Wei Wuxian has never been a very sound sleeper, but even his dreams were never this clipped, this vivid.
He wakes in the afterlife feeling sick and shivery, shoulders quivering like guqin strings. He grapples for some clue as to where he is, what this place is, and then all at once, it is perfectly, painfully clear.
He’s in Hell.
In life, he’d imagined Hell to look something like the Burial Mounds—vast, empty, reeking of death, and oppressed by a cloud of resentment so thick that it could smother a person for an eternity. A final resting place befitting of the Yiling Patriarch, perhaps, but not for Wei Wuxian. (As if they were two separate beasts entirely, and not one in the same.)
Instead, Wei Wuxian’s Hell looks a lot like Lotus Pier, and a little bit like the Cloud Recesses, also. There’s a glimpse of a waterfall beyond the long stretch of the pier, and an all-too-familiar cold spring that leads seamlessly into a lotus pond. There are rabbits, and white peonies, and hundreds of faceless people in purple robes, and the disorienting landscape makes him tremble all over again. How cruel it is, to be reminded of these places that had once made him so happy—places that were devastated and burnt to ashes because of him. He falls to his knees, unaware that he had ever been standing.
A black figure materializes and comes to loom over him. The form stands inhumanly tall and sports a dark, hooded cloak, like a caricature of the Grim Reaper. Wei Wuxian sinks lower and presses his forehead to the ground, stomach filling with dread.
“Welcome, Young Master Wei,” floats an unexpectedly pleasant voice from somewhere over his shoulder. The reaper’s presence carries with it the smell of black nail polish and rice wine. “We are very glad to have you here. Allow me to introduce myself—I, of course, am the Grandmaster of Death, the Reaper of Souls, the Great Lord of the Afterlife. And these are my personal assistants!” The reaper gestures grandly to what can only be the bunnies hopping around at their feet, nibbling on blades of grass.
Before Wei Wuxian can even begin to parse that, his pleas are tumbling from his mouth.
“Please, make it go away,” he begs, voice cracking over the syllables. “Please, I— I know this is Hell, and it’s what I deserve, but please don’t make me live in this place. I can’t bear it. It’s—” Too perfect, he almost says, but he breaks off with a hiccupping gasp.
Death takes one look at him, at the sorry sight he must make, and bursts out laughing. “Oh, Wei Wuxian—this isn’t Hell,” the reaper tells him, a touch patronizingly. “This is your Purgatory—I designed it just for you. Don’t you like it?”
Wei Wuxian can only gape. He’s still shaking so fiercely that his vision is jumping all around, just spots and pinpricks of color.
This is Purgatory?
“Oh, and by the way—the chills should wear off soon,” Death mentions offhandedly. “After-shocks of dying. You’ll be back to normal in a jiffy.”
The reaper claps him on the shoulder, like they’re good friends, and Wei Wuxian flinches hard.
“Oh, sorry—was that rude? Should I stop? My assistants thought that you’d respond well to sarcasm and… physical touch, but I guess we got it wrong. These things happen, sometimes.” Death produces a clipboard and quickly scribbles something down. “But, by definition, this is a learning experience, right?”
“Souls enter Purgatory when they are too flawed to reach Heaven, and too pure of heart to enter Hell. Or, sometimes, they just have unfinished business,” Death explains, as Wei Wuxian trails behind on unsteady feet. His shivers have reduced to something closer to the sensation of ants running up and down his back, but it’s still distracting enough that he just stays quiet and listens. “I’d wager that yours is the latter, honestly, but it’s really too soon to say. It will all be clear soon, though. This place has a way of giving you all of the things you need. With time, you’ll find peace.” The reaper reaches up with one perfectly manicured, corpse-like hand to pluck something from a tree, then presents the fruits of labor to Wei Wuxian. “Until then—enjoy the liquor!”
Wei Wuxian accepts the jar of Emperor’s Smile that he’s handed with a numb sound of appreciation. But his thoughts are from such adolescent indulgences, from this place where realities blend together and wine grows on trees. “It wasn’t the resentment?” he asks, hoarsely and stupidly. “It wasn’t because I… learned the dark arts, and practiced demonic cultivation, that I’m here, and not…?”
“Of course not,” Death replies, sounding alarmed by the question. “The Devil has no claim over resentful energy—at least, not completely. Energy is not inherently evil; it’s the intent wherein its morality lies. Although, it is true that an excessive amount of resentment often leads to sinister acts…”
Wei Wuxian has been told differently for so long and by so many people that he should feel relieved, to have the principles that he’s held the closest to his heart so emphatically endorsed by the Grandmaster of Death. Instead, he just feels sad.
“I’ve found that this is usually a good place to start,” Death says, vaguely and without preamble—and it’s only then that Wei Wuxian realizes that he’s been led to the Jiang Clan family shrine, and that they’re not alone.
A couple kneels together at the shrine, heads bowed low in meditative reverence, and Wei Wuxian feels his heart kick up, beating jack-rabbit-fast in his chest.
The woman is the first to break from prayer. Wei Wuxian watches her fidget a little, then lift a finger to swipe several times at the delicate bubble of her nose—a gesture so familiar that Wei Wuxian feels like he’s looking straight into a mirror.
He’d never thought that he’d picked up the habit from his mother.
She turns at the sound of his laugh, just clipped noises and messy breath, and Wei Wuxian feels himself smile wider upon seeing her face than he can ever remember smiling.
“My boy,” she says, her voice syrupy-sweet to Wei Wuxian’s ears.
At her beckoning gesture, he stumbles the short distance to the alter, flushed and overeager, and kneels beside her. Cangse Sanren reaches up to hold his face between her hands, and Wei Wuxian feels her gentle warmth steep all the way into his bones.
“Look at you,” she whispers, her thumbs sweeping over his cheeks. His grin goes boyish and mega-Watt, threatening to split his face in half. “You were born with a smiling face, and look at you, now. Look at you.”
“You have brought joy to many lives with that smile,” his father says, peering soft and approving at him over his mother’s shoulder.
But the praise lands tentatively, uncertainly, over Wei Wuxian’s heart, because his next thought is—and what about all of the heartache I’ve caused? What about the devastation, the loss? What about Uncle Jiang—Madam Yu—his shijie—the Wens? What about little A-Yuan?
His grief is overwhelming, as solid and tangible a thing behind his ribs as his golden core used to be, but it isn’t the only thing. There is also this thing, this other thing, that wields a hefty sword and goes to war with his self-loathing—love.
