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caught by wen soldiers after the massacre at lotus pier, and weakened from giving away his core, wei wuxian is thrown into the burial mounds. over the course of sixteen years, believing everyone he loves is dead, he learns demonic cultivation. as the wens take over the rest of the cultivation world, word spreads of a terrible demon known only as The Yiling Patriarch. it is said that none can see this great and terrible demon and survive. it is said that he is ageless, remorseless, and vicious.

he is alone, cradled in the resentment of the spirits around him. at night, music can be heard from the forests around yiling; an unfamiliar song. sad. lonely.

only one person ever goes into and out of the forest without being harmed; a nameless cultivator, known only by the fan clutched constantly in one of his hands. he travels back and forth between yiling and the burial mounds, bringing the gifts that the town offers to keep the Patriarch from reigning doom down them.

"is he happy with the gifts?" they ask when he returns, and the poor nervous man can only flutter his fan in front of his face, shaking his head, shaking it and shaking it.

"i don’t know, i don’t know," he always mutters. "he never shows his face. it is hidden behind a mask. he does not speak to me."

then one day, he disappears. in his place, a new young man brings the supplication gifts. he’s thin, with many scars; he wears makeup, badly. his core is so weak that wei wuxian can barely sense it. he goes to the edge of the wood and the Patriarch looks down at him, surrounded by dark whisps of deadly smoke, and demands, "who are you?"

"mo xuanyu," says the boy. "i will come from now on. the headshaker told me to tell you that he had to leave, because he must attend the wedding."

the Patriarch frowns. "what wedding?" he demands.

"ah," says mo xuanyu. "didn’t you know? second master lan wangji is marrying wen chao."

-

"hold it, hold it," mianmian the younger interrupted. "what is this? are you trying to trick me? where's the nighthunting? mom, is this a kissing story?"

"wait, just wait."

"well, when does it get good?"

"keep you robes on, and let me tell it."

-

wei wuxian is surprised to hear that lan zhan is marrying anybody at all, since he was led to believe that lan wangji -- along with everybody else -- was dead. they slaughtered everyone at lotus pier. they slaughtered everyone at cloud recesses.

wei wuxian frowns down at mo xuanyu. he does not know why nie huaisang has sent him, why he chose this particular boy, but he does know that he has built up a powerfully frightening reputation over the past sixteen years. it would be a shame to simply disappear and lose out on all of that hard work.

he removes his mask. mo xuanyu blurts out, surprised: "oh, you're handsome!"

wei wuxian narrows his eyes. "come with me," he commands. "work hard. learn fast. i'll most likely kill you in the morning."

he never does.

instead, once mo xuanyu has learned enough, and wei wuxian trusts that he can control the energy and not be overwhelmed by its power, he hands him his Patriarch mask. "The Yiling Patriarch is really more of a persona than a person," he explains. "keep it warm for me."

mo xuanyu dons the mask with trembling hands. "it’s beautiful," he murmurs.

wei wuxian ties it on tight, with as gentle hands as he remembers how to have.

-

meanwhile, lan wangji is being held captive by the wens, who have arranged the marriage as a way to "legitimize" the wen takeover. lan qiren is dead; cloud recesses has been burned. lan xichen is trapped in the prison below the palace, his life wen chao’s strongest bargaining chip to keep lan wangji in line. lan wangji’s core is suppressed.

the day before the wedding, lan zhan goes for a walk and disappears.

his captors — though he does not know this, since they blindfold him — are a small, clever man named meng yao and his two accomplices: a fierce corpse of untold strength and an unparalleled swordsman.

they knock him out. meng yao removes lan wangji’s forehead ribbon and ties it to a donkey in jin colors. "what was that for?" the swordsman asks, frowning.

"when the wens see the forehead ribbon on a donkey in the jin colors, they will assume the jin have reneged on their agreement," meng yao explains. "i imagine there will be quite a bloody response."

the jin are one of the few clans to have survived, though this was due only to their capitulation to the wens, and ability to pay heavily. it was a shame the eldest son, jin zixuan, had died, of course. jin guangshan was lucky he had, for example, an unacknowledged son who, for the small price of legitimacy, was willing to do quite a bit of dirty work for him.

and if perhaps he’d thought to legitimize that son earlier, he’d have done it without plotting any further double or triple-crosses.

ah, well.

"you didn’t say anything about wiping out a whole clan," the swordsman equivocates.

"i hired you to help me start a war," meng yao returns peaceably. "this often involves really quite a bit of murder. now: do you want me to send you both back to how i found you? jiang wanyin, you want to return to being so drunk you could barely stand, zidian shocking you every time you moved? and wen qionglin, you would prefer i return you to wen chao, who left you for dead in the road?"

"no," says wen ning quickly. "sorry. no. i’m sorry."

they bustle lan wangji’s unconscious body onto the boat. jiang cheng knocks their shoulders together. "that meng yao, he can fuss," he mutters.

wen ning smiles at him. "fuss ... fuss ... i think he likes to scream at us!"

"i’d like to do him a great harm."

"he’s very very short on ... charm!"

jiang cheng pats his shoulder. they push off from the dock, and into the water.

-

hours later, jiang cheng is frowning over his shoulder. "i think we’re being followed," he says.

"we’re not being followed," replies meng yao. "in these waters? at this time? inconceivable."

(they are indeed being followed, in these waters. at this time.)

lan wangji, having just awoken, takes this opportunity to fling himself from the boat. he’s a strong swimmer. if he can just make it to shore, he can — perhaps this is good, perhaps wen chao will think he is dead and lan wangji can, even with his core suppressed —

"get after him!" meng yao snarls at jiang cheng, who returns in perfect deadpan: "i don’t swim."

"i don’t float," wen ning adds, looking sheepish. "i’m dead."

meng yao lets out an irritated sound and goes to the edge of the boat. "that idiot is going to get eaten by eels," he mutters. "huan-ge will never forgive me."

in the water, lan wangji feels something swim past his leg. it wraps around his ankle briefly before letting go.

"those are the shrieking eels," meng yao calls to him. lan wangji is still blindfolded, but he can hear perfectly well: the horrible screech of something in the water, encircling him. closer and closer. hungry. lan wangji cannot access his core. he cannot fight. he cannot even see.

and then he feels it, the snap of teeth —

-

"he does not get eaten by the eels at this time."

"what?"

"the eel doesn’t get him. i’m explaining to you because you look nervous."

"i wasn’t nervous. ...maybe i was a little bit CONCERNED. but that’s not the same thing."

"we can stop now. if you want."

"...no...you can tell me a little bit more, if you want."

-

the eel went under as wen ning gave it a massive thump on its head. lan wangji felt himself lifted up and out of the water, back onto the boat.

"i suppose you think you’re brave," meng yao says.

"only compared to some," replies lan wangji.

they sail on.

-

in the morning, they reach the cliffs of insanity. wen ning attaches his three companions to him and begins, slowly, to climb, using a long robe that had been arranged for them. behind them, a man in all black, with a silver flashing mask, begins to ascend behind them. he’s very fast.

"he’s gaining," meng yao grits out. "what is the point of you if he’s gaining?"

"i’m carrying three people," wen ning points out, a bit mopey. "i’m sorry, master meng."

when they reach the top, meng yao makes jiang cheng cut the rope with zidian. but the masked man does not fall; he is still there, clinging to the cliff.

"inconceivable," meng yao mutters.

"you keep saying that word," says jiang cheng. "i do not think it means what you think it means."

lan wangji allows himself to be hauled off by wen ning, leaving jiang cheng behind to deal with the masked man. he doesn’t put up much of a fight; it's not like he wanted to get married. if he dies, perhaps it will be enough for the other clans to unite and fight back. it’s unlikely, but not impossible. his position in the palace has been used until now, after all, of "proof" that compliance will mean a certain kind of tense peace.

or — it isn’t that he had never wanted to marry. he's had a lot of time, since wei wuxian died, to understand all the things he wanted, that he hadn't known. he himself had not realized what he was writing, when he was composing the song that he played for wei wuxian, in the cave of the xuanwu.

he hadn’t even named it, back then. he hadn’t named it first because he didn’t understand it, and then, by the time he did, everything had gone to hell, and he never had.

wangxian, he decides as wen ning tosses him over his shoulder. the song is called wangxian.

no one will ever know this, because he's definitely going to die. but that's fine. lan wangji will know, and that's what matters. maybe when he dies, he'll become a spirit, and he'll find wei wuxian's spirit, and he can tell him then.

maybe on the next go around at life, he can tell him earlier.

