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Within a forest marked by shadows and atop a mountain drenched in resentment lives a man feared by death itself. With corpses as his playmates and ghosts as his suitors, it’s said he wields more power than every Sect combined—which is why no one sect ever dares to face him head on. 

It’s well acknowledged that any man with such power is looking for someone to join him at his side, and when the Yiling Patriarch decides to find his own such partner, he offers up a game.

“At my side is a crow,” he tells the cultivators and citizens surging at the base of his mountain lair with presents and promises and pride, “And around his neck is a bell. All you have to do is retrieve this bell and bring it back to me and you will join me atop the Burial Mounds.” Excitement mounts among his would-be suitors who all share similar ideas on the simplicity of the task. The Patriarch wears a wicked grin, not shrouded by his hood, as he watches them continue to push against each other. Raising his right arm, he displays the crow with a flourish, whose cry is loud and sharp, and releases it into the grey washed sky. “Let the game,” he shouts, “Begin!” 

For months potential suitors vie for the crow’s attention. They offer treats that are swiftly stolen, they lay traps that are easily broken, they sing promises that are scorned and spit threats that are mocked. Cultivators from nearly every major and minor clan take their shot and every single one is met with the taunting laugh of the night black crow. 

Every clan, except for one. 

*

Lan Wangji is just outside of Yiling, netted in its forest’s shadows, when he learns of the Game. He’s in the middle of an internal debate—does he rest in Yiling or press on—when he hears a loud and vicious shout of, “You stupid fucking creature!” come from a nearby clearing. 

A small frown immediately pulls at his face and he pushes forward through the gnarled undergrowth to where the peace of the forest is being shattered. Within the dusty clearing, he finds two men, disheveled and irate, facing a decaying tree. 

“Get down from there!” The taller of the two snaps, waving his sword at whatever has caught his attention within the withering branches. They’re cultivators, Lan Wangji assumes, likely from one of the country sects tucked into the many corners of Yunmeng as he doesn’t recognize the crests on their faded robes. 

He waits for them to notice them, which doesn’t take long, and once their gazes meet the hackles on both men rise. The braver of the two even attempting a threat. 

“We found it first! You better back off!!” He snaps, pointing his sword at Lan Wangji who remains unmoved. 

It? He thinks, one of his eyebrows ticking up in a minute manner. He moves his gaze to the tree and a thin thread of surprise pulls at him when he finds a night black crow staring straight back at him.

“That’s the Yiling Patriarch’s bird and we found it first!” The man repeats. The crow, in response to this claim, turns to them with an indignant caw and lifts a bloody foot. Lan Wangji’s frown deepens. The man, still brandishing his sword in a way that thoroughly showed his in-expertise, steps forward with a new threat but Lan Wangji cuts him off with a query.

“Why did you attack this animal?” 

“It’s part of the game, gongzi !” The smaller of the two men replies quickly, flinching when his friend turns on him with a scowl. “Whoever catches it and takes its bell, wins!”

“Wins?” Lan Wangji echoes. The smaller man nods his head frantically. 

“He wins the Yiling Patriarch’s hand in marriage!” 

The Yiling Patriarch . Lan Wangji has heard of him, of course. He was first known as The Crow during the Sunshot Campaign - a nickname he had earned in part due to the presence often being flanked by the rambunctious corvids and in part due to his affinity for corpses - where he had moved like a ghost in hooded black robes. His identity was, and still is, unknown, but he had been a key figure in winning—able to decimate thousands of Wen soldiers with nothing more than an ink black flute and haunting tunes. 

(Lan Wangji owed him his life.)

Lan Wangji, for the most part, had kept to himself during the Sunshot Campaign. Tangled with assignments and his own personal goals he spared himself little time to mingle . And since he disapproved of The Crow’s known method of demonic cultivation, he worked hard to keep himself clear of his territory. The Crow, seemingly well-versed in the cultivation styles of all the major sects, doing the same. 

However…

(Lan Wangji had walked into a trap only once - led on by quiet rumours of a missing smile - where he ended up besieged by Wen soldiers. He managed to fall nearly half of them but when they started to resort to lower and lower tricks, Lan Wangji found himself collapsing to a bloody kneel. He had been willing to accept his defeat, he had brought it on himself, when a sharp and furious shriek sounded from behind him and the sword being aimed at his throat clattered to the ground—its owner’s hand still attached. Within moments, dozens of fierce corpses surged around him, brutally ripping apart the soldiers, guided by the cold sound of a flute.)

(Lan Wangji had only tried to speak with The Crow once as well, after this incident, when he had thought—when it almost seemed—when he had called out a name he had been desperate to hear an answer to, only for the black robed man to keep his back to him, his shoulders sharp and unfamiliar.)

(Lan Wangji never bothered with either mistake again.)

“Why did you attack it?” Lan Wangji repeats, brushing past these memories. Both men look thrown off, trading quick looks between themselves.

“To catch it, gongzi ,” one says slowly. “It’s very clever and quick, so we set a trap to pin it down.” 

And that wins you a hand in marriage? Lan Wangji wonders. Ridiculous. He starts forward, ignoring their spluttering, and before he’s even reached them, both men have scampered off, tossing their token threats behind him. 

Ridiculous , he thinks again.

At the base of the tree Lan Wangji looks up at the bird who stares back at him with suspicious eyes. When he offers his hand, it caws a loud protest. 

“You are hurt,” Lan Wangji explains, “I wish to help.” The crow brandishes their wings at him but Lan Wangji does not relent. “I have no wish to marry your master.” He says shortly, “I have ointment.”

The crow considers him carefully, tilting its head to take him in and study him and divest him of any tricks he may be hiding within his sleeves. “Lying is forbidden,” he offers, although he doubts the Patriarch’s crow neither knows nor cares about the principles of the Lan Sect. The crow answers with a short trill and eyes him with amusement so Lan Wangji, as trained as he is with his rabbits, continues to ensure all his edges are as smooth as possible. He is no threat. 

It works. The crow steps forward, with slow and measured steps, its dark eyes never once leaving Lan Wangji’s face as it flutters down from the high branch it first retreated too. Lan Wangji doesn’t rush it, for patience is a virtue, and when it does land within reaching distance he only watches it. It's an easy test, when the crow unfolds a wing to clean it, one only its impatient suitors would fail, given the clear chance to make a grab for it. But Lan Wangji only waits, quiet and calm, until the bird deems him worthy and breaks from the tree to land on his still outstretched hand. 

