Lan Zhan was about to die.
He admitted it to himself as the voices calling for him in the forest began to recede. He could still hear the nighttime insects and birds about as well as before, which meant the rest of his hunting party was getting further away from the rough crevasse he’d fallen into, where he lay impaled on a rough spear of splintered wood.
He thought it might have been a tree once, snapped off at the trunk, still rooted firmly enough in the rocky soil to hold fast, and sharp enough at the tip to go all the way through him when Lan Zhan’s quarry -a mutated boar with extra tusks and some five hundred extra pounds of bodyweight- got in a lucky blow as it died that threw him backwards into the crevasse.
The bottom of the ravine was lined with broken off a decomposing copse of plant life that had been choked out by the dense canopy overhead. It was pure bad luck that he fell badly while temporarily stunned. The walls of the ravine made sound echo strangely, which further impeded his ability to call for help.
The creature was dead at least. That was something.
He was too tired to yell anymore and, worryingly, the pain was starting to fade. Given the amount of blood on the ground around him, he was probably bleeding out. His cultivation was high enough that it would take a lot to kill him, but this seemed to be the perfect storm of circumstances; a sudden systemic shock, heavy blood loss, he couldn’t feel his legs or one of his arms, and no one was close enough to help him.
Lan Zhan’s breath came in short harsh pants as he closed his eyes. This was not the end he’d anticipated. If asked, he’d had pictured himself dying of old age while sitting at a desk or perhaps tilted over his instrument long after he’d seen A-Yuan across the final thresholds of independence.
He’d deliberately stopped driving himself towards immortality so he’d known an end would come one day. He’d only wanted the strength necessary to complete his promises. Living forever was undesirable, but he’d wanted to stay long enough to see his son become an adult.
This would have to do.
Sizhui was old enough now to care for himself. Xichen would step in where Lan Zhan could not. He could make his reluctant peace with that.
“Wei Ying…” He rasped.
It was selfish to be grateful for such an early, unlooked for end. Thirty-five was too young for someone to be taken from their family, but Lan Zhan had been living on duty, regrets, and memories ever since his heart had been carved out of him at the age of twenty-two.
Hadn’t he earned some small measure of mercy?
Lan Zhan was familiar enough with death to know that his brief absence of pain followed by a short burst of what pretended to be strength and vitality was a very bad sign. His body was no longer fighting on his behalf. Trying to escape the ravine would just hasten his end and, as much as he welcomed that final rest, he had a duty to remain among the living for every second he’d been sentenced to.
The flush of adrenaline abandoned him all too soon as cold began to seep into his limbs and he became sleepy.
Would he see Wei Ying again if he woke up? If he called out in the afterlife, after so many years of playing Inquiry into the unbroken night, would he finally get a response?
Lulled by the possibility of such a sweet dream, Lan Zhan succumbed to the darkness.
It was brief -just the space between one blink and the next- and he opened his eyes seated behind the proctor’s desk in the Library at Cloud Recesses --not the one they’d built to replace what the Wen had burned, but the old one he’d known as a boy.
He no longer hurt. He was no longer cold.
At the same time, just for a moment, he wondered if he was being punished for going quietly to his death.
Lan Zhan looked around, assailed by memories everywhere his eyes landed. There was the shelf he’d stood behind to monitor Wei Ying, but more than once had gotten so involved with watching the boy’s hand on the pen that he missed the minute when he’d devolved into doodling rather than copying lines.
Then, then his wounded gaze came to rest on a dozing figure slumped over one of the student desks surrounded by folded out books.
Lan Zhan rose with shaking legs.
Wei Ying did not stir as he knelt down by the desk. It had been so long since Lan Zhan had seen those beloved features and even longer since he’d been allowed to either get or stay this close to Wei Ying.
He looked so different from Lan Zhan’s memories; apple cheeked, clean, and relaxed.
Lan Zhan clamped both hands over his own mouth to stop the pained noise that threatened to escape him. Hot tears spilled down his face as he watched the young, safe, and whole boy sleep.
His stomach cramped with the effort of holding the sound in, but he’d sooner die than wake Wei Ying up.
When was the last time he’d seen Wei Ying healthy like this; without resentful energy and deprivation eating him alive from the inside like an insidious tumor? Years.
Was this why no one had ever been able to summon his spirit? Because it had gone to hide in a happy memory?
Was their time in the library such a memory?
If that were the case then Lan Zhan would happily spend an eternity guarding Wei Ying’s sleep and only wonder how he got so lucky, but as pain built up in his knees he couldn’t quite make himself believe that was the case.
Pain in death was different from pain in life. A ghost could kneel on stones all day, but what tormented them would only ever be what had hurt them while they were still alive. They didn’t accumulate new torments.
No force on earth could make him move or reach out to shake Wei Ying’s shoulder though, no matter how much he hurt or what hunger built in his stomach. He didn’t know what to make of those sensations and put them aside rather than leave his post.
The light faded to mellow gold as he watched Wei Ying sleep on. Shadows stretched across the library floor and it was not until a distant gong rang to announce the evening meal that Wei Ying woke with a start and a thin thread of drool connecting his mouth to the desk.
“Ah…?” He looked around, sleepy and confused. “AH!” He fell back on his seat, pointing at Lan Zhan in shock. “Y-you!”
Neither death nor age had made Lan Zhan into a poet. His heart was in his throat and all he could do was nod once. Which ‘you’ was Wei Ying referring to? The disciplinary master of Cloud Recesses or his zhiji come to join him in a beautiful corner of the afterlife?
He waited for a better clue.
The bell rang again and Xichen -of all people- stepped into the library looking vaguely concerned, but otherwise serene. Things stopped making sense.
“You have both stayed late today," he said, kindly. “Diligence is virtuous, but perhaps it is time to stop for the day?”