-

jiang cheng is getting impatient.

"can you hurry up? i'm on a schedule."

wei wuxian squints up at him. it is not a good surprise to find his brother is not dead. or: it had been a good surprise, until he realized that his brother was not dead, but was working for lan wangji’s kidnappers, who were in turn apparently working for the jin. "oh, sorry, is my death-defying stunt going too slow for you? well, i’m afraid you’ll have to wait."

"i hate waiting," jiang cheng complains. "let me help you up. i won’t let you fall. i give you my word as a cultivator."

"no good," wei wuxian replies. "i've known too many cultivators."

jiang cheng thinks about this. "i swear on the soul of my murdered sister," he says, "you will reach the top alive."

wei wuxian, who knows that no matter what else might have happened, jiang cheng would never defile shijie's memory, replies: "throw me the rope."

jiang cheng does. wei wuxian takes it and finishes scaling the cliff; at the top, he reaches for his sword. (it’s not suiban. he has no idea where suiban is, and even if he did, he couldn’t yield it. this is a plain sword, given to him by nie huaisang. "for appearances," nie huaisang had said, mysteriously. "people shouldn’t know that you don’t need a sword.")

"thank you," he says, drawing it.

jiang cheng holds up his hands in a "slow down" gesture. "wait until you're ready," he offers magnanimously. zidian sparks in his hand a few times as wei wuxian raises a grateful hand and sits down on a nearby rock to catch his breath. jiang cheng eyes him for a minute, then asks, "you don't by any chance happen to be able to crush a golden core using a special seventh meridian in your sixth finger, do you?"

"...no," says wei wuxian. "cool trick though. why do you ask?"

jiang cheng hums. "the core-melting hand killed my family," he said. "all of them. everyone. all i have left of them is this." he holds up the hand wearing zidian.

"a powerful spiritual tool. i've never seen its equal," wei wuxian murmurs.

"it was my mother's."

"you must have loved her."

jiang cheng shrugs. "i loved them all," he says, with a kind of nonchalance that betrays how loudly his brain is screaming. "i have dedicated myself to cultivation. one day i will find the core-melting hand and say: hello. my name is jiang wanyin of the yunmengjiang. you killed my family. prepare to die."

wei wuxian blinks. "powerful speech," he says. "then why are you doing this? how does capturing second master lan and starting a new clan war help you bring justice to the core-melting hand?"

jiang cheng shrugs. "meng yao has promised to deliver the core-melting hand to me. but first, i owe him this."

wei wuxian nods. he has spent sixteen years in the burial mounds living on the fear and desperation of those around them, keeping at bay those that come to ask him for aid in bloody revenge. he knows there are few things the truly vengeful will not do to see their goals through. he stands. "i'm ready," he announces, and draws his sword.

they fight.

they are evenly matched, but wei wuxian knows all of jiang cheng’s moves: he learned to dodge them when it was still madam zu yielding zidian. jiang cheng is...delighted. he is so many leagues above everyone he’s had to fight since meng yao found him; he hasn’t had a good fight in years. "you're better than me," he realizes, cracking zidian only to be parried by wei wuxian's sword.

"thank you. then why are you smiling?"

"because i know something you don't know."

"what's that?"

jiang cheng grins. "zidian is not my primary weapon," he says, unsheathes sandu. he has gotten better since the last time they fought, and wei wuxian has not practiced jiang sword forms in many, many years. he finds himself losing, pushed back up crumbling old steps, his back to the ledge. "you're amazing!" wei wuxian cries. he's so proud, honestly.

"i ought to be, after 16 years," jiang cheng replies, pleased. "your sword forms. are they -- nie?"

"some of them. although ... there's something i should tell you."

"what?"

wei wuxian tosses his sword and draws chenqing. "this is not my primary weapon either," he says, and begins to play. jiang cheng swats at the swirling resentful energy, but it is everywhere, impossible to fight off.

"who ARE you?" he cries, as it shackles him and forces him to his knees.

wei wuxian shakes his head and tells the truth: "no one of consequence."

the energy holds jiang cheng fast, frozen. he does not bow his head. "kill me quickly, then," he chokes out, furious, furious. all this time and he fails here, against a man in a dumb mask.

ah, but how could wei wuxian? even if jiang cheng has become -- this. he's still wei wuxian's shidi. "i'd sooner destroy a jug of emperor's smile," he says. "however, since i can't have you following me, either..."

he knocks him out.

"INCONCEIVABLE," meng yao shouts when they see wei wuxian cresting the hill. he turns to wen ning. "you! when he arrives, kill him."

"okeydokey," says wen ning, grabbing a rock.

he chucks it, narrowly missing wei wuxian. "i did that on purpose," he says. "i didn't have to miss."

wei wuxian nods and gives a grateful little bow. "i believe you. what now?"

"we fight each other fairly," wen ning suggests. "sportsmanlike. no tricks. no weapons. skin against skin alone."

wei wuxian is dubious. he hasn’t seen wen ning in a long time, not since ... well. a long time. but he remembers the last time vividly. the violence. the strength. the power and mindlessness, until he had —

yes. a very long time.

"frankly, i think the odds are slightly in your favor at hand fighting," he muses, but then again, he supposes it's better than having his head bashed in by a rock, so he puts down chenqing, and charges.

he's very cute, to wen ning. wen ning wants wei wuxian to feel he's doing well, so he takes a few hits.

"you're doing so well!" he compliments, as wei wuxian jumps on his back and chokes him. "you should be proud!"

"thank you," wei wuxian says. his arms tighten around wen ning's throat.

oh, wen ning realizes. he's -- losing, actually? "huh," he says. "i haven't fought just one person in so long."

"why should that make a difference?" wei wuxian asks, hanging on for dear life.

"you use different moves when you're fighting half a dozen cultivators," wen ning explains, slowly, words coming with difficulty. he falls to his knees, then face-first into the grass.

wei wuxian pats his head.

"you're a very good fierce corpse," he compliments. "i hope you don't have a headache when you wake."

he plays a quick tune on chenqing, the same one he played for the restless spirits in the burial mounds; just enough to ensure that wen ning's rest is peaceful. something soft. a song whose name he doesn't know, but oh which he has never forgotten a note.

-

"oh, for shit's sake," mutters meng yao, seeing wei wuxian charging after him. "i have to do everything myself."

"you could just kill me now," lan wangji suggests. "then probably he'll stop following you."

and make huan-ge sad forever? meng yao thinks, grumpy. "serious suggestions only, please."

the thing is, meng yao's plan is very complex, involving an unpalatable amount of murder. first he needs to frame his awful father for kidnapping lan wangji, then use the wens to wipe him and the rest of the family out and be installed in their place, then unite the rest of the clans to overthrow the wens, and then invent a position to make him kind of all the cultivators, and rule everything from a very sunny palace in lanling.

also, huan-ge will be there.

the point is, lan wangji is just one small piece of it. he will kill him, if he has to, but all things considered he'd rather just stash him somewhere and heroically "find" him, later. for now, he waits. he can't overpower the man in the mask, but perhaps he can outsmart him. that's his whole thing.

the man in the mask sits down across from him. lan wangji stays jade-still beside him.

"a battle of wits," meng yao proposes.

"........sure," the man in the mask agrees, pulling out a vial of poison. "this is iocane powder. it's odorless, tasteless, and dissolves instantly in liquid. it can be deadly to anyone with a golden core, because it dissolves the core completely. this process is will almost definitely kill you; if it doesn’t, you will be left a slightly weaker-than-ordinary nothing."

he puts poisons one goblet behind his back. "the battle of wits has begun. it ends when you decide and we both drink, find out who is right...and who is nothing."