It’s difficult to remember that, at one time, Wei Wuxian’s circle wasn’t always so small; he had siblings, and friends, and classmates, and two sets of parents who cared for him. He had a partner in crime in Jiang Cheng, a guiding light in Jiang Yanli, a trusted confidante in Lan Wangji. A friend in Wen Ning, and a beacon of hope, in the darkest years of his life, in his A-Yuan. He’s lucky. He’s so fucking lucky.
And he hardly deserves it, but he accepts it greedily, selfishly, because he will turn to ash and corpse-dust without it.
“Shijie!” He’s walking, and then jogging, and then sprinting across the pier, his heart kicking at his ribs.
She’s dressed in her wedding reds, and she looks so beautiful that Wei Wuxian could fall to his knees and weep. It reminds him, abruptly, of the last and only other time he’d seen her dressed like this—allowing himself to be snuck around by Jiang Cheng to see her before her wedding, painfully resolving himself to the fact that it would have to be good enough, if he couldn’t attend the real thing. He’d also been entrusted with the incredibly touching task of choosing his nephew’s courtesy name—Rulan, because if the boy grew to have even a fraction of Lan Wangji’s altruism and righteousness, he would surely be something great someday.
“A-Xian, do you want to dance?” Jiang Yanli asks, and she’s smiling so sweetly that Wei Wuxian can’t possibly refuse her.
He offers her his hand, then settles the other on her waist. They sway just like that for a span of time, Jiang Yanli with her ear resting against his chest, head tucked underneath his chin. Wei Wuxian wonders, somewhat nonsensically, how it is that someone so small could have such a huge presence in his life, could take up so much space in his heart.
“You asked me, once, how it felt to like another person—truly like them,” Jiang Yanli begins, pulling him from his reverie. The rich red of her garments casts her face in a gentle, pink hue. “Why did you ask me that, A-Xian?”
Wei Wuxian is amazed that he can still feel something so childish as embarrassment, as these feelings so blushing and bright on his face, after everything he’s been through.
“It was a hypothetical question,” he insists, stubbornly avoiding her eyes.
Jiang Yanli smiles at him, fondly exasperated, as if to say, You little fool.
Wei Wuxian can tell that she’s going to let it slide, but in spite of that, he finds himself wanting to keep on talking, to pick at that thread. “Shijie, who would’ve ever wanted me, anyway? I was the Yiling Patriarch—universally hated. At the time that I died, there was only one person in the world who wished me alive and well.” Wei Wuxian thinks of the lone hand that reached for him, white-clad and slippery-slick with blood, as he fell.
It fills him with a sick swell of guilt, to think of how he’d pushed Lan Wangji away so vehemently those last couple of years. How he’d been so desperate to place the distance between them before Lan Wangji could do it himself, could decide that Wei Wuxian wasn’t worth the trouble.
He hadn’t wanted to go back with him to Gusu as a problem to be fixed. He’d wanted to go with him as his friend—the two of them against the world, the way it used to be. At least, that’s how it’d felt to Wei Wuxian—seventeen and wishing on tacky lanterns, fighting evil things in caves.
“Sometimes, he— it makes me think— if someone that moral, that good, cares for me— then I might not be such a monster, after all.”
“Oh, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli says, sounding terribly sincere, “you were never a monster.”
Wei Wuxian’s lip wobbles. Tears slide and gather at the point of his chin. “But isn’t someone who has done monstrous things, by definition, a monster?”
He means it to be rhetorical, but Jiang Yanli seems to actually consider his words. After a stilted moment, she shakes her head. “No. No, A-Xian, I don’t think so,” she tells him solemnly. “I think that, sometimes, people are forced to do difficult things to protect the people they love. And, A-Xian, that is all that you have ever done.”
Wei Wuxian feels some shaky part of his heart settle back into place, just a little.
“You’re allowed to leave, you know.”
The words startle Wei Wuxian from his lethargic, half-asleep state. Lately, he has taken to lazing about in the grassy fields overlooking Yunmeng’s farmland, and today is no exception.
“You know—go out, hit the town,” Death elaborates, waving an impossibly elegant, putrefied hand in the air. “Do some good-natured haunting.”
“Hah,” Wei Wuxian says, startled into a derisive laugh. “I could think of a few people I’d like to haunt.” But the faces that his mind conjures spark no real malice or desire for revenge from him. Truthfully, he’d rather just forget them.
He’s only now beginning to realize just how much his demonic cultivation had actually affected him. For so long, even his most pleasant thoughts had been acid-washed by all of the resentment he’d carried. He feels much more at peace here, just as Death had promised him, and he’s afraid that going back to earth will only have him seeing the world through that same damaged lens again.
“I meant more like—a friendly visit,” Death clarifies, with an awkward chuckle. “Say ‘hello,’ ‘I miss you,’ ‘see you soon.’ Well, hm, maybe not that last one—that one might not be so comforting.”
Wei Wuxian considers the offer in earnest. Could he really do it—just drop in and say ‘hello,’ and ‘I miss you,’ as if no time has passed? He’s already been given so much here. And what if his presence isn’t received in the way that he so desperately wishes for—with tender acknowledgement, with reconciliation? It would hurt far too much. He couldn’t possibly bear it.
But the idea has planted itself in his mind, and it grows into a lush, addictive thing. Maybe it would be enough just to share space again, to listen in on a song, to drink in those handsome features.
Or perhaps he’d simply be content to watch his brother from afar while he struts about Lotus Pier, looking so grown up and so capable as he lovingly, determinedly, rebuilds their home.
And, in an instant, he knows—he’ll accept those scraps and morsels with greedy hands, dig through piles of rot and fight stray dogs for them. If he never gathers the courage to visit them face-to-face, then he would at least have those timid glimpses, those stolen, omniscient scenes.
Wei Wuxian props himself up on a grass-stained elbow, hair messy and sun-warmed, and gives the reaper an emphatic nod. “I think it’s a good idea,” he says simply.
His bravery comes in slow undulations, and one night, when it comes crashing onto the sandy shore of his consciousness, he acts on it.
When Wei Wuxian catches his reflection in the mirror-portal, he very nearly turns around. He looks like a thing of nightmares: ashen face, red eyes, black smoke licking at his heels. If this man, this demonic creature, is what all of the clans’ best fighters saw of him on that rooftop in the Battle of the Nightless City, then Wei Wuxian thinks he can appreciate how his story became that of a ghost story.
A gust of wind rips through the hollow of his flute, whistling as it goes. Wei Wuxian watches the figure in the bed go from sleepy-sluggish, to tense-as-a-bowstring in an instant.
Always ready for a fight, Wei Wuxian bemoans to himself, with a despondent sigh. Always so on edge. Why are you like this?
“Who’s there?” Jiang Cheng barks out into the quiet of the room, sounding as vicious as one of his dogs. “Who’s in my chambers? Show yourself!”
