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and i will go this way

Chapter Text

“I expect Wei Wuxian Was Innocent signs to grace the entrance of each town.”

Wei Ying leaned across from Lan Zhan, tipping alcohol down his throat as spring air draped through the Jingshi's open doors. 

“You should also tweak some of the sect rules,” he added with another sip at the dregs. “Four thousand! Too many. Unreasonable.”

“I do intend to absolve myself from punishment,” Lan Zhan said.

“For what?”

“For the amount of liquor I continue bringing you,” he mused, pulling the now-empty jar of Emperor’s Smile from Wei Ying’s hand and heading toward the cabinet for a fresh supply. It was true—he’d cultivated a habit of breaking clan rules for one Wei Wuxian. But hey, in his journey on that single-plank road, he’d stripped away plenty of once-important things in favor of what truly mattered. And what truly mattered in this moment was collecting as many Wei Ying grins as possible to press into memory for later.

“Ha. You’re making it hard to leave, you know that, right?” Wei Ying said as he pulled off the stopper. He hid his mouth with the lip of the jar before his smile caught an edge--of course it'd be hard to leave, even without an endless supply of the best spirits in the world. An ache began stretching through his veins. Nope, no. Ignore that. For now.

“If leaving proves too difficult,” Lan Zhan tested with a slight smile, “a scribe during sect leader meetings would be most useful…”

Wei Ying tossed his head back and laughed.

“All right, all right! Tempting,” he said, “but oh, my God, no.” He shifted his weight toward his other leg and took an ungentlemanly swig. “I apologize for depriving you from my expertise. I really did become very good at copying down sentences. You remember.”

Lan Zhan recalled the stacks of rules Wei Ying had copied back in the day, still piled somewhere among other records of their teenage days. 

“By your two-thousandth iteration, your handwriting was nearly legible,” he allowed against an even greater laugh from Wei Ying.

They continued this way through the evening, mixing sweet jabs with hazy plans. Wei Ying had little direction other than heading North. Qinghe, probably. After all, Nie Huaisang had all but begged Wei Ying to visit the arts district he was funding with reckless abandon. Even though you have zero taste, he’d sniffed at Wei Ying, it would do you good to experience culture once in awhile.  

And so it was settled: a northbound trip, ideally chock-full of reckless adventure but at the very least scattered with worthwhile food and alcohol. It’d be a long trip. Months, probably. Enough time for Lan Zhan to settle into his new title, and for Wei Ying to experience a journey not as fugitive or villain, but as...well, a normal young man.

A normal young man who enjoyed unwavering protection and intimate care from the world’s all-powerful Chief Cultivator, sure, but still.

 


 

I am going that way.

And I will go this way.

And the wind beat frays of grass against Wei Yings knees as he turned away from Lan Zhan. A stretch of months would be nothing compared to sixteen years of death, but ache still steeped his chest. If Lan Zhan wasn't Chief Cultivator, maybe he'd be joining...no, stop that. No point in thinking down that road. Wei Ying eased and flashed his best smile at Lan Zhan and then turned away, every muscle rallying forward even as a gaze seared his back.

"The mountains remain evergreen and the waters everflowing. May we meet again!" he sang out with a cheery wave, and then winced at the quickness of his words—he wanted to leave Lan Zhan with something different, maybe a teasing remark that could simmer from spring to fall. Ah, well. A proper farewell would sound too concrete, anyway. C'mon, Lil Apple, we have a long way ahead. The sun began to sink.

That night was his first alone in awhile. It was strange not hearing Lan Zhan's even breath, from meditating or sleeping—chastely—alongside. Well, usually chastely. A smile crunched Wei Ying's face as he replayed a recent morning, the one where he found himself accidentally nestled against Lan Zhan's shoulder. Hm.

"All right, Lil Apple, I guess we're sleeping outside tonight. I really thought a town was nearer. I bet if we keep walking, we'd hit it soon." Wei Ying briefly considered this option, but a sudden stretching yawn convinced him that the base of a nearby tree was definitely an ideal resting spot. He rolled out a makeshift bed from cloud-printed blankets and leaned against the trunk. 

"Well, goodnight," he said to Little Apple. Little Apple did not respond.

"And goodnight," he said again, softer, hugging his knees and glancing toward the mountains.

Chapter Text

Village Near Evil Forest

Don’t Know What Day It Is, Don’t Care

Dear Lan Zhan,

I bet you thought I’d wait a little longer to write you a letter, but nope! Here I am, only a few weeks away from you, very much missing your careful words and gentle gaze. Of course I can’t send this yet—would you believe this town doesn’t have any carriers to Gusu—but writing it fills the need for conversation. I can imagine your reactions: brows raised when you see my name on the letter, a slight head shake at my complete disregard of location name (there’s been so many villages in succession, I forget!), and either an eye roll or charmed smile at the massive chili oil stain on this paper. Sorry—spilled dinner—yes I shouldn’t write while eating—I’m hoping for a charmed smile.

Lil Apple has been an absolute treasure. She is of the utmost temperament, rarely complains, and dutifully transports me everywhere with ease.

Just kidding, she is a nightmare and will not shut up without an outlandish quantity of her namesake fruit. It seems she had grown accustomed to you leading the reins, and now can’t adjust to even my most reasonable directions. I have threatened to sell her plenty of times, but she is far to confident to believe such words. She is a very smart donkey.

Wei Ying twirled his brush and managed to blot ink right atop the chili oil stain. He tipped the wooden end between his teeth and chewed. What would Lan Zhan want to hear about besides a riveting description of a donkey? He grabbed another bite of now-cold noodles and glanced out the window. Darkening already. Almost time for a night hunt. He picked up his brush.

I’m sure you’ll be proud to know that I’ve already vanquished a bold array of terrible monsters. It’s the same old game--go to village, find street merchant/innkeeper/performer/elderly wanderer, ask if anything strange has been going on, and fix it. Of course, it’s wildly dangerous work, but I venture into each hunt with absolute unwavering bravery and a bold determination to protect the innocent.

Plus, it’s fun,

I’m sad to imagine you’re missing out on adventures, being trapped behind diplomacy and reading a million formal requests and all that. I’ll have you know that if I overhear anyone tarnish your good name, I confront the slander accordingly (violence). I know that my very existence probably doesn’t make your new role easy, but as the gritty details of Jin Guangyao’s actions spread throughout the masses, I hope everyone will be appreciative of your hard leadership. And besides, who do they want instead? Jin Ling? (By the way, if you hear any gossip that Jin Guangyao cannibalized his advisor...I may have unintentionally had something to do with that rumor.)

Anyway, setting this letter down for now—it just turned dusk and I’m heading out to confront whatever’s been plaguing this town. Apparently a swarm of resentful energy is attached to a pond creature deep within the forest. Last time I went night hunting I got a cool new scar on my shoulder, so maybe now I can add to that collection! Okay, okay okay okay I’ll be careful, I promise. Will resume this later.

Wei Ying stacked the stained paper in a neat-enough pile and tucked it underneath his pillow for safekeeping. He looked forward to tonight’s hunt—the past few were all too easy to figure out, even with his lessened strength. But from his interrogations, this pond thing sounded promising.

“I hear a voice rings out when you’re near the water and it draws you in, and anyone who gets too close never returns,” an older man at the inn slurred earlier over wine.

“Happened to my cousin,” another confirmed.

And Wei Ying bantered with them awhile over dinner, poking holes in their claims until they flustered. Still, though, it was clear something was happening, as nearly everyone in the village avoided the forest. Now, as dusk folded into night, he pulled on a dark outer robe lined with talismans and left for the forest. He exhaled a small smile at the path, thick with gnarled branches and fog. Peaceful, like the route he walked so often with Wen Ning and A-Yuan. So long ago.

He pushed on and the woods thickened, twigs snapping underfoot and wind settling to silence. Soaking plants and mud seeped through the air. The pond must be nearby...where—  

“Shit!”

A clash of branches and a voice scattered through the trees. Wei Ying paused.

“I was told the pond would sound a voice, but I imagined it would be more...ethereal,” he called out. Silence. “You here for a night hunt, too?” he tried again.

“Obviously,” the voice returned after a pause.

“Then I propose we work together, unless you’d rather make it a competition,” he said. Actually, he kind of wouldn’t mind a competition, but within moments a person emerged from the woods. Her hair was pulled into a loose knot that trailed down the back of her dark brown hanfu. She clutched the hilt of her sword.

“Name?” she said.

“Wei Wuxian.” He searched her face for a reaction—hey, here he was, Yiling Laozu in the flesh. Would she be afraid? Angry? Ready to kill him to avenge an ancestor’s death? (One that probably wasn’t even his fault?)

“Well, that figures. I sensed your spiritual energy was low,” she replied simply. “My name is Liu Suyin, and I’m here to kill time while my wife is in Lanling. You?”

“I’m here to protect the weak and innocent,” Wei Ying said.

“Ha, okay.” Liu Suyin grinned but then raised her eyebrows. “Oh, you’re serious.”

 


 

Still The Same Village

Forest Is Less Evil Now

Lan Zhan! I’m back again. Well, I guess it hasn’t been that long since I left off, and I’m sure you’ll be reading all this in one sitting, anyway. But still.

I emerged from the other night’s hunt unscathed and completely robbed of any new scars, which is a grand shame. It was a fun one, though—turns out a vortex of energy was robbing passerby of voices and spitting them out as lures. I, of course, could’ve vanquished it myself, but I allowed a fellow cultivator to help me out. Her name is Liu Suyin, and she’s good with a sword! She was unfazed when I told her my name, which is an odd thing to get used to after...well, everything. Maybe she thinks I’m a different Wei Wuxian. Or, ha, maybe she thinks I’m lying. I’ve still spotted a handful of Yiling Laozu impersonators selling wares in the street, but the many they’re performing is so changed from the character those types played way back when. It’s like nobody remembers I had solid footing among the top ten handsome young cultivators! I even saw a Yiling Laozu the other day who wore some jaunty ponytail and, would you believe it, bangs. My God.

Anyway, I’m off to get some food and drink with Liu Suyin. She makes fun of me incessantly. You’d like her.

“I’m not saying that your talismans weren’t helpful. They were a cute touch.”

“Cute! If you call intervening at a last dire moment to saver your life cute.”

Liu Suyin cracked a smile in between large bites of pork from a dish in the center of their table. “Hey, now,” she said, “who’s funding this meal?”

“Please, we both know it’s your wife,” Wei Ying grinned, piling more food into your mouth. He hadn’t eaten this well in weeks. Sure, he got a little bit of money from selling talismans in the street, and sometimes thankful villagers supplied him with free food in gratitude for his night hunts. But feeling full after a meal? He’d almost forgotten what it was like.

“So she’s in Lanling? Running as far away as possible from you, I presume,” Wei Ying guessed after a sip of wine. Liu Suyin softened.

“She’s there on diplomatic business because she’s from a fancy family.” She glanced to the side and shrugged. “I promised her I’d come along next time, but it’s really not my thing.” 

Wei Ying nodded emphatically and tipped his wine jar in agreement.

“What about you? You tied down yet?” Liu Suyin asked.

“Mm,” nodded Wei Ying without thinking. As soon as he started thinking, he felt heat flush his cheeks and ears. “I mean. I don’t have a cultivation partner.”

“I see,” said Liu Suyin. She stared at him, brows raised, and Wei Ying thought she’d say more. But she didn’t. Instead, she lifted her wine jar in a toast. Wei Ying mirrored her position. And then…

“To our great Chief Cultivator,” she announced solemnly before a dignified sip. Wei Ying was now a very, very bright shade of red. He offered a clipped smile before downing a much larger swig. Liu Suyin tossed her head back and laughed.

Back from the meal. I almost forgot to tell you, Lan Zhan—I saw this great enamel comb that was very elegant and very your style, and would’ve been perfect to replace the one I accidentally broke (sorry again). Of course, I didn’t have the money to buy it, but I’m including a drawing of what it looked like so you can see that I do sometimes have good taste.

Tomorrow I’m heading north with Liu Suyin, who decided to come along and visit her cultivation partner. Did I mention she has a wife in Lanling? Maybe you’ve heard of her, apparently she’s fancy. I forget her name. Liu Suyin speaks very fondly. She asked me if I also had a cultivation partner, and would you believe I accidentally said yes— 

Wei Ying winced as soon as the words were down. Too much.

I forget her name. Liu Suyin speaks of her very fondly………..Ah, apologies for that massive ink blot just now. I’m having a very clumsy day as far as writing goes. Very unlike me, I’m sure you’d agree. In any case, here’s hoping the next town carries mail to Gusu, otherwise your very first letter from me will be the length of a book.

Yours,

Wei Ying

P.S. I hope you don’t mind, I’m forwarding you my wine expenses.

Chapter Text

“So you’ve touched his headband... how many times now?”

Wei Ying walked beside Liu Suyin, twirling Chenqing in one hand and dragging Little Apple with the other. Mid-morning light scorched the path, and while the air still hit cool on skin, hints of summer deepened leaves and grass. Liu Suyin kicked a pebble with every other step.

“Come on, this is a game of truths, you are contractually obliged to answer,” she prompted.

“I’m thinking!”

“What, like you don’t already have that number seared into the forefront of your tiny brain?”

“Um...three?” Wei Ying offered. There was that time when Lan Zhan was drunk, that time in the cave, and that time he swiped it as a paperman. Liu Suyin clicked her tongue in disbelief.

“Fine, seven,” Wei Ying relented. The two times he gently untied it while combing Lan Zhan’s hair. The time he smoothed it after it slipped in a fight. The time his thumb brushed it after a duet in the mountains.

“So that’s like marriage and some anniversaries,” Liu Suyin said. Wei Ying turned his head away and bit a smile.

“Every time was necessary in the situation. They don’t count.”

“Counts for something.”

“I think it’s your turn,” Wei Ying interrupted. Liu Suyin shrugged. She lost track of her first pebble began kicking a new one in the dust. Wei Ying wrinkled his brow in thought.

“How did you tell your wife...you know, before you were together, how did you…” 

“Subtle.”

“Oh, come on.”

Liu Suyin smiled, softer than usual. She tightened her shoulders and looked ahead.

“We met as young cultivators. Her family immediately disapproved of me because, in case you can’t tell, my upbringing did not include grace and manners.”

Wei Ying snorted in heavy agreement. Liu Suyin shoved his arm. She continued.

“Her father leads a clan that’s rising in prominence, and he just couldn’t bear the thought of her family name associated with mine. He forbade Lai Liqin from seeing me, but she continued anyway.”

“Did she sneak out?” asked Wei Ying.

“No, it was all in broad daylight. Well, most of it,” Liu Suyin added with a broad wink. “Anyway, we liked each other from the start, and I guess there was never a real moment of confession. I mean, defying her family for me was a pretty clear signal that she was interested.”

Liu Suyin glanced at Wei Ying, who now stared at the ground. He tucked Chenqing into crossed arms. Liu Suyin patted Little Apple.

“I told her I wanted to marry one evening after dinner,” she said.

“So it wasn’t special, or anything?” Wei Ying asked, earning him another punch to the shoulder.

“Of course it was special!” She chased her punch with a gentler swat. “I’m just not a grand gesture kind of person. One day we started saying affections out loud, is all, and then we didn’t stop.”

Wei Ying nodded, his eyes still focused on the ground.

