Sizhui and Wen Qionglin have shrunk and faded in the distance. They will care well for one another. Lianfang-zun is in the ground, Chifeng-zun alongside him. Lan Wangji is, he thinks, ready for whatever may come next. He would like to imagine that Wei Ying is ready, too.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s voice, a pace or two behind him. “Are you not coming?”
Lan Wangji breathes in the moment. He will turn to Wei Ying, as he always does. The silence is sweet, that’s all, and he has so rarely gotten to enjoy the anticipation of seeing Wei Ying without some threat or another looming over their companionship. A beat passes, and another, and he pivots.
He is just in time to catch the sight of Wei Ying crumpling to the ground, Little Apple’s reins unraveling from around his hand.
Lan Wangji is at his side in the space of half a breath. He cups Wei Ying’s elbow in his hand, steadying him. “Wei Ying?”
“I’m fine,” Wei Ying says. His eyes are shut and he is ashen. “I’m really—just help me up?”
It’s easy enough to pull Wei Ying to his feet, but he feels limp, like Lan Wangji is trying to hold water in his hands. He sways, blinking owlishly at Lan Wangji’s proximity. Little Apple nudges at his side with her nose.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again. “Are you hurt?”
“I, ah…” Wei Ying licks his lips. Lan Wangji grips his biceps, keeping him upright. “I didn’t think so.” He grunts, taking hold of a fistful of Lan Wangji’s robe. “Lan Zhan, I don’t think I can stand.”
“I can carry you,” Lan Wangji says. He slides his hands down Wei Ying’s arms and takes his hands. His left arm is hot to the touch, burning through the layers of his clothing. “We need to find shelter.”
“I’m fine,” Wei Ying repeats, but it has the sound of a schoolboy reciting words that mean nothing to him.
It’s no effort at all to gather Wei Ying into his arms. His head lolls against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, his breath hot and shallow on the underside of Lan Wangji’s jaw. “Can you ride?” Lan Wangji asks, eyeing Little Apple’s squat form.
“Mmhmm.” Wei Ying stirs listlessly, his fingers curling around Lan Wangji’s hair.
Lan Wangji takes that as a no. He holds Wei Ying tighter to his chest, stooping to gather Little Apple’s reins, and begins to walk.
Yunping plays host to a steady stream of travelers, and it takes little time for Lan Wangji to secure a private room. The innkeeper eyes his armful of semi-conscious Wei Ying with suspicion, but Lan Wangji has often found that the heft and clink of his purse turns the average person uncurious. It secures Little Apple room and board for the evening as well.
Lan Wangji deposits Wei Ying on the room’s narrow bed, lowering his head to a lumpy pillow. He squints up at Lan Wangji, sweat beaded on his forehead. His condition has, obviously, not improved.
“I will call for a doctor,” Lan Wangji says.
“Hey.” Wei Ying makes a weak pass at grabbing for Lan Wangji. “You don’t need to do that.”
Lan Wangji allows his expression to speak for itself.
Something in his face prompts Wei Ying to a laugh, followed by a cough. “I just don’t think this is really something a doctor can help with. I mean, by the time someone gets here—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says helplessly. He sits at the edge of the bed, touches two fingers to the inside of Wei Ying’s wrist and summons a tendril of spiritual energy to unspool for his consumption. It flows like a nearly-dry streambed at the height of summer, slow and fitful. Wei Ying’s pulse feels thready under his fingertips. “What can I do?”
“My arm,” Wei Ying complains. He’s remarkably good at performing petulance even now, and a pang of fondness lances through Lan Wangji’s chest. “It’s too hot.”
“All right.” This much Lan Wangji can do. He unwraps the burnished leather that binds Wei Ying’s sleeve until it comes loose and rolls Wei Ying’s sleeve up to his elbow. Neat, careful, even.
Arrayed along the curve of Wei Ying’s arm is a series of scars. They’re angry, bright red, welling up with beads of blood where they gouge Wei Ying’s skin the deepest. They hurt simply to look at, and Lan Wangji can’t stop his startled intake of breath.
Wei Ying laughs again, sounding dizzy. “The sacrificing curse. Shit.”
“Mo Xuanyu’s revenge,” Lan Wangji says dully. “It is finished.”
Wei Ying hangs onto Lan Wangji’s hand, his palm clammy. “I guess that means I’m finished too. He got what he wanted.”
“You are not finished.” Lan Wangji grips his hand tighter and pulls him closer. “We are not finished.” His heart is frantic and trapped in the back of his throat, resting against his windpipe, and it pounds there.
Wei Ying drags himself toward Lan Wangji, free hand curling into his robe over his thigh and head to his chest. He fits well under Lan Wangji’s chin. “I wasn’t supposed to come back at all.” He sounds profoundly tired. “I got lucky, Lan Zhan.”
“I don’t care what it was,” Lan Wangji says. He cups the back of Wei Ying’s head, where it slopes into his neck. He will not let go. “You’re here now.”
Wei Ying makes a sort of a wet hiccupping noise, his cheek to Lan Wangji’s sternum. “Last time I died,” he says, “I was ready to go, Lan Zhan. Ah, I was so ready to go. I didn’t want to be near anyone anymore. I didn’t want to be anyone anymore.”
Lan Wangji strokes his hair.
“I let go on purpose, you know?” Wei Ying sighs. His breath is warm on Lan Wangji’s neck, and Lan Wangji holds him tighter. He will keep Wei Ying here on this earth by the force of his will alone if that’s what it takes. “I wasn’t supposed to come back,” he repeats. “But now—oh, I’m being sentimental. Don’t tell my brother, all right? But I wanted to stay,” he says, “this time around. I wanted to see how things turned out.”
“Wei Ying.” The tip of Wei Ying’s nose is cold now where it bumps Lan Wangji’s jaw. “Stay with me.” Lan Wangji swallows thickly. Wei Ying feels no stronger than a sack of vegetables in his arms.
A weak huff, nearly a laugh, comes from Wei Ying’s mouth. “I’m trying,” he says.
“Stay with me,” Lan Wangji says again. He says it like an incantation, gathering Wei Ying to him with his eyes burning. “Wei Ying, don’t leave again.”
Wei Ying’s hand tightens infinitesimally on his. Lan Wangji breathes in, blinking back his tears, and reaches for Wei Ying from the stores of his spiritual power. He has done his years of grieving; he has reckoned with the loss of Wei Ying, and he has rebuilt himself from the rubble of the burial mounds. And he has no intention of suffering it again. Whatever of Wei Ying can be saved, Lan Wangji will save it.
There is no golden core for Lan Wangji to tap into, but the qi that dances through Wei Ying’s meridians has always been strong on its own merits. With his thumb to Wei Ying’s wrist, he tracks its flow. Wei Ying’s pulse is still fluttery and arrhythmic. His qi, however, rushes steadily, all the tributaries of his spirit intact.
“I mean it,” he says. He tips Wei Ying’s chin up, pressing his thumb to Wei Ying’s slack mouth. “Stay with me.”
Wei Ying smiles at him woozily. His face is hot to the touch and sweat gathers across his brow. “Hanguang-jun,” he says, “anything for you.”
They don’t let go of one another. Not even as Wei Ying’s breath stops in his lungs, and not even as Wei Ying’s pulse skids, and slows, and halts.
Lan Wangji holds onto him, stoking the flames of his own store of spiritual energy. Wei Ying’s body gives out with a smile curling the corner of his mouth and his fingers laced between Lan Wangji’s and Lan Wangji refusing, stubborn and hopeful, to release his hold on him.
Reckless, Lan Wangji pulls Wei Ying’s spirit toward himself as the last thump of Wei Ying’s heart sounds in his chest.
It is done, then. Wei Ying is no longer in his body, a vessel that was a gift of borrowed time from Mo Xuanyu. Lan Wangji allows his hands to loosen their grip, his jaw tight.
Long, long moments pass. Outside the curtained window, a street vendor calls to passersby that his jewelry is the finest in the province.
Lan Wangji sinks to the floor. He can’t tear his gaze from Wei Ying, his glassy eyes and unmoving face.
Something warm and bristly, like a horse butting its nose into its rider’s hand in search of treats, nudges its way into Lan Wangji’s consciousness just alongside the shining light where he is aware of his golden core. It unfurls in a careful stretch.
Lan Wangji lifts his head.
“Oh, wow!” Wei Ying’s voice, laughing like the sound of a Yunmeng Jiang decorative bell and echoing through Lan Wangji’s ears, though he knows no one spoke aloud. “Wow, Lan Zhan. Your golden core is so bright.”
Lan Wangji puts his face in his hands and takes one slow, shuddering inhale around the tears that want to fight their way out of his throat. “Wei Ying?”
“Hi, Lan Zhan.” It is Wei Ying’s voice, unmistakable. He laughs again and it feels like bubbles gathering at the base of Lan Wangji’s spine.
Lan Wangji is crying, now. He wipes at his eyes with the heels of his palms.
“Don’t be so sad, Lan Zhan.” The flicker of Wei Ying’s mirth is palpable. So is his underlying solemnity, the trepidation with which he is allowing their new circumstances to sink in. “Look, I didn’t die after all.”
Wei Ying’s lifeless body still stretches out on the bed a few hand’s widths from Lan Wangji’s face. Perhaps it was a kindness of fate at Nightless City that he never had to watch the precise moment of Wei Ying’s death and never had to see Wei Ying’s face as it is now, unnaturally still. He reaches for it, brushes his fingers along Wei Ying’s shoulder. It’s like gossamer to the touch, the body beginning to disintegrate without the sacrificing curse supporting its structural integrity.
In the back of his head, Wei Ying hums. He is somber now. “I should have known,” he says. “At the burial mounds, I studied that curse for days trying to think of a way to use it. It’s just—everything from back then, my memory of it… it’s like a fever dream most of the time. When there’s anything at all, it’s so damn hazy.”
Under Lan Wangji’s hand, Wei Ying’s form begins to unravel. It falls apart like a textile woven by an amateur: one tug and everything starts to come undone. Lan Wangji can only watch as the familiar body that has housed Wei Ying not once, but twice, melts away and leaves nothing but his robes flat on the bed. They won’t even be warm for much longer.
“Wow,” Wei Ying says again. “Seeing that from the outside was really weird. I guess it probably didn’t look that tidy the first time I died.”
Lan Wangji cannot answer. He’s trapped between grief and elation.
Wei Ying’s presence within his body is not physical. It is, however, palpable. His meridians have shuffled their usual routes, branched around the spirit that is now twined about Lan Wangji’s golden core. He had so little time to hone the vagaries of this technique; as far as he’s aware, it’s never been done before.
It means that Wei Ying is still here. Wei Ying is still with him. And that means it was worth it.
“Mm.” Lan Wangji allows his hand to fall away from Wei Ying’s empty clothing and back into his lap.
“Lan Zhan.” A little more urgent now. “Don’t get me wrong—please don’t. I’m so excited that I’m not completely dead again. But—ah—what did you do?”
Lan Wangji feels, for a fleeting second, like smiling. “I wasn’t willing to let you go again.”
Wei Ying’s laugh is lower this time, and laced with understanding. “That’s not what I asked,” he says.
“I reached for you,” Lan Wangji says, slowly. He chooses each word with care. “I believe that you reached back. You have been untethered from your body before, in death. I hoped that I could hew your spirit to my core, and keep you from slipping away.”
“So that’s why it feels so warm in here,” Wei Ying says lightly. “It’s been so long since I even had a core, y’know. I forgot what it was like.”
Lan Wangji has known Wei Ying long enough to understand that he is scared. Certainly he doesn’t blame him: there are his clothes, empty on the bed. His flute, in danger of rolling unceremoniously to the floor. Lan Wangji takes Chenqing, ignores the whiff of resentful energy that wants to wrap around his wrist in answer to his touch, and tucks it into his qiankun pouch. He is strong enough to ward off its dark yearnings, and he would not have Wei Ying worried that his things will go uncared for.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying sounds smaller now.
“Like I said,” Wei Ying says. “I’m happy that I’m not dead.” A pang of cold wraps around Lan Wangji’s middle in answer to Wei Ying’s tone. “It makes me think maybe now I know how Nie-xiong’s birds felt back in the day, you know?”
Ah. Lan Wangji pauses in the act of standing. Wei Ying is safe, yes. He will not go amiss, nor will he come to any harm without the perpetrator answering to Hanguang-jun. And for all of that, he is trapped within the gilded cage of Lan Wangji’s body and his qi.
“You are not a prisoner,” Lan Wangji says, hoping to convince himself as well.
Wei Ying is quiet. That is alarming in itself.
“Here,” Lan Wangji says. “It’s yours.”
“Huh?” Wei Ying says, but Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. He has a gift to offer Wei Ying, and he sits again, taking lotus pose atop one of the low-slung cushioned seats arranged about their rented room.
It’s only a half-step to the left of his typical meditation practice. He breathes, as usual. He shuts his eyes, and he lets go of his presence within his body. He has done this countless times since he was young, and his spirit is trained for it just the same as it’s trained for the rhythms of sleeping and waking according to the Lan clan rules. He offers a home to Wei Ying thus.
“Oh!” Wei Ying blinks, using Lan Wangji’s eyes. He smiles with Lan Wangji’s mouth, stretching its corners in ways to which Lan Wangji’s face is wholly unaccustomed.
Wei Ying laughs. Lan Wangji is not sure he has ever heard such a sound coming from his own body. “Lan Zhan, this is amazing.” He holds out his hands—Lan Wangji’s, in origin, but his for now. He wiggles their fingers, one at a time and then all at once. “Look at this. They’re really strong, eh? From all that qin practice?”
This far removed, Lan Wangji cannot answer in words. He likes to believe that his indulgent irritation makes its way to Wei Ying’s awareness nonetheless.
Wei Ying grins. “Your uncle would be so upset if he saw you letting me do this,” he says cheerfully. He unsheathes Bichen, peering at himself in its blade: there is Lan Wangji’s face, its oval shape and serious mouth. All his life he has been told that he is cold to look upon. That this frostiness is inherent to his features. Watching Wei Ying purse his lips, poke out his tongue, and crinkle up his eyes, Lan Wangji knows that claim has never been true. Wei Ying inhabits his body like it’s a well-loved garment, warming it within instants.
“Hmm.” Wei Ying gathers Lan Wangji’s hair in one hand, eyeing his own red hair ribbon where it lies coiled. “Don’t you think you’d look nice in red, Hanguang-jun?” He slides Bichen back in place, using both hands to tug Lan Wangji’s hair into a low ponytail beneath his careful arrangement of ornaments. “Aiya, so handsome.” He pulls an exaggeratedly thoughtful face, then lets it all go, hands dropping back to his sides.
He takes a slow breath. Lan Wangji can sense his pleasure at the rise and fall of a human chest, the expansion of lungs within his ribcage. These are not things Wei Ying takes for granted.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying says. “Really, Lan Zhan. I didn’t want to die this time.” A smile curls one side of his mouth, another unfamiliar expression upon this of all faces. “Can you believe that?”
Lan Wangji is, more than anything, immensely grateful to hear it. He reaches out with a question for Wei Ying, taking the utmost care not to intrude, and Wei Ying gives him another smile and allows him back in. With time, Lan Wangji suspects, they can learn to share to a greater extent; two people, one body. He always has wanted to make a safe space for Wei Ying.
Settled back into the nooks and crannies of his own body, Lan Wangji brings himself back to earth as well. They cannot stay like this. They have their own lives and their own purposes. Lan Wangji’s brother will need him as he recovers from his grief. Wei Ying had spoken of going traveling, of seeing the world without the specter of war hovering over him.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying is a silent voice in Lan Wangji’s consciousness again. “Don’t get sad again. I can tell you’re trying to.”