“A… Zewu-jun?” Wei Ying looked guiltily between them before saluting once, sharply, and fleeing the scene leaving behind all his open books and papers. The one under his face was a rude picture of Lan Qiren that Lan Zhan snatched up, folded in half, and slipped into his sleeve before his brother had an opportunity to notice it.
“Such energy.” Xichen observed with a fond smile as Wei Ying walked away as fast as once possibly could without being caught running. He turned to look at Lan Zhan, who was sorting through the remaining papers either for any more incriminating drawings or one he might be able to keep on the sly.
He’d spent nearly twenty years wishing he had kept the portrait Wei Ying had drawn of him. Aside from the flower in his hair, it was a flattering likeness.
“Leave that, Wangji. Wei-gongzi can deal with it tomorrow, but…” Xichen paused to consider his words in a way Lan Zhan had often wished he wouldn’t. “...perhaps it’s better to not be so diligent about this punishment. It’s already in excess of the guidelines laid out by our ancestors.”
Lan Zhan remembered only too well the discussion his brother and uncle had had on the subject behind closed doors. His uncle was an elder, their closest living relative who hadn’t shut himself away from them, and even if he wasn’t the acting Sect Leader anymore filial piety dictated that his wishes were to be treated as law.
At the same time, however, Lan Qiren had violated several of the disciplines himself in that unfortunate debate. Lan Zhan had been unwilling to hear anything against his uncle at the time, but the rules were clear on several points and made no allowance for seniority; do not become heated in debate, violence is not permitted between student and teacher nor teacher and student, no one may be punished for hypothetical crimes or their personal thoughts.
He had not been willing to entertain those thoughts until after everything was over and done with as he observed his period of reflection and penance in the Cold Water Cave.
There he came to question a great many things.
Lan Zhan couldn’t voice those thoughts now. There’d be no point and someone else might be set to monitor Wei Ying if his uncle thought he’d gotten soft.
He wouldn’t have thought this as a teenager, but as a man he’d come to realize that there were many interpretations of the Disciplines despite the exhaustive detail of the original text. It was possible for someone to betray them while wholeheartedly believing they were following them to the letter.
“Mn," he said, instead.
The dream continued in strange, brutally realistic detail. He ate a bland dinner with his brother and uncle before retiring to his own house with real fear in his heart over what he might find there.
Outside, the Jingshi was the same as it had been in his youth. He had never made many changes aside from replacing old furniture as it wore out or no longer fit his use. In many ways, it was still the house his mother had left behind and it hadn’t taken much damage when Cloud Recesses burned; just the garden.
He stopped, arrested by the sight of blue gentians surrounding the private little house and his throat began to ache again all over.
His mother’s flowers.
Lan Zhan knelt on the white gravel path outside his home to breathe them in and found himself silently weeping for the second time that day.
He hadn’t replaced them after they burned and left the beds empty. He’d told Xichen it was because flowers required too much care and he was gone too much despite neither of those barriers having ever stopped him before.
Xichen had eventually replaced the gentians with gnarled pine trees and ornamental stone arrangements that tolerated chronic neglect. Neither of them admitted the truth, which was that Lan Zhan wanted his mother’s garden or none at all.
Feeling scraped raw, he retreated inside.
Inside, it was much the same as he’d last left it. There were fewer books. Lan Zhan’s private collection was very small as a teenager. His namesake, Wangji, sat on his desk under a cloth as he did not carry it with him unless he was outside of Cloud Recesses.
The instrument had been well cared for by its previous owner, Lan Zhan’s father, and then later by Lan Zhan before the Sunshot campaign where he’d had to carry it into real battle. There wasn’t a scratch on it now and Lan Zhan sat heavily down in front of the qin, wondering if instead of dying he’d gone mad instead.
He was forced to conclude that he wasn’t insane the next morning when he reported to the lecture hall with eyes sandy from lack of sleep and his stomach still upset from nerves. No fever dream could be so relentlessly, meticulously realistic.
In his real youth, Lan Zhan hadn’t made many memories of Wei Wuxian during their shared classes during these days. If Wei Wuxian wasn’t acting out then Lan Zhan had kept his focus riveted on the lecturer. He knew most of the material, but attended the lectures in order to learn how to teach.
With the perspective of an adult, he was forced to admit his uncle wasn’t a particularly good instructor so he’d just been wasting his time.
There was a reason Xichen had slowly retired their uncle from the lecture hall, ostensibly to spend more time on the research that he liked better anyway, but also because too many of the disciples taught by Lan Qiren had shown an unbecoming lack of flexibility and independent judgement.
Lan Zhan had originally assumed Xichen was complicit in the way a staggering number of Lan disciples frequently appeared under Jin sect command. He later learned that his Uncle’s students were just a little too good at following orders. They had been conditioned not to question the person giving them too closely either.
That was fine in Cloud Recesses, but Jin Guangshan took advantage of it several times as Chief Cultivator before he slipped up badly enough for Xichen to catch him. By that point, he either couldn’t endanger his position by admitting wrongdoing or he’d established enough false precedent that he’d become convinced that authority had always been his.
The incident caused a major rift between the two sects that wasn’t really bridged until Jin Guangyao, Xichen’s sworn brother, took over as the new Jin-zongzhu.
It had been an ugly day for everyone involved, but especially for Lan Zhan who’d never quite understood what his dead sect brothers and sisters had been doing in Zixun’s horrific prison camp or at the ambush at Qiongqi path in the first place.
The rules condemned ambush tactics almost as harshly as experimentation with resentful energy. Disciples of Lan Sect weren’t even allowed to carry boot knives because they counted as concealed weapons.
With that thought in mind, Lan Zhan had more attention to free up for his current priority; observing Wei Ying to see if he was the only one living in this blissful dream --if it was, indeed, a dream.
