Wei Wuxian wakes up.
That simple action gets less unusual every day. In less than three years, he will have spent twice as much time alive, in total, as he ever spent dead. In less than three months, Mo Xuanyu’s body will be the same age as Wei Wuxian’s was the year he died. It’s the kind of arithmetic that keeps him awake at night, sometimes.
It hadn’t tonight, though. Wei Wuxian had been asleep within minutes of his head hitting the pillow, feeling shivery and boneless from the combination of his bath and his husband finger-combing his hair. His dreams had been complicated - his mind is rarely still, even in sleep - but they hadn’t been troubled. There’s no reason he should be abruptly wide awake now, long before dawn.
He unwinds carefully. The winter cold has seeped into the Jingshi fully now, and while he was asleep he had migrated into a tight ball within Lan Wangji’s arms. He straightens, eliciting two simultaneous protests: one from his traitor back, twinging from the awkward position, and one from Lan Wangji. He’s not awake, exactly, but he makes a soft noise at Wei Wuxian’s retreat, his brow furrowing. Wei Wuxian grins helplessly and resettles, kissing the dip of his throat in penance. This man. He’s unbearable.
Lan Wangji’s arm snakes around his waist again, shielding him from some of the cold. His weight is solid, comforting. If Wei Wuxian closed his eyes, he’d be asleep again in minutes.
But before he can, he sees movement in the dark.
The moonlight is murky, filtered through clouds. He can’t see too clearly. But there’s a full, unmistakable outline of a person, standing at the foot of their bed.
Slowly but steadily, he sits up. It’s been a long time since he was afraid of a ghost, after all.
“Well,” he says. “Hello. How did you get in?”
Lan Wangji stirs, mumbles his name. It draws Wei Wuxian’s attention away for just a second. But a second is all it needs. By the time Wei Wuxian turns, the Jingshi is empty.
Are you there?
The almost-melody shivers in the air. Lan Wangji’s fingers are strong and sure, the notes of the guqin gentle. But there’s no reply.
Lan Wangji plays again: Are you there?Still patient, but a little less so, finally. He’s been trying Inquiry for about ten minutes now. But whatever Wei Wuxian saw, it seems to be gone now.
Are you there? This time Wei Wuxian shivers, too. He’s relit the stove, and now he’s huddling beside Lan Wangji, cocooned in two or three blankets, his unbound hair wrapped around his neck like a scarf. But despite his newly-strengthened core, Mo Xuanyu’s body is as weak to the cold as it ever was.
Wei Wuxian glances beside him to the guqin in Lan Wangji’s lap. Can’t you play and hold me at the same time? he wants to tease. Except if he did, Lan Wangji would actually try.
Honestly, Wei Wuxian, he thinks. His last active ounce of shame reminds him that he spent years sleeping on the cold, hard floor of a cave, a few feet from a cursed blood pool. It has no effect.
Finally, Lan Wangji sets the instrument aside and meets his eyes. “There is nothing here,” he says.
“Maybe they’re embarrassed,” Wei Wuxian muses. “Didn’t know they’d be stumbling on a marriage bed, perhaps. Or they’re so overcome with jealousy, they can’t speak? We left a lot of broken hearts when we took you off the market, haha.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says evenly. “You are certain it was a spirit?”
Wei Wuxian delicately raises both eyebrows. “To be clear,” he says, “you’re asking the Yiling Patriarch if he can’t recognize the unquiet dead on sight?”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji says, which is about as close as he ever gets to rolling his eyes. “I only mean—” He pauses, composing his thoughts. “Your sleep is restless, sometimes.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. His shoulders sink, contrite. “Well, yeah. Sometimes. But I was wide awake, Lan Zhan. I know what I saw.”
Lan Wangji looks thoughtful at that. One of his long fingers makes its slow way across Wei Wuxian’s arm. “I do not disbelieve you,” he finally says. “But it should be impossible for a spirit to enter the mountain.”
“There’s that,” Wei Wuxian says. The spirit wards of Cloud Recesses are nearly uncountable, if he recalls correctly. “And it should be impossible for a spirit not to answer your Inquiry, right?”
“If they were in the area, yes.” Lan Wangji’s arm settles around his back, and Wei Wuxian leans into him with a happy sigh. “And it would be difficult for even a spirit to cross Cloud Recesses so quickly. Unless they know it well.”
“And anyone in your family would have had a Soul-Calming Ceremony in childhood,” Wei Wuxian says. “They wouldn’t come back as a spirit.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “And additional precautions are taken during funerary rites.”
“Oh, good,” Wei Wuxian says. “Something for me to look forward to.” He’s rewarded with the light huff of a laugh. “Okay. So an impossible spirit with an impossibly thorough knowledge of the mountain?”
“Would you have it any other way?” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian beams. “You know me. I love a project.”
They stay like that a moment, wound around each other. Lan Zhan’s cold, too, Wei Wuxian notes silently, a hand trailing across the goosebumps down his arm. He should feed the fire.
“I’ll search the mountain tomorrow,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’ll wait until it’s light. Oh, what’s the standard range for Inquiry? I don’t think I’ve ever asked.”
It’s the kind of shop-talk that’s common between them. Nothing he expects to be a difficult question. But something shutters behind Lan Wangji’s eyes.
“There is no standard,” he says. Wei Wuxian leans a little forward, trying to catch his stare, but it’s fixed on something he can’t see. “It depends on the strength of the spirit.” Here, he finally pauses. He looks so still. “And whether or not they are in a condition to answer.”
It sinks in, eventually. Slowly, dizzily. He’d heard all about it, after all. About all those people who tried to summon the Yiling Patriarch – to use him, to erase him, or for reasons he didn’t want to think about or understand – and received no reply.
He wants to laugh. He probably should. Lan Wangji would wonder which part of it, exactly, was funny, but anything would be preferable to the face Wei Wuxian must be making right now. With a sudden, sharp jolt of nervous energy, he swings out of the bed.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says.
Without looking, Wei Wuxian pats the bed in his general direction. “I’m just going to. More fuel for the stove. Yes.” He feels Lan Wangji’s gaze follow him all the way across the Jingshi.
The thing is, there’s not a whole lot to say about being dead. When you compare it to Lan Wangji’s thirteen years, it wasn’t much at all. It was like—well. Like the dreams he has sometimes, working through a problem but not awake enough to know what it is. He doesn’t remember what he thought, if he thought at all. He remembers a little of how it felt.
Sometimes it was a low, churning kind of dread, like he was supposed to be doing something but couldn’t figure out what. Sometimes it was movement, a climb with no end. And when it hurt, it didn’t hurt much. It was a quieter kind of pain than the kind he’d come to know.
It wasn’t that bad, all told. It’s just that they haven’t talked about it yet. And the longer Wei Wuxian waits to say anything, the more awkward it feels to start.
He really should. He worries, sometimes, that Lan Wangji has conjured up some horror show in the absence of real information.
But the problem is, he knows Lan Wangji too well now. Somehow, the boring, banal truth of it all won’t be much easier for him to hear.