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve done while drunk?” Liu Suyin suddenly asked. “Come on, we’re still in a game of truths, here.” She raised her brows at Wei Ying. There were a million other Hanguang-Jun related questions she’d rather ask, but hey, they were still awhile from Lanling. There’d be time.

 


 

It was odd traveling with someone other than Lan Zhan. First of all, Liu Suyin snored. Second of all, she accused Wei Ying of snoring. But Wei Ying enjoyed her company. He still couldn’t figure out exactly how much she knew of his history—she mentioned his low spiritual energy when they first met, and Wei Ying wondered if the swirling rumors now also included the truth of his golden core transfer. Eh. If people know, they know.

What surprised Wei Ying most was the lack of interest Liu Suyin had about his past. He prompted her a couple times along their travels to learn more about the legends of his name, but she always brushed the questions aside.

“There’s a poem or two, maybe a song, I don’t know. Mostly just campfire stories used to scare children.”

“Wait, there are poems? How come I haven’t seen any poems?”

“Probably because you are barely literate.” She paused. “Listen, when your whole first life shit or whatever was going on, I was...what, six? Seven?” She shrugged. “If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen, but it’s kind of like hearing an old grandpa do the whole back when I was a kid speech, you know?”

“Old grandpa! Unbelievable. Fine, fine,” he conceded, “I won’t talk about my first life. I won’t ever talk about the time I showed Hanguang Jun illicit erotica in the Cloud Recesses library—”

“See, that I want to hear.”

And so they made their way toward Lanling. It was a journey filled with wide paths and decent food, and no shortage of hungover mornings. Every so often Little Apple would relent to carrying Wei Ying on her back, but she refused to let Liu Suyin ride or hold her reigns, which the latter considered gravely insulting. They spent each evening differently—sometimes they reached a town, sometimes they embarked on night hunts. Often they drank liquor of varying quality (whatever they stockpiled at the last village was a particular shade of terrible) and waxed poetic about their cultivation partners. Partner. Liu Suyin’s cultivation partner. Wei Ying’s...Lan Zhan.

 


 

Close to Lanling (really close)

Lil Apple Misses You

My Dear Lan Zhan,

I think we really will hit Lanling this week! Or maybe next week depending on if we get lost. That has happened once before, but I place full blame on Lil Apple, who went crazy in an orchard and caused us to mix up our path. I’m sure you’ll be touched to know that he won’t let anybody but you hold his reins—he’s almost kicked Liu Suyin twice, and both times she threatened to just fly to Lanling on her sword. She’s stayed on the ground, though, and while I like to think it’s due to my intoxicating company, I suspect it’s because she’s nervous. She claims that she doesn’t care her partner (name remembered—Lai Liqin) is from a disapproving family, but the closer we get to the city, the more she wants to extend village visits. There’s always another night hunt, always another jar of wine. I remember a version of that nervousness well—the trepidation of knowing you will cross paths soon, but unsure of how you’ll be received...ah, that was so long ago.

In some ways I long for that feeling again. Of course not the trepidation, but the knowledge that our paths could cross in any moment. It made adventuring without you more bearable, as in my loneliness I could at least imagine turning a corner and suddenly meeting a glimpse of white robes and the sound of your guqin.

“Too much?” Wei Ying asked Liu Suyin after reading the last paragraph aloud. He pulled his brush from the page.

“I mean, I think it’s a little much, but I imagine Hanguang Jun would find it elegant.” Liu Suyin took a dignified sip of wine and leaned against their inn room wall. “You should tell him you miss him.”

Wei Ying crunched his mouth to the side and glanced away. “That’s so…”

“It’s so exactly what he would want to hear.”

I’ve played the song you wrote so many times alone—against the breeze, against the rain. I always add the memory of your harmony.

“Oh, that’s coy. Just say you miss him!” Liu Suyin said. “Also, the breeze and rain stuff is flowery.”

I’ve played the song you wrote so many times alone, but I always add the memory of your harmony. I miss you. With each passing second, I miss you more.

“There. Was that so hard?”

Wei Ying retreated into his hanfu and slumped his face against the table.

“God, whomever wrote those Yiling Laozu legends really exaggerated your power,” said Liu Suyin. “Okay, get up, dramatic. Tell him you’re excited to get his letters in Lanling.”

Wei Ying shot her a look. “Too bold! How would I know if he’s forwarded any letters there? It’d be far too embarrassing if he didn’t send anything and—”

“Wei Wuxian,” Liu Suyin cut in. “Do you mean to tell me the man who writes you fucking love songs wouldn’t send any letters? Do you seriously mean to tell me that?”

Wei Ying crossed his arms. “They’re normal songs.”

“Wei Wuxian.”

...With each passing second, I miss you more. I can only hope we hit Lanling soon, because the thought of receiving any news of you—dare I hope for a letter—makes me too excited to sleep.

“Nice,” said Liu Suyin, giving tiny applause against a near-empty wine jar. She then hauled herself off the ground and wiped her hands on her sleeve. “All right, I’m going to sleep. Don’t cross any of that out or I’ll have to kill you.” With that, she flopped onto the better of the room’s beds and rolled to face the wall.

Wei Ying weighed the pros and cons of being killed over a humiliating letter. He shook his head and gathered his hair in his fingers. It was getting tangled. He should probably comb it out, especially before entering Lanling. Did he even have a comb? He burrowed through his travel bag, and...ah, there, folded in a pouch toward the bottom: a black comb with a cloud design on the edge. He grazed his thumb over the engraving and brought it to the window, tucked himself on the edge edge of the sill, and started working, end to root.

Lan Zhan had done it for him once, last winter, after snow frosted his hair and alcohol slowed his fingers. Wei Ying sat on the floor against the bed, against the pooled hem of Lan Zhan’s robe. And Lan Zhan untied the ribbon and sorted through the knots, massaged the ache from his scalp and hummed. Wei Ying indulged the memory often.

Now, he finished a good-enough job of detangling and pulled half back into a low knot. He leaned his head on the window frame and shut his eyes at the dull heated wind. The air was heavy and scented with rain. He was asleep when the first break of water dotted his sleeve and refreshed the laden night. He awoke to soaked skin. He pinned the shutters closed and returned to his letter, half-finished beside a struggling candle wick.

There is a moment I remember from not too long ago. Maybe it’s too bold to write it here. Maybe prefacing that it’s too bold makes it even worse, ha. I don’t know. But anyway, it was wintertime, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night to find my arm was draped across you. I remember feeling embarrassed and pulling it away, but then you—probably in your sleep, I’m sure—but you stirred and pulled my hand back to your chest. Anyway, I don’t know what brought that to mind just now. I hope you’re having a good evening, and that it isn’t too hot in the Cloud Recesses. And while it might be selfish to say, I hope you’re missing me back.

The drawing in this letter is of an ink stone I thought you’d like. The garden carving reminds me of the view from the Jingshi. The sketch in the bottom corner is of a gray and black cat I saw and named Noodle. It did not like me but was very beautiful—kind of like you at first! Kidding, kidding. You liked me the whole time.

Tired now. Liu Suyin is snoring from across the room. Hopefully I’ll get some rest in spite of such discourtesy. I hope to hear from you in Lanling.

Your Wei Ying

Chapter Text

“God, I hate this place. I really do.”

Lanling’s white marble towers pierced the morning fog. The dirt road shifted to a stone pathway, along which carts and horses and people clattered. Overhead were dim silhouettes of cultivators riding swords. Wei Ying stared upward for a long while, indulging a tiny hope of spotting telltale white robes. Nothing.

“It is an impressively gaudy city,” Wei Ying said. Liu Suyin dropped her eyes to the ground.

“I should have let her know I was coming. She might not even be here anymore.”

“Oh, come on, these conferences always last a million years,” Wei Ying said.

“Hm.”

“Liu Suyin,” Wei Ying turned to face her. “She’s gonna be happy to see you.”

Liu Suyin pressed her lips in a tight smile.

“Would it be more or less humiliating to fly back on my sword right now?” she asked.

“More. Definitely more.”

“God.”

Wei Ying ran his hands through Little Apple’s mane and gave the donkey’s ears a pat. He remembered this route from last time—there, that dip in the road still isn't fixed, he almost tripped. And the gates, did they get cleaned? And Jinlintai's tower seemed taller, and sharper. Sharper like a circle of swords, and like the world's edges blurring past Lan Zhan's gentle smile. Like turning away from everyone and gliding down the steps and turning toward Jin Ling...Jin Ling opening his side with a sword, cradling blood, holding wounded...holding Shijie. Shijie, Jin Zixuan, the edge of a roof. His throat and chest grew tight. The edge of a cliff. His ears hummed. He drew breaths but somehow didn't exhale, and somehow his lungs felt squeezed of air, and how could he go inside the city gates, and where was Lan Zhan, and— 

“Hey,” whispered Liu Suyin. “Hey, you okay?”

Wei Ying lagged motionless in the pathway, fists tight around Little Apple’s reins. He opened his mouth and closed it. His eyes pulled upwards to meet Liu Suyin’s, and her gaze was soft. She touched a hand to his shoulder. Her voice was low.

“You want to talk about it?” she asked.

Wei Ying shook his head.

“It’s okay,” said Liu Suyin. “Here, hey, Little Apple, you’re gonna carry him for a bit, okay?” She gripped Wei Ying’s shoulders and helped him atop the donkey. She didn’t try for the reins, instead whistling a quick note of come along! before starting again down the road. She glanced back to make sure Wei Ying followed. He was pale and his hands rested still on the saddle, but he seemed steady. He caught her eye and gave a weak nod, and then a weaker thumbs-up.

“You sure?” Liu Suyin checked.

“I’ve been her before, no reason I can’t again, right?” replied Wei Ying with a thin smile.

It neared dusk when they settled at an inn on the outskirts of the city. Color returned to Wei Ying’s cheeks. Lanling—at least this part—felt more familiar than hostile, and his name so far was met with nothing more than the occasional raised brow. Guess my rumors are now outdated, he thought.

Perhaps it was rude to not pay immediate respects to Jin Ling, but it’d be ruder to show up at Jinlintai smelling like weeks of travel.

“I’m gonna take the longest bath in the world and you’re just gonna have to wait,” announced Liu Suyin when the washtub was brought to their room. “Apologies in advance.”

But no apologies were needed—Wei Ying was already off to where mail might be waiting.

 


 

Jingshi, Xu Hour

Twelve Days Past Qingming

Dear Wei Ying,

 

I confiscated your letter from the sleeve of Lan Jingyi, who considered interception of mail an enjoyable trick. His punishment was meager—after glimpsing the characters of your name, I felt such lightness that I could barely assign him an hour of kneeling.

Only you can draw a smile with such offensive letter etiquette. I imagine your face tip from wide grin to shocked dismay at dinner’s spatter, and for whatever reason, the endearing carelessness brings me joy. Count yourself lucky in that regard. I suspect you’ll now strive to push that luck toward its very brink. I look forward to your attempts.

Jingshi warms by the day, new shadows stretching across the floor and breezes calm enough to pull the doors aside. Hair unloosed and flowing, I lie in what should be restful ease upon my bed, yet I’ve grown confined in silence—how long I spent enamored with quiet before you brought a sweeter form of peace.

The east wind blows gust on gust, spreading rain. I welcome it as cool relief against heated evenings, which have only worsened since you parted. I know that endless distance must shut you from my view, but I can’t help wishing my drawn likeness from early days was your own portrait instead…

I smile to add this new drawing to my stack. You are right. I do like the comb.

I apologize for this letter’s brevity—my eyes are leaden and fall shut at earlier hours each day. Everyone needs too much. I’ve only just lifted willows from the doorways and main gates, a whole twelve days after Qingming’s end. Despite my weariness, I led the sect in adding fresh soil and flowers to the graves. And though Yunmeng is far, know I gave a prayer for you family and your sister.

I managed to enjoy watching lanterns soar on kite strings, and after the sun set beneath red-lined clouds, I went alone toward the spring. I bent a limb to break off a flower, thinking to send it to you, but the road is far—it would never reach you intact. Instead, I send you a jar of Emperor’s Smile, as I imagine you finished your initial supply too soon.

I am glad you have company on your journey. I know you will not see this (nor future writings) until you reach Lanling, but I hope when they gather in your hands they bring contentment. 

 

Yours,

Lan Zhan

Addendum: As for your wine expenses—I do not mind, and in fact expected.

 


 

Well. Wei Ying leaned back against the tree where he sat beside a clumsily-torn parcel. His jar of Emperor’s Smile (the first thing pulled from the package—he was hoping Lan Zhan’d send some) was already a third gone.

A breeze shook the tree leaves, now full and green in summer’s dawn. The grass around him was fragrant and crunched under the feet of passerby taking evening strolls. He heard their hum of conversation. Lanterns bathed the streets in warmth. 

He read the letter again. There was another yet unopened, but Wei Ying’s mind met enough work unraveling the first one alone. He chose some favorite phrases— only you can draw a smile. I look forward to your attempts. Heated evenings, which have only worsened since your parting…

He read it again. He took a sip of liquor and tipped his head against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. I look forward to your attempts. Heated evenings...how long I spent enamored with quite before you brought a sweeter form of peace—  

“Wei Wuxian!”

Blood rushed to Wei Ying’s head and his eyes snapped open and he bolted upright, gripping his wine jar in one hand and Chenqing in the other. So much for contentment and peace and—  

“...Oh, it’s you.”

Wei Ying slipped Chenqing back into his belt. The young man before him crossed his arms.

“Is that any way to address the Jin sect leader?” sniped Jin Ling. His companions braced at his tone, but he stilled them with a wave of his hand. Wei Ying winced and encircled his arms in his best formal bow.

“My apologies, Jin Ling. I was startled and relieved to see you. Favorite nephew, and all,” explained Wei Ying. He glanced down at his state: threadbare hanfu, check. Dirty shoes, check. Dirty self, check. Hands full of alcohol...check.

“I also apologize for my appearance,” he added. “We just got here and I have yet to make myself presentable.”

Jin Ling pouted and upturned his chin. “I look forward to seeing what a presentable you looks like. I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed it.”

Wei Ying shrugged. Hey, the kid wasn’t wrong.

“In any case,” Jin Ling sighed, “I expected your arrival due to a notification from Hanguang Jun.” Wei Ying’s eyes brightened as Jin Ling continued. “Please accept the Jin Clan’s hospitality at Jinlintai during your stay.

Wei Ying bowed again. “I thank you for your offer, but—”

Jin Ling shot him a glare and Wei Ying bit his tongue. “I thank you for your offer. I am traveling with a companion, and I hope your kindness extends to her as well.”

“Hanguang Jun mentioned Lai Liqin’s cultivation partner would be with you. I’m surprised she felt so bold to come here without announcement,” Jin Ling sniffed, “though it figures.” He gave a slight nod to Wei Ying. “She can stay in the guest quarters with Lai Liqin.”

“How’s that for best nephew!” Wei Ying grinned. A red flush spread across Jin Ling’s cheeks and his companions poorly stifled snickers. He turned with a final glare and they were off.

Wei Ying watched them move down the road. Huh. Last time he saw Jin LIng he was a childish heir. Now he was sect leader. Of course he was still too young for such a title, but Wei Ying had a feeling he’d grow up to be a good leader. Insufferable, sure, but good nonetheless.