“Hello,” he greets, his long-standing manners carved into him, “I am Lan Wangji.” 

The crow caws a response and Lan Wangji swears the creature is laughing at him.

He bandages the small wound diligently, giving small words of encouragement when the crow tries to wriggle away and quiet apologies as he works to avoid the small bell swinging from around its neck as it had earned him a harsh nip the first time he brushed it. Once the wound is properly wrapped Lan Wangji offers it a bit of food and the last of his water before standing to part with it, trusting it will be able to make its return flight home. He inclines his head in farewell, the crow tilting its own and blinking slowly as he does so, and makes to leave for Yiling. However—

“Caw!” The crow cries loudly as soon as he’s turned away. Turning back, Lan Wangji finds the small creature hobbling pathetically towards him, wings outstretched in such a manner that they seemed broken and unusable. Worry drops back into Lan Wangji’s stomach, pulling another frown to his face. They had just flown, so why…

“Caw!” It cries again, now pecking at the bottom of his robes. 

Lan Wangji reaches down on instinct and carefully lifts the bird to his chest, mindful of its wound. They settle down almost immediately, cooing as they make a home for themself in his arms before turning to stare up at him. 

“I am going to Yiling,” he tells the crow, at an utter loss. The crow blinks slowly in reply. “Did you wish to join me?” 

They give a soundless caw, beak agape. 

Ah

“You’re still hungry,” Lan Wangji guesses. Correctly, he assumes, when the crow lets out a pleased click and relaxes further into his chest. 

Their trip into town is slow, with Lan Wangji not entirely sure of the way and taking caution with his steps to ensure he doesn’t upset the crow in his arms. His ‘fragile’ passenger bores quickly of its provided scenery and takes to amusing itself by playing with Lan Wangji’s robes instead, taking great pleasure in pulling at the few gem ornaments he has. “Behave,” Lan Wangji tries to chide, but the bird happily ignores him so he indulges it and allows it to nip at his finger instead. 

(He is most certainly not in the market for any new robes, you see, that’s all.)

Night is already beginning to stretch over Yiling when Lan Wangji arrives, marked by the dull lantern light filtering through the rush of people still bustling about the marketplace. Lan Wangji is at a bit of a loss when it comes to feeding the Patriarch’s bird, but this matter is handled quickly when they start up a small ruckus near an unassuming potsticker stand not far into the market. It’s not exactly what Lan Wangji is expecting, but he’s already quite sure any bird belonging to the Yiling Patriarch is no ordinary corvid, so he relents. 

However, when it begins to harass him for ordering the vegetarian option and is relentless in attacking the laughing owner’s spice rack, Lan Wangji is firm. 

“Spice is not good for animals,” he tells it, ignoring its puffed up chest and sharp beak. Tightening his hold around its chest, Lan Wangji pays the amused vendor and retreats off to a quiet area in order to avoid the attention they’ve already begun to collect. The crow accepts this treatment with a sulk—and then proceeds to eat over half of the potstickers alone. 

“Spoiled,” Lan Wangji says with a frown. 

He’s expecting a prompt farewell once the last potsticker has been gobbled up, but the crow only yawns and ruffles its feather out before making its way back into his lap. It seems content to bask in his attention and even allows him to stroke the strip of feather between its drooping eyes several times. The night is cool but pleasant and the hush of the passing travellers is soothing in its own way, so Lan Wangji decides to watch the stars begin their nightly greeting, oddly content with the quiet company. 

When he can see that hai shi is close to arriving, Lan Wangji stands, startling the dozing bird who butts his chest with what is likely a whine. Lan Wangji apologizes, the bird glaring at him in an accusatory way, and explains he needs to go and find an inn to rest at. 

They return to the emptying marketplace, the bird still blinking sleep from its eyes as it leans into Lan Wangji’s arms, and as they move further into town they earn more than a few looks. 

“Is that the Yiling Patriarch’s bird?” Lan Wangji can hear amongst the hushed murmurs. He covers the silent bell with one of his hands, ignoring the bird’s protest. “To protect you,” he explains with a low voice, “I will not steal it.” 

He still receives a small warning peck, but the crow seems to trust him enough that it does not try to fly off. It even guides him to a tidy looking inn with pleasant staff who are more than welcoming when he steps inside. They guide both him and the crow to one of their larger rooms at their own insistence - Lan Wangji, for his part, only requires a bed and a bath - and bid him goodnight. Crossing the candle warmed room, Lan Wangji opens one of the far windows and gazes down to bid the crow farewell.

“Thank you for your company,” he says gently. It’s only polite, after all. It’s been so long since he’s had a companion. “Stay safe.”

The crow’s face is soft in these warm orange hues and it holds Lan Wangji’s gaze for several moments. Then, tentatively, it leans forward to nuzzle his chest, right at his heart. In the quiet of the room, the hitch in Lan Wangji’s breathing is loud. 

The crow beats its wings once in farewell then takes off into the black sky, aiming for what Lan Wangji assumes to be the looming presence of the Burial Mounds far in the distance. A tiny pinprick of loneliness creeps into his heart as he loses sight of the bird - it’s been so long since he’s had a companion - so he sits in the moonlight of the open window until sleep’s beckoning call is simply too much for him to ignore. 

*

As dawn arrives with her familiar light, Lan Wangji moves through his morning with practiced precision. He catches his eyes flickering over to the still open window three separate times and scolds himself for each of them. The crow is not his. He should not expect it. He takes breakfast in his room and leaves with a gracious nod mid morning, past experience having taught him that no one worth listening to will be awake any earlier. 

He sets about replenishing his travel supplies and between the stalls he listens in to the town’s loud gossip - it can hardly be called eavesdropping with their volume - and learns more about the mysterious Yiling Patriarch. Despite his infamous reputation and the rumours that swirl around him as thick as the resentment he manipulates, Lan Wangji struggles to find any story that claims him as a main figure that carries any shred of proof. Any merchant or cultivator or local who talks of him ends up flustered and angry with him whenever he asks questions or requires evidence. 

“It’s the Yiling Patriarch!” They splutter instead. “What proof do you need?” 

While Lan Wangji isn’t close to the Patriarch, such unfounded gossip is unseemly and he turns away from their lavish stories and listens instead for any news regarding nighthunts within the area. He’s surprised to learn there is no fierce corpse problem, as every corpse has been claimed and is strictly managed by the Patriarch. 