What Wei Ying did during classes was doodle unless something interesting was happening or there was a discussion section or he was in a mood for mischief. He showed admirable command of the material when it came to be his turn to speak so he was doing the readings. He just could not, would not handle boredom.
Lan Zhan knew part of his younger self’s issue with Wei Ying was the unauthorized attraction sparking between them, therefore everything Wei Ying did had been infuriating to him. So it shouldn’t have come as a shock that he, an older soul who had accepted the will of his heart, saw less to object to in Wei Ying’s present behavior.
Still, something felt off.
He often felt the weight of Wei Ying’s regard, but whenever he looked back the other boy was looking away. There were no papermen visiting his desk or illicit snacks tossed his way. He didn’t think he’d changed his own behavior that much. So why was Wei Ying acting differently?
Did it mean what he hoped it meant? Or was he just reaching out to shadows?
The biggest change, however, came from an unexpected quarter.
Following the afternoon break, he arrived at class to find a desk -one that had been added after Wen-guniang and Wen-gongzi’s arrival, but had gone empty this entire time- was suddenly filled by Wen-guniang herself.
Wen Qing sat neatly in her place wearing disciple whites -a stark contrast to the Wen red she’d worn her entire visit thus far- with her materials arranged in front of her as she stared straight ahead. Her shoulders had no crests. There wouldn’t have been time for a seamstress to embroider any and the Wen sect never sent guest disciples so there were no old ones for her to wear.
Lan Zhan had never once seen her enter the lecture hall after the disastrous introduction she’d received from her putrid cousin. She’d been on a mission that took all her focus; finding the yin iron fragment of GusuLan.
What reason did she now have to attend the lectures? None.
Not unless she already knew where the yin iron was.
If she already knew where it was, she still had no reason to attend the lectures --unless she knew what reporting its location would bring down, not only on Cloud Recesses and the entire cultivation world, but also her people on Dafan Mountain.
Attending classes could be a stalling tactic while she, like he, tried to make sense of what had happened to her.
Lan Zhan received an unexpected sign of confirmation when Wei Ying arrived in class at the very last second laughing between Nie Huaisang and a much more relaxed teenaged Jiang Wanyin as he hassled Jin Zixuan a bit in the entrance. Lan Zhan had originally found that behavior unbecoming, but further acquaintance with Jin Zixuan led him to decide a little spiritual mortification would do the man good so he now turned a blind eye to Wei Ying’s minor hazing.
Wen Qing’s gaze cut towards Wei Ying’s oblivious back as he entered and a painful vulnerability appeared in her eyes; an expression that sat at total odds with the stalwart and prickly woman he remembered from Tiannu temple. Her lower lip trembled with emotion before she turned to face decisively forward.
His stomach cramps were back by the time his uncle took his place at the front of the room.
Returning to the library was heaven and hell in equal measures.
Lan Zhan had figured out roughly when he was. They were a week and a half into the month it would take Wei Ying to make his copies. It might take even less time. The first time Wei Ying had earned two extensions on his punishment.
The last thing he wanted to do was alienate his own zhiji further, but Lan Zhan couldn’t fight his growing certainty that the impossible had happened.
He’d returned to his own past.
He had a second chance to exorcise his regrets.
When Wei Ying dragged himself in, escorted by his merciless sect brother, Lan Zhan did not do any of the things he wanted to. He did not drag Wei Ying into the secret sect library to pin him against the wall. He did not haul his zhiji all the way back to the Jingshi to barricade them both inside. He did not punch Jiang Wanyin in the face or keep punching until there was no face left.
Instead, Lan Zhan sat quietly as Wei Ying got situated and started doing his copies without complaint.
He was immediately suspicious and tried to remember the highlights from Wei Ying’s library pranks, but apparently he was in for a day of Wei Ying actually doing the work. There had to have been more of those days than not since he finished on time, even though it hadn’t felt like it at the time.
This time, at least, Wei Ying was looking at him. Lan Zhan pretended to read a book of poetry as he watched Wei Ying watch.
The trick was not to let Wei Ying know he knew he was being observed. Lan Zhan gazed at him through the veil of his lashes and drank every precious moment in. He missed the mischievous class pranks, but this was also very welcome.
Wei Ying didn’t doze off, but he did meander off into a series of doodles; rabbits, spell formulae, and something that looked like a mathematical puzzle or maybe the very early drafts of an array. Lan Zhan was not a spell writer the way Wei Ying was. His speciality was musical cultivation so he’d need to take a closer look that wasn’t currently feasible.
He let it go on as long as his conscience allowed. He didn’t care about the punishment. Xichen was right. It was excessive; suitable for a fourth or fifth offense where violence had been involved, not the first offense of a guest who’d just asked a few uncomfortable questions.
Lan Zhan didn’t like having his nose rubbed in just how different a place Cloud Recesses had been when he was a boy. Everything about his Sect had softened so gradually under Xichen’s leadership that it took this sudden return to the past to make him understand that Wei Ying would have never trusted the Lan sect to shelter him during the Sunshot campaign or afterwards.
Still, he eventually set his book down and said, “Wei Ying. Continue copying.” His tone wasn’t as stern as his role demanded, but sternness had never done him any good with Wei Ying. It was unlikely to happen now.
He was softer than he’d been as a teenager; harder in others, but softer as well. Seventeen year old Lan Wangji hadn’t known how to relent. He hadn’t known how to decide when a rule was either a bad rule or just did not apply universally. He had in fact been terrified of the prospect of flexible morality.
Time had not tamed Lan Zhan, but it had taught him that not every battle needed fighting. Sometimes a gentle redirection was all that was necessary.