He returned to his patch by the tree to gather his things, tucking both of Lan Zhan’s letters neatly by his chest. With another sip of Emperor’s Smile, he wandered back toward the inn.

“I’ll never forgive you if there’s no hot water left!” he called when he reached their room, knocking loudly. No response. He knocked again, covered his eyes with the liquor jar, and gently pushed the door aside.

“Liu Suyin, with all due respect, the last thing I wanna see is your—”

“I’m decent, don’t worry.”

Liu Suyin’s voice broke soft from a corner of the room. Wei Ying lowered his jar and looked. She sat folded on the floor, knees to her chest, damp hair soaking the shoulders of her robe. Wei Ying studied her face.

“Is everything okay? No one came in and bothered you, did they? Are you sick? Did you…” He trailed off as Liu Suyin looked away.

“You have my help if you want it,” he said, taking a hesitant step. Liu Suyin heaved a long sigh. She turned her head and tried a smile.

“You get any letters?” She asked. Wei Ying nodded. “Anything good?” Wei Ying nodded again. “That’s good,” she hummed. She stood and crossed her arms. “I definitely used all the hot water, but I can send for more. I think I’ll take a walk. I’m sorry, I just. I need to clear my head before tomorrow.”

Wei Ying’s eyes met the floor. “Actually…”

“Hm?”

He took a breath. “Actually, I ran into Jin Ling while I was out. I guess Lan Zhan had told him we were headed here, y’know, trying to be nice, and we...are invited to stay at Jinlintai.”

Silence. Wei Ying looked up and saw Liu Suyin’s mouth opened and her fingers pressed deep into her sleeves. She tipped her head and creased her brow.

“You…”

“He gave you a room with Lai Liqin, I don’t know if that makes things better or worse—”

Liu Suyin whipped around and began gathering her things.

“All right. I’m leaving. Tonight, right now. Where’s that navy ribbon?”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine—” said Wei Ying.

“No, you don’t know anything. I wanted to do this a certain way, and none of it involved going to Jinlintai tonight, and you knew I was nervous to be here already, and…” She shook her head and continued grabbing anything that looked remotely like hers to stuff into her bag. But her hands slowed as she packed. And before long, she slumped at the edge of the bed, a half-folded hanfu in her lap.

“Liu Suyin,” Wei Ying said again. She bristled as he sat next to her, but didn’t push him away.

“You remember how I got before we entered the city?” he asked softly. She nodded. He breathed. “I know you don’t like hearing about my past—God knows I don’t like talking about it—”

“Yes, you do.”

Silence again. Wei Ying pulled at some loose threads on the edge of his sleeve.

"Do you want to take a walk?" he asked, then. She moved her hair to the other shoulder, and another blot of water started on the fabric. It felt good against the hot evening. She looked at Wei Ying and nodded.

“I do.”

Chapter Text

It was easier to talk while walking. They set out into evening, clad in thin robes and splitting the last of the Emperor’s Smile. Liu Suyin pulled her damp hair into a low braid, and it cooled her neck against the balmy air. They kept to the city’s outskirts, wandering frayed paths of crooked stones. 

“I’m sure you know the whole Yiling Laozu legend, more or less, and I don’t want to talk so much about that,” Wei Ying started. His voice was low and he spun Chenqing. “But I did...I wanted to ask you, Liu Suyin,” he continued, “why didn't you join Lai Liqin here from the start?”

Liu Suyin was quiet. She walked with her arms crossed, fingers snagging at the fabric of her sleeves.

“You haven’t been on earth for long, so I imagine you don’t know, but my parents are...not popular within the cultivation world.” She clipped her sentence there, and Wei Ying let it be.

“Lai Liqin wants things both ways. She wants her position and her title, and she wants me. And I’m fine with that. It wasn’t so hard at first, because we were students and, you know, there’s a certain thrill in defiance.”

“There is,” Wei Ying agreed.

“But we’re married now,” Liu Suyin continued, “and it’s harder.”

She reached out her hand. Wei Ying passed the liquor jar.

“We became cultivation partners in a large ceremony without my family. That’s the only way her parents let it happen. Even now I’m shocked they gave their blessing, but she’s their only daughter, and she’s well-liked, and she’s just...she’s very good at what she does. And I kind of suspect her parents are afraid of her.” Liu Suyin laughed a little, and then cut it short with another swig of Emperor’s Smile.

“After all of that, Lai Liqin followed me in secret to my family home. We held a small wedding there for my parents and my brother and my clan.”

Wei Ying’s chest tightened. He reached out for a sip from the jar.

“I was banned from my sister’s wedding," he said, wiping his mouth on the back of his arm. "She snuck away beforehand to the burial mounds so I could see her. You know, all the jewelry. And she had this embroidery on the sleeves, it must’ve taken months…” He thought of the drawings he made of her after, so many sketches, all so he'd never forget. He wondered how many years the paper lasted in the damp of his cave, after...

“It must have meant the world to you,” Liu Suyin said.

“It did.”

They walked some more in silence, each threading sweetness from the memories. Liu Suyin passed the jar back to Wei Ying. He wrinkled his nose at the dregs and pulled a smaller jar of terrible wine from his bag. He took a sip and spilled some on the corners of his mouth.

“Those political meetings aren’t that great, you know,” Wei Ying said. “An ungodly amount of small talk.”

“I don’t want to hide from them.” Liu Suyin tried a laugh. It was thin. “They sometimes serve good food, you know?”

Wei Ying looked at her and there was a long fell of silence. She brushed her fingertips across splintered fences and rough walls.

"When we’re traveling together, it’s easy to forget the rest of the world exists,” she said at last. “But when the politics come in...”

Wei Wuxian cast his eyes to the clouds. His voice was soft.

“Last time I was in Lanling, the cultivation world wanted me dead. Now, the Jin clan leader personally invites me to stay in the Jinlintai,” he said. “How’s that for reasonable?”

They passed the backs of shops and inns, through clouding scents of late meals and wine. Wei Ying tapped Chenqing at his side with every step.

“Does Lai Liqin defend you? Your family?” he asked.

“Always,” Liu Suyin replied gently. “But I don't want to ruin her reputation—”

“So what if you do!” Wei Ying gave a thin laugh. “The whole thing—reputations, politics, sects—it’s all...” He took a breath. A hazy portrait of Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen flashed in his memory. His thoughts shifted to Mianmian and her husband, and her child, and the little life she carved. His voice fell quiet.

“When I lived in the burial mounds,” he said, “it was to uphold a promise. The one you made fun of me for in the woods when we met.”

“Live to protect the innocent?”

“More or less.” Wei Ying tipped his chin to his chest. “I’ve done a lot in the name of that promise, and I don’t regret it. I chose a narrow path and I don’t regret any of it. And it caused a lot of pain and distrust and confusion. And a terrible reputation.” He slowed his pace. “And it doesn’t matter.”

“Because of Hanguang Jun?” Liu Suyin prompted. Wei Ying smiled.

“In part,” Wei Ying replied. He stood still, resting his hands behind his back. “Lan Zhan and I share a lifetime’s purpose. He is, put simply…”

There were spaces between buildings ahead, fresh with deep soil and new flowers. Maples lined the road, buds newly opened, waiting for their season to grow red. The path opened back toward the edge of the city, dark under evening but friendly with clatters of dinner and song. He pulled Chenqing closer in his arm and rested his chin at its top. It was cool for a moment and then warm against his skin.

“We share one journey. I face the edge of night alongside him, but even if parted, we would still walk the same single-log bridge. With him I can live for myself.”

He paused, then and turned to Liu Suyin.

“Actions, beliefs,” he said. "I value those that more than any reputation."

Liu Suyin nodded, quiet, staring ahead. She then turned to Wei Ying.

"It also helps to have a friend."

The two returned to the inn to gather their things. They hoped to settle in Jinlintai by xu hour. Wei Ying tapped his chest, where Lan Zhan’s second letter remained unopened and scalding.

“You ready?” he asked Liu Suyin once her things were packed. She tossed a bit of money on each bed for the innkeeper.

“I am.”

She had taken a moment to change into her nicest robe, dark navy with small chrysanthemums on the sleeves. Her hair was pulled back neatly, a simple knot atop a long cascade. She readied her sword at her side and took a long stare in the mirror. She snorted.

“They’re all gonna lose it,” she said.

“Even your wife?”

Liu Suyin threaded a finger through her hair and pulled a lock free against her face.

“For better reasons,” she said.

When they arrived at Jinlintai they were greeted by servants and ushered toward the guest quarters. Before parting for the night Wei Ying turned to his friend and rested a hand on her shoulder.

“Have a lot of fun after talking everything over,” he said with his very best shit-eating grin.

“Get the fuck out of here,” she laughed in return. She hit his shoulder with the hilt of her sword and gave it a light twirl. “You make sure to take a goddamn bath.”

 


 

Dear Lan Zhan…

Wei Ying scrubbed his hand under his thigh with water-shriveled fingers. The bathwater had turned a grim color nearly as soon as he stepped inside. Dear Lan Zhan, you would be so grossed out right now. He worked dust from the length of his hair. It was dirtier than he realized. Dear Lan Zhan, I already finished the Emperor’s Smile, please send more at once! He glanced toward the bed, where he dumped all his belongings as son as he entered the room. His unopened mail leaned against the pillow. Dear Lan Zhan, would you believe I’m in Jinlintai as an honored guest this time? Or, well, honored at the request of Hanguang Jun, who could very well spark a worldwide incident if I get turned away, but...still!

He lifted from the bath, dried his skin, and wrapped himself in the light gold zhong yi that a servant had provided. Hey, not being the world’s pariah was pretty nice. He wrung out his hair but kept it down and it cooled his back from nighttime’s flush of heat. He shoved his pile of items from the bed to the floor beneath, sprawled out on propped elbows, and tore open the letter.

 


 

Jingshi, Hai Hour

Fifth Lunar Month, Seventh Day

My Wei Ying

Yes, I am awake after hai hour. It is due to two reasons: one, because I played guqin instead of finishing my work, and two, because your words could not wait until morning.

As you turn each forest’s corner in hopes of hearing Wangji, I too strain for your bright laughter ringing through the gardens. Instead I must content myself with imagining Chenqing drawn to your lips. Each string I press hums against remembered harmony. Beneath the moon’s pale light as sleet, surely threads of our melody have met across the air.

Ten thousand miles of gray clouds sweep from the Jingshi to Lanling, where I know you will read this. I sent word of your arrival to Jin Rulan. I hope you’ve traded the dust of inns for fragrant rooms and rose-hued light. I hope the summer rains of Gusu have spread north to cool your journey and sweeten flowers.

I sit now with a cup of tea, still too hot to gather in my fingertips. I’ve endured a long week, and revel in the carelessness of filling today with books and music. You would be proud. The young disciples bring me joy amidst my duties, and they ask of you often. Their lecture questions have sprawled with curiosity and creativity since their travels with Wei Wuxian, and they speak highly of your wit. More than once they’ve stifled grins behind their sleeves when asking me of you. I nod and say you’re well, for how could I say more? It would be brash as describing the river and the heaving sea, and how their meeting turns to flood the scented fields…

Said simply: I, too, miss you.

You recalled an evening moment in your last letter. Should you like to know my memories: I stirred awake at the loss of gentle weight upon my chest. Under midnight’s veil, I felt bold enough to draw you back.

I teased recent hopes of darting to Lanling, but the Dragon Boat Festival is near and I cannot leave Gusu. From meetings and partings none can ever escape, but each new fruit of summer brings us closer to an autumn harvest. May our season then land on meeting once again.

Your Lan Zhan

Addendum: I have added your drawing to a growing stack. When I gather enough, I will task the juniors with binding a book. Perhaps it will entertain them long enough to cease their brazen questions.

 


 

It was not often that Wei Ying blushed.

Lan Zhan...my God.

He shook his head slightly, the pulse of his thumb dense against the paper. And here he was, worried about seeming forward.

He reread the letter. A second time, a third time. He hung on the crisp edge of Lan Zhan’s words, caught in the dizziness of experiencing phrases anew before they’re fully pinned to memory. He would have to get better at writing if he ever wanted to provoke such a feeing in Lan Zhan. He’d have to—  

“Wei Wuxian!” 

 A voice clattered against his door. Another one joined in.

“Wei Wuxian!. Wei... hic!... Wuxian!”

He lay still a moment, staring at the ceiling with a long sigh. It was an ugly ceiling. He refolded and tapped the letter against his chest. So much for his plan of rereading it till dawn broke.

“Wei Wu—”

“I’m coming, all right, all right!” he said, shoving the letter under his pillow. He pulled on another layer and slid open the door to reveal Liu Suyin crushed against a taller woman, their two pairs of arms filled with wine.

“Yiling Laozu in the flesh, meet Lai Liqin also in the flesh!” Liu Suyin grinned. She held out a jar of wine. “Want some?”

Wei Ying glanced toward his pillow. Well, if he couldn’t spend the evening like that, he might as well drink about it.

Plus, he did want to know more about Lai Liqin. He studied the two women: Liu Suyin had swapped her navy clothes for a gold-hued robe. Lai Liqin’s sharp features contrasted with Liu Suyin’s wide ones, and her hair was slicked back into a tight braided style. She wore a gray hanfu, barely decorated save for a line of gold stitching at the hems. Wei Ying could tell the fabric was expensive.

He clasped his hands to bow. “Lai Liqin. I have heard much about you. It is nice to finally meet.”

She swept into an elegant return. “I thank you for accompanying Liu Suyin in her travels to Lanling. She speaks highly of you.”

“Hey,” Liu Suyin pouted. “His ego’s big enough already.”

Wei Ying barked a laugh and reached out his hand. “All right, everyone has to leave unless I get wine this instant.”

It was good that his room was stationed far from the main hall, because the three of them proved anything but considerate of evening silence. He watched the two women before him. He had gained a fast friend in Liu Suyin but Lai Liqin was harder to pin down, more careful in her words even when tipsy. But she always rested a hand on her wife—shoulder, waist, forearm—and only gave her sweet glances, and that was enough for Wei Ying’s approval. They twined together more and more with each jar of wine. Wei Ying leaned to the ground, one knee propped up. He twirled a cork in his fingertips.

“I still can’t believe you’re here,” Lai Liqin mused as the night drew slower. She brushed a strand of hair from her wife’s face. “I missed you.”

“Hey, not in front of Yiling Laozu,” shushed Liu Suyin. “He’ll get sad over his...his Hanguang Jun.”

“Oh?” Lai Liqin raised an eyebrow. “I had heard rumors of your, ah, intimate relationship with our Chief Cultivator, but…” She trailed off and glanced at Wei Wuxian, who was, in that moment praying for swift and immediate death. 

“The look on your face confirms much more than friendship,” Lai Liqin finished.

All right. It was settled. Wei Ying would build a fort out of his hanfu, retreat inside, and never, ever come back out.

“Ah, I apologize!” said Lai Liqin suddenly. “I really do, I’m sorry.” She stood up in a bow, still graceful but slightly more wobbly than last time. “I won’t speak of it again if you don’t want me to.

“Oh, I will,” Liu Suyin piped up. She tossed her head to the side. “What was in the second letter?”

Wei Ying struggled to maintain composure as his mind, woozy with wine, rushed back to the letter’s words.