“Most complaints about the stupid corpses are from idiots trying to breach the Burial Mounds,” one fruit seller tells him as she bustles about, setting up her stall, “You can’t take them seriously. I’ve gone foraging in the area a few times and never had a problem as long as I keep away from the mountain.” 

This should go against every known fact about the Patriarch - his aggression, his shamelessness, his penchant for young women - but the more Lan Wangji digs, and the more falsehoods and fabrications he eliminates, he learns that there is little movement within the Burial Mounds and legitimate sightings of the Patriarch following his announcement are rare. 

Lan Wangji remembers, when the Patriarch first stole the Wen remnants from the Jin camps and made his home atop the dreaded peak, how the sects had weakly rallied together, with puffed up charges and elaborate rumours, to try and bring their brand of justice down on him. But their bark had no bite, with no clan able to agree on who should collect him or who should punish him or even the punishment itself. So, in the end, nothing ever came of it. 

Ridiculous. Ridiculous

Lan Wangji can see crests from every major and minor clan within Yiling’s crowds. He can see them avoid his gaze and fumble with excuses when they come across one another and he learns there are few who vie for the Patriarch’s affection for any reason besides greed

“Do you know the kind of power we would have?” One Jin disciples says loudly to his table. 

“No one would ever think of overturning the heavens then!” Another crows with vicious delight. 

“We would be unstoppable .” 

All of them, all of them reaching for a hand in order to shackle it. Lan Wangji finds himself grateful for the crow’s intelligence, its tricks and manners—marriage should never be a prison. 

He sifts through the rest of their inane chatter looking for information on another man, but, as it is in every town, he has no success. With enough supplies to last another week and a crimson red ribbon he couldn’t tear his eyes away from - “It’s made with the finest silk, gongzi! Any young lady would be delighted to receive it!” - Lan Wangji sets off for the next village. He gives one final glance at the Burial Mounds, he wears some worry for its owner and owes him a debt he’s yet to collect, but still goes to press on.

Only to be intercepted by a black blur attacking his headpiece. 

He lifts one hand to stop the assault instinctively, but the crow persists, seemingly adamant in pulling at the delicate pieces of silver placed neatly in his hair. With a huff of his own, Lan Wangji lightly swats at the bird and it comes down to balance on his hand. 

In one of its claws it carries a new hairpin, simple yet beautiful and clearly handmade. Lan Wangji accepts the gift with quiet gratitude and the bird flies back to his shoulder, pulling more gently at his headpiece now. 

A gentle wisp of a smile almost catches the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth. 

“Allow me,” he says, lifting his hands to make the swap. The crow preens, taking the old pin in its beak and cawing around it. There’s no fondness Lan Wangji carries for that particular piece, so he allows the trade with a soft touch to the bird’s back. The crow quickly returns to the sky with a noisy rustle of its feathers and Lan Wangji watches it leave once more with a quiet sting to his heart. He had meant to say goodbye. 

He sets off again but can only make it two li before he’s met by another barrage of feathers and a loud cry beside his ear. “Hello again,” he says, lightly wincing when a wing hits his eye. “Can I help you?” 

The crow digs its claws into his shoulder and returns to pulling at his headpiece. Lan Wangji swats it away again—what complaint about his hair did it have now —so it releases him to tug on a lock of hair, herding him back towards Yiling. But Lan Wangji only turns, facing the tree the bird flew to after releasing him, so they switch tactics, cawing pathetically and hobbling on the foot not wrapped in bandages. 

The charade is flimsy but something in its persistent whines leads Lan Wangji back to its tree, offering his hand to a delighted corvid. Lan Wangji knows he is conceding far too easily, but the gentle song the crow hums when it settles back into his chest, its chin resting on his shoulder as it almost seems to smile at him, encourages him to find some rule or another that allows his defeat. He decides on kindness towards animals and the two make their way back.

Upon returning to Yiling, the crow takes to his shoulder and decides to bring him on an enthusiastic tour of the quiet town. It leads him down forgotten alleys, presents him twice with shiny baubles, likely stolen, despite its scolding after the first, and finds great joy in scaring the numerous cultivators they meet who claim to be the Patriarch’s top disciple. Once they finish their loop and find their way back to the marketplace, it tugs on his robes when it wants to better examine a vendor’s wares, which aids Lan Wangji in finding a new score sheet to send his brother, sings loudly when they pass a boisterous merchant offering the, “Best alcohol in the province!” - that Lan Wangji firmly declines - and kicks up a fuss when Lan Wangji tries to pass what he can only assume to be a favourite restaurant of either the crow or the Yiling Patriarch. 

While they garner a lot of attention, no one appears to be brave enough to question why on earth the Patriarch’s bird has decided to attach itself to him—well, save for one. A young girl, whom the crow puts on a small show for: brandishing its wings with a loud caw at her approach, then falling into Lan Wangji’s lap with a thud when she reaches out to delicately brush its wing feathers. She startles with a giggle at its antics, but still tries to peek in closer before she’s gathered up by who is likely her mother and rushed away. Much to the crow’s pouting disappointment. 

They encounter a different group of children after their late lunch, who have bored of their kites and have claimed a wide section of a quiet street in order to play a reenactment of the Sunspot Campaign. However, this plan is swiftly cast aside as soon as they spot the crow on Lan Wangji’s shoulders and flock to his feet to plead with him to ‘share’. Naturally, they do not listen when Lan Wangji tries to explain the crow is not his to share and only pull more insistently on his robes. Lan Wangji is not terribly familiar with children, and flounders on how to escape, so the crow takes pity and swoops down from his shoulders to entice the kids into rushing after it. 

They end up playing what one child gleefully calls Corpses , which Lan Wangji gleans to be a modified game of tag, where the crow chases after the delighted and shrieking children, trying to ‘catch’ them. Once caught, the child begins to stumble about like one of the Patriarch’s corpses and also tries to catch their friends. They play two rounds where Lan Wangji only watches from the side, but at the end of the third, the ‘turned’ children suddenly decide to make him their final target, and Lan Wangji is only saved when the crow drops in front of them and ‘frightens’ them off. 

“Oh, is he the Yiling Patriarch’s princess?” One child wonders aloud to his friend which is— well

“He must be!! Mama said the crow picks his bride!”

It’s entirely untrue but before Lan Wangji can explain, the crow gives a decisive caw and flies back to his shoulder, playing in his hair and cuddling in close and warming Lan Wangji’s ears to a delicate pink. The children issue their apologies for trying to turn him, become distracted by a mother’s call and hurry off after laying their demands to play again. 