He didn’t realize he’d made a mistake until the silence he received in response became too loud. He turned to find Wei Ying staring at him, jaw dropped and face pink.
Lan Zhan’s own ears caught fire.
Wei Wuxian rocked back in his seat with a brilliant, incandescent smile on his face and it was all for Lan Zhan. He turned instinctively towards it, like a flower seeking sunlight.
“Sorry, sorry!” Wei Ying apologized. He did not comment on the familiar form of address, but then again why would he? They were schoolmates and the same age. The only one who’d ever insisted on formality between them had been Lan Zhan. “I wandered off. Forgive me?”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan, unable to bear the weight of a smile he had not seen in years and had mourned long before he grieved for the rest of Wei Ying, turned away with heat still in his ears. “Begin.”
With a chuckle, Wei Ying did and left Lan Zhan alone with his whirling stomach and whirling thoughts.
If he really had been given a second chance, Lan Zhan wasn’t sure what all he’d be able to do with it.
He had not come into power or respect until after he and Jiang Wanyin had liberated the stolen swords of the Great Sects’ young masters. It was a long haul between his position as the protected and cosseted child of the main Lan Clan and his emergence into cultivation society as Hanguang-jun.
Wei Ying had turned to demonic cultivation by then. He’d been thrown into the burial mounds and had been changed there; less changed than Lan Zhan had thought once, but still changed in ways that hurt him and made him hide.
At the same time, Lan Zhan wasn’t certain they could win the war without the Yiling Laozu.
No one really admitted that anymore.
The Great Sects had rewritten history so that the Sunshot Campaign had turned effortlessly with their entry into the fray; that the smaller independent sects had been the ones struggling under Wen Ruohan’s boot despite the fact that most of them had been wiped out or absorbed long before the Wen turned their attention to larger prey.
Some sect leaders, namely the outspoken toadies like Yao-zongzhu, had internalized that revisionist history to the point where they truly believed it.
Part of him was willing to let the cultivation society burn if saving it meant giving up even the smallest piece of Wei Ying. Lan Zhan had nearly given his life once to preserve the wisdom of their ancestors when Wen Xu came and it meant nothing the first time he disagreed with the Lan elders.
There was not even the slightest chance that Wei Ying would let him do it, but Lan Zhan had long ago made his peace with the fact that his zhiji was a better person in reality than Hanguang-jun was in the eyes of the public.
Lan Zhan did not keep Wei Ying in the library late that day. It took physical effort not to follow him back to the guest houses. Lan Zhan knew he had no welcome there just from past experience. Wei Ying might welcome him in, but no one else would.
He waited until Wei Ying was gone before he sorted through the burn bin for the sketches left behind. He found two; one of a pair of tussling rabbits and one of an egret holding a brush in one claw that would have been comedic except for the beauty and poise of the bird itself. Neither were examples of Wei Ying’s best work, but Lan Zhan had very little shame left by that point. He’d been surviving on fading memories and a bookmark for a decade and a half. He would take whatever he could and treat it like jade.
The two drawings he rescued hung heavy in his sleeve as he sat down to the evening meal. When he returned to the Jingshi, he stored them in the box he usually kept for sheet music. The drawings, shuffled in with his own musical notes, would not be obvious or easy to find.
He sat down at his guqin by habit, but stopped playing abruptly as the first few bars of Inquiry left his fingertips.
Lan Zhan stilled the strings with his palms, unwilling to examine his own motivations too closely, before taking himself away to his solitary bed.
The lecture hall, that following morning, had another new and this time even less expected occupant.
Meng Yao sat at the remaining empty desk. It had been shuffled over to be next to Nie Huaisang. Unlike Wen-guniang, he was one enormous and exposed nerve as he sat wearing a set of guest disciple whites he’d clearly borrowed from his own young master.
Lan Zhan was not sure what he was doing there. Jin Guangyao, as he recalled, hadn’t made much progress as a cultivator until the Jin sect was forced to acknowledge him. Then they had to hurry to bring him up from behind. He was fully literate and intelligent, but Lan Zhan knew he didn’t have the fundamentals necessary to participate in these lectures.
Why was he there?
The set of Meng Yao’s shoulders indicated he didn’t know either.
Whispers rippled through the other guest disciples as they all filtered in, which Lan Zhan silenced with a look.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Xichen chose to audit that day’s lectures. Lan Zhan might have once thought it was to put down any unseemly whispering that Meng Yao’s presence would stir up, but he’d seen the way they would one day look at each other far too often to believe that now.
Whether Xichen realized he was only there to admire Meng Yao’s prettily blushing face was a different question; one Lan Zhan did not ever care to know the answer to.
This new change had longer reaching implications for Lan Zhan than he immediately realized because when he reported to the library for the evening’s copying session he discovered that one of the student desks had not one, but two occupants. Neither of them were Wei Ying.
Meng Yao was already surrounded by supplemental readings and Xichen was in the process of graciously setting down another in front of him, despite the overwhelmed expression already creeping into the other man’s gaze.
If there was one thing Lan Zhan was familiar with it was the intimidating nature of his own brother’s brand of helpfulness.
On the other hand, Lan Zhan did not care to intervene. He’d been relying on his fearsome reputation to keep the building clear during these evenings. Even his sect brothers and sisters tended to give a place wide berth if they thought he was going to be there. If they thought Xichen might appear then they’d keep an even further distance away. He could tolerate Meng Yao’s presence in exchange for that.
It was then that Wei Ying arrived.
“Oh?” He observed with a growing smile as he entered, looking totally charmed for no reason whatsoever as he took in Meng Yao’s presence. He sobered a bit and saluted Xichen when Lan Zhan’s brother came around from behind the central stacks. “Zewu-jun.”
“Wei-gongzi.” Xichen smiled. “I was hoping to encounter you here.”