“Um. Nothing for anyone else’s eyes,” he said lowly, which was a terrible decision. He could have said, ah, just detailed descriptions of Gusu weather patterns, or maybe oh, nothing, just excruciating diagrams of garden plots. But nope, too late. Liu Suyin brightened and leaned forward.

“You need to write him back.”

“Of course I will—” 

“No, I mean, you should send him one of Lanling’s messengers now.” She glanced toward Lai Liqin, who, with a few gestures, summoned a small golden butterfly.

“If you want,” she offered with a shrug.

Wei Ying chewed his lips in a thin smile. He could’ve done the extremely honorable thing and declined. That would have absolutely been an option. But a slew of empty jars littered his floor, and it was already nearing midnight, and what could it hurt? 



My Lan Zhan. !

Bet you didn’t expect…! I got y our letter and read it many many times already, wish I could read it more, the friends are here now though and insisted I drink. Lots of wine and i did so I apologize definitely not as poetic as you are, oh my God Lan Zhan, you...damn the Dragon Boat Festival!!!!! Ride a boat to Lanling, i think that would be best, ...to have you here now.

YILING LAOZU!



“And...there!” said Lai Liqin, tossing the messenger out the window toward Gusu.

Wei Ying nodded and took another slug of wine. “Good...good.”

Liu Suyin stood up and stumbled to the door, leaning her head against Lai Liqin’s shoulder.

“You’re a brave man, Wei Wuxian,” she slurred with a wave, and with that both women stepped past the threshold back toward their room. Wei Ying cradled an empty jar in his arms.

“Goodnight,” he smiled, tipping his head against the bed rame. He shifted his gaze toward the window, toward the dim silhouette of mountains under moonlight.


“And goodnight,” he whispered to the mountains before sleep.

Chapter Text

A line of sunlight curved around the windowsill and eased across the floorboards. As dawn stretched further to day it brightened and spread, finally reaching the bed where Wei Ying snored. He lay facedown, robe twisted around his shoulders, with one leg dangling off the mattress. His left hand clutched an empty jar by the neck. His right hand brushed a half-finished drawing.

A cloud of cedar-scented incense drifted through the window from a neighboring palace’s censer. His eyelids twitched at the light and the smell. He coughed. Who in their right mind would be up this early? He felt hazy and thick from the alcohol reside. His skull plowed into the bed frame. And then, a whisper on the sounds of morning:

Wei Ying.

At that Wei Ying’s eyes shot open. He lowered his brows and clawed away the covers, groaning at the weight of his body. He lifted his head to the right and squinted through a fringe of tangled hair. He scanned the room for the voice. Window, bathtub, table. Curtains drifting in a hum of breeze. Stack of books, stack of...he winced at the amount of bottles across the floor. He pulled his hair aside to take a better look. The room was empty. The sound of his own blood throbbed in his ears.

He imagined it.

He laughed thinly and pressed his lips together tight. His head churned against the daytime, and the incense smell started to sicken his gut. Whatever this Lanling alcohol was, it was stronger than he was used to. Sweeter, too. The taste of acid and sugar pooled in his throat. He swallowed hard.

He glanced to the floor. There lay a few leaves of paper, a frayed brush, a crumbled stick of ink and black spatters on wooden boards. He lifted the op page closer. Toward the right corner was a familiar drawing of two stick figures, smiling in their embrace. Below them was a crude outline of a face with a broad smile, dramatically arched eyebrows, and a sweep of black hair. Underneath, the words “Self Portrait” were barely legible.

God.

He studied the drawing a bit more, stringing together last night’s events, until a very specific memory flooded in a disastrous rush: he had sent Lan Zhan a message.

 


 

“Dear Hanguang Jun: I would like to confirm my words from last evening, and reiterate my brazen requests. If you are not at Lanling by wu hour, I will execute Jin Rulan. That should suffice to get you out of Gusu, right? Yours truly, Yiling Laozu.”

Liu Suyin raised her eyebrows and waited for feedback on her message suggestion. She, Lai Liqin, and Wei Ying sat around her table, an immensely-hungover trio tasked with damage control. Wei Ying grimaced at the sweet taste of breakfast that lingered in his mouth. He gave feedback as a shove to Suyin’s shoulder.

“Liu Suyin,” he promised hoarsely, “you are never, ever allowed to meet him.” 

Liu Suyin grinned. “I cannot wait to meet him,” she sang brightly.

“All right, all right. Serious, now,” interrupted Lai Liqin. She poured a cup of water for Wei Ying and then sat back on her haunches, head tipped in thought.

“Dear Hanguang Jun,” she began, “please accept my sincerest apologies for my forward behavior last evening. Ha, I promise it was all in jest... unless…”

“Okay, butterfly, now,” demanded Wei Ying, his patience thin as summer robes. Lai Liqin shrugged against Liu Suyin’s giggles. She conjured a golden butterfly and flung it into Wei Ying’s hands.

Dear Lan Zhan,

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I partook of Lanling’s fine (read: terribly sweet) liquors last night. I am not entirely sure what I sent you, but if the fragments of my poor memory are correct, I believe it was...uh, forward. (Hey, in my defense, I’d just read your second letter.) Anyway, please disregard whatever drunken butterfly disturbed your evening—I know you’re working hard to keep the world afloat, and I’ll see you soon enough, okay?

Wei Ying

“Boring,” sighed Liu Suyin.

“I didn’t even let you read it!”

“Yeah, but I can tell it’s boring.”

Wei Ying rolled his eyes and tossed the messenger to back to Lai Liqin. With a curl of her fingers she sent it once again out the window and toward Gusu.

“He’ll be able to reply, right?” asked Wei Ying.

“It can carry one return message before scattering in the air,” said Lai Liqin, gesturing her fingertips for effect. She patted Wei Ying’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll hear from him soon.”

 


 

“Wei Wuxian, I really thought you might look presentable today.” Jin Rulan sighed. “Oh, well.”

Wei Ying lifted his teacup with a small, pained smile. His hair hung lank around his face, and the ribbon tying half back was askew. Deep shadows haunted his under-eyes and his lips were dried and pale. His golden silk hanfu looked beautiful, at least, but that garment was provided by the servants while his normal clothes were treated to a wash.

He clasped his hands in a slight bow. “Jin Ling, thank you again for your hospitality.”

He thought of adding a quip or two in defense of his current state, but no, it would be better not to embarrass his nephew in front of the whole palace. He gazed at the young sect leader, who sat pitched forward on the edge of his seat, chin held high but with nervousness in his eyes. There were some decor changes in the dining hall—nothing too major, but anything of Jin Guangyao’s had been stowed or destroyed. A new painting of Fairy adorned the south wall, and the table wares were a bit gaudier than Wei Ying remembered.

Liu Suyin and Lai Liqin sat across the aisle. The latter was languid at her table, face pleasant and posture straight. Liu Suyin knelt alongside her, shoulders pinned back and hands wrinkling her lap. Her eyes cast low and she did not shift focus from a slight stain on the table covering. Every so often, Wei Ying saw Lai Liqin’s hand move to gently pat her wife’s thigh. Jin Ling, to his credit, said nothing callous toward Liu Suyin. The other palace guests were not as courteous. 

They ate their midday meal mostly in silence. Or, everyone else ate. Wei Ying twirl his chopsticks around in sauce. It had been a few hours since sending the messenger, and still nothing had returned. Those little insects were supposed to be pretty fast, right? Although it was the middle of the day, and Lan Zhan was surely working or teaching, and oh, God, what if he received the first message in front of a disciple? Or what if it was intercepted by someone? Could spiritual butterflies even get intercepted? Could—  

“Wei Wuxian, it’s unlike you to be so quiet,” Jin Ling said suddenly. Wei Ying took a breath to explain, but Jin Ling waved his hand.

“No, don’t worry, it’s a relief,” he assured, and Wei Ying could detect a small grin in his voice. He turned to the other side of the room and straightened his shoulders.

“Madam Lai, I look forward to hearing your input in the upcoming meeting with surrounding clan leaders,” Jin Ling said. Lai Liqin glanced at Liu Suyin. A moment passed. She took a gentle sip of tea.

“Actually,” she began at last, “I believe I’ve already made my thoughts on those political matters clear. Much as I enjoy the unparalleled refinement of Jinlintai, I do not see the good in lingering to rehash firm opinions.” She took another sip of tea before standing and sweeping into a bow.

“I and my wife, Liu Suyin, will depart the city later today. We thank you for your gracious hospitality.”

Wei Ying saw Liu Suyin’s brows raise ever so slightly, and her mouth press to a smile. It was the barest shift in expression, but Wei Wuxian was used to reading such faces. After a beat, she too stood up in a bow.

“Thank you,” she echoed, her glance slipping toward Lai Liqin as she spoke.

Late in the afternoon, the three gathered outside their rooms. Red clouds creased the sky, scorching all the white marble in Lanling. Wei Ying—slightly more alive with clean clothes and combed hair—leaned against the doorway of his quarters. Lai Liqin and Liu Suyin stood across from him, carrying a pack of items and readying their swords. Lai Liqin stepped forward and spoke first.

“Thank you for keeping Liu Suyin company,” she bowed. “If you ever need anything at all, please, do not hesitate.” Wei Ying bowed back and Lai Liqin rose with a smile, glancing at Liu Suyin. “There are still a few things I need to take care of before we depart. Please excuse me for a moment,” she said before darting into her room.

Liu Suyin moved closer to Wei Ying. She gave a slight shrug and pressed her mouth to a line. Ah, here we are.

“Where are you headed?” Wei Ying asked her.

“Not sure yet. But I hear Yunmeng this time of year is particularly nice,” she answered with a smile. Wei Ying brightened.

“It is.”

They kept in silence for a moment, shifting their weight from one foot to the other. The sky tipped into dusk.

“Thank you,” Wei Ying said, then. He reached out to give a friendly shoulder punch, and startled when Liu Suyin pulled him into a hug.

“Thank you, too,” she replied, her voice tender. She stepped back and smiled in the warmth.

Lai Liqin soon returned to Liu Suyin’s side. They both gave another bow to Wei Ying and then drew their swords from their sheaths to prepare for the ride.

“Oh! Before you go,” Wei Ying ruffled through his sleeves, “here are a few talismans for the road. I know they aren’t much, but—”

“Talismans crafted by Yiling Laozu himself? Oh, these’ll sell on the underground market,” said Liu Suyin as she grabbed a fistful. She passed a few to Lai Liqin, then carefully tucked the rest into her belt with an appreciate pat.

“Where will you go, Wei Wuxian?” asked Lai Liqin. She suspected he wouldn’t stay in Lanling much longer. She was right.

He pulled Chenqing from his belt and gave it a twirl. “Ah, the road is boundless—I’ll explore it from beginning to end.” He grinned at the two women. “But in a few weeks you can definitely send me a drink in Qinghe.” Liu Suyin laughed and gave a nod.

With that, they set off west into the day’s final blur of light. Wei Ying watched them until they slipped above the clouds. He felt full.

A voice suddenly called his name. He twisted his neck to see Jin Ling approaching, hands clasped behind his back and a gentler expression than usual. He was alone.

“Jin Ling, I think I rarely see you without a posse,” Wei Ying said in greeting. He almost added something along the lines of you’re not coming to stab me again, are you, but decided against it. Let the kid grow.

“I imagine you’re heading off, soon, too,” Jin Ling said. His uncle nodded. He’d leave in the morning.

“It was nice that you got to stop by while accompanying your friend,” Jin Ling continued softly. Wei Ying laughed.

“Hey, now, Liu Suyin accompanied me. Ask Lan Zhan. I was headed here from the start.” He grinned some more at Jin Ling’s expression. “You think I’d go up to Qinghe without seeing my favorite nephew?” he added. He was rewarded with a scowl.

“Hey, Jin Ling,” Wei Ying continued, “I got you something. It isn’t much at all, especially since I had to do it from memory, because, you know.” Wei Ying reached into his sleeve. “But even though it caused me a thousand traumas…”

He produced a piece of paper and handed it to his nephew. It was a drawing of Fairy, sitting proudly on a stone against a forest of gently swaying trees. Jin Ling’s face shifted from surprise to poorly-contained joy. He slipped the drawing into his sleeve and flattened his expression to one more befitting of a pleased, mature leader.

“You are not terrible at drawing,” he allowed. Wei Ying nodded at the compliment.

Suddenly, a smear of gold fluttered into view, landing on Wei Ying’s shoulder. He snapped his head toward it in shock—oh, that. After the meal and the goodbyes and the everything else, he had forgotten about that. He cupped his hand around the butterfly and closed his eyes, desperate to finally read Lan Zhan’s reply. His brow furrowed. He frowned.

“What? Why isn’t it…”

“You can’t open it because you’re…” Jin Ling trailed off, trying to temper his bluntnes. He began again. “Opening a spiritual message is hard if you’re not…”

He struggled at how to politely remind Wei Ying of his incredibly weak spiritual energy. He rolled his eyes and held out his hand.

Wei Ying’s eyes widened. He pulled the butterfly close to his chest.

“All right, if you don’t want to know what Hanguang Jun said—”

“Okay, okay,” Wei Ying relented, tossing the messenger over. Jin Ling drew it close to his face.

“My Wei Ying,

I apologize for such a late response. Lan Jingyi chose these days of unending festival preparation as the perfect time to fall ill. He will be fine—only a fever—but his flair for the dramatic keeps me playing healing songs at his bedside. I wish, perhaps even more than you, to be in Lanling.”

Wei Ying exhaled, giddy with relief. He started to speak, but Jin Ling shushed him. Wait, there was more…?

“As for your messages,” Jin ling continued. Suddenly, his face reddened. And with each upcoming word, it reddened more.

“As for your messages, Wei Ying: you apologize as though you are not always so flirtatious when paired with wine.”

Jin Ling stared at Wei Ying, mouth open. Wei Ying, a similar shade of crimson, felt ready and willing to enter the void of death a second time. Jin Ling spoke first.

“You—”

The butterfly dissolved. Wei Ying gave a weak smile amid Jin Ling’s sputtering.

“That’s the last time I do a favor for you,” Jin Ling declared, turning around with his open palms to the air.

“Goodnight, Jin Ling,” Wei Ying managed as his nephew walked away. When he was out of sight, Wei Ying leaned back against the marble wall, embarrassed laughter bubbling in his chest, face hot. A smile spread across his face.

Chapter Text

An Incredibly Dusty Road

The Passage Of Time Means Nothing To Me

My Lan Zhan,

Okay, okay—of course time matters in that I count the hours until I see you again. But in terms of my travels toward Qinghe, I’d rather keep measure in other ways. Like how many regional fruits Lil Apple has vehemently refused, or how many times I’ve misplaced my brush only to find it smashed in the bottom of my saddlebag (hence the poor calligraphy) (at least it’s consistent in lack of quality). But really, I do think that sixteen years floating in an abstract chasm of unreality did something to my sense of time. Messed it up, maybe. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t care anymore. The way the sun rose today and beats on the path, the sound of street vendors as I enter a new village, the clod of hooves as other travelers pass by—it’s all either seconds or eternity for me. I’m on no schedule. I can sit under a tree for as long as I like. I know it sounds childish, and perhaps it is, but I’ve never felt so untethered in either of my two lives. I’m allowing myself to savor it.

