"We're going to live in a van?" Lan Wangji asks, just to be certain he understands the plan. He is only calling it a plan for lack of a better term. A real plan, in his opinion, would have structure to it. Contingencies. At the very least, a destination.
But instead of documentation, Wei Ying only has dark circles under his eyes, an overstuffed backpack, and theatrical hurt on his face when he says, "A camper van, Lan Zhan."
Before Lan Wangji can ask what the distinction is, Wei Ying's brow creases. The frown would be sweet, would be something Lan Wangji would want to place his lips against, if Wei Ying didn't look so transparent — half here, half already gone.
"We?" Wei Ying asks, starting to shake his head. There's a red-rimmed sheen to his dark eyes, as if he's been blinking back tears for days. Maybe he has. "No."
Lan Wangji opens the back doors and gestures at the bed that stretches the width of the van. The sheets on the mattress are faded and striped blue and yellow. "We've made do in tighter spaces."
A thin laugh bursts from Wei Ying. He scrubs his hand down his face. The wind kicks up, twisting his hair in a little vortex. It's tangled. Lan Wangji aches to comb the snarls out of it and tuck Wei Ying onto that thin mattress and close the double doors behind him and let him sleep for days.
Lan Wangji doesn't know how to drive. He can learn. He will learn.
"No," Wei Ying says more firmly, returning to the business of spray-painting an array across the side of the white delivery van. Camper van. "I hope this has time to dry." He swears. "When are you leaving? You need to leave. Call a car. Actually, I'll drop you off somewhere busier and you can call a car there."
They're only a short ways from the farm where Wei Ying retrieved the van from under a pile of tarps in a barn and said goodbye to Wen Qing and her brother and a scared, small family, and a scared, smaller boy.
There's a breathlessness to Wei Ying's speech. He swears again, and makes a hitched sound like a hangnail catching on nylon. Lan Wangji recalls the way he crouched in the tall grass in front of the sagging front porch, holding the little boy who cried and asked him not to leave. He recalls the way Wei Ying smiled doggedly and gave a-Yuan a butterfly woven out of that tall, sweet grass.
"Show me what you're doing," Lan Wangji says, folding back his sleeves and taking one of the cans with a red lid. "I will help."
He wants to help. He wasn't there to build out the van in secret in a barn in the middle of nowhere. He wasn't there when Wei Ying learned how to farm and learned how to raise goats and learned how to stop asking for what he needed.
He wasn't there when—
"Alright," Wei Ying says with a small, excruciatingly surprised smile. Sounding winded, he explains the array.
It's as brilliant as Lan Wangji expects it to be. It will render the van unremarkable. Not quite invisible, but impossible to recall.
"It won't work on security cameras," Lan Wangji points out, angling the can so that most of the fumes whisk away from him.
"I know, I know. I've got a different talisman for that. It'll disrupt the device, but I've got to know where it is. I think if I just stay on back roads... I'll stay on back roads. No tolls, no cameras." Wei Ying is mumbling to himself, attention oscillating between his work and Lan Wangji's. "They aren't going to be able to look at every bit of traffic footage everywhere. They're not that sophisticated. I'll stay out of the cities."
Lightning illuminates the shape of towering clouds in the distance, lining them in warm gold before the sky goes flat again, and thunder rolls like a blanket unfurling in the darkness. The air grows cooler, damp with the promise of rain. Lan Wangji's long skirt whips in the wind, snapping like a spirit flag. He pauses to tie it in a knot at his knees so the fabric doesn't blow into the wet paint, and Wei Ying slows the wild arcing of his painting to watch him with a soft, admiring gaze.
There's no one else at the abandoned gas station at this skeleton of an intersection. A sign creaks and clangs, making eerie music. The LED street light flickers above, bright as a fever dream. Longing and sadness flash across Wei Ying's face. His chest rises and falls in a sigh that seems to escape him before he can stop it.
For a moment, there is only the stormfront and Wei Ying's grief. He has to go, he's said. The Wen refugees will be safer if he runs and runs and runs.
"I'm not leaving," Lan Wangji says. "I'm going with you." He can't tell if the slip in Wei Ying's expression is relief or resignation.
"You hate camping," Wei Ying argues, voice thick. He wipes his eyes against the inside of his bare wrist before he continues the array. "And you don't have any of your things."
"I don't need any of my things." Lan Wangji has all he needs — his qiankun bag, his sword and guqin within it.
Lan Wangji resumes painting, grateful for something to do with his hands. The tab on the can is sharp against the pad of his finger. The paint smells terrible, nauseating and bitter. Their work meets in the middle, violent red lines on clean white enamel. Wei Ying bites his thumb to activate the array with blood, and the outside of the van becomes a shimmer. A headache immediately forms between Lan Wangji's eyes as he tries to focus on it.
His chest tightens with the reminder of how much brilliance is contained within a body that's tired. When was the last time Wei Ying rested? Lan Wangji doesn't know. He can't remember ever thinking that Wei Ying seemed at peace.
Blood drips on the cracked pavement from Wei Ying's thumb. He doesn’t seem to notice.
"It hurts to look at the van," Lan Wangji says. It's a compliment. "Just a little. Enough to make me want to look away."
"Oh," Wei Ying says, with a watery laugh. "Sorry, hold on." He adjusts something with a spray-spray-hiss of paint, and the van materializes again. "You're uh, allowed to see it. But I still think you should go."
Lan Wangji kisses him in response. Wei Ying sinks into his hold. His mouth softens. His cheeks are damp and clammy, he feels sick and small. He says something, but the sound is lost in another crash of thunder.
The storm is loud. They drive right into it, right through it.
Wei Ying has done something to both their phones to make them impossible to track, which means they don't have anything but the radio to listen to. A young woman sings something soft and sad as the name of the track scrolls by in blue letters over and over.
The wipers are loud, beating a frantic rhythm against the sheets of rain. It should make Lan Wangji nervous, but it doesn't. He feels cocooned by the sound, and comforted by Wei Ying's confidence at the wheel. He places his hand against Wei Ying's knee to feel the living warmth of his body through the soft denim.
Wei Ying glances aside and smiles. "Are you okay?" he asks. His hair is piled in a messy bun at the top of his head, and whorls of it brush against the felted dome above.
It is three in the morning. Maybe they're the only people in the world.
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, surprised at how much he means it.
"I'm not saying it's a haunted camper van," Wei Ying explains, "But it's not not a haunted camper van."
Seven days into the drive, they're parked alongside a cemetery so old the names on the graves have been worn down to mossy, illegible grooves. Wei Ying is on his belly on the roof of the van adjusting the solar panels, which evidently double as battery cells for resentful energy. The problem with this cemetery seems to be that the dead are well-rested and disinclined to stir.
Lan Wangji forages, never straying out of sight of the van. Though he prefers to stay close to Wei Ying, he doesn't anticipate danger here. They're farther from a city than he's ever been in his life, and he cannot imagine Jin cultivators following them to a place like this, a place where nothing is left but grave markers that haven't been visited in centuries.
Using his skirt as a basket, Lan Wangji collects a pile of spongy mushrooms that smell like freshly-turned soil and warm rain. He will roast them over a fire to release the smokiness, and Wei Ying will complain that they taste funny.
Lan Wangji smiles to himself at the thought.