Wei Ying blinked, at a polite loss. Lan Zhan did the same. “Ah?” His gaze strayed towards his messy workspot and he winced. “What may I do for you?”
Xichen looked far too pleased with himself. “Your sister mentioned to me that you have taken over many of the introductory classes in YunmengJiang and that your students perform quite well.”
Lan Zhan’s grip on the book he’d selected for the day’s camouflage tightened to the point where he was surprised it didn’t disintegrate between his clenched fingertips.
Wei Ying cocked his head and his gaze stayed admirably centered on Xichen’s face. “That is true,” he allowed.
“I have a proposition in that case.” Xichen tucked his flute behind his back and turned to include Meng Yao in the conversation. The man in question seemed to realize where this conversation was going and straightened in his seat. His eyes began to glow with the kind of hope that cut. “Meng Yao has been granted the opportunity to study here at Cloud Recesses. He came to his training late and his education in Qighe has been driven by necessity rather than structure. It’s led to some unavoidable gaps. If you are amenable, I would like to propose a compromise. You were sentenced to a month of copying. Would you be willing to exchange it for a month of tutorials?”
Wei Ying smiled and Lan Zhan’s heart sank. “With Meng-gongzi’s permission, of course.” He saluted a little less formally to Meng Yao, but more kindly than any of their classmates would have. “I’m inexperienced, but always glad to help.”
Meng Yao hurried to return the gesture. “Please!” His voice cracked on the word.
He collected himself and showed them the polished expression Lan Zhan was used to seeing from him. Still, his enthusiasm seemed genuine. Maybe receiving instruction from the elevated son of a servant seemed less likely to end in humiliation than being tutored by a proper young master of the sects. Lan Zhan remembered all too well the treatment Jin Guangyao had received in Koi Tower and that had been in a public setting; no telling what happened behind closed doors.
“This humble student welcomes any instruction Wei-gongzi sees fit to share,” Meng Yao said with an eagerness that was palpable.
“Don’t tell me that.” Wei Ying laughed; bright, beautiful, and heartbreaking when directed towards someone else as it usually was. “I’ll end up teaching you nothing except fishing and playing.”
“I am already familiar with both,” Meng Yao replied with admirable calm. “Perhaps we might start with this?” He held up an old primer on the manipulation of spiritual energy outside of one’s body. “There are some terms and references I am not clear on.”
“Wangji.” Xichen turned to him as the other two men got involved with the book in question. “I will have to impose on you to continue to supervise these sessions. I do not think Wei-gongzi will abuse my trust, but it would be simpler if Uncle never had cause to question it and I have concerns that Meng-gongzi’s study time will need to be...” he searched for a word and winced as he failed to find it.
Lan Zhan nodded once, both bitter and grateful that even though his time with Wei Ying would no longer be spent alone he was at least not losing it entirely.
It did turn out, though, that he’d traded one pleasure for another.
Wei Ying was an excellent teacher, something Lan Zhan had never known before. He was interesting, patient, and engaging; willing to tackle any barrier in his student’s understanding from multiple angles until he found the one that worked. No wonder Jiang Wanyin had been so strident about Wei Ying needing to help him revive YunmengJiang. He knew what Wei Ying’s best looked like and knew he wasn’t getting anything close to it.
Lan Zhan still didn’t like the man, but he could sympathize a little.
Meng Yao had a golden core. The Nie sect had served him that well at least, but he did not seem to have been introduced to the idea of developing it further.
He, like many rogue cultivators, had the idea that spiritual strength was something decided at the outset of a cultivator’s development by fate or karma; that the elders lived for so long because they started out strong, not that they were so strong because they’d tended to their cores for far longer than a junior cultivator would have had an opportunity to.
Powerful talents did emerge at times. Lan Zhan was one such and his brother was another, but that was the exception rather than the rule.
“It’s like a muscle...” Wei Ying explained after Xichen had reluctantly departed and they’d finished putting back over three quarters of the books Lan Zhan’s well intentioned brother had gotten out, although not before Meng Yao copied down all the titles. “...or maybe more like a pearl that acts like a spiritual muscle. You start with a little flicker of a core and through daily meditation you layer on incrementally larger bits of your spiritual energy. The larger your core gets the more spiritual force you generate within a day. The bigger your daily allowance becomes, the more you can invest in your core.”
“I see.” Meng Yao said in the tone of one who didn’t really. “I have meditated, but I haven’t felt any different.”
“You do work blind for a while.” Wei Ying admitted. “Still, there’s specific techniques. It’s not the same as what monks do. This isn’t about inner peace. It’s an exercise. Do you think you could get into the right frame of mind here while I watch you?”
Lan Zhan’s role in this matter ended up being less of a supervisor and more of a minder when both young men tried to work through the dinner hour.
Meng Yao had had a breakthrough under Wei Ying’s patient instruction and was still riding the resulting high when it was time to stop for the day. Wei Ying, as always, echoed other people’s emotions right back at them and was every bit as engaged. Neither wanted to quit so it was up to Lan Zhan to intervene.
He ended up taking them both all the way back to the guest houses when he noticed they kept sliding back into discussion. When that happened they’d stop walking and needed to be prodded back into motion. It was close enough to curfew that he felt comfortable chivvying them along.
“Ah, thanks.” Wei Ying addressed him for the first time that day when Lan Zhan deposited him at his own door. “I got a little carried away, huh?”
They were all but alone, standing closer than Lan Zhan could remember them ever being when someone wasn’t injured or ill. The sun had eased down below the horizon and velvety blue shadows spread across the grounds, leavened only by the soft glow of stone lanterns.
Lan Zhan was saved from making a reply when Jiang Wanyin leaned out of his own room and bellowed, “You’re late! I am going to eat all your food!”
