really thought you hated me, you know. Or at least thought I was doing the wrong thing. Making terrible decisions." He catches one of Lan Wangji's hands in his own, interlacing their fingers and admiring how they look together, one pale and one tan.
"I know." Lan Wangji does know. He's aware that he's been bad at communicating, at letting his intentions show through. He squeezes Wei Ying's hand. "You didn't have any good options to take," he says. He understands now.
Wei Ying leans in to him, and Lan Wangji can practically feel the tension leave his body. "It's so lonely here," he says, his voice muffled against Lan Wangji's shoulder, so quiet that Lan Wangji barely hears it.
"Wen Qing – Wen Ning – they're great, of course. But they're here because of me. They rely on me. I could never–" Wei Ying bites his words off, but Lan Wangji thinks he knows what he means.
"If they thought you were unhappy here, they would encourage you to leave. To go back to Lotus Pier."
Wei Ying nods. "And I'm not unhappy here. If I could do this all again, I would make the exact same choices."
Lan Wangji has always admired this about Wei Ying, the conviction he's had about his own morals, the standing he wants to have in the world, in the society. If Lan Wangji could do this all again, there are many different choices he would make now.
"You have me," says Lan Wangji, and wonders if Wei Ying can tell how hard his heart is beating. He can feel it in his eardrums.
"We have our responsibilities, Lan Zhan. You to your family, to cultivation and vanquishing evil. Me, to the mountains and the people who live here. It's just a shame that these responsibilities can't happen in the same place." Wei Ying sounds regretful, and Lan Wangji wonders what he thought happened just now. If this was a… a momentary lapse of judgement, a moment that could only exist within the liminal space of these magical woods. That's not what it was for Lan Wangji.
"You have me," he insists. "I could stay. I'll stay."
"Everyone will think I've kidnapped you if you stay, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying strokes his hand down Lan Wangji's forearm, as if soothing an aggravated animal. "I thought I'd spend my life cultivating and fighting monsters, protecting the innocent and nighthunting. I can't do that anymore, well, not all of it. I wouldn't want you to give it up as well. You have to do it for both of us, and then tell me all about it."
"You want me to leave," says Lan Wangji, stricken.
Wei Ying tsks at him, in so perfunctory a manner that it pulls Lan Wangji out of the spiral of panic he's teetering over. "I'm asking you to come back. Often."
See? Wei Ying always did have a better grasp than him on the right thing to do.
When they return to the Wen settlement, Wei Ying steps out into the waning sunlight and Lan Wangji wonders how he ever managed to hide that he was a part of the woods now. There are vines creeping up one of his ankles - his feet still bare - and more leaves stuck in his hair, and a patch of moss has tucked itself onto his neck, under the ear. His skin, which has always been a healthy tanned brown is tinted green now, the delicate veins in his wrist darker than they would be if it were blood coursing through them.
The Wen are starting to gather for dinner and Wei Ying and Lan Wangji join them.
"I really hope you've explained everything," says Wen Qing when she sees them.
"Yes, yes, we're all good now," says Wei Ying. "I'm sorry for making you lie about it."
"Not the first time," she says crisply, making room for them to join her around the table. "So, Hanguang-jun. What now?"
Yes, what now? Lan Wangji came with an aim, he thinks, the first time, to convince Wei Ying to come back to Gusu with him, treat his use of resentful energy. He'd never said it aloud, because he had known, even then, that it had been a futile aim. And now, of course, that's entirely impossible. Wei Ying will never be able to go to Cloud Recesses again.
He quashes the spike of fear that thought sends through him.
"I will send word if more people intend to attack the Mounds," he says eventually. "And... if I am nighthunting in the area, I would like to visit."
"You don't have to," says Wei Ying immediately, and Wen Qing hits him with the back of her spoon.
"Of course he doesn't have to, Wei Wuxian! He's saying he wants to."
"I know! And he is very welcome to, any time. But Lan Zhan has other responsibilities, you know. He's a very esteemed cultivator. We talked about it."
Lan Wangji thinks about Wei Ying creating a whole new ecosystem on the Burial Mounds, and the stack of newly created talismans in his bag, and the half-finished compass lying nonchalantly in the corner of the cave.
"Educational exchange," he says firmly, getting the talismans out to show Wei Ying. (He's reasonably sure that they're a simple but effective modification on the spirit warding talismans that allow friendly spirits to pass.) "I will come by to document the impressive cultivational developments you are making. This is important too."