Ah, look at me, so careless against what I’m sure is unending paperwork and bureaucracy for you. But you know the moment the world settles—maybe even beforehand, if I get too impatient—I will steal you away somewhere where you too can ignore time. I’ve been keeping a list of the best places to see. There’s a small city north of Lanling that’s especially known for its music. I’m sure you’ve been, but we’ll have to go together again. Oh, and another town is renowned for their jade carvings. I managed to scrape together enough money to actually buy you something tangible there instead of just another drawing. I know you already have a veritable collection of Yaopei tassels, but this one’s from me. I settled on an endless knot in blue jade, and below it there’s a smaller carving of a fish in white. I normally would try to haggle a seller down to their breaking point, but that felt wrong for a gift for you, so I only shaved a little off the price. I think he was confused by the contrast in my travel-worn attire and the amount of money I slapped down, and I don’t blame him. Technically, Liu Suyin and Lai Liqin paid for this gift—after they left Lanling, I entered my room to find a small purse and their quick parting note on my bed.

I miss them both, especially Liu Suyin, but it is nice to venture the road on my own once again. And I still meet people and travel with them short distances, usually a day or two. I befriended a group of older cultivators a little while back and spent the Dragon Boat Festival in their company. One used to be a Yiling Laozu impersonator, can you believe it? He apparently made good money doing so, despite the fact that he barely resembles me and only 10% of his talismans worked. I gave him a fresh stack in exchange for a round of drinks, which turned into more stories swapped, which turned into yet another round. I think we should’ve gotten more drunk, but the sheer amount of Zongzi we consumed left us disastrously full and only a hint below sober. We had grand plans to participate in a boat race, but I unfortunately spent that time vomiting. This is too much information, I apologize. Although—you did say you looked forward to my continued attempts at threatening propriety, so...enjoy! Apologies in advance for the inevitable length of this letter—I will send it all closer to Qinghe. My goal is that a whole day of from work is required for you to read through.

 


Near Jining 

Lan Zhan! You’ll never guess—or maybe you will, if they write to you sooner, which they probably will—a-Yuan and Wen Ning met me on the path! I

had been walking alongside Lil Apple to give him a rest after a particularly knotted section of road, and I heard a rustle in the bushes to my left. I of course drew Chenqing from my belt and placed it at the ready, glancing every which way for another hint of movement. I felt the hairs on my neck prick up at the sound of whispers, but then the whispers sounded more excited than threatening, and before I knew it a-Yuan was wrapped around my shoulders, practically tackling me against Lil Apple. I’m sure you’ll scold him when he gets back to Gusu for such impoliteness—kidding, kidding, never scold him. Or, I guess, continue whatever you’ve been doing, scolding or not. He’s so good. 

“A-Yuan!” I gasped in shock, and he pulled away with a bright smile. He really is such a good kid. I really set the framework for success in his early childhood, didn’t I? Anyway, I barely asked him where Wen Ning was before Wen Ning appeared alongside. They both looked neat and well-rested, much unlike my travel-weary self. Although I’m sure they have a much higher standard of living than I do, especially given that a-Yuan was raised by your dignified self. (As long as he at least remembers his dirt-covered roots, I’ll be happy.) 

“Wen Ning didn’t believe it could be you, but I said there was no mistaking the smell of Lil Apple,” grinned a-Yuan. 

Maybe you can scold him a little bit. 

They said they were coming back from Qishan, and wanted to stop by Lanling and visit Jin Ling before making their way home again. The way Wen Ning and a-Yuan laugh with each other, and raise their brows at private jokes, and how their mannerisms rhyme...you know, Lan Zhan, of course I did everything I did back as Yiling Laozu because it was the right thing to do. It would’ve stayed the right thing no matter what. But God, to see living proof that none of it was in vain....my son—your son—sorry—you know what I mean—and Wen Ning, and...I’m not as poetic as you so I can’t pin the right words to what I’m feeling, but it is nothing short of a joy that threatens to burst my chest wide open. 

They carried news of you, too! How you spend each day, and how you’ve restructured the lectures, and the way you handle students’ tougher questions. How lucky they are to have you embrace their curiosity. I hear that you reference me sometimes in the lectures—the True Story of Wei Wuxian, so it were. You’ve become something of a legend yourself, Hanguang Jun, you know that, right? Liu Suyin had mentioned I was featured in poems, but did you know you are, too? The wandering cultivator in white, playing Inquiry for eternity at the hem of a clif ...it’s all very lovely, even though it does make me flush a little. I’m certain some of your legend, like mine, is exaggerated for narrative impact. Some characterize you as ten feet tall and cold as snow. Others won’t stop referencing the smell of sandalwood, for whatever reason. God have mercy on us all. 

Right! A-Yuan. As I said, he’s looking well. Healthy, happy, maybe taller? He was not wearing his Lan sect clothing—instead, he complemented Wen Ning in a dusky red hanfu. He told me to tell you that he still wears his headband, though, and I can confirm. Something about him seems older than last time, even though he was already the most mature kid I’ve ever met. He is still quick to smile and he still studies the world with wonder, but there’s...a new calmness there, or I suppose a worldliness. They had quite the adventure in Qishan, but I’ll leave it to them to tell you in person.

We went into Jining to share a meal. (Lan Zhan, the food there is delicious. I could waste a lot of paper describing it, but I’ll practice restraint.) Sitting across from a-Yuan, memories of his childhood flashed before me. I remembered us in Yiling. You were dressed in light blue, voice tender, already teaching a-Yuan so well. I remember how gently you looked at me. I remember how much I longed for you to stay, even just an evening more…ah, and here I am, a lifetime later, longing for the same thing. Soon.

I wanted so much to stay with a-Yuan and Wen Ning, but...well, they’re having their own journey, and I can be a part of other memories. They kindly of ered me to come to Lanling with them again, but I decided against backtracking. Plus, I think it best if I give Jin Ling ample time to recover before seeing me again (I will explain in person).

Before bidding farewell, a-Yuan held me at arm’s length, a complex expression on his face. He studied me for a bit too long before I asked him of his thoughts.

“It’s nothing,” he smiled, “you just look so happy.”

And it’s funny, Lan Zhan, the way children will notice things. I was happy enough when a-Yuan was barely more than a toddler. He saw me happy teaching the disciples, and happy after the Temple. But maybe with all those past instances, another emotion overwhelmed happiness-- responsibility. Concern. Relief. I don’t know.

I do know that as I travel these paths, meeting new people, reuniting with old friends, with family...rereading your letters until they’re almost translucent with creases...imagining what my life could look like, giving shape to what I truly want...it is elation.

 


 

Fancy Liaocheng Inn

Early, Against My Will

Ah, Lan Zhan, why is it that hangovers always insist I awaken at the break of dawn? I didn’t even drink that much! The thing is, I spent the last few days traveling with a new friend (another young cultivator named Wang Yunxu) and we got into a rousing, alcohol-fueled political debate with other inn patrons. And now here I am, with a treacherous and dehydrated body that refuses to rest a moment past daybreak. Maybe your sleep habits have rubbed of on me.

In a few days I will reach Qinghe, but I’m sending this packet of letters to you here in Liaocheng. I think I wrapped your Yaopei tassel well enough that it won’t get damaged. I’m also including a few more drawings I made along my travels--nothing special, really, just views of cities I’d like to revisit with you. Oh, there’s a portrait of myself, too, that I drew while in Jining. I’m almost embarrassed to send such a thing, but I recall you wished for one in a previous letter, so...ah, I hope it’s a good likeness, and that I wasn’t too harsh or too forgiving. I need to pack these up before I change my mind and slip it out at the last second. I hope you like everything.

Wang Yunxu departed down a different road only a little while ago. You’d be pleased to know he had nothing but compliments for his Chief Cultivator, and was a venerable ally in the tavern debate. Many are surprised that the lofty Hanguang Jun has such an agenda to disrupt tradition and implement new policies, but I am not. You show respect where it is due, but stand firmly on the foundation of your ethics, and those ethics don’t always lodge neatly in the halls of antiquity. Your conviction is why, despite any criticism, you will surely earn a spot in history as one of the great Chief Cultivators. And that conviction, and your grace and your strength in kindness, is why I fell—  

Wei Ying startled himself with how easy the phrase almost slipped from his brush. He paused it above the page, and he barely pulled away before a dot of ink fell from the tip. He slowly placed it on he desk, aligning its edge to the paper. He was still. Everything was still.

The inn where he sat was more elegant than usual, as Wei Ying had no intention of responsibly spending Liu Suyin and Lai Liqin’s monetary gift. The room’s airy space and robin egg walls were almost like the Cloud Recesses library, where his past self copied the Lan Sect rules thousands of times. He’d task himself with such a fate again, now, if he dared write down what his mind repeated.

He folded his hands in his lap and settled his gaze on a seam in the desk. He’d thought such a thing before—tested it against morning and dusk, cold wind and glazed sun. The first time he tried it was a recent winter night in Gusu, when falling snow cradled the sound of a certain song. It spilled into his thoughts countless times after, but never extended down his spine through his fingertips, and certainly not through his mouth. It never eased so smoothly against other sentences. It never felt sure enough, a collection of sounds always verging on collapse. But now…

He could not finish the sentence, but he could not cross it out. And so he left it breathing room, a hum of empty margin to blot the fragment. Perhaps Lan Zhan would know what he meant. Perhaps that was okay. 

He lifted his brush again.

I’ve paused so long my tea has grown cold. Ah, I suppose that’s a sign for me to head out. I imagine there’s no shortage of ramblings present in this letter, so I will try to close simply: I span so many sunsets on the northbound path, and writing to you is my favorite of all the ways to measure time.

Your Wei Ying

Chapter Text

The first thing Wei Ying noticed about the walls of Qinghe was that silver lattice now twined against the weathered stone. The second thing he noticed was a banner twisting from the gate’s center. He dismounted Little Apple to get a closer look, and laughed out loud once the mountain air settled and the words were revealed.

“Wei-xiong!”

He glanced up. Leaning over the top of the wall was Nie Huaisang, batting his ever-present fan with a wide grin.

“Sect Leader Nie!” Wei Ying shouted with a bow. He cocked his head toward the banner. “I believe yours is the first clan to actually put up a Wei Wuxian Was Innocent sign. You’ve truly made Qinghe an example to the world!”

“Who am I to defy a special request from our Chief Cultivator?” Nie Huaisang shrugged. He snapped his fan shut and disappeared from view. Moments later, the gate heaved upward and he emerged from under the entrance’s shadow.

“Wei-xiong,” he repeated, smiling. He got a quick bow out of the way before stepping closer to Wei Wuxian in admiration of the banner. He crossed his arms.

“I admit it clashes with the aesthetic experience of approaching my fine city,” he sniffed, “but now that you’ve seen it, I suppose I can finally take it down.”

“What! And leave the question of my righteousness to burn the hearts and minds of weary travelers?”

“Oh, please, everyone’s already sick of you,” Nie Huaisang said. He leaned in and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Did you hear Jin Guangyao cannibalized his advisor?”

“Dear God.”

They entered the gate with arms tossed around each other’s shoulders, Wei Ying already asking about dinner and wine. It’d been awhile since his last worthwhile meal, and even longer since his last drink with a good friend.

Nie Huaisang looked more serene than Wei Ying remembered. He was gentler in his movements, more decisive. They sat across from each other at a black lacquered table spread with more food than Wei Ying had seen in months. Heady scents of vinegar and salt and onion wafted from the array.

“Nie-xiong, you really outdid yourself,” Wei Ying marvelled between messy bites of pork joint and braised chicken and whatever other dish his eyes landed on. Nie Huaisang sipped his cup of wine. He watched Wei Ying nearly choke on another mouthful.

“Eh, slow down!” he admonished with the tip of his fan. “Do you think I want to tell Hanguang Jun you died inhaling a piece of pig intestine?”

Wei Ying rolled his eyes and washed it all down with a swig of liquor. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, much to Nie Huaisang’s expressed dismay.

“Wei-xiong, how you won the affections of such a fine gentleman as Hanguang Jun, I’ll never know. Speaking of which,” he lowered his eyelids, “I hear he’s been writing quite some letters to you.”

Wei Ying’s eyes widened and his cheeks grew hot. “Says who!”

“The entire cultivation world,” Nie Huaisang shrugged with a demure flutter of his fan. “Oh, by the way, my dear friend Lai Liqin says hello.”

Wei Ying choked on a bite of blackened carp.

“Your idle dreams roam far, to the southern land where autumn is clear,” Nie Huaisang quoted, his voice ringing music into each poetic word. “Eh, come on, tell me everything! Lai Liqin didn’t go into enough detail. What’s Hanguang Jun like in writing? I only ever get formal announcements from him, so impersonal. Does he miss you? Are you mutually pining?”

“You would ambush a listless wanderer for such information over his first hearty meal?” Wei Ying sniffed. “Nie-xiong, how ruthless you’ve become.”

Nie Huaisang leaned forward over the table and rested his chin on his elbows, batting wide eyes.

“Me? Ruthless?”

“Ah, fine, fine,” Wei Ying relented after a beat of silence, sucking the grease off his fingertips before reaching into his hanfu and pulling out...no, not that one...hm…

“Here,” he decided, unfolding a letter. “Ahem. Let’s see, he’s talking about Chief Cultivator stuff, and then he’s detailing all the weather patterns in Gusu...he’s describing a technical diagram of the new student quarters...Nie-xiong, it’s boring stuff, really.”

“If you don’t tell me what it actually says, I’ll assume he’s sending you graphic selections from my book you stole twenty years ago.”

Wei Ying scowled. “You know, for someone supposed to be my bro, you’re really evil,” he said, earning a light slap of Nie Huaisang’s fan. He cleared his throat again, scanning for a line that would be enough, but not too much.

“Fine. Let me see…”

He chose a couple sentences that were sweet enough to make his own breath race but not noticeably so, like how Lan Zhan wore his hair loose in evening and how warm Gusu had gotten. Nothing too intimate, just nice lilting words, was all. He finished and tucked the paper back to his chest and Nie Huaisang cheered.

“I knew it. I knew it!” he exclaimed. “And it only took a quarter of a century for him to finally pay attention to you!”

“He’s been paying attention to me. Why else would he play Inquiry around the world for years after my...y’know? As the legends go?”

“I always figured he was just wracked with guilt,” Nie Huaisang said. Wei Ying’s face fell.

“Ah, no, I’m wrong! Don’t listen to me. I don’t know, I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang assured, reaching over to pat Wei Ying’s forearm. “I really don’t know why I said that. Besides, I don’t think guilt alone could fuel that level of romantic poetry.”

Okay. Yeah, okay, fine. Wei Ying’s mouth crunched toward his nose and he tapped a little rhythm on the table with his liquor jar. After a moment of contemplation he glanced up with an odd expression in his eyes.

“Hey, Nie-xiong, back in Cloud Recesses...I never really told you what actually happened to your book, did I?”

 

 

After dinner (and after Nie Huaisang properly mourned his pornography’s tragic demise), Wei Ying settled in his guest quarters, which were luxurious enough to give Jinlintai a run for its money. He soaked in a long bath—the fancy kind, scented—and then returned to his bed, which he now noticed had a small note atop the blanket. Already? He wasn’t expecting anything yet, but—there, his chest tightened and he moved closer and handled the very fine paper, unmarked save for shaky calligraphy. Wei Ying. He sat gently on the edge of his bed and pulled open the page.

