The metallic echo of their footsteps seemed very loud as Wei Wuxian followed Lan Zhan through the ship’s blank corridors toward the bridge. He had only ever been onboard after it had been awakened. The current lifeless gray walls and faint purr of the sleeping engines were eerie. He pressed closer to Lan Wangji’s side.
“Lan Zhan, this is too spooky,” he told Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji eyed him without turning toward him, his pale eyes questioning, but did not pause his stride. Wei Wuxian linked their arms so that he would be forced to slow down.
“A ship like this is supposed to be the most glorious jewel of your fleet. Like this it’s just another dead lump of metal. Oh, a very big and very impressive lump of metal, I will absolutely grant you, but that makes it worse!”
“The transfer is essential.”
“I know, I know. Zewu-Jun is ‘busy’ and the GusuLan can’t show up to the discussion conference without their biggest and shiniest. It’s just...unawakened. I’ve never liked unawakened ships. They’re like ghost ships. Or like one of those nightmares where the hallways never end and all look the same.”
“Patience? What do you mean? It’s not that I’m impatient to see you awak—oh, we’re almost there.” The markers on the walls of the dead hallways pointed them down a short hallway to their left.
A junior disciple scurried by with a timid nod of acknowledgement—and a double-take with widening eyes at their linked arms. Her mouth dropped open as she took in Wei Wuxian’s black robes and Chenqing tucked neatly through his belt. Wei Wuxian gave her a bright smile. She quailed, eyes flicking past him, and ducked further down the hall, rushing through her muttered courtesies.
Wei Wuxian turned to find Lan Wangji tracking her progress with a forbidding expression and said, amused, “Tsk, Lan Zhan. Scaring the juniors again, I see,” he said rather than anything about her reaction to the ‘dreaded Yiling Patriarch.’
Lan Wangji seemed willing to play along. “Unaccustomed to my captinancy only.”
“Of course they would be terrified of you if they’re used to Zewu-Jun. You can’t just glare! But really, that just means you should fly this thing more often. Then your crew would know that that’s your exasperated face and that it’s mostly because of me.” He patted the arm still laced through his. “And besides, it would help with the legend of the great Hanguang-Jun. Xian ships are the height of prestige! It’s not like there are more than four people in the Xiuzhen Jie that can even try to awaken one.”
“Who is the—”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “I don’t count! What would I want a ship this big for?”
“Mm,” was Lan Wangji’s non-committal answer as he gestured with his sheathed sword and the door to the bridge opened in front of them.
Wei Wuxian immediately released Lan Wangji and ran down the walkway that spanned from the door, out across the bridge pit where disciples were already checking systems and fiddling with switches, to the suspended bridge dias. He ducked past the sword podium in the center of the dias and fetched up against the far railing with a clang. A handful of startled exclamations from below had him waving to upturned faces before the view outside claimed his entire attention.
Splashed large across the massive viewscreen, Gusu spun gently below, tranquil and verdant. Lights on the night-side of the planet glittered in scattered clusters, half-hidden beneath great swells of clouds limned in the sunset fire of the Jiangnan system’s yellow sun.
Between the ship and the planet, Cloud Recesses hung like a latticework moon; deceptively elegant, almost delicate, the vast station mimicked the curve and curl of the clouds on the planet below. Small ships clustered around its rings and spires, pale specks in Lan colors with the occasional flash of something brighter from one of the other sects.
“Ah, Lan Zhan—” Wei Wuxian tore himself away to turn toward where Lan Wangji traversed the walkway with measured steps, one hand tucked behind his back. His words died in his throat.
Lan Wangji approached poised and dignified and handsome, his every precise move befitting him as both the captain of the ship he was about to awaken as well as Second Jade of Lan. Pale gold eyes locked with Wei Wuxian’s for a brief, heartstopping moment before Lan Wangji halted at the sword podium. His expression of solemn serenity did not flicker.
Wei Wuxian clutched at the railing, beamed at him, and tried to breathe. “Gusu is always beautiful, Lan Zhan! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to see it, even from afar. And the repairs on Cloud Recesses look like they’re coming along. You can’t even tell...well. Nevermind that. Many thanks for letting me come watch the awakening. Jiang Cheng always puts me on guard duty whenever he pulls Sandu, so I never get to see.”