Wei Wuxian lifts some wood from the pile and bends to open the stove. He lets his hands hover by the fire, his fingers stiff and cold and aching.
And nothing changes. The fire licks at the sides of the door, a bright thriving orange. But the stove is as cold as the rest of the room. Even colder.
Carefully, Wei Wuxian lays the wood aside and grazes the top of the stove: first with his fingertip, then with his full palm. Behind him, Lan Wangji stands sharply. “Wei Ying.”
“It’s fine,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. He lifts his palm to the light. It’s not burned. It’s not even warm. “Lan Zhan... have I offended anyone lately?”
Lan Wangji blinks. “Why?”
Wei Wuxian lays both palms directly on the stove, holds them there. The only pain he feels is the bite of the frozen stone. “Because I think our spirit friend stole the heat from our fire.”
By the time he turns, he’s smiling again. Like he said, he loves a project. “What were you saying about impossible?”
Lan Wangji lets out a breath. And Wei Wuxian tries not to look relieved that the subject has, definitively, changed. “If you’re going to search the mountain, do not go alone.”
“Don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian sings. “I know someone I can borrow.”
The Cloud Recesses of today is, in nearly every way, completely identical to the Cloud Recesses where Wei Wuxian studied twenty years ago. Even if you looked closely, it’s hard to tell what’s original and what isn’t, what survived the fires of the Wens and what was rebuilt in the exact image of what came before.
It’s jarring, still. A different kind of jarring than going back to Lotus Pier, which still feels like walking into an intimately familiar home with all its furniture rearranged. Cloud Recesses looks – unbent, untouched. Wei Wuxian knows, intellectually, that it burned. But it’s still hard to believe.
As it turns out, though, there are little differences. The spirit wards, which were once displayed in the open and seamlessly blended with the Lan aesthetics, are now carefully tucked away.
“It’s strange, now that I think about it,” Wei Wuxian muses as Sizhui leads them both into the Library Pavilion. “Why were they ever in the open to begin with?”
“To appreciate the craftsmanship, I think,” Sizhui says mildly. There’s no defensiveness in it. He always listens so carefully and seriously, like he’s taking notes. He’s so good that Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to do with it sometimes. “And it’s not as if a spirit could disturb the wards.”
“Hmph. Peacetime thinking,” Wei Wuxian says with a wave of his hand. “It’s not spirits you have to worry about most of the time, Sizhui.”
Sizhui’s face clouds over for a moment, but he nods, so Wei Wuxian knows he hasn’t gone too far. But until very recently, Sizhui had only known peacetime thinking. He’s had a lot to adjust to these past few months. At length, though, he adds, “That’s what Hanguang-Jun said, too. You really do think alike.”
“Nonsense,” says Wei Wuxian, even as feels himself redden. “Your Hanguang-Jun is much more practical. Anyway, that first ward—”
Smiling, Sizhui tugs on his sleeve. It’s so much like what he would have done as a child, Wei Wuxian feels another stab of warmth. “This way.”
Sizhui leads him to a set of shelves at the back, packed to the brim with music theory texts. “Behind here?” Wei Wuxian asks, which Sizhui confirms with a hum. Wei Wuxian steps up, rolling his shoulders, but Sizhui darts in front of him.
“Ah, I’ll do it, Senior Wei,” he says. “Please step back.”
“Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian says, “you’ll hurt my pride, here.” It’s a fair assessment, though. He’s put on a fair amount of muscle in the past few months, but that eight-volume series of the history of the minor key looks heavy. And Sizhui’s still training, after all. It’s good for him to build a little muscle.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t expect him to slide the bookshelf over like an errant piece of paper, though.
“... Sizhui,” he says, slowly and gleefully, “are you getting buff under all those layers?”
He blushes to the roots of his hair. “Senior Wei. You don’t have to say it like that.”
“You are!” Wei Wuxian claps both hands to his mouth. “My little A-Yuan! It’s the handstands, isn’t it?”
Sizhui glances to the floor, like if he looks at it beseechingly enough it’ll take pity and swallow him. Ah, Lans, Wei Wuxian thinks sympathetically. There was probably a rule preventing them from taking pride in their giant rippling biceps. One of the new ones, maybe. Wei Wuxian’s a little behind on anything that was added while he was dead.
“ANYWAY,” Sizhui says, nearly a yell, “this ward looks undisturbed. Should we keep going?”
He starts to move, but Wei Wuxian stops him with a flutter of his hand. The paper talisman smoothed against the wall is a far cry from the ornate wards of the past - the calligraphy is delicate and precise, but other than that, it’s incongruously plain. “How can you tell it’s undisturbed?”
“Ah, it’s the paper,” Sizhui says. “If it comes in contact with an excess of yin energy, it gradually blackens over the course of about a day. And then if you look at all the wards in a given area—”
“You can reconstruct the spirit’s path by comparing the shades of the paper,” Wei Wuxian finishes, “and then you can guess either where they’ve gone or where they might appear next. Reasonably clever.” He hums thoughtfully. Then pauses. “... and extremely familiar.”
Sizhui’s ill-hidden grin breaks wide open. “Senior Wei invented them, yes. Hanguang-Jun was curious how long it might take you to remember.”
Wei Wuxian claps a hand to his chest. “Gossiping is forbidden in Cloud Recesses, Sizhui.”
“Idle curiosity isn’t,” Sizhui says innocently. And dammit. He has Wei Wuxian there.
Wei Wuxian groans demonstratively. “Really, though. This is just embarrassing. That design is almost fifteen years old at this point.”
“They work quite well, though?” Sizhui says.
“Doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” Wei Wuxian squints at the talisman, tilting his head. He remembers enough to guess that it’s one of his, but that’s about it. Those years in the Burial Mound, it was hard to say what came first, sometimes: staying up all night because he was creating, or creating because he was up all night, anyway.
In any case. Here he is, married, comfortable, with a proper workshop and the reluctant patronage of the Lan sect behind him. He can make something better. At least something more presentable.
“Lan Zhan did well to keep these out of sight,” he muses. “Security reasons aside, can you imagine your Teacher Lan looking on these day after day?”
“Teacher has already allowed so many of your tools in the Cloud Recesses, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says. And there’s that strange, rare vehemence behind it that he gets sometimes. “He could hardly object to one more.”
Wei Wuxian blinks. “Ah,” he says. “That was actually a joke about how ugly they are, Sizhui.”
Sizhui actually, physically deflates. “Oh,” he says, fidgeting. “I. I’m sorry. That was.”
Wei Wuxian laughs around the sudden clench in his chest. It’s not hard to interpret that look. It’s the same one Lan Wangji gets sometimes, after all: the one that seems ready, at a moment’s notice, to defend him. “It’s okay,” he says. “If something’s bothering you, you can say it.”
“Doesn’t it bother you, Senior Wei?” It comes out in a rush. “People using your work while they’re saying such terrible things.”
“Many of those things are true, Sizhui,” he says gently.
“I disagree,” Sizhui says. And Wei Wuxian laughs for real that time.
“Okay, okay, fine.” He’s smiling helplessly now. “But the only thing I need from any of them now is some peace. And good enough behavior that your father doesn’t blow a single vein in his beautiful smooth forehead. I’ve had their acknowledgement. I don’t particularly want it back.”