"but that's easy," crows meng yao, surprised. "all i have to do is divine from what i know of you, are you the kind that would poison his own goblet, or his enemy’s? a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. i am not a great fool."

"mn," huffs lan wangji from beside him, and is ignored.

"you must have known i was not a great fool, given all you have seen today. so i can clearly not take the wine in front of me."

the masked man hums appreciatively. "i see. then is that your decision?"

"not remotely!" cries meng yao. "because iocane powder comes from yiling, which everyone knows is peopled by criminals."

"entirely," the masked man agrees. "not an honest soul to be found anywhere."

"so you'd know i would not trust you," deduces meng yao, "and i can therefore clearly not choose the wine in front of you."

"you have a dizzying intellect," says the masked man.

"but you've given everything away!" cries meng yao. he hates when people are boring. just once he’d like to meet someone who wasn’t boring, other than huan-ge, who was a little boring, but meng yao liked that about him. "i know exactly where the poison is!"

"then drink," the man in the mask commands, and they do.

he has to admit that it’s a little funny; the man has bested his cultivator and his fierce corpse, only to be defeated by his own poison. "you fell victim to one of the classic blunders," meng yao explains to him, not unsympathetically. "the most famous, of course, is 'never get involved in a land war in qishan,' but only slightly less well-known is 'never go against a bastard when legitimacy is on the line.'"

meng yao laughs and laughs, and then freezes, eyes wide, and keels over, frozen on the ground.

"i hope you don’t die," the man in the mask says, standing over him. "and i hope that without a core you will stop kidnapping people and learn a better skill. like farming. or music."

meng yao stares unblinkingly up at the sun, palatial behind the clouds. inside him, his core breaks and breaks and breaks.

-

"and to think, all that time your cup was poisoned," lan wangji muses.

wei wuxian studies his face. his still-perfect face. just as he remembered it. cold, remote, annoyed, beautiful. "they were both poisoned," wei wuxian confesses. "iocane powder can't hurt me because i have no golden core."

lan wangji allows himself to be pulled to his feet. he is -- smiling. wei wuxian is pretty sure he is smiling. he keeps smiling as his blindfold is removed, and with perfect patience allows wei wuxian to untie his hands.

"i know who you are," lan wangji says, voice soft.

"the yiling patriarch," agrees wei wuxian.

lan wangji shakes his head. "no," he murmurs. "i know who you are."

he doesn't, of course. he couldn't. wei wuxian tsks at him. his stomach is a knot; his throat a clench. lan wangji. alive. smiling at him, smiling, small as it is. "a bloodthirsty demon. a wicked sorcerer. a slaughterer."

"no," says lan wangji. "you're a pest. an inventor. a good man."

"counterpoint: the yiling patriarch leaves no survivors," wei wuxian points out. "sixteen years of evidence is a lot of evidence."

for someone who's been kidnapped for the second time in one day, lan wangji is remarkably calm. his hands are tight around wei wuxian's wrists. "the yiling patriarch is just another name given to you that you didn't ask for," he says, and taps the silver mask. "and it can be taken just as quickly as all the others."

oh, wei wuxian thinks. all the other names he had lost. son. jiang. disciple. cultivator. brother. friend.

"you mock my pain," he murmurs, surprised. lan wangji has never been unkind. unyielding yes, but never unkind.

lwj's voice is tender as he pushes the mask off wei wuxian's face. "life is pain, wei ying," he murmurs, gentle. "anyone who says different is selling something."

despite his better judgement, wei ying presses a kiss to lan wangji’s palm. "how did you recognize me?" he asks, voice a murmur.

when he lifts his eyes back to lan wangji’s face, he’s being affectionately scolded by the expression waiting there. "think for yourself," commands lan wangji

(somewhere down below, wen ning is beginning to wake. he thinks he remembers a song. a lullaby. sad, and soft, and full of yearning. he doesn't know its name.)

"my memory is bad, i’m notorious for it," wei wuxian reminds him, laughing. "it hasn’t gotten better these sixteen years."

lan wangji shakes his head. "what did you mean, you don't have a golden core?" he asks, reaching out, his hand low on wei wuxian's stomach. there’s a scar there for him to feel, but nothing else. no power. no life.. "wei ying. tell me."

wei wuxian laughs, gravelly. "ah, lan zhan, it was years ago," he dismisses. "it will only upset you."

"nothing you say can upset me," lan wangji promises, and his thumb traces wei wuxian’s cheekbone. "without a core, how can you cultivate?"

wei wuxian hesitates. "well. i died," he murmurs. lan wangji looks up sharply. "only a bit. briefly. in the burial mounds. the energy there, it ... ate me alive. but. it liked the flavor of my resentment."

wei wuxian, it had whispered. until then, he hadn’t known that all your worst nightmares knew you. he hadn’t known that they could call your name.

"i died well," he muses. "if that pleases you. i asked them only to allow me one last thing. the spirits asked me what was so important. there's a song, i replied. the most beautiful song in the world. i asked if i could play it for them, and they said yes."

lan wangji looks down.

"what was it called?" he asks, eyelashes dark against his perfect cheeks.

wei wuxian smiles. "i don't know," he answers. "but it gave them pause. they asked where i learned it. i told them of a boy, of surpassing intelligence and honor and beauty and absolutely no patience at all. i told them i would play it every day, if they would let me live, and help me find him again."

he falls quiet. "and then?" lan wangji prompts.

"AND THEN I HEARD YOU WERE GETTING MARRIED TO WEN CHAO," wei wuxian yells. "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT ABOUT!!!!!"

lan wangji winces; he says, "you were gone for sixteen years."

what he means is: a lot has changed. what he means is: they have me by the throat. what he means is: i loved you, and you died.

you died.

i lived in a world where you died, and i didn't. what good choices were there?

wei wuxian huffs a bitter laugh. he thinks of sixteen years in the burial mounds. surrounded by the dead, begging him to love them. begging him to play for them, over and over, the song he could not name. his family gone, his future gone, his core gone, his love gone. only resentment left.

"come back with me," says lan wangji. "to qishan."

"for what?" wei wuxian snaps. "to be held prisoner? to be a ... royal pet? to watch you--to watch you--"

"you left, and then you died," lan wangji tells him with deadly calm, hand on bichen. "i keep having to watch you leave!"

he takes a step forward and wei wuxian skitters back —

and misses a step, ground disappearing beneath him. he goes tumbling down the side of the mountain, voice carrying: "i'm-so-rry-zhi-jiiiiiiiiiii—"

"shit," says lan zhan, and flings himself down after.

-

on a neighboring mountain ridge, wen chao hops down off his sword and observes to wen zhuliu, "they've disappeared! he must have known we were closing in. they're headed dead into the fire swamp."

-

wei wuxian scrambles over to where lan wangji is carefully not moving. he gathers him up in his arms, smoothing out where, without his forehead ribbon, his hair has gone askew. "lan zhan!" he cries. "can you move at all?"

"mn," says lan wangji. "but you'll have to let go of me first."

wei wuxian laughs, sheepish. "ah, right, right."

before he can move, lan wangji’s hand shoots up to hold him in place. he's staring at him with an intensity that makes wei wuxian break his gaze and pick nonexistent grass off his robes. "did you mean it?" lan wangji asks. "'zhiji'? did you mean it?"

"in all my lives so far," says wei wuxian.

and lan wangji thinks, i could kiss him now. now is when i could kiss him.

but zhiji is a hard word. there's so much in it. there's so much it could but doesn't have to be. lan wangji loves wei wuxian. he is in love with him. that they are zhiji does not mean wei wuxian is in love with him back.

"lan zhan," wei wuxian begins, which is when the thunder of wen-controlled fierce corpses stampeding toward them begins to roll, and they both scramble to their feet and into the fire swamp.

shrouded in the darkness of thick tree cover, their hands tangled, lan wangji asks again, "how do you cultivate?"