Wei Wuxian flees to the shadows, wills his ghostly form to disseminate, but the sudden movement snags another sharp sound from his flute and incites another ferocious sound from Jiang Chang. He’s losing his nerve fast. This was almost certainly a mistake.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng grits out, rising quickly and furiously from his bed. “If that’s you— if you’ve come back to haunt me— don’t bother.” He rubs meaningfully at the Zidian on his finger, provoking a low and menacing sizzle from it, as he drags his eyes over the room. “Go back to Hell. I never want to see your face again.”
Oh, thinks Wei Wuxian, and that’s when their eyes meet in the mirror.
The Purple Lightning whips the short distance across the room and smashes into the mirror, sending broken shards scattering everywhere. Wei Wuxian flinches like he’s been struck, all the same.
“Clan Leader Jiang! Clan Leader Jiang!” floats a chorus of voices from down the hall. A dozen pairs of footsteps come running toward the loud noise in the night, fleeing to their master’s aid.
Is that how you see me? Wei Wuxian wants to know, growing increasingly disheartened by the image in the mirror. Is that what I look like to you?
He’d expected that his visit wouldn’t be a welcome one, but the reality of it is still devastating. He would do anything for Jiang Cheng, has done everything for him, up to and including giving him the greatest piece of himself that a man can give—and still, Jiang Cheng wants him dead. Even as wretched as he feels, Wei Wuxian can understand why he hates him. Even if he hadn’t already been on the precipice of madness, losing his shijie would have driven him over the edge; and Jiang Cheng has been on the edge for so long that even Wei Wuxian can’t remember a time when he wasn’t teetering—made rickety and unstable by his anger, his jealousy, by the inherently human need to feel loved.
It won’t always be like this, he reasons. Someday, in some realm, they’ll reconcile, face the abyss together, because it’s what both of their hearts ache for. Twin hearts beating; twin brothers, Twin Heroes. A champion and his wayward shadow.
“You said that I could leave—but can I bring someone here?” Wei Wuxian rushes to get the words out, breathless and impatient.
Death lets escape a flustered noise, the surprise clear on crude features. “Bring someone here? As in—oh. Hm. No one has ever asked me that before, frankly. What an idea!”
“Yes, I’m very clever and inspired,” Wei Wuxian barrels on, with a dismissive wave. “So, Grandmaster. Can it be done?”
The face reflected back at him in the ripples of the cold spring is so, so different from the one in Jiang Cheng’s mirror.
He looks healthy and boyish again, his skin a lively hue and his eyes a gentle gray. He’s dressed in his old Gusu Lan disciple robes from his youth, white and rumpled, with his hair held back in its usual ponytail. Immediately, the image makes him feel like he should be off somewhere that he isn’t supposed to be, getting up to mischief.
From here, Lan Wangji is just a back-lit silhouette. He’s seated on the rock face by the waterfall with his guqin in his lap, his nimble fingers stirring up some sad, melancholy tune. Wei Wuxian wants to raise his hand like a student in one of Lan Qiren’s lectures and request a different song, a familiar one. His favorite one.
Unfortunately for Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji is an exceptionally skilled cultivator, and is, as such, very good at spotting ghosts. Lan Wangji’s head snaps up at whatever it is that he senses in the air, which is almost definitely the spiritual energy projecting off of Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian vanishes his spectral form, slipping seamlessly into their surroundings. He listens with bubbling nerves as Lan Wangji drags his fingers away from the chords with an aborted sound, then goes utterly, eerily still.
Will he call out? Wei Wuxian wonders, going dizzy at the prospect of hearing his voice.
Instead, he hears the familiar chords of “Inquiry” float across the water.
Damn. This is really not how Wei Wuxian had pictured this going. Lan Wangji’s “Inquiry” is strong enough that he’ll have to answer completely and truthfully to whatever he’s asked; if it comes to that, there’s no way that he won’t expose himself.
Even though he’s expecting it, the first question still feels like an assault—strikes him like the whip-crack of the Zidian, fast and ruthless. How did you die?
Wei Wuxian is defenseless against the interrogation. The answer spills out of him, dribbles from his chin like a messy gulp of wine. I fell.
He is suddenly grateful that he’s too far away to see whatever look falls over Lan Wangji’s face.
The next question is sloppier, the pull of strings more frantic, but is just as powerful. Who are you?
Rather than answer him directly, Wei Wuxian summons all of his spiritual energy back from the earth, from the dirt and trees and sunlight, and materializes, for the second time, in the clearing opposite Lan Wangji. Only this time, he puts on his best smile, raises a hand, and waves.
“This place,” Lan Wangji begins, sounding dimly awed, “is Yunmeng… and Gusu?”
Wei Wuxian coughs. “I think it can be anything we want it to be,” he answers evasively. He feels exposed in a way that he hadn’t anticipated, bringing Lan Wangji here—like he’s left his heart out on display, beating bright in every detail of the landscape. “I always wanted to bring you to Lotus Pier, before it…” He finds himself suddenly unable to finish the sentiment, the emotion thick in his throat.
When Lan Wangji speaks up again, it isn’t in line with any topic of conversation that Wei Wuxian had been expecting. “Why did you let me perform ‘Inquiry’ on you?”
The question stirs up something shameful and self-conscious inside of him. “Hm,” Wei Wuxian says, stalling. “Maybe I was just… biding my time. Waiting for the right moment.” He pointedly looks away, feels his palms go sweaty. “Maybe I was… nervous about seeing you.”
It’s been so long since he’s felt that even gaze on him that the intensity of it now takes him a little by surprise. For so much of his life, he had wanted those eyes on him—had done such absurd, silly things in Lan Wangji’s presence in the hopes that they might catch on him, might fancy him something nice to look at.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what his death, what their time apart, has done to Lan Wangji—just knows that it burns, hot and corrosive, in his own gut. Has left him hollowed out, nearly concave. But, for the first time since he’s died, he feels like he might finally be able to put that fire out—to beat it down into something manageable, waning sparks and embers. He wants to enjoy this time with Lan Wangji, however short and fleeting, and think of nothing else, nothing but him.
“Lan Zhan, I— I don’t want to talk about anything difficult today,” he admits, wringing out his hands. He lets his smile say all of the other things that he can’t—words that dissolve on his tongue, that catch on his teeth, too honest and frightening to sling into the open air—please, accept this; accept me. “Just— let me show you a good time, okay?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to know what it says about him that even the people in his Purgatory—artificially engineered souls, figments of his imagination—are clearly taken with Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian sends Lan Wangji to claim a picnic table while he orders them two bowls of soup from a street cart—lotus root and pork rib soup, because this is Wei Wuxian’s afterlife, and it simply couldn’t be anything else.
