After the lines of blood on his back mends and heals, after he sheds months of the cold caverns' silent embrace, after everything, Lan Wangji walks.
He walks out into a world that won a war against evil - Against the tyranny of the Wens and then the darkness of the Yiling Patriarch's grasp. The world is safe, and the men who saved it sits on thrones of gold as the Cultivation world rebuilds and blooms around them.
Lan Wangji walks through impoverished towns and roads littered with the husks of villages that are no more. He fights demons and men who prey on the weak, lays to rest soul after soul because the dead were sometimes too many and the people had too little to bury them properly. He thinks that for a world that won a war, it bears so much more scars than blessings - Thinks it an injustice and thinks of a vow made long ago, the only thing he has left of a friend.
And so Lan Wangji walks, wields his sword for the living and plays his guqin for the dead. He upholds justice, protects the weak.
He lives with regrets.
Hanguang-Jun, the Cultivation world calls him, as months pass and Lan Wangji walks on, his sword and the notes of his guqin cutting a path across the realm. The Bearer of Light, always where the chaos is.
Lan Wangji wants to tell them that it is not a hard thing to do - That beyond the neat, paper-thin screen of one's surroundings, chaos is everywhere. Walk far enough, look closely enough, and one is bound to find disparities and skewed balances. To really look, to really do something once you comprehend the imbalance of what you've seen is not supposed to be some great deed worthy of praise.
But has that not always been the problem? That too many simply prefer not to look for themselves, to trust blindly in other people's words and do nothing but follow a pointed finger?
Had that not been what ultimately led them to all that blood, to all that loss, that day in the Nightless City?
Lan Wangji blinks slowly, feels rather than comprehends the clink of porcelain set before him, his brother's familiar presence and the faint sandalwood scent of his home.
"Forgive me, Xiongzhang," he says, to Xichen's quiet, understanding smile.
"As I said, Uncle is worried that you're spending so much time outside of the Cloud Recesses," Brother's words are careful across him, placed like weiqi stones in the silence of the Jingshi.
"Have submitted reports of the cases and done the syllabus for the junior classes," Lan Wangji says flatly, "There is no cause for concern."
There is a small huff of amusement from his brother, even as he lifts his own cup and peers almost indulgently at Lan Wangji from over its rim.
"I'll talk with Uncle again. But I think it would be best if you visit him too, while you're here, just so Uncle can see that you're fine. When are you looking to set out again?"
"There is a request for help from a village near the Anhui border. No nearby Sects to handle it, will go within the week."
"Wangji," his brother says again after some length, and this time his tone is gentle and coaxing - One Lan Wangji recognizes from blurred memories of his childhood and the equally nebulous time after his punishment with the Disciple whip, "I'm glad that these excursions have served the people well, but also remember that you are under no obligations, under no expectations to do all this."
But he is, Lan Wangji wants to say. Be righteous, he was told, ever since he first learned to comprehend the world. Is serving the people not an obligation? Is it not the very same obligation with the one he has to his Sect?
"Thank you, Xiongzhang," Lan Wangji says instead, inclines his head the slightest bit in an acknowledgement that his brother knows how to read, "I shall remember it well."
He doesn't visit his uncle.
Lan Wangji sees them everywhere he goes. In the kind smile of an eldery innkeeper, in a glimpse of dusty robes and flashes of red in the crowd, in the delighted squeals of children passing underfoot.
He sees Granny and Uncle Four, sees Maiden Wen's sharp yet kind gaze, sees A-Yuan's bright, bright smile. And then he blinks and there is nothing, and he walks on.
There are no records of the Wen remnants, no written proof that the much-feared last vestiges of the great Sun Empire were a group of common people - Healers and grandmothers and carpenters. A child.
"I'm afraid the records must have been lost amongst all the chaos after the Nightless City incident," Jin Guangyao had said, smile apologetic and soft, deep in the gilded caverns of Jinlintai's archives. Lan Wangji remembers that very same smile, that day in front of the Demon-Slaughtering cave, the last remnants of Wei Ying's existence behind his back, never to be seen again.
Lan Wangji wonders how many other things had been conveniently lost, during that time. But were they truly lost, if no one cared to look for them? If Lan Wangji were the only one to look?
He remembers walking out of the Nightless City, numb and broken, only to see the bodies lined up on the walls - Stiff limbs and gaunt faces swaying in the harsh wind - Hollowed out from hunger and mottled with death and blood, but each one familiar to him.
He remembers wondering if Uncle Four ever got to finish brewing his wine, wonders if it's an undeserved mercy for Lan Wangji that they did not hang A-Yuan's body along with the others. Wonders about the last time he's seen Wei Ying truly smile, as they parted on the edges of Yiling.
He wonders, even now, if things would have been different if he just stayed.
It's something that Lan Wangji has made himself learn, as he walks on. That sometimes, one is simply too late. Sometimes, even how much one tries one is still not quick enough, realizations come too late, and time is kind to no one.
There were a great many things that Lan Wangji had been too late for, in his life. But still he walks on, because it's the only thing he knows how to do.
This time, he arrives in a village too late - The missive of their plea set aside to make way for ones with finer parchments and weightier seals before Lan Wangji found it. It's said that there's sighting of an abnormally large number of fierce corpses near their villages, drawing closer each day.
Anywhere near what used to be the Nightless City has been a no man's land ever since the Wen's fall, no Cultivation clans nor ruling Lords bothering to venture near it despite the taxes they still collect from its people. There would have been no one to come to the village's aid, and it would seem that no one did.
Lan Wangji picks his steps through the carnage, noting the few fierce corpses the villagers managed to bring down with farm tools and what meagre weapon they had. But he soon notices that the villagers' bodies on the ground are too few, the houses too empty.
Perhaps he is not so late after all, this time.
He follows the trail of trodden earth and blood, arrives in yet another empty village. But this time there are more fierce corpses on the ground, and there is a makeshift barricade around one of the sturdier house. It's haphazard and clearly done in a hurry, but considering the lack of bodies, it seemed to have done its job - Fierce corpses are most active after you shi, so it made sense that the villagers would wait for sunrise inside the barricade and then presumably go somewhere safer during daylight.