Pleased, the crow turns to him with amusement shining too brightly in its dark eyes. Lan Wangji ignores this and marches off with a muttered, “ Shameless .” 

After its game, the crow seems quite happy to continue showing Lan Wangji off to the people of Yiling, resulting in Lan Wangji gaining far more publicity than even he’s used to. It still trills whenever it wants attention; flitters between stands and flirting with young female merchants, turning doe eyes on Lan Wangji whenever it finds something it likes, and pulls at Lan Wangji’s hair whenever he tries to ignore it or leave it behind.

Lan Wangji finds himself inexplicably reminded of his time with Wei Ying in Caiyi Town and an old ache wakes in his cold chest.

They finish out their day like this, and once night catches up with them, Lan Wangji settles into his room and decides to give the crow one last lesson within his farewell. 

“You must take care,” he says to the crow regarding him curiously, “Of both yourself and the Patriarch. Marriage is important.” They seem to caw out an agreement and the tension coiled in Lan Wangji’s stomach since the morning eases. “This will be goodbye. I leave Yiling tomorrow.” 

Lan Wangji watches the crow wilt under these words. Shuffling forward, it nudges itself under one of his hands and nuzzles into his palm so Lan Wangji allows him to stroke down its back. “Thank you for your continued company,” he tells it solemnly. 

The crow doesn’t seem like it wants to leave but something in the sky must catch its attention as it suddenly takes off in a flurry of feathers, disappearing into the blanket of winking stars in the span of a heartbeat. The breath that escapes Lan Wangji is fractured. He forces himself to take in another and turns to busy himself with his nightly routine; a weak effort to try and abate the loneliness washing in like a moon sprung tide. 

He has to keep moving. He has to keep looking. 

*

The next morning falls into place much like the morning before, but this time, when Lan Wangji makes to leave Yiling, a familiar black bird comes for his forehead ribbon instead. 

“You—!” Lan Wangji manages before the ribbon somehow falls free, its delicate knot untying easily and slipping into the blinding sun. A headpiece Lan Wangji could forgive, but this … 

He takes off after the bird—who waits for him at every third tree, cawing its amusement at his obvious frustration. Sect Rules, alongside his own affection, disallow him from causing it any harm but he does debate some sort of binding talisman when the crow suddenly breaks away, slipping through a patch of underbrush. With a bitten down huff of exasperation, Lan Wangji hurries to follow it. The dry branches blocking him break easily in his hands and his efforts are rewarded with the sight of a smug crow, now backlit by the morning sun dancing warmly across a lake expanding far into the horizon. 

As Lan Wangji takes in this sight, and the rising chatter of waking songbirds and noisy insects, he finds himself reminded of Wei Ying’s stories about Lotus Pier. Wei Ying had invited him once, back when they were naive children with more time than the immortals to plan for, and even now Lan Wangji still hopes to see it with him at least once.

(His bruised heart hurts .) 

Turning back to the crow, who is looking entirely too pleased with themself, Lan Wangji pushes past his memories and his annoyance and steps forward to collect his ribbon. The crow responds with an annoyed click and three hops back. 

“Forehead ribbon is sacred,” Lan Wangji tries to explain, reaching out one hand, “I need it back.” Perhaps offended Lan Wangji has not thanked it for showing him such a view, the crow only huffs and turns its back to him in a sulk. Lan Wangji tries not to sigh. “Please,” he says to its continued cold shoulder. 

Minutes pass and it’s quite clear the crow has no intention of giving in and Lan Wangji has little patience for this particular game. An idea strikes him and he digs into his sleeve, finding and pulling out the vivid red ribbon from the day before. It was originally meant for—it doesn’t matter. He can always buy another one.

“Here,” he offers the crow, who had been intrigued by the rusting sounds and whose attention now has to be dragged away from the crimson fabric, “This can be yours instead.” 

The crow contemplates his offer, its wide eyes flicking between him and the ribbon, until its curiosity gets the better of it and it slowly makes its way forward. Once close enough, it allows Lan Wangji to take his forehead ribbon back without a fuss and quickly tugs the red ribbon from his hand. 

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji murmurs as he ties his forehead ribbon back on with practiced ease, the crow watching with a tilted head. He then retrieves the red ribbon, shushing the crow’s offended squawk, in order to tie it in a loose bow around the crow’s neck. 

“You look very handsome,” Lan Wangji says once he’s finished, gently stroking down the bird’s beak. The crow takes this compliment with a clumsy jerk and stares at him with dark, unblinking eyes. Then, with a loud caw and a rush of feathers, it takes to the sky just behind Lan Wangji. More than baffled, Lan Wangji tries to turn and face it - had he offended it? - to offer a hasty apology, but each attempt is refuted, the bird shouting and flapping to keep out of sight. Eventually Lan Wangji tires and goes still, and he’s quickly rewarded with the crow returning to him, landing on his left shoulder with a sharp flex of its claws. 

Another caw echoes in Lan Wangji’s ears when he tries to face it, so he keeps his gaze politely averted and focuses on a distant tree instead. After a quiet moment, he feels the claws move in closer and the lightest nuzzle at the side of his head—a soft and delicate thank you .

Ah , Lan Wangji realizes, they were embarrassed

The very idea the creature known across this and almost every other province for being as crafty and cunning as the Patriarch himself could feel such emotions as flustered shame is oddly charming to Lan Wangji so he allows it to give its quiet gratitude in peace. “You’re very welcome,” he murmurs, stroking down its back once it’s calmed. The crow gives him a wistful look and then leans forward to nudge at Lan Wangji’s temple, just beneath his ribbon. “Would you like me to keep you company again today?” A nod. “Alright.” 

He should be moving on. Yiling has little to offer him on his search, but… surely one more day won’t—

The crow gives a small chirp when Lan Wangji remains quiet and still, lifting its beak to pull gently on his hair to catch and keep his attention. There is an old ache in Lan Wangji’s chest, but he’s already made his promise. 

The morning melodies of their fellow birds are cheerful, promising a tranquil day, so Lan Wangji pulls out his guqin and settles near the lake’s edge. Habit catches him and he plays Inquiry for several of the souls lingering at the fringe of the Burial Mounds. The crow flutters around him as he plays, landing on his knee, his shoulder, his inner thigh, but never on the guqin itself which Lan Wangji is thankful for. 

Moving past Inquiry, Lan Wangji spends the later part of their morning together practicing his other pieces and hiding his amusement at the crow’s commentary. It sings along to some but makes a fuss at Rest , flying off to amuse itself by collecting Lan Wangji an assortment of gifts: a sprig of berries, a regal cut of an orchid, and even a fine jade earring without its pair. 