"not all the rumors about the Yiling Patriarch are false," wei wuxian tells him. he tightens his grip. "all energy can be harnessed, not just your own. there is a lot of resentment, in the burial mounds."

"the ghost path," lan wangji deduces, frowning.

"that's a very sexy name for it," agrees wei wuxian.

"it isn't good for you," lan wangji tells him, not exactly scolding; he sounds ... pensive. worried. "it's bad for your spirit. for your body."

wei wuxian gestures at himself. he's very skinny. he's been living alone for sixteen years, surviving on what grows, which is radishes and literally nothing else. "i mean," he laughs, self-deprecatingly, "my body can't get that much worse than this. and i don't have a core to corrupt."

lan wangji considers. before, he'd have argued. he'd have run down the list of rules that said why it was wrong to walk the ghost path.

but he has thought wei wuxian was dead for sixteen years. he has lived a long time believing that the worst already happened.

he shrugs. he turns to face wei wuxian completely, and brings their joined up to press a kiss to wei wuxian’s knuckles. "i trust you," he says.

wei wuxian blinks at him. a shiver runs through him. "you do?" he asks. "even though i'm like this?"

"you're wei ying," answers lan wangji, unruffled. "i will never doubt again."

"there will never be a need," wei wuxian promises, and squeezes his hand. lan wangji squeezes back.

 

which is when they're both knocked over by a Rodent Of Unusual Size.

the ROUS bites down on wei wuxian's shoulder, hard. he blasts it off with a talisman, right into an exploding fire column. lan wangji stabs it with bichen, several times; with his core locked, he can't do much more. but it's enough.

he runs to wei wuxian's side, hand hovering over his wound.

"i can't heal you," he confesses. without a core, wei wuxian's wounds won't heal; with his own locked, lan wangji is of no use. he helps wei wuxian to his feet. "they sealed my core. they have my brother, and i can’t — they sealed my core. that’s ... why."

he didn’t have to say why what. wei wuxian huffed a quiet laugh, more of a sigh than anything else.

he lifts one wry corner of his mouth. "the two strongest cultivators of our generation, powerless. i am often surprised by life's little quirks."

"not powerless," lan wangji scolds him, shaking his head, and nods at chenqing.

"ah." wei wuxian hesitates, toying with the flute. he feels -- worried. knowing about it is one thing, but for lan wangji to see him using resentful energy is another. perhaps he'll change his mind.

lwj's mouth quirks.

"wei ying," he says, meaning, there is nothing you could do that would make me leave. he could raise all the corpses in the world and lan wangji would march with them. he could stay in the fire swamp forever and lan wangji would live there, too.

wei wuxian nods. lets out a breath. lifts chenqing.

he plays, and the fire swamp, curtained as heavily with resentful energy as the burial mounds, sways. ROUSes lay down sweetly at their feet. fire columns settle. sand pits pull closed. they walk out of the forest, a song wei wuxian does not know is called 'wangxian' echoing around them.

"that wasn't so bad, was it?" lan wangji asks when they're clear of the trees and wei wuxian lowers his flute.

wei wuxian laughs, looking up at lan wangji with sparkling, delighted eyes. how resentful could it be, lan wangji wonders, if it made wei wuxian feel like this? how could it be harmful if it loved him so well?

"wei ying," he says, just that, and suddenly wei wuxian's expression gets serious, his eyes dark; wei wuxian steps in, angles his face up --

"SURRENDER," commands wen chao. behind him, wen zhuliu bows low. respectful. doused in shame.

"you mean you wish to surrender to me? very well, i accept," wei wuxian chirps, flippant, withdrawing from lan wangji and raising his flute again.

"don't be a fool," wen chao sneers. "i have an army. you have a flute."

"it's a very nice flute," says wei wuxian.

"wei ying," murmurs lan wangji, and his eyes flick up.

they're surrounded, completely. fierce corpses in the hundreds. he doesn't know how wen chao is controlling them, but he must be, because they are standing at attention. not even wei wuxian could overpower them all.

this is to say nothing of the thirty or so cultivators hovering above them.

lan wangji cannot help. he’s a good fighter, so perhaps they could fight, but his core is suppressed; without it, he cannot draw bichen. they won't die immediately, if it comes to it, but what is certain is that they will die.

what is certain is that wei wuxian will die. again. lan wangji will have to live without him again.

"SURRENDER," shouts wen chao, "DEATH FIRST," wei wuxian shouts back, and lan wangji, who cannot bear another world without wei wuxian in it, who barely survived the first one, says quietly, "vow not to hurt him."

"what was that?" wen chao asks.

"what was that?" asks wei wuxian.

"if we surrender, and i return with you, vow on the honor of your clan not to hurt this man."

wen chao studies him carefully. wei wuxian splutters disbelievingly, "honor? of his clan? of his clan? his???"

"vow it," lan wangji demands, and wen chao inclines his head.

lan wangji is not stupid. he knows who wen chao is. he knows the risk he's taking. but it is the possibility of death versus the certainty of one. wei wuxian has a much better chance of escape if he is not worried about a powerless lan wangji. if he is not surrounded by a hundred puppet corpses.

he turns to wei wuxian, who is looking at him with an unreadable expression on his face.

"i thought you were dead once, and it almost destroyed me," lan wangji confesses, voice quiet, just for him. "i could not bear it if you died again. not when i could save you."

"lan zhan," wei wuxian begins.

"wangxian," lan wangji interrupts as wen chao sweeps him up onto his sword. "that is the name of the song you played. wangxian."

and then he's gone.

-

wen zhuliu and wei wuxian watch them go. the corpses lay down, their strings cut. wei wuxian is briefly glad not to recognize any of them.

"come, master wei," says wen zhuliu. "let us get you somewhere safe."

"lies do not become you, master wen," wei wuxian replies, studying him carefully and trying to place him. then, all at once, he realizes: "you have six fingers on your hand."

wen zhuliu frowns. "...yes, why?"

wen wuxian’s smile is — tricky. a flickering, ominous thing. "someone was looking for you," he says, right before they knock him out.

-

he awakes to someone dressing the wound on his shoulder. she is small, with completely white eyes.

"where am i?"

she startles a bit, finding him awake, then sighs. "the pit of despair," she informs him matter-of-factly. "don't even think of trying to escape. only me, xue yang, and wen chao know how to get in and out." she leans in. "between us, i feel bad about this, but at the end of the day it's you or me, you know?"

"i understand completely," wei wuxian assures her. "so it's to be torture?" she nods. "i can cope with torture."

she make a skeptical face and shakes her head.

"you don't believe me?"

her voice is sympathetic, but straightforward. "they say you survived the burial mounds, so you're very brave. but nobody withstands the machine."

"...ominous," says wei wuxian, and steels himself.

-

"wen ruohan died that very night, and before the following dawn, lan wangji and wen chao were married. at noon, he met his subjects again, this time as -- "

"hold it, hold it, mom, you read that wrong. he doesn't marry wen chao, he marries wei wuxian! i'm sure of it! after everything that they went through, if they don't get married, it wouldn't be fair!"

"who says life is fair? where's that written? life isn't always fair."

"i'm TELLING you, you're MESSING UP THE STORY! get it RIGHT."

"do you want me to go on with this? then no more interruptions."

-

wen ruohan dies that very night, and before the following dawn, lan wangji and wen chao are married. at noon, he meets his subjects again, this time as the husband of the wen sect leader.

"my father's last words were 'love him as i have loved him, and there will be joy.' i present to you: hanguang-jun."

"BOOOOOOOO! BOOOO! BOO!" yells a dirty-looking cultivator with a cloth died over his bloody eyes. in his hand is a glowing bag. it has a soul in it. lan wangji recognizes him: song lan, one of the rogue cultivators he had met when he was young, with wei wuxian.

"why do you do this?" lan wangji asks, puzzled.

"because you had LOVE IN YOUR HANDS and you GAVE IT UP," song lan yells, shaking the bag.

"they'd have killed him if i didn't," lan wangji points out. "i had no choice."