“I am not sad,” Lan Wangji says, and it is nearly the truth. “We must find a way to restore you.”
Wei Ying hums acknowledgement. “You’ll get tired of me sooner or later,” he says.
“No.” Lan Wangji doesn’t entertain that thought further. “You deserve your freedom.”
Wei Ying chuckles, not an especially joyful sound. “Who knows what I really deserve? Anyway, does it matter? I’m pretty sure that body of mine isn’t coming back. It’s not like it was supposed to the first time around. Two deaths is twice as many as you’re meant to have, and it’s two more than you’re meant to have and still get more chances.”
“I don’t care,” Lan Wangji says. “You deserve your chances as well as your freedom. I intend to secure them for you.”
Wei Ying’s presence within him shifts restlessly, like someone trying and failing to find a comfortable way to sleep. “All right, venerable Hanguang-jun,” he says. “What are you proposing?”
Lan Wangji has very little that might be called a plan. He is still very stubborn, nothing more. “Mo Xuanyu did not happen upon that curse by himself,” he says.
Another laugh. “Lan Zhan, I really—I know you don’t forget things, but you have to understand, I can barely remember what I was doing in the morning by the time the evening comes around, most days. I mean… I remember planting lotuses. I remember Wen Qing and Wen Ning taking care of me.”
“What I mean,” Lan Wangji interrupts him with care, “is that he did not act alone.”
Wei Ying pauses. “Nie-xiong,” he says, a rising excitement in his voice at last.
Lan Wangji rises to his feet, heavy with relief to have found a shred of direction. “I propose we go to Qinghe,” he says, and he does not need to ask aloud to hear Wei Ying’s agreement.
Lan Wangji passes the night alone, and not alone. He hardly tastes the meal the inn provides him. He sleeps as usual, despite Wei Ying’s protestations that the hour is too early, and, mercifully, he doesn’t dream.
In the morning, he leaves Yunping as the dawn breaks over the town. He secures Little Apple’s room and board with another flourish of his purse, a graceless but effective tactic. Wei Ying is subdued, within him but half-awake—the early start still doesn’t agree with him. Bichen carries Lan Wangji for some time, as faithful as ever, but after a smooth stretch of hours in the morning light and through the beginning of the afternoon, she wobbles beneath his feet.
“Whoa,” Wei Ying says, sparking to wakefulness as he watches through Lan Wangji’s eyes.
Lan Wangji frowns. Bichen sinks a little, as if struggling to bear his weight.
He descends, hefting Bichen in his hands the moment his boots touch the dirt path beneath them. The blade looks as it always does, clean and deadly; there’s nothing amiss with it, and so he touches two fingers to his own wrist, seeking the ebb and flow of his meridians.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying manages, somehow, to sigh without having access to breath. “This is because of me, isn’t it?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to answer that. It’s not a fair question. “Wei Ying,” he says instead, hoping the rest will be implied.
Wei Ying’s self-consciousness creeps up along the back of Lan Wangji’s neck. “You’re—feeding me,” he says. “I’m not supposed to be here. Your spiritual energy, you’re using it to…”
“It is not dangerous.” Lan Wangji sheathes Bichen. He feels the absence of Wei Ying’s physical presence keenly, wanting eye contact to signal the depth of his intent. “I know the limits of my power. My cultivation is high. You can see that for yourself.”
Entwined with Lan Wangji’s qi, Wei Ying cannot move, exactly, but Lan Wangji can feel the reverberations of him as he stretches out, seeking the roots of Lan Wangji’s cultivation. They are strong and unshakeable; Lan Wangji doesn’t believe it is prideful to know as much. He has worked diligently to this end. He has meditated, he has practiced his sword forms, and he has tended to his qi, and he has made himself into a home for Wei Ying when nowhere else will take his wandering spirit in.
There is quiet in Lan Wangji’s mind. He leaves it be in hopes of satisfying Wei Ying’s curiosity.
“All right,” Wei Ying says at last. “All right. Ah, Lan Zhan, I feel like a street urchin who sneaked into a formal banquet.”
Lan Wangji brushes him off. “You are an honored guest.”
A fluttery feeling passes through him, so fleeting and quicksilver that he can only guess that its origin is Wei Ying. “Hanguang-jun,” Wei Ying says, “you’re incorrigible.”
He starts walking, following the path north. They’re bound to find some sign of civilization with time, and Lan Wangji is accustomed to putting one foot in front of the other. The world is on the cusp of autumn, and the days remain stretched out over hours of sunlight, and so he walks.
Wei Ying does not keep quiet for long. “Do you think Nie Huaisang will even see us?” he asks. It’s easy to picture the way he might look as he speaks: one leg tucked under himself on his donkey’s back, Chenqing twirling between his fingers. His hair ribbon would be a splash of color against the glossy darkness of his hair.
Lan Wangji nearly forgets to answer, picturing it. “Decorum will insist that he do so,” he says.
Again, like this, Wei Ying’s laughter strikes him like a physical sensation, brightness fizzing all along his spine. “I think Nie-zongzhu is a little cleverer than that.” He hums a little, thoughtful. “That was a fantastically weird night we spent with him, wasn’t it? I bet he won’t even say anything about it. Aiya, or maybe he’ll bring it up right away to throw us off-balance!”
The corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth twitch upward.
“Maybe he’ll take pity on me,” Wei Ying continues cheerfully. “We were great friends once, you know. Oh, you really do know—you were there. I think I hope he’s well. Even after, ah—”
The steadiness of Wei Ying’s voice carries Lan Wangji until the road forks and then opens up onto a small collection of buildings that could, generously, be called a village. The trees loom tall here, and Lan Wangji crosses paths with a soft-eyed cow before he finds his way to a human from whom to ask assistance. A neat little house with a sprawling yard and a chicken coop cast long shadows at this hour, and a villager sits on the steps with his legs crossed and his hands busy.
He clears his throat. Typically, people address him first. It is rare, he realizes, that he feels out of place—but he does here, awaiting the attention of this man. He appears middle-aged, his trousers rolled to just under his knees and his hands quick and capable as he flips a chicken into his lap, pinning its wings at a precise angle and clipping its flight feathers. He does it again to a small white hen before he looks up and sees Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji bows. “Gongzi,” he says.
The man laughs. He doesn’t bow, but he inclines his head. “Gongzi,” he returns. “I can’t imagine what brings you to my doorstep.”
“I’m seeking shelter for the night,” Lan Wangji says plainly. The sun has begun dipping in the sky, and with the portion of his spiritual energy that he is using to support Wei Ying, he can’t afford to go nights without sleep as he otherwise might. “My name is Lan Wangji. I am of the Gusu Lan clan. I can pay.”
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, gleeful. “You’re too good.” There comes the surreal sound of two simultaneous laughs: the stranger’s, real and out loud, and Wei Ying’s ghostly laugh confined to Lan Wangji’s mind.
“Dong Qiu.” The man in question smiles. “You’re a cultivator, hm?”
“I can pay in my services as well,” Lan Wangji says dutifully.
Dong Qiu waves a hand. His knife clicks shut between his fingers, a cleverly-designed tool. “You’re far away from all that now,” he says. “We make peace with our ghosts out here. There’s no one to tame them for us.”
Wei Ying’s interest prickles at the base of Lan Wangji’s neck. “I love this place,” he says.
Lan Wangji sketches another small bow, at a loss.
Dong Qiu laughs yet again, an indulgent sound. “I won’t let you sleep outside, Lan-gongzi. Don’t look so horrified.” He pets the hen’s head with two fingers, smoothing back her feathers, and she coos as if indignant. He sets her back on the ground, and she waddles away in a flurry of clucks. “I don’t need your money or your cultivation,” Dong Qiu says, “but I can always use an extra set of hands around here.”
Something in the set of his jaw speaks of a challenge. He expects that Lan Wangji is too precious for manual labor, and Lan Wangji supposes that is fair: his robes are gleaming white and palest blue, his hair ornaments expensive family gifts, his qiankun pouch heavy with the money to which he has always had easy access.
“I like this guy,” Wei Ying says. He’s reveling in the ability to make free with his opinions without anyone aside from Lan Wangji hearing them. “Come on, we really should stay here tonight.”
Lan Wangji inclines his head, accepting Dong Qiu’s conditions.
That, and Wei Ying's encouragement, is how Lan Wangji finds himself stripped of his outermost layer, the sleeves of his under-robe rolled to his elbows and his boots sinking into a layer of mud as he rakes out the chicken run. The tool fits in his hands not unlike Bichen, and though sweat prickles at the back of his neck under the heaviness of his hair, he doesn’t mind the work. It takes him until the sun drops low to the horizon, dousing Dong Qiu’s property in auburn shadows. Two or three other villagers pass, and Lan Wangji feels their curiosity on his shoulders, but he does not look up. If this is the payment he must tender in exchange for Dong Qiu’s hospitality, he will do his job well.
With the chickens’ home clean, Lan Wangji scatters fresh straw. A rooster makes a valiant effort at attacking his boot, mistaking it for a hen, and Wei Ying considers this the funniest thing he has seen in days. His delight warms Lan Wangji as the cold of night sets in.
True to his word, Dong Qiu allows Lan Wangji to join his table for the evening. His wife, small and pregnant with a gently rounded belly, introduces herself with a deep bow as He Mei and presses a warm bowl of soup into his hands. It is filling and delicious, and the egg floating within its broth is a brilliant orange and as sweet as any expensive candy he’s ever sampled from the street vendors of Caiyi.
“I think I can taste it,” Wei Ying says dreamily. “This entire trip has been worth it for this.”
Lan Wangji hides a smile and helps He Mei clean despite her protestations. His uncle did ensure that he knows how to wash a dish and how to be a polite guest.
His quarters for the night are a mat and two blankets on the floor of the primary section of Dong Qiu and He Mei’s home, arranged for him before they retreat into their marital bed.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji tells them. He intends to be gone before the light returns.
“Be comfortable,” He Mei wishes him, her heart-shaped face serious.
“You two would be great friends,” Wei Ying says, “in another life,” and Lan Wangji agrees.
He lights a single flame with spiritual energy, cupping it in one hand as he uses the other to compose a letter to his brother. Lan Xichen should be safely ensconced at the Cloud Recesses now, embarking on the first days of his seclusion. Wangji hopes it brings him peace, and he says as much in his message. Tell our uncle I will be back, he writes, but not to wait for me. I have business to attend to.
“You can’t be gone too long.” Wei Ying stretches out in Lan Wangji’s consciousness, making his presence larger, more alive. He can smile audibly, somehow. “Your disciples will be miserable without you.”
Lan Wangji smiles just for a moment. His disciples are growing older, and they are largely self-sufficient. Sizhui has a great talent for managing them with his gentle temperament and his streak of mischief. They adore him.
In a moment’s blue glow, the letter is gone, all Lan Wangji’s intent toward its destination of the Cloud Recesses. The light in his palm gutters and goes out alongside it.
Wei Ying seems to hesitate from somewhere within the core of Lan Wangji. “Tomorrow,” he says, “will you be able to fly? It’s not—you’re not planning on making the rest of this trip on foot, are you?” His guilt rises, a slippery beast that evades Lan Wangji’s attempts to stamp it out. “I don’t even know how long that would take.”
“I will fly tomorrow,” Lan Wangji says. He keeps his voice low so as not to prompt his hosts to question his sanity. “Wei Ying. Don’t give yourself so much credit.”
It lands, mercifully: Wei Ying laughs and then relaxes. “Lan Zhan! I bet I’m the only person who knows how rude you can be. Does your uncle know about this? He would be so ashamed.”
Satisfied, Lan Wangji slides between the thin blankets he has been provided. “Goodnight, Wei Ying.”
Bichen takes the two of them a little farther the next day, Lan Wangji coming to a better understanding of the drain on his cultivation that comes alongside keeping an entire spiritual consciousness alive and awake. A particularly vivacious spiritual consciousness, at that.
He could put Wei Ying to sleep and save himself some of the energy expenditure, yes. But he cannot bear to do that. Not when Wei Ying looks through his eyes as they fly over the rolling countryside and tells Lan Wangji a story about himself as a teenager, sprinting across the Yunmeng landscape with stolen fruits in his hands and several farmers at his heels. Certainly not when Wei Ying catches a glimpse of a doe and her gangly children far below and launches into another animated retelling of one of his first attempts at hunting. It ends in a banquet, and along the way Wei Ying speaks of stubbed toes, Jiang Cheng’s laughter—something Lan Wangji can hardly imagine—and sweaty palms slipping on his bowstring.
Lan Wangji brings Bichen back to the earth near Dingzhai in the southwestern outskirts of Lanling. It is a small village, but large enough for a name this time. Large enough for a small inn, meant for the travelers who come through to peruse the wares produced by Dingzhai’s enclave of master potters. At festival times, there can be hundreds of them.
Now, Lan Wangji is one of three guests. It is quiet, his footsteps echoing as he ascends the stairs to his room, a neat little space with fresh-smelling incense already burning to welcome him in. Wei Ying remarks upon how fancy their quarters are, although Lan Wangji knows that the average bedroom at Lotus Pier is much more opulent than this space.
Wei Ying is silent as Lan Wangji calls for a bath, and as he sinks into the hot water after thanking the attendant who delivers the steaming buckets. Lan Wangji slides low into the bathtub, the polished wood sliding between his shoulder blades, and he lets himself float.
“Mm.” Lan Wangji shuts his eyes.
Wei Ying does it again, that trick wherein he sighs without lungs. “You’re tired. I can tell.”
He isn’t wrong. Carrying Wei Ying within him leaves him more vulnerable to exhaustion, as do the long stretches of travel. Lan Wangji pushes his hair back from his face, tipping his head back until all his hair is submerged in the fragrant water.
“Hey.” Wei Ying’s voice borders on a whine. “You have to tell me if you need to stop, all right?”
Lan Wangji feels a smile trip across his face for a moment. “Wei Ying,” he says, “please trust me. I will get us there. And I will be fine.”
“Hmph.” Wei Ying quiets again, though, and allows Lan Wangji to conclude his ablutions. The faint perfume of his bathwater clings to his skin by the time he climbs out, drying himself and pulling one of his clean sets of undergarments out of his qiankun pouch.
Wei Ying doesn’t speak again until Lan Wangji has knelt in front of the polished bronze mirror provided by the inn, his hair gathered and pulled over his shoulder as he combs it out. The comb, burnished black wood, is a relic of the long years of Wei Wuxian’s death. Lan Wangji fell prey to its charms during a moment of weakness in the streets of Caiyi, a vendor calling to him that its beauty would bring him luck in love.
“Hey,” Wei Ying says again. If Lan Wangji doesn’t look, he can imagine the voice is coming from somewhere outside of him: Wei Ying leaning over his shoulder, smiling where his mouth brushes Lan Wangji’s ear. “Can I try something?”
Lan Wangji stills with the teeth of his comb halfway through a wet tangle of his hair. He doesn’t say anything; Wei Ying should be able to sense his assent.
There is another stretch of silence, anticipatory. Lan Wangji breathes in, then out. His palms prickle, warm creeping up the column of his spine and into the tendons of his hands.
He licks his lips. His mouth and tongue are still his own, but—his hands twitch, then, the fingers curling in before stretching out. The comb drops, and Lan Wangji’s hand darts out to catch it.
“Don’t freak out,” Wei Ying says. He laughs. It’s the laugh he does when he’s thrilled and terrified at once, when he’s invented something and he’s not sure how far he can take this one. “That’s just me. I guess I’ve—did I possess you? Lan Zhan! I really am a ghost. A ghost that haunts hands.”
Lan Wangji draws in another breath. “No,” he says. “You are Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying’s delight is tangible as he turns over Lan Wangji’s free hand, pressing his fingernails into his palm until it stings and then uncurling them again. “This is crazy, isn’t it? I had no idea if it would work, but I thought—maybe we could share, sometimes? If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t,” Lan Wangji says. “All you have to do is ask.”