Lan Wangji thanks him solemnly for each one, gently placing two in a pouch for safe keeping - he’ll press the flower later and save the earring - but he shares the berries between them—once he’s made sure they're safe. 

“Spoiled,” he tells the bird when it awaits each of its share with an open beak. But he does little to discourage it. 

The afternoon warns of a fierce heat, so they retreat to the shade to next split the small lunch Lan Wangji had packed for his trip to the neighbouring village. The meal is a simple one, one he cooked himself thanks to the patience of the inn’s kitchen staff who allowed him to borrow their space, and he’s surprised that the crow has little objections to it—even if it does eye the greens he portions out for them with some hesitation. 

It’s strange to think that his most consistent companion in the last four years is a crow owned by a notorious criminal, but Lan Wangji can hardly blame it for its master’s history. They take their time in finishing their lunch, and once it’s been cleaned and packed away, Lan Wangji delicately taps at both his own mouth, and the crow’s beak once, with his handkerchief. However, it’s here that the easy thread of their companionship suddenly snags. 

Hopping back onto his leg, the crow tips up his head—the bell now dangling from its neck in an inviting way. Lan Wangji can only stare. The crow hops forward again, more insistent now as it bares its neck, its offer plain to see. 

Take the bell. It is yours. 

There’s something familiar about the gently chiming bell, but Lan Wangji struggles to recall it as his breath catches in his throat, his lungs now feeling as if they were made of brittle ice.

Oh .

“Thank you,” he begins, voice tight, “but I cannot accept this.” 

The crow must assume this to be false modestly as it gives an annoyed huff and pecks at his hand, catching his pinkie between its beak, and pulling it towards its own body. Lan Wangji curls the rest of his fingers in tight. 

“I’m sorry. But I cannot marry your master. I—” a fractured exhale escapes his body, he’s yet to face the consequences of saying his next words, “I am already in love with another.” 

It’s the first time Lan Wangji has ever admitted this aloud. These heavy words, stowed away for so long in his heart, have grown firm roots and Lan Wangji can feel the painful tug as he finally brings them into the light. Lan Wangji had thought it would be his brother to hear them first, to hear this stumbling submission to the flower smothering his chest, but Lan Xichen had not needed them to be spoken for him to understand. 

“Fly safe, Wangji,” his brother had murmured to him whilst handing him a small bag packed with old, familiar treats from their childhood. “Write often,” he had asked before stepping back and allowing Lan Wangji to disappear into the quivering night. 

(Lan Wangji left Gusu barely a month after the Sunshot Campaign ended searching for a ghost. Searching for a moonlit smile and candied laughter. Searching for a man far too many have been happy to label as nothing more than a tragic lost. He has seen the country from its tip to the bottom twice over and wandered more towns than he can name and has learned nothing, but…) 

(He won’t give up. He won’t.)

The crow startles at his confession, then freezes when the words seem to properly land, it’s small, black beak still clinging to the only finger of Lan Wangji’s it could grab. A faint wash of despair overtakes Lan Wangji as he watches the bird who seems so small now. Like a splotch of ink against his clothes. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, “I hope you find someone.” 

These words are offered as a salve, but the crow takes it and then all but spits his hand back; contemptuous and bitter. Lan Wangji can understand its anger, but he had not meant to trick it. He never meant to play the game. 

With a huff and an irritated ruffle of its feathers, the crow breaks away from him to pace, restless and quick in its steps. Lan Wangji watches it carefully, waiting for it to calm, and wonders how such a small creature can carry so much emotion in its movements. He sees the moment an idea comes to it and is given no time to respond when the crow launches forward, jabbing his leg roughly with its sharp beak - stay here, he can almost hear it say, I will be back - and takes off for the Burial Mounds lurking in the distance. 

Lan Wangji wonders if it's going to fetch his master, which would surely be an awkward meeting, but remains where he is. He said he would. 

It takes a short while, but the crow does return. Instead of the Yiling Patriarch, however, it brings a collection of paper talismans it drops in Lan Wangji’s lap. Look, it is saying, Look at what my master can give you

They’re well-made, Lan Wangji can see the craftsmanship, and while some are the usual spells most cultivators carry he also recognizes a few that only the Yiling Patriarch is known to make or use. Such things were highly sought after, with cheap imitations reeking havoc on the cultivation sects. And here sits Lan Wangji. Gathering them in spades. 

“Your master is very intelligent,” Lan Wangji agrees, tracing what’s almost a familiar brushstroke, “But still, I cannot marry him.” 

The frustrated crow gives another caw and takes back to the sky with one of its wings very nearly grazing Lan Wangji’s hair. It’s impatience is palpable - after refusing so many it likely didn’t expect to be refused itself - and Lan Wangji is left to arrange the gifted talismans in a neat pile. He has no need of them and does not expect to be able to keep a courting gift if he refuses the marriage, so it’s better they return. 

The next gift takes longer to retrieve, and mid-afternoon clouds are beginning to gather when the harried bird returns with a painting; one with vivid strokes detailing what looks to be a peaceful lotus pond. Complete a distant pavilion and proud lotus blooms. It’s well done and with excellent form but—

“I see he is well educated and talented. But I still cannot marry him.” 

Exasperation takes hold of the crow and they jump up to his shoulder to peck at the hairpin from before, likely made by the Patriarch himself. Look at the gifts he could bestow on you, he hears in the crow’s desperate clicks and Lan Wangji’s heart pulls. This crow must love its master very much. 

“I apologize,” he says as he takes the crow in hand. “But my heart belongs to another. It would be unfair.” The crow replies with a small, sad sound and moves in closer to cuddle into Lan Wangji’s chest. Perhaps one last attempt in winning him over. Lan Wangji allows himself to hold it close. “I truly hope you find someone perfect for him.” 

A laugh escapes the crow, raspy and weak, but Lan Wangji still catches it. He still knows the sound. 

(He holds the crow closer and laments having given it the same heavy weight of regret he bears himself.)

They part, as they must, with one final touch and one final peck and as he watches the crow fly away, Lan Wangji’s heart feels far too weak within the cage of his ribs. Too fragile to be carried any further; so he concedes to one final night and returns to the inn once more. 