It's well past sunset when Lan Wangji finds the horde of fierce corpses in the next village - Their shambling forms converging around a walled courtyard house, its gates barricaded shut and its walls ringed with sharpened bamboo poles. Whoever had set up the barricade had done an effective job of it, but they probably didn't anticipate such a large number of fierce corpses - The gates already starting to rattle dangerously as the corpses throw themselves again and again over the bodies of their impaled brethrens.
He summons Wangji, strums out a short passage even though his instinct tells him the corpses are beyond liberating - Their clothes too old and the energy swirling around them bespeaking of too much resentment. These corpses had died in agony, whatever traces of their memories lost in long years beneath what must have been a shallow grave.
Bichen dances in the wake of his inquiry, its blade a silver whirl as the corpses converge around him. Soon he realizes that the corpses are many, more than he previously thought, and Lan Wangji wills himself to be calm - One thrust after another, one form flowing to the next -
A crude arrow joins his dance, sparing him from a grasping claw. And then another. And another. He does not give his eyes time to wander, kicks one corpse on its chest as he slashes at another. The arrows continue - Each shot carefully placed, covering where his sword does not reach, guarding him, until Lan Wangji finds himself surrounded by an impossibly vast ring of bodies, his sword sweeping to land on thin air.
He catches his breath slowly, quietly in the silence that now blankets his surroundings. Turns back towards the barricade to finally see his mysterious battle companion.
And there, perched atop the wall, Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying.
There is no mistaking the face before him. Lan Wangji knows every plane, every line and errant strands of hair that always seems to be everywhere around his face, the beauty mark just slightly below his lips, the painfully familiar curve of his smile. Had committed it to memory as deeply as he did the rules of his home, as if he'd known that every time he sees Wei Ying might be the last.
"Daozhang!" Wei Ying's voice rings out in the silence, the arm that isn't holding his bow waving wildly, "That was amazing!"
There is, however, also no mistaking the look on Wei Ying's eyes - The absolute lack of recognition in his gaze that had always held Lan Wangji's so steadily.
Daozhang, he called him.
Wei Ying doesn't know him.
Lan Wangji feels it like a physical blow, almost staggers under its weight as questions and implications flood his mind, so much so that he almost doesn't register that Wei Ying had leapt down from the wall, almost starts at his voice so close to him.
"Daozhang, are you alright? Are you hurt anywhere?"
And oh, like this, Wei Ying is so close. Moonlight paints his face in silvers and shadows, reminds Lan Wangji of a night so long ago, and he finds himself wanting to touch, wanting to affirm that this is real.
"Not hurt," he says instead, eyes trying, failing to wrench itself from the other man before Lan Wangji gestures quietly to the arrows surrounding them. "Thank you."
Wei Ying lets out a bark of laughter, the sound so familiar after so long that something warm and painful lances inside Lan Wangji's chest, "Aiyo, Daozhang, we should be the one thanking you! You really came just in time. And what an entrance! What magnificent swordplay! Sent by the Heavens itself, surely!"
At this, Wei Ying's smile turns a familiar shade of teasing, and Lan Wangji has to stop himself from saying, shameless.
"Mn," he murmurs instead. "Are the villagers inside? And ones from the neighbouring villages?"
"Yes! Let's go in and inform them of the good news, shall we? I bet everyone is dying to see you!" Wei Ying nods brightly, making as if to grab Lan Wangji by the hand before he stops himself - somewhat sheepishly. Lan Wangji feels almost bereft.
"Oh! I almost forgot - This one is called Xu Ying! Well met, Daozhang!" Wei Ying bows, deep yet quick.
Lan Wangji nods, and if Wei Ying is disappointed that he doesn't give his name in return, he doesn't show it.
Over a quick breakfast, Lan Wangji learns that the corpses came from what seems to be a mass grave in the nearby woods, disturbed by villagers who were clearing up land.
"What did they clear the land for?" Lan Wangji asks, even as he keeps failing to tear his gaze away from the man before him, hands itching to touch, to confirm that he would not suddenly wake to the unfamiliar ceilings of an inn from a particularly cruel dream.
"Ah. About that, "Wei Ying's voice drops into something quieter, gentler, mindful of the villagers bustling around them, dismantling their makeshift barricades and carting the bodies of the fierce corpses for their final, proper burial "The taxes…has been particularly high this year, Daozhang. We get by over here, but a lot of the neighbouring villages have been having a hard time managing it. We're expected to produce enough for the taxes and ourselves, but there's only so much land we are allowed to plant on. Do you see the problem?"
"Mn," Lan Wangji murmurs, keeping his tone neutral even as Wei Ying peers at him, almost wary.
"The villagers figured that no one would notice if they plant deep enough inside the woods. But now, I don't know, what if there's more of them? And if that had been some mass grave left over from the war, then that's..bad, right? Like spiritually?" Wei Ying sighs, runs a hand through his already tousled hair before he looks up at Lan Wangji again, smile rueful and tired, "I suppose I'll think up of something else - I mean, we have to, this-"
"Will you bring me there?"
Wei Ying blinks, looking as surprised as Lan Wangji himself feels for having interrupted him.
"The land they cleared," Lan Wangji continues,"If the area is checked and cleansed properly, then it would be safe to plant there."
"You would do that?" Wei Ying says after a beat of silence, "I mean no offence, Daozhang. But, this is..not strictly in adherence with the law, you know? A honourable Cultivator like you…I really don't want you to get in trouble."
Something twinges, hot and uncomfortable, in Lan Wangji's chest. A few short years ago, he would not have even considered making such an offer. A few short years ago, honourable would simply mean upholding what law reigned over them, even if it might mean a whole village going hungry.
But Lan Wangji has seen enough, has walked enough in this land that is scarred so deeply.
"It was unjust of the Lords to demand such high numbers in this condition," he says slowly, carefully, "As long as one is careful not to disturb more of the woods, I trust not letting people go hungry to be a honourable course of action."
And then, as if to dispel any lingering belief that he is merely dreaming, Wei Ying reaches out to clasp Lan Wangji's hands in his - His touch as warm and as real as the slow, bright smile on his lips as he thanks him.
For Lan Wangji, it's like feeling the sun on his skin after a long, long night.