Wei Ying yelps, but Lan Wangji has already catalogued most of the sounds he makes when he's working, so he doesn't allow panic to become more than a gentle ripple. This sound is related to Wei Ying mildly electrocuting himself, which is different from the low grunt of running up against an ache he won't admit to, or the growl of frustration at how disobedient technology is compared to cultivation.
"Do you need help?" he asks. It's so still out here that he hardly has to raise his voice to be heard. There's only birdsong and the shimmy of leaves overhead and the occasional scurry of a squirrel through dry branches.
Wei Ying pops up from his belly like an alert ferret, wrinkling his nose. He shakes his hair out of his face. "The lures haven't gotten any bites. Do you think you could ask around and see if anyone wants to hitchhike?"
"Of course," Lan Wangji says, setting up his guqin for Inquiry once he's dropped the mushrooms in a bowl for later. It feels good to play, to listen. This is an old place, a sacred place. And after listening to the rushing whisper of tires against the road for so long, he's almost forgotten how it feels to hear the unheard.
Wei Ying climbs down from the van in a riot of long legs and elbows and sits on the ground beside him, head tucked against his shoulder, fingers idly twisting into his baggy shirt. "Tell them we are offering free ghost tours. Tours for ghosts. Not tours of ghosts. Very respectable tours."
"Hush, Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says fondly.
After several long, polite conversations, Lan Wangji speaks to the spirit of a young woman who caught a fever from her intended husband a week before a wedding she didn't want to have. She loved her fiance's sister, who loved her back.
She's quite resentful.
When he asks her if she'd like to come along with them and leave this place, a sparrow lands on a stone beside him and looks at him, flitting its small brown wings curiously.
"Thank you," he says. "We are grateful for your help."
The van shimmies when she settles into it, almost as if it's stretching, exhaling.
"I wouldn't want to be buried beside someone I didn't like," Lan Wangji says. For all that he speaks freely with the dead and always has, he doesn't like to think about being buried. If given the opportunity, he'd want to unearth himself from his place of rest and cruise along quiet country roads, too.
He almost says that to Wei Ying and decides against it, uncertain why it feels too raw to voice.
"She was so mad. I thought she was going to break the strings until you told her she could get out of there," Wei Ying laughs, hours later, when the sun sets at the end of the gently rolling road stretching out before them. It looks like they're driving toward the edge of the world, like it's on fire there. "You're doing great," he adds. "You're a natural."
Lan Wangji enjoys driving more than he expected. It's easier, ultimately, than riding Bichen. Driving the van doesn't require a constant stream of energy — only alertness. "Thank you," he says automatically.
Wei Ying giggles harder and takes a swig of syrupy soda from the convenience store where he managed to trade a dozen talismans for groceries. The young woman behind the counter set them up on a rack to sell beside the energy drinks and packets of performance enhancing vitamins.
Later, when they've settled the van for the night in the shelter of a cedar grove, Lan Wangji licks the sticky sweetness from Wei Ying's lips. Wei Ying hung fairy lights all along the van's tall dome, giddy at how cheap they'd been at a gas station. The glow is warm like candlelight, lending a flush of health to Wei Ying's sallow skin.
They're nearly a thousand miles from the farm now. The climate is different here. Hillier. The trees are thicker, the leaves darker.
Lan Wangji wonders how long Wei Ying will try to hide whatever he's done.
"Come on," Wei Ying says abruptly, grabbing the shower basket and taking Lan Wangji's hand and dragging him out the back door to the creek that rushes alongside the parked van. They shed their clothes.
The creek is painfully cold. It reminds Lan Wangji of home. Home is a gentle ache in his chest. He knows his brother is worried. He hopes, too, that his brother understands why he must be here. Why he refuses to be anywhere else.
After a moment, the chill clears Lan Wangji's mind. It becomes impossible to be anything but intensely present in his body. Scrubbing with a rough washcloth feels like being reborn.
Perhaps used to warm lake water, Wei Ying is more reluctant to sink into a deeper pool alongside a boulder where the water swirls in stubborn eddies.
"Fuck," Wei Ying says, several times. His teeth chatter. He surfaces, sputtering, and wipes the water out of his eyes. His nipples are dark and tight. When he stands where it's shallow, Lan Wangji's gaze fixes on the surgical scar, the one Wei Ying won't talk about. "I think I miss hot showers," he says, cross and sincere.
Lan Wangji senses the edge of a conversation they haven't had. Before he can steer Wei Ying away from it, Wei Ying stumbles out of the water and into the soft grass on the bank. He gathers the clothes he shucked off. "I didn't bring towels," he mutters, voice gone hollow, the kind of voice that doesn't sound capable of laughter. "There's nothing to dry off with. You shouldn't have to deal with this."
Too numb to shiver, Lan Wangji follows Wei Ying's shadowed form to the van, where the back windows glow like a jar of fireflies. He hears Wei Ying apologize, but the words are tangled up in a soft litany of anger that Lan Wangji doesn't think he's meant to hear. He focuses on putting on the sweatpants they bought at a drugstore, and he doesn't interrupt, no matter how badly he wants to catch Wei Ying's wrist and kiss the thin skin there to feel the racing thrum of his pulse. No matter how badly he wants to seal his mouth and silence the argument Wei Ying builds against himself, against his worth.
"I'm going to sleep," Wei Ying says, bitter and sharp, making himself small against the edge of the bed. He may as well have grown spikes on his back. But in his stubbornness, he forgets that Lan Wangji is stubborn too. He forgets that Lan Wangji would embrace a thousand blades to put his arms around Wei Ying.
Lan Wangji lines himself up against Wei Ying's back and breathes into his hair. He strokes Wei Ying's arm, trying to rub some warmth into his chilled skin.
"I'm sorry," Wei Ying says, pressing his face into the mattress to muffle a sob. He doesn't shake Lan Wangji off. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
"I know that you are," Lan Wangji says, because Wei Ying is not ready to be told not to be.
For the next two days, Lan Wangji drives, following the route they plotted out on a paper map with a permanent marker that smelled like cherry candy. It leads to nature parks and scenic drives and forgotten little towns. Occasionally, they sense another cultivator's work or presence. Wei Ying tenses and scribbles talisman after talisman, preparing for a fight they don't have. Chenqing rolls around on the dashboard. The array on the van holds.
They are ghosts carrying ghosts. They are the smudges at the edge of one's vision, almost-remembered trains of thought. Dismissed before given a voice or a name.
Lan Wangji, who has always had a name, who has always been important, becomes one thing only — Wei Ying's. He drives while Wei Ying sleeps in the back. He cooks over a tiny propane stove while Wei Ying pretends to sleep. He pulls over when nightmares ravage Wei Ying as he dozes in the passenger seat — and the van begins to shudder and stall with the force of his horror.
When Wei Ying's breathing evens out again, Lan Wangji pulls back onto the quiet, two-lane road. The radio flares to life with a woman's voice. Though he has only heard her through the soft tones of his guqin, he recognizes it as Auntie Sparrow.
"What happened to him?" she asked, sounding more irritated than concerned.
Lan Wangji assumes that if she heard Wei Ying crying out in his sleep, she can hear Lan Wangji speaking in the van. "I don't know exactly." He does not like admitting this. It makes his stomach pinch inside. He shifts in the driver's seat and calms himself by checking his mirrors and the speed limit. "He was hurt. But he will not tell me how."