Now seated alone, Lan Wangji knows to expect the gossip that lingers around him like overly sweet incense—imposing and falsely pleasant. The fellow guests at the inn do little to hide their stares and jeers as he takes his dinner silently and Lan Wangji childishly debates meeting their haughty eyes dead on to force them into silence. It’s that or the Lan Silencing Technique, which he fears his uncle would never forgive him for utilizing for such petty reasons. 

“Did he lose favour?” He hears someone ask. 

“We better hope so!” Another’s companion scoffs, “Do you know what kind of power the Patriarch could give us?” 

Lan Wangji nearly breaks the teacup in his hands. Placing the still full cup onto the table with a performative clink , he stands and removes himself from the restaurant instead. Paying for a meal he only half eats. No one here cares for the Patriarch. None of his would-be suitors are looking to earn his affection or offer him theirs. They care only for what he can give them; the power his name wields. 

Perhaps his distaste for such treatment grows from a seed of empathy. Lan Wangji’s own suitors were few, but would often speak only of his accomplishments and strength—hurried on by their clan leaders in order to create powerful ties between sects. To be courted for what you can offer, and not for who you are is… Cold. Lan Wangji wishes it could be different. For both of them. 

He doesn’t return to his room until late that evening and when he goes to bed, he finds himself staring out his window, searching for the flash of a wing in the moonlight. But nothing comes so he lets himself fall asleep—fifteen minutes late. 

*

This dawn brings a chill and Lan Wangji struggles to keep with his usual schedule. His robes feel stiff, his body heavy, and he loses track of time due to the low sinking clouds that hold the sun’s light captive. When he does manage to leave, it’s during the morning rush and the din that always accompanies it. Exhaustion and irritation are already biting down on him, so Lan Wangji is grateful his usual disposition is already enough to carve out a path through any number of people. 

In fact, he’s nearly made it to the potsticker stand the crow first led him to when something catches the bottom of his robes and tugs . He looks down, expecting a dog or, wildly, the Patriarch’s crow. Instead, two wide, brown eyes, set above chubby, dirt freckled cheeks, meet his. It’s a child, no older than two or three, and as soon as they realize they have his attention, they attach themself to his leg like a burr. Lan Wangji can only blink, at an utter loss. 

He looks around first, to see if he can spot a frantic parent fretting about the stalls, but when he’s unsuccessful at that, he turns his attention back to the child and tries to tug himself free. He has no success—the child only clings harder, with tears beginning to well in their eyes. 

Oh. Oh, no. 

“Don’t cry,” he says helplessly, but it comes out firm and this only worsens the panic growing on the child’s face. They have to be lost yet—Lan Wangji looks up to see if he can try and spot anyone who seems like they may be lacking a very important part of their family. Once more he has no luck and the child is only growing more distressed. 

“Want… gege…” they sniffle, tugging at his clothes, and oh, how Lan Wangji desperately wishes he knew who that was. Especially when his idling causes the panic to finally break on the child’s face and they begin to wail

Lan Wangji tries to quiet them, but an ever familiar crowd quickly surges around him, with loud whispers and easy judgments. 

“A father…?” Several of them wonder aloud.

“Not a very good one!” A merchant scoffs, “His poor boy is sobbing!” 

“Must have scolded him too harshly…” An elderly woman tuts, leaving Lan Wangji’s ears feeling warm.

“I’m not,” Lan Wangji tries to explain, but—

A-DIE!” The child cries with renewed vigour, his hold on Lan Wangi’s person tightening, for reasons far beyond Lan Wangji’s understanding. Naturally, this only causes the crowd to grow even more restless as Lan Wangji still refuses to carry him. What sort of father would allow his child to remain in such continued distress? Lan Wangji can understand their mistrustful looks but he’s not—how can he… 

“Oh!” A man’s voice cuts through the noise. “There he is!” From within the crowd, a young man dressed in dull green clothes and wearing a flimsy sword breaks through to kneel in front of both of them. “I’ve been looking for you!” He says to the child before turning to look up at Lan Wangji and smiling, all teeth. “This is my friend’s son. Don’t worry, I can bring him home.” 

The crowd twitters around them as Lan Wangji observes the newcomer with narrowed eyes. He offers up no name and nothing on his person rings of familiarity. Even the child seems unsure of him, clinging harder to Lan Wangji’s leg when the stranger turns his wide grin onto him. 

“Want… gege.” The child repeats with a sniffle, his tears now drying on his cheeks.

“I’ll bring you to him!” The man says readily, reaching out to try and forcibly take one of the child’s hands. This only causes the child to whine and tuck himself behind Lan Wangji’s captive leg, hiding his face in the fabric. “Now, now,” the man grits out, impatience peeking out behind his cheerful mask, “Don’t cause any more trouble!” 

Something protective flares hot in Lan Wangji’s chest and when the man attempts to grab the child’s hand again, Lan Wangji knocks it away, leaning down to scoop the boy up himself. The child goes easily, with soft, repeated questions of, “Gege? ” and, “Find gege?” being tucked away in the crisp folds of Lan Wangji’s robes as he settles into Lan Wangji’s arms.

“I will bring him,” he tells the man firmly, after gently assuring the child. The man tries to argue -“Oh! It’s no problem! Don’t let him be a bother!”- as the crowd begrudgingly disperses, but his refusals die on his tongue the colder Lan Wangji’s glare becomes. Something in this man’s face reads of deceit and Lan Wangji would never forgive himself for allowing a child to walk into harm. 

The man begrudgingly relents to his request, and first leads them back into the centre of Yiling, with fumbled excuses and blatant lies spilling from his mouth. He leads them through winding alleys and twice offers to take the boy when he notices how the dust from the child’s robes is beginning to dirty Lan Wangji’s own pristine ones. Lan Wangji simply ignores him and directs his questions to the child instead, who consistently shakes his head when asked if he recognizes anything. 

“I know.. the woods.” The child offers tentatively after the third query and the man smiles his too big grin at the both of them as he laughs his own mistakes off and hurries them outside the town’s limits. His attention seems scattered as they walk, with his eyes swiftly switching between whatever he hopes - or doesn’t hope - to find hidden in the forest’s shadows and Lan Wangji himself. Shooting the man numerous irritated glances whenever he thinks Lan Wangji to be distracted. Of course, this only serves to heighten Lan Wangji’s already firm suspicions and his hold on the child tightens.

“Xian-gege ?” The child asks hopefully, perking up the farther into the Yiling Woods they get. His tears have completely dried, mostly from him wiping his face into Lan Wangji’s collar, and Lan Wangji can see the exuberant child beneath now. There’s recognition in his face, so Lan Wangji is optimistic that even if the man is a liar, they’ll encounter the child’s family eventually. 