Lan Wangji inclined his head. Honestly, it was probably better he didn’t respond beyond that. Even Wei Wuxian knew that he’d possibly crossed a line by mentioning the battle that Cloud Recesses had survived (if barely), but Lan Wangji’s father had not.
Resting his sheathed sword across the breadth of the podium, Lan Wangji’s impassive gaze fell into the bridge pit. “Awakening preparations?”
“Confirmed complete, Hanguang-Jun!” chirped one of the disciples seated at the end of a row of consoles. “The ship is ready whenever you are.”
“External visuals,” Lan Wangji ordered.
The viewscreen flickered as thousands of tiny jade tiles flipped over, sectioning the screen off and displaying a dozen different angles of the ship from the outside: the engines with their banked fires, the sleek, unique lines of the only Lan sect Xian-rank vessel, and all of the various drone perspectives set at range from the ship’s hull. From here Wei Wuxian—and everyone else—could see the ship in its totality, despite its massive size.
Even without an awakening sword, the ship was gorgeous. It was very different in design from the Jiang sect’s Xian-rank ship, of course, though no less imposing. Wei Wuxian whistled low in appreciation.
Lan Wangji made a small, satisfied noise and, with no further comment, he unsheathed Bichen and thrust it down through the center of the sword podium.
A shockwave of pressure slammed into Wei Wuxian and pressed him against the railing. A heady combination of spiritual energy and electromagnetism grew thick in the air, pressing in on his ribs and making it hard to breathe. His skin prickled. Excitement raced his veins.
The sword podium changed first. Ice-blue seeped outward from the sword in its central column to splash across the gray surface like frost spreading across a pond. Small sparks of pale blue spiritual energy spat up Bichen’s hilt and washed over the fingers that held it still, casting light onto the underside of Lan Wangji’s jade-smooth face.
Lan Wangji’s lips parted and he released a breath too gentle to be a sigh.
The spiritual sword was eager to claim the ship as an extension of itself. The material of the podium grew translucent in mimic of Bichen’s blade, gray fading to a pale azure that deepened with the thickness of the material. Color crept down from the podium and across the dias, gaining momentum as it flashed beneath Wei Wuxian’s feet and up the railings. The metal chilled beneath his fingers, Bichen’s aura of ice and snow licking at his skin before the sensation faded once more into metal warming in Wei Wuxian’s grip.
Bichen’s icy translucence claimed the bridge within moments. On the external visuals, however, there was no further sign of an awakening. The pitch of the engines notched upward, their glow on the monitors growing brighter.
Releasing Bichen’s hilt, Lan Wangji flicked his gaze to Wei Wuxian. He huffed faintly, then told the bridge, “Primary awakening successful. Prepare for secondary augmentation. Engine status?”
“Nominal,” chorused two disciples out of sight below the bridge dias.
Xian-rank ships required, in terrifying addition to a cultivator of sufficient strength, two powerful spiritual tools to awaken: a sword and one other. Lan Wangji produced his guqin, Wangji, with a sweep of his sleeve and placed it on the podium in front of Bichen.
The ship vibrated beneath Wei Wuxian’s feet. He could almost feel its anticipation.
Lan Wangji closed his eyes.
The strings on the guqin plucked themselves and a sweet melody ran through the bridge like a shiver. A new wave of spiritual energy coiled past Wei Wuxian, music shot with ice, and sank into the bulkheads. Closer to the epicenter, the hems and drapes of Lan Wangji’s outer robes fluttered in a wind made of his own power.
And outside—outside, Bichen poured across the hull in a blaze of light. The bold angles of the gray metal grew sharper, Bichen’s patterns of blues and whites sleeking every elegant curve into something that looked far faster and more glitteringly cold than any other ship in the Xiuzhen Jie.
Unique. Glorious. Wei Wuxian gripped the railing hard.
The engines came alive last, stoked by the surge of power. The entire ship jolted. On-screen, propulsion-fire spilled over in a roil of Bichen’s blue and molten red, the blinding excess arching into the void like a solar flare. A breath later, the thrum of the engines settled into a working cadence and was greeted by cheer from the bridge pit below.
Bichen-xian had awoken.
“That was amazing, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said in breathless delight.