Outside, the sunlight shifts, lighting up the trail of dust drifting from the roof beams. Unconsciously, Wei Wuxian reaches out to brush it from Sizhui’s shoulders. “But I know it frustrates you,” he adds. “And I’m sorry for that.”
Something shifts, lightens behind Sizhui’s eyes. “It wasn’t all frustrating,” he says.
“I keep thinking lately.” Sizhui says. “Hanguang-Jun... he always made sure I knew, that every student knew how much you’d contributed. He taught us about your tools. He was honest when they didn’t work—” he laughs when Wei Wuxian looks mock-offended, “—but when they did, he made sure we knew how to use them. And... and when I think about that, I feel a little happier. Like you’ve always been here. Does that make sense? I’m not sure I’m— Senior Wei?”
Wei Wuxian is already in a full crouch, face buried, wailing into his palms. “Lans!” he keens. “What am I supposed to do with you? All this sincerity, Sizhui! I’m a fragile man!”
Sizhui looks pink and pleased. Wei Wuxian wants to grab him by the cheeks and never let go. “Sorry, Senior Wei.”
“Auuughhhghhhhhaaaa,” Wei Wuxian says eloquently as he clambers back to his feet. Sizhui’s so good. He’s extravagantly good. He’s better than anyone, save for Lan Wangji, deserves. “Let’s keep going before you finish me off all over again.”
“Sounds good, Senior Wei,” Sizhui chirps, unbothered. The nerve of him, Wei Wuxian thinks, his heart still buzzing. The absolute gall.
It’s late afternoon by the time they reach the last of the wards on the far, quiet end of the Cloud Recesses. Maybe it’s the change in the light, the sun hidden behind the clouds and the air heavy with the promise of snow, but Wei Wuxian’s mood has gradually shifted into something—unsettled.
For every talisman they unearth, he starts to imagine Lan Wangji putting them there, smoothing the edges of the paper with his sure, warm hands. And the longer he pictures that, the more he imagines Lan Wangji being the one who’s gone, imagines himself as the one surrounded by fragments of him, close enough to touch but out of reach forever.
He can’t help but wonder. He can’t ever help but wonder, but sometimes it’s a distant, idle sort of melancholy, and sometimes, like now, it takes him by the throat. Did Lan Wangji think of these like Sizhui thinks about them now, like something to be grateful for? Did they only make the sting feel keener? Or—
“Still nothing?” he asks. It’s obvious that there’s still nothing, but it’s more to pull him from his own head than anything else.
“I don’t understand.” Sizhui’s mouth pulls into a thoughtful slant. “If there was a spirit on the mountain, one of the wards should have detected it.”
“Maybe Hanguang-Jun was right the first time,” Wei Wuxian says lightly. “Maybe I dreamed it.”
“A dream wouldn’t steal the heat from your fire,” Sizhui says.
“Fair.” Wei Wuxian fiddles with the sash at his waist. Chenqing is safely tucked away back in the Jingshi - and even if it wasn’t, he’s not looking to stir the pot more than necessary, especially not under the Lan elders’ noses. He has to admit, they’ve shown remarkable restraint with him these past few months. It is not even a little bit for his sake, but that doesn’t mean he can’t show some deference in return.
Then again, maybe he spoke too soon. A flicker of white catches his eye, and when he glances over his shoulder, he realizes that they’re no longer alone.
Sizhui snaps to attention. “Teacher.”
“Sizhui,” Lan Qiren says, in a tone suggesting that this conversation already pains him. Thankfully, though, very little of that is directed at Sizhui himself, save for a faint sense of disappointment at the company he’s chosen to keep. As if with great effort, Lan Qiren turns his attention on said company.
“... you,” he says. He has not addressed Wei Wuxian by name once since he came back to life. If that makes him feel better, Wei Wuxian’s okay with that. “Come here.”
“Me? Sure.” With a grin over his shoulder, Wei Wuxian waves off an uneasy Sizhui and crosses the grass to salute properly. “What can I do for you, Teacher?”
Sizhui retreats, not quite far enough that he’s fully out of sight, and he hovers - not eavesdropping, exactly, but staying close enough to hear if things go completely sideways. It’s both sweet and entirely unnecessary.
Lan Qiren has that look like he’s bitten into a particularly unripe loquat - the look that, as far as Wei Wuxian can tell, is unique to him. He always wonders, faintly, if he should feel guilty for that. But Lan Qiren will survive a little discomfort. Compared to, say, thirty-three strikes with the discipline whip, Wei Wuxian’s existence is eminently survivable.
“You—” Lan Qiren says again. He takes a deep breath through his nose. Wei Wuxian politely waits him out. “—leave well enough alone.”
Wei Wuxian offers an innocent, wide-eyed blink. “Leave what alone?”
“This doesn’t concern—” He pauses, visibly collects himself. And eventually, he grits out, “Your assistance with this matter is not needed.”
“My assistance with...” Wei Wuxian perks up. “Oh! With the spirit?”
Lan Qiren’s face floods a fascinating shade of purple that Wei Wuxian hasn’t seen since he was a teenager. “Interfering with that thing is forbidden. Leave it alone. And don’t go shouting it from the rooftops. He shouldn’t have shown himself to begin with, let alone to you.”
“He?” Wei Wuxian says. And really, it’s Lan Qiren’s own fault that it clicks right then. Because Wei Wuxian knows the Lan sect precepts - the first 3,000, at least - as well as anyone on the mountain. The phrasing, if nothing else, would have called it to mind.
#978: Interfering with guests of the Cloud Recesses is forbidden.
Wei Wuxian smiles right into that pained, sour look. Which might not be exclusive to him after all.
“Apologies, Teacher,” he says. Laughing, but more or less sincere. “There’ll be no interfering here. I didn’t realize I was being haunted by an esteemed guest of the Lan sect.”
Lan Qiren sputters. And that’s all the confirmation Wei Wuxian needs.
He turns on his heel, bounding back to Sizhui at a sprint. “Senior Wei?” Sizhui stammers as Wei Wuxian catches his arm.
“New plan!” Wei Wuxian chirps.
“No running!” Lan Qiren bellows behind them. Wei Wuxian, taking the barest amount of pity on him, slows to a light jog.
If the spirit truly belongs here - if he isn’t hurting anyone - then Wei Wuxian doesn’t mind leaving him be. That much is true.
But it would be a shame not to introduce himself. One unwanted guest to another.
By the time they make their second stop by the Library Pavilion that day, Wei Wuxian has a mental list of what he needs. The head docent, who he’s been slowly winning over, is already used to him whirling in like a tornado and leaving with more than he can carry. But even the docent raises an eyebrow when he sees Wei Wuxian with a stack of Lan sect records so high it nearly obscures his face.
Wei Wuxian dismisses Sizhui, who he’s monopolized enough for one day, and hauls his homework back to the Jingshi.
The room is cold and quiet, and the light is low, sun fully obscured behind the clouds as a snow squall settles over the mountain. Wei Wuxian lights the lamps, then the brazier, though he’s quick to realize it won’t make much of a difference. The fire’s as cold as it was the night before.