Wei Ying rubs his—Lan Wangji’s—his thumb along the floral design carved into the comb. It is slightly soft with age and the pad of his thumb catches on its whorls. “Wow.” He manages to sound breathless. Lan Wangji’s chest aches, only a little. “Can I… your hair, can I?”
Again, Lan Wangji allows the bloom of heat in his chest to speak for itself. He meets his own eyes in the mirror and entertains the fantasy that Wei Ying is looking back at him from within the curves of his own face.
He shuts his eyes again, then, and allows Wei Ying to work. Wei Ying’s hands are capable, fingers against the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck as he draws stray curls of damp hair into his grasp to join the rest. He works the comb through Lan Wangji’s hair methodically, teasing out every knot. He is patient in a way Lan Wangji has rarely seen him given the chance to exhibit.
When he is finished, Lan Wangji’s scalp tingles. “That looks good,” Wei Ying says. “You have nice hair, Lan Zhan. I don’t know if I ever told you that.”
Lan Wangji smiles. He looks at himself reflected in bronze, wisps of dark hair curling around his cheeks. He doesn’t know what Wei Ying sees there. “Thank you,” he says.
“You’ll have to do the rest.” Wei Ying laughs, sounding rueful. “You couldn’t pay me to figure out how all of that nonsense with your hair works! Ah, Gusu Lan secrets, eh?” There comes a lick of heat near the topmost knob of Lan Wangji’s spine and then Wei Ying’s control recedes, returning Lan Wangji’s hands to their owner.
Lan Wangji would laugh if he were anyone other than himself. He is himself, though, inevitably and inescapably, and so he does as Wei Ying has prompted. He lines up his bottles of hair oil along the low table, tips the contents of his favorite into his palm. It smells of home, of the inside of the jingshi. He smooths it into his hair, following it with further passes with his comb until his hair is sleek and shining and he can feel the weight of Wei Ying’s regard when he dares to glance up at himself once more.
“Looks good,” Wei Ying tells him. “Tomorrow morning, will you show me the rest?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. He feels helpless, pinned in place by the knowledge that Wei Ying is watching from within him.
“I’m going to take that as a yes, you know.”
Lan Wangji does it, of course, a matter of hours later with the grey pre-dawn sky filtering weakly through the window of his room and his hair most of the way to dry. Wei Ying had complained again about the Lan bedtime, but this morning he doesn’t protest the early rising. Lan Wangji ties his forehead ribbon in place, these motions so well-trodden that he could never explain each individual twist of his wrist or the precise technique for keeping the cloud emblem centered between his brows. Wei Ying watches, Lan Wangji knows without having to ask. Gazing levelly at his own face, he pulls his hair into place, secures it with a smaller length of ribbon. The ornaments require pins and patience, and Lan Wangji has both in spades. He tugs his hair into position, snapping each pin shut.
When he is finished, Hanguang-jun looks back at him.
Wei Ying whistles, low. Lan Wangji nearly startles—that has largely been the sound of Wei Ying desperate, calling upon his crafty cultivation when backed into a corner.
“Aiya,” Wei Ying says, “Hanguang-jun, aren’t you fancy.”
“You wanted to see,” Lan Wangji says. He hears the stiffness in his own voice and doesn’t know how to purge it.
“You’re right,” Wei Ying says. “I did.” There’s a pause, or maybe a thoughtful silence. “And it was worth it! I could pawn this knowledge on the black market!” He laughs, then lapses into quiet again. “Lan Zhan, I’m not making fun of you. You’re beautiful.”
The words curl tight somewhere in Lan Wangji’s belly, yanking him off balance. He should say thank you, he thinks. He swallows and wishes for the hundredth time this morning alone that he could see Wei Ying’s face.
“Let’s go,” Wei Ying says. “Nie-zongzhu doesn’t know it, but he’s waiting for us.”
For much of the following day, Wei Ying remains silent. Lan Wangji knows he is still there. It’s like having eyes on the back of his neck, inexplicable but undeniable. He says little, though, and when Lan Wangji pictures him, he pictures the Wei Ying who welcomed him into the burial mounds with bright eyes, chapped lips, and threadbare robes.
They’re near Qinghe—one more day, Lan Wangji estimates. He is washing his face from a dusty basin in yet another inn, his room tucked into its farthest corner, when Wei Ying speaks.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, “what are you going to do? When this is over?” He doesn’t specify what over will entail.
Lan Wangji considers the question. Lukewarm water dries on his face.
“I have my responsibilities,” he says. He is careful with the words, and they’re true, but he doesn’t like the way they fall into the empty space around him. “My brother will need me. I suspect his seclusion will not be brief.”
Wei Ying hums. “Always so dutiful! I suppose I could have guessed that would be your answer.”
Lan Wangji feels a flash of shame at having been so predictable. He bends to wringing out his cleaning cloth.
“I want to travel,” Wei Ying volunteers. “I think I really want to be anonymous for a while. Yiling Laozu this, Wei Wuxian that—can you imagine going someplace where no one had ever heard those names?”
Admittedly, Lan Wangji cannot. His overnight stay with Dong Qiu and He Mei had been one of the few times in his life that his reputation has not preceded him. He has been a Twin Jade as long as he can remember.
“I just want to see the world,” Wei Ying says. The scolding tone to his voice has vanished, fast as a summer rain. “Without anything holding me down.” He chuckles. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have to do it as a lonely ghost.”
“We will find a way,” Lan Wangji says. They have rarely discussed the nature of their journey, of the obvious impossibility of restoring Wei Ying’s body for a second time. One resurrection was, as Wei Ying has pointed out, already pushing his luck. Still, Lan Wangji is not easily deterred. Not after sixteen years.
“Hmm.” Wei Ying doesn’t sound convinced. Lan Wangji can picture him: sprawling on the thin bed tucked into the corner of the room, his elbows all askew, flipping his ponytail over his shoulder.
“I mean it,” Lan Wangji says, firmer.
“All right, all right, Lan Zhan.” There’s resignation in Wei Ying’s voice. There is only one way to win his trust in this—to succeed at their task.
Lan Wangji is in bed, his hair down and his hands folded on his chest, when Wei Ying speaks again. It jars Lan Wangji out of his half-meditative state.
“Lan Zhan.” The edge to his words creeps closer to desperation now.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji answers, an instinctive call and response.
“Ah—I’m sorry.” Wei Ying sounds rattled, like someone trapped in a space as it grows smaller and smaller. He is trapped, Lan Wangji supposes. “I need—aiya, I guess I don’t mean that. I want out. Again. Do you ever feel like your teeth are itchy and they’re all going to fall out if you don’t start moving?”
Lan Wangji does not, but that isn’t relevant. He keeps his eyes closed and hones in, focusing on his breath. He feels his own pulse, slowing but remaining steady where it beats in his throat and the insides of his wrists.
His body gasps, the sound of a man rescued from drowning, and lurches upright.
Wei Ying buries his face in his hands and sucks in a long, long breath. “Shit,” he says. The word trips inelegantly out of Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Oh, Lan Zhan, sorry. It’s only, ah, I don’t know. We were talking about traveling, and I started thinking about being a ghost, and I started thinking about all the places I can’t go right now. I started thinking about how I don’t even have legs right now! I don’t mean anything rude by that, I swear. Your legs are nice. They’re really strong. It’s just that they’re yours, not mine.”
Lan Wangji wants very badly to reach for him.
Wei Ying stretches out in Lan Wangji’s body, all his fingers and toes splayed and his back arched. It is rare for Lan Wangji to move in this way unless he is doing it with a purpose—a prelude to sparring or setting off on a night hunt. Wei Ying does it with nothing more than curiosity, rolling Lan Wangji’s ankles and circling his wrists for the pleasure of feeling a human body respond to the whims of his spirit.
“Wow, I missed this,” Wei Ying says. He tucks Lan Wangji’s hair behind his ears, working his jaw from side to side. “Thank you.” He exhales on a laugh, hugging his knees to his chest. “I wish you were here,” he says, and then laughs again. “That’s such a stupid thing to say! You understand, right?”
Consciousness suspended somewhere a few hand’s widths to the right of his own body, Lan Wangji manages nonetheless to tell him yes, to curl the word around the base of Wei Ying’s borrowed spine.
Wei Ying smiles. Lan Wangji’s mouth is getting more used to these smiles and their recklessness. “I miss you, Lan Zhan. That’s stupid, too, eh?” He rests his chin atop his knees. “I thought maybe—ahh, I don’t know what I thought.”
Lan Wangji does not want to be presumptuous. It is only that Wei Ying’s spirit is entangling itself more messily with his golden core each day, and some desires are too big to stay hidden. Wei Ying would ask Lan Wangji to come with him on his quest for the edges of the world, if he thought the invitation would be welcome, and half of him wants Lan Wangji to know that.
Wei Ying, he tries. He does not want to reclaim his body yet, but he does want Wei Ying to know that the things he is thinking have warmed Lan Wangji throughout. Wei Ying, yes.
Perhaps Wei Ying hears him after all. He smiles again. “I’ll let you go to bed soon, Lan Zhan.” He turns his head, cheek pressed to his kneecaps in Lan Wangji’s silk sleep garments. “I just needed a minute.”
Wei Ying sits and breathes, lungs that are not his expanding and deflating in a chest that is not his. Lan Wangji lets him.
They make Qinghe proper the following evening, Lan Wangji bringing Bichen to a halt only a few hours’ walk outside the city. The fortress walls of the Unclean Realm loom over the streets, but do nothing to undermine their festive air: a night market is in full swing.
Lan Wangji’s bedtime nears, and he needs to find a place to stay for the evening, but he lingers. He could blame Wei Ying’s influence—it would be easy, Wei Ying’s excitement sparkling throughout Lan Wangji’s limbs. Countless people bustle past, carrying steaming buns and skewers of meat and newly-purchased trinkets. It’s easy for Wei Ying to enjoy scenes like this one, to throw himself into seeking out the thrills of novelty and the security of disappearing into a crowd. Lan Wangji has never found it so simple. Travelers and Qinghe citizens stream past, and Lan Wangji stands still, and he feels, as ever, at an insurmountable remove from these lives unfurling so far outside his own experience.
“Ahh, sorry, gongzi!” A gangly teenager careens past, all knobby knees visible somehow under his robes. He is chasing after a pack of his friends, hair falling out of its tie as he picks up the pace.
Wei Ying seems to bloom within him, his attention unfolding as he takes in the sights. “Lan Zhan,” he says, “can we? Come on, I’ll get you to bed on time. I promise!”
Lan Wangji is not so difficult to convince as his disciples might claim. He tucks a hand behind his back and walks the streets. They smell like frying food, like the sweat of hundreds of people. More children clatter past him with laughter bubbling out of their throats.
Wei Ying soaks it up, delighted. He takes advantage of the fact that only Lan Wangji can hear him to heckle vendors as they pass, decrying the cheapness of their goods or the outrageousness of their prices. He cajoles Lan Wangji into buying food; Lan Wangji has not eaten in days, conserving his money and trusting his cultivation to keep him afloat, but as he lifts the fried sesame treat to his mouth his knees nearly buckle with the pleasure of it. Wei Ying cackles with delight in the back of his head, savoring the taste secondhand.
They peruse the stalls and their available wares. Lan Wangji lingers over an ivory hair pin with a carving in the shape of a lotus blossom. Wei Ying has no need for gifts right now, but Lan Wangji buys it anyway.
Wei Ying is a contented presence in the core of Lan Wangji’s qi, subdued and happy like one of the Cloud Recesses rabbits stretching out its limbs with the assurance of safety. He keeps talking, making up stories about the people they pass. Lan Wangji basks in it, strolling up and down the streets as the market crowd begins to thin. It is past his bedtime, and he is tired, but this is—fun. It’s fun.
At last, Lan Wangji finds a room for the evening. It is drab and serviceable, and he tumbles into bed only moments after disentangling his hair ornaments.
“Goodnight, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. There is something heavy in his tone, something comforting that reaches out and slides Lan Wangji’s eyelids shut.
The morning brings some small prices to pay—Lan Wangji’s limbs are slow to respond, his eyes gritty. He has been awake outside of the Lan hours before, on night-hunts or during times of war, but never solely for his own pleasure. Wei Ying laughs and encourages a hearty breakfast before they face Nie-zongzhu and his contingent.
The Unclean Realm opens for Lan Wangji still, a large-eyed guard bowing and addressing him by title before ushering him through the gate. The courtyard is clean and utilitarian, as before. Lan Wangji thinks of medical tents, the smell of boiling herbs, and the sounds of healers reassuring their patients in grim tones.
He is greeted by a woman with broad features and her hair pinned back in a severe style, the grays and ashy greens of the Nie robes doing nothing to soften her. She bows, and he returns the gesture. “Welcome,” she says, only a little dryly, “Hanguang-jun. What is your business? You’ve traveled quite a distance.”
Lan Wangji does not tell her that she barely knows the half of it. “An audience with Nie-zongzhu,” he says. If he will deign to receive us, he does not say.
Her eyebrows quirk upward and amusement twists her mouth. “Nie-zongzhu is very busy these days,” she says, “but then again, you are Hanguang-jun.” The title doesn’t sound quite respectful coming from her. “Please,” she adds, with a sweep of her sleeve and a swift turn on her heel, “follow me.”
These halls are familiar to Lan Wangji, relics of his childhood and then of the bloody years of the Sunshot Campaign. His brother had loved to come for visits with Nie Mingjue, Lan Wangji a subdued and dutiful teenager trailing two or three steps behind him and flinching from the booming voices of the Nie cultivators counting repetitions of their training drills. The Unclean Realm hasn’t changed much, its walls severe and largely unadorned. Lan Wangji follows the sect official into its depths and reaches for Wei Ying’s presence as he does so. A flash of warmth blooms at the nape of his neck, a clear answer that threatens to make him smile without obvious reason.
“Please,” the official says again, “wait here.” They’ve come to a halt at a pavilion, heavy forest-green curtains shading its row of low, cushioned seats from the late summer sun. A sprig of yellow flowers sits atop a heavy carved column, and Lan Wangji thinks with curiosity of Nie Huaisang.
Lan Wangji bows and takes his seat. The official takes her leave, somber from head to toe, and Lan Wangji waits.
And Lan Wangji waits.
Cultivation has honed his hearing, and he listens. Disciples scurry through the courtyards and halls. Training drills begin and end, disciples breathing hard and their sabers striking against each other. They laugh and boast and call one another’s bluff. The sun is still high in the sky. Lan Wangji continues to wait. Wei Ying drifts, lulled into semi-consciousness by Lan Wangji’s absolute stillness.
Some hours later, a disciple appears. He is much younger than the official who welcomed them, and his ears poke out from his braids in a way that makes him appear even younger. He bows hastily, and Lan Wangji does the same from where he sits.
“Hanguang-jun,” the disciple says, “thank you for your patience. Nie-zongzhu has just been caught up in some meetings. Ah, you know how it is, I’m sure? Going into the harvest time?”
Lan Wangji says nothing.
The disciple clears his throat. “It would be most convenient for Nie-zongzhu if he could receive you a bit nearer his quarters, I believe. Would you…?”
Wei Ying is prickling with suspicion as Lan Wangji rises to his feet. “There’s no way,” he says, in the tone of someone who’s been awoken from a nap.
Lan Wangji remains willing to wait this out and see if Nie Huaisang will make his appearance. He follows the gawky disciple into the inner walls of the Unclean Realm, noting every vase and tapestry that has appeared since he was a child tiptoeing around these same hallways. As he sits, this time, a cup of tea is pressed into his hands, and he sips it gratefully. The taste is grassy, a little too musky for his palate. He finishes it nonetheless. And he continues to wait.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying complains. “Lan Zhan, this is ridiculous. He’s not going to see us.”