 


Cloud Recesses

As The Sun Dances Behind The Mountains

Oh Ying-er,

My glossy hair is spread like a cloud on the pillow, my embroidered clothes bear a wondrous fragrance. How I wish you were here alongside me, to whisper your handsome words from your even handsomer face. The bright moon and cool breeze are winding my heart. In my dreams, trembling I fall into your arms, oh how I’ve waited for this moment. My Ying-er, oh how I would do anything for you! You must return to my palace at once so we can share another cup of wine, and you can tease my cloud pattern with your fingertips, oh yes Ying-er! Where are you now? I simply cannot bear it! I cannot bear another second without your loud annoying voice screaming all the goddamn time, HAHAHAHA, just kidding, Wei Wuxian, it’s me!

Well, it was settled—Liu Suyin would now especially never get to meet Lan Zhan. Wei Ying briefly considered whipping her letter across the room, but eventually his heart rate slowed, he shook his head in laughter, and he continued to read.

Lai Liqin and I are doing well. She says hello. We were actually in Qinghe recently to visit Nie Huaisang—did you know they’re good friends? Not sure it came up when we saw you last, likely because we were so, so drunk. In any case, while in Qinghe I took the opportunity to craft you my best Hanguang Jun impression. I think I did a great job. Lai Liqin agrees. She also mentioned that she and I and you and Hanguang Jun should all take a vacation together after the next big clan meeting. Then I can really start torturing you! Does Hanguang Jun know you sometimes say his name in your sleep? Deny all you want, but I heard it more than once on our campouts, and I’m pretty certain it didn’t come from Lil Apple’s mouth.

After we left Lanling, we did share a lovely time in Yunmeng. We mostly stayed on the outskirts, because Lai Liqin generally tries to avoid Jiang Wanyin. Don’t worry, nothing bad happened—he only attempted to court her years before realizing she had a girlfriend (me) (obviously). Ha. Suck it, Jiang Cheng! In any case, your hometown is beautiful, and I’m surprised I hadn’t visited until now. I’ll keep it a destination in the future.

I hope you had a good trip up here, although I can’t imagine it was much fun without me. It’s been really wonderful with Lai Liqin, though, and we’ve covered a lot of ground, both in literal travels and in conversation. I hope that next we meet, you will also have talked things through with your Hanguang Jun. You don’t have anything to be worried about. You really don’t.

Ah, we’re heading out soon! If you haven’t already, please spend the rest of our parting gift here in Qinghe. We’ll be drinking fine wine with you in spirit!

Till we meet again,

Liu Suyin.

 


 

Wei Ying smiled and refolded the letter, placing it neatly beside his bed before tucking in to sleep. The though of traveling all together...that would be nice. It really would be. Fine, maybe he’d let Liu Suyin meet Lan Zhan. He’d just learn to perform a silencing charm, just in case.

The next morning began with tea and a tour of Nie Huaisang’s vast art collection, which spread from his personal palace throughout the city’s center. Since settling into the clan leader title, Nie Huaisang had opened his halls to the finest of artists from across the word’s sects. Of course he had paintings—gilded scenes from Lanling, a sweep of Gusu landscape that swelled Wei Ying’s chest—but he also kept a daunting array of porcelain, calligraphy, sculpture, and instruments. “I can’t play any of them well,” Nie Huaisang admitted, “but they’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Wei Ying agreed, and then asked about his erotica collection. Nie Huaisang gave his fan an innocent wave.

They passed by a group reciting poetry. Down the path, Wei Ying glimpsed embroiderers through blush screen windows. Against the morning someone practiced the xiao, and the occasional scatter of guzheng notes echoed across metal rooftops. Wei Ying’s heart ached at the accidental duet. He tapped his fingers on Chenqing and listened in hopes of a guqin. He did not hear one.

After an ample breakfast—oh, yep, Wei Ying could get used to this lifestyle—the two set out into the city, which brimmed with fashionable young cultivators and countless food carts and crowds around street musicians. Nie Huaisang wore a light gray hanfu with delicate embroidery along the hems, and were it not for occasional passerby nodding respectful bows, his status as sect leader would be hard to detect.

“What, you want me to dress like Jiang Cheng?” he laughed when Wei Ying pointed out his lack of decoration. “I’d never get anything done with fifty pounds of accessories. And besides,” he continued with a tap of his fan to his chin, “it would surely distract from my beautiful face.”

He glanced Wei Ying up and down. “You, on the other hand…”

Wei Ying looked at his clothes. Solid black hanfu, crimson under-robes, only a couple rips...oh, that’s actually a big tear...but the dust caking the hem would definitely wash out! Hey, could be worse.

Nie Huaisang leaned in and dropped his voice low. “Listen, Wei-xiong, if you really want to send Hanguang Jun into a panic next time you meet, I have some suggestions.”

“Ah, more books I can borrow?”

Nie Huaisang yelped in surprise as Wei Ying dissolved in laughter. He grabbed his sleeve and dragged him toward a fancy-looking shop front. Inside were sweeps of gorgeous fabric, from the brightest blue to the richest midnight black.

“Allow me to compose a scene for you,” Nie Huaisang said, pulling different colors against Wei Ying’s face and hair. “You’re disgusting from days of travel. You get close to Gusu, so you stop by a village and take a bath, and you change into... this,” he continued, settling on a black brocade subtly patterned with silver.

“Nie-xiong, this is too fancy for me. I like it rougher,” Wei Ying grinned.

“Whatever cursed things you plan on doing,” Nie Huaisang replied cheerfully, “they will be so much better if you don’t look slovenly. And you didn’t even let me finish! You change into this, and you finally see Hanguang Jun again after so long, and you stand casually as his gaze drifts over the fine attire... sound of flute, blowing of the reed-organ; a clever and beautiful spirit guardian…” Nie Huaisang trailed off with a bright smile. He snapped back to attention and paired the brocade with an inky silk underlayer.

“Could you imagine such a scene with what you’re wearing now?” he finished, handing the fabric selections to the clothier along with a pouch of money. “Of course not.”

“Hey, Nie-xiong. I should add this, then?” Wei Ying called. He’d wandered to an assortment of hairpieces and held up a particularly grandiose one. “I could match Lan Zhan.”

“Don’t be vulgar,” Nie Huaisang sniffed. Wei Ying smiled widely and lifted it to his head.

“Wei-xiong, I swear, if you put that on I’ll qi deviate. Wei-xiong!”

“Ha, I’m Darkness-Bearing Demon Lord—”

They weren’t exactly kicked out of the clothier shop—while barring the Yiling Patriarch from establishments was practically a cultural pastime, it would be bold of anyone to banish their sect leader—but after a pleading look from the owner, Nie Huaisang and Wei Ying tripped out the door. 

They fled to eat lunch at a cozy spot overlooking the district. The morning had baked in sunlight, but now the sky dulled and the scent of rain billowed over the city. Wei Ying refilled his tea as some drops slipped from the clouds. He stared at Nie Huaisang.

“What?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“Nothing.”

“Wei-xiong!”

“Nothing, I swear!” insisted Wei Ying. He lowered his eyes and twirled a few noodles around his plate. “I just wondered...we’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing my, er, affairs, and I’m curious whether…”

Nie Huaisang spread his fan over his mouth, his brows raised and eyes bright.

“I’ve already turned down my second proposal this season,” he grinned. Wei Ying dropped his chopsticks.

“Oh, they were both fine young gentlemen,” Nie Huaisang continued, “but eh, I’m so young still! Where is the fun in settling down already?” He slurped a bite of noodles. “And besides, didn’t I set my life goal to see all the beauties of this world?”

“Nie-xiong,” Wei Ying shook his head, smiling, “fucking shameless.”

“Eh, you're even starting to sound like Hanguang Jun.” He bat his fan while turning to admire the window view. “Speaking of which, a letter was delivered for you this morning…”

Wei Ying began to eat his food a little faster. A lot faster.

 


 

Jingshi, Chen Hour

Sixth Lunar Month, Twelfth Day

My Wei Ying,

The daybreak joins summer sounds—a long hum of insects, the wilt of leaves. I composed you a letter still under sheets, yet now at my desk, those gentle words stray. I am sure they will return when my mornings include you once more. Till then, you pull sentences from my throat and breath from my lungs.

It is true: my endlessness is paperwork, my eternity is debate, my timelessness is clan gatherings. That it mostly suits me is surprising. My voice now holds unwavering as evergreen roots, and no feigned patience couches my honesty. While I look forward to your crime of stealing me—for I will always prefer our work upon the ground—I savor more than expected my position among the clouds.

You may have heard that I formally pardoned Wen Ning, which was not a popular decree, but so be it. I still await his and Sizhui’s arrival, and your mention of them has calmed my pacing mind. Of course our sin is a capable young man and Wen Ning possess unmatched strength, but worry still crawls into my morning tea and meditations. He writes me countless letters, yet no amount can suffice. I cannot imagine him taller, though for sixteen years I’ve disbelieved how fast he grows. You will have to detail his Qishan stories when you return, as I am certain Sizhui’s version will leave gaps. You hear tales of alcohol and violent night hunts; I will doubtless learn of easy travels and weather patterns.

I trust that he indeed still wears his headband, even if he’s abandoned his white robes. It will be a shock to see him dressed in red—he will surely resemble you more than me. I spend each day scanning the horizon for a flicker of their return, and if they are past Lanling, it should be soon. Wei Ying, if there is poetry to be found in the love of a child, I lack the skill to pen it. I echo you: it is nothing short of a joy that threatens to burst my chest wide open.

This is the longest he’s been away, and I pass each evening reminding myself that I have taught him well, I hope I have taught him well. I am contented that you think so. His most recent letter contained mention of you. Witnessing your smile and boundless happiness through Sizhui’s eyes filled my heart to its brim; his adoration for you would go unmatched were it not for my very existence.

Now a thousand miles slope between us, yet I match always both your yearning and elation. You may laugh to know I indulge in daydreaming our future: on walks that crest the mountains, my thoughts flood the valley with blushing light, my sighs lure the chirping birds to seek their rest. I tangle in my hand your knot of jade, cool at the first graze of fingertips and then warm against my pulse.

Wei Ying…

Wei Ying pulled his lips into his mouth and held the paper tight. It was unlike Lan Zhan to stumble in his words, yet a drop of ink wavered after his name,

Wei Ying...I have paused so long my tea has grown cold. Ah, I suppose it is a sign to cease my easy morning. I imagine my words are blurry against the waking dawn, so I will try to close simply: still I smile, that the sun which rises and beats upon your path is also my sun. That the northern breeze has brushed your shoulders before greeting the Jingshi’s open doors. 

Your Lan Zhan

Bliss washed through Wei Ying from face to limb to fingertips. He curled into afternoon, lungs buoyant and chest pounding. The rain outside poured heavy.

It stayed heavy for another day, leaving Wei Ying to languish in his room and trade gossip with Nie Huaisang over endless snacks and tea. Wei Ying told tale of Mianmian and her family. Nie Huaisang confirmed Lan Xichen was still in seclusion, and would likely stay a long time before reappearing.

It was strange to mesh current news with sixteen-year-old memories, and yet Wei Ying didn’t feel uneasy. He thought his first life would plunge into a haze, but instead, moments began to resurface with piercing clarity—his sister patting his head after dinner, his brother punching his arm in Gusu. A cloudless sky from the seat of a Yunmeng boat. The taste of citrus. It was strange but not uncomfortable to remember. Rarely did his chest tighten, and rarely did his breath quicken and swallow. Instead it was comforting: his present happiness was not borne of forgetting his past. It persisted alongside the memories.

After the rain settled and sunset melted to dus, they strolled to the palace garden, which grew lush like a painting under Nie Huaisang’s care. A central pond teemed with lazy fish and willows brushed its glassy edges. The men took off their shoes and sat on a damp wooden bridge that spanned the water, poking their legs through the rail to dangle underneath. And then they were no longer clan leader and living legend. They were two friends...two old friends...two young students, discussing the lesson of the day and new class arrivals. Two mischievous delinquents scheming to sneak liquor in their rooms at night. Two fresh-faced disciples whispering about class beauties, plotting how attention could be won...passing notes during lectures...sneaking glimpses of raunchy poetry...swiping osmanthus cakes from the kitchen…

Can you believe members of the Wen clan showed up? I thought they never send cultivators to Gusu!

Okay, fine, you can borrow this for awhile, but it’s my only copy—if something happens and Lan Qiren finds it, you better not tell them it’s from me!

You actually touched Lan Wangji’s headband in that cave? And you’re still alive to tell me about it?

A bright red canary skimmed across the pond, landing on a rock in the center before taking off toward the trees.

“All the traveller’s sorrow fades away, what better place to rest than this?” Wei Ying said, recalling a poem as he looked around. Bujing Shi was awash with fresh paint and limestone, brimming with leaves and sounds of birds. A flurry of white petals drifted nearby. Nie Huaisang picked one up and turned its velvet surface over in his palm.

“You planned everything well,” said Wei Ying after a stretch of silence. He gazed over the garden. “Even under a layer of flowers, I can still see the strong metal and stone in the pathways.”

A small smile tugged Nie Huaisang’s lips. He drew his hands behind his back and tapped the closed fan between his shoulder blades. As night darkened, the layers of his earth-green silk and gunmetal brocade blurred his edges to the landscape.

“I did have sixteen years to design it all,” he replied at last, the corners of his mouth flickering as he peered down in the water. He dropped the petal onto that mirror surface, and their faces reflected pale in the ripples. Wei Ying scattered their second selves away with a dip of his foot.

He gazed across toward plum trees, their leaves still soaked with memories of the storm. Their branches heaved with fruit, dipping low toward the summer-scorched grass. Cutting past the roots was a path of black slate, which corralled any twining overgrowth in rigid beds. It turned around the pond, occasionally giving way to podiums of iron that bore inscriptions of the Nie clan values. Rainwater now pooled in the carvings, and slipped down the edges toward the black soil.

When he spoke next, Wei Ying’s voice barely lifted the calm of the night.

“Thank you, Nie-xiong, for bringing me here,” he said slowly, testing the words in his mouth.

Nie Huaisang’s shoulders straightened. His eyelids fell lower. Trees rustled in a gust of wind and the mist was cool, a brief drift of fall against the cloak of summer heat. Wei Ying glanced his fingertips over Chenqing and laced them through the tassel.

“I am glad your brother is at rest,” he continued. Nie Huaisang breathed in, gathering the scents of cypress and chrysanthemum and freshwater. He brought his hands to his lap and folded them atop his fan. His expression was gentle, and it loosed to a smile when he turned toward Wei Ying.

“And I am glad you like the garden, Wei-xiong,” he told his oldest friend.

Chapter Text

Tai’an

My Lan Zhan

It’s been nearly a week since departing Qinghe. It was bittersweet leaving Nie Huaisang, but I’m sure I’ll see him again soon enough, especially once I rejoin the side of Chief Cultivator. And besides—though of course he’d never admit it—I think my antics have started to take their toll. (Apologies to his antique porcelain vase. I should not have tried to race the length of the palace hall.)

The good uncle in me feels obliged to stop by Lanling again on my way south, but I must be a bad uncle and sweep right past toward Nanjing, and then Suzhou, and then at last your home. I’m sure Jin Ling has recovered from my most recent visit, but each day that moves me closer to Gusu is a day well spent. If Lil Apple merely tolerated me before, at the quickened rate we move, he surely despises me now. I will have to reward him with an entire orchard when the trip is through.