“I will find him,” Lan Wangji promises quietly, brushing a stray hair away from the child’s face as he settles back into the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck. The child is wearing many layers, but they’re all quite thin and hang loosely on the boy’s small frame so Lan Wangji uses his own body to brace themselves against the sporadic bursts of cold air rushing down the mountain. 

On one such breeze, a familiar sound reaches Lan Wangji - the distant roar of a fierce corpse - and his body goes still. The man ahead doesn’t realize Lan Wangji has stopped and continues to break through the brittle branches marring the path he claimed to find ten minutes prior. Lan Wangji is about to call out an interrogation - what home could be made amongst such creatures? - when a rush of feathers steals his attention. 

For the first time, when Lan Wangji’s meets the crow’s gaze, the bird wears an obvious look of terror. Without warning, Lan Wangji breaks from the man still cursing his way through a maze of branches and hurries to follow the crow whose gaze snaps between him and the small child still in his arms. 

“Xian-gege !” The child squeals with excitement as the crow takes off and begins leading them down a new path. 

“Hush,” Lan Wangji whispers into the crown of his head, wary now of those who may be following or listening, “We are going to meet him.” 

No rumour ever mentioned the Patriarch having a child, but Lan Wangji trusts the crow far more than the stranger. He still hesitates when they reach the base of the Burial Mounds, but the crow only caws his impatience and swoops around the duo before starting back up the mountain. It’s not the entrance the Patriarch’s fans flock to and the child is expressing no fear so Lan Wangji starts up the mountain. 

The resentment is thick, but abates slightly when they pass through what Lan Wangji recognizes to be one of the Patriarch’s protective talismans. But even so, it’s still no place to raise a child. Lan Wangji takes in the arid environment and wonders what sort of like could be achieved up here. 

Hardly three li past the talisman, they’re met with a frantic woman in thin robes who rushes them both. She wears the robes of the razed Wen Sect and confirms Lan Wangji’s previous assumption of the boy’s origin. 

“A-Yuan!” She cries, stealing him easily from Lan Wangji’s arm. He calls a name for her, but it’s hidden under her scold of, “Never do that again!” 

The boy, A-Yuan, sniffles, the mood shift likely encouraging his next fit of tears, and mumbles something into her shoulder as she cradles him in close. He doesn’t fuss, or try to wriggle away like he had with the man before, so Lan Wangji relaxes—the crow does too, heaving a sigh of relief on the tree next them. 

“Thank you,” the woman says, so sincere that Lan Wangji can only incline his head awkwardly. Protecting a child required no gratitude. When their eyes meet again, Lan Wangji can see a flicker of recognition spark before she darts her gaze over to the crow and back again, reading something he cannot. Gathering A-Yuan in close, she murmurs, “Say, ’Thank you,’ to the gongzi,” which he does, sweet and shy. 

“Stay safe,” he says, inclining his head in farewell. He turns and begins to make his way back down the mountain when—“Xian-gege !”—the crow comes to land back on his favourite perch on his shoulder. Xian-gege? Is that what the crow is called?

Gege needs to speak with the  gongzi, he’ll be back,” the woman assures the now pouting A-Yuan, who tries to argue but allows himself to be carried away after some more assurances they’ll be followed soon, watching them and chewing absently on some of his fingers as he goes. 

“I did not know the Patriarch had a child,” Lan Wangji says after a moment of the two of them standing within the whistling wind. He faces the crow who stares at him then nods. Lan Wangji feels a grim sense of understanding. The other man must have… Anger sparks first, utilizing children in such a way should go against any mortal’s morals, but concern washes it away quickly. He can deal with the other man later. “This place, it’s…” Lan Wangji starts, but is interrupted by a sharp jab into his shoulder. Lan Wangji takes it for what it is; he’s sure the Patriarch already knows anything Lan Wangji has to say about such living conditions. 

“I’m glad he’s safe,” Lan Wangji says after an weighted, awkward moment. He needs to say goodbye, he needs to leave, but he struggles to find the right way to phrase another attempt at a farewell. 

The crows coos softly, perhaps in agreement, and after headbutting his temple, it hops back into Lan Wangji’s arms. Lan Wangji softens automatically, cradling the bird in close as it nudges its way back into his chest. Lan Wangji strokes down his back once and his heart clenches when the bird catches and pulls weakly at his hand once more. 

Take the bell. 

Finally, Lan Wangji relents.

“I will meet him. But I promise no more.” Lan Wangji’s heart has belonged to a mischievous smile bathed in moonlight for nearly seven years now. To say that is his to offer out feels inappropriate. But he feels as if he owes the crow this much; that he at least owes the Patriarch a greeting. He still begins preparing his refusal as he takes the silver bell in hand and gently pulls it from around the crow’s neck. However, the moment the bell is removed there’s a sizzling pop and Lan Wangji suddenly finds himself with an armful of human. A human with night black hair, languid, loose, and adorned with a crimson ribbon. A human with night black robes, dusted and worn, and— and

“Hello, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji’s breath stops in his throat. His heart clambers loudly in his chest. Every nerve in his body suddenly seems to thrum with a vibrating energy. 

He’s … 

Wei Ying looks up from where he had tucked himself into the crook Lan Wangji’s neck and smiles and oh, oh, Lan Wangji’s isn’t sure how he’s gone this long without seeing the beautiful curve of Wei Ying’s mouth. His lips are dry and chapped but still the same petal pink Lan Wangji remembers. And now that he’s pinned by the same mischievous eyes, Lan Wangji feels all but fifteen. 

“I’ve missed you,” Wei Ying says softly, settling back away from Lan Wangji and Lan Wangji doesn’t remember moving, can barely feel his body but he knows he needs to be touching him— refuses to stand apart any longer. One of his hands moves without thought or permission to capture and cradle Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying, who startles but leans into the touch, who nuzzles his palm. Lan Wangji is suddenly quite sure he’s dreaming. He has to be. 

“Wei Ying,” he says, rather helplessly, trying to cement himself in this reality. Wei Ying just smiles, his eyes two crescent moons shining in the dark. Lan Wangji feels as bound to them as the tides. Every breath rushing his lungs like the surging sea meeting an inviting coast. Caught and tangled and alive

“Hello,” Wei Ying replies, as if he hasn’t just turned the entirety of Lan Wangji’s life upside down. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats, much more affected, before pulling Wei Ying back into his arms. Wei Ying laughs, and it’s as sweet and beautiful as Lan Wangji remembers, and curls into him easily, holds onto him just as tightly. Lan Wangji doesn’t know how his heart used to function without being pressed against the swell Wei Ying’s ribs. Their hearts racing to find each other’s reassuring pace. He finds himself murmuring Wei Ying’s name into the dark sweep of his hair like a mantra. His immaculate vocabulary lost—defeated by his happiness. He doesn’t care. He needs nothing else. 