“This again?” Wei Wuxian sighs to the stillness. “Esteemed Guest, could it be that I really have done something to offend you?”
Silence. Which Wei Wuxian expected. A spirit, especially a long-dead one, couldn’t always understand the living clearly. But as the Yiling Patriarch, Wei Wuxian could sometimes make himself heard anyway.
“We’re in this together, you know,” he says. “You’re dead. I used to be dead. We’re both tolerated and incredibly unwelcome here. We both annoy the same people, as far as I can tell. I’ve built relationships on less. Let’s work this out.”
But again, there’s no response.
“... alright.” Wei Wuxian spreads his work out before him: a stack of Lan genealogical records on one side, and the logs of Cloud Recesses gatekeepers on the other. “I can do this the long way, too.”
It’s fully dark by the time Lan Wangji returns. The squall has strengthened to a thick, steady curtain of snow, and Wei Wuxian’s breaths are visible in gray puffs. He’s steadily gathered several layers of Lan Wangji’s clothes for warmth. He must look halfway to a snowball himself, all wrapped in white.
He beams as Lan Wangji steps into the Jingshi. “My dearest love,” he singsongs. “If I told you one of your ancestors invited a literal wandering spirit into the Cloud Recesses, who’d be your first guess?”
Lan Wangji eyes him impassively for a moment before shutting the door behind him.
“Don’t overthink it,” Wei Wuxian says. “Just start naming names. There are no wrong answers, because I don’t know any of these people.”
Setting a tray on the low table, Lan Wangji folds, cross-legged, opposite Wei Wuxian. “You had some luck today, I take it.”
Wei Wuxian shifts to sit behind Lan Wangji as he fills him in. His fingers go to Lan Wangji’s headpiece first, careful not to snag any strands as he unlatches and pulls it free. Lan Wangji’s hair, ever-obedient, drops into a perfect curtain around his shoulders, but Wei Wuxian needlessly smooths it back as he talks anyway. It’s like sun-warmed silk in his hands.
By the time Wei Wuxian finishes, Lan Wangji’s shoulders are low and relaxed, his back pressed into Wei Wuxian’s chest. “And your research?” he asks.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says. “I know this will shock you, but I was overly optimistic.” Lan Wangji huffs a laugh. It’s no longer a rare sound, but Wei Wuxian still grins helplessly to hear it. “The gatekeepers’ logs do have written records of everyone who’s ever held a jade token, but either our Esteemed Guest isn’t listed, or they neglected to mention his, you know, unique status.”
He hooks his chin on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “So I tried your family records next. Not that I expected it to tell me who kept company with the dead, but I thought you might have a clear eccentric great-uncle I could start with.”
Lan Wangji lets out an amused hum. “I expect you did not find much.”
“That was some extremely dry reading,” Wei Wuxian says. “But I do have a couple wildly unfounded guesses now.” He’s rewarded with another low laugh. They’re pressed so close now that it shivers through his ribs. “Lan Zhan— your uncle seems like he’s known about this for a while. But he didn’t tell you, did he?”
“Mm. No,” Lan Wangji says. “And if Brother knew, he would have said.”
“Which is unusual, right? To keep that kind of information from your sect leader, even if he is your nephew...” Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji’s shoulder blades against his chest, drawing together. He tilts his chin to look at him more fully. “But you don’t seem surprised.”
Lan Wangji lets that settle for a long moment. From his position, Wei Wuxian can barely see the quick, melancholy flicker across his eyes. “It is not so unusual,” is what he finally says.
And thinking about it a little longer, Wei Wuxian supposed it wasn’t. The Lan sect has erased all manner of things before. To hide the existence of one otherwise quiet wandering spirit - it’s not the strangest thing they’ve ever done.
He folds his hands across Lan Wangji’s chest, breathing him in. Lan Wangji’s palm comes to rest over his fingers, then flinches.
“You’re freezing.” He twists in Wei Wuxian’s grip to cup his face, and Wei Wuxian sighs happily and settles into his hands. He’s so warm. “You should have stayed in the library.”
“I didn’t want to miss our Esteemed Guest if he appeared again.” Wei Wuxian shifts to kiss his palm. “And I didn’t think he’d still be this angry. What have I done to offend him, do you suppose?”
Lan Wangji lets go of his face to hold his hands, rubbing the feeling back into his fingers. “You seem sure that you did the offending.”
“Who else would it be?” Wei Wuxian says. “Any guest of the Lan sect knows that Hanguang-Jun is a paragon of grace and virtue. Meanwhile, the Yiling Patriarch makes enemies everywhere he goes. Unless...” He grins. “He’s punishing you for your poor taste in men?”
Lan Wangji leans in and softly presses their lips together. Wei Wuxian hums into the kiss, unsure what he did to prompt it but not about to question it, either. Lan Wangji gently brushes his teeth against Wei Wuxian’s lower lip as he pulls back, making him shiver, and he makes his slow way down Wei Wuxian’s neck, his breath light and warm.
His lips reach the junction of Wei Wuxian’s neck and shoulder. And then he bites down hard.
“OW OW OW,” Wei Wuxian bellows. “Lan Zhan!”
“Utter nonsense,” Lan Wangji says, soft but emphatic.
“Okay!” Wei Wuxian cries. “Hanguang-Jun has excellent taste in men! Only the best taste! You absolute brute, do you know how badly that’s going to bruise?”
Lan Wangji hums an affirmative. And with a quick, complete unapologetic kiss, he pulls back.
“Shameless,” Wei Wuxian says, mock-outraged. Lan Wangji hums his agreement again.
Wei Wuxian shuffles across the floor, dragging his nest of Lan Wangji robes along with him, until he’s close enough to roll into Lan Wangji’s lap. It might be the least sexy move he’s ever pulled, but he’ll make up for it once the Jingshi isn’t a frozen tundra. “How was your day? I forgot to ask.”
Lan Wangji shifts him until Wei Wuxian’s head is tucked below his chin. “Clan Leader Lin was here.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “And how was that?”
“You once told me, after speaking to him, that you wished to ‘walk into the sea and never return,’“ Lan Wangji says.
“Sounds like something I’d say,” Wei Wuxian says.
There’s a brief silence. “I share the sentiment.”
Wei Wuxian leans so far back as he giggles that Lan Wangji moves a hand to his lower back to keep him upright. “My poor Lan Zhan.” He nuzzles into the crook of his neck. “Let gege comfort you, hm?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, with a pointed glance to the tray on the table. “Before dinner?”
Wei Wuxian shifts to beam up at him, eyes wide and coquettish. “If our Esteemed Guest is offended anyway,” he croons, “I’d prefer to do something to earn it. And if you’re hungry, you can take another bite—”
Lan Wangji pushes him flat to the floor, and he goes down cackling.
Lan Wangji is reluctant to stay in the Jingshi that night. Wei Wuxian isn’t thrilled about it, either, but he’s also not about to be ousted from his own bed. The Yiling Patriarch, bested by a ghost? he says through a yawn. My reputation would never recover. If he’s ready to talk to us like an adult, he’ll come back.