I imagine Sizhui has settled back in the Cloud Recesses, and I can’t wait to see him. I must admit I promised to keep some of his adventure tales in confidence, and until he elects to tell you himself, I will have to keep my word. (Nothing unbecoming of Hanguang Jun’s respectable son, I assure you, and nothing overly dangerous, else I’d tell you. Mostly he just stayed up past hai hour.)

While you know I’m averse to time and dates, I do remember that it’s nearing the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. I’ve picked some flowers to hang from Lil Apple’s reins—though she’s not an ox, she is stubborn as one—but the image is less festive than I hoped. It is exceedingly unjust that I’ll be left forlorn on Qixi, especially my first one in this life. I wanted to make you a lantern but most of my paper is soggy with rainwater, and it’d be impossible to send anyway, so I’ll leave you with a little drawing of the design on the corner of this page. I still recall your glimpse of a smile during our last Qixi together—yes, you did smile—and I treasure the memory and revisit it often.

Ah, what else to say...this will be a quick letter, as I want to send it off before I head out in the morning. Of course there’s too much to express—especially when I lack the gorgeous poetry of your voice, which you’ll be pleased to know has prevented my peaceful rest on many a night. It is wrong enough that you lay beyond the edge of the clouds, and I lay alone under feverish rain. I can only hope that I also disrupt your evenings, else life would be far too unfair.

Your Wei Ying

 


 

Gusu Mountainside, You Hour

Qixi

My Wei Ying,

This same pale grass has held an imprint of my knees for sixteen years. In a different life you knelt beside me, spread across this patch of mountain littered with thin paper and ink. In a present glimpse of wind my mind draws you near again, here in the fold of the hill, lips parted in a smile. Over sixteen years I grieved my share of the river, threaded needles under moonlight. I begged the magpies to build our bridge so I might gather even a second of your hand. And now—though apart on this Qixi—how fortunate that we may meet any day hereafter. Knowing of your health, your joy, your life, and your return, the wistful brush of meadow is now ample company.

As I build our lantern my thoughts rest on the future, and how to tether boundlessness. While the world still trips wavering steps I cannot often leave Gusu, and I will not confine you here. Can one gather lotus from the peak of a mountain?

Yet could I lead a world well if trapped alone above the clouds? No, it is only fitting that you sometimes steal me across cities and countryside. And once I am returned from those enticing crimes, our letters must again brim with longing. But winter always sets, and the Jingshi is warm, and warmer still with you. And when spring comes again you will go that way, and whenever I am able, I will follow. And when the gales at last have steadied, my office I’ll resign and homeward turn to you, and a name we’ll build upon our eternal truth. Our best work we will do across the soil of the earth.

For now, I caress a flame within our lantern, and gaze as it drifts toward two stars.

Yours,

Lan Zhan

 


 

When Will I Get To Suzhou

My Lan Zhan,

Even moving southward, I feel the air start to cool and the grass turn crunchy. Soon it’ll be time to pull out the warmer hanfu you packed me (I’m glad you insisted). I spent Qixi writing bad poetry, all of which would burden your impeccable taste. But perhaps when I next wet my lips with Emperor’s Smile, I could be convinced to share some lines with you in person…

I keep thinking that I’ll get to Suzhou soon, but it seems it’s always one day ahead, which means the Cloud Recesses is even further in the distance. Ah, well, there’s nothing I can do but tramp along the road and play Chenqing to pass the time. I ran out of wine since the last village, a true pity—though I admit I prefer the woozy dizziness I get from rereading your letters. Who in this world could guess that behind your unmatched beauty and immaculate presence was such alluring shamelessness? I remember once, very long ago, you scolded me that one shouldn’t tease people if they didn’t mean it. I can only hope you still live by those words.

I believe that, though stealing the Chief Cultivator would indeed be a brazen crime, the entire world would not be surprised if I swept through the Cloud Recesses to gather you. ANd hey, if the world must gossip, let’s give them a wealth of adventures to entertain their meetings and meals. Can you believe Wei Wuxian and Hanguang Jun were seen shopping in Jining? I saw them night hunting in Zhenzhou, I swear it! And so on, and so on.

And maybe, after years split between cities and Gusu and long letters...after your title shifts to a new candidate and as we wander the world...I imagine a flock of disciples, devout followers of the legendary Yiling Laozu and Hanguang Jun. They would trail us in our travels, and you can teach them discipline and sword techniques, and I can teach them how to hold their liquor (ha!). We would gather a group of bright young students who maybe don’t fit in elsewhere, yet hold steadfast hearts and beliefs...who want to cultivate under the banner of our promise, the one we made so long ago with clasped hands and floating lanterns...and then we will do our best work, solving mysteries and night hunting and seeing cities and serenading mountainsides. And that is the future I curl around, biting back a smile, when I try and fall asleep. Lan Zhan, even after so many months, I still have not adjusted to resting without you at my side.

I will need an extra blanket tonight. I dream of spending winter in your warmth.

Yours always, 

Wei Ying

 


 

Jingshi, Xu Hour

Eighth Lunar Month, First Day

My Wei Ying,

My ability to tease is not practiced enough to convince. In return, I can only hope that you’ve heeded my advice since Xuanwu Cave. I imagine nary a taste of Emperor’s Smile would convince you to spill bad poetry, and I look forward to testing that theory.

Each note I press of Wangji hums with awaiting—even its fullest chord breathes thin without Chenqing. You speak highly of my words, and yet even against this graceful evening, I have nothing left to write. Instead I practice pairing my thoughts with my voice.

Send word when you gather this from the nearest town. The Cloud Recesses should be four days from there by foot. Wei Ying, do you recall the mountainside where we first parted? I will meet you at its crest.

Yours always,

Lan Zhan

 


 

A Cliff’s Edge in Gusu

Ah, My Lan Zhan:

May this be the last letter I compose to you for quite some time. It’s not even a real letter, just my mind racing against bird sounds and under cloud shadows, and ah, Lan Zhan, all I can do is focus my eyes on the landscape below. I got your note—my God, Lan Zhan, have mercy on me—no, nevermind, always continue—and I think the right number of days have passed for us to meet at this mountain. I think so. Ha, wouldn’t it be just terrible if I actually showed up a day late, and you were here and I wasn’t? Ha! No, I definitely counted the days right. Or maybe I’m early, which means I’ll have to play our song over and over again. I mean, I guess I don’t have to, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it, for you to walk this mountain and see me at the cliff’s edge, playing Chenqing wistfully into the fading sun. Nie Huaisang suggested it, and he has an eye for art, so I intend to follow his vision. He had this new hanfu sewn up for me, I hope you like it. It’s a little on the fancy side...maybe too fancy...lord, here I am at the brink of a mountain, absurdly overdressed. But hey, it’s not like you’ve ever been casual. I do hope you like it.

Anyway, I have it all planned out, and since this is an imaginary letter it doesn’t matter if I tell you. Here I am, playing our song, but keeping an ear out for your footsteps, and when I hear the grass rustle I’ll glance over my shoulder with a smile and twirl Chenqing from my lips and say something like, “Hanguang Jun, here to disrupt my daytime for a change, are you?” And then...and then, I don’t know what then. Ah, Wei Ying, focus…

It really is beautiful here, how the sun breaks over the valley and there, a flock of birds spreads into the clouds. Even when I close my eyes the landscape stays with me, like the skies of Yunmeng and the lotus ponds and yes, your gentle face, carried with me from place to place and drawn forth like a painting if I feel too lonely. My sighs escape into Chenqing and into our song...a breeze sweeps my ribbon and carries scents of autumn and cooling leaves and maybe coming rain. I’ve trampled muddy roads, I’ve journeyed the thickened heat of summer’s longest days. And I am here now. And Lan Zhan, I cannot wait to be myself, this self, with you. To coax smiles from your lips. To hold...ah, what then, who knows—Lan Zhan, to even glimpse the hem of your robe, it would be enough—

“Wei Ying.”

And then the wind ceased, and then hung dampened air. A note fell from Chenqing toward a silent bed of waving grass. The hum of flies, the scatter of birds. The faint rush of water below, the rush of blood to the ears. 

A moment of rest, a silent bar. A mouth poised for another breath yet nothing pulled into lungs.

Slowly, Wei Ying lowered Chenqing to his side. Slowly, Wei Ying turned around. And slowly—only half-convinced his eyes were truthful—he broke into a smile at the man before him, drenched in the heavy light of unspilled rain.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said again, a lifetime’s worth of softness pressed there.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying echoed.

He took a small step closer, barely reaching out his arm. Lan Zhan’s fingers moved and then returned into his sleeve. Wei Ying lifted his eyes to meet Lan Zhan’s, cool and dark and gentle. Between them hung all the sentences they’d committed to memory. But writing was one thing.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying savored the name, one he’d so often hummed into sheets or called in restless sleep, or said just to fill a space. His chest simmered. He closed another step of distance between them. Barely a moment passed before Lan Zhan did the same, and then—

—and then rain slid from the clouds. Poured, actually, with barely a drop or two of warning. And Wei Ying boiled into peals of laughter, clasping Lan Zhan’s wrist and trying to shield him with his hanfu sleeve. Lan Zhan in turn grabbed Little Apple’s reins, and they tripped down the mountain toward trees, a mess of soaked clothing and drenched hair.

“There,” Wei Ying pointed. It was a clearing under cypress and pine, mostly dry beneath the tangle of branches and leaves. They tucked underneath, cold and breathing heavy. Wei Ying, still grinning at all of it, dug through his saddlebag and pulled out a stack of blankets. He began gathering brush to try and start a fire, but the space was too shrouded with branches for that. Instead, he shrugged off his top robe and wrapped himself with wool. Well, Nie-xiong, the fancy outfit was nice while it lasted.

“Lan Zhan, here, you’ll get sick,” he said softly, moving to gather Lan Zhan’s topmost layer in his hands. He arranged each robe across a low bough—they wouldn’t dry, but they’d at least stay free from mud. He opened a blanket and draped it across Lan Wangji’s shoulders, only barely pressing the cloth to his arms. And then, without thinking, he reached to untuck Lan Zhan’s hair from underneath. And there his hands lingered, smoothing the damp tresses. A breeze shook mist into the shelter.

Wei Ying untangled his fingers from Lan Zhan’s hair and quietly stepped to face him. He reached for another blanket and pulled it around Lan Zhan’s back, too timid to pull him closer. He met his eyes again. Bold mistake. How blatant to assume he could focus on Lan Zhan’s inky gaze without losing breath. He lowered his eyes and a careful smile tinged his mouth. He loosened his grip on the blanket’s edge and shivered.

Lan Zhan pulled the hem into his own hands. He stepped closer, nearly closing the gap between them, and folded the warmth around Wei Ying’s shoulders. The landscape blurred with rain, smelling crisp and sweet as sodden branches dragged to the dirt.

“I had a very different reunion planned,” Wei Ying admitted with a small laugh against the clatter of the storm, still looking at ground. He briefly rested his hands on Lan Zhan’s chest, then drew them back to hug his own waist.

“You and well-kept plans rarely coincide,” hummed Lan Zhan. Wei Ying thought he felt hands graze his neck—probably an accident, certainly an accident. He tipped his chin toward his chest. He shivered and then melted when Lan Zhan’s arms grew tighter. For warmth, of course. For…

“Let’s sit down,” Wei Ying offered, aware his knees could slip apart at any moment. The base of the tree was mostly dry, covered in a sheet of brown nettles and ruched with curling roots. They huddled underneath with their backs against the mud, cocooned in separate blankets, shoulders barely touching.


They watched the downpour tamp the grasses, and spatter over rocks, and snag on the buds of chrysanthemum. Every so often drops seeped through the branches and spotted their blankets, but mostly the two remained enclosed from the steady pound of rain. They shared the landscape in silence, autumn-browned blossoms on the hills, a welter of rocks and vine-creeper spreading between.

Another sweep of mist skimmed Wei Ying’s cheeks. He turned to test another glance at Lan Zhan. The air was thick. Lan Zhan’s eyes had fluttered closed, and stray locks of hair curved wet against his forehead.

“Your hair,” said Wei Ying quietly. Lan Zhan’s gaze drifted to the side, and then up to meet Wei Ying’s. He inhaled as Wei Ying reached out, gently smoothing the strands from Lan Zhan’s face and letting his thumb rest for a moment on ribbon. Before he pulled away his fingers, Lan Zhan caught them.

Wei Ying felt his mind shift into gaps of white space. How many times had he tested phrases into his sleeve, tried them flushed with wine, felt them nearly blot from the tip of his brush?

A small crease folded Lan Zhan’s brow. Wei Ying traced a bead of rain from his forehead down the edge of his cheek and the slope of his jaw. Another drop twisted from the branches above and fell apart on his fingertip. Wei Ying’s eyes lowered as he hooked his voice from deep below his lungs.

“I have...since last winter,” he whispered at last.

The dimming sun paled the edges of mountain grass, combed flat from the beating of the rain. Lan Zhan moved his hand aside and reached forward to tip Wei Ying’s chin. The blanket dropped from his shoulder. He pulled it back around to encircle them both.

“I, too,” he replied. “And before.”

And there was no pinpointing the exact moment he fell. It was outside Jinlintai, surrounded by swords. It was cradling Wei Ying in a Yunmeng boat. It was at the Burial Mounds, watching Wei Ying and a-Yuan laughing hand-in-hand. It was when the rain washed his skin at Qianqi Path. When he asked a question in the forest, and was answered with a word that still brimmed in his chest. And falling could be traced further back.

Lan Zhan drew the blanket closer and slipped his palm from chin to throat, and Wei Ying curved into his touch.

“You’ve inspired me since the moment of our promise,” he said, remembering their shared Qixi lantern, how close he kept Wei Ying’s words since way back then. He lifted his eyes.

“Wei Ying, to trust in you is to trust in myself.”

Wei Ying leaned closer.

“Be careful,” he said with a glint in his voice. “You’ve abandoned the classic teachings and rebelled against orthodoxy.” He pulled his lip into his mouth, biting back a grin. “There’s no turning back.”

“Which classic teachings?” Lan Zhan smiled and leaned in further, resting his hand on Wei Ying’s chest, his voice low. “Whose orthodoxy?”

Wei Ying tucked another piece of soaked hair behind Lan Zhan’s ear. Stillness. And then, maybe to hide an edge of tears, maybe for warmth, maybe just because he wanted to—that last one—Wei Ying pulled Lan Zhan to him. His breath was warm against the autumn when he spoke into Lan Zhan’s ear.

“Lan Zhan, a-Lan Zhan,” he said, “how strong you make this weak old body.”

Lan Zhan pulled back. His cheek brushed against Wei Ying’s and stillness fell again.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispered, smiling, “if you don’t have that kind of intention, don’t tease other people…”

Lan Zhan started some kind of reply, but dropped the words when Wei Ying’s thumb brushed his lower lip. He took a breath. And then the metal emblem of his headband pressed to Wei Ying’s forehead. And then he pressed his mouth into Wei Ying’s.