Lan Wangji considers the leaves at the bottom of his empty teacup and cannot read whatever divination they’re offering him. He wishes he had learned this skill. His mother knew something of it, but he was never old enough, and then she knew nothing at all.
“Come on. Hey. Lan Zhan.”
“Just a little longer,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying settles. Lan Wangji drinks a second cup of tea brought by another disciple, this one even younger. There is a certain glint to her guileless eyes, Lan Wangji thinks, but perhaps he is being uncharitable. Gusu Lan and Qinghe Nie were close allies once, and perhaps he ought to honor that history.
The first disciple returns at last as afternoon begins to bleed into evening. He bows more deeply this time, clearing his throat. Wei Ying yelps with abandon at his arrival; he is growing too accustomed to Lan Wangji as his only audience. “I thought they’d forgotten us,” he grouses. “And I feel like you were going to let them. You know, Lan Zhan, there’s such a thing as being too meditative and patient?”
Lan Wangji does not answer him. Wei Ying will know his fondness regardless. Instead, he rises, and bows, and says, “Nie-zongzhu is not going to see us today.” He does not bother making it a question.
The disciple colors, wringing his hands. “He sends his most humble apologies,” he says. The phrase has a rehearsed cadence, and Wei Ying calls out his dissatisfaction from the corners of Lan Wangji’s mind. “If he had known ahead of time that you were planning a visit…” He perks up, then, and shrugs brightly. “Hanguang-jun, if we may have the honor of housing you for the evening, Nie-zongzhu will make every effort to meet with you in the morning.”
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, “you’re so lucky that your thoughts don’t show on your face. This poor little fellow wouldn’t survive!”
Lan Wangji follows the Nie disciple, across two courtyards and into a set of guest quarters familiar enough to make him, for an odd and aching moment, miss and mourn Nie Mingjue.
The disciple promises delivery of dinner, and Lan Wangji nods for the sake of politeness. He is irritated, yes, but he has waited longer for the things he wants in this life. Wei Ying, however, buzzes about his awareness like a fly trapped under an overturned cup of wine. “Lan Zhan,” he says again. “You know he’s not going to see us, right? I mean—you know him now. We know him now.”
Lan Wangji considers this. The flinty-eyed look on Nie Huaisang’s face in Guanyin Temple. He’s not certain that he does know Nie Huaisang.
“This is a whole… thing.” Wei Ying sighs. He emanates the impression of someone flouncing to the floor in a flurry of robes. “Nie-xiong is competent. That changes everything. His people wouldn’t be doing this to you unless it was on purpose. Lan Zhan! Are you listening?”
Naturally, Lan Wangji is, and Wei Ying knows it. “Mm,” he says anyway.
“Great,” Wei Ying says. “So, Lan Zhan! I have a really good idea.”
Dinner is delivered, as promised, but Lan Wangji is not in his body to receive the uninspiring plate of greens. Qinghe cuisine without meat is not much to speak of anyway.
Wei Ying, wearing Lan Wangji’s form and brimming with delight, flashes a smile at the disciple who delivers it. It is the same young man, prominent ears and small, neat braids coiling into a sizeable topknot. “Thank you so much,” Wei Ying says, but he does not take his seat at the provided table. “I was just wondering if you could spare a moment to talk?”
Listen, Wei Ying had said, we need information. I think that kid has got it. And did you see his face earlier? He likes you!
Lan Wangji had scoffed, but Wei Ying insisted: He thinks you’re handsome. He’s right! My personality and your looks? He won’t stand a chance.
The disciple hesitates. He seems unsure of where to put his hands; they find their way to clasped behind his back. “Hanguang-jun?”
As Lan Wangji watches, adjoined in spirit form to his wayward body, Wei Ying smiles again. It transforms Lan Wangji’s face in a way he has never seen in any mirror or freshly-shined blade. “Hi,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“I am Nie Qiang.” The boy blinks. His gaze is fixed to Wei Ying’s—to Lan Wangji’s—face. “Ah, how… how can I assist you?”
Wei Ying touches a hand to Nie Qiang’s shoulder. His thumb brushes the curve of it before he lets it drop, tucks it behind his own back in a passable impression of Lan Wangji. “Now, I’m not complaining about the service,” he says. The corner of his mouth quirks up, a new variety of smile. “You’ve been most attentive! But I have to ask, is Nie-zongzhu ever going to deign to see me?”
Nie Qiang blinks again. “Ah,” he repeats. His throat works and a flush rises to his face. Lan Wangji can see now what Wei Ying meant. “He is a very busy man,” Nie Qiang says. “He prefers his meetings to be scheduled well in advance.”
It is a valiant effort. Wei Ying’s smile stays in place as he cups his chin in his hand and cants his head to one side. “Naturally,” he agrees. “Would that the world could be so predictable, eh?” He casts his gaze toward the ceiling and then back to Nie Qiang. “My errand is rather urgent, is the thing.”
From his distance, Lan Wangji feels a pang of sympathy for Nie Qiang. The boy’s eyes have gone round and dark. “Lan-er-gongzi,” he says helplessly.
Wei Ying’s smile widens. He touches his fingers to Nie Qiang’s arm again, the crook of his elbow this time. “I’d really consider it a personal favor if you’d just ask Nie-zongzhu to consider seeing me as soon as possible.” He moistens his lips with his tongue. Nie Qiang draws in a breath and looks away, resolute. “Please?” Wei Ying adds.
Awash in twin horror and amusement, Lan Wangji nearly misses the moment when Nie Qiang cracks. When he glances back, and bites his lip, and then makes a visible decision.
“Ah, well,” Nie Qiang says, “the truth is—it’s meant to be a secret. You can’t let Nie-zongzhu know that I told you.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Wei Ying says, pitch-perfect.
Nie Qiang laughs, clearly giddy with his own imminent disobedience. “Nie-zongzhu doesn’t care to receive most visitors,” he says. “He likes to be free to move about, you see. He isn’t here at all right now, actually. He’s gone on vacation.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows raise. “Vacation! You don’t say.”
Stalwart, Nie Qiang says, “He works hard. He deserves it.”
Wei Ying softens. “I don’t doubt it. Aiya, all right, so Nie-zongzhu’s out of town. Why the runaround?”
Nie Qiang smiles. He is fond of his sect leader. “He doesn’t consider his location to be anyone’s business but Qinghe Nie’s,” he says. “And,” he adds, “he thinks it’s very funny. To see how long people will wait before they give up.”
Caught by surprise, Wei Ying laughs. Lan Wangji senses the purity of his delight. “Ah, I can’t seem to feel too angry about that logic,” Wei Ying says. “He hasn’t changed so much from our school days. And this vacation of his, it’s where, exactly?”
Lan Wangji can see that Nie Qiang wants to tell. He has his gaze fixed to Wei Ying’s face. He is trying to hold himself taller, wider. “Well—” He deflates. “Hanguang-jun, I’m sorry. I don’t know. Nie-zongzhu doesn’t like to leave a trail, not even for us. And we know that he’ll be back in time. He always is.”
“So flighty!” Wei Ying spreads his hands. “I can’t fault you for that. You’ve been most helpful, Nie Qiang. I’ll mention you to Nie-zongzhu—if I ever get a chance to meet with him after all.”
Nie Qiang’s smile is so sunny it evokes another pang of pity in Lan Wangji. He, too, has felt like this in reaction to Wei Ying. “Thank you! Oh, enjoy your dinner, won’t you? Let me know if there’s anything else you require?”
Brazen, Wei Ying presses Nie Qiang’s hand between both of his own. “You’ve been more than helpful.”
The disciple makes his parting bow with a distracted air and still-pink cheeks.
Wei Ying has the decency to wait until Nie Qiang’s footsteps have receded before he claps a hand, Lan Wangji’s hand, over Lan Wangji’s mouth and laughs. “Ah, Lan Zhan! Did you see him? Oh, he likes you so much.”
Lan Wangji drifts, circling closer to his body. He does not need Wei Ying’s permission to reclaim it, but then, Wei Ying has no place of his own to reclaim. Their custody of this form, for now, is shared.
“Yes, all right.” Wei Ying directs a smile into the air as if Lan Wangji will receive it that way. The corners of his eyes crinkle up. “You can come back in.”
So Lan Wangji does, and stillness settles back over his form like fresh snow come in the night. It is some relief to see the restless movement drain from his limbs, to sink into sitting at the guest quarters’ table with his posture perfectly aligned. Wei Ying would have dropped to the ground in a careless sprawl. Lan Wangji doesn’t care to see his own body do such things. He only misses Wei Ying existing outside of himself and the itch of affectionate irritation at watching him behave in ways Lan Wangji would never dream of.
“Vacation,” Lan Wangji says dryly.
Wei Ying has no head to shake. He doesn’t need one to make the sentiment clear. “Vacation! Somewhere mysterious! He can’t really be on vacation, can he? What do you think he’s really doing?”
Lan Wangji has never understood Nie Huaisang. In the wake of Guanyin Temple, he has even less to grasp. “That doesn’t matter,” he says. “What matters is locating him.”
A pause passes, Wei Ying a coiled mass of energy ready to burst forth. “Lan Zhan,” he says, “what would you think if I wanted to get up to some of my old tricks?”
The food really isn’t good. Lan Wangji eats it to pass the time, not to be polite. Wei Ying has gone for the time being, and Lan Wangji savors the quiet and misses him in equal measures.
He finishes the last of his under-seasoned bok choy. He sets his chopsticks in neat lines next to his bowl and pushes the tray back. Silence ringing in his ears, he summons his qin and tightens its strings, perched with his legs crossed on the edge of his thinly-padded guest bed. They do not overvalue comfort in Qinghe, and evidently Nie Huaisang’s reign has not changed that.
At last, there is a rustling and a tendril of familiar spiritual energy curling itself around the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck. Wei Ying’s paperman slips through the crack in the door and bounds toward Lan Wangji in great leaps. It lands in Lan Wangji’s outstretched palm and performs an exaggerated bow.
“Hello again,” Lan Wangji tells the little thing. It is made from his own parchment paper, tucked into his qiankun pouch for correspondence, the characters covering it scribbled by Wei Ying taking command of Lan Wangji’s hands. Lan Wangji touches a fingertip to its small face, and it shakes as if laughing.
“Come back in,” Lan Wangji says.
The paperman taps its blunted hand to the side of its head. Lan Wangji can almost hear Wei Ying’s prevaricating.
“Wei Ying.” The corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth quirks upward, but some distant fear is tightening in his chest. If Wei Ying does not want to return to the prison of Lan Wangji’s body, he cannot demand it of him.
“Lan Zhan! Hi!” Wei Ying is a flare of warmth, like lighting a lantern with a touch of cultivation and watching it float. He sounds giddy and sated at once. “That was fun! Ah, no offense, you’re the best accidental house a man could have asked for. But having my own arms and legs again—” He makes a guttural noise of satisfaction. “If I could have just been a little taller, it would have been perfect.”
Lan Wangji tucks the inert paperman in with the rest of his belongings. “You will be,” he says.
“Sure, sure.” Wei Ying settles back into the pulse of Lan Wangji’s golden core with ease. “Well? Aren’t you going to ask me if I found anything?”
“I had assumed you would tell me yourself,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying chuckles. “You’ve known me for too long, Lan Zhan. Nie-xiong wasn’t completely lying, turns out! I think he really might be on vacation.” He sighs. “You know, I thought I didn’t know him at all anymore after—but maybe, I don’t know. His quarters were so messy! He had dried flowers everywhere, and all of those stupid painted fans he used to like on display, and the frilliest curtains around his bed. I didn’t even know that many books of poetry existed in Qinghe.”
“Vacation?” Lan Wangji prompts gently.
“Yes, so!” Another laugh. “You’d think he would know better after what happened with Jin Guangyao. He hid his things better, at least! He has so much stuff. He probably didn’t think any of his people had the patience to go through it.” Wei Ying talks like this when he is excited, circuitous like an animal chasing its own tail. Lan Wangji is learning to let him. “Anyway,” he says with yet another breathless laugh, “I think he’s in—does the name Daiyang mean anything to you?”
The name is familiar, but nothing more. Lan Wangji allows his silence to speak for itself.
“I found some letters, I don’t know… it’s hard to figure out the whole story without Nie-xiong’s half of the conversation, but there’s someone who owns property in a village called Daiyang. On the coast. Nie-xiong wanted to rent it for a while, if I’m getting this right.”
“Daiyang,” Lan Wangji says slowly. “On the coast.” He shuts his eyes, pictures the map he had pored over as an eager student. “A fishing village. In Qinghe. It is not of any particular consequence that I know of.”
“I’d bet you my flute that he’s there,” Wei Ying says. He’s smug, pleased with himself for having solved the riddle.
“Then we go,” Lan Wangji says. He does not say, And we make Nie Huaisang bring you back to me. Nor does he say, I know you don’t think this will work. I know you think you’re going to die for good.
They will leave first thing in the morning.
Lan Wangji is weary of travel. Wei Ying feels the same, though he does not say it. Daiyang is not far, a day or two at their adjusted pace, and Lan Wangji rarely struggles with impatience like this. He wants to fly there and drain his qi dry in the effort. He wants to demand that Wei Ying be restored, and that Nie Huaisang answer—not for all of his crimes, but for the ones that have made Lan Wangji so restless and afraid.
They are to pass the night in the smallest inn yet, barely more than a repurposed house with a rough-hewn sign out front declaring its availability to travelers. The owners occupy the upstairs and Lan Wangji takes one of the two rooms downstairs. Sound carries too well here, and his every move seems to make the building protest.
He lets down his hair and considers himself in Bichen’s blade. He looks no different for the extra consciousness housing itself within him. Wei Ying has such life to him that he can make a featureless paperman seem to laugh, but not from within Lan Wangji’s shuttered features.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. He has been lively today, rattling off more stories of his childhood. He had risen to such heights of merriness recounting a time he tricked his shidi into drinking undiluted chili oil that Lan Wangji had almost felt himself coaxed to laughter. Now, though, the facsimile of his voice is quiet. “Don’t look so sad, all right?”
Lan Wangji cannot imagine what to say to that. He returns Bichen to her sheath.
“Hey, hey.” Wei Ying sounds frustrated. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I—you’re breaking my heart.”
“I don’t mean to.” That much is honest.
“You never do,” Wei Ying says fondly. “I wish I could be there. I know I’m here, but it’s not really…” It’s not the same. He is right to say it.
“You don’t think we’re going to succeed, do you, Wei Ying?” Maybe it is the closeness to their destination making him reckless. Or maybe it’s the phantom of Wei Ying in his imagination, chin hooked over Lan Wangji’s shoulder and nose tucked into the softness under Lan Wangji’s jaw.
Wei Ying looses a breathless laugh. “Lan Zhan, aiya, can you blame me? I don’t doubt you, I doubt the world. I’ve run through my fair share of lives and then some.”
Lan Wangji’s breath is too sharp under his sternum. “I bought you a gift yesterday,” he says, and feels foolish for it.
Wei Ying can sound so warm when the mood strikes him. “I know. I was there.” His ruefulness bleeds into Lan Wangji’s awareness like the color bleeding from poorly-dyed fabric on its first wash. “My sweet Lan Zhan. I wish I could touch you right now.”
It’s an innocent sentiment, casually delivered, and Lan Wangji receives it like a blow to the gut. He closes his eyes. “Wei Ying,” he says. The name feels precarious in his mouth,
“I know! I know. Wishes are childish things, eh?”
“You can,” Lan Wangji says, “touch me.” He places his hands on his knees, turning them until the palms face upward.