"YOUR TRUE LOVE LIVES AND YOU MARRY ANOTHER," shouts song lan. "true love SAVED you in the fire swamp, and you treated it like garbage! that's what you are: lord of filth! lord of refuse!"

lan wangji wakes with a start.

-

"SEE! didn't i tell you he'd never marry that rotten wen chao?"

"yes. you're very smart."

-

he goes to wen chao. "it comes to this: i love wei wuxian," he announces. he knows that wen chao will not care; that, in fact, it is useful to him only insofar as it can be used against lan wangji. but it feels good to say out loud. triumphant.

"neat," replies wen chao.

"more to your interest," lan wangji continues, "i know where one of the shards is."

wen chao leaps to his feet, rounding his desk. "where?"

lan wangji shakes his head. "i will tell you when you have returned wei wuxian to me," he says flatly. "not a moment before."

this is problematic for wen chao, who happens to know that wei wuxian is in the pit of despair having what he assumes is a very bad time.

"we already know where the four shards are. north, south, east, west," wen chao points out, narrowing his eyes. "eventually we will find them. there is only so much ground to cover."

"yes, you may find those four," lan wangji agrees.

"...those four?"

"mn."

"what do you mean?"

"what i said."

wen chao stomps his foot. "i don't like your tone," he snaps.

"that is a problem you must deal with on your own time," lan wangji answers.

"you're saying there is a fifth shard?"

lan wangji, who has had the shard from the lan caves literally this whole time, and whose brother has spoken to him during their once-weekly permitted visitation about rumors of a fifth shard, hidden in the xuanwu's cave, and who is a real nerd about reading, has pieced together some things that wei wuxian did not tell him, about his time in the burial mounds. about where his power comes from.

"five is indeed the number after four," he notes.

wen chao strikes him. lan wangji doesn't move, though without his core it hurts enormously. he waits, unblinkingly, until wen chao snarls, "fine. i will send word to all our district offices to return him. but..." his lips curl up in a terrible smile. "are you sure he still wants you? after all, it was you who did the leaving. the Yiling Patriarch is not known to be forgiving."

"you're not qualified to talk about him," lan wangji informs him flatly. "if he is not here by the wedding, i will kill myself and you will never learn the location of the 5th shard."

he turns on his heel and leaves. wen chao shouts after him, but lan wangji is not interested in his conversation. he has said what he needed to say.

-

in the pit of despair, wei wuxian is indeed having a pretty bad time.

"beautiful, isn't it?" xue yang asks, glittering up at the machine and bouncing a little on his feet. "i'm sure you've discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain."

"i have noticed it," wei wuxian agrees. off to the side, the girl with white eyes winces at him.

"i want you to be honest with me about how it makes you feel," xue yang tells him sternly, wagging a finger. "this being our first try, i'll use the lowest setting."

and he cranks the machine to 'one.'

-

the night before the wedding, wen chao calls wang lingjiao to him. "killers from --" he checks his notes, "lanling are planning to murder lan wangji on our wedding night and frame me for it."

"my district offices have reported no such news," wang lingjiao tells him, brow furrowing.

"nevertheless, they are," says wen chao.

"don't you want him dead, so that you can marry me?" wang lingjiao pouts, sidling closer and fluttering her lashes.

"of course i do," soothes wen chao. "but he can't die by murder, it'll look bad. he has to die of, say, an illness that takes a very long time and cannot be cured. like his mother did. very tragic to learn that it runs in the family, no?"

wang lingjiao nods, tapping her chin. "of course. well, i suppose i could just go into the forest and kill everybody. not a bad way to spend an afternoon."

wen chao pats her head fondly, giving her a little kiss and a boop on the nose. "good girl," he coos, and pulls her into his lap.

-

the day of the wedding, wang lingjiao's brute squad has their hands full emptying the forest. there is one particular cultivator who was giving them problems. he is very drunk. he keeps shouting, "i AM WAITING! FOR! MY FRIEND," and stumbling over, cracking a powerful spiritual whip.

"i am your friend," suggests wen ning tentatively, hauling him up, but gently. jiang cheng blinks blearily at him, then smiles, woozy. "are you looking for me?"

"it's you," he coos.

"hello!" cries wen ning, delighted. "you don't look so good." jiang cheng huffs out a breath, which hits wen ning right in the face. "oof. you don't smell so good, either."

"i feel fine," insists jiang cheng, and faints.

-

wen ning took great care in reviving jiang cheng.

 

"THAT'S ENOUGH," jiang cheng yells. "where is wen zhuliu now? i am going to kill him. it is time, right now, to kill him."

wen ning shrugs. "he's with wen chao, in the palace. but the palace gate is guarded by thirty corpses."

jiang cheng kicks a bucket. "how many could you handle?"

"i don't think more than ten," admits wen ning.

"leaving twenty. at my best i could never defeat that many." he flings himself down onto a nearby chair, slumped.

wen ning looks down. "if master wei was here — "

jiang cheng shuts him up with a glance. "he's not," he snaps. "no amount of missing him will fix it. dead people stay dead." pause. "present company excluded."

"thank you," says wen ning.

they both miss jiang cheng's brother. wen ning had latched onto him like a baby bird at cloud recesses, before everything went to shit, and jiang cheng has always -- he'd rather die than say it to his brother's face, but he always looked up to him.

"i need a necromancer," he grouses.

he sits up.

"the man in the mask," he breathes. "he bested me with resentful energy." he leaps to his feet, darting toward the door. "let's go."

wen ning trails obligingly after him, jogging a little to keep up. "where?"

"to find the yiling patriarch! there will be blood tonight!"

-

at the palace, lan wangji is dressed in his wedding robes. wen chao circles him for inspection. "guess he doesn't love you enough to come," he sneers.

"if he hasn't come, then you haven't sent for him," lan wangji answers, calm.

"tell me where the shard is."

"no."

"tell me, or i swear i'll -- "

"eliminate my clan? destroy our library? seal my core? murder my uncle? marry me?"

wen chao kicks over a stack of books. "you won't be so arrogant after the wedding," he snarls. "when i'm legitimized and you're wasting away in a prison."

lan wangji shrugs. is that not what he was already doing? he has a lot of experience in wanting things he cannot have. this will not be a difficult adjustment.

wen chao leans back against his desk. "you're an arrogant fool," he snaps.

"arrogance is forbidden," recites lan wangji. "you are nothing but a coward with a heart full of fear."

"i would not say such lies, if i were you," wen chao warns him, voice low.

lan wangji replies, "lying is forbidden."

with a furious shout, wen chao snaps his fingers and lan wangji is dragged away, tossed into his room. wen chao stomps from the palace to the pit of despair, shouting his way down the stairs to where wei wuxian is still tied to the table.

"excess noise is forbidden in cloud recesses," wei wuxian croaks in greeting.

it is all xue yang has been able to get from him: perfect recitation of the gusu clan’s rules. they have made it through two thousand and eleven of them.

"he loves you," wen chao hisses, "and you might have been truly happy. and so i think no man in a century will suffer as greatly as you."

he cranks the machine to fifty.

"oh, this is amazing stuff!" croons xue yang, writing frantic notes as wei wuxian's screams echo through the pit of despair, and the forest around it, and the kingdom around it, and the world around it.

in town, jiang cheng stops. "a-ning, do you hear?" the sound is awful: piercing, despairing, hollow. it makes jiang cheng’s skin itch.he shakes his head, nudging wen ning’s shoulder. "that is the sound of ultimate suffering. my heart made that sound when the core-melting hand killed my family. the yiling patriarch makes it now."

wen ning nods, his eyes sad. "his true love marries another tonight. who else has such cause for ultimate suffering?"

"that, or they're really torturing him," agrees jiang cheng.

-

they follow the sound to the woods, where a small girl with white eyes is pushing a cart.

"where is the yiling patriarch?" jiang cheng demands, sandu's tip at her throat.

she blinks at him. "are you threatening me?" she asks. "i'm a blind teenager, and you're threatening me? that's so rude."

wen ning waffles, gently placing a hand on jiang cheng’s wrist. "maybe the kind mistress is willing to show us where the yiling patriarch is," he suggests. "because we need him really badly, and she seems like a kind young mistress."