"The way he cultivates isn't good for him."
Lan Wangji's fingers tighten on the leather-covered steering wheel. He exhales slowly, from his nose. "I know."
"Then make him stop," she says.
"It is his choice," Lan Wangji says. But now, under the scrutiny of a ghost as old as the trees that line either side of the rural highway, he wonders if he is right to allow Wei Ying to make such a reckless choice. He wonders how he would feel if someone interfered with his desire to protect the people he loves.
His head aches the way it did when he tried to look at the van and it was shrouded by Wei Ying's clever array.
The radio makes an exasperated, staticky sound, and music begins to play. It is soft and soothing, like a lullabye.
Wei Ying sighs in his sleep.
The van runs on a mix of diesel and resentful energy.
At another rural gas station, an old woman in denim overalls approaches Lan Wangji, her mouth pressed in such a tight line it looks like it was drawn onto her wrinkled, sun-tanned face. "You're a cultivator," she says, looking him up and down.
He's wearing his pale blue skirt, silver combat boots, and a ridiculously threadbare white tank top Wei Ying pulled over his head, telling him his white blouse was going to have to take a hiatus because they weren't going to find any dry cleaners any time soon. Lan Wangji didn't tell him he was more than capable of cultivating a stain out of his blouse, because it seemed to please Wei Ying to dress him.
He can't tell what the woman thinks of what he's wearing. She barks, "Correct?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he says. "Are you in need of assistance?"
"The drink cooler is haunted. It spoils the milk the moment I store it. If you can fix it, you're welcome to anything you want from the fruit stand next door, it's my son's."
"And a tank of diesel?" Wei Ying calls out from the other side of the van, unseen.
She crosses her arms, stares at Lan Wangji, and allows a growing silence to become uncomfortable.
Lan Wangji has no problem with uncomfortable silence. He stares back.
"And a tank of diesel," she relents, huffing. "Only if it works!"
The small convenience store smells like stale cigarette smoke and vaguely floral cleaning solution. Wei Ying sucks on sour straw candy and observes Lan Wangji at work.
He's left Chenqing in the van. Lan Wangji has not seen him play once since they left the farm. That knowledge is a small, persistent ache. He can't focus on it now.
He learns that the ghost is a man who was sent on an errand for milk for his elderly mother, who wanted to make pudding in the middle of the night. He slipped on a puddle of water leaking from the drink cooler, hit his head, and died.
"In a fucking convenience store," the ghost wails.
"Honestly," Wei Ying says, "I would be resentful over this as well."
There's very little logic to the ghost's insistence on spoiling milk in the cooler. It isn't even the same cooler. The owner replaced the leaking one. Her insurance paid for the lawsuit the ghost's mother filed for wrongful death, and now, according to the ghost, who appears to love small town gossip, his mother lives in a beautiful retirement home on the coast while he spoils milk.
Lan Wangji is unable to liberate the stubborn ghost.
"Ask him if he wants to get out of here instead. See some sights. Meet a new friend."
"Should you ask Auntie Sparrow if she wants company first?" Lan Wangji asks.
Wei Ying sniffs. "It's my van, not hers."
The ghost has a more corporeal form than Auntie Sparrow. He climbs out of the cooler and says, "Fine. Whatever. Let's go."
Wei Ying claps once. "Great! I'm going next door for loquats and oranges."
They stop at a campground in a town just large enough to make Wei Ying jumpy and irritable. His gaze darts to the lights at an intersection. "We can wash everything in a stream and dry it in trees," he says. "Real campers don't go to campgrounds with laundromats."
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, "They do. Eventually, anyway."
Uncle Milk comes over the radio. "I can't smell and I can still tell you need to do laundry. Don't be disgusting."
"You're being disrespectful," Auntie Sparrow admonishes.
The radio clicks off. It's one of her new tricks.
"At least it's the middle of the day," Wei Ying says, voice tight and jaw tighter. "We won't stand out on any camera feeds if we get picked up. But only one night here. Then we keep moving."
"One night," Lan Wangji agrees.
Later, Lan Wangji will remember this as a broken promise.
They get a spot close to the showers and the laundry facilities. Wei Ying pays with cash, and when asked for his ID, holds up a piece of paper with a decent likeness of himself drawn on it. Lan Wangji isn't sure what he did exactly to make the teenager behind the counter glance at it and nod approvingly as if it were a real identification card.
They share a shower, so relieved to be under the hot water and able to get properly clean that they don't do anything but kiss once, fiercely.
In the tiny laundry room, Wei Ying teaches Lan Wangji how to use a change machine and how to use the coin operated washer and dryer. "It's okay," he says, laughing softly at an expression Lan Wangji tried not to make. "I realize you've done laundry before. Just not this way, right?"
"Right," Lan Wangji says, fitting the coins into small slots. His ears feel warm, as if only his head is caught in a sunbeam. He can feel Wei Ying's gaze, and that's like a sunbeam too.
The smell of detergent is fuzzy and powdery and nice. They're wearing their cleanest clothes and washing everything else, which means Wei Ying is in basketball shorts with nothing underneath and Lan Wangji is in the sweatpants he sleeps in with nothing underneath.
It's the middle of the day, and no one else is in the room, though several machines bump and hum. Lan Wangji backs Wei Ying against a dryer and presses fully against him to feel the vibration.
"That's, ah," Wei Ying says, baring his throat. His eyes flutter closed. "That feels good. Will you fuck me when we're through?"
"I wish I could now," Lan Wangji says softly, using his teeth to trace the sharp edge of Wei Ying's jaw. "I wish I could eat you out and fuck you right here."
Wei Ying lets out a scandalized laugh, pushing Lan Wangji away like a wrestling cat. But he watches Lan Wangji with dark eyes and lips bitten pink and wet from his darting tongue. They fold their laundry quickly and climb into the back of the van in silent agreement of what should come next.
Slapping a talisman against the wall, Wei Ying explains, "No, uh, ghost observers allowed." He shucks his shorts off and helps Lan Wangji with his soft sweatpants. For a long moment, they regard each other, naked and kneeling on the mattress that isn't thick enough, isn't comfortable, but belongs entirely to them.
They haven't done anything in years. Wei Ying has been in hiding with Wen Qing and her family for so long the shape of him has changed. The softness in his face is gone. He's known hunger. He's been afraid. He looks a little afraid right now.
Lan Wangji visited him once, just once, and always wished he'd closed the gap between their bodies that sunny afternoon.
"It's been forever," Wei Ying breathes out, the sound not quite a laugh. Nervous. An echo of Lan Wangji's racing heartbeat. He unties his bun and shakes his hair out. "Did you mean that, what you said you wanted to do?"
"You make me want so fiercely," Lan Wangji says, trying not to make it an apology. Wei Ying is heady, a fever in him. He cannot be reasonable when the heat settles into his bones. During those months and months of fear, desire and grief were stones in his chest. Now that he can breathe again, he's dizzy.
Wei Ying's mouth opens. There's a smile tucked at the corner of it. He bites his lip, and his hand comes to rest around his dick and pumps it absently. "Is that a yes?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, letting his voice become low, an animal sound. He flips Wei Ying onto his back and swims in the current of his ragged giggling. He pushes his knees back, opens him, opens him to where he's raw and warm. He opens his mouth and flattens his tongue and claims every whine and bitten-back cry Wei Ying lets out as he squirms.