Wei Ying, he finds out, has lived in the village ever since he was found by Granny Xu, the local healer.
"Like she just…found me, you know. Didn't remember a single thing before that," Wei Ying laughs, in that familiar way he seem to always laugh away all the misfortunes in his path "Well, except my name, I guess."
The only thing Wei Ying had remembered was a single memory - Of him riding on a donkey's back, of his father's warm laugh and his mother's gentle hands, her voice calling him her A-Ying.
"I see," Lan Wangji says, even as a knot twists inside his chest and his hands itches to touch, to comfort. Even as Wei Ying quickly says that he's glad Granny Xu was kind enough to give her family name to him, the other man's smile not faltering one bit.
Lan Wangji finds out that Wei Ying lives in a house that used to belong to Granny Xu's late son, that he makes his living building things - Houses and fences and bridges and all manner of strange, brilliant contraptions that Wei Ying giddily shows Lan Wangji, scattered around his yard. That he teaches the village children to read and write and loves every single one of them, and is loved in return. That even people a few villages over seem to come to his door when there are problems to be solved.
Lan Wangji stays to bury all the fierce corpses and give them the prayers and rituals that had been denied to them in their deaths, to cleanse the small clearing the neighboring villages had chosen as their clandestine field and sets up wards so they will be protected. He stays perhaps far longer than he would usually think necessary, doesn't protest as much as he should when Wei Ying talks him into staying in his house.
Lan Wangji sleeps in the spare bed across Wei Ying's own, lies awake for far too long past hai shi, drinking in the lines of Wei Ying's face - features soft in sleep like Lan Wangji has never seen it before. Takes in the gentle rise and fall of Wei Ying's chest even as his heart sings that this is real, that he is alive.
It does not even matter, he comes to realize as the days pass, that Wei Ying does not remember. He is still loud, still brilliant, still gives too much of himself for others. He still crowds into Lan Wangji's space, calls him Daozhang with a mischievous lilt to his tone that makes the title sound like an endearment. And awash with relief and his quiet joy, Lan Wangji lets him.
Every laugh, every smile slowly chases away the Wei Ying that has haunted Lan Wangji's steps ever since their last parting, the Wei Ying who was pale and sharp and whose laughs were broken and sad, who flinches away from Lan Wangji's reach.
The Wei Ying before him takes his hand and pulls him along like a river's delightful current, looks at him with such joy and life in his eyes that Lan Wangji can hardly breathe.
The Wei Ying with him now is happy.
Granny Xu approaches him in Wei Ying's yard, amidst the riot of Wei Ying's half-finished inventions and the bustle of children still swarming around him. Wei Ying had been called by a frantic man from a road nearby with a broken wagon wheel, and in his sudden absence, Lan Wangji had offered to take over his makeshift class of the day.
"Thank you, Daozhang!" Little Guo Xiang smiles widely at him, dragging along her twin Guo Polu as she half-waves, half-bows clumsily at him. Lan Wangji bows back and raises his eyes to meet Granny Xu's calm, pale gaze, the elderly woman motioning him to sit under the Magnolia tree near the gate.
"You know our Xu Ying," Granny Xu says the moment they are settled on the bench. It's not a question "From before."
Lan Wangji's breath falters, catches.
"I did," he says, because he does not lie. Could not, even after all this time.
For a long moment, Granny Xu merely looks at him, the weathered lines of her face unreadable, and Lan Wangji feels himself exposed and bare. Feels the normally comforting silence suddenly stifling and wrought.
"We've had it hard, before," Granny's Xu voice is level and steady when she finally begins again, "And then I found our Xu Ying and ah, the next thing we know the boy had saved our fields, built us things and taught the children how to write. Fights off bandits and fierce corpses, even."
"I see," Lan Wangji says quietly, even as his heart swells with fondness, with worry at all the times Wei Ying must have put himself in danger.
And then, Granny Xu's gaze turns upon him, eyes flinty and hard as only a mother and an elder who has seen as much things as she did could be. "I don't know why you're here and what you were for him, before. I have seen his scars, and I am aware that I have found him where no man should probably be found."
"But Xu Ying is a good boy, Daozhang. Whatever he was, whatever he had done, he has only done good for as long as I have known him."
"He has always been good," Lan Wangji says, and is surprised at the vehemence in his own voice, at how liberating it feels, to say what he has always believed, has always known but wasn't free to say in the face of a world that simply would not listen. Lan Wangji draws a deep breath, and says again quieter, softer, "Wei Ying has always been good."
Granny Xu merely looks at him for a long time before she reaches inside her robes, carefully setting down a small bundle on the bench between them.
Lan Wangji opens it and his eyes widens. Inside is the Stygian Tiger Seal, or what remains of it - Fragments of obsidian iron clinking against each other in the soft light of the afternoon.
"This was inside his robes when I found Xu Ying," Granny Xu says, "I want to know if it's potentially any trouble for him, or for the village."
Lan Wangji reaches out, touches the cool iron with a thread of Qi to find emptiness echoing back to him - Knows immediately that these are no more than mere pieces of metal, worth only its significance in history. Thoughts, theories, and questions flit wildly over his mind, and Lan Wangji feels as if a great weight has been lifted from his chest.
"It's safe," Lan Wangji manages,"Won't cause any trouble."
He doesn't register the tears running down his cheeks until a droplet hits an obsidian fragment - Tears of relief, perhaps - That it is truly Wei Ying, that whatever power contained in the fearsome seal that had taken his life had inexplicably, impossibly, given Wei Ying another life.
"Thank you," he whispers, and there is so much more Lan Wangji wants to say to the woman before him - Thank you for finding Wei Ying, thank you for giving him a home, a family. But instead, he merely chokes out again, "Thank you."
"Oh, Daozhang," Granny Xu's voice is gentle this time, like spring nights and old lullabies, "You were so young, weren't you? All of you were so very young."
A hand alights on his hair, soft and soothing, and Lan Wangji's tears continue to fall as he remembers his mother's hands. Remembers Wei Ying telling him of his own mother, of both their mothers' hands cradling them to sleep and how much, just how much Lan Wangji misses it.
Lan Wangji thinks, that if he too were to forget everything else, he would at least remember that - Mother's hands, and her voice calling him her little A-Zhan.