Wei Ying is quiet, and Lan Wangji picks up on the shimmer of curiosity that colors his silence. “I can,” he says, “can’t I?” It’s easy to picture his face as it might be here, now: eyes alight, mouth tilted into something between a smile and mischief. “Lan Zhan?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
A moment later, his hands are not his own. Their fingers flex and curl into lax fists. Wei Ying makes another breathless noise in the corners of Lan Wangji’s consciousness. He brings a hand to Lan Wangji’s cheek, thumb hooking under the ridge of his jawbone. “Wow,” Wei Ying says, “this doesn’t get old. I think this is what I’d do if I were there.”
Lan Wangji does not move, afraid that Wei Ying will stop if he does. He keeps his eyes shut. Surely Wei Ying can feel the heightening thump of his pulse in his neck. These are his own hands, but in Wei Ying’s control, they do not feel like his own. Not as Wei Ying walks fingertips down his throat, across the lines of his clavicles, coming to rest with them just pressed to his mouth.
“Hm.” Wei Ying’s voice is dreamy. “Definitely this, too. Not just this!” He chuckles lowly. “If I had more than just a pair of hands to work with. Not that I don’t love your hands.” He draws his thumb across Lan Wangji’s lower lip, and Lan Wangji’s mouth falls open. “They’re really pretty good. When we were kids, I—” This laugh is lower still. “I thought about your hands a lot that year at the Cloud Recesses. You had no idea, did you?”
Lan Wangji could touch Wei Ying’s fingers with his tongue. He is too warm; he can’t fathom why he wears so many robes. “I was preoccupied,” he admits, “with thinking about your mouth.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying exclaims. “I can’t believe you just said it like that!”
“If you truly are never to return to me, why shouldn’t I?” Something squeezes tight in Lan Wangji’s throat. He swallows it back, hard. “You know I am devoted to you. I’m not keeping it a secret.”
Wei Ying is, for just a beat, speechless. Lan Wangji considers it a victory. “I didn’t know… if you meant it like—oh, I feel stupid even saying it. If you meant it like—”
These questions are effortless to answer. “I mean it in every way,” Lan Wangji says truthfully. “Now, Wei Ying, you were saying how you would touch me?”
“Shameless,” Wei Ying says in his best Lan Wangji impression.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees.
Wei Ying returns to his task. He touches Lan Wangji’s cheek, the arch of bone there. He pushes stray hair behind Lan Wangji’s ear. Slower, he slides both palms down the front of Lan Wangji’s robes, firm enough to feel the shape of a human body beneath the fabric. The deliberation of it, the care, makes Lan Wangji ache. He wants to kiss Wei Ying, and he never has, and that fact is starkly cruel tonight. Wei Ying has no mouth and no tongue. He is barely there, by the evidence of Lan Wangji’s eyes and ears. He has hands, though, and they stop at Lan Wangji’s hips. He fans his fingers against Lan Wangji’s thighs, and presses their tips down until they make shallow indents in his robes and, beneath, in his skin.
It is so little, such simple touches, and Lan Wangji feels pinned in place nonetheless, a rabbit in a trap. “Wei Ying—” His voice sticks in his throat.
Wei Ying stills. “Hi,” he says. Lan Wangji wants badly to know what he would do next; if he would kiss him, or draw the wait out longer. “I think I get why you won’t admit defeat. I really, really want to do this the real way.”
Lan Wangji squeezes his eyes more tightly shut. Tears want to claw their way out, and he is loath to spoil the moment, thin though it is. “We will find a way,” he says, all his willpower and hope in the words. “Wei Ying. We will.”
It’s clear that Wei Ying doesn’t believe him. He touches Lan Wangji’s face again, smoothing wisps of hair back from his temples with both hands. “Thank you for this, Lan Zhan.” There’s a smile somewhere in his tone. “I should’ve done it earlier when I had the chance.”
If he could, Lan Wangji would reach for Wei Ying’s hand with his own. He would fit their fingers together and he would stroke Wei Ying’s knuckles with the pad of his thumb. He would tell him that Wei Ying taught him to believe in second chances.
It is time for him to sleep, however, and they have a great deal of coastline to cover tomorrow. “Goodnight,” he says instead, and Wei Ying understands. His influence drains from Lan Wangji’s hands as he retreats.
Daiyang unfolds in front of them at dusk the following day, a jumble of buildings nestled on the inside of a jutting cliff face that overlooks the open sea. The roofs are tiled, protection against the wear and tear of the constant salt spray, and a tilted array of signs directs Lan Wangji toward the fish market that stays open every day of the week. The sun is a copper disc drifting low toward the open ocean and casting the village in golden light.
With sundown, the market is closing up for the night. Knots of fishermen stream past Lan Wangji where he stands, gossiping about their wives and their catches. They have their routines and their friends, and this is another tableau in which he knows he is out of place.
Still, silence will not serve him here. He catches the eye of a lone merchant who’s walking with his hands tucked into the folds of his robes. “Excuse me,” Lan Wangji says.
The man startles, fumbling to free his hands so he can bow. “Gongzi,” he says with his eyes trained on the packed dirt path below their feet.
Lan Wangji feels a flicker of shame alongside Wei Ying’s amusement. “I only need a moment of your time.” He nearly hesitates, then presses on: “Has anyone unusual come to town lately?”
Naked relief crosses the merchant’s features. “Oh, yes. The cultivator in the expensive robes? My sister has been talking about him since he arrived a few days ago. He’s hardly been seen since then, though.”
“It’s him,” Wei Ying says. “It has to be.”
Lan Wangji follows the merchant’s directions to the far side of town, the closest Daiyang gets to a wealthy district. The houses here are larger, better-maintained, and emptier. A pair of sleek black dogs sleeps outside the first they pass, and Wei Ying’s presence clatters within Lan Wangji. He presses on. It is near nightfall, and not a polite time to come calling, and Lan Wangji does not care. He does not consider it polite for Nie Huaisang to have vanished to the coast without explanation.
Spine rigid, he knocks. He is loud on purpose.
The house says nothing in response. It is, he supposes, possible that Nie Huaisang is elsewhere. Enjoying the sights, such as there are sights in a village this small. The ocean is beautiful.
Lan Wangji knocks again, three staccato raps.
A too-long moment passes. Wei Ying murmurs things to himself, quiet enough that Lan Wangji can’t hear the words.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji says. He is aware that his anger might be disproportionate. He still does not care.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying is saying in a consoling tone at the moment that the front door slides open and Nie Huaisang stares up at him.
He has caught Nie-zongzhu by surprise for the first time, Lan Wangji suspects, since they were teenagers. He has no wide-eyed expression in place, none of the fish-mouthed helplessness with which he was always tilting around Carp Tower. The lines of his face are hard and set. He takes in Lan Wangji’s appearance with one flick of his gaze, up and down.
“Ah,” he says. “Good evening, Hanguang-jun.” Only then does he smile.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says, his voice flattened by irritation. “I have several questions for you.”
“Oh, wow, Nie-xiong,” Wei Ying clucks inside the confines of Lan Wangji’s consciousness. “He really means business, eh?”
Nie Huaisang’s smile twists into something more crooked. “It’s nice to see you too! In case you were wondering, yes, you can come inside. You’re lucky I was just preparing tea for myself, and that I’m so greedy I made more than enough.”
Lan Wangji ignores him, striding through the door in answer to his invitation. The house is not overlarge, but it is well-furnished, draped with high-quality fabrics and suffused with the spiced smell of incense. The landowner from whom Nie Huaisang is renting this place must be off on a long trip; Nie Huaisang has clearly claimed it as his own for now, piles of his books on its low central table and a cage populated by colorful birds occupying a corner. “Sit, sit,” Nie Huaisang urges him. He is a flurry of robes as he pours Lan Wangji a cup of tea and sets it on his table. The tea sloshes, a little precarious, but there is no other evidence of nerves.
Lan Wangji sits. He sips his tea. It’s very good.
“Hanguang-jun.” Nie Huaisang sits, adjacent to him rather than across from him. He is bright-eyed. “Please don’t tell me you’re here on sect business? You know I don’t have much of a head for all of that.” The look he slings Lan Wangji’s way is sidelong, as if testing to see whether Lan Wangji believes him.
Wei Ying bursts into laughter. “He’s so full of shit, Lan Zhan. Oh, you know part of me really missed my friend? We did the stupidest things back in the day.”
Lan Wangji says nothing.
Nie Huaisang heaves a sigh. He sets his chin in his hand, his elbow on the lacquered surface of the table. “Tell me how you found me?”
As Wei Ying laughs, Lan Wangji says, “I didn’t come alone.”
Nie Huaisang’s features sharpen. He glances to the door, as if expecting a gaggle of Gusu Lan disciples to flood his vacation home. A beat passes, and his attention locks back onto Lan Wangji. “And where is Wei-xiong?”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying begs, “let me out. We really need to talk.”
“He is with me,” Lan Wangji says. Nie Huaisang’s eyebrows bounce upward. The routine of allowing Wei Ying leadership of their shared body has become easier: Lan Wangji has only to shut his eyes, to take one breath and another, and to extend Wei Ying the offer of coming forward. Warmth floods him, and then he is no longer in command. It is something of a relief to watch this scene rather than partake of it.
“Nie-xiong.” Wei Ying tips Lan Wangji’s head to one side. “Lan Zhan did say I was here. You don’t have to look so surprised.”
To Nie Huaisang’s credit, he gathers himself quickly. He laces his hands together, his mouth a careful line. “You’re giving Hanguang-jun’s facial muscles quite a workout,” he says.
Wei Ying does not reward him with a laugh. “It seems I don’t have a face of my own at the moment.” He picks up Lan Wangji’s tea and swirls the cup. “I promised your disciple, Nie Qiang, that I’d mention him to you. He’s very loyal and I think you should reward him for it.”
Nie Huaisang smiles. “All of my disciples are loyal.”
“Will you do me a favor, Nie-xiong?”
“Well, Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says. He’s not quite smiling anymore. “That depends on the favor.”
“Tell me,” Wei Ying says. “When you brought me back, did you know this would happen? That I would die again when your brother was avenged?” There is no levity in him now. Lan Wangji hears the echo of the Yiling Laozu.
“Ah,” Nie Huaisang says. He sighs again, with the air of a grandmother about to launch into a lecture. “It was always a possibility, I suppose.”
“A possibility,” Wei Ying repeats.
Nie Huaisang spreads his hands. “You have me cornered! I’m here to get away from it all. I thought I’d paint some seascapes. Catch up on my poetry studies. I haven’t had as much time to appreciate the finer things lately.” The smile that tugs at his mouth appears genuinely wistful. “I did mourn when you died.”
Lan Wangji shares the sour feeling that tightens in Wei Ying’s gut. “That’s so thoughtful of you.” Wei Ying knocks back the remainder of Lan Wangji’s tea. It comes close to burning his throat.
The back-and-forth withers and dies. Nie Huaisang does not seem inclined to indulge Wei Ying, to acknowledge that he has done wrong. Wei Ying does not want to ask him for it in so many words.
Lan Wangji unfurls himself within the channels of his own qi, seeking permission. Wei Ying grants it, and Lan Wangji settles back into himself. “You say you mourned when Wei Ying died,” he says. “I will choose to believe you. You can imagine how I felt.”
If Nie Huaisang is caught off-guard by the transition, he hides it quickly, only a widening of the eyes and a twitch of the folded fingers. “I can make some guesses.”
“I had felt grief like that only once before,” Lan Wangji says. “There were days when I was unsure if I would survive it.”
There comes a softening, an opening door, in Nie Huaisang’s expression. “Don’t think I don’t know that feeling,” he says.
Lan Wangji is undeterred. “In the aftermath of my seclusion, I remade myself.” The outside world had been like a dream, like staring across a field so laden with fog there’s no chance of seeing whatever awaits on the other side. A-Yuan had patted his cheeks with hands grown impossibly larger in Lan Wangji’s absence and asked him if he meant to stay now. “Wei Ying’s death could not be meaningless. I would honor him and his sacrifices.” An ashen taste rises in the back of his mouth. Wei Ying remains quiet, but Lan Wangji knows he is listening. “I grew proud of the life I made,” he says. “I believed Wei Ying would be proud as well.
“And then he was back.” He meets Nie Huaisang’s gaze, steady. “I will not lose him again.”
He cannot read the series of minute changes that pass over Nie Huaisang’s features. Perhaps Wei Ying could decode them, but Lan Wangji suspects the only person who could decipher every intricacy is locked underground with his murderer. “I knew it was a possibility,” Nie Huaisang says, “and I accepted it, in the name of my own grief. Surely you can understand that?” He shows no trace of remorse. Whether he truly has no regrets or whether they are only buried, too, Lan Wangji couldn’t say.
“You will help us.”
Nie Huaisang lifts his chin, considering Lan Wangji with hooded eyes. “Will I?” He laughs, a sound like the air is punching itself out of his lungs. “I can’t even imagine what you’re asking, Hanguang-jun! Wei-xiong was dead. He’s dead again now. His body was torn apart. The sacrifice could never have held it together for longer than the duration of what the curse demanded.”
Lan Wangji grips his empty cup. “There must be a way.”
Nie Huaisang has no fan in hand, but he makes a small gesture, a twist of the wrist that must be born of habit and the desire to obscure his face. “My cultivation is nothing to speak of,” he says, “as you’re well aware.”
“Mine is very high,” Lan Wangji counters, unashamed.
Nie Huaisang’s next laugh has climbed higher in pitch. “Wei-xiong never used to shut up about that. All right, so. I have the literature, yes. The Yiling Laozu’s research and theory on the topic of the sacrificing ritual.” He does not say Mo Xuanyu’s name, Lan Wangji notes. “Call it sentiment, to have kept it with me. I presume that’s what you’re after? Not the pleasure of my company.”
Wei Ying hums thoughtfully, unheard by Nie Huaisang. “Sentiment, eh? Lan Zhan, I bet he’s just the littlest bit sorry for what he did to Mo Xuanyu. Not to me, but to Mo Xuanyu! I’m insulted.”
“I will take it,” Lan Wangji says, “and a place to stay.”
“Oh, will you!” Nie Huaisang’s amusement appears genuine alongside his affront. “So I’m to play host while you shape the Yiling Laozu a new body out of sea glass and fish bones.”
“Yes.” Lan Wangji is not joking.
“Ah, fine, fine.” Smiling, Nie Huaisang refills Lan Wangji’s teacup. “There is plenty of house here. There should be! I’m paying enough for it.”
Lan Wangji has no skill at banter, and Wei Ying is quiet and watchful inside him. He drinks his tea and allows discomfiting silence to wrap around them.
Lan Wangji wakes only moments before the cries of sea birds split the peace of the following morning. The sky has just begun to lighten, the briny smell carrying into the guest chamber on the back of a breeze that speaks of impending autumn.
“Good morning, Hanguang-jun,” comes Wei Ying’s voice, sleep-warm somehow. “I can guarantee Nie-xiong isn’t even considering waking up yet.”
Lan Wangji has his morning routines. His meditation, his sword forms, his ablutions. He could perform them throughout the jingshi blindfolded and with his ears plugged. Here, though, he sits amongst rumpled pillows in a house rented by a stranger from a stranger. He is beholden to no disciples or elders. Last night, he penned another letter to Lan Xichen: I am safe, and I hope that you are the same. I hope that your pain is eased. The cultivation world will wait for us both, xiongzhang, and we can hope, too, that it learns to go on without us. He thinks of his brother, round-shouldered and defeated, and he tries not to think of his parents.
“Wei Ying,” he says. “Good morning.”
Wei Ying’s smile, invisible, is a tangible thing. “Maybe I’ll miss being up early enough to see the sunrise,” he says.
Lan Wangji swallows. “You will have your own body. You can wake up alongside me, if you like.”