The lights are a starlit sky above them. Wei Ying is aflame. He sinks into himself, touching his dick and his stomach and chest, touching his mouth, making shapeless sounds of encouragement.
"Tell me what you want," Lan Wangji says, wiping his mouth on Wei Ying's thigh, his lips burning pleasantly from the texture of the hair there.
"I want to be inside of you," Wei Ying whispers, angling in a wriggling movement to pin Lan Wangji with dazed, glassy hunger. "I want to see you move."
Lan Wangji feels a smile, unbidden, blossom across his face. He surges up Wei Ying's body to kiss him.
"I taste me," Wei Ying says, blushing, chasing the kiss when Lan Wangji sits up. He falls back, watching Lan Wangji with big, hungry eyes.
Lan Wangji lets Wei Ying watch him slick himself, lets Wei Ying see how much he likes opening himself up. When he doesn't think either of them can stand to wait another moment, he drops the lube beside the bed and climbs onto Wei Ying's hips.
Wei Ying's hands settle on his thighs. "You're strong," he says. "Ha, you make me feel drunk. Listen to me. You're strong. Oh — fuck! Lan Zhan, fuck you're tight."
"Are you alright?" Lan Wangji asks, settling his weight down to feel Wei Ying's dick stretch and push. It burns the way he wants it to, an intrusion, the sensation whipping up Lan Wangji’s back and down his legs.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, laughing the name, drawing it out with an arched back, his mouth pulled into a grimace of pleasure. "You are ridiculous. Yes. Yes. You're beautiful."
Lan Wangji shifts, circles his hips, groans softly. He settles into the feeling of being full. He likes Wei Ying inside of him. “It feels good."
"I am going to finish quickly. You're too much." Wei Ying's fingers dimple Lan Wangji's thighs. "Better go hard while you can."
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, kissing Wei Ying so hard he tastes metal at the tender inside of his lip. He drives his hips down, rides Wei Ying's dick and pumps his own, chasing his pleasure, racing Wei Ying's.
Neither of them last long.
Wei Ying takes a long time to catch his breath. He rolls Lan Wangji onto his back and climbs half onto him, burying his face in the crook of Lan Wangji's neck. Heavy and sweat-slick, he trembles. His tears burn down Lan Wangji's throat.
Lan Wangji's body is content, having relinquished some of the tension that makes him feel like rope strung too taut. But his mind settles on a splinter of worry. No matter how much he works at it, he can't smooth the feeling out.
"Let's nap," Wei Ying murmurs, his eyes already closed. Though his chest occasionally shudders with the aftershocks of his pleasure and hurt, he is sleepy now. Pliant.
Lan Wangji doesn't mean to doze, but Wei Ying is pinning him down gently, and the weight of him makes him drowsy. He drifts off with his hands still mapping the knobs of Wei Ying's spine. He doesn't dream.
Wei Ying moves slowly after they wake up together. He frowns, taking a long time to rub the sleep from his eyes. "Let's eat and leave. I don't want to stay here overnight. We already slept."
"Only if you continue sleeping while I drive." Lan Wangji doesn't like the pale cast to Wei Ying's cheeks now that the flush of arousal has faded.
Wei Ying folds himself into the embrace Lan Wangji offers, and his mouth moves against Lan Wangji's cheek. His breath is humid, alive. "Okay," he says, sounding pleased.
While Lan Wangji boils water with the back doors open to let the crisp, late afternoon air in, he hears the shuffle of a footstep taken awkwardly. He glances up in time to see Wei Ying stumble and drop the tray of sliced vegetables he was working on out at the picnic bench.
"Fuck," Wei Ying hisses, watching green-yellow slices of zucchini tumble into the gravel at their campsite. His gaze goes distant, and he straightens shakily, fingers curling in a loose fist low against his belly. "Ow."
Wei Ying hits his knees before Lan Wangji can jump across the bed and out of the van to catch him. He stares up at Lan Wangji, mouth parted silently, as if he forgot the words to the kinds of apologies that well from him like blood from a puncture wound. His eyes roll back in his head and he pitches into Lan Wangji's arms.
Uncle Milk materializes in the passenger seat, craning around to watch Lan Wangji ease Wei Ying onto the mattress. "He's leaking, man. Can't you feel it?"
The radio snaps with static. "His heart can't be in two places. Make him stop," Auntie Sparrow says, her voice thin and distressed. "Where will we go if he dies?"
"He's not dying," Lan Wangji says, angry at a disembodied voice, at the fact that he refused to entertain that possibility. Furious with himself for trusting Wei Ying to tell him if something like watching him die in a camper van was on the table.
He would have gone anyway.
But he needs to know. He deserves to know.
"Where are we going, Wei Ying?" he asks quietly, holding Wei Ying's hand and letting his spiritual energy flow through the warm connection of their bodies. Wei Ying feels empty, as if he's exhausted his core down to nothing. It gives Lan Wangji a prickly sense of dread, like standing too close to the edge of a sharp drop-off. "What are you doing?"
When it's clear that the spiritual energy isn't waking Wei Ying up, Lan Wangji tucks him in under two blankets and adds a beach towel for good measure. It has a yellow happy face on it — another relic from a convenience store, tucked into the cabinet that holds more than it should because Wei Ying did something he probably shouldn't have to it.
Wei Ying's complexion is chalky pale, and he's too cool to the touch no matter how much Lan Wangji touches his hands and his face.
Though Lan Wangji is reasonably confident in his driving and navigation skills, he doesn't start the van and leave. He cannot give in to the impulse to run. Instead, he straightens up the van, cleans the mess outside, turns off the stove and the lights, and explains to Wei Ying's eerily still form that he wouldn't know where to drive even if he pulled back onto the quiet roads they drift along.
The sun goes down.
"I don't know what to do without you," Lan Wangji whispers in the dark. He listens to the sound of crickets and cicadas outside, and to Wei Ying's breathing, the occasional shuddered sighs, the clearing of resentful energy from his lungs.
Wei Ying doesn't wake up for three days.
The first thing Wei Ying says is: "I'm hungry."
Lan Wangji has a headache. He's poured so much energy into Wei Ying it's left him feeling like his sinuses are stuffed and his skin is made of gauze. Keeping his tone even, but stern, he responds, "You need to tell me exactly what you're doing."
Wei Ying's eyebrows pull together in a soft frown. When he sits up, the blankets and towel fall aside like he's emerging from a colorful egg. "I don't know. I thought that was the plan. Not really knowing." His stomach gurgles and he presses his hand against it, wincing. "I am really hungry."
"That's because you've been unconscious for so long I was getting ready to take you to the hospital to get you on an IV," Lan Wangji says, losing ground on his efforts to sound unaffected. There's no sense in using emotion as a bludgeoning tool to get his point across. But his heart aches with worry. His entire body aches, exhausted from long nights of what ifs, of the terrible loneliness of being by himself with someone else.
He'd wanted to call his brother, to call his uncle, to drive them back to Gusu, to shake Wei Ying until his teeth rattled and his eyes opened.
Lan Wangji pushes an electrolyte drink into Wei Ying's hand. "This first."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, not apologetic, but worried. His voice is feathery and gentle, and it would be so easy to fall into his arms and allow himself to be comforted, but that is not what Lan Wangji needs. It isn't what Wei Ying needs, either.