Wei Ying had tried sweet phrases before, talked them against the air of countless seasons. But to repeat them now, into Lan Zhan’s ragged breath, drenched and tangled under brush...he drew back a little, fingers woven through his hair, bloth flushed with sighing action into remembered letters. He crashed forward again to sink the words in Lan Zhan’s lips, barely heard above the storm. He gathered the cloth around them tighter and enveloped Lan Zhan in his arms.

Soon the rain would lessen. Soon they would heave one blanket across their shoulders and tumble toward the Jingshi, clasped under the mist of dusk, stopping often to warm with an embrace. Soon they would comb their knotted hair and savor inside heat, pressed against the doorway trading kisses. Soon they would fold asleep within their bed, limbs ensnared and matching breath.

Soon, the boughs now clotted with water would bend under snow. The chrysanthemums would open under crispness and shut under frost. Soon the ice would clatter, and the steam of tea would stir Wei Ying from mid-morning. And then the plums would blossom through the flurries, and then the shards of blue would start to pierce gray skies. Soon. Soon, but not yet.

For now, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan still tucked themselves beneath drenched clouds, nestled close, sharing warmth. Their thoughts spilled quietly, still nervous, buried into wool, into jawlines, into throats.

Wei Ying gently held the phrase that opened countless letters. My Lan Zhan.

Each attempt grew bolder, and more, and at last their tones surpassed the rustle of the trees. My Wei Ying.

Lan Zhan cradled his face close, and then his eyes flickered down. He laced Wei Ying’s fingers and drew them toward his headband. And Wei Ying brushed the ribbon with his fingertips, and he smoothed them over the edges so they lay straight across. He lowered his palm to rest against Lan Zhan’s cheek, wet with saltwater. The sky blurred into the branches, the roots curled soft into the ground. And Wei Ying drew Lan Zhan’s lips close and held them to his, deep under the lift of the storm.


 

Chapter Text

spring

“Lan Zhan, just a little longer.”

Wei Ying tangled his limbs around both sheets and Lan Zhan. SOon after returning to the Jingshi that autumn, he abandoned all sleep-related propriety (or anything-related propriety, really) and adamantly rejected an even division of bed space and blankets.

Lan Zhan did not mind this.

Usually he rose before daybreak, but over months of icy dawns and his ever-mannerless Wei Ying, he managed to slow the minutes of his mornings. Still, today, h winced when he caught flashes of sun easing through the windows.

“I have work to finish,” he said gently, extracting himself from Wei Ying’s arms to sit at the edge of the bed. Wei Ying leaned back and looked up at Lan Zhan, the impeccable Hanguang June with hair loose and robe untied. It was an image Wei Ying witnessed every day, and every day still it caught is breath.

“Lan Zhan, come on, who knows when I’ll have another morning here?”

He had a point. Lan Zhan’s chin tipped over his shoulder. He gazed back at Wei Ying, who wore the same expectant expression that had tormented him since youth—brows raised, eyelids lowered, and just a hint of sly smile. 

He sighed and tucked back next to Wei Ying, who grinned and pressed a kiss to the back of his shoulder.

“See, this is why I married you,” he said, voice muffled against skin.

“Because you live to distract me from my duties?”

“Yes.”

Lan Zhan shifted to face Wei Ying, brushing tangled hair from his forehead and leaning in toward his lips.

“Once mao hour rings,” he warned between kisses. Wei Ying pressed himself closer.

“Mm-hm.”

“Wei Ying.”

“I know, I know, shh,” he whispered. His hand trailed slowly down Lan Zhan’s back. “I’m trying to sleep.”

“Shameless—”  

Mao hour rang out across the Cloud Recesses, and a broader stripe of sunlight washed the room. Wei Ying closed his eyes and sighed. Lan Zhan brushed a kiss to his cheek.

“Later,” he promised, sitting up. Wei Ying stretched, and then sat up behind him. He gathered Lan Zhan’s headband from beside the bed and tied it around his forehead, smoothing tresses over the knotted ribbon. He rested his hands on Lan Zhan’s shoulders and leaned forward,

“What about chen hour?” he whispered into his ear with a grin. Lan Zhan paired a smile with an eye roll and rose to great his paperwork. Wei Ying basked for a moment in bed, languid in the softness and pristine blankets, until a knock rapped at the door. He rushed to adjust his robe and open it.

“Thank you,” he nodded at a disciple as he received the breakfast tray. He set it down at the table as Lan Zhan carried a pot of tea.

“This,” said Wei Ying between bites of food, “this is the other reason I married you.”

“To disrupt my position as Chief Cultivator while reaping its benefits,” suggested Lan Zhan dryly. Wei Ying choked on his sip of tea. They ate in elegant silence. Well, not really elegant—every so often they’d trade expressions, or Wei Ying would drop a piece of food, and Lan Zhan would stifle a sigh, and then Wei Ying would do his best to swallow laughter.

Graceless, sure, but happy.

After tucking in the last of breakfast they settled into their morning routine—Lan Zhan, in fresh robes with hair still undone, finished work at his corner table. (In the past he completed work in the evening, but...that was before marriage.) Wei Ying, wrapped in a blanket and whomever’s hanfu was nearest upon waking, played Chenqing and composed talismans on the outside deck.

When his engagement was announced, the world expected Hanguang Jun to stage a large wedding ceremony—after all, how often did a Chief Cultivator marry while in office, and how often was the groom a living legend as Yiling Laozu? But Lan Zhan and Wei Ying had had enough public ado in their lifetimes. And so in early winter, one bright morning saw them dress in red. The afternoon watched as they met the mountainside, once witness to their youthful Qixi, now dusted in a sheet of snow. Before friends and found family, they completed their bows: to heaven and earth, to their ancestors, and to each other. Arms interlocked, they drank—Wei Ying, wine, and Lan Zhan, tea. And then, escorted by laughter and music (with no shortage of lewd jokes from Nie Huaisang and Liu Suyin), they returned to the hall for a banquet and to the Jingshi for their wedding quilt.

And now, after a heated winter and against warming breath of early spring, the Jingshi would be left slightly cooler.

“Wei Qianbei!”

Wei Ying paused his song to see Sizhui walking toward the deck, his hands bundled with a stack of blankets and warm clothing. Since returning to the Cloud Recesses, Lan Sizhui wore again his robe of white, but layers of dusky red peeked from under the collar and sleeves.

“Wei Qianbei, I brought you extra for your trip,” he said as he neared. “The weather is cooler in Shangqiu.”

Wei Ying hummed appreciation and gathered the bundle under one arm. Since getting caught under countless storms over his last journey—even that final, most wonderful rainfall—he was not one to turn down a change of warm clothes.

“All right. I should continue packing. You’ll be studying, I presume?”

“As intently as you studied during your days as a pupil,” replied Sizhui with a shit-eating grin.

Wei Ying rolled his eyes and smiled as the young man dipped to leave. He watched him amble down the pathway and fold into a group of young disciples. They jeered, punched arms...fell silent for a moment...erupted into laughter at a joke Wei Ying could not hear. And then they glimpsed around the bend, a wave of white school clothes suddenly out of sight. Wei Ying hugged the blankets to his chest, his face soft as he turned away. 

Morning turned to afternoon as work and packing continued. Lan Zhan wrote at his desk straight through chen hour, despite Wei Ying’s grand endeavors to distract. But by the time the room’s light shifted golden, anyone who stumbled past the Jingshi’s open doors would have glimpsed Yiling Laozu tenderly folded in the lap of Hanguang Jun, papers pushed aside, figures pressed together, and tea growing cold.

Sunset was a fitting time for travel. All the old poets thought so, anyway, and who was Wei Ying to decide otherwise? He stood at the gate of the Cloud Recesses, admiring the pink and orange of the sky. He then turned to wrestle saddlebags across Little Apple, who brayed at the indignity, unused to the weight after months of lavish relaxation.

“Eh! Come on, Lil Apple, you love being on the road!” Wei Ying assured, ducking a bite as he tried to fasten the reins. “You love the open skies...the fresh air...the new cities— ah!—”

He clamped his eyes shut at an impending kick, but nothing came. Wincing, he cracked open an eye. There stood Lan Zhan, holding Little Apple’s bridal and patting his mane.

“Animals always like you better,” pouted Wei Ying Lan Zhan smiled. He was dressed in a simpler hanfu than normal, heavier, but the still the picture of elegance in blue and white. He held Bichen in his hand and a small bag over his wrist.

“What’s that?” Wei Ying nodded toward the satchel.

“It seems I did not pack you enough Emperor’s Smile last time,” replied Lan Zhan, earning a tiny cheer. Wei Ying reached for the sack and slung it around a saddlebag strap. The sky grew redder. After securing the liquor he turned back and skimmed his hand down Lan Zhan’s shoulder, who in turn drew him close and tucked hair behind his ear.

“Hi,” Wei Ying grinned softly. He tipped his face to kiss Lan Zhan, gently at first. And then Lan Zhan pulled him closer. And then he wove his fingers through his hair. And then—  

“Hanguang Jun! Wei Qianbei!”

With great and pained effort, Wei Ying pulled his lips from Lan Zhan’s. The pair turned to see Sizhui running down the path.

“Why is he so quick every time?” Wei Ying muttered. Lan Zhan gave his waist a pat. Sizhui slowed his pace, catching his breath as he reached the two men.

“I forgot to give you this,” Sizhui started, reaching in his hanfu. He pulled out a red-covered book, bound neatly at the edge with a black cord. He held it out to Wei Ying, who thumbed through its pages. Each was blank.

“For your drawings,” Sizhui continued, slightly shyer. “Like the one we bound of the sketches you sent Hanguang Jun.”

Wei Ying felt his chest warm. He held the book with a smile and glanced toward Lan Zhan, then turned his gaze back to Sizhui,

“Thank you, a-Yuan,” he said in earnest. “If I see something you would like, I will draw it for you.”

“Ah, just as you did with Hanguang Jun when you lacked the money to actually buy him things,” returned Sizhui with a wide smile. He was rewarded with a light smack of the book against his shoulder.

Lan Zhan pressed his lips together, poorly concealing a grin. Wei Ying crunched his mouth to his nose and waved a dramatic gesture before carefully sliding the book to his chest. He slung an arm around Lan Zhan and squeezed his shoulder.

“You will have him back by Qingming?” SIzhui asked Wei Ying solemnly, arms folded across his chest. Still, there was a glitter in his eye.

“Hey, I’m Yiling Laozu, about to steal the Chief Cultivator. What could I care of following earthly plans?” he announced. He climbed atop Little Apple and tossed the reins into Lan Zhan’s open hand. He then turned back toward Sizhui and gave a small nod— yes, I’ll make sure he’s back for Qingming.

Sizhui smiled and bowed to them both. Wei Ying met Lan Zhan’s eyes. 

“Well,” said Wei Ying at last, “we will go this way.”

And they went, among the waning scent of plum blossoms and budding fragrance of peach, toward the sweep of gleaming earth below their reddened sky.

 


Shangqiu—it’s really nice here!
Second Lunar Month, Sixteenth Day

 

Our Sizhui,

I have already raved about the food here to Lan Zhan in person, but I figured you should know, too, that it’s very good. Although I suppose describing it in detail wouldn’t be good form, especially in the first paragraph. Ha, Lan Zhan will be so mad that he let me start the letter! I will have to kneel outside the inn for penance. Oh, here, Lan Zhan wants to take over.

Sizhui, my apologies for the large ink blot. Wei Ying insists on kneeling solemnly in the corner while I write, though his wide smile belies dedication to self-reflection. We reached Shangqiu only days ago, after stretches of blooming fields and evenings of night hunts. Each morning suggests more warmth than the night admits, and we are grateful for the extra blankets. I am grateful, too, for the updates you send of Gusu, and I trust you maintain your studies in our absence.

A-Yuan, make sure you also maintain your sword practice! (It’s me again.) By the time Lan Zhan returns, I expect you to be able to draw a match with him while sparring. I once did at your age, and i think at the time he really did want to kill me. How things have changed. Ah, Lan Zhan is reading over my shoulder and says he did not want to kill me. Either way, I much prefer sparring with him now. Lan Zhan is trying to grab the brush.

Sizhui, please disregard your father.

Back again! A-Yuan, this will have to be a short letter, as your father and I are heading off to a night market. Later in the evening we also plan on seeing a woman who’s hailed as the greatest guzheng player of our time. I am endeavoring not to tear pages from the sketchbook (which is now filled with drawings of landscapes and Lan Zhan) but I am breaking that rule to send a page to you. When we entered Shangqiu, we saw a lacquer carving that I thought you would like, and so I drew it for you. (I don’t have bright red ink, so you will have to use your imagination.) I hope that you do like it, and I hope that you are well, and I miss you terribly. Rest assured that Lan Zhan will be riding his sword back in time for Qingming, and I will follow him in time for Qixi.

Sizhui, we will soon depart for the evening. You have grown into an exemplary young man, one we are infinitely proud to call our son.

With care,

Hanguang Jun

Wei Wuxian

Addendum: Included is the aforementioned lacquer carving, which I had purchased while your father browsed another stall. You will find he captured a remarkable likeness.

 

Lan Zhan folded the paper together and tucked the wrapped carving between the layers. Wei Ying perched on the window frame, tying a lopsided knot of ribbon into his ponytail. Lan Zhan gazed. The cool light of evening melded the glow of street lanterns, and all of it together skimmed the edge of Wei Ying’s hair and skin. He sat with one knee up, Chenqing loosely twisted in his belt, and when he turned to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes all air fled the room.

Silently Lan Zhan moved to him, gathering the ribbon to undo its crooked loop. Wei Ying leaned into the touch. Before Lan Zhan could retie anything, Wei Ying reached to interlace their fingers, pulling their hands to his lap and glancing outside.

“Lan Zhan, you really have to be back in time for Qingming?” Wei Ying asked, though he already knew the answer. Lan Zhan wrapped his other arm around his shoulder and pulled his back to his chest.

“Mm,” he hummed. “Though you are aware you make it very difficult.”

Wei Ying breathed a laugh and tipped his head back, resting it against Lan Zhan’s sternum. They stayed interlocked, appreciating the breeze that nudged each day warmer. After some time Wei Ying stood up, still holding Lan Zhan’s arms around him. Lan Zhan pressed his lips to the side of his face.

“And you will return for Qixi?” he asked.

The pair stood clasped against the window, and the light that skimmed across Wei Ying now embraced them both. It was soundless, save for clatter outside and the rustle of cloth and the lull of their breath. Still, save for a billow of hair or the rough of Wei Ying’s thumb across Lan Zhan’s hand. Silent.

And it would not matter which way they went—for Qingming, for Qixi, for long summers or short springs. It would not matter what time was spent in warm embrace and what was shared through heated letters. Whether rain covered their hair at once or sun blazed their skin apart. It would not matter, for over long distance and across lifetimes, they would ever share one fate: to reunite.

Wei Ying breathed and turned to face Lan Zhan, who still awaited a reply. He hooked his hands behind the other’s head, tangled them in his hair, and looked up to meet his eyes.

“Lan Zhan, my Lan Zhan...I could be convinced,” Wei Ying whispered, lifting the corners of his mouth.

And as he so often wanted, so often had, and so often would do, Lan Zhan sunk a kiss to Wei Ying’s lips. Under moonlight they folded together. Sharing one smile, they did not part.

And from season to season the embrace would be handed; across lifetime to lifetime would they sing their slow measures.

In spring, the orchid, in autumn the chrysanthemum; so it would be, forever, without break.