He started forward, automatically offended by Jiang Wanyin breathing air in his presence, but drew up short by habit. He’d never had the leisure or authority to cause Jiang-zongzhu half the trouble he would have liked to, but Jiang Wanyin was just a child now. An angry terrible child. It wouldn’t be justice and there was a real possibility Wei Ying would fight him if he tried.
“You’d better not!” Wei Ying bellowed back.
Jiang Yanli said something soft and disapproving from inside the room that brought both of them immediately to heel; a trick Lan Zhan would dearly love to learn someday.
“Ah, goodnight.” Wei Ying smiled at him over his shoulder. “Be careful going back, Lan Zhan.”
It was strange how different their interactions were now, although maybe not really.
Even in his youth, Lan Zhan knew he’d been the author of most of his own trouble when it came to their relationship. Knowing hadn’t been enough to compensate for his issues. He’d been the one holding back for various reasons, all of which no longer seemed quite so compelling.
Wei Ying had always been willing to meet him wherever he set the tone of their interactions --just so long as they interacted.
Wasn’t this proof?
“Mn," he said and turned to go, holding the memory of that smile (for him and only him) in his heart like a banked fire.
That didn’t mean he was totally without questions.
“Xiongzhang.” Lan Zhan kept his questions until after their shared meal, once they were walking back to their own rooms. This was an inquiry his uncle would shut down as a matter of course, since Meng Yao’s inclusion in class was now a fait accompli. “We do not accept late start guest disciples.”
“It was a personal favor to Nie-er-gongzi and his sect leader.” Xichen replied, as though either of the Nie brothers had had anything to do with his decision. “He has concerns about how well Meng-gongzi is integrating with the Nie sect. This was a last minute request in response to something Nie-er-gongzi witnessed between Meng-gongzi and some members of their escort. I sent Meng-gongzi back to the Unclean Realms with a letter and Nie-zongzhu agreed that he would benefit from some additional instruction for the reasons I shared with Wei-gongzi. Meng-gongzi will audit the lectures, but not be expected to attempt the exams.”
That sounded wildly out of character for someone who would go on to be known far and wide as ‘the headshaker.’
Lan Zhan schooled his expression and resolved to keep his attention on Nie Huaisang.
If he was in his own past, repeating it, then the main question was; how had it happened? Who was responsible? Who else was here?
What did anyone expect to gain by sending him and, presumably, Wen-guniang back without consulting them or leaving some kind of clue as to what they were expected to do.
“I hope you will forgive me, Wangji,” Xichen added out of nowhere.
Lan Zhan squinted at his brother, suspicious.
“You and Wei-gongzi seemed to be getting closer and then I added a distraction into the mix,” Xichen explained with that indulgent older brother smile Lan Zhan sometimes wanted to wipe off his face. “I promise that I was trying to help. It seemed unfair to keep the barrier of your role as disciplinary master in the way of a good friendship. I didn’t realize how it would isolate you from your peers when Uncle suggested it. I’m glad Wei-gongzi doesn’t seem to be intimidated by it.”
‘By you’ is what he meant, but Lan Zhan accepted the critique.
It was a shame that friendship wasn’t what he wanted from Wei Ying, but he already knew he’d take it if that’s what was offered to him.
“Mn.” Lan Zhan limited himself to a tight nod.
The benefit and detriment of Wei Ying’s punishment being cancelled was that other people felt freer to visit the library again.
Lan Zhan had treasured their time alone, but if it was already gone then he was relieved to know that his sect brothers and sisters didn’t continue to feel shut out of a public facility.
The downside was that Lan Zhan actually had to act as a proctor when Wei Ying’s rowdy friends attempted to visit and derail the tutoring sessions. Jiang Wanyin stopped bothering him once they realized he was seriously tutoring Meng Yao and that Meng Yao sorely needed the help. Others were ‘friends’ Wei Ying didn’t seem to have been aware he had before, annoyances like Jin Zixun.
He was an easy person to roust. Lan Zhan didn’t have to make it personal although doing so was deeply tempting. He had not forgotten who was responsible for the ambush that look Jin Zixuan’s life and ended any hope of the Yiling Laozu’s redemption in the eyes of cultivation society.
He waited until Jin Zixun made it obvious that he was there to cause trouble; he always started out friendly enough, as bullies often did, and pretended to be looking for a book while he listened in on the nature of Meng Yao’s tutorial. Then nothing would do but that Meng Yao and Wei Ying be made aware that he’d mastered that sort of thing before he was ten.
Lan Zhan cut into that with a flat, “Be quiet while in the library.”
Ten was, in fact, much later than most cultivators who were raised in a Sect learned to write a talisman so Lan Zhan wasn’t sure what point he was trying to prove. Meng Yao was progressing very well, all things considered.
“I’m just visiting!” Jin Zixun defended himself.
“Leave.” Lan Zhan was disinterested in his excuses. He knew Jin Zixun of old. He would only escalate if he was allowed to continue unchallenged.
Jin Zixun tsked in disdain and dropped the book he hadn’t even opened yet on the floor. “Touchy," he grumbled, but kept walking until he left Lan Zhan’s view.
Wei Ying began to clap as he was out of sight and Lan Zhan, who’d started to get used to the idea that he wouldn’t vanish again as soon, turned to give his zhiji an unimpressed look.
“So cool, Lan-er-gongzi," he praised Lan Zhan, who felt the praise settle in his chest despite the fact that they were back to ‘Lan-er-gongzi’ in the presence of Meng Yao. He missed hearing the sound of his casual name already. “You’re too good.”
That, Lan Zhan had heard before. Too bad it wasn’t true.
He hadn’t gotten rid of Jin Zixun for any of the reasons he should have; rudeness, cruelty, or braggadocio. He’d done it to get rid of the mulish crinkle between Wei Ying’s eyes that he recognized as the only warning anyone ever got before Wei Ying escalated a situation beyond repair.