"You're depleting yourself. I can't tell what you're doing. You must tell me what you're doing." Frustration sharpens Lan Wangji's voice. Wei Ying's cultivation of resentful energy obscures his methods from Lan Wangji. He'd otherwise be able to feel for the threads of whatever he's choking himself with. He is not used to being unable to see, to sort out, to fix. He's always been a fast learner, and deeply attuned to the afterimage of cultivation. Wei Ying should not be able to hide from him so easily.
Wei Ying hydrates under Lan Wangji's demanding gaze
"Lan Zhan," he says when he's done, finally with the residue of remorse. "Have you been trying to help me?"
"Of course I have," Lan Wangji says, mildly horrified to hear the waver in his own voice. He doesn't know precisely where they are. He doesn't know if anything he's done has helped or not. He is wearing sweatpants. "What else could I do?"
Warm and careful, Wei Ying sets the empty bottle aside and climbs into Lan Wangji's lap and straddles his hips. He becomes a heavy, clinging thing, like a weighted blanket. He threads his fingers into Lan Wangji's hair.
Lan Wangji ducks out of the kiss Wei Ying tries to press against his mouth.
"You're not answering me," Lan Wangji says, squeezing his thighs, surprised by the sour heat that eclipses the little flicker of desire that comes from the way Wei Ying fits against him.
Eyes stinging with the threat of tears, Lan Wangji noses hard against Wei Ying's neck, at the cord of the tendon that runs from ear to shoulder. "I am angry with you," he says, ashamed. His fingers dig into Wei Ying's lean muscle. "I am so angry."
In the silence that follows, Lan Wangji hides his face against Wei Ying's skin. He breathes through the trembling sense that he is a pot boiling over, that he is too much for his body to contain, that he has hurt Wei Ying with this admission, that the admission won't matter and Wei Ying will continue to lie to him by saying nothing, by slowly disappearing.
"You should be," Wei Ying says, quiet and defeated. He becomes heavier in a boneless, unhappy way, and drops his forehead to Lan Wangji's shoulder. It makes his back curve. His spine feels fragile under Lan Wangji's palms when he smooths them up his back, not sure which of them he's trying to soothe.
"You have to let me help you."
"You're helping me by being here. And I shouldn't have let you come at all. This is not good for you. You should go home."
Lan Wangji's roaming hands find Wei Ying's upper arms and he pushes him back to look at his face, to make him look.
Wei Ying's eyes are startled, dark. "Lan Zhan," he exhales.
"What do you think I would do at home without you?" Lan Wangji's grip is too tight. He knows it hurts. He can see it in the pinch around Wei Ying's eyes. But for a long moment, he cannot release him. "Do you think I could forget you?"
"Tell me how that would be better for me. For you."
Wei Ying shakes his head. Tears fall down his cheeks when he blinks like he's clearing his vision, like he was seeing double. "I can't hurt anyone else." The sound is wretched, fingers clawing at gravel, at dust. He makes no effort to withdraw from Lan Wangji's hold.
Letting his fingers go slack, Lan Wangji wraps his arms around Wei Ying's back and pulls him close again. They're both shaking. Hollow, no longer bolstered by his anger, Lan Wangji tries not to consider how many rules he has just broken. It was too easy to be angry. Is this how resentment grows? Hurt that dawns too quickly, that becomes a blistering, noon-hot thing?
"I should have let you eat," Lan Wangji says, rough with unshed tears. "You should have eaten first."
"First before what?" Wei Ying asks. And he sounds afraid. There's no doubt that, despite everything Lan Wangji has been saying, he believes he is about to be rejected. Left in this place with these ghosts. "Before what?" he repeats, a little edge of hysteria there, under the surface.
"Before I confronted you about what you're doing — whatever is making you ill," Lan Wangji says into Wei Ying's hair. He's hugging him now, holding him in an embrace that feels like a knot that cannot be unraveled. I would die with you, he wishes to say, the words a lump in his throat. Too much to be spoken, all wrong. No one is dying. That's not what they're doing here.
"I am hungry," Wei Ying says, shuddering the words out. A cautious admission. "Are we still at the campground?"
"I didn't know where to go."
Wei Ying exhales a small sob, maybe a dismayed laugh, too. His tears wet Lan Wangji's shirt, but he isn't crying in earnest. It's more like he's slowly dissolving. "Lan Zhan, I left an array at the farm, around the Wens, around a-Yuan. It's uh, a big one. I thought it would be okay."
The dread in Lan Wangji begins to slither beneath his ribs. "Wei Ying."
"It's like the one on the van, you know? It makes it impossible to see them. We got a well running, and they've got enough crops going to sustain everyone. I even figured out how to generate electricity from an old water wheel. They can be invisible, I can keep them hidden. I can keep them safe."
"You're still connected to it," Lan Wangji says, remembering what the ghosts told him, that his heart was in two places, that he was leaking. "You're still powering it."
"Well." It's the awful sound of a lie forming. But when Lan Wangji's breath sucks in and he tenses, Wei Ying relents, sighing. "Yes. Sort of. I mean, the resentful energy hasn't just been for the van, I've been borrowing it. But we're not always around resentful energy, we can't always be. I thought it would be okay. I did, I wouldn't have let you come if I didn't."
"You would have done it alone," Lan Wangji says, allowing Wei Ying to hear how much this unsettles him. "You would have let it destroy you alone."
"Destroy is a dramatic way of putting it," Wei Ying says in a small, grumbling voice. It is not enough of a contradiction for Lan Wangji's liking.
It is as if Wei Ying cannot comprehend that if he left this world, he'd leave devastation in his wake.
Sore and unreasonably tired, Lan Wangji carefully dislodges Wei Ying and rummages for a package of donuts. The processed sugar isn't good for Wei Ying, but Lan Wangji doesn't want to let him out of his sight, or break physical contact with him. He's careful to keep his body brushed against Wei Ying's, even as he finds cloth napkins and a tumbler of water and the sweets.
"Are you still angry?" Wei Ying asks. He scrubs at his eyes and huffs a rueful laugh. "Sorry. Sorry. You can be. I am uh, not in a good headspace. I shouldn't have asked. Sorry. I don't know why I keep crying."
"You're hungry," Lan Wangji says simply, tearing off a sticky piece of donut. It smells like chemicals more than honey or sugar. These are the types of snacks Wei Ying likes, joking that they weren't allowed to have things like this when he was growing up. Lan Wangji wasn't either, but he doesn't crave it. It doesn't feel like a triumph over anything to eat garbage.
Wei Ying accepts the bite, his lips brushing Lan Wangji's fingers. They're warm. They're soft. "You do look like you're angry at these donuts," he says with his mouth full.
"A little," Lan Wangji acknowledges. His head is still pounding, but his lips twitch with tired amusement. It is good to be known.
Lan Wangji makes Wei Ying watch as he uses a highlighter to trace the way back to the farm on a paper map. Four days of driving if they rest together, which Wei Ying has asked for. It is a request Lan Wangji finds himself unable to deny. He wants Wei Ying in his arms. He wants to feel him sleep. He wants to sleep against the living weight of him.
Wei Ying watches with the same expression he wore so many years ago, when Uncle punished him with copying the Lan sect rules for hours. For days. A small frown, a small pout. But no denial. No argument against the consequences he earned.