A week passes, and Lan Wangji gathers his meagre pack and straps Wangji to his back, lets Wei Ying and the villagers walk him to where the fields meets the roads back East - Wei Ying walking close enough for their shoulders to touch, warm even through the layers of their robes.
Lan Wangji had meant it to be goodbye, had meant for this to be the last time he sees Wei Ying's sparkling grey eyes, its edges crinkling warmly as he smiles. Lan Wangji had meant to leave, to avoid drawing attention with his presence because Wei Ying is safe now, in this nameless village in the middle of nowhere, where the world would no longer cry for his blood for things he never even knew about. And yet.
Lan Wangji had walked so long, had walked so far, and now he wants -
He wants to live without regrets.
And so, Lan Wangji reaches down to pat little Guo Xiang on her head, careful not to disturb the two buns perched proudly atop it. The girl looks up and beams at him.
"Make sure to learn your letters well," He says quietly, and then, to the other children, "Will look forward to see what you can write next time."
The children breaks into a chaotic chorus of yes, Daozhang! and Lan Wangji hears the familiar, delighted guffaw of Wei Ying's laugh, feels the edges of his own lips curve up into a smile.
When he looks up, Wei Ying's answering smile is brighter than the sun.
Lan Wangji comes back to Gusu, writes his reports, and leaves out the nameless village South of Qishan. He meditates, takes groups of Juniors on night hunts, accompanies his brother to the Grand Discussion conference in Lanling.
There is a drought across Anhui, he hears as he walks the streets of the market, too ill at ease with the gilded halls of Jinlintai after so long on the road. The people feels lucky to be spared, but soon there might be refugees, soon they might need to raise the price of grains since it will be in such short supply.
"We can try bringing it up in the local session of the conference tomorrow," his brother says, after Lan Wangji brings it up, "But you know it might be difficult, Wangji. Anhui is not under the dominion of any of the large Sects, and most of the Clans do not have much to spare right now with all the rebuilding efforts going on."
But the Clans do have much to spare, Lan Wangji thinks, as he sits beneath the golden ceilings of Jinlintai, as food and wine and flower petals flows freely around him. As Jin Guangshan scoffs at his petition and Sect Leader Yao notes that droughts are commonplace enough ever since he was a boy - That the people will overcome this as they always do, what could Cultivation even do to help? It is not like there are demons to slay, restless spirits to put to rest.
Lan Wangji sits beneath the golden ceilings of Jinlintai and does nothing, and feels more tired than he ever has been.
He leaves as soon as the Conference comes to a close, treks Southwest into Anhui's borders. He quells a few bandit attacks along the way, each time noticing that they are hardly even bandits - Merely villagers with too much mouths to feed and too few options to survive. Lan Wangji gives what he can - Pieces of silver and copper that he realizes are worth so much more when they're outside his hands. He thinks if there might be truth to what Sect Leader Yao said - That swords and spells could only do so much. He walks past dry fields and villages who pleads for help, for anything, until he can take it no more and he gets on his sword, flies across the familiar path across Qishan, to a nameless village nestled amongst the woods.
He arrives to the elated yells of children and the warm smile of the villagers, Auntie Sun fussing over how thin he looks while Uncle Guo tells him that Xu Ying is home, if Daozhang would like to see him after so long - the older man's smile knowing yet gentle.
Lan Wangji finds Wei Ying underneath the magnolia tree in his yard, bent over an interlocking piece of several woods. He looks up at his footsteps, and the recognition, the warmth harbored there makes something bloom inside Lan Wangji.
"Daozhang," Wei Ying smiles, and the title feels tender and all too familiar - An endearment, an echo of his voice so long ago, calling him, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, "You're here."
And just like that, Lan Wangji feels tired no more.
He's seen the wooden waterways that Wei Ying built for the village's fields, has heard Uncle Yang's enthusiastic tale that young Xu Ying had singlehandedly saved the village's crops by affording them an easier way to get water for their fields, but now it halts Lan Wangji's steps as they pass it on the way to Granny Xu's house.
"Will this be replicable in other places?"
"Sure - Given there's a water source within a reasonable distance?" Wei Ying peers at him before he grins, nudging Lan Wangji gently with his shoulders, "Do you have something in mind, Daozhang? How can this one be of assistance?"
For a moment, Lan Wangji lets himself just look at Wei Ying, both warmed and worried by the readiness with which he just throws himself into aiding anyone.
"I have a favour to ask," he says, "Would compensate your time suitably, of course."
"Aiyo, so formal, this Daozhang! I can't let you pay me after saving our village from being corpse dinner!" Wei Ying's grin, if possible, becomes wider still, a tinge of familiar mischief creeping on its edge "What about…a favour for a favour, hmm?"
A few short years ago, Lan Wangji would have turned around and ignored him, would have sniffed in disdain, thinks it a waste of time. But now, now that the years without Wei Ying's smile drags behind him like chains, Lan Wangji finds it easier and easier to simply submit, to let the river that is Wei Ying take him. And so he nods.
"A favour for a favour."
"Daozhang, you're very sure you won't drop me, right?"
It probably shouldn't be a suprise how naturally Wei Ying fits with him atop Bichen, given how easily he had barged into every other aspects of Lan Wangji's life ever since they were fifteen. Wei Ying's body probably still remembers the act of balancing on a sword, which makes it easier for Lan Wangji to navigate them above the barren landscape of Anhui's fields.
"Mn," Lan Wangji murmurs, even as Wei Ying grouses that it's not a yes, Daozhang. "Is this high enough to see?"
Inside the circle of his arm, Wei Ying struggles to hold open the map against the batting wind all around them, and even without looking Lan Wangji can imagine the knit of Wei Ying's brows as he compares the lines of ink with the stretch of land before them.
"A bit to the left! Aiyoo, not so fast! Daozhang, hold me, hold me, I'm going to fall!"
Lan Wangji feels the beginning of a snort turn into a huff of laughter as Wei Ying continues to yell, but he holds the other man closer to him nevertheless, and hopes that Wei Ying doesn't feel the thundering of his heart against his back.
By the end of the day, they have mapped out the most effective route between a nearby river and most of the hardest-hit farming areas to start a small waterway system, maps and parchments strewn between them in the small inn room they managed to stumble upon.