Not that it wouldn’t have been immensely cathartic to watch, given all the misfortunes Jin Zixun would become an eventual wellspring of, but in such circumstances Wei Ying was always the one who got punished. Lan Zhan wanted to stop that wherever he could, even if he accomplished nothing else in this new life.
Walking Wei Ying back to his dormitory that first night might have been a mistake, he realized later, when Wei Ying and Meng Yao pointedly included him in their conversation right before the point where they ought to have split up -they for the guest houses, him for his uncle’s rooms- and despite not being able to offer any contributions himself, he was unable to peel away.
He didn’t want to, obviously, but the dubious looks he ignored from passing guest disciples made it clear his presence in the guest quarter outside of a roomcheck was unappreciated.
Wei Ying carried the bulk of the conversation. Meng Yao’s casual conversation mostly involved agreeing with people, Lan Zhan noticed. It actually came as a relief to know he was not the only abominable conversationalist in his immediate peer group. He followed half a pace behind them, close enough to answer an occasional question and feel like a part of the group.
Jiang Wanyin was lurking around Wei Ying’s door again when he and Lan Zhan arrived. At sixteen, Jiang Wanyin was eager to make a good impression on the other young masters of his generation so he was currently in possession of more manners than seemed to have survived into his adulthood, but they were shallow somehow.
Currently, he was grinding his jaw in a way that was more familiar to Lan Zhan than any of his unpolished niceties. He’d evidently decided Lan Zhan had done something to offend Jiang. It would be amusing to learn what it was he’d done just so he could pointedly do it again.
Fortunately, Jiang Yanli was also present so her brother could not haul off and air his grievances.
Lan Zhan never had much of a relationship with her although he’d quietly, privately wanted one. The opportunity never presented itself. They were both too polite and too reserved to manage such a thing without someone like Wei Ying around as an intermediary and the war had never afforded them the opportunity.
“Lan-er-gongzi,” she greeted him with a flawless curtsey. “Thank you for bringing A-Xian back.”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan wasn’t sure what her tone meant. She sounded polite, but there was an undercurrent of something to it that he couldn’t parse. He turned to go.
“See you tomorrow, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying called after him and Lan Zhan paused to give a small nod in his direction, unsure what to do about the faint note of desperation in Wei Ying’s voice. Surely he’d imagined it.
“Oh!" He heard Jiang Yanli murmur in his wake in a totally different tone than the faint undercurrent of hostility she’d greeted him with.
The last thing he heard as he passed out of the guest quarter was her melodic giggle and Wei Ying’s scandalized “Shijie!”
“Did something good happen?” Xichen asked as he arrived for supper. “You’re smiling.”
So he was, Lan Zhan realized. It was slight. Very few people would have noticed aside from his family, but he was.
“Meng-gongzi successfully wrote his first talisman today.” Lan Zhan tossed it out as a distraction and his brother swallowed the bait without hesitation.
“Oh?” Xichen’s demeanor warmed ten fold. “Which one?”
“Illusory butterflies.” It was an appropriate first spell; the sort of thing that nurtured love of the art. Lan disciples learned to make illusory ice flowers.
Lan Zhan did not mention Wei Ying’s extensive discourse on or Meng Yao’s rapt fascination with how that same elementary level spell could be used as a crude yet effective ward cracker. Given the way the Sunshot campaign concluded, he should have realized those two had more in common than they didn’t.
At least he knew now how Wei Ying had gotten in past the wards that first time and was embarrassed on his sect’s behalf.
“Hrmph.” His uncle stroked his beard.
Two days of instruction before an older student was able to write out and cast a spell spoke well of both the student and the instructor.
Some of their current crop of students couldn’t do much more than that. The only difference between them and Meng Yao at this point academically would be a broader base of knowledge regarding the taxonomy of the undead and monstrous.
He’d need continued oversight when it came to getting a handle on his core building exercises, but Wei Ying and Meng Yao had worked a small miracle between them.
This would reflect well on the Lan when he returned to Qinghe as a far more capable cultivator.
It hadn’t been his idea, but Lan Qiren liked anything that added to the positive reputation of GusuLan. “Acceptable. Acceptable.”
He incongruously seemed warmer on the subject of Wei Wuxian than he ever had --although after thinking about it for a while Lan Zhan vaguely recalled that his uncle hadn’t taken so viciously against Wei Wuxian until he had publicly turned to demonic cultivation and even then he only really became vocal about it after the Sunshot campaign.
Before that he was annoyed and frustrated in turns by his student, but had counselled both Jin and Jiang-zongzhu to go easy on both their sons when they’d been called in to discuss the fight and then the subsequently tense issue of Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan’s engagement.
“If he continues to make such good progress then perhaps I should ask Wei-gongzi to continue the lessons more formally after the end of his term of service,” Xichen thought out loud.
“The boy will have his own studies to attend to,” Lan Qiren countered gruffly. “Despite the fact that he is clearly bored by them.”
“Perhaps insufficiently challenged, given what we are now learning about him. Prodigies often act out in their youth,” Xichen suggested delicately; touching on another tense subject.
He and their uncle disagreed on large parts of the subject matter guest disciples were meant to learn. Under Xichen’s leadership, the guest lectures spent less time on the precepts of Lan that didn’t apply to anyone who wouldn’t be living in Cloud Recesses. In the outside world and other sects no one cared if you wore jangling beads and went to bed at hai hour or not.
Knowing where this was headed and having sat through far too many iterations of this same exceedingly polite disagreement already, Lan Zhan excused himself.
There was a bit of time still before he’d need to return for the night and he wanted to walk the paths of Cloud Recesses as it was in his boyhood.