"i do not seem kind," protests the girl, horrified.

"then maybe the kind mistress will do it because if she doesn't i'll cut her hands off and then how will she push her cart?" jiang cheng snaps.

she studies them. jiang cheng is ...pretty sure she isn't blind.

eventually, she sighs. "i don't know who the yiling patriarch is," she says, "but there's a man in that tree being tortured to death." she gestures at a nearby tree, larger than the others, with a suspiciously large nob by it’s base.

"great!" cries wen ning.

"not for him," snorts the girl, pressing the knob. part of the trunk swings inward to reveal a winding set of stairs. "now quick, knock me out so it looks like you attacked me."

they hesitate.

"you just had your sword at my throat," she reminds jiang cheng. "what, a bump on the noggin is too far?"

jiang cheng and wen ning look at one another; jiang cheng shrugs. wen ning winces and mumbles, "sorry, young mistress, and thank you," before bopping her quickly on the head. he catches her when her knees buckle and lays her gentle on the forest floor.

but, in bowels of the pit of despair, wei wuxian is already dead.

-

"mom, mom, wait. what do you mean 'dead'? wei wuxian is only faking, right?"

"do you want me to read this, or not?"

"who gets wen chao?"

"i don't understand."

"WHO KILLS WEN CHAO. AT THE END. SOMEBODY HAS TO."

"maybe nobody kills him. maybe he lives."

"you mean he WINS?! what did you read me this thing for?!"

"...you've been very sick and you're taking this story very seriously. maybe we should stop."

"no! i'm okay. sit down. i'm all right."

"hm...all right. let's see. where we we? oh right. in the pit of despair."

-

jiang cheng straightens. "a-ning, bring the body."

"the body?" wen ning repeats hesitantly. "what are we going to do?"

jiang cheng's father is dead. his mother is dead. his sister is dead. his brother is dead. but the jiangs are not dead, because jiang cheng is a jiang, and jiang cheng remembers.

he answers, "attempt the impossible."

-

the knocking is incessant, and frantic. it's been a long time since anyone has knocked this frantically or incessantly on her door. she shuffles out of her office, grumbling the whole time. "what, WHAT?" she grouses, flinging the door open.

"are you the one known as qiji qing?"

it takes them both a moment to place the other’s face.

"wait," jiang cheng says. "wait -- WEN QING?"

"i was, before they killed my brother and cast me out," wen qing snaps, recovering quickly. "thanks so much for the reminder. next time just cut my arm off and put lemon juice on it. i'm closed." she goes to slam the door, but jiang cheng catches it. "leave, or i'll call the brute squad."

"i'm on the brute squad," says wen ning, very quietly, emerging from the corner of the house.

they look at one another for a very, very long while.

"a-jie," wen ning murmurs eventually, "i missed you. i really really missed you all this time," and bursts into tears.

wen qing finishes opening the door and flings herself into wen ning's arms. it's difficult for him to hold both her and wei wuxian, but he manages.

"a-ning," she cries, soothing his hair back, taking his face in her hands. "you're alive. how are you alive? they killed you. i know they killed you. i saw them."

"someone brought me back," wen ning says. "i don't know who. they left me outside yiling, and -- "

"yiling?" jiang cheng is frowning. "you didn't tell me it was yiling."

"it was," wen ning confirms. "and when i woke up, i was in a cave, next to a pool of blood. a man in a ... oh."

all three of them look down to where wei wuxian's limp body is still in wen ning's arms. the mask is coming loose.

wen qing asks, perfectly calmly, "is this the yiling patriarch?"

"yeah," jiang cheng admits.

"and you're telling me he saved my brother's life?"

"strictly speaking, he brought your brother back as a fierce corpse," says jiang cheng. "but yes."

"and now he's dead?"

they nod.

"i'll take a look."

they lay him out on her operating table. she hums thoughtfully, feeling down his arms, tracing his meridians. "have you taken the mask off?" she asks. "do you know who he is?"

"he's the yiling patriarch," says jiang cheng. "what more is there to know?"

wen qing pinches her nose. jiangs.

"it feels disrespectful to remove it," wen ning mumbles. "he seems to like to keep it on."

she sighs. "this man has no golden core," she informs them. she should know; she's the one that took it out. she would know this body if it were disfigured beyond all recognition.

jiang cheng squawks. "what?!" he cries. "but -- his sword forms!"

"yes. it's almost like he had a core and then lost it," wen qing says, very deadpan.

"like what happened to me," jiang cheng deduces. "before wei wuxian's grandmaster healed me."

wen qing hesitates. "...right. yes."

"um," says wen ning.

"yes, that's what happened," wen qing repeats, more firmly, giving wen ning a silencing look.

jiang cheng wants to tear at his hair, but instead leans in close. "can you heal him?" he asks. "can you bring him back if he has no core?"

wen qing makes a maybe-so gesture with her hand. "it depends," she tells them frankly, "on whether or not he wants to live."

she digs through her things, looking for the air pump. "it so happens that he is only mostly dead. there's a big difference between mostly and all dead. please, open his mouth."

wen ning obliges, gently prying his mouth open. wen qing sticks the pump in and begins to push air into his lungs. "mostly dead," she explains, gesturing at wen ning, "is slightly alive. all dead -- well. with all dead, there's usually only one thing you can do."

"what's that?"

"go through his clothes and look for loose change."

wen ning frowns at her. "a-jie," he scolds.

"money is money," wen qing tells him. she pumps wei wuxian's mouth a few times, then leans in. "HEY," she calls. "HELLO IN THERE. WHAT HAVE YOU GOT HERE THAT'S WORTH LIVING FOR?"

she presses down on his chest, slow. the air she’s pumped in pushes out the words: "tooooooooo ooooooooooooov."

wen ning perks up. "true love!" he cries, delighted. "did you hear that, he said true love!"

"hm," says wen qing. she runs her hands down his arms again. nothing has changed. there's very little of him left. "that's all?"

"that's ALL?" repeats jiang cheng. "wow. tough crowd."

"true love is very nice," wen qing agrees. "but one person, no matter how much you cherish them, is not enough to bring you back from being mostly dead. you cannot hang your whole life on one person's shoulders. it is too heavy. it will drown you both."

quietly, from behind them, a voice says, "true love does not have to refer to just one person."

all three heads turn.

"go back inside, witch," wen qing sighs, and the hooded person answers with a tinkling laugh, "i'm not a witch, i'm your wife."

she raises her head. the hood falls back.

"a-li," jiang cheng breathes.

yanli smiles at him, eyes glittering. "a-cheng," she answers, and holds open her arms. he falls into them, tears wetting her shoulders.

"you're alive," he gasps. "how -- how are you -- i thought they -- "

"they flung me into the river, and i mostly drowned," yanli admits, before smiling again. "which means i was slightly un-drowned when a-qing found me. you know my cultivation has never been strong; i healed slowly. i was bed-bound, and very ill, for a long time. i thought you were dead, too." she laughs a sob, peppering jiang cheng's face with kisses. "a-cheng. a-cheng. look at you."

wen qing huffs. "now we're even," she tells jiang cheng. "we've traded not-dead siblings."

"apparently we are siblings," jiang cheng chokes out. "you married her?"

yanli and wen qing share a glance.

"it's a story for another time," yanli says. she turns to the body on the table. when she thought everyone was dead, wen qing told yanli of the core transfer, about what wei wuxian did to save jiang cheng. she recognizes her brother’s body, even all these years later; her a-xian. "is this him? a-qing? is it?"

wq bows her head. "yes," she says.

"he said true love," yanli murmurs.

"it's not enough," wen qing tells her, not unkindly. "do you think i didn't try? with a-ning, when he died, before they took him away, do you think i didn't -- "

"i love him," yanli interrupts. "a-cheng loves him. your brother loves him. you love him."

"i barely even like him," wen qing mutters, looking away.