"These villages though," Wei Ying jabs his finger at a cluster of villages, further North from the river's path. "We definitely won't have the time nor resources to build or dig anything to reach that far and there's no lakes or anything around it either. Unless…"
"Unless we make our own water source, that is."
Lan Wangji opens his mouth, but across him Wei Ying's eyes are already alight with the spark of determination and discovery that he knows well, the other man's fingers scrabbling for an empty piece of parchment as his words scrabble along to follow "Daozhang, you Cultivators have one of those spiritual compasses, right? Yes? And that's based on the five elements, right? So here, what if you just take the water part of that and use it to locate a shallow enough vein of ground water?"
"A well, then," Lan Wangji nods, already moving his own brush to isolate the arrays for water, even as Wei Ying hovers with palpable excitement beside him.
It took a few days to get the compass right, and some very creative use of his chord assassination technique to cleanly drill a hole deep enough for the beginning of their wells as Wei Ying supervises the easier task of building his waterways - The villagers quick enough to be moved both by Wei Ying's amicable speech and the draw of actually doing something after so many weeks of bleakness in the fields.
By the time they finished the last well in Wuhu, Lan Wangji has perfected his water compass to a degree of accuracy that he's genuinely satisfied with, and Wei Ying's grin as they test it out is so bright that Lan Wangji feels like he should look away.
"Ah Daozhang, this would be so useful to so many people! Look at what you made, Daozhang, aren't you proud?"
"We," Lan Wangji says quietly, and Wei Ying blinks owlishly at him. Lan Wangji draws a deep breath, "We made it together. I crafted it, but it was your idea."
If Wei Ying's earlier grin had been bright, then the slow stretch of his lips that follows Lan Wangji's words is like watching the sun rise.
"Your favour," Lan Wangji says, when they're safely back in Wei Ying's home - Trinkets and packages and all manners of meagre yet sincere gifts the villagers in Anhui had insisted they take spread out between them on the dining table.
Wei Ying tilts his head quizzically to the side before the meaning of Lan Wangji's words registers to him.
"Daozhang," Wei Ying laughs, delighted and bright, "I was joking! Helping the villagers is really enough for me, you know this!"
And oh, Lan Wangji knows. Everything had always seemed enough for Wei Ying, even before. He's seen the other man give so much, give his whole being over for nothing in return, and Lan Wangji feels, wants so much to give in turn.
"Gave my word," Lan Wangji says levelly, and Wei Ying blinks at him before he leans back in his seat, silent for once.
"Daozhang," Wei Ying finally says, just as the silence is starting to hang too heavily in a space that Lan Wangji's associated with Wei Ying's endless chatter, "Do you realize that you've never called me by my name?"
Lan Wangji's breath hitches, an imperceptible hiccup, and Wei Ying goes on, voice uncharacteristically quiet, musing "I mean, I know some people might prefer it like that, but we're…we're pretty close, right, Daozhang?"
He nods mutely, remembers the very same question Wei Ying asked him so many years ago, remembers the way he had rejected and pushed the other boy away when the truth was that Wei Ying had burrowed close, so close to his heart even from the very first time they met. When he had finally called him Wei Ying, it had felt right, felt familiar in a way that he couldn't explain, and Lan Wangji has been quietly dreading the prospect of calling Wei Ying by any other name.
"So for my favour…would you, would you mind calling me A-Ying?"
Oh. Lan Wangji's breath stutters again, audibly this time. Oh.
"I told you once that my mother called me that, right? The thing is, Daozhang, there's just something about you that reminds me of her…I mean, not her exactly, but the same feeling, you know? Like, this feeling of missing something? Ah, forgive this one, I'm just-"
"A-Zhan," Lan Wangji says, before he could lose his courage. Across him, Wei Ying stops, catches his gaze and looks, really looks at him.
"My mother called me A-Zhan," he nods, feeling warmth on the tip of his ears, blooming in his chest like fluttering petals.
"A-Zhan," Wei Ying says, quiet and tender and almost reverent.
Lan Wangji likes the sound of it in Wei Ying's voice.
Lan Wangji helps granny Xu whenever he could in his visits. He's well versed enough in the basics of healing from his lessons as a Lan disciple, but there's always something to learn watching the elderly woman bustle around in her work space.
And there is a lot to fix, here in their corner of nowhere - Things far removed from curses and sword wounds and Night Hunt injuries, but no less pressing. Accidents are commonplace on the road and on the fields, as are attacks from animals and spiritual things, and all manners of sickness and ailments. There are deaths, and then there are births, and Lan Wangji has once had the honor of welcoming a new life in his hands in that small, warm clinic on the edge of the village.
And then, Wei Ying comes in with a woman - A girl, her face too pale, her shoulders too hunched as he gently ushers her into Granny Xu's kind, waiting arms. Lan Wangji rises from his seat to help, but Granny Xu shakes her head, closes the door behind her. Beside him, Wei Ying is antsy and subdued.
When Granny Xu finally emerges, her hand is stained with blood, the weathered lines of her face hard in a way that Lan Wangji rarely sees.
"When she's well enough, I'll take her to Deyang - It's far enough so they won't find her, and I have a friend there that will take her in. A seamstress," Wei Ying finally speaks, and Granny Xu nods as she washes her hands slowly, methodically.
"How old is she?"
"Sixteen," Wei Ying replies quietly, and Granny hisses, "And the man?"
"The Master at the house she worked at," Wei Ying closes his eyes, runs a hand through his tousled hair roughly, "Wanted to keep her there too, in case she gave birth to a boy - His wife is barren, and he thought - Hah," Wei Ying's laugh is sharp, mirthless.
And then it comes together for Lan Wangji - the pale, haggard look on the girl, the blood on Granny's hands - That one who delivers life can also take it away, and oh -
"I didn't know why Mother did what she did - She has always been such a gentle person - "
"It's a good thing she managed to escape, really. Could you imagine, being trapped there after what's been done to her? Carrying a child she doesn't even want -"
"Oh, A-Zhan, you know I can't play outside with you - "
Lan Wangji feels something lurch inside his stomach, feels dread and grief so vivid and fresh that his breath falters, chest constricting to the point of pain and he can't, he has to -
Lan Wangji bolts up from his seat and claws his way out the door, knees giving out before he empties his stomach to the ground. Behind him, he can hear Wei Ying calling his name.