"To expose the evil and heretical developments of the Yiling Patriarch to the world?" Wei Ying is grinning now.
Lan Wangji gives him a flat look. "I will come frequently and regularly to ensure that there are no heretical developments."
Wei Ying smooths out the talismans and peers down at them, lighting up when he realises what they are. "Lan Zhan, you are too funny! Well, if you want an excuse to be here, that's as good as any. Did you buy these from the guy in Yiling? They're so quick and cheap to make and they sell very well."
He talks about them so casually, as if he has not invented half a dozen things that will revolutionise the cultivation world idly from the corner of his cave. "You didn't have to buy them, I'd have made you some if you wanted."
"I was not aware how long you were going to be 'away'," says Lan Wangji pointedly. It feels intoxicating, being able to have this kind of conversation. He's seen Jiang Wanyin do it with Wei Ying, exchange witty remarks and bounce jokes off each other. He's never had someone to do this with before. He likes it. He likes making Wei Ying laugh, and getting to say witty things back at him.
"Educational exchange," mutters Wen Qing. "Is that what you were doing in the woods?" Lan Wangji had almost forgotten that she's there. She looks like she's trying to forget that they're there as well.
"Very educational." Wei Ying wiggles his eyebrows at her, and she groans. Wei Ying leans towards him, and Lan Wangji wraps his arms around his waist, tucking him flush against his side. Wei Ying tucks his face against Lan Wangji's shoulder, the little sprout on top of his head tickling Lan Wangji's chin. Lan Wangji's heart rate spikes, first from the shock, then from the realisation that this is how they are now. His heart could burst from the realisation, and he's sure his face is doing something, because Wen Qing points her spoon threateningly at Wei Ying first, and then Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji is simultaneously offended, and flattered to be included.
"You'll thank him in the end, Wen Qing. I need to bounce ideas off someone, Lan Zhan, and Wen Qing will only let me do it for so long before she wants to do the same about medicine, and I don't know enough about medicine for that to be interesting for either of us."
She sighs then, and puts down her spoon. "It will do you good to have contact from the outside world. We Wens just want to live out a quiet life in peace, but you were made for more than that, Wei Wuxian."
She's not wrong; Lan Wangji can't even be jealous that she has such a good grasp on the kind of person that Wei Ying is, when it took him so long. Lan Wangji makes a mental note to bring some academic medical texts with him the next time.
Lan Wangji does have to leave, eventually. He needs to investigate these Jin spies; he needs to head to Lanling and tell Jiang Yanli that she won't see her brother again, at least not until she's able to travel out of Lanling and visit herself; he's needed at Cloud Recesses to continue rebuilding after the war; he needs to pick up the requests for help that no one else will. But at least this time he leaves knowing that Wei Ying will be here when he comes by again, and that he is safe, they are all safe.
He steps into the wood, and they guide him. He can hear the whistle of the dizi on the wind, and it's right beside him, a tickle in his ear. He looks, and Wei Ying is there, his tune dropping off so that he can lift his face and smile at Lan Wangji. They walk and sometimes Wei Ying blends into the trees, his hair twisted up in a crown of leaves, his robes the brown of the bark, but every time Lan Wangji thinks he might have lost him, he turns and Wei Ying is there again.
Wei Ying leaves him at the bottom of the Burial Mounds, his toes digging into the edge of the damp dirt as he leans forward, forearms braced on Lan Wangji's chest. It is more accurate to say that Lan Wangji is leaving him, perhaps.
Lan Wangji's arms are around his waist, taking most of his weight, and Wei Ying nuzzles his nose along Lan Wangji's jaw, and then cheek, and then peeks to see if Lan Wangji is watching him. He is. The corners of Wei Ying's eyes crinkle, like dried crushed leaves, and that's as much as Lan Wangji stand, dipping his head forward to pepper kisses into the corners of those eyes, his cheek, and then his lips.
They're a little sloppy, a little loose, a little too hot. They're a promise of things to come. Wei Ying is the one to pull back first. "You have to leave eventually, Lan Zhan." He says it fondly.
"I will be back," says Lan Wangji. It's a promise. He says it out loud, just in case Wei Ying doesn't realise. "I promise."
Wei Ying looks at him with bright eyes and a wide smile, his lips and cheeks flushed. "I know."
He walks away, and looks back three times. Wei Ying is standing there each time, watching him, laughing. He turns away one final time.
He is not needed here, but he is wanted. That is enough.