"We will find another way to keep them safe," Lan Wangji reminds him.
"Yeah," Wei Ying says absently. He has not smiled today. "Will you drive first?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, taking his cold hand and kissing his palm. Wei Ying's mouth moves, making a practiced shape that doesn't light his face or chase the shadows from his distant gaze.
He curls up in the passenger seat, using the beach towel as a pillow, and falls asleep before they've left the winding campground road.
"That's a real bummer," Uncle Milk says, materializing over Wei Ying's sleeping form as a shimmer, like heat on the horizon. He hasn't held much of a shape lately. But the more indistinguishable his appearance becomes, the more crisp his voice gets. Now he's like a direct line into Lan Wangji's skull.
Lan Wangji's fingers tighten on the steering wheel. "You don't need to get so close to Wei Ying."
Uncle Milk laughs. "He doesn't know the difference."
It's true. And there's no sense in arguing with the ghost. But Lan Wangji wants to argue. He wants to do something more than drive and drive and drive. Instead, he keeps his eyes on the road and tries to quiet his mind with the steady cadence of glances into the side mirrors and back at the car ahead of him.
Country roads seem to go forever and ever. They're not getting back fast enough.
The radio whispers with static. Frowning, Lan Wangji turns it up. "Hello?" he asks, feeling foolish speaking to a ghost this way.
"You're being followed," Auntie Sparrow says. "For a while now."
Cold, clarifying fear drapes over Lan Wangji, sharpening his awareness of the sound of the tires on the road. "Wei Ying," he says, calm but loud enough to rouse him. "Can you wake up?"
"Mmph," Wei Ying groans, curling forward with a groggy, shaky yawn. "What? I'm awake."
"It's the Jin," Lan Wangji says. He lets it sound like an apology, though he knows neither of them could have done anything to prevent this.
Both of them knew the Jin cultivators would catch up with them eventually.
"Here?" Wei Ying asks, straightening in the passenger seat. When he exhales, it's a dismayed sound. He places his hand against his belly, curling his fingers lightly. "Now?"
Chenqing rattles on the dashboard, as if calling for him. He reaches for it silently, resting his fingers on the inky, polished surface of the instrument. "Pull over, Lan Zhan."
Bichen is a solid, balanced weight in Lan Wangji's hand. An extension of his body. A full realization of self that he's hyper aware that Wei Ying will never experience again.
Maybe it's that moment of distraction, that small pang of grief, that gives one of the Jin cultivators an opening — the opportunity to pull a slender handgun from his sleeve.
He pivots. He doesn't pivot fast enough.
Wei Ying plays like an avalanche. The sound of it hurts.
Resentful energy smothers the young man, enters his nose and screaming mouth, his ears. It's grotesque.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji tries to admonish. But when he speaks, only blood escapes his mouth. It's jarring when his knees strike the pavement, when the hard ground meets his shoulder, and his head thuds down, crack.
He thinks, this is when it goes dark, this is when I close my eyes and they never open again. He thinks, Wei Ying.
But the roar in his ears does not swallow him, and the gray at the edges of his vision does not embrace him. He is instead left helpless on the hot, hard ground, bisected by the line that marks the middle of the road. He is left seeing what Wei Ying is capable of doing when he is afraid.
Numb, distantly aware that the bullet in his shoulder was cursed, Lan Wangji watches two Jin cultivators die. The third, sloppy with panic, backs up into the van. He freezes there, as if held close, as if invisible hands and arms have pinned him to the exterior. The ghosts are angry.
Lan Wangji feels himself laugh once, silent and frothy. Whatever dark amusement struck him fades quickly. The swift, cutting motion of the talisman Wei Ying etches with his own blood down the man's shirt is vaguely familiar. Wrong. It's wrong. He doesn't have the breath to tell Wei Ying not to do this. So he listens, barely able to hear Wei Ying over the hollow-hurting sound of his labored breathing.
"You killed Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji," Wei Ying says, his back shoulders heaving. "You found them in the night, you ambushed them. They killed your brothers, but you killed them. They're dead."
"They're dead," the man repeats. "I killed them."
Wei Ying takes the man by the elbow and leads him to the maroon sedan that pulled up alongside them when they rolled to a stop alongside a sign for a roadside attraction boasting live baby goats.
He leans into the car and starts it for the cultivator. He drags the bodies to the back seat and shoves them inside, one after the other. Pallid now, with the effort.
The car leaves.
There's blood in the road.
There's blood in Lan Wangji's mouth. Did he bite his tongue, did he, did he —
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, come on. Up you go, there you go."
"You smell like blood," Lan Wangji says, worried. They were in a hurry, and they've stopped. They weren't supposed to stop.
"What? Don't try to talk, you're a mess. This fucking — who curses a bullet? Cheaters, that's who. Ah, fuck. Lan Zhan, fuck. Come on. Shh, shh."
There's a cool hand on Lan Wangji's forehead. The tickle of his hair pushed out of his eyes, tucked behind his ears. He's folded in a bed, but the bed is too small. The back doors are open and the road stretches on for so long, rolling like a gentle wave, like the sea.
"We could drive to the sea," he tells Wei Ying. Listen, listen to me. We could drive to the sea. His brother took him there when he was fourteen and the water shocked him with how cold it was. He stood waist-deep and knew he was small, so small, but also part of something so big, something cradling life all across the world, touching distant shores and touching him, touching so much. He'd wept, and his brother had stood close by, letting him feel what he needed to feel.
His brother. "Tell him we're not dead," he says to Wei Ying. Sea spray, pink and warm. "Tell him it's not real."
"Please — Lan Zhan, stop trying to talk," Wei Ying says, touching the sheets around him, touching them in a circle, in sweeping motions, blood on his hands. He is crying, angry and silent. He is frightened.
Lan Wangji doesn't want him to be frightened, but he doesn't tell him that, because Wei Ying asked him not to talk.
In the end, it's easy to grow quiet. A clear voice says, as if speaking directly into his ear, "Hang on, man. He needs you."
A soft, sad song plays on the radio. Lan Wangji reaches for Wei Ying's graceful hands, but he can't catch them. He can't hold on.
Every so often, a truck whizzes by and the van, unseen, shudders.
Lan Wangji wakes to the sour, stuffy smell of old sweat and dried blood. He is pinned by a solid weight, and pain radiates from his shoulder down his ribs and arm. For a while he only breathes, floating to the surface at a pace he cannot control. Awareness spreads through him, creeping like goosebumps across his skin. When he can finally start to look around, he is afraid of what he will see.
He struggles to focus until his focus narrows all at once.
Wei Ying's eyes are open. For a moment, Lan Wangji believes that he's dead — that he's pinned by Wei Ying's lifeless body. There's a jolt of horror unlike anything he's ever known. Then Wei Ying blinks, slow as a cat. His brow is furrowed weakly, as if he's too tired to experience pain fully.
"Wei Ying." It is a struggle to make the sound. Lan Wangji tries again. "Wei Ying."
There's a tiny, shivering shift in Wei Ying's gaze, focus gained and lost. A tear spills over from one unblinking eye. He is curled on and against Lan Wangji, utterly still, like he's sedated. Like fog on a field in the morning, resentful energy clouds over Wei Ying's bloody clothes.