Trapped. After what's been done to her. A child she doesn't even want.
"A-Zhan," Wei Ying's voice sounded like it's coming from far away, the hands gentle and cool on his feverish skin the only thing Lan Wangji can register in his haze, "A-Zhan, what's wrong?"
Lan Wangji shakes his head, or tries to, he doesn't know. All he knows is the feeling of warm arms slowly embracing him, a wet rag pressed gently on his lips before he wakes in the spare bed in Wei Ying's house, the other man sitting beside him, eyes gentle and hands gentler as they fuss and Lan Wangji leans into them.
They don't talk about it.
Lan Wangji stays away from the clinic and stays until the girl is well enough, goes with her and Wei Ying to Deyang and waves goodbye to the girl in her new home. There is a smile on her face, small and tentative, like a flower bud in spring.
"A-Zhan," Wei Ying says gently, calls his name and takes his hand as his mother had. "Let's go home, okay?"
A-Zhan, she had called him, and Lan Wangji wants, chooses to believe that as she had been a home to him, he had been something of a home to her too.
After he bows, low and quiet, before his Uncle's trembling frame, Lan Wangji walks to his mother's house. Kneels in front of its forever unmoving doors as he had so many times before.
"What does it matter?" Uncle had said, cold fury and indignation high in his voice when Lan Wangji finally asked, "Your mother killed an Elder, broke the most cardinal rule of our Sect and was punished for it."
And yet, it had been true, the things that the Elder had done to his mother - Had shown enough in the guilt and shame painted across Uncle's face. And despite everything, it had mattered. Should have mattered.
"The Elders not being infallible does not diminish the virtues of our rules. If there was justice for him, why was there no justice to be had for mother?"
Lan Wangji remembers thirty-three lashes, the taste of copper in his lips, the tips of uncle's boots silent and cold before him as his knees buckle and the cold ground embraced him. And even then, he had wondered why no one had asked why he did what he did - wondered if the rules he had branded in his heart did not serve everyone the same, wondered if it had meant anything anymore, if it could be bent so easily.
Be righteous, he was told. And yet right or wrong shifted so easily, at the point of someone's finger as everyone refuses to look, refuses to see for themselves.
"You must know that things are rarely that simple, Wangji," Uncle had finally said, a tremble in his voice and lines on his face that Wangji does not remember.
Lan Wangji kneels in front of his mother's door, bows until his forehead touches the weathered wood of his childhood.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, and hopes that somewhere, his mother hears.
He tells Wei Ying about Mother, the next time they are together - side by side on the wooden deck of Wei Ying's house, their shoulders so close Lan Wangji can feel the other man's warmth.
Lan Wangji tells him of Father, of the house with Gentian flowers that was both her home and her prison. Tells him how she had liked to sing and never asked him of his studies, only if he's eating well, if he's happy. Tells him how Mother would put his head on her lap and sing her lullabies, how she brushed his hair and called him A-Zhan, her A-Zhan.
"I figured," Wei Ying finally says, when Lan Wangji's words have run dry and their shoulders are pressed together, "That someone like A-Zhan, who is so good and so kind, must have ben so loved, when he was growing up."
Wei Ying smiles, nudges his shoulders gently, "Turns out I was right."
Lan Wangji chooses to believe him.
A flood sweeps across Eastern Qishan, and Lan Wangji brings the matter to his brother over tea in the Hanshi - Inquires on the possibility of Gusu Lan sending any form of relief.
"It's not within our jurisdiction, Wangji. You know this," Lan Xichen says, "The lands left by the Wens are still an unclear matter for the Sects for the time being. If anyone has the authority to step in, it goes to the clan bordering the area first and foremost."
He knows, they both probably know that Jinlintai would not take care of it, and Qinghe is reluctant to over-reach in the midst of their own rebuilding. Lan Wangji looks down at his tea, tries to remember his lessons on Sect relations and borders and the balance of things. Wonders if any of his teachers had ever seen the aftermath of a flood before - The traces of mud that clings everywhere, the things it drags and spits out and leaves hundreds upon hundreds of li away from where it came.
You must know that things are rarely that simple, Wangji.
He wonders, when had things turned as simple as borders and courtesy being worth more than the lives of the people.
Lan Wangji bows in his seat instead, "Very well. I shall be off then, Xiongzhang."
"Wangji," there is an edge of warning in Lan Xichen's gentle tone, one he has not heard ever since Wei Ying was last flitting in and out of his life.
"There is a request for help on the Yunmeng borders - Restless spirits. Needed inquiry."
Lan Wangji bows to his brother, and turns on his heels without waiting for an acknowledgement.
Lan Wangji finishes the Yunmeng haunting quickly before setting off to Qishan. He is no healer nor engineer, but he is strong enough to help with moving people and things alike - Digging and hoisting and building, the whites of his robes stained with mud and everything else the flood had washed into the land.
At night, he walks where the carnage is the worst and plays cleansing, soothes the voices of the countless dead before it can fester in resentment, before it seeps into the land and promises another kind of misery for the bereaved.
And oh, how many voices there are.
Why is this happening, please we have nothing else, where is my baby, mother mother it's so dark, why -
Lan Wangji hears screams, hears children crying, hears the rush of water rising, the deafening rumble of falling earth, the black, bitter water coming down, down one's throat -
Wangji falters before him before it dissipates and Lan Wangji falls to his knees on the muddy earth, because it's too much too much and surely he can't do this alone, why is he alone where is his clan, where is everyone who could have done something, he can't do this -
A hoarse, choked sound rings amongst the patter of raindrops around him, and it takes Lan Wangji a moment before he realizes that the sound is his - That there are tears, hot and burning, alongside the cold rain sliding down his face.
For a moment, Lan Wangji feels nothing but panic rushing over his grief, because he knows that voice and no one else calls him A-Zhan - because Wei Ying is somehow here. Wei Ying is here, too close to Jinlintai and Qinghe, too close to people who might know his face, might want his blood still, and all Lan Wangji can think of is that he wants to bring him back home, keep him safe.