Wei Ying makes a huffing little laugh. “If I wasn’t captive to your schedule, I’d never wake up this early again! You’re a madman, Lan Zhan.”
You will survive, Lan Wangji wants to say, but Wei Ying is growing immune to his stubbornness and insistence. He elides the topic and makes no references to a possible future. It hollows out the inside of Lan Wangji’s chest like the bones of Nie Huaisang’s lovebirds.
Wei Ying has been holding something back, Lan Wangji becomes aware. The specifics of their secrets are kept from one another, still, but the tides of their emotions have entangled more irreversibly the longer they’ve shared one body. Wei Ying wants to say something, and he doesn’t know if he should.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says.
It isn’t always difficult to unlock Wei Ying. He suspects that if Wei Ying had a face, it would be flushed at the cheeks as he says, “We might have the time for a real goodbye this time, eh? Lan Zhan, I want to finish what we started the night before last.”
Ah. Lan Wangji’s own fingers pressed to his skin, Wei Ying’s intent behind their movements. Heat prickles in Lan Wangji’s palms and thighs. “Wei Ying,” he repeats.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying is serious so rarely that it strikes Lan Wangji like a blow. “Please?”
Lan Wangji cannot pretend not to want this. He can’t pretend not to want everything of Wei Ying: his mouth and his wrists, the slope of his neck and the geometry of his jaw; in lieu of any of that, then, his spirit and his laugh. “Yes,” he says.
The spark of Wei Ying alights his hands where they curl atop expensive bedding. “All right,” Wei Ying says, and then his voice drops, thoughtful: he is an inventor with a project. “All right, Lan Zhan.” Lan Wangji dressed for a late summer night, thin undershirt and trousers, and the heat of Wei Ying’s touch burns right through where he touches the muscle of Lan Wangji’s thigh, the soft underside of his knee. He huffs out a laugh, and Lan Wangji echoes it with a minute exhale as Wei Ying brings one hand to his face. His presses his thumb at the center of Lan Wangji’s bottom lip, fingers curving around his cheek and beneath his jaw. “Pretend I’m kissing you,” Wei Ying says, and Lan Wangji does. Eyes closed, he allows the sweep of Wei Ying’s thumb, roughened by the strings of his own qin, to take the place of Wei Ying’s mouth, his real mouth, lush and smiling widely beneath his own. He breathes through a shallow gasp as Wei Ying touches the insides of his thighs, knuckles brushing the growing heaviness there.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying sounds as solemn as he ever has, his voice—his thoughts, more precisely—threaded through with golden fondness. “I never even told you how you’re the loveliest person I think I’ve ever met.” He chuckles, tugs at the strings of Lan Wangji’s waistband until they come loose and he can slide a flattened hand beneath to Lan Wangji’s bare skin. “I wanted to eat you alive the first time I saw you.” His fingers gather beneath Lan Wangji’s erection, testing the heft of it. Lan Wangji swallows a gasp. Pointlessly, he is grateful for the gulls calling to each other outside, as if their noises will drown out his. As if there is any flash of his pleasure to which Wei Ying is not attuned.
Wei Ying’s hold on him tightens, pad of his thumb to where he is just slightly damp, his eagerness gathering. “Ah—” Lan Wangji bites off the exclamation, his hips jerking up. “Wei Ying,” he says, “I would have let you.”
That makes Wei Ying laugh, so close Lan Wangji can let himself believe Wei Ying’s lips are on the verge of touching his neck. “You wouldn’t have,” he says, “not back then, but that’s all right. I didn’t know I was letting something important go yet, you know?” He strokes Lan Wangji, slow and almost lazy but with such care that it makes Lan Wangji’s head fall back. Wei Ying’s next laugh dips lower, sends licks of heat into Lan Wangji’s belly as his grip tightens again. “I was really going to take my time with you, Hanguang-jun.”
And now he believes this is all the time they have left. Lan Wangji wants to argue, nearly does—and then Wei Ying picks up his pace, his palm dry but getting slicker with the evidence of Lan Wangji’s desperate arousal. Lan Wangji pushes up and into his touch. He cannot even cover his mouth or twine his fingers into his hair for a distraction. Wei Ying is touching his face, fingers at the precipice of sliding past his lips, and Wei Ying is petting at his pulse point with his thumb, and Lan Wangji has never been so undone by his own hands. He has touched himself, thought of Wei Ying, wanted him, yes, all of this—but he has never before done so with Wei Ying quiet in his mind, telling him Oh yes, Lan Zhan, listen to you! Lan Zhan, ah, I’d have kissed you all over—I’d have never let you leave my bed; I’d have never let you go if I’d known—
Lan Wangji whines, very low in his throat and so quiet, and comes hotly into Wei Ying’s waiting hand. Wei Ying’s voice is sweet as he says, “Very beautiful, Lan Zhan,” and pushes two fingers into Lan Wangji’s shocked-open mouth. They’re welcome there, something to muffle him as his orgasm unspools and he trembles. The ocean breeze is cool on the sweat-sticky hairs that curl and stick to his face, the gauzy curtains framing the room’s wide window shifting with it.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says.
All the strings of Lan Wangji’s body feel cut, leaving him loose-limbed and stunned in the wake of Wei Ying’s love. “Mm,” he says. He presses his cheek into the nearest pillow.
Wei Ying would be smiling; his voice glows with that certainty. “I’m going to say that was one of my better goodbyes.”
Cold fingers of dread dig into Lan Wangji’s spine. He is wrenched back to reality and to the mess in his trousers, to Wei Ying’s insistence on his impending death, to the fact that Nie Huaisang will be stirring to wakefulness within this same house in mere hours. He doesn’t answer, but he does take his hands back, and Wei Ying makes no word of protest. Lan Wangji cleans himself and prepares to meditate. He would like his mind to be sharp in advance of whatever is to come.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang says, his hands aflutter. “I was just the conduit, really! Mo Xuanyu’s sword path wasn’t good—no one took him seriously—but his demonic cultivation, ah, Wei-xiong might have been a little impressed after all if they had ever met.”
“This ritual predates the demonic path,” Lan Wangji says, “and Wei Ying would like me to tell you that he really needs you to focus.”
Nie Huaisang snorts out an indelicate laugh. “What do I have left to keep from you two? Truly, my talents lie elsewhere. You’ve seen my disciples and my staff! I’ve trained them well to do all the things I don’t care to do. Cultivation is one of them.”
“You have eyes.” Lan Wangji plucks a text at random from the small pile Nie Huaisang has assembled. “Use them.”
It seems, at least, that his annoyance amuses his audience: Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang laugh in unison. They settle into their reading.
Literature on the topic of the sacrificing curse is rare and often incomplete. Nie Huaisang’s paltry collection here may well constitute the largest library on the topic. Wei Ying’s writing itself is by far the most recent research, although he barely remembers the process of recording those thoughts and discoveries. The ritual’s age inclines most scholars to be skeptical of its existence and viability, with good reason: it is only Mo Xuanyu who has ever, to the knowledge of recorded history, succeeded at it.
“Maybe,” Wei Ying says with obviously false cheer, “maybe since it’s so hard to do in the first place, that makes it easy to undo.”
Lan Wangji does not bother responding to that conjecture. He continues to read. Wei Ying’s handwriting here is familiar, the beauty of a well-trained hand in combination with natural impatience, but the Wei Ying of that time—the Yiling Laozu—still feels close to a stranger. The characters spill across the pages, backward and upside-down at times. Splatters of ink accompany hastily-drawn diagrams of theoretical talismans and arrays. More than one smear of rust-colored blood streaks across the page in the shape of a word every now and then.
“Ah, well.” Wei Ying is breezy. “Sometimes I didn’t want to mix fresh ink. You know how it is, mind moving faster than your hands.”
Lan Wangji does not answer that, either. His chest aches a little with the recollection of Wei Ying in the burial mounds, eyes red-rimmed and cheeks sallow, showing Lan Wangji around as if giving a tour of the new wing of a palace. He touches a particularly well-formed character, traces its brushstrokes with his thumbnail. Wei Ying was alive then, solid. His hands were quick and his thoughts were quicker still. He is not dead, but Lan Wangji misses him.
There are relatively few books and collections of loose-leaf to peruse, particularly with two of them at the task. When Lan Wangji looks up from the last page of a patchy old volume whose primary function is to warn against attempting such dark rituals, Nie Huaisang has finished, and watches him with a cool gaze.
“Wei-xiong,” he says. His eyes meet Lan Wangji’s, looking past him. “You awoke inside a demonic array. Now, I know your memory isn’t the keenest—but do you remember it?”
“Of course I—yes!” Wei Ying is insulted, puffing up from where he curls around Lan Wangji’s core. “I don’t forget that stuff, almost ever. Except when I do, but not—I have this one.”
Lan Wangji nearly smiles. “He remembers,” he says.
“All right, so.” Nie Huaisang rests his chin on his fist. “I know Wei-xiong is rather good at altering spells. I wonder if it might be possible to reverse the ritual, or some of its stipulations, at the least.”
Lan Wangji glances at the texts piled by his elbow. He is proud of his own cultivation prowess, but he has never been much of an innovator. Many of Wei Ying’s notes, or what was decipherable to his eye, amounted to a deconstruction of the sacrificing ritual’s purpose. Demonic cultivation did not exist at its inception, but the path of harnessing resentful energy just might, the Yiling Laozu had posited, make the ritual tame enough for a cultivator to perform without missing his target.
“Right!” Wei Ying has sprung to attention. “The whole point was—ah, it’s coming back to me! The whole point was marrying the old and the new. My ideas and this insanely old curse. I mean, I had no idea if it would work. I don’t think Nie-xiong there did either, frankly.”
“Right,” Lan Wangji echoes. He sets the parchment he’s been holding back where it came from. “Wei Ying can reverse-engineer the array. It may be that he can relax the condition of revenge.” He remembers a slapdash note in the corner of one of the Yiling Laozu sources. “The spirits who carry out the curse have their own agendas,” he says, “and they are mercurial, but spirits tend to like Wei Ying.”
Nie Huaisang hums, agreement or perhaps trepidation. “Gather your supplies, then.” He smiles. “It’s not me you’re waiting.”
Wet sand sucks at Lan Wangji’s boots as he walks. He follows the three-pronged tracks of some seabird until the trail vanishes. His qiankun pouch is fuller than before he and Wei Ying visited the market. Most of its vendors are there to sell their fresh catches, but they managed to find talisman papers, a heathy supply of ink, and, at Wei Ying’s insistence, breakfast buns.
They could attempt their modified ritual at any time. Wei Ying has been talking to himself since they left Nie Huaisang’s rented accommodations, breathless and just this side of manic as he works out the details of the array. He will have to use Lan Wangji’s hands to draw it, and there is a certain dread to the idea, but Lan Wangji will not back away from this now.
The waves lap at the shore. It has been many years since the last time Lan Wangji saw the open ocean; it must have been before Wei Ying’s resurrection, one of his night-hunts. He did not stop to admire it then.
“You don’t have to do this,” Wei Ying says, cutting himself off mid-sentence.
“I do,” Lan Wangji disagrees.
Wei Ying barks out a noise that doesn’t quite qualify as a laugh. “Incorrigible.” He sighs. “It’s a little bit nice here, isn’t it? This water, it’s nothing like the water I grew up with. That water was warm, sometimes shallow, pretty much always my friend. I feel like this could knock me out and drag me away by the ankles.” A truer laugh, then. “If I had ankles.”
Lan Wangji slows and comes to a stop. The beach is beautiful, a small crescent moon of sand only a few minutes’ walk from the tangle of piers and docks that encompass the liveliest part of Daiyang. Salt spray gilds his hair and cheeks. He feels crystallized, holding onto the reality of Wei Ying’s spirit alive and talkative and entwined with his qi.
“I know, I know,” Wei Ying says, gentler. “You’re going to say I’ll have ankles again soon.”
Lan Wangji’s mouth slants upward for a moment. “I considered it,” he admits, “but no. I am—stubborn.” Before Wei Ying can laugh and start to tease about his understatement, he continues: “I am not blind with it, though. I know you may die.” The truth of it makes it taste no better or less bitter on his tongue.
The sigh Wei Wuxian huffs out is more metaphysical than anything, a reluctant slump of the shoulders, to so speak. “I could die, I may die, I probably will die!” He chuckles. “Things like that sometimes don’t mean much to me anymore. You’ve never lived without a golden core, Lan Zhan. I haven’t had one for a long time now.”
Lan Wangji watches as two fishermen hail each other, their boats crossing paths far off the shore. “I learned to live with your first death,” he says, “but I don’t know that I can come to accept a second one.” He isn’t certain he wants to.
“Ah, that’s what’s weird this time around, you know? I don’t want to die.” Wei Ying is mildly startled by the words, the pleasure of his surprise making miniscule sparks along Lan Wangji’s meridians. “Not even that, actually, I—I think maybe I want to live.”
Lan Wangji does smile, then, with no one but the seabirds around to see it.
“Maybe we should have let Jin Guangyao go,” Wei Ying says. Through Lan Wangji’s eyes, he squints at the ocean as it bleeds into the horizon. “Dongying is somewhere out there. If he had never died…”
“I’d be forcing you to take off your shoes and squish your toes in the sand right now. I’d be stealing half of your breakfast and making you buy a whole new one just so I could steal that one, too. You’d be getting so sick of me.”
“We couldn’t have,” Lan Wangji says.
There is a wan pause, and Wei Ying’s mulish agreement. “No,” he says, “we couldn’t have. Even if I’d known what Nie-xiong was up to… we wouldn’t have left things like that. That’s not who we are. Stupid!”
Lan Wangji thinks of a smiling boy and a lantern and a set of vows. He holds Wei Ying inside of him, cradling the brilliance of him in the deepest parts of himself, and he decides he will not grieve yet.
Dark rituals do not, Wei Ying has laughingly pointed out, require the shroud of nighttime. Moonrise is not a necessary element and resentful energy does not stalk the earth only after the prescribed Lan clan bedtime.
Lan Wangji does, though, feel slightly foolish shrugging off the outermost layer of his robes and binding up his sleeves while the light of dusk still bathes the back patio of Nie Huaisang’s rented home. Wei Ying has been buzzing with something just barely too hysterical to qualify as excitement, the spirals of his thoughts climbing higher. This process demands no arcane ingredients or rare tinctures: as Wei Ying has said, the primary ingredient is sheer gumption. Dozens of talismans rustle in Lan Wangji’s grip, the work of Wei Ying’s afternoon.
Mo Xuanyu, obviously, performed this without Chenqing the first time around, but Wei Ying has requested its presence. For comfort, for something to focus his energies. The flute had settled to the bottom of Lan Wangji’s qiankun pouch in Wei Ying’s absence, but it warms instantly in his hand. He suspects it knows its master has been there.
“Good luck,” Nie Huaisang says dryly. He peers around the sliding back doors with a fan in one hand and a wary look in his eye. “If you die, please try to do it cleanly.” His tone is just light enough to make Lan Wangji understand that he does care, and that he would much rather not.
Lan Wangji only grants him a nod. Nie Huaisang slips back into the house to await their failure or their success.
“I’m ready,” Wei Ying says. “I hope. I don’t know.” His tension reverberates down the column of Lan Wangji’s spine. “I can’t get any readier than this, so we may as well.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji stops. Something tender rises in his throat, words that want out. “Please be careful.” His tongue has thickened in his mouth. “If you think I can help beyond what I’ve offered, please let me.”
“I want to live,” Wei Ying says plainly. “I said that already. I want to live with you.” He would smile, here; Lan Wangji’s qi flushes with warmth instead. He laughs and says, “I’m a little sick of living in you, though. Come on, Lan Zhan, shall we get to work?”
And so Lan Wangji surrenders control of his body for what he wants very badly to be the last time.