So Lan Wangji thoroughly, comprehensively warms him up. And to his own surprise, Wei Wuxian finds afterward that he can’t keep his eyes open.
He doesn’t sleep soundly, though. He sinks into an uneasy, half-awake dream in which he’s circling three long banquet tables, packed with all those generations of Lans from the family records. No one speaks to him. But he’s hazily sure that he needs to serve everyone tea.
Lan Wangji’s parents are seated at the end of the last table, as silent and faceless as their ancestors. Qingheng-Jun is completely still. But as Wei Wuxian leans in to serve them, Madam Lan lifts her head.
You’d best wake up, dear, she says. Her featureless face somehow suggests a smile. You have company.
Wei Wuxian flinches awake. And even before his eyes have adjusted, he knows he’s not alone.
“Finally,” he breathes. It comes out shakier than he might have preferred. What the hell? As nightmares go, that was a tame one, but he still feels this rattled.
He shifts into a sitting position, keeping his eyes on the silhouette. Lan Wangji murmurs something, but doesn’t wake. Wei Wuxian keeps his own voice low as he feels for the nearest lamp.
“Now,” he says, fumbling to light it, “are we going to have a real conversation, or are we just going to—”
The lamp flickers to life, low at first, and then stronger. And Wei Wuxian sees his Esteemed Guest for the first time.
His cheeks are waxy, sunken and pale, his collarbone sharp and prominent. The long hair is damp and lank - there’s a section tied messily back, half-fallen. And though it’s hard to see from his dark robes, he’s drenched with blood. It shows through the tears in the fabric, drips from the ends of his hair.
His face would be barely recognizable to the people who knew him in life. But Wei Wuxian would know it anywhere.
It’s his face. Not Mo Xuanyu’s. His own.
The Jingshi floods with a cold he hasn’t felt for years.
He must make a sound. He doesn’t do it consciously, or remember it afterwards. But Lan Wangji is suddenly upright, his hands on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. “Wei Ying?” he’s saying.
“Lan Zhan, I...” He lifts a finger to point. It trembles violently in the air. “He’s...”
He’s pointing at nothing, though. The ghost is already gone.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian gasps through his laughter, “who better to haunt me than me, right?”
Lan Wangji isn’t laughing. His fingers tighten on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. “Wei Ying.”
“I’m joking, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Of course it’s not my ghost. Although people used to say the Yiling Patriarch could send his spirit out at night to torment innocent children. Can you imagine? I’d get so much done.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again.
“Lan Zhan, it’s really fine,” Wei Wuxian says. “I saw worse in the Burial Mounds every day! It wasn’t usually me I was looking at, but—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji gently tilts his chin up. His eyes are huge and dark in the low light. “Breathe.”
Wei Wuxian tries to snap that he is breathing, thank you, but the words tumble into another gasp. It hits the back of his lungs, desperate and shallow and hilariously inadequate, and his vision tunnels and grays.
Oh, he thinks. Such a cheap trick shouldn’t have upset him. But here he is.
He braces his palms on his knees and, with some effort, wrangles his breathing into a rhythm. Lan Wangji’s palm settles on his back, careful and steady.
“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian says, more exhale than word. “Was that how I...”
“What?” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian shakes his head, thinking better of it. Lan Wangji can’t confirm that one way or the other. He didn’t see the spirit. And, thank heavens, he didn’t see Wei Wuxian before he died.
“Nothing.” He squeezes his eyes shut against a wave of nausea. “God. Sorry. I might throw up on you.”
“That’s alright,” Lan Wangji says gravely.
“Lan Zhan,” he chuckles weakly. “Gross. We sleep here.”
Gradually, he feels steadier: his heart slows, and when he looks up to meet Lan Wangji’s anxious stare, his vision doesn’t swim. “I’m alright, I’m alright,” he says, patting at Lan Wangji’s free hand. “I’m not about to let anyone intimidate me. Let alone... well, me.”
That startles a thin smile out of Lan Wangji, so he’s done his job. Wei Wuxian laces their fingers and squeezes. “On the bright side, I think our friend might be ready to talk now.” Something dark flickers behind Lan Wangji’s stare. Wei Wuxian grips tighter. “Come on, none of that. Poor manners or not, he’s your family’s guest, like me.”
“This is your home,” Lan Wangji says. “You will not be treated this way in your home.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to smile - not when Lan Wangji sounds so strangely helpless. But one tugs at the corner of his mouth as he brushes a thumb across Lan Wangji’s cheek. “I hear you. But I’d like to try Inquiry one more time. Okay?” He waits for Lan Wangji’s nod. “And - could you bring me Chenqing? It’s in your study.” At Lan Wangji’s searching look, he adds, “I’m really fine. I just need a second to catch my breath.”
Lan Wangji leans forward, kisses him soundly on the temple. “I’ll be right back.”
Wei Wuxian curls up to let Lan Wangji climb over him, watches his back as he disappears behind the wall separating the bed from the study. He waits until he’s out of sight to let his smile drop.
“I don’t know if you can understand me,” he says quietly. “But I trust that you can hear me. Correct?”
The lamp flickers. The light dances blue and cold against the wall.
Wei Wuxian slides out of bed. He knows he looks softer like this: wrapped in Lan Wangji’s oversized white under-robe, with his hair unbound. But this is a spirit, after all. Surely he has some idea who’s standing here.
“Whatever your grudge, it’s your own business,” he says. “There’s a reason this family has left you alone, all these years. I’d be happy to respect that.” There’s a soft shuffle in the other room. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “But you’ve made your point. And if you appear in front of Hanguang-Jun like that, I will have you off of this mountain before sunrise. Do I make myself clear?”
Lan Wangji steps back into the room, his guqin under his arm and Chenqing clutched in the other hand. Wei Wuxian doesn’t get an answer. But there’s the slightest shift in the air, like he’s been heard.
Lan Qiren had tried, when they first returned to Gusu, to ban Chenqing from the Cloud Recesses altogether. It wasn’t a strong effort – Wei Wuxian thinks it was more to make his objection known, however briefly, before it was overruled. But Wei Wuxian can respect that. And when he asked if it was enough to promise that he wouldn’t use Chenqing for its original purpose, at least not on the mountain, the elders grudgingly accepted it.
But desperate times, etcetera.
Wei Wuxian is careful, though. Excruciatingly, meticulously careful. It would be easy to play without thinking, to call everything with the capacity to hear him. Poor Wen Ning would be up from Caiyi within the hour.
This is threading a needle, not casting a net. Wei Wuxian modulates each note carefully into an invitation for one, minds the timbre, the tone. It’s a sharp, high sound, incongruous with the soft peace of the Jingshi. But it does its job.
Wei Wuxian lowers the dizi and takes a breath. But the figure who steps into the room isn’t the horror show who’d been standing at the end of their bed. The spirit still wears Wei Wuxian’s face, but clean, unbloodied. He’s pale and skeletal, his collarbone visible in the dip of his robes, but if Wei Wuxian didn’t know any better, he would look almost alive. He doesn’t feel resentful energy, exactly. But there’s a grim defiance in the spirit’s eyes.