"liar," yanli accuses, so gently. "liar, liar, liar."

jiang cheng gestures at the Yiling Patriarch. "this guy?" he repeats. "everybody loves this guy?"

"of course we do," yanli says, and calmly removes his mask. "he's our brother."

and there he is. his face is changed; all their faces are changed. time has not been kind to any of them. wei wuxian is gaunt. there are dark circles beneath his eyes. he is, after all, mostly dead.

but it is him.

"this is so many sibling reunions in one day," jiang cheng says faintly, collapsing back into wen ning's arms.

"true love does not mean only love," yanli goes on, voice very firm. "a-qing. i know how badly it hurt when you could not revive wen ning. but it is different this time. we're all here. all of us are enough."

wen qing bites her lip. she studies wei wuxian.

when she looks back up, it is to meet the steady gaze of her wife, whose kindness she had once mistaken for weakness, but which she has come to understand is a deliberate kind of strength.

she leans down, putting her mouth again to his ear, and shouts: "LISTEN UP, WEI YING. YOUR SISTER IS ALIVE. YOUR BROTHER IS ALIVE. A-NING IS SAFE. I AM SAFE." she pauses, glancing at yanli, who has taken one of wei wuxian's hands, and jiang cheng, who has taken the other. "LAN WANGJI IS ALIVE."

"what’s he got to do with anything?" hisses jiang cheng.

she snaps back, "shut up! i'm working!"

she shoves three needles into wei wuxian's head, neck, and shoulders, and removes them just as quickly. into his mouth she places a large pill, manually chewing for him until it disappears down his throat.

"how long do we have to wait until we know if the miracle works?" asks wen ning.

"your guess is as good as mine," replies wen qing, which is when wei wuxian yells, "i'll beat you at your part! i'll take you both together!"

"i guess not very long," says yanli, and at her voice, wei wuxian falls abruptly silent. his eyes dart around, looking, but he can't move. "a-xian."

"shijie?" he croaks, voice shaking. "are you -- am i dead? why won't my arms move?"

"you've been mostly dead all day," supplies wen ning helpfully. "everyone is alive! me and my a-jie and your a-jie and jiang cheng."

this is a lot to take in all at once.

"wen qing made you a pill to bring you back," jiang cheng says. his voice is gravel. he looks frozen. "why didn't you tell me you were you when we were fighting? prick."

he squeezes wei wuxian's hand, lower lip trembling.

"it felt like the wrong time," wei wuxian manages, around the shock. yanli kisses his forehead. "what's going on?"

"i will explain," wen qing begins, then pauses. "no. it's too much. i will sum up: everyone thought everyone else was dead, but nobody was dead, though we've all been very unwell. your lan wangji is marrying wen chao in a little less than half an hour."

"true love brought you back," sniffs wen ning.

wei wuxian blinks. "my love for lan zhan brought me back?"

"ohhhh, i get why you said it now," jiang cheng says to wen qing, who ignores him.

"your love for all of us," yanli corrects. "and our love for you. but yes. also lan wangji."

"great!" chirps wei wuxian, who is taking this all very well for a paralyzed man who has just discovered he's lived alone in torment for sixteen years for absolutely no reason at all. "so all we have to do is break into the palace, steal lan zhan, kill wen chao, and take over qishan."

"it doesn't leave much room for dilly-dallying," wen qing agrees.

"you just moved your finger!" cries wen ning. "that's wonderful!"

"thank you, a-ning," says wei wuxian, very fondly. his eyes are flicking around the room, brain already churning through ideas. "so. what are our liabilities?"

"there's only one gate. it is guarded by thirty corpses." jiang cheng glances at wen ning, who holds up two fingers. "double that if they’ve added the brute squad to it."

"and our assets?"

jiang cheng thinks. "your necromancy. a-ning's strength. my zidian."

"impossible," grumps wei wuxian.

"yes," jiang cheng agrees. "thankfully, you're a jiang. we love the impossible."

wei wuxian doesn't cry, but only because his tear ducts aren't working yet. "if i had time to plan, maybe i could come up with something," he groans, brushing his nose three times.

wen ning claps. "you just shook brushed your nose! doesn't that make you happy?"

wei wuxian lolls his head over to look at him. "your support is very meaningful to me, a-ning," he says sincerely. "aiya! if only we had a cart."

"well, there's the cart that the blind girl had," jiang cheng says, consideringly.

"it's not far," agrees wen ning.

"...right," says wei wuxian. "hm. we'd still need a fireproof cloak."

yanli shrugs the cloak off her shoulders. "this is fireproof," she offers, holding it out.

a light has begun to grow in wei wuxian's eyes. "all right. come on, help me up. i have an idea. i'll need a sword, eventually."

"why? you can barely lift your arms," jiang cheng reminds him sharply. he’s not going to let wei wuxian get himself killed again trying to fight while literally paralyzed.

"well, that's hardly common knowledge, is it?" wei wuxian points out. "now, there may be problems inside."

jiang cheng snorts. "i'll say. how do i find wen zhuliu? once i do, how do i find you again? once i find you again, how do we overthrow wen chao?"

"don't pester him," wen ning scolds, gathering wei wuxian into his arms and lifting him. "he's had a long day."

"he’s had a long day?!" jiang cheng shouts. "this asshole -- "

"a-cheng," interrupts yanli. "perhaps we can all sit down, after, and discuss where we've all been, and why we didn't contact each other. i'll make soup, all right? but we are on a bit of a tight timeline."

wen qing and yanli help them retrieve the cart and gently settle wei wuxian in it. yanli kisses his face three times before turning away, burying her face in wen qing’s shoulder as they pull away. wen qing watches them go until they disappear at the edge of the wood.

when they get to the gate, they put wen ning on the cart, wrapped yanli's cloak. jiang cheng pushes it, wei wuxian on his back.

"I AM THE YILING PATRIARCH," wen ning announces, his voice deep and booming. "I AM HERE. YOU ARE HERE. BUT SOON YOU WILL NOT BE HERE. THE YILING PATRIARCH TAKES NO SURVIVORS."

-

[guqin playing]

"mawwiage," says the wedding officiant to lan wangji and wen chao from behind a delicately painted fan, "is what bwings us togevah today. mawiage, that bwessed awaingement, that dweam wivin a dweam--"

-

"now?" hisses jiang cheng.

"not yet," replies wei wuxian. they stumble forward a few steps.

"NOW?"

"light him."

wen ning goes up in flames.

-

"wuv, twoo wuv, will fowwow you forevah," says the officiant.

"skip to the end," grits out wen chao, ignoring the chaos outside.

lan wangji’s mouth flickers. not quite a smile. he says, "wei ying."

"your wei ying is dead. i killed him myself!"

"lying is forbidden." lan wangji has told him this many times. he is beginning to suspect that wen chao’s memory is worse than wei wuxian’s.

-

at the gate, jiang cheng, wei wuxian, and wen ning corner wang lingjiao. "give us the gate key," wei wuxian demands.

"i have no gate key," she responds.

jiang cheng commands flatly, "a-ning, tear her arms off."

"oh," she says, "you mean this gate key?"

-

"--clare you man and husband."

lan wangji is escorted to the bedroom suite. he goes quietly. this is no worse to him than any other day has been. lan wangj's life has been his only bargaining chip: while he is alive, he can keep wei wuxian safe by refusing to reveal the shards until he is safe.

if it is true that wei wuxian is dead, then lan wangji will simply kill himself and take the knowledge of the shards' locations with him. perhaps he will meet wei wuxian again in the next incarnation cycle, as spirits. perhaps he should write down wangxian, for someone else to play.

wen zhuliu corners jiang cheng, wen ning, and wei wuxian in the palace hallway. "kill them," he tells the wen cultivators with him, raising a hand.

jiang cheng’s eyes come into sharp focus. "six fingers," he notes, in a tone of voice that is very calm, for him. "the core-melting hand."

"yes," wen zhuliu agrees, inclining his head.

wei wuxian and jiang cheng look at each other. "fight well, shidi," wei wuxian says, and wen ning hauls him off down the hallway, toward the bedroom suite.