When he presents the food to Lan Wangji, he can’t help but rave about it—about how much he’ll like it, how good it smells, just like his shijie’s. At his insistence, Lan Wangji leans forward and takes a shallow inhale over his bowl, at the savory-smelling steam wafting from it, and Wei Wuxian delights in how his face lights up ever-so-slightly with interest.
“Smells good,” Lan Wangji confirms, in that prim, monosyllabic way of his that Wei Wuxian has missed so much. Wei Wuxian still cannot fathom how someone so boring, so stuffy, can possibly make him so happy; and yet.
Just then, the street cart owner’s daughters rush over to bring Lan Wangji—and Lan Wangji alone—some more napkins, giggling so much that Wei Wuxian feels an involuntarily shudder of secondhand embarrassment roll down his spine. They retreat quickly, but the exchange still triggers something painfully awkward in him, and he can only hope that it doesn’t show on his face.
Lan Wangji stares down at the excessive stack of napkins, bemused.
“Ha ha, Lan Zhan—so many admirers, even here? But I guess it’s not that surprising…”
Lan Wangji slants him an imploring look, so Wei Wuxian feels obligated to expand.
“You’ve got a certain… you’re rather…” Oh, fuck it. “You’re attractive. Did you know that?”
If Wei Wuxian looks closely—and he does—there’s a nearly imperceptible twitch of an eyebrow, a heat that flees to the very tips of Lan Wangji’s ears. Either this is news to Lan Wangji, which simply can’t be true, or news to him that Wei Wuxian thinks so.
Wei Wuxian inhales a heaping spoonful of the spicy broth, his mouth burning, and gracelessly clears his throat. “Anyway—I want to show you something,” he says, uncertainty creeping into his voice, “as soon as you finish your soup. Jeez, you’re a slow eater.”
Lan Wangji frowns at him, looking very much like he would be rolling his eyes, if he were the type of person to do that sort of thing.
Wei Wuxian tries to imagine Lan Wangji actually rolling his eyes at someone as he finishes off his bowl. He has nice eyes—a sort of honey-brown, like terracotta. He’s spent a lot of time looking at them, so he knows them well. They’re very expressive, and also, at times, very sassy, even if Lan Wangji has never rolled them.
He ponders this some more as Lan Wangji eats in silence, but, soon enough, Wei Wuxian is growing pouty and restless in his seat, yawning and stretching, chin in his hands and then on the table—not so unlike how he’d behaved in Lan Qiren’s classes so long ago.
The instant Lan Wangji’s spoon hits the table, Wei Wuxian is on his feet. He’s all too eager to drag Lan Wangji away from the picnic area and back toward the canal.
“Lan Zhan, I’m going to take you somewhere. But you can’t look. It’s a surprise,” Wei Wuxian tells him, leaving very little room for debate. He reaches slowly for Lan Wangji’s headband. He searches his gaze for any flicker of annoyance, of disapproval, but finds none. “Do you trust me?”
There’s a short but full pause before Lan Wangji answers. “Of course,” he says firmly, like they’re talking about more than just a traipse through Lotus Pier.
Wei Wuxian nods, swallowing thickly. He lowers the ribbon over his eyes, watches the obvious devotion in Lan Wangji’s eyes disappear beneath it. The ribbon is too loose to serve as a blindfold, so he has to reach around to the back of his head to tighten it, knuckles grazing soft, black hair as he pulls the ends taut. For a fleeting moment, he feels Lan Wangji’s breath against his cheek.
He remembers a time when just touching his headband would set Lan Wangji off—so much that he’d actually left the archery competition early, and then refused to speak to Wei Wuxian for days afterward. Not that they’d been speaking much before that, but it had still stung. Wei Wuxian had been practically tripping over himself to become his friend, back then. He’d wanted nothing more than to reel him into his circle, to rile him up—so childishly infatuated that even the negative attention had been welcome.
“Alright,” Wei Wuxian declares, stepping back to admire his work, “you’re properly blind now. Let’s go!” He wraps his hand loosely around Lan Wangji’s, with a tentativeness that goes in direct contradiction with his bright tone. A beat later, he feels Lan Wangji grip back.
Emboldened, Wei Wuxian tugs on his hand and begins to lead him through the streets of Yunmeng. People stare openly at them, but not unkindly. Wei Wuxian is aware, in a distant way, that they are making a bit of a spectacle, and that he would probably feel much more embarrassed about this if they were actually in Yunmeng and amongst real, living people. He imagines how those people might react—what they would think upon seeing the infamous Yiling Patriarch steer the revered Hanguang-jun, blindfolded, around street carts and hordes of children, stumbling and giggling at every huff and grunt that he gets for his efforts.
He pulls Lan Wangji up to the edge of the dock. “Watch your step,” he says, being vaguely foreboding and cheeky on purpose. He reaches for Lan Wangji’s elbow, though, preparing to steady him.
Lan Wangji allows the tip of his shoe to teeter over the side of the dock and, feeling nothing beneath it, wrinkles his forehead and steps back into Wei Wuxian. “We are… getting on a boat?” he says, sounding endearingly confused.
“We are,” Wei Wuxian answers patiently. He feels a pull of affection for him so strong in that moment that it nearly knocks the wind out of him.
Lan Wangji frowns. “Isn’t the point of a boat ride to look at things?”
“Oh, Lan Zhan. Silly, lovely Lan Wangji,” he singsongs. “The boat isn’t the surprise.”
Lan Wangji still looks doubtful, but he graciously allows himself to be commandeered by Wei Wuxian for the rest of the way.
The surprise isn’t a place, either; in fact, there isn’t even really a thing that Wei Wuxian wants to show him at all. But he still wants to take Lan Wangji somewhere special, quiet, for what he’s about to do.
He tugs on Lan Wangji’s hand to encourage him to sit down next to him, the grass underneath them pleasant and sun-warmed, and props him up against a tree. It hangs low, as most of them do, with loquats and jars of wine. Satisfied, he pulls out Chenqing.
He lets the fluttery, bittersweet notes of his flute reign over the hilltops of Yunmeng. In death, he’d discovered that his music could be sweet and indulgent—something for pleasure rather than killing, something that wouldn’t send everyone around him running and screaming for help. Something that makes the bunnies want to gather around him instead of the vultures.
Slowly, hesitantly, Lan Wangji lifts his blindfold. Wei Wuxian’s mouth curves upward of its own accord, rendering his tune gauche and awkward for a few unsteady moments, but he rallies quickly, finds playing all the easier when he’s not looking right at Lan Wangji’s face.
It’s a messy rendition, but it does the trick. When he tapers off with a theatrical skip of his fingers, laughter spilling into his mouthpiece, Lan Wangji is staring at him with open astonishment.