Without looking away, Wei Wuxian lays a hand on one of Lan Wangji’s. Lan Wangji grips back so tightly that it hurts.
“Sit,” Wei Wuxian says. The spirit sinks opposite them, the Yiling Patriarch’s robes pooling silently around his frame. “Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji releases him slowly, as if reluctant. But after a moment, Wei Wuxian hears the soft thrum of his fingers settling atop the strings.
“Easy one first,” Wei Wuxian says. “Who are you?”
Lan Wangji plays the question. He’s hardly done before the two-tone response reverberates through the guqin. Thanks to Jin Ling, Wei Wuxian knows that one by heart.
He chances a look back. Lan Wangji looks pale and rattled, but his mouth twitches at the full and open dismay on Wei Wuxian’s face. “He doesn’t know?” Wei Wuxian hisses.
The strings on the guqin begin plucking a simple melody, though Lan Wangji hasn’t asked the question yet. He watches them gravely until they shiver themselves still. “He no longer remembers,” he translates. “We may call him Esteemed Guest. He likes it.”
“So you can understand me,” Wei Wuxian says. “Good.”
Another melody. The barest hint of a smile flickers across the spirit’s face. “Only you,” Lan Wangji says. “He wants to know how.”
“Longer story than we’ve got time for,” Wei Wuxian says. “Why don’t we clear this up before we get to the small talk? You’ve clearly got an issue with me. Let’s chat. My husband here gets cranky without his full eight hours of sleep.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji admonishes. But the guqin has already started to play again.
There’s enough of a pause that Wei Wuxian turns to look again. Lan Wangji is looking down at the instrument, a faint crease in his forehead. “I have no quarrel with you,” he translates.
“… ah?” Wei Wuxian blinks. The spirit looks back at him impassively. “Then why are you wearing that face?”
The reply is long this time. The pause even longer. Lan Wangji dictates slowly, as if processing each word as it leaves his mouth.
“Have you forgotten him,” he says quietly, “Lan-er-gongzi?”
“… what?” Wei Wuxian twists where he sits, looking from Lan Wangji to the spirit, then back again. He’s faintly aware that his voice has risen to an unbearable pitch. “What? What? Clearly he’s—I’m obviously—”
He claps a hand to his mouth. The spirit watches, faintly curious. “Oh no,” Wei Wuxian says. “Oh no.”
“What is it?” Lan Wangji says. There’s a waver in his voice that stings something deep in Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian wants to laugh. He wants to lie face down on the floor and laugh until he’s howling. It’s not funny, but it’s the only way he can think to react. “He thinks you’ve taken another lover.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes widen. The guqin strums, a question, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t wait for the translation. “That’s my face, you absolute—we’re the same person!” he says. “Did you bother to check before you stormed in here all intent on defending my honor?”
The spirit looks more confused than chastened – Wei Wuxian has the vague sense that it’s harder to understand him now that he’s yelling. Unfortunately for the spirit, Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he could stop yelling even with a knife to his throat.
“And another thing!” he says. “If Lan Zhan had moved on, what business would that be of yours? Doesn’t he deserve to be happy? Does he owe anyone eternal mourning, let alone someone who—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, his tone strangled. “Calm down.”
Wei Wuxian makes himself breathe. For Lan Wangji’s sake, if for no one else’s. “Answer me,” he says. “What is it to you? Do you even know me?”
The spirit’s face is blank now, uncomprehending. His energy is waning, Wei Wuxian realizes. Lan Wangji sees it, too – he slips back into Inquiry, playing the question.
The answer is slow, sluggish. “He does not,” Lan Wangji says.
“But you’ve seen me,” Wei Wuxian says. “You know my face.”
A single note. “Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
“When I was a student here?” Wei Wuxian says. “Before I died?”
It’s silent for so long, Wei Wuxian wonders if he can speak anymore. His form is flickering, growing fainter around the edges. And then, at last, two notes.
“… no,” Lan Wangji says slowly. “After.”
The spirit flickers again, the wan shadows on Wei Wuxian’s former face growing deeper. It must have taken a lot of energy, these past few days: appearing to them, tampering with the fire, and now this conversation. He must be at his limit.
“I think a more direct approach is needed,” Wei Wuxian says.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, quiet. He’s used to watching Wei Wuxian enter Empathy by now – at least as used to it as he can be. But Wei Wuxian knows he’s never going to like it, either. “Are you sure?”
Wei Wuxian manages a smile, halfhearted as it may look. “I want to know what he’s talking about. And—it seems like it’s been a while, since anyone’s heard him out.”
Lan Wangji shifts out of his line of sight. But he can hear the strings humming as the guqin is carefully set aside. And moments later, two firm hands come up to grip his shoulders.
“Be careful,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian smiles again, more genuine. “You’re ready?”
He feels more than sees the nod. And then he turns, once more, to face front.
“Alright,” Wei Wuxian says, beckoning to himself. “Come here. Show me.”
There’s a flash of white, and a tilt of the world. And for a moment, Wei Wuxian is nowhere.
There’s a lie that every servant hears at least once: you’re like a member of the family.
It’s not one that Wei Wuxian can begrudge any of them for believing. Jiang Fengmian, for one, had meant it right until the end. Sometimes Wei Wuxian would wonder if he and Madam Yu were the only ones in Lotus Pier who remembered where he came from.
And even when it’s a lie, it’s not always a conscious one. Some masters will never know, until offered the choice between their servant’s life or their family’s comfort, which they would choose.
The spirit was twenty years old when his masters chose. When their son, the youngest but old enough to know better, stole from the nearby temple. The family was wealthy. They wanted for nothing. He stole out of boredom.
The family knew they’d risk a curse, keeping such spoils in their home. And they were well-regarded in town – if they’d returned everything quietly, the temple would have accepted it without much question. The only damage would have been to their son’s reputation. Nothing else.
It wasn’t their plan, when they returned those treasures to the temple the next morning. The boy’s father blurted it out at the priest’s first questioning look: that they’d found everything stashed under their servant’s bed.
It wasn’t a hard choice for him at all.
The illness that killed the servant, half a year later, should have been treatable. The prison was a little dark, a little damp, but it wasn’t the ends of the earth. Wei Wuxian hazily remembers nursing A-Yuan through a boiling fever in the Burial Mounds, surrounded by the bones and blood of the dead. You could come back from worse.
But the servant, those six months, had been the quietest prisoner within those walls. Some days he wouldn’t move from his bed until forced. By the time someone thought to check on him, he was already cold. Wei Wuxian can feel it in his own skin.
This is how Empathy usually ends: with the death. But something rustles behind Wei Wuxian, and when he turns, the spirit is watching him. He’s tall and lanky, though he slouches as if to mitigate his height, and he has a high ponytail and a shy smile. His own face suits him much better than Wei Wuxian’s.
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Wei Wuxian says.
The spirit ducks his head, like he’s embarrassed. “This isn’t what I wanted to show you, anyway.”
“Alright, then,” Wei Wuxian says. “Keep going.”