It’s only when long standing questions arise on Lan Wangji’s tongue that they pull apart—but still touching, neither wanting more than a breath of space between them. Lan Wangji’s hand is quick to return to Wei Ying’s face while his other hold’s fast to the other man’s waist. Wei Ying sways in his hold, content. 

“The Crow?” Lan Wangji looks to confirm first, eyes taking in the robes that once shunned him. 

“That’s me,” Wei Ying replies, his voice almost like a song, then he laughs, turning his head more into Lan Wangji’s palm as he looks up at him, “They renamed me the Yiling Patriarch after I stole the Wens away from the Jin camps.” 

Lan Wangji remembers this. Remembers the bitter blow of the betrayal the other clan’s had felt considering the Crow had been so crucial in the campaign against the Wens. But, if the camps held a child, and if the quiet rumours that followed were accurate, Lan Wangji has no doubt as to why Wei Ying did it. 

“The game?” He inquires next, unable to stop the frown that moves onto his face. He knew Wei Ying to be impish at times but this… Wei Ying just laughs even louder. 

“Just something to get people to leave me alone,” he turns his chin and looks at Lan Wangji with a sly smirk, “I’m very popular, you know.”

There are numerous principles Lan Wangji could recite relating to arrogance and vanity but he knows they have no place in this reunion. Besides, to acknowledge one's gifts is not a sin, and Lan Wangji could never doubt Wei Ying’s charisma. Wei Ying, real and warm in his arms. 

Lan Wangji’s next question is quieter. 

“Why did you hide?” 

“In the war,” Wei Ying begins, pausing to find his breath and dart his tongue across his dry lips, “During the war I needed the cover. After, I just…” another breath while he worries his lip between sharp teeth, “It just seemed like everyone had moved on.”

“No,” Lan Wangji tells him immediately, swooping in to catch Wei Ying’s face in both hands. Holding him softly, like when he carried him as an injured bird. “Never.” 

None of them had moved on. Not Jiang Wanyin—who still looks to his side for a brother long gone; who keeps a room prepared for a body never there; who still maintains a correspondence with Lan Wangji, finding ways to ask a question he never manages to find the words for. (Have you found him? Have you found him? Have you found him? ) Not Jiang Yanli, who still places an extra bowl of soup at an empty chair; who invites Lan Wangji for tea they never drink so she may have someone she can share her stories with who can nod and say, “I know.” 

Not Lan Wangji, still searching, never not searching, for nearly four years with nothing more than blind hope and a prayer hidden in his chest. 

None of them had moved on at all. 

Wei Ying covers one of Lan Wangji’s hands with his own and presses in close, eyes closed tight with emotion. Lan Wangji tries to tell him all he’s needed him to know through this connection—you are loved, you are loved, you are loved—hoping to ensure that Wei Ying may never doubt his place again. They’ve never been this close for so long before. Lan Wangji can’t believe it took them this long—he never wants to let go again. Will never let go again, if given the chance. 

(The silver bell; the clarity bell given to all YungmengJiang disciples feels cool in his hand.)

“I won,” Lan Wangji says, almost like an afterthought. Wei Ying looks up at him with a blink before turning his attention the bell Lan Wangji offers as he explains, “I have the bell.” 

“Oh,” Wei Ying gives a weak chuckle, a flush warming his cheeks as he reaches for it, “Don’t worry, Lan Zhan, I know you don’t want to marry the Yiling Patriarch.” His hand closes over Lan Wangji’s. 

“No,” Lan Wangji agrees. But— “I want to marry Wei Ying.” That’s because his heart had been given to another. And how was Lan Wangji to know they were one of the same?

Wei Ying’s gaze snaps to him, mouth agape. “Lan Zhan, don’t tease,” he says with a strained voice. Lan Wangji, tired of waiting and wanting, leans in to nuzzle at his temple. Breathing in the floral scent that dwells amidst the dirt living atop Wei Ying’s skin. That still lives beneath the struggles that make his flesh. 

“Not teasing,” Lan Wangji murmurs, “I want to marry Wei Ying.”

“But—But you’re in love with someone else!” Wei Ying cries, aghast, fingers tightening where they still lay claim to Lan Wangji’s hand. 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji agrees. “And no. I am in love with Wei Ying.” He stares into Wei Ying’s eyes, needing him to understand. “Always.” 

Wei Ying’s breathing is shallow and his response is a strangled sort of noise before he lunges forward to press a messy kiss against Lan Wangji’s mouth. Impatient. Demanding. Lan Wangji smiles into it, wondering how he hadn’t discerned the crow’s true identity earlier. The kiss is awkward and hard and wet but oh, Lan Wangji can’t until they learn to do it properly. 

“Don’t tease me like that!” Wei Ying whines, his eyes are shiny and his mouth bright when he pulls back. His arms tangled behind Lan Wangji’s neck and in his hair. “Lan er gege! You’re so mean to me!” Lan Wangji hums what is neither an affirmation nor a denial and places a delicate kiss atop the corner of Wei Ying’s mouth, delighted that he is allowed to do so. “Lan er gege!” Wei Ying whines again, so Lan Wangji, ever indulgent to his whims, leans back in to kiss him properly. Pinning him with them until they’re both short of breath. 

“Marry me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying pleads against his mouth. His eyes are now dark and his mouth is a viscous red. Lan Wangji did that. Pride has no place in the Lan Sect, but—Wei Ying’s fingers tighten in his hair, tangling with his ribbon—Lan Wangji did that. “I’ll have no one else; the Yiling Patriarch will accept no one else.” 

The Yiling Patriarch. Lan Wangji can see him, written into the hollow of Wei Ying’s cheeks and the sharp cut of his stone grey eyes. But, beneath the mask of the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, Lan Wangji can only see the young boy he fell in love with all those years ago. Can see only the moonlit smile that stole his heart. “Yes,” he says, words dropping onto an adoring sigh, his own eyes growing damp. Almost seven years of yearning, four years of searching, how can he say anything else? “Yes, Wei Ying, I will marry you.”