“I’ve heard you playing this, sometimes, when I—” Wei Wuxian stops himself short, suddenly and inexplicably embarrassed by the near admission. He adds, clumsily, “When you play it on your guqin—the song—it always sounds really beautiful. And I remember—you, you sung it for me, too. In the cave, after… Well, I thought that it might sound nice on the flute, but it doesn’t even compare, really.” He huffs a slightly cynical laugh. “That’s what I get for trying to be on Second Young Master Lan’s level, I guess—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji cuts him off sharply, so ill-mannered and unlike himself that it gives Wei Wuxian pause instantly. “You have visited me before?”
Wei Wuxian swallows. Of course, he has. It should have been obvious, so Wei Wuxian doesn’t bother to say as much.
“Lan Zhan,” he says stubbornly, “I thought we agreed—no difficult topics.”
Lan Wangji’s expression hardens. “Wei Ying—”
“You never told me what the name of the song was,” he loudly interjects, picking up their earlier thread. He places a hand on Lan Wangji’s knee, as if to say, Enough.
Lan Wangji stares at him in quiet, scandalized disbelief.
Wei Wuxian ventures a guess. “You composed it?”
Lan Wangji huffs and looks away. He nods once, short and clipped.
“I thought so,” Wei Wuxian says, with a satisfied exhale, and doesn’t know why the confirmation makes him smile. “What is it called? Lan Zhan, Lan-er-gege, you have to tell me,” he pleads, whiny and obnoxious, juvenile.
He watches Lan Wangji’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallows, clearly mulling it over. Wei Wuxian starts to feel a little guilty for pushing, then thinks, What’s the big deal?
“‘WangXian.’” Lan Wangji turns back to face him, lifts his chin determinedly to meet his eyes. The look that he gives him makes Wei Wuxian feel absolutely feral, his heart a wild and untamed thing behind his ribcage. “I named it after us.”
Once upon a time, Wei Wuxian’s heart had grown so heavy that it’d dragged him bodily from a precipice in the Nightless City, and he’d fallen so far and for so long that he’d thought he’d actually made it to Hell.
But now, he floats, featherlight, like a wayward balloon, gripping onto Lan Wangji’s hand to pull him along for the ride. He’s never heard of any spell that can do this—make their bodies climb higher and higher into the sky like they’re filled with helium, like they weigh nothing at all. He watches the clouds scatter and part for them, surveys Lan Wangji’s face for any signs of distress, but finds none. In fact, he seems just as charmed and dumbfounded as Wei Wuxian is, at being plucked out of the grass as if by giant, invisible hands. It’s almost like flying on a sword again, is the first thing that Wei Wuxian thinks—and as soon as the idea flits through his mind, it materializes: a dozen swords come drifting up from somewhere below as if he had called for them personally, purposefully.
Wei Wuxian leaps between them the way a frog hops between lily pads, giddy and grinning and feeling none of his twenty-something years. They’re so high up that the sky has turned a dark, unpolluted blue, and Wei Wuxian feels like he could reach out and touch the stars—so he tries, does. He wraps his fingers around the tiny, twinkling ball of light, lets it burn bright and red in his palm, vibrating like it’s about to go nova. Growing wary of it, he lobs it at Lan Wangji, as casually as he had tossed him that loquat from the boat so many years ago in Caiyi Town, remembering how he’d encouraged all of the girls along the docks to do the same. Lan Wangji holds the star in his hands with such grave, childlike reverence that it makes Wei Wuxian want to dissolve into giggles, but before he can, their little friend turns a brilliant, blinding white and shoots off into the darkness.
Wei Wuxian bossily commands the swords to rearrange themselves into a straight line, and they obey him readily, instantaneously. Sucking in a breath, he starts to creep along them slowly like a tightrope, arms spread wide, determined yet wobbly, playful. He feels enthralled by everything at the moment, thrilled by everything that this world has to offer. Why hadn’t he ever made Jiang Cheng do this with him when they were kids? he wonders, impulsively and haphazardly, and for once lets his reminiscence take him somewhere fond and nostalgic instead of tragic.
Then, his foot slips.
“Lan Zhan, catch me!” he cries.
They both know that there’s no real danger, not in this place, but Lan Wangji is there on his sword so quickly, and holding him against him so soundly, that Wei Wuxian has no choice but to throw his head back and laugh, all of his musings temporarily forgotten.
“My hero!” he says, patting Lan Wangji on the cheek. He’s being so obvious that he’s even starting to embarrass himself, but what is pride, anyway, when you’re dead?
“Mm,” is all that Lan Wangji deigns that with, but his grip on him stays firm, and his ears are pink.
Wei Wuxian revels in this for as long as he feels is acceptable, and then a little bit longer, before finally taking mercy on him. “Lan Zhan, let’s go back down,” he suggests, reaching up to finger-comb a few windblown tangles in Lan Wangji’s hair.
Lan Wangji nods, still looking slightly ruffled despite Wei Wuxian’s efforts, and begins their lengthy descent back to solid ground.
Wei Wuxian walks Lan Wangji back to the outermost gates, as per Death’s instructions, where a mirror-portal has been set up for Lan Wangji to return through. The silence that falls over them feels heavy, full, but with what, Wei Wuxian doesn’t know. He puts on his bravest face.
“Thank you for your company,” Wei Wuxian tells him, sounding oddly formal even to his own ears. He recalls saying those same words to Lan Wangji another time, too—at the Burial Mounds, seeing him off after a long afternoon spent together in town with Wen Yuan. He still remembers how, afterward, his heart had felt half-full rather than half-empty, trudging along on his single-plank bridge, for the first time in a long while.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji scolds him softly, like it’s the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard.
There are so many things that Wei Wuxian wants to tell him. He wants to say that he’s sorry, that he’s grateful—that because of him, and the hand that he’d extended to him, Wei Wuxian had been able to plunge to his death with a smile on his face. He wants Lan Wangji to understand why he did it—why he had to stray from the path of light, had to save the Wens, had to save his brother. He wants to tell him everything, to press all of his feelings to Lan Wangji’s mouth, but he supposes that it wouldn’t really matter if he did now, one way or the other. It wouldn’t change anything.
“Farewell, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers, and salutes him with a bravado that he hadn’t thought himself capable of at the present. But it drains from him quickly. “You remember the promise that we made to each other, right?” he asks, with a watery smile. “To always stand with justice, and to live with no regrets?”
Lan Wangji looks like Wei Wuxian has just slapped him across the face. “Wei Ying,” he says, his voice brittle. “Of course, I remember.”