There’s something faintly familiar about the world through the spirit’s eyes. Colors are dull, blurred. The sunlight looks brown, like looking at the sky from deep in the lotus pond. Voices are muffled, at first, and then unintelligible.
Then he hears the notes of a guqin, and the world clears.
They’re on a path Wei Wuxian knows by heart now, the road from Caiyi into the mountains, approaching the Cloud Recesses. Opposite them is a teenager in Lan disciple robes, his face soft and serious as plucks out Inquiry. In reality, Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand the qin language. With the spirit’s ears, he understands it perfectly.
You won’t move on? the Lan boy plays.
“No,” the spirit whispers. A single note plays.
You don’t have a home? he plays.
“No,” the spirit says again. The same note shivers in the air.
Something flits across the Lan boy’s face. He withdraws something from his pocket: a jade token, worn with age, and sets it in front of the guqin before he plays again. Would you like to come back to mine?
Wei Wuxian smiles, despite himself. “Lans,” he mutters.
There’s a faint chuckle at the back of his mind. “Don’t I know it,” the spirit says softly. His voice grows a little clearer as the scene fades. “Lan Bin, by the way. That was his name.”
“I knew it,” Wei Wuxian says. He didn’t, really. But Lan Bin was among his twenty or so top guesses.
The spirit’s voice is hollow as the wind. But when he laughs, he sounds alive. “I don’t know how long I haunted those woods. But he said he’d seen me there so many times on the path, and that he couldn’t stand how sad I looked.”
“And the Lan sect didn’t exorcise you?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“He was the son of a sect leader and I had a jade token,” the spirit says archly. “What could they do but be loudly displeased in my direction? By the time he assumed his own leadership at thirty, they had agreed to let me be so long as I was quiet.”
“Fair enough.” Wei Wuxian softens a little, despite himself. “You must miss him.”
“I do.” The spirit hums. Around them, the Cloud Recesses is swimming into place. “But I met others.”
Wei Wuxian recognizes the porch first. Nearly a year ago, about where he’s standing now, Lan Xichen had stopped him to explain the building they were walking past. Lan Wangji still visits it once a month. Sometimes he asks Wei Wuxian to come, too. And sometimes he prefers to go alone.
He’s by the door now, kneeling. He’s so small in this memory – it can’t be long after Madam Lan’s passing. Lan Xichen is there too, nearly as small, and Wei Wuxian’s heart twists. They were so, so young.
Lan Xichen leans in, whispers something. Lan Wangji shakes his head minutely, and doesn’t move.
“She’d been gone for months, at this point,” the spirit asks Wei Wuxian. “Why did he keep coming back?”
“His brother told me he didn’t know what ‘gone’ meant, at first,” Wei Wuxian says. “I don’t know when he understood it for the first time. But I think… I don’t know.” A fierce fondness wells in him. “The people around him acted like she didn’t exist, even when she was alive. I think he didn’t want her to be forgotten. Even if he had to do it alone.”
The spirit gazes up at the two small figures on the porch, barely visible now. “Either way,” he says softly. “I didn’t know that kind of devotion existed on this earth. It was hard not to wonder what it would have been like to have it.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, “that you didn’t have anyone like him.”
The spirit’s smile turns wry. “I don’t think there’s anyone like him.”
“I didn’t want to rub it in.” Wei Wuxian’s own smile fades. “Madam Lan… do you know if she’s resting peacefully?”
“Her spirit departed, if that’s what you’re asking,” the spirit says. “I think she might have liked to have stayed, if only to watch them for a little while longer. But she was like the two of us. She was a guest, too.”
“I’m not always here, you know,” the spirit muses as the scenery shifts and changes. “There’s no use to being a wandering spirit if you don’t, well, wander. I would watch him, from time to time. But I didn’t see him fall in love with you.”
“You missed out,” Wei Wuxian says. “I tormented him for months. I drew him a picture. He wrote me a song.”
“Trust me,” the spirit says dryly, “I have heard the song.” And despite himself, Wei Wuxian lets out a full, honest laugh. “I saw the aftermath. I saw that something frustrated, then worried, then scared him.” A pause. “And then I think you know what I saw.”
The memory has started to settle around them. A summer night in the Cloud Recesses, buzzing with cicadas. Wei Wuxian swallows. “Nothing good,” he says.
“There was the child, at least,” the spirit says.
Wei Wuxian smiles weakly. “One good thing,” he amends.
“One good thing,” the spirit agrees. “It was a year after your death, maybe two. That’s when I saw you.”
The scene locks into sharper focus: the courtyard in front of the Jingshi, lined with tall grass that leads up to the tree line. And by the grass, pale and wan and blank, stands Wei Wuxian.
Well – kind of. Even from here, Wei Wuxian doesn’t see anything of himself in his own original face. It’s how the spirit appeared to him earlier, at the end of his bed: the complexion, the tattered robes, the blood. But there’s nothing behind his eyes. No awareness. No recognition.
Wei Wuxian locks his arms across his chest. “I don’t remember this.”
“I’m not surprised,” the spirit says. “Even a ghost can sleepwalk, from time to time.”
Wei Wuxian can feel his face heating, even here in Empathy. He’s not totally sure why he feels embarrassed about something he did while he was dead. “I dreamed about it a lot, for some reason. Coming back here.” He feels himself get even redder, if possible. “Well. I guess I know what that reason is now.”
“It must have been a short dream,” the spirit says. “You were only here for a moment.”
Sure enough, they’re alone in the courtyard by the time he turns back. Wei Wuxian tries not to shiver. “And how did you know it was Lan-er-gongzi’s lost love?”
The sprit’s gaze shifts to the Jingshi, smiling faintly. “It was as if he summoned you.”
Wei Wuxian turns to look. If it’s only been a year or two since his death, then Lan Wangji is still in seclusion. But the door is open to catch the summer air, and there’s warm, low light filtering through to the porch.
Lan Wangji sits on the floor, crouched intently over something. Wei Wuxian’s throat clenches looking at him. He’s so thin. His outer robe drapes loosely, like it still hurts to wrap it too tight to his back. And Wei Wuxian knows, even from here, where he’s sitting. That crawlspace still exists, is home to jar upon jar of his Emperor’s Smile.
There are only two jars there now. Wei Wuxian remembers them from that first time alone in the Jingshi, just after he returned to life. Lan Wangji lifts it free and holds it to the light like it’s something meaningful, something sacred. Like he’s holding one of the last jagged pieces of Wei Wuxian left on this earth.
The look on his face is too horrible to bear. Wei Wuxian looks anyway.
“If he had forgotten me,” he says softly, “it would have been his right.”
He can feel the spirit’s stare shift to his back. “I haven’t apologized yet,” he says, “for my reaction earlier. You were right. My pain is my own business, not his. If he found happiness, I had no place to object.”
“Exactly right,” Wei Wuxian says, without any heat. He’s suddenly too tired to be angry.
“But Wei-gongzi,” the spirit says. And there’s something in his voice that makes Wei Wuxian look away from Lan Wangji. “If you hadn’t returned, you would have deserved to be remembered, too.”