The whole process had taken seconds. On the viewscreen, Bichen-xian gleamed cooly in the light of Jiangnan, ready to intimidate the hell out of the sects at the conference. Only Sandu-xian and Baxia-xian could rival it, should they be there, and neither of them carried Bichen-xian’s grace.
He turned back to find Lan Wangji staring at him and through him. The gloss of Bichen-xian’s interface had filmed over his pale gold eyes and his skin had taken on the faint glowing sheen of Bichen itself. Both made him look otherworldly, immortal, timeless. Like he was only half-inhabiting the same reality as those upon his ship.
Of course, Wei Wuxian had seen him fly lesser-ranked ships before, had seen the interface and how it lit him from inside, but the effect now was so much...more.
Wei Wuxian swallowed hard.
Then Lan Wangji raised his eyebrows at Wei Wuxian, blinked, and was human once more. Bichen-xian’s interface partially retreated from him as he waved a hand over the podium that held his spiritual tools. Guqin strings quivered, and he nodded once.
“Status,” he demanded of the bridge.
A rippling of responses came from his disciples, each reporting their aspect of the massive ship’s systems. Lan Wangji remained impassive until the last had spoken.
“Well done. Awakening successful.” Before the bridge crew could celebrate, however, he added, “Prepare departure for Lanling.”
A new burst of activity swept the room at his words. Disciples began to bustle on and off the bridge, not-quite silent, but with the dignity of the Lan never-the-less. It was a very different atmosphere than a Jiang ship.
In a wave, the viewscreen’s tiling flipped back to the view of Gusu and Cloud Recesses. The planet was already starting to drop out of frame as Bichen-xian rolled over to start lining up with their jump trajectory. The Lanling system was a hefty distance from Jiangnan; it would take a little while for the calculations to finalize.
“Wei Ying,” said Lan Wangji.
His voice, lowered and focused once more toward Wei Wuxian alone, carried a new subharmonic, a layer of greater depth, as he spoke through Bichen-xian's interface. The interface might simply be an external manifestation of Lan Wangji’s control of a spiritual tool, but that spiritual tool was the size of a fucking mountain. The sound, and the way it so casually reflected the power Lan Wangji was currently wielding, sent a bolt down Wei Wuxian’s spine.
A tiny line appeared between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows. “Wei Ying?”
“Ah?” Wei Wuxian said, trying to pull his thoughts together. He gravitated toward where Lan Wangji stood behind the sword podium. If his steps were a little wobbly, no one had to know. “Lan Zhan, am I going with you?”
Silence for a moment, then, “You possess an alternative?”
“Oh, no, well. I didn’t arrive on my own ship, if that’s what you’re asking. What’s the use of flying here under my own power when...but it is not like we’re going to get into a fight, right, Lan Zhan? We’re all allies.”
A greater silence descended upon them both. The knowledge of just how far beyond Wei Wuxian’s usual nonsense the words “we’re all allies” was fell between them like a stone, heavy and final.
Allies in name, perhaps. Jiang Cheng had argued against Wei Wuxian showing up at the conference at all.
Wei Wuxian laughed awkwardly. “But I am sure it will be fine, just fine. I already planned on having Jiang Cheng take me home from the conference, so I was hoping I could ride with you anyway!”
“Good.” Lan Wangji paused before he added, “Insufficient disembarkation time regardless.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, then blinked again as his mood lifted. He wanted to both laugh and cry, because that had almost sounded like a joke. “Lan Zhan, were you just going to kidnap me?”
Rather than respond, Lan Wangji arranged himself in front of his guqin on the sword podium. To the bridge, he announced, “Prepare for superluminal travel.”
The bridge’s final flurry of low voices and chimes settled after only a few moments into a waiting silence. Lan Wangji met his eyes one last time, stealing away all the words that had been about to come out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth. The emotion in Lan Wangji’s pale eyes was made even more unreadable by the glossy film of Bichen-xian’s interface.
Wei Wuxian nodded, feeling like he was answering a question he didn’t understand but could not say no to. But he was also ready to go, so the nod worked for that, too.
Lifting his hands, Lan Wangji held them over his guqin as if to play.
Reality rippled. The strings of the universe rang with a song that curled unheard in the cavernous space left by Wei Wuxian’s golden core, and the stars upon the viewscreen smeared. Bichen-xian leapt from Jiangnan to Lanling, chasing fading notes through the emptiness between.