Wei Wuxian only nods, his throat going tight. He looks down at the ground, at his dirt-caked shoes, even at the mirror-portal thrumming beside them—anywhere but Lan Wangji’s face. “That’s good. That’s good,” he says numbly.
Strong hands land on his waist. Wei Wuxian blinks up at Lan Wangji, startled. He watches his mouth open and close, but no words are forthcoming. After a long, suspended silence, Wei Wuxian stands up straighter and grips his arms.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, syllables crumbling to graveyard-dust in his mouth, “you have to leave.” Such were the conditions of Lan Wangji’s visit to Purgatory—this would be a short, one-time occurrence.
Before Lan Wangji can stick him with another heartbroken look, Wei Wuxian leans up, kisses his cheek, and pushes him back into the mirror.
“Get out of your feelings,” Wen Qing scolds him, like the bossier, meaner older sister that Wei Wuxian never had.
Wei Wuxian scoffs, sprawling even more melodramatically on the cool tiles of the roof. “I am not in my feelings. I am in a lovely silk nightgown, enjoying some wine under the stars, thinking of absolutely nothing and no one,” he says snottily.
From the ground level, Wen Qing clicks her tongue at him, as ruthless as ever. “Yeah, whatever you say. Come down and drink some water, lover boy.”
“Why should I?” he fires back. “Can you even get hangovers in the afterlife?” He tosses his head back and waterfalls from his jar. Then: “Hey! ‘Lover boy’? Is that any way to address the fearsome Yiling Patriarch?”
Wen Qing pretends to clear her throat. She offers him a syrupy-sweet smile. “Sorry. Come and drink some water, Great Lord of Evil.”
A laugh bursts from him, then, so sudden and so raucous that he nearly goes rolling off of the roof.
“Who ever thought that was a good title? Honestly,” he chides, wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes. He stumbles into another, quieter laugh before he can squash it, feels the alcohol slosh around in his stomach.
Wen Qing lets out a soft sigh.
“Really, are you okay?” she calls up at him, still looking slightly harassed. “I just wanted to come and check on you, after…”
After he left, is what she means.
“Mm, I told you, Wen Qing-jie. My head is completely empty,” Wei Wuxian says, letting his words go a bit slurry. In truth, he feels close to brimming, like his heartache could fill up an entire lake. But it would be selfish to pour all of that grief onto her, when he knows that she already has so much of her own.
“You still haven’t seen Wen Ning here, have you?” Wei Wuxian asks her, miserably and apropos of nothing.
Wen Qing only stares at him, looking pained, but Wei Wuxian hears her answer loud and clear.
An ugly, wretched thing unleashes inside of him. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry,” he says wetly. He thinks of that soft, stuttering boy, fiercely loyal until the very end. “I ruined your brother’s chance at finding peace.”
Another realization dawns, and his beasts of burden grow teeth and claws in his chest. “A-Yuan,” he gasps. “Has he— have you—”
Death arrives just then in a whirlwind of black robes and chaotic charm.
“Young Master Wei, great news! You’re being summoned!”
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian asks, feeling thick-witted. Then, he brightens. “Oh, do you mean—do the rabbits need me?”
Death gives a hearty chuckle, then levels him with a fond look. “No, Wei Wuxian. I meant summoned—quite literally.”
It is not the hero’s return that Lan Wangji had foolishly imagined.
There is a donkey, and an evil, spirit-snatching statue, and—most regrettably—Jiang Wanyin and his ill-behaved nephew are there.
Wei Wuxian had come to him like the sweetest apparition so many years ago, lured by the song of “Inquiry,” and taken him to Purgatory—and even that had been a far less chaotic affair.
Lan Wangji can tell just from looking at him that he’s tired. This body, Mo Xuanyu’s body, must not have the endurance, nor the spiritual energy, that Wei Wuxian’s own once had.
He suggests spending the night at an inn when they pass through the next village between Dafan Mountain and Gusu. The junior disciples are easily agreeable, and Wei Wuxian is persuaded with only a little bit of fanfare.
Lan Wangji orders one room for the both of them—and another for the juniors—because he suspects that neither of them really want to be out of each other’s sight for even the short overnight. While he coordinates with the host, Wei Wuxian enthusiastically arranges with the kitchen staff for their meals and three jars of wine to be sent up to their room—as if Lan Wangji had any doubts about it truly being him.
Wei Wuxian is the same, in so many ways, but still a world away from who he was in Purgatory; that familiar fog of resentment is back, slinking behind his eyes and twisting his words into ones sharper than he means.
“Just one room? Hanguang-jun, aren’t you being a little presumptuous?” he wisecracks, right in front of the juniors. Choked noises rise up from the group. “I know I said earlier that you were my type, but…”
Lan Wangji’s hand reaches of its own accord for the handle of Bichen—like he’s seventeen again, and ready to sword-fight Wei Wuxian at the slightest hint of teasing.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen. “Ah. Ah! Lan Z— Hanguang-jun!” He pitches himself into the circle of white-clad teenagers, squawking and spluttering. “I was just kidding! I’m just a madman, remember? Ha ha. Please, spare me!” He blinks innocently up at him from behind Lan Sizhui’s shoulders.
Lan Wangji ignores him in favor of acknowledging the junior disciples. “Be downstairs at five for breakfast,” he instructs.
The chorus of voices comes several moments later, when he’s already ascending the stairs. “Y-Yes, Hanguang-jun!”
Lan Wangji pauses halfway up to listen in on the ensuing chaos, out of sight but still within hearing range.
“Jeez, Mo Xuanyu—you’ve got a lot of nerve,” Lan Jingyi says, in a tone that suggests that he is not impressed.
“Master Mo, can you please let go of my shoulders now?” Lan Sizhui asks politely.
Lan Wangji finally gives in to the pull at his lips, and he lets his smile stay there all the way up to their room.
When Wei Wuxian finally joins him upstairs, carrying a tray piled high with food and liquor, he has the nerve to actually look sheepish.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he calls faintly. “Are you mad at me? Please, don’t be mad at me.”
Lan Wangji turns to look at him from where he is seated at the table, polishing Bichen. His mouth is doing something wayward again, but he sees no reason to temper it. “I am not mad,” he says.
Wei Wuxian breaks into a brilliant grin. “Oh, good. You had me worried for a second, there.” He crosses the room in shorter strides than Lan Wangji is used to and settles down opposite him at the table. “Um, I brought food,” he says, somewhat superfluously. “I took too long downstairs, so I offered the servants to just take it up myself.” There’s a noisy clatter of china as he begins to divvy out their portions.
“Chivalrous,” Lan Wangji remarks, sheathing an attractively glinting Bichen.