Wei Wuxian lets out a long, low sigh. “You should really have a real conversation with Hanguang-Jun one of these days,” he says. He’s too tired to care if it’s an obvious deflection, too. “You sounded just like him right now.”
“It would be an honor.” Maybe it’s Wei Wuxian’s imagination, but the spirit is slumping, too, like even his weightless body is too heavy to hold. “But I rather think you should talk to him, first.”
The Jingshi gradually goes dark. Gradually, the world around them follows suit, until the stars are the barest pinpricks of light in the distance. “You’re going to fix our fire, right?” Wei Wuxian says wearily. “Because if one of us gets frostbite, Hanguang-Jun really might exorcise you.”
The spirit isn’t visible anymore. But that bright little laugh rings out across the clearing. “Go home, Wei-gongzi,” he says. “He’s waited long enough.”
His eyes snap open.
“I’ve got you.” He hears Lan Wangji’s voice, feels his fingers through his hair, long before his face swims into view overhead. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Wei Ying.”
“I know, I know.” It’s very difficult to say, somehow. Even Wei Wuxian’s tongue feels heavy. He pats around vaguely until he can find one of Lan Wangji’s hands to squeeze. He must be lying on his lap. He can feel Lan Wangji’s leg trembling anxiously underneath him. “I’m okay. It was fine. I’m completely okay.”
“Are you…” Lan Wangji’s eyes are wide. He looks so young like this. If Wei Wuxian could lift his arms, he’d take his face in both hands and hold it. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
The strange thing is, Wei Wuxian does, for once. If he opens his mouth right now, he thinks he’d tell him everything. Up to and including the things he’d long decided that no one should ever know.
But – fortunately? Unfortunately? Even he’s no longer sure – he’s not sure he could fit his mind around a single word of it right now. So he rolls over and buries his face in Lan Wangji’s stomach.
“I do, Lan Zhan,” he mumbles. “I honestly do. I just need a minute.”
Lan Wangji’s arms latch, solid, across his shoulder. His pulse thrums, steady and even, through the both of them. And at his back, Wei Wuxian can feel the brazier’s fire spreading, growing strong.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “Of course.”
When Wei Wuxian wakes, he’s warm.
Warm and secure. He twitches a little, shaking off the tail end of a dream he’s already forgotten, and the light pressure at his back tightens, holding him in place. His cheek is touching soft, warm skin. He cants his head into it, like he could bury himself there. He could easily let himself drift again.
Then he gradually connects the dots – the light against his eyelids, the warm body against his own – and scrambles upright so fast that he narrowly avoids elbowing Lan Wangji in the stomach.
“Lan Zhan,” he manages, his mouth still cottony with sleep, “I’m so sorry. I only meant to close my eyes for a minute.”
“You needed it.” Lan Wangji’s palm comes to rest on his cheek. “You’re alright?”
“Completely,” Wei Wuxian says. “The fire?”
“Normal,” Lan Wangji says.
“Good. That’s good.” He blinks out the window, into the painfully brilliant sunlight against the snow. “It’s morning? It’s… late morning. Lan Zhan, should you be teaching?”
He looks back at Wei Wuxian. His ears, barely visible under his hair, are turning pink. “You looked exhausted. I didn’t want to wake you.”
Wei Wuxian flings himself back to the bed, throwing an arm around Lan Wangji on the way. He goes willingly, if bemusedly, down with him. “Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan,” he says, burying his face in the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck, “you’re really too good. I was just a little tired. You didn’t need to put yourself out for me.”
But for once, Lan Wangji shifts back from him. He looks almost grave, the set of his mouth still soft and concerned. “I wanted to be here,” he says. “If you still wanted to talk.”
Oh, Wei Wuxian thinks. Yes. He did promise that, didn’t he.
“You don’t have to, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji adds.
“I want to.” Slowly, Wei Wuxian traces a thumb down his face, to the curve of his jaw. “I do want to. I…” He breathes through the tightness in his throat. Lan Wangji’s already looking at him like this. Which means he needs to say it. “But I don't want to make you sad.”
Lan Wangji kisses him, chaste but firm. “If that is your concern,” he says, “then I have to insist.”
“Aiya. So demanding.” Wei Wuxian laughs weakly. But he knows, officially, he’s out of excuses.
“You know, Hanguang-Jun,” he says. “Our Esteemed Guest admires you so much. He’s sorry for how he reacted. But he says he’s never seen devotion like yours before. I think it’s a comfort to him, that it exists.”
He waits for Lan Wangji to hum an affirmative. But he doesn’t. He’s clearly ready to wait Wei Wuxian out.
“… did you guess?” Wei Wuxian sighs at length. “From his appearance, and what he said?”
“You were here, once.” Lan Wangji’s voice is steady, but his fingers tremble. “As a spirit.”
“I thought you might guess.” Wei Wuxian fiddles needlessly with Lan Wangji’s collars. “So smart, my Lan Zhan. It was only for a few moments, apparently. And I wasn’t aware of it. So much of it was like a dream, you know? I wonder if I was just—wandering. Maybe I kept coming back here, to all of you, and none of us even knew.”
“Wei Ying,” he says. Not a question, or a demand. He’s saying it to say it, because he can.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan.” He can’t quite staunch the words anymore. “I know you don’t like when I apologize. But I’m sorry I haven’t told you yet, what it’s like. Knowing you, you’ve been imagining something terrible, right? And it wasn’t, it really wasn’t, but I knew it’d upset you anyway, so I—didn’t say it.”
Lan Wangji’s fingers tighten on his arms. Wei Wuxian can’t tell if that’s a stop or a keep going, but he couldn’t stop if he tried, anyway. “It didn’t hurt,” he says. “I swear that it didn’t. I don’t think there was enough of me for it to hurt. If that makes sense.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. And even from those two words, Wei Wuxian knows he’s about to hear what Lan Wangji has really wanted to ask. “Were you at peace?”
Wei Wuxian could lie. But he’s lied far too much, up to this point. And Lan Wangji can tell by now. “You know me.” He laughs wetly. “I never sleep very soundly.”
Lan Wangji surges forward, like he can’t take it a second longer. His kiss is full and hungry and quick, and when he pulls back, he pulls back to kiss Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, forehead, jaw. He whispers his name between kisses, over and over, like a prayer. Like every word is a tether.
“I’m here,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m not leaving. They’d need another siege to get me off this mountain, Lan Zhan. And then the joke would be on them, because I’d take you with me.”
“Anywhere,” Lan Wangji says. “I’ll go with you anywhere.”
“Aiya, Hanguang-Jun, don’t take me so seriously when I’m talking nonsense. You’ll make me cry,” Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji holds him like glass, and very kindly doesn’t point out that he’s crying already.
The kissing slows at his breastbone, and Wei Wuxian holds him there. He cradles Lan Wangji’s head in one hand, pressing him gently to his sternum. His heartbeat pounds like fists at a door, against the bed at his back, against Lan Wangji at his chest. He wonders if Lan Wangji can hear anything else over the sound of his body, loudly, emphatically alive.
“I’m here,” Wei Wuxian says again. Lan Wangji’s body vibrates with the sound.
“Yes," he says. "You are."