Lan Wangji finds strength in the fear that grabs and shakes his heart. He sits up gingerly, sore but not as sore as he should be. He closes his eyes and allows his spiritual energy to stretch through his body, spreading like the blood coursing through his veins — and finds that he no longer feels the sticky-dark residue of the curse.
"Can you hear me?" Lan Wangji asks, trying, foolishly, to brush the darkness away with his hands. His fingers tremble. "Wei Ying, can you hear me?"
Wei Ying's lips twitch. His eyes roll briefly, seeking, before his gaze settles on an unseen horizon again. Somehow, Lan Wangji hears I'm sorry. He hears a goodbye.
"No," Lan Wangji says to the van, to the silent ghosts, to Wei Ying, and to heaven looking down at them in this strange place, far from home. His clothes are stiff with dried blood. Wei Ying is cold. Grunting with a wave of agony, Lan Wangji gathers Wei Ying up and drags him to the passenger seat. The keys are still in the ignition. They've been there all these invisible, silent hours.
Wei Ying closes his eyes. His chin falls to his chest.
"Stay awake," Lan Wangji says, starting the engine.
Wei Ying doesn't stay awake.
The road whispers. The radio is silent. The van moves faster than it should, and Lan Wangji murmurs his gratitude to the two ghosts who are with him, who have not left him.
Every moment, Lan Wangji expects the number to become three ghosts. Wei Ying's breathing stops sometimes, a garish silence until he gasps and the shallow, labored sound returns. The pain in Lan Wangji's shoulder is nothing compared to the grief resounding from the core of him. He can feel it expanding within him, and wonders if this is what it's like for Wei Ying to carry resentful energy. It hurts.
He wants to stop driving. He wants to pull Wei Ying into his arms and cry. He knows that if he did, he would cry like a child, wild and wailing.
Instead, Lan Wangji hums the song his heart wrote for Wei Ying. He hums it until his voice grows raw, and even then, he carries on. He only stops to try to rouse Wei Ying, who never stirs, no matter how much he asks him to try.
When he pulls onto the dirt road that leads to the farm, it's a clear night. Over the dark shapes of treeless mounds, the sky is rich blue-black, dotted with the stubborn light of stars that might not be alive anymore. They cradle Lan Wangji as he forces himself to drive slowly, safely.
"It's on the next hill," Auntie Sparrow says, her voice startling and soothing all at once when the speakers buzz to life with the sound of it. "His array starts there."
"We can cross it." This, Lan Wangji is sure of. He enters the van many times a day, and he's never felt a thing from the careful cocoon that obscures them from sight.
What he doesn't expect is for the front tires to be shot flat nearly the moment he does. The van limps to a rattling, bumpy stop and he cuts the engine, murmuring, "I wish you would wake up now, Wei Ying."
All he can do is leave the lights on and his hands on the steering wheel. When Wen Ning lands on the hood of the van, gaze searching, hair wild around his moon-white face, Lan Wangji says, "He's here. He needs help. Please."
Both doors open at nearly the same time, Wen Ning retrieving Wei Ying silently, and Wen Qing scrambling up to take Lan Wangji's wrist. Not tugging, he realizes, but feeling his pulse. "What happened?" she asks tightly after listening for a moment. "You have a fever."
Lan Wangji's sustained adrenaline seeps out of his body. "We were discovered. I was injured. Wei Ying did something to help." When he tries to climb out of the van, his knees buckle. Wen Qing catches him by the elbow and presses him against the van to keep him on his feet. "He's connected to an array here. It's hurting him."
"Here?" Wen Qing asks in a clipped, anxious tone. "Connected to here this whole time?"
All Lan Wangji can do is nod as he tries to look up the dark path toward the farm house. Wen Ning took Wei Ying away. He needs to be wherever they are. He isn't sure he can walk
"I'm going to kill him," Wen Qing hisses.
There's a small attic bedroom in the farmhouse. When Lan Wangji visited this place — a struggling farm sold for use as a weapons testing grounds decades ago — he spent a single afternoon up there. It had been Wen Ning, at the time, on the mattress on the floor. It had been Wei Ying, manic and sick with hunger, scrawling talisman after talisman on post-it notes and sticking them all over the walls, all over the bed, all over Wen Ning.
That day, Wei Ying had napped on the dusty floor with his head on Lan Wangji's lap. In a sunbeam, like a cat. And Lan Wangji had loved him already, but he grew to love him even more with every brush of his fingers through Wei Ying's dirty hair and every shuddered sigh Wei Ying had let out in his sleep. The sun seemed to love Wei Ying too, late afternoon light through a broken window illuminating the stale air and making it something beautiful for him.
He should have known, should have expected, that Wei Ying wouldn't have been able to leave this place without leaving a part of himself here. That same part of himself that was willing to wear his spirit down to little more than a shadow for the family he made.
"Hold his hand," Wen Ning says, startling Lan Wangji out of his memories. He grimaces at Lan Wangji's flinch, his gentle eyes wide with apology.
Lan Wangji lets the attic bedroom room come into focus. He's sitting on the floor with Wen Qing changing the bandage at his shoulder. "What?" he asks, throat tight with thirst and fever.
"Hold his hand," Wen Ning repeats. He looks down, blinking, and Lan Wangji thinks he'd be blushing if he could. "When I couldn't wake up, I could feel it when Jiejie held my hand."
There's an IV in the back of Wei Ying's hand. Lan Wangji knows it's helping, but he wants to wrench it out, because it looks like it hurts. It doesn't belong there.
Watching Lan Wangji's face, Wen Ning says, very softly, "Even if he was awake, he wouldn't feel the needle. I promise."
"I'm almost done," Wen Qing says, sounding tired. They've been up through the night. She takes Lan Wangji's hair down from the high ponytail that kept it out of the way while she cleaned his wound and rebandaged it. "You need to take some fever reducer and drink some more water. Then you can lay down next to him. And hold his other hand if you'd like."
"The curse," Lan Wangji says, remembering what the knot of fear in his belly can be attributed to. He's fuzzy-headed and exhausted, but he can't forget this. They've got to help Wei Ying. "He needs more than an IV."
"He needs fluids so he doesn't die of dehydration before I remove the curse." Wen Qing nudges him onto the mattress. It's thicker than the one from the van. Before he curls onto the side that doesn't hurt, she offers him three medicine capsules and a glass of warm water. "It's not as bad as it probably was now that he's inside of his array. You'd have been able to handle it under normal circumstances. You did the best thing bringing him back here. He'll be alright. Look at me."
Lan Wangji looks. She takes the glass out of his hand and sets it on the low table where her medicine kit is open, full of bandages and bottles and her needles wrapped in soft leather. Her eyes are warm.
"He'll be alright," she repeats.
Sucking in a shaky breath, Lan Wangji nods. With her help, he arranges himself alongside Wei Ying, half-aware that Wen Qing is coddling him. His eyes become hot and he pushes his face against Wei Ying's arm to try to hide how relieving it is to be told that he did the right thing — that Wei Ying won't die from the curse he took upon himself when there was no more room inside of him for hurt.
Someone drags a blanket over them both. It's heavy. It smells like it was dried in the sun, like fresh-cut grass and lavender. Remembering what Wen Ning told him to do, he finds Wei Ying's hand under the blanket. It's cold.
"He'll warm up," Wen Qing says. "It's good for him at this point. You just focus on sleeping for a little while."