Wei Wuxian’s mouth falls open, just a little. “Are you teasing me? Lan Zhan, did you just tease me?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t deign that with a response, per se, but he does let his hands brush gratuitously, meaningfully, over Wei Wuxian’s as he accepts the bowl of hearty stew that he’s passed.
“Lan Zhan, since you’re feeling so good-humored—will you be drinking with me tonight?”
In a fit of inspiration, Lan Wangji lifts up his sleeves and reaches for one of the jars of wine, then for a bowl. Wei Wuxian watches him with rapt attention as he uncaps the jar and pours the liquor neatly into the bowl, then slides it back, after much anticipation, across to table to Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian grins at the deception. “Chivalrous,” he echoes, with the same coquettish arrogance of a man who’d once shot five arrows at once, blindfolded, and landed all of them perfectly on their targets.
It has been too long, Lan Wangji thinks, since he has felt this alive.
His mind has been singing, He’s here, he’s here, for the better part of the day, and even still, it hasn’t stopped—a constant litany of breathless relief in his head.
But there are too many things that still need to be said, conversations still to be had, so Lan Wangji eats, and rolls the questions around on his tongue.
“Mo Xuanyu summoned you to this body?” he asks Wei Wuxian, once his chopsticks have hit the table. It’s a struggle to concentrate, especially now that they’re both finally out of harm’s way, and alone, and all that Lan Wangji has to occupy his mind is the elation of a sixteen-year-long wait, come to an end.
“Mm, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. Upon finishing his own meal, he had made his way around to Lan Wangji’s side of the table, drink in hand, and perched right on the dark mahogany. “He used the Sacrifice Summon. Surprised it worked, but apparently, he got really into the dark arts before he died. He brought me here to take revenge on his family.” Wei Wuxian’s eyes go from carefree and wine-glossed, to heavy and dark in an instant. “They abused him. I don’t feel sorry for them.” He takes a long swig from the jar and swipes angrily at his mouth. “I was happy to do it.”
Lan Wangji grabs him by the wrist when he tries to stand. Wei Wuxian slants him a prickly look, his eyes jumpy and sharp, searching, but grudgingly allows Lan Wangji to tug him back down. Lan Wangji makes quick time of untying the fabric around his wrist, pushing a dark sleeve up and away to reveal the fading scars on his forearm. One open wound remains, red and angry-looking against his pale skin.
“Hey, watch it. I have delicate wrists in this body,” Wei Wuxian grouses, when Lan Wangji rotates his arm to examine the lacerations more closely.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji breathes out through his nose, tries to keep his voice even. “It is not a joke.”
“Oh? You don’t think it’s funny?” Wei Wuxian says, low and mean. He yanks his wrist away, and Lan Wangji’s hands fall heavily to his lap. “You don’t think it’s ironic that, sixteen years later, the Yiling Patriarch is still who people call on to do their bidding for them? To exact their revenge? I was completely worthless, then, when everyone only wanted my Stygian Tiger Amulet, but now—” A laugh rips through him, hollow and guttural. “—now, I’m so useful, right?”
“Your resentful energy is affecting your temperament,” Lan Wangji says, firm but nonjudgmental. He makes a sweeping gesture, and his guqin appears in his lap.
Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue. “And here you are—ready to play me a song. This feels familiar, doesn’t it?”
Lan Wangji bristles.
“I don’t know why you’d bother,” he drawls, like Lan Wangji is a puzzle that he’s trying to figure out. “You already know that ‘Clarity’ doesn’t work on me.” He takes another long pull of drink from the jar, smoke curling around his fingernails.
“I did not intend to use ‘Clarity,’” Lan Wangji says, his hands shaking. The resentment is so thick in the air that it’s starting to make his lungs sick. How did this spiral out of control so quickly?
“How many times, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks, dropping his chin to meet his eyes. A flash of red around his pupils. “How many times are you going to try to take me back to Gusu?”
As many as it takes, comes his answer, fierce and incontestable, in the form of a song. Their song.
Lan Wangji pours all of his spiritual energy into his fingers, lets it steep into the soft, sentimental notes of “WangXian” as he plucks at the strings of his guqin, glowing faintly blue under his ministrations.
Wei Wuxian gives a hiccupping gasp, like he’s been struck in chest, and Lan Wangji watches the fight drain from him like a stab wound—slowly, and then all at once.
“Breathe,” he tells him.
Wei Wuxian nods, clutching over his sternum, as Lan Wangji’s spiritual energy settles over him. The red flees from his eyes, making a hasty retreat to whatever dark place it had come from, just as he is bringing the song to a lulling end.
Satisfied, Lan Wangji settles in to begin the process of waiting patiently for Wei Wuxian to return to him. When he eventually does, it will be for the second time that day.
“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian says, quietly and with feeling.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees. He reaches up to claim the fist curled loosely over Wei Wuxian’s chest. He unfurls each of the fingers, one by one.
“Lan Zhan,” he starts again, shakily, “I thought you despised my fun-loving temperament. I thought you’d be glad to finally be rid of me and my ridiculous antics.” Wei Wuxian sighs softly, then, like even he doesn’t believe the preposterous things that he’s saying. “You know, if you really missed me that much, you could just say so.”
“I missed you,” Lan Wangji says, without missing a beat. He sounds far too earnest even to his own ears, but it’s been sixteen years, and the time that they’ve lost, still hanging somewhere between that cliff’s edge at the Nightless City and the graveyard-dust of the Burial Mounds, is sobering enough to make him speak freely.
Wei Wuxian only stares at him, slack-jawed. His expression is one of muted wonder, and Lan Wangji suddenly needs to see it up close.
Lan Wangji pulls himself to his knees to regard him at eye level. It’s a different face, but the way that Wei Wuxian looks at him is still the same: like he could just sit and admire him, chin in his hands, the way he had when they were only classmates—when he would send papermen to waddle over to Lan Wangji’s desk to poke and wave at him, while his shufu blew another vein in his forehead.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, suddenly looking very sober. “I… I just said such awful things to you.”
Lan Wangji rests a hand on Wei Wuxian’s knee. He curls his fingers around the tendons, presses his fingertips to the soft skin of the back of his knee, and tries to make his eyes say—it’s alright; stay. With his other hand, he drags a thumb over the smooth patch of skin just below one of his eyelids, over the apples of his cheeks, where his skin has gone lovely and pink from the alcohol. He drops his gaze to his mouth, parted just enough to slip a coin inside, and imagines pressing the whorl of his fingerprint there, too.
“At the Battle of the Nightless City, I wasn’t by your side,” Lan Wangji says. He wishes that he was better at this, at speaking with all of the unbridled passion that Wei Wuxian deserves. “I have my regret.” Wei Wuxian’s features become impossibly softer. “From now on, I will always stand beside you.”