But not to Gusu, he realizes. All Lan Wangji wants is to bring Wei Ying back to his own home - To that house with the magnolia tree and its yard strewn with half-finished inventions.
"Figured out you'd be here," Wei Ying's smile is gentle above him, the eaves of his oiled parasol sheltering them both as he steps closer "Didn't figure you'd be soaking wet, though. Aren't you supposed to be the smart one between the two of us, huh?"
"A-Ying," Lan Wangji says, numb and almost dazed, even as he rises to his feet, careful not to touch Wei Ying with his wet robes "It's not safe here. Still too many resentful energy."
"You're here, aren't you? That makes here safe."
Lan Wangji has nothing to say to that, merely stares at Wei Ying's kind grey eyes, wants to ask why he's here, wants to say that he's here. That Wei Ying is here when no one else is.
"Look, let's get you dried up, all right? Where are you staying?"
Wei Ying fills the silence in the hut lent to him as Lan Wangji dries himself, tells him that he's been hired to help design and construct a small dam a few towns over when he heard there's a wandering cultivator helping in the area.
"Say, since I'm all done with the dam, I'm coming with you tomorrow - Two heads better than one and all that, right?"
"A-Ying doesn't have to," Lan Wangji says quietly, the fear still clinging to his skin, the possibility that Wei Ying could be found, that he could be wrenched away again from his life. "It's not safe."
"I want to," Wei Ying's voice is gentler, quieter than he's ever heard it before, "I don't want to see you alone in the rain, A-Zhan."
Lan Wangji does not exactly remember what he says after that, only remembers the warmth of Wei Ying's embrace as he leads him to bed, as he coaxes Lan Wangji's head into his lap, as he hums a quiet melody that feels both old and new.
His sleep, after so long, is dreamless and warm.
Wei Ying stays with him for the rest of Lan Wangji's trek. With Wei Ying beside him, they build what they could - rebuilding houses and fixing roads and constructing barriers where the earth along the river are the most fragile. At night, Wei Ying walks with him as he plays, holds his arm and takes him back to wherever they are staying the night when the voices gets to be too much.
Somehow, Wei Ying always knows.
It's easy, afterwards, to share Wei Ying's bed - Even when Lan Wangji follows Wei Ying home. Easy to comply when Wei Ying carefully leaves a space beside him, when the last candles has been snuffed and it's just them in the dark, easy to simply fit next to Wei Ying's warmth, as if he's a piece of a blacksmith's puzzle long lost beneath a table, finally coming home with a gentle click.
Sometimes, Lan Wangji wakes in the darkness to the steady rhythm of Wei Ying's breath, his limbs a comforting warmth as the other man migrated almost atop him during his slumber. Sometimes he finds himself overwhelmed with the reality of it all, finds that he wants to cry, wants to question why he is afforded this, why he's allowed.
And sometimes, Lan Wangji's weak, traitorous heart wants to ask if he'd ever be allowed this forever.
"Are you happy, Wangji?"
The question seems light and fleeting in his brother's serene voice, over tea and cakes and reports of his latest outing. And yet Lan Wangji can feel the weight of it behind Lan Xichen's eyes, feels the ever-present worry and responsibility that he's seen his brother carry ever since he could remember.
"I know that the past years had not been kind to you, and I know that your excursions so far has been helping you considerably," at this, a flicker of uncertainty flashes through his brother's countenance - Raw and honest and painfully rare, "But I was just wondering if…you are happy. If there's anything that I can do, I can help to make it so."
Lan Wangji wants to tell his brother that there is really nothing he could possibly do. His brother, who had came for him when he knelt in front of mother's house, who had kept the worse of Uncle's tirades from his ears as he grew, who had stayed with him night after night after his penance with the Discipline whip, who would do anything he could possibly do within the strict boundaries he had wrapped himself in, and no more than that. And how indeed, to tell someone that it is not that they cannot help, it is that there is simply no help to be had within their power.
"You've been too kind already, Xiongzhang," he says instead "Please trust that I'll be happy, in time,"
Lan Wangji lets a small smile grace his lips that his brother returns as he bows out, and watches as his brother's eyes light up in recognition, in warmth and delight as Jin Guangyao bows past Lan Wangji and approaches him and oh. Lan Wangji realizes.
His brother is happy.
His brother's question stays with him, even as he walks the familiar path across Qishan, past the woods and bamboo groves and the newly-mended road he's come to know so well. It follows him up to the porch of Wei Ying's house, where the other man is apparently dressed for travel, a light pack slung over his shoulders.
"A-Zhan! Just in time!" Wei Ying grins, bumping his shoulders with Lan Wangji's "A friend in one of the villages around Lake Hewan asked me to fix the system of fish nets I installed for him - Apparently it keeps getting damaged? I mean, it could just be some very enthusiastic fishes, but just in case it's something creepy, you want to come along?"
Lan Wangji nods, almost amused that Wei Ying had bothered to ask at all.
By the time Lan Wangji realizes that it's in fact not the fault of enthusiastic marine life, but a clutch of water ghouls, they are in the middle of the lake with an upturned boat and several fishermen on the water. Wei Ying doesn't waste any time before jumping off their raft after them, makes good time hauling them back to safety as Lan Wangji handles the ghouls.
And then, the last of the water ghoul evades his blade, and dives back, lightning-quick -
Taking Wei Ying, who's still in the water, down under with it.
Lan Wangji's heart stutters, almost stops. And then he is plunging into the murky depths himself, Bichen illuminating his path as he frantically searches the darkness around him.
He is on the verge of panic when he catches the telltale movement below him, and Lan Wangji pulls Bichen down with him before slashing clean through the ghoul's tentacled form, his flailing hands finding Wei Ying's unmoving ones to pull the other man into the boat with him - His skin too cold and his face too pale beneath him.
"Wei Ying!" Lan Wangji cries, fingers frantic as he searches for a pulse, as he presses down on his unmoving chest, "Wei Ying!"
Beneath him, Wei Ying coughs - once, twice, before his eyes flutter open, and Lan Wangji almost collapses with relief.