"hello," jiang cheng says to wen zhuliu. "my name is jiang wanyin of the yunmengjiang. you killed my family. prepare to die."

wen zhuliu straightens. "young master," he greets politely, and the fight begins.

it spills down multiple hallways. through the banquet hall. across a turret. down into the throne room, where wen zhuliu turns, gets lucky, and manages to stab his sword through jiang cheng's stomach.

"i remember you," he murmurs. "i took your core in lotus pier. without one, this wound will not heal. but you fought well."

he bows.

-

in the bedchamber, lan wangji removes his crown. with his core locked, it will be quite easy to kill himself; he won't heal from any wound he inflicts. perhaps it is for the best, anyway: without lan wangji, no one alive knows of the shard locations.

he brings the knife to his own throat.

"there is a shortage of perfect faces in the world," scolds wei wuxian from the bed. "it would be a pity to damage yours."

lan wangji whirls around. "wei ying," he says, wobbling on the second syllable, and is immediately over at the bed. "i thought -- "

"yeah, i died again," wei wuxian admits. "mostly."

"only mostly?" asks lan wangji, running his hands down wei wuxian's face, checking for wounds. his touch is soft. gentle. he's always so gentle, with wei wuxian.

"true love brought me back," wei wuxian tells him. he's smiling. his eyes are two perfect wrinkles. "lan zhan. i like you. i love you."

lan wangji blinks.

"i want you," wei wuxian goes on. "it can't be anybody, except you. not for the rest of however many lives i get."

lan wangji says nothing, still.

wei wuxian frowns. "did you hear me?" he asks, and all the lights in the room go out.

lan wangji gathers wei wuxian into his arms, gripping so tightly that if wei wuxian had any feeling at all in his extremities, he'd be in quite a lot of pain. but it's fine. he can't hug back, but he lodges his face into the curve of lan wangji's shoulder and tries to burrow in.

lan wangji is saying something—

"like you. love you. want you. can't be anybody, except you, for the rest of my life. all my lives."

"each one," says wei wuxian. "every life means every life."

"every life," agrees lan wangji, dizzily, and then they are kissing, and in the dark of the room the world narrows to just this.

-

jiang cheng pulls the sword out. he climbs, slowly, to his feet. he feels like he can taste his blood, like it's in his throat.

"good heavens, are you still trying to win?" wen zhuliu asks, surprised. he stabs out again; jiang cheng parries with zidian and it stabs his shoulder.

"hello," he says. "my name is jiang wanyin of the yunmengjiang. you killed my family. prepare to die."

he lurches forward, zidian cracking. wen zhuliu parries, but jang cheng doesn't stop. "hello. my name is jiang wanyin of the yunmengjiang. you killed my family. prepare to die."

he backs wen zhuliu up against the throne. "hello. my name is jiang wanyin of the yunmengjiang. you killed my family. prepare to die."

"wait," wen zhuliu manages. "your wounds -- without a core, how -- ?"

but jiang cheng has a core. it was given to him by somebody that loved him.

"impossible," wen zhuliu cries.

"hello," answers jiang cheng. "my name is jiang wanyin of the yunmeng jiang. we always attempt the impossible. prepare to die."

and with that, he releases every ounce of zidian's spiritual power, and wen zhuliu slumps to the floor, dead.

-

they break apart. "i'm sorry," lan wangji says. "wei ying. i -- "

"between us, there is no need for sorry," wei wuxian interrupts.

lan wangji smiles. "thank you, then."

"no need for that either."

"what is there need for?"

"a smaller audience," wei wuxian decides, looking over lan wangji's shoulder.

wen chao draws his sword. "to the death!" he growls, stepping forward.

"no," wei wuxian replies. "to the pain."

this makes wen chao pause. "...i don't think i'm quite familiar with that phrase," he admits. his sword stays raised, but wei wuxian makes no move toward him.

wei wuxian gives him a little gremlin smirk. "to the pain means the first thing i will make you cut off will be your own feet, at the ankles. then then your hands, at the wrists. next, your nose."

"i killed you too quickly last time," wen chao spits, advancing. "then my tongue, i suppose?"

rage is building in wei wuxian. sixteen years. so many lives. his own. his own. his own.

"no," he says, "the next thing you lose will be your left eye, then right."

"then my ears, i understand, let's get on with it -- "

he came so close to losing lan wangji. he thought he lost everyone else.

"wrong!" he cries. "your ears you keep, and i'll tell you why."

he thinks of sixteen years in the burial mounds. of people shrinking in fear at the sight of him, of using his name for their misdeeds. he thinks of the curses, of the resentment that has fed him, of his own core, lost.

he thinks of mo xuanyu, left behind to become what wei wuxian had never wanted to be in the first place. a sacrifice of another kind.

"it is so that you know. so that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. everyone who cries out 'dear god, what is that thing?' will echo in your perfect ears."

wen chao clears his throat. when he speaks, his voice is shaky. "i think you're bluffing."

"it's possible." wei wuxian cedes this point with a nod.

"lan wangji's core is suppressed," wen chao goes on. "and you don't even have a sword."

"that's true," wei wuxian agrees.

wen chao scoffs. "then what am i meant to be afraid of?"

wei wuxian looks up at lan wangji's perfect face. lan wangji smiles down at him, and gives a little nod. it's okay. do it.

"there's something about me you don't know," wei wuxian tells wen chao, but does not look away from lan wangji's face. he likes it. it's his very favorite one.

wen chao narrows his eyes. his sword is still drawn. "and what is that?" he mocks.

wei wuxian wets his lips and says, "i don't need a sword."

-

wei wuxian begins to whistle.

-

the energy comes from everywhere. the wens have been using the shards they had already collected to puppet corpses from all the nearby villages as guards, as servants; wei wuxian calls the energy from all of them, calls to all of them, and the quake of their many feet shakes the room.

so many ghosts, in this place.

so many dead, and their resentments still so, so alive.

"close your eyes, lan zhan," wei wuxian murmurs, but lan wangji takes his face in his hands and meets his gaze.

"no," he says, and they look only at each other as wen chao is torn apart.

-

by the time jiang cheng bursts in, wen chao is a heap on the floor, his feet gone, his hands gone, his eyes gone. his ears, untouched.

"wow. bad," jiang cheng says. "should i kill him?"

"thank you, but no," wei wuxian replies. "the point is that he lives. we just did a whole thing about it."

jiang cheng shrugs, dipping under wei wuxian's arm. they pause.

"ah, wen chao," wei wuxian says. "release lan wangji's core. then perhaps i'll kill you."

wen chao, desperate, does.

with the strength of his core back, lan wangji hefts wei wuxian into his arms easily. wei wuxian nuzzles delightedly into his neck. jiang cheng rolls his eyes, but he’s having a good day, so he lets it slide. "hi."

lan wangji’s voice is soft, and warm, and fond. "hello, wei ying."

from outside, wen ning's voice calls: "young masters? where are you?"

jiang cheng pushes open the window and all three of them lean out. gathered below is wen ning, wen qing, yanli, and two boys that wei wuxian doesn't recognize.

beside them is lan xichen. "i found him in a prison cell!" wen ning says.

"brother," lan wangji calls.

"wangji," calls back lan xichen, smiling. "i -- when wen ning found me and told me all that had happened, i realized ... lady wen, by virtue of her parents, would be the next in line for the throne, if wen chao is dead."

wei wuxian and jiang cheng look at each other. without turning, jiang cheng reaches back and quickly stabs wen chao.

"he's dead," they say together.

lan xichen smiles again, though there's a hint of sadness in it. "a-yao ... well. i am hoping to negotiate."

"i'm open to a conversation," wen qing says. "now let's get out of here."

-

"they rode to freedom. as dawn arose, wei wuxian and lan wangji knew they were safe. a wave of love swept over them, and as they reached for each other -- "

a pause.

"what? what?"

"nah, it's kissing again. you don't want to hear that."

"mn...i don't ... mind so much."

-

since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure.

this one left them all behind.

(THE END)