To his surprise, Wei Wuxian lets out a despairing little gurgle and a groan. “Lan Zhan! Why are you being so nice to me?” he demands. His face has gone a bit splotchy. Lan Wangji thinks he might even look a little teary. “It’s… unnerving! It’s not right!”
Lan Wangji is, admittedly, a little thrown by his reaction. He allows himself a matchstick’s time to choose his next words. “Just you, being here with me, is more than I could ever—”
“Stop! You’re making it worse!” Wei Wuxian wails.
When he finally understands what he means—that Wei Wuxian isn’t actually upset, but helplessly touched—Lan Wangji is defenseless against the smile that assails him. He gathers Wei Wuxian’s hair into a loose bundle to toss over his shoulder, then presses his mouth to the skin he’s exposed, right where neck meets jaw, just a light pressure.
“Lan Zhan,” he exhales, his pulse jumping. Wei Wuxian pushes his head away, a tad forcefully, and before Lan Wangji can feel disappointed about that, he’s being dragged in between Wei Wuxian’s legs and kissed, square on the mouth.
The kiss is chaste, close-mouthed, too emotional to be anything else—until Lan Wangji’s hand curls around the back of his knee again, yanks him forward, and then it isn’t. Wei Wuxian grabs him by the collar and makes a greedy noise, hauling him closer to the table until the side of it digs into his skin, hard enough to bruise.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji tries to say, breaking the kiss, but Wei Wuxian only tilts his head the other way and goes back in.
After a few indulgent moments, he tries again, and this time, when they separate, Wei Wuxian laughs.
“Wow, Mo Xuanyu is so lucky. Even Wei Wuxian never got to kiss Lan Wangji like this,” he prattles, his grin going bright and lopsided.
Lan Wangji sighs, all messy breath. “Ridiculous,” he says, because he is.
Wei Wuxian slants him an amused look when Lan Wangji stumbles getting up. “Lan Zhan,” he says, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet by him a moment later. “I think this sort of goes without saying now, but I— I really am happy that I’m going back to Gusu with you.” He aims a guilty stare at Lan Wangji’s shoes. “Please, don’t listen to what I said earlier. I was just— I was—”
“I know,” Lan Wangji says, but Wei Wuxian plows on.
“I always want to go where you go. I like you so much, Lan Zhan,” he says, in that easy, earnest way of his. He grips his hands. “Did you know that, too?”
Lan Wangji looks away, swallows. “I do now,” he says.
Wei Wuxian smiles, brilliant and effervescent, and Lan Wangji can’t keep his eyes away any longer. He doesn’t know why he spent so much of his adolescence trying to dodge that smile. If he hadn’t, they might have—he surely would have—what?—fallen in love with him? How foolish. He’d gone and done that, anyway.
They arrive in Gusu one night later, after a long day of travelling by foot for Little Apple’s sake, because Wei Wuxian had flatly refused to part with him.
Once they’re settled in and well-rested, Lan Wangji goes to Songfeng Shuiyue Pavilion to give his brother a report about the incident on Dafan Mountain. But his unease about the soul-snatching statue is tempered significantly by the comfort and catharsis of having Wei Wuxian back, and he wears his feelings openly enough that Lan Xichen notices, too.
“You seem delighted to have him here,” Lan Xichen says candidly, like Lan Wangji has many friends who trail him around the Cloud Recesses wearing dark robes and wide smiles. “Who is he? How did you meet?”
Lan Wangji debates the merits of keeping his knowledge to himself, but only for a moment. Truthfully, he’s eager to say the words aloud—to speak their truth into existence. “Brother.” He meets his even gaze. “It is Wei Ying.”
His brother’s face flashes with immediate, fond understanding. But, too soon, his expression wavers. “Wangji—how can you be certain?” The that you can trust him hangs unsaid, but he hears the accusation loud and clear.
Lan Wangji unconsciously stands straighter. “Because I know him. I know him as I know myself.” He knows him as he knows all of the rules presiding over the Cloud Recesses, too: by heart, and carved into him like stone. He could recite him like a song, could pluck the very essence of him from the strings of his guqin—could conjure him in his mind’s eye in such excruciating detail that the rest of the world would seem gritty and poorly resolved by comparison.
Lan Xichen appears to be at a loss for words. His mouth opens and closes several times before he speaks again. “He has confessed?”
“He doesn’t need to,” Lan Wangji answers, sharper than he means to. When it comes to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has always wanted too harshly, too fiercely, and now that he finally has him again, he just feels overprotective and raw.
Lan Xichen seems to accept his answer, at last. He nods, his expression going softer around the edges. “I believe you, Wangji,” he tells him, serious until he suddenly isn’t. “And I am pleased for you.”
A head pokes through the sliding entrance doors, then, curious and catlike.
“Ah—Zewu-jun.” Wei Wuxian stumbles into a bow when Lan Xichen turns toward him. “I’m sorry to intrude. I was just looking for Hanguang-jun…”
“No need to apologize, Master Wei,” Lan Xichen says neutrally, effectively freezing Wei Wuxian in place.
With the slightly obscure divider between them, shielding Lan Wangji from his line of sight, Wei Wuxian still appears ignorant to the fact that he is in the room.
Lan Wangji hears the wince in his voice. “Ah. So, Zewu-jun has recognized me.”
Lan Xichen gives him a thin smile. “Actually, I was just informed by Wangji,” he says, gesturing unassumingly.
Wei Wuxian steps further into the room, his eyes scanning. When they land on Lan Wangji’s face, he considerably brightens. “Ah, there you are!”
All of the softness that Lan Wangji feels flees to his mouth, curving into an instinctive smile. “Wei Ying. What did you need?”
The question seems to catch him off guard. “Oh. Um! Nothing, really, I guess.” Wei Wuxian rubs the back of his neck, looking almost—shy. “Just. Um. Good morning.”
Wei Wuxian still has not grown out of his habit of sleeping in late, and Lan Wangji feels suddenly compelled to point out this fact. He schools his expression into one of impassivity.
“Good afternoon,” he replies smoothly. Just to be contrary, and because Wei Wuxian will love it.
“Oh, ha ha, uh—wait, did you just make a joke?” Wei Wuxian juts his chin at Lan Xichen, reeling him into their childish antics. “Did your brother just make a joke?”
“I’m sure Wangji wouldn’t do that,” Lan Xichen says, feigning seriousness.
Later, when they wander off into the back hills to feed their rabbits, Lan Wangji is reminded of another place, an impossible place, where pink lotuses met white peonies and the trees bloomed with Emperor’s Smile. And Wei Wuxian had looked just as alive there, too, but somehow, this is sweeter. This is better.