"A-Zhan," Wei Ying gasps, "A-Zhan, is everyone alright? Are you-"
"Don't-" Lan Wangji chokes, grabs the front of Wei Ying's robes and shakes him, perhaps harder than he should but Lan Wangji doesn't care. He's lost Wei Ying once, too many times and he's not going to - "Don't do that -"
"Don't leave," he cries at last, presses Wei Ying against his chest, uncaring of the people around them, of everything, and doesn't let go until they reach shore.
Silence feels strange, within the wooden walls of Wei Ying's house - A place Lan Wangji has associated with laughter and the other man's endless chatter. He supposes it's fitting, then, that it's Wei Ying who finally breaks the silence.
"Earlier on, you called me with a different name."
Lan Wangji closes his eyes, draws a deep breath.
"I did," and then, because Lan Wangji cannot, does not lie still, "It's the name I knew you as, from - From before."
There is more silence, and Lan Wangji wants to say something, anything at all simply for it to stop. He waits for Wei Ying's anger to come - for the inevitable reprimand because while Lan Wangji didn't lie, he didn't say anything either, knowing all that he does. Was too selfish, too greedy to have Wei Ying all to himself.
And then, of course, because he has never been predictable nor easy, because he is Wei Ying, he says instead :
"Did I leave A-Zhan behind?"
"No" Lan Wangji whispers, almost chokes, "I was the one who left. Did not stay for A-Ying."
"You're here now," Wei Ying whispers back, achingly kind in a way that Lan Wangji does not feel he deserves. He finds himself drawn to Wei Ying nevertheless, the other man's hands gentle as he leads him to sit beside him on the bed.
"I used to have this dream," he says, and Lan Wangji blinks, tries to gauge the silvery depths of Wei Ying's eyes.
"In my dream I was a farmer, and every day I worked the fields and came home to a man waiting for me. He'd always be weaving, and there'd be the smell of something delicious cooking in the kitchen. He'd smile at me and welcome me home with a cup of water, and every time, I think that he's the most beautiful person I've ever seen."
"That night we first met? The first thing I thought was oh, this daozhang looks exactly like the person in my dream," Wei Ying smiles, reaches out to trace a finger on Lan Wangji's cheek "And maybe, maybe now I know why."
"A-Ying…" Lan Wangji whispers, barely daring to breathe, barely daring to hope.
"A-Zhan. I don't know what kind of person I was, and what I was to you, before. Honestly, I'm quite all right with never knowing at all. But one thing I know for sure is that I had wanted - wanted a life with you. Even if I can't remember your name, even if my name is different, aren't our souls still the same?"
At that, Lan Wangji couldn't contain himself anymore. He lets out a cry as he falls into Wei Ying's arms, years upon years of unsent feelings, of unspoken grief and longing dissipating like mist as he kisses Wei Ying, kisses him as if it is him who is drowning, who is falling.
But this time, they catch each other, and no one falls.
His visits become longer, more frequent - Until Wei Ying's house holds more of his possessions than the Jingshi does. And Lan Wangji finds that he has much more things now than ever before, the way Wei Ying dotes on him. Trinkets and books and combs and pressed flowers, a pretty violet-blue tea set that a small town had gifted him, always laid out on the low tea-table where they would sit at night.
Lan Wangji sits down with Headman Yang and tackles the ledgers of the village, finds out that he has enough silvers from the Clan stipends he barely ever uses to start buying back the land that the villagers worked upon from the local magistrate. Watches Wei Ying's eyes shine as he tells him that in time, everyone in the village would eventually own their own fields. The villagers throws a small fest, toasts his name even as his ears burns red and Wei Ying shamelessly toast him the loudest.
Lan Wangji learns to weave, and learns the delight of learning something for the sake of wanting to, instead of having to. Auntie Sun gifts him wool and Uncle Niu a set of dyes, and Wei Ying laughs in delight, peppers his face with kisses until the half-finished cloth in his loom is forgotten in the frantic haste of their lovemaking.
Lan Wangji learns to wake up and go to bed too late, learns to cry at sad songs and laugh until tears gathers in his eyes. Learns to enjoy idle afternoons on the grass, his head pillowed on Wei Ying's lap as he thinks about everything and nothing at all.
"Well, well," Wei Ying says above him, fingers gentle and playful on his hair "Someone looks happy."
Lan Wangji blinks, and realizes that he is.
He leaves two letters, one for Uncle, and one for his brother - Wildly different in its contents, but their endings the same words :
and thank you.
He arrives in the village to Guo Xiang's raucous welcome, telling him that Ying-ge is still on the fields, helping Uncle Yang with an early harvest of radishes. Lan Wangji slips into Wei Ying's house and sets down his pack, opens the windows and tidies up the veritable explosion of Wei Ying's dining table, finds out that the half-finished cloth he'd been working on still sits on the loom, as if it's just waiting for him to continue, as if he's never left.
When Wei Ying comes home, it's to the fragrant scent of steamed fishes and the quiet clacking sounds of Lan Wangji's loom, and the smile that spreads upon his face is brighter than the sun.
"A-Zhan!" Wei Ying laughs, "This is just like-"
"Just like A-Ying's dream" Lan Wangji finishes softly. He rises to pick up a cup of water on the table and offers it to the other man, even as Wei Ying watches his every move, watches the larger than usual qiankun bag stored neatly along with wangji and bichen on the corner of the room.
"Aiyo, A-Zhan," Wei Ying says slowly, his eyes soft and hopeful and suspiciously bright, "Now that I've gotten a taste of this, what if I want it every day, huh? What then?"
Lan Wangji smiles, the feeling so easy, almost second nature now that Wei Ying is here, and brings his hands to cup Wei Ying's face gently, reverently, as if he is a dream made flesh.
"Then every day it is."
There is a village South of what used to be the Nightless City - Not big enough for a name, nestled among the woods and bamboo groves - Where the children and the crops flourishes and the people are happy. Where even the weakest of them can feel that they are safe, that they are protected.
There is a house with a Magnolia tree, where people know to knock when there is trouble, where desperate souls come to when the world simply turns away from such small, nameless plights. Where people know that justice will be upheld.
There is a home, where a man tends to his fields and builds and his husband weaves and writes, where they whisper their love on each other's skin every day, without fail.
And there Lan Wangji stays, and lives without regrets.