Lan Wangji shudders, hating having spoken without intending to, hating that Wei Ying's hand is cold whether it's good for him or not. He's warm. He's always been warm.
As the room begins a lazy spin toward sleep, Auntie Sparrow materializes on the other side of the bed, shimmering like a shadow turned inside-out. Her voice is the last thing Lan Wangji hears before he succumbs to the gentle hold of his own exhaustion. It's music and wind all at once, forming words but not words.
"I have an idea," she says.
Lan Wangji's fever dreams return him to Cloud Recesses. He is being punished. Wei Ying is gone and he's being punished. The dull ache of the gunshot wound spreads across his back and festers and he cannot move. His brother tells him over and over, "I'm sorry." And he knows what that means. He knows.
"No," he says. Not after all of this. Not after everything. Not when he loves Wei Ying. Not when he is certain that his love for Wei Ying is so great that time and fate and even death will step aside to let him live long enough to show Wei Ying that he's allowed to be loved.
"The rich man is crying," a small voice says. A smaller hand touches Lan Wangji's face.
He blinks his eyes open. A-Yuan is perched beside the bed in red shorts and a tee shirt that says "#1 Big Sister" in sparkling purple letters. Absurdly, the only thing Lan Wangji can recall in that moment is that Wei Ying told him A-Yuan refuses to wear any other shirt and that it has to be carefully peeled off of him at night to be washed.
"A-Yuan, don't call him that," Granny Wen says, scooping him up and tutting fondly. "You weren't supposed to be up here. Let's go downstairs."
"But I miss Xian-ge," the boy wails, squirming in her arms. "I miss him!"
Lan Wangji sits up like a bolt of electricity ran through him. His shoulder protests with a rising alarm of pain, but the bed is empty, the other side is cold, and in his dream his brother told him that Wei Ying is gone, and A-Yuan misses Wei Ying, and he's gone, he isn't here. He's gone.
"Wei Ying," he says helplessly, heart beating so violently he feels like a drum beaten to ruin. He clutches his chest.
A-Yuan has gone still in Granny Wen's arms. "The rich man is crying more."
Wen Ning rushes into the room, looking winded. "A-Yuan," he says, exasperated. "You are too good at hide and seek."
A-Yuan runs to him when Granny Wen sets him down, and he climbs up into Wen Ning's arms like a cat barreling up a tree trunk. "A-Xian is too good at hiding!" he shouts.
"I told you he isn't hiding, he's working on an array with your Auntie."
"I miss him," the boy says, climbing up onto Wen Ning's shoulders. "Let's find them."
Granny Wen sinks with a groan to sit on the mattress beside Lan Wangji. She takes his hand and pats it over and over.
With his ears ringing, Lan Wangji stares at her gentle, wrinkled fingers. "Wei Ying is alive?" he asks, hoarse.
"Yes, dear boy. Goodness. You've given yourself a scare, haven't you? If you can manage a shower, I'll change that bandage and we'll go out and see him. How about that?"
It occurs to Lan Wangji that he has never cried this much in his life. "It's the fever," he says quietly, carefully wiping his eyes.
"I know," she says indulgently.
Showering takes Lan Wangji longer than he wishes it to, but he's never needed one quite so badly. The hot water quickly runs out, but he remains in the spring-cold spray until he's sure it's scoured away the sour smell of fear and pain and the grime of sweat and old blood.
It's an old bathroom with a claw-foot tub and a thin curtain that lets the light in through the window. Someone has hung plants in every corner. The floor creaks when he steps out to dry off with a soft, threadbare towel with cheerful yellow stripes. There's warmth in this house. They've taken fear and hurt and they've cultivated it into security, into a home. Lan Wangji is so proud of Wei Ying for helping that happen that it makes him feel full and warm despite the chill on his skin from the cold shower.
Someone has found his clothes in the van and he's grateful for the soft tunic and the flowing, comfortable skirt he wore the day they left. He is jittery by the time Granny Wen changes the bandage. It feels like he's been away from Wei Ying for months, like before — when he waited for bad news every day.
"How long was I recovering?" he asks.
"Five days. You were in and out. You ran yourself down driving Wei Wuxian home," Granny Wen says, using the word home absently, as if it doesn't mean everything. She combs and braids his hair, singing snatches of a lullabye he doesn't know.
"Thank you," he says, wishing the word expressed what he means more fully. When she finishes, he bows further gratitude, and she flushes and makes the same sound she made at A-Yuan when he was being naughty.
"Go outside," she says, swatting at him. "Go get some fresh air."
The air is cooler than he expects when he steps out onto the listing front porch. A-Yuan and Wen Ning are on the porch swing with a small pile of picture books. Lan Wangji starts to say something, but Wen Ning swiftly directs his gaze to A-Yuan's sleepy, slow-blinking eyes.
Lan Wangji smiles and nods his understanding, letting the smooth sound of Wen Ning's reading wash over him for a moment. Then he spots the dirt path to the field where Granny Wen told him he'd find Wei Ying and Wen Qing and makes his way toward it.
The van is parked out front, lifted up on cinder blocks. As he passes by, Uncle Four squirms out from underneath to call out a greeting and apologize for flattening the front tires.
"It's fine," Lan Wangji says, briefly disoriented. Was it really less than a week ago that he drove Wei Ying back here? He feels rooted in this place. He wants to take his sandals off and feel the crunch of stubborn grass under his feet. He doesn't.
The path is lined with scrubby, flowering trees he can't identify. The blossoms are vivid pink. They shimmy on a faint breeze as he walks. He knows, suddenly, without seeing anything, that Uncle Milk is walking beside him.
"We were trying to tell you something, you know," Uncle Milk says irritably.
"It isn't his fault he was ill," Auntie Sparrow chides.
Lan Wangji feels something, not precisely cold, but not warmth either, as they bookend him on the path. "What were you trying to tell me?" he asks. "I'm listening now."
"We want to stay here," Uncle Milk says.
"Of course you may stay here," Lan Wangji says, unreasonably disappointed. He had hoped it might be something more, something that would help Wei Ying and the Wens.
He senses a scuffle between the ghosts and feels his mouth tug into a smile. They're more lively here in this place that's so dead and so alive all at once.
"He's not explaining well," Auntie Sparrow eventually says. "We believe we can maintain the array. That way, when you leave, A-Ying will be safe."
Lan Wangji has never heard anyone call Wei Ying that. He thinks Wei Ying would enjoy the sound of it. When what she said sinks in, he stops short. Bees skim from blossom to blossom, thickening the air with their low humming flight. "You can maintain it? You're sure?"
"Mostly sure," Uncle Milk says. "We figured he'd listen to you so we waited to tell him. Plus, he's pretty...'"
"Pretty what?" Lan Wangji asks, a little too loud.
"Annoying," Uncle Milk says, at the same time that Auntie Sparrow says, more softly, "Exhausted."
"It is difficult for us to make ourselves heard this way," she adds a little tightly.
The air abruptly clears.
Picking up his pace, Lan Wangji exits the small patch of trees and picks his way up a small incline to the field that makes up the highest elevation on the rolling farmland. He spots Wei Ying by the ribbon in his hair fluttering in the wind like a banner and Wen Qing in denim overalls and a black tee shirt perched on the seat of a rusted tractor, shouting at him.