Under Wei Ying’s guidance, Lan Wangji becomes a conduit. He has blood to spare, a golden core that can roar to bonfire strength when he calls upon it. Wei Ying inhabits him and gets to work. With a chef’s knife from the kitchen, dust wiped from the handle, Wei Ying cuts him open. “Sorry, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and the slicing line he draws with the blade is cleaner and straighter than any Lan Wangji has ever seen him make on his own flesh.
Lan Wangji’s palm drips with blood. Wei Ying dips his fingers in it like a child at his first calligraphy lesson and he gets to work.
The array takes up most of the patio. Broad strokes, Wei Ying’s hands moving with assured efficiency. The symbols and characters spill from him without hesitation; he has talked himself in circles about this the whole day, but at the moment of action, he knows exactly what he is doing. Ghostlike, pulled after the brisk motions of his own form like a toy on a string, Lan Wangji marvels at the incisiveness of Wei Ying’s mind.
Talismans follow. Wei Ying spreads them on the stone floor. He squeezes Lan Wangji’s hand into a fist, breaking the skin open afresh—Lan Wangji’s qi has been trying its best to heal him—and collects new blood to make his final touches to each paper. He outlines the black ink in darkening red, flourishes to alter the characters and thus their intentions. He is so quick and so clever. Lan Wangji has admired and feared the brashness of it since he watched Wei Ying stroll through a courier office with shadows at his heels and vengeance in the set of his jaw.
When Wei Ying finishes, the array has only begun to dry. The air stinks of iron, and Lan Wangji is distantly aware of the pain in his hand. It will heal soon.
“All right.” Wei Ying smiles at no one. “Lan Zhan, just in case—” He kisses his uninjured palm and presses it to his cheek, Lan Wangji’s face. “Keep that, will you?”
Lan Wangji cannot speak, cannot lean into Wei Ying’s kiss as he wants to. He will have to trust that Wei Ying knows his heart and its answer.
Wei Ying steps into the center of the array. Lan Wangji’s robes drag in the blood, crimson staining their edges and then blooming larger when Wei Ying kneels. He reaches for Chenqing, rolling the flute between his palms and blowing a single note. It rings a little strangely with the air from Lan Wangji’s lips.
“I’m here,” Wei Ying says. A few more notes, and they warm as if in response to the sun dipping lower. It hovers at the horizon and then slips out of sight like an egg yolk sliding into boiling water. “My body was used to make a deal. I’d like it back.”
Chenqing rests, balanced between Wei Ying’s fingers. He waits, and Lan Wangji wonders if there are sounds coming on the wind, something Wei Ying is hearing that he cannot. Wei Ying laughs, then, cocking his head, and a descending scale floats out of Chenqing.
“I’m not asking you to undo what was done,” Wei Ying says. He speaks conversationally, chatting with a friend over tea and wine. “I’m asking for something that belongs to me.”
Whispers gather in the clinging nighttime, ringing around Wei Ying. Wisps of darkness settle around his shoulders, the small of his back. They are curious, surprised to see Hanguang-jun kneeling in an array of human blood with resentful energy twining around a spiritual instrument that is not his own. Lan Wangji catches the faint impression of a cold hand at Wei Ying’s wrist, damp fingers that press into the thin skin there and leave fingernail marks with their insistence that he notice them.
Wei Ying shows no fear. He straightens his back, his shoulders level. He meets the scrutinizing gaze of something—someone—just outside of the range of Lan Wangji’s perception, and a smile plucks at the edges of his mouth as he does it. “I was never asked!”
There comes a laugh. Lan Wangji’s qi runs cold for a dreadful moment. Oh, how his uncle would hate to see him here, calling upon the forces that ruined Wei Wuxian. You stepped willfully into our embrace, they say, thin and dry voices like pressed flowers crumbling, and now you want to take it back? Wei Wuxian, you know that’s not how it works.
“I was dead,” Wei Ying hisses, “and then I wasn’t. That wasn’t willing. Everything before—what, did I not pay enough price?”
You can’t balance this ledger, Yiling Laozu. We don’t play fair. You’ve known that all along.
Wei Ying grits his teeth. Lan Wangji wants to reach for him, wants to smooth the hair back from his face and cradle the back of his neck in gentle hands. “It’s one thing,” Wei Ying says. “One little coreless body. What could you possibly want with it?”
The answer is too low and sibilant for Lan Wangji to make out, but he feels the echo of it in Wei Ying, the crop of goosebumps that breaks out along his skin.
“Well.” Wei Ying laughs, his defiance flagging. “How evocative.”
The void wants to reach for him. It is close enough now that Lan Wangji catches the chill of it, the yawning blackness that pulls at the hems of Wei Ying’s borrowed robes. It is telling him how its denizens tore his body to pieces at the moment of the sacrificing curse’s conclusion. They devoured him like so much half-rotted meat, they say. They could not return it to him even if they wanted to. They are in the business of destruction, not that of charity.
A wash of grief drags at Wei Ying, Lan Wangji alongside him. All the years in that body. Every time Lan Wangji thought of touching it. Each scar and reflex.
Wei Ying straightens again, steel in the ladder of his spine. He doesn’t look so unlike Lan Wangji himself. “The thing is that I’m not done here.” He licks his lips. “Please,” he adds. “Anything you can offer me—”
Shut up! Shut up, shut up!
Wei Ying blinks.
This voice is new. It reverberates, rough and cracked, the sound of a shattered vase glued inexpertly back together. It draws closer until Lan Wangji no longer has to strain to hear it. “Just be quiet,” it says, half a growl. “I’m trying to be dead here.”
Wei Ying’s breath hangs somewhere around his sternum. “I, ah—” He clears his throat. “Mo Xuanyu?”
“Some of me. Yes. Wei Wuxian. Come closer.”
Wei Ying presses a hand to the stone patio. It seems to crack open under his touch, spilling blood-black darkness. Below, where Lan Wangji’s living hands cannot reach: sliver-white eyes, a grim mouth, the impression of a roiling river of long dark hair.
“Ah,” Wei Ying says. “They tore the other half of you apart.” Mo Xuanyu’s spirit has suffered the same treatment as Wei Ying’s body. It is glued together with resentment and irritation alone, with the desire to be left alone so large and bristling with such fervor that even Lan Wangji feels it.
“If I help you,” Mo Xuanyu says, his voice a thin rasp, “will you let me sleep?”
Wei Ying pushes Lan Wangji’s sleeves further up under their leather bindings. The wounds of earlier have vanished already. He lowers his hands, through the floor, toward the dark gleam of Mo Xuanyu’s cobbled-together face.
“Hmm.” Mo Xuanyu laughs. His features split in two, in three, on and on. The night rushes up through the cooled blood array and then there is nothing, Lan Wangji pulled under its current at Wei Ying’s heels.
Lan Wangji doesn’t recognize those hands. They make loose fists on the patio a handful of inches from his nose, and he doesn’t recognize them. Blood streaks their knuckles, cakes under their fingernails. They are not his. He flexes his own fingers to test, and confirm, this theory.
The night hasn’t lifted, but the moon has come out. Lan Wangji forces his gaze up, away from these unfamiliar hands, and locks eyes with a stranger.
“Oh,” he says.
He takes in a pointed chin, grey eyes, smeared red and white powder across high cheekbones. A stunned facial expression and a black-robed body facing his, curved in the shape of a stray eyelash stuck to someone’s cheek.
They look at one another, suspended in a dizzying, endless succession of seconds, and then Wei Ying smiles at him. “Oh,” he answers, a gently mocking echo, “hi.”
Lan Wangji reaches for him without consciously deciding to, folding Wei Ying’s hands—his hands, his new hands—into his own. They’re cold, and he holds them tighter. He can’t seem to speak, only to hang onto Wei Ying and try not to shake, lying on his side on bloodstained stone with his heart finally free of his body again.
Wei Ying’s smile widens, and that much is familiar. Lan Wangji’s breath punches out of him. He sucks it back in. “Hi,” Wei Ying says again. “It’s me. In case you were wondering.”
There: Lan Wangji smiles back at him, helpless. “I recognized you.”
Wei Ying laughs, not like he’s heard a joke but like he’s giddy. “Do I even want to know? Oh, Lan Zhan, am I hideous now? Don’t tell me if I am! Break the news gently.”
He is far from hideous, of course. His face is new to Lan Wangji, who glimpsed Mo Xuanyu perhaps twice, generously, during his ill-fated tenure at Carp Tower. Its angles and shapes will ask him to learn them. He is Wei Ying, and he is lovely, and Lan Wangji is eager for the work of studying him anew. He brings their joined hands to Wei Ying’s face, touching the jut of his chin, and he suspects he may still be smiling.
Wei Ying’s eyes shine, a little wet. He curls himself more tightly toward Lan Wangji, forehead to the place where they’re holding onto one another. “That bad, eh?”
“I believe I owe Mo Xuanyu my thanks.” Lan Wangji kisses the back of Wei Ying’s hand, heedless of the dirt and blood.
“I guess I do too.” Wei Ying shuts his eyes, tears fanning out under his eyelashes. They draw tracks in Mo Xuanyu’s makeup. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I—I just didn’t think—I don’t know. I can’t believe I’m holding your hand. I didn’t think I’d get to. I didn’t think I’d ever get to hold anything ever again. And there were finally a lot of things I wanted to hold.”
“I know,” Lan Wangji says. He rubs his thumb over Wei Ying’s knuckles.
The noise that bubbles out of Wei Ying’s throat is exactly between a laugh and a sob. He presses the arc of his smile to the back of Lan Wangji’s hand. “Can you believe I annoyed Mo Xuanyu into giving me his body? Ah, Lan Zhan, can you believe everyone is going to think I’m Mo Xuanyu? Wait, I’m still cute, right?”
“Very cute,” Lan Wangji assures him. “Wei Ying. The people who matter will know who you are.”
Wei Ying looks up at him, wearing a crooked expression of hope. “Like you,” he says. “Lan Zhan. Thank you for carrying me all the way here. I’m sorry that you had to do it.”
Lan Wangji touches his forehead to Wei Ying’s. He does not let go, but he relaxes his grip. The night grows colder with every minute, and Wei Ying seems small like this. “Come,” he says. “Let’s clean you up.” He pulls at Wei Ying, ushering him to his feet. Wei Ying doesn’t only seem small—he is shorter now, less broad through the shoulders.
Wei Ying follows him inside, where only a scattered handful of candles remain lit. There is no sign of Nie Huaisang, but Lan Wangji suspects he is not sleeping. In the bathing chamber, Wei Ying waits as Lan Wangji brings buckets of water and as he pours them into the bathtub, heating the water with an application of spiritual energy. It is some relief to have his core all to himself, and it is some regret, too. He will have to regain the knack of being the only person in here.
Steam filling the air, Wei Ying steps out of Mo Xuanyu’s threadbare robes and reveals his new body to himself. Lan Wangji stands aside, his eyes trained on the ceiling, until Wei Ying calls to him, “Come here. Don’t be stupid.”
Lan Wangji goes to him. Wei Ying has his hair gathered and pulled over one shoulder, his legs hugged to his chest. He’s scrubbed the remaining traces of Mo Xuanyu’s face powder away, and his face is fresh, beautiful, turning pink in the heat. Lan Wangji suspects that he loves it already. He leans down, touching Wei Ying’s cheek. The thrill of it flutters within his ribcage, and so he does it again, fitting his hands to the slopes where Wei Ying’s neck curves into shoulders. Wei Ying’s eyes are dark, and he does not look away from Lan Wangji.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, “can you tell me if I’m going crazy?” Before Lan Wangji can answer, he cuts him off: “I know what you’re going to say! Just—hear me out. I have this feeling, I… can you tell me if I have a golden core?”
After these days together, Lan Wangji’s core knows the shape of Wei Ying’s spirit like nothing else. He shuts his eyes, breathes one steadying breath, and requires nothing more to feel the thrum of Wei Ying’s qi, to follow the avenues of his meridians, and to find the kernel of pooled energy, potential power, nestled within the safety of his lower dantian.
When he opens his eyes, Wei Ying has his lower lip caught between his teeth, his brows drawn together. Lan Wangji gives him a smile, and he doesn’t need to say anything else. Wei Ying laughs, sounding dizzy, and reaches up to cover Lan Wangji’s hands with his own. “I thought I’d finally snapped,” he says, “but I guess—this must be part of the package, eh? He never—he didn’t give his up.”
Lan Wangji feels nearly dizzy himself. Steam gathers in droplets around the hollow of Wei Ying’s throat. He can see Wei Ying’s pulse, the jump of it, proof that he is alive.
Wei Ying’s smile is luminous. “Lan Zhan. There’s blood on your chin. Get in here.”
In the bath, they do not purposely touch one another, but their feet and knees bump and slide on each other. Wei Ying laughs each time. He lets Lan Wangji braid his drying hair into a neat plait after, as they slip into their sleeping clothes—Lan Wangji’s too big for Wei Ying, falling off his shoulder and gaping at the neck. They don’t talk about whether to find Wei Ying a separate bed. They have shared breath and heartbeats. There is no question of sharing this space now that they have split back into two.
Nie Huaisang looks at Wei Ying’s new form with a sharp-edged set to his features, something that could be regret if Lan Wangji didn’t know better, and then he tells them they can stay as long as they like, but they had better clean up the mess they made of his patio or the damage will be coming straight from the Lan clan coffers.
Wei Ying cannot stay still. Lan Wangji follows him down to the morning opening of the fish market, eyes trained on the just-unbraided curls of his high ponytail and the spring in his step. Already, Wei Ying wears this body well; already, it is difficult to believe that it ever belonged to someone else. Lan Wangji would like to thank Mo Xuanyu.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, “Lan Zhan!” He tugs at Lan Wangji’s sleeve, looping his arm around Lan Wangji’s elbow. He is in a pair of Lan Wangji’s robes, dusky blue and white, and they are too long on him. “Let’s go shopping.” He grins.
So they do. Lan Wangji trails him, watching as he haggles with the vendors and pulls exaggeratedly impressed faces at the fishermen boasting about their humongous catches, their nets overflowing. He claps his hands to his mouth, laughs at the tales they tell of their hardships on the seas, and ferrets money from Lan Wangji’s purse to pay for fresh-fried breakfast fish atop beds of steaming rice and dried seaweed. He plies Lan Wangji to eat with him as they walk and complains when the meal is too hot to eat right away. “Brand new mouth and I’ve already burned it!” He laughs anew. “No wonder A-Cheng never wanted to trust me with anything valuable.”
Lan Wangji smiles. Wei Ying’s voice washes over him like the current of a river, smoothing away the jagged things within him that have collected since Nightless City.
When they reach the beach, Wei Ying makes good on his promises. He kicks off Mo Xuanyu’s battered boots and flings them at Lan Wangji, trusting him to catch—and he takes off, the spray of sand fanning out the air in his wake. The tide is low and the sand gleams wetly in the midmorning sun. Lan Wangji hovers momentarily. Wei Ying’s hair whips around as he turns on his heels and waves at Lan Wangji from two dozen paces away, and Lan Wangji hesitates no longer before pulling off his own boots one at a time. He sets all four boots in a row alongside a piece of sun-bleached driftwood, and then he and his bare feet follow Wei Ying.
Wei Ying sees him coming and his smile softens. “Hanguang-jun with no shoes on in public,” he says, in the tone someone might use to say Welcome home, and what a long journey you were on. “No one will ever believe me.”
Lan Wangji makes a hum of agreement. His robes drag on the sand, collecting not blood, this time, but saltwater. Wei Ying waits for him, just as long as it takes Lan Wangji to reach him, and then he snags Lan Wangji’s hand, fingers in the spaces between Lan Wangji’s, and pulls Lan Wangji after him down the curve of the shoreline. Lan Wangji goes, willing, wet packed sand cold between his toes and Wei Ying’s hand warm in his own.