If his feet took him in the direction of the guest quarter, it was only because there were more gardens that way and that’s what Lan Zhan let himself believe. He didn’t need to patrol. It wasn’t his night to do so for one. For another, a Wei Ying who was interested and engaged in his daily activities was probably less likely to sneak out and assuage his boredom at night.
He stilled as a ribbon of music threaded through the quiet night air; a dizi played by masterful and familiar hands.
The song was not the uncomfortably shill, yet compelling notes necessary to command the dead. Lan Zhan, in fact, recognized the song as ‘High Mountains and Flowing Waters’ adapted for the flute.
His throat tightened and Lan Zhan started forward. He knew objectively that Wei Ying must have learned to play long before he weaponized his music. A dizi -like most folk instruments- was relatively easy to carve. However, making a weapon like Chenqing was not something a starving novice could hope to accomplish.
Lan Zhan intended only to listen.
He found Wei Ying sitting on the top of the split level guest house he shared with his abhorrent brother. His back was to Lan Zhan and he was facing the moon, which hung heavy and full in the sky. He’d let his hair down and he’d changed into softer evening lounge clothes that were a shade of dark blue so close to black that Lan Zhan made himself look away.
If Wei Ying was also living in the past he would have done something outrageous by now.
The Yiling Laozu would have been even less able to content himself with Lan Qiren’s lectures on how to wear a belt or the more impractical moral semantics of exorcism than a young Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan stepped under the eaves so as not to be obvious. He closed his eyes and lost himself to the music as Wei Ying transitioned into ‘Plum Blossom Memories’ and then ‘Wild Geese Landing on the Sandbank.’
It was perhaps a good thing he’d never heard Wei Ying play so when they really were both boys. At sixteen he’d already known that he had so much more to hold back than his sect brothers and sisters yet he’d still been lost to Wei Ying’s unconstrained smile almost from the word ‘hello’, but still tried for months to diligently scramble back from an edge he’d already fallen over. Hearing him play would have made it infinitely worse.
As an adult, Lan Zhan had made his peace with the knowledge that the tone of his desires were not compatible with the gentle loving relationship someone like Wei Ying needed more than anything else. Then, once Wei Ying passed away, there was no one else who’d moved him nor had he even wanted anyone to.
Lan Zhan was like his father in that way, maybe. He loved only once and badly. The only excuse he had for himself was that he’d at least learned from his father’s mistakes and had never forced his suit on Wei Ying beyond that one regrettable moment of weakness on Phoenix Mountain.
He let himself lean back against the guest house, wondering if he could find some way to engineer an opportunity for them to play together, when ‘Wild Geese’ ended and Wei Ying began to play a song he shouldn’t, could not have known.
The longing notes of ‘Wangxian’ struck Lan Zhan like an open handed slap.
He’d composed ‘Wangxian’ during his initial convalescence after the burning of Cloud Recesses, but never played it before another living soul until he found himself facing the likelihood of a slow death in the Xuanwu’s cave.
Lan Zhan had bits and snatches of it in his head before then, but had not given into himself enough to actually write the song and polish it into something he wouldn’t be ashamed of playing in front of one particular person before then.
He landed on the rooftop behind Wei Ying in utter silence, muffling his sound and presence as he could not have at his apparent physical age. Wei Ying, meanwhile, was deep into his playing and did not notice as he played ‘Wangxian’ with a care and reverence that Lan Zhan thought might yank the beating heart out of his chest.
Wei Ying noticed when Lan Zhan’s powerful grip closed around his wrist though, startled into leaning back almost into the curve of Lan Zhan’s shoulder in a tragic parody of a lover’s embrace. His jaw dropped and his gray eyes flew wide in an expression that sent a thread of poorly timed arousal coiling through Lan Zhan’s entire body.
“Lan Zhan!” His eyes flashed with --that was guilt, Lan Zhan realized. The soft looks he’d been catching from Wei Ying for days now had all been the same.
His memories were correct. Wei Ying was acting out less; not because Lan Zhan had been a bit gentler with him during his punishment detail, but because this was an older Wei Ying. He was Wei Ying in the immediate aftermath of the fall.
The guilt faded though. “It’s not curfew!” He pulled on his wrist, but Lan Zhan was back in Nightless City reliving the time when he had let go. Nothing could make him release his grip at that moment.
“Wei Ying," he said instead of all the things crowding each other in his throat.
“There’s nothing in the rules that say I can’t be on the rooftops.” Wei Ying tried again. Lan Zhan could see the suspicion blooming in his eyes and he could even understand why Wei Ying was fighting it. The prospect was objectively terrifying.
They were together again.
“Come away from the edge,” Lan Zhan rasped and pulled Wei Ying closer, terrified his heart was showing on his face. “Don’t make me watch you fall twice.”
The fight drained out of Wei Ying then and a painful smile spread across his face. “Don’t look at me like that, Lan Zhan," he said softly. “It was different then.”
“Was it?” Lan Zhan wasn’t sure he agreed. Stripped of all pretences, Wei Ying had that same look about him that had stuck to him the streets of Yiling like a clinging vine despite the way he tried to let his good humor show through.
Lan Zhan hadn’t known it for what it was back then, but in the years since he’d seen that tense smile on the face of too many dying men and women who knew they were headed towards their end and were resolved to make the most of whatever time remained to them.
‘Never again,’ he told himself. ‘Never ever again.’
“Shijie’s here.” Wei Ying covered Lan Zhan’s with his own. “Jiang Cheng too. Lotus Pier isn’t burned. Wen Qing and Wen Ning are safe for now. Why would I fall?”
It was no surprise that Lan Zhan himself did not feature prominently on that list. He already knew that he alone was not enough to make Wei Ying stay.
“Come down anyway," he said and was grateful when Wei Ying did.