Only when they’re out of sight of most of Daiyang does Wei Ying stop, his chest heaving and his cheeks glowing. He whirls to face Lan Wangji again, wetting his lips with his tongue. “Mo Xuanyu isn’t—I’m not as strong as I used to be.” His laugh is dry. “So weird, right? I have a core again, but I feel weaker than I have in a long time.”
“It will take time,” Lan Wangji says.
“Everything takes time,” Wei Ying says petulantly. His mouth quirks into approximately one third of a smile. “That felt good anyway. I used to do that to you all the time.”
“I didn’t mind.”
“Lan Zhan, please, you’ll give me such an ego.” Wei Ying strokes the back of Lan Wangji’s hand with his thumb. The back of Lan Wangji’s neck prickles. “Did you know this was going to happen? That I—that Mo Xuanyu would…? Is that why you didn’t give up?”
“No.” Lan Wangji drops his gaze. He watches as the shallow surf pulls dark sand over Wei Ying’s feet until they are half-buried. “I knew nothing more than what I said to Nie-zongzhu.”
Wei Ying lowers his voice into an impression of Lan Wangji: “I will not lose him again.”
In this, Lan Wangji refuses to feel shame. He looks back up. Wei Ying’s new eyelashes are lighter than his last set. “I was right,” he says. “Here you are.”
“Hmm. You were right.” Wei Ying’s cheeks turn rounder when he smiles. “What should we do now?”
Lan Wangji nestles his fingers more firmly into the spaces between Wei Ying’s. When he licks his lips, they taste like salt. He has several ideas, some of them decades old. The day stretches before them. He will hold onto those answers for a few hours longer, simply to luxuriate in the novelty of time. “I’d like to go for a walk with you,” he says. “Lead the way.”
By the first inkling of dusk, they have walked the length of Daiyang’s beaches and of the beaches past the border of the village. They have wandered its handful of streets and Wei Ying has graciously allowed Lan Wangji to buy him three new sets of robes. “I keep dragging yours on the ground!” he’d said, widening his eyes. “It’s a good investment.” In dark grey and crimson, he looks more like himself, the bright red of his hair ribbon twining through the spill of his hair.
Wei Ying seems bound and determined to wear his new body until it reaches exhaustion. Maybe it’s restlessness; maybe it’s a search for whatever his new limits may be. Lan Wangji keeps by his side, ready to catch him if he falls.
When they stopped at Nie Huaisang’s, the place was dark. Lan Wangji does not think Nie-zongzhu has returned to the Unclean Realm—not yet—but he must not be itching for social calls with Mo Xuanyu’s face and Wei Ying’s personality, either. An assortment of paintbrushes were strewn across the table, but there was no sign of a canvas or of the painter.
Wei Ying had snatched one of them up and used it to compose letters. One to Wen Ning, one to Lan Sizhui, and a third—very short—to Jiang Cheng. He’d sent them off in a shower of sparks and then met Lan Wangji’s eyes with a lopsided grin.
The cliffs overlooking Daiyang are lush, overgrown with tall grass as green as anything on the mountains of Gusu. Jewel-bright flowers dot their slopes, and from this vantage point, the village looks like a set of miniatures, like something crafted for display in a collection of fine art. The ocean, in contrast, is endless. Whatever is beyond it remains invisible. Lianfang-zun could have disappeared into that horizon and taken anything that transpired between him and Mo Xuanyu away with him. Wei Ying could be as he was, tall and gangly and dark-eyed.
Wei Ying comes clattering up behind him. His chin fits just so over Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and his nose is cold where it brushes the hinge of Lan Wangji’s jaw. “Nice view,” he says brightly. He tucks a flower behind Lan Wangji’s ear, a scrubby little spray of orange petals.
Lan Wangji’s chest is light; not hollow, but unburdened. He turns, catches Wei Ying’s wrists in his hands. Wei Ying blinks and then smiles. “Four whole entire hands!” he says. “What a luxury, eh, Lan Zhan?”
“Hm.” Lan Wangji considers him. The light catches like honey on Wei Ying’s hair. He has, today, mourned the fact that he never took any of his opportunities to kiss Wei Ying’s first mouth. Here is a brand-new opportunity.
Wei Ying’s smile broadens, slow. “Hanguang-jun,” he says, “what else should we do now?”
The air smells of the ocean, and Wei Ying’s mouth tastes of it when Lan Wangji pulls him in and kisses him. Careful, slow, and with lightning blooming in the center of him. He has been so used to sharing all the parts of himself with Wei Ying that he nearly forgets this is their first kiss—and then he remembers, and his hold on Wei Ying’s fine-boned wrists tightens, and he makes it their second as Wei Ying draws in a gasping breath and kisses him back. He shakes his hands free of Lan Wangji’s grip only to step in closer still, to put his arms around Lan Wangji, a hand curled at the back of his neck. His mouth opens under Lan Wangji’s, another gasp and the tip of his tongue and something that could be a laugh, and Lan Wangji drinks the sound of it down. The inside of his mouth is blood-warm. Lan Wangji kisses him again. Wei Ying meets him there, smiling into the press of it.
Lan Wangji puts Wei Ying’s lower lip between his teeth, just to see what happens. Wei Ying sighs, and Lan Wangji smiles. “Two mouths,” he says. “That’s a luxury, too.”
Wei Ying laughs. He sounds like his old self, as if his laughter transcends trivialities such as physical form. He squeezes the back of Lan Wangji’s neck, laughing still, and when he tugs, Lan Wangji goes with him in a sprawl of limbs into the long grass. They don’t land gracefully, but the jarring of bones doesn’t matter in the face of Wei Ying’s face framed by flowers and his outer robe falling open. “Oh, Lan Zhan,” he is saying between the little hiccups of his laughs, “you’d think I’d have gotten immune to how funny you are, living in there with you, but I—”
Lan Wangji straddles him and leans down to bite the slanting exposed line of his collarbone.
Wei Ying swallows his own words in a whine. “Ah,” he says, and he tips his head back until Lan Wangji can nose aside the loose hair and kiss his ear, the soft hollow behind it, the tendon of his neck. He has wanted this and wanted this and never once expected it. He didn’t lie to Nie Huaisang when he spoke of remaking himself after Wei Ying’s death, of making Wei Ying’s life into something with meaning. He has never expected this second chance, and now they have been given a third, and Lan Wangji will seize it. He will hook his leg under Wei Ying’s; he will tumble them onto their sides, Wei Ying a bundle of sun-heated limbs and dazed laughs, and kiss Wei Ying with his hand flat at the small of Wei Ying’s back. The kiss makes Wei Ying arch into him, his tongue in Lan Wangji’s mouth and his knee between Lan Wangji’s thighs. He fumbles at Lan Wangji’s robes, tugging until something comes loose and he can slide his hand to Lan Wangji’s waist, his hipbone, along his ribcage, with only slippery silk undershirt between them.
“Here,” Lan Wangji says. He needs only one hand to unknot the blue sash at his waist; it comes free in a long snick of fabric on fabric, and Wei Ying is still laughing, kissing Lan Wangji’s chin and the dip of his throat. His teeth catch and drag; Lan Wangji’s answering inhale is sharp. He is hard now, the weight of it pressed to Wei Ying’s leg, and he cannot account for the sound that claws out of his chest when he rocks forward and heat flashes through every part of him.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, pleasantly scandalized. He drops a sloppy kiss on Lan Wangji’s jaw, sucking at the skin there for only just long enough to make Lan Wangji groan under his breath and reach for him, wanting him closer still, wanting that angle of Wei Ying’s thigh against the bonfire heat of his erection. His robes are getting dirty and grass-stained, and there is a smear of soil on Wei Ying’s temple. Wei Ying is here, solid and alive in his arms, all the fevered thoughts and lantern-bright goodness of his spirit preserved. Forget luxuriating. Lan Wangji yanks Wei Ying’s robes open further, pushing aside layers of fabric for his knuckles to bump Wei Ying’s stomach, the drawn-tight muscle of it and of his legs. He finds the sleek heat of Wei Ying’s arousal, heavy when he holds it in his hand and beautiful when Wei Ying keens in answer to his touch. Bare skin under his hand, the length of it twitching in the curl of his fingers and with the motion of his tightening fist.
He pauses, watching a flush of pink creeping over Wei Ying’s half-bared chest. Wei Ying looks at him with his tongue caught between his teeth, a ragged breath punching out of his chest. “Lan Zhan.” He palms at Lan Wangji’s hip, rucking up his undershirt for unobstructed skin.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji agrees. He twists his wrist, stroking Wei Ying, thoughtful, and Wei Ying is—he is so easy for this, so quick to come undone in response to Lan Wangji’s touch. His fingers dig into Lan Wangji’s side, his fingernails scraping, and he throws himself forward, even closer. His thigh is still trapped between Lan Wangji’s legs, and the friction there sends sweet pleasure up and back down Lan Wangji’s spine. Wei Ying fits well in his palm, growing slicker with each passing moment, and he whines.
It is no trouble at all to take Wei Ying apart. Lan Wangji has so much more he wants, years of fruitless imagining, all the ways he has wanted this—but no daydream could compare to Wei Ying clutching at him, burying his face and the climbing pitch of his wordless encouragements in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. His skin is cool everywhere but the places Lan Wangji has touched, and there he is so hot, so eminently present, undeniable. He moans, bites messily at the skin of Lan Wangji’s throat, and comes into the spaces between Lan Wangji’s fingers on the crest of a sharp-edged breath. That, too, is hot and alive, and Lan Wangji’s mouth waters. Next time, he will coax Wei Ying into his mouth.
“Whoa,” Wei Ying says, dreamlike. He nuzzles Lan Wangji’s ear and nips at his earlobe. “Ahh, Lan Zhan, that was—I swear I didn’t bring you up here meaning for that to—my intentions were honorable, Lan-er-gege.”
“Mine weren’t.” Lan Wangji rolls his hips, cups the meat of Wei Ying’s thighs in his hands to shift the angle. “I did mean for this.” He kisses Wei Ying, open-mouthed. He has rarely been less careful than in this moment: his tongue behind Wei Ying’s teeth, Wei Ying’s orgasm-slowed hands petting his hair, telling him that he’s lovely, that Wei Ying is so glad they’re here. Everything feels good: Wei Ying’s smile and how their noses knock together when they try to kiss through it; Wei Ying’s hand working its way between them and the heel of his palm to Lan Wangji through his robes, the pressure of it and the artless squeeze of his fingers. The burgeoning sunset casts Wei Ying’s face in deeper shadow, his eyes dark and his mouth red. Lan Wangji kisses him, loves him, and rides this feeling until it crests and breaks on the sound of his own breath catching in his throat and the stuttering movement of his hips. Wei Ying strokes his face, tucking his hair behind his ears. He kisses the bridge of Lan Wangji’s nose. Lan Wangji curls around him. He suspects he might be shaking in the wake of his orgasm and of Wei Ying’s attentiveness.
“Hi.” Wei Ying kisses his forehead and, very tenderly, sets his headband to rights, the ornament back to center. The air has begun cooling around them already. They stay as they are for a quiet moment, but a thrum of restless energy is coiling in Wei Ying, his fingers drumming at Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Lan Wangji’s robes are getting damp in the grass anyway. He lets go of Wei Ying with reluctance, pulling him to his feet with hands at his elbows. There’s no helping the state of Wei Ying’s robes, but he only smiles and rocks up on his tiptoes to kiss Lan Wangji’s cheek. “If that was your pick of activity,” he says, “then I get the next one. And I want to go to dinner.”
The nighttime lights of the village make a patchwork below. Daiyang is small, but not too small for an inn with dinner service. Wei Ying would accompany him, love bites on his jaw and rumpled hair and all, and Lan Wangji smiles at the thought. He brushes dirt from the embroidered panels of his outer robe and offers Wei Ying his hand.
It isn’t until they’ve finished their dinner, Wei Ying tipsy and clinging to Lan Wangji’s arm, that Lan Wangji plucks the half-crushed flower from his hair.
It is more than clear, the next morning, that they have outstayed their welcome. Nie Huaisang looks up from his tea and his poetry scroll and purses his lips when Lan Wangji and Wei Ying spill out from their guest quarters, Wei Ying’s arm around Lan Wangji’s waist.
“I didn’t think Lan sect members were allowed to sleep in so late,” he says lightly, “let alone Hanguang-jun.”
“I was not sleeping.” Lan Wangji brushes a stray hair back into place at his temple.
Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes. “If we’re not even by now, then please, tell me what else I may owe you.”
Lan Wangji can think of some things. His brother’s peace of mind, perhaps. Wei Ying’s first body without terms or conditions. Still—he looks at Nie Huaisang, the grim set of his mouth and the spread of beautiful things around him. “Is the property cleaned to your satisfaction?” he asks.
“Blood is hard to get out of things,” Wei Ying adds.
Nie Huaisang exhales on a fluttery sigh. He avoids looking at Wei Ying. “If you’re looking for permission to go, you certainly don’t have to ask me.”
Their belongings take little time to gather with Lan Wangji’s qiankun pouch at their disposal. They set the room’s bed aright, and Wei Ying makes a valiant effort at plumping the assortment of thickly-embroidered decorative pillows.
“I just have one question,” Wei Ying says. They hover at the gate to Daiyang, allowing themselves a final look. The village won’t mark their departure, but Wei Ying is leaving it on legs that didn’t belong to him when they arrived.
Lan Wangji glances at him. He has his hair up again, and Lan Wangji could so easily kiss the back of his neck. Wei Ying’s robes are black, his sleeves bound in strips of freshly-tanned leather. He has Chenqing tethered to his hip.
Wei Ying looks back and smiles. “Where are we going?”
The question has no easy answer, and Lan Wangji does not like to dole out answers unless he is sure of them. He turns his head, indicating the expanse of the world before them. He has his duties, but cultivation has not collapsed in his absence. Wei Ying has spoken of traveling, and Lan Wangji would follow him if he went.
In lieu of a response, Lan Wangji steps closer and takes Wei Ying’s chin in his hand. He tips his face up, then to one side, and slides an ivory hair pin, shaped like a lotus blossom and bought on the streets of Qinghe, into Wei Ying’s hair alongside its crimson ribbon. Wei Ying’s features crinkle into a smile, and he touches two fingers to the ornament.
“It is up to you,” Lan Wangji says, and kisses his forehead before letting go.
Wei Ying plucks Chenqing from where it sits, twirling the flute between his fingers. “I don’t even know if I’m going to need this thing anymore,” he says. He stops, smoothing his fingertips over the well-worn holes and the mouthpiece. “I guess I have to figure that out.”
Lan Wangji touches his shoulder, his thumb to the curve of Wei Ying’s neck. “You will have time.”
Wei Ying smiles again, rocking on his heels. He moves even more often than he once did, like he is testing every possible twitch and angle of his new form. “Lan Zhan,” he says, “let’s go home, but let’s not hurry. I want to stop and meet people. I want to eat things I’ve never eaten before. I think we should see how Dong Qiu and He Mei are doing. And shouldn’t we make sure poor Nie Qiang isn’t traumatized for life? If we have time, shouldn’t we use it?”
“Mm. I must ensure my brother’s wellbeing.” Lan Wangji sets both hands at Wei Ying’s shoulders, and he settles under them, chin lifted. “And after that?”
Wei Ying’s gaze flicks away and back. He is thinking of Lotus Pier and of appearing there with a new face and his old wounds. “After that, let’s see which way the wind blows.”
Eventually, they will retrieve Little Apple from Yunping, and they will face the world that remembers them. Eventually, they will come to a stop—if not forever. For now, Lan Wangji reaches for Wei Ying and sets his sights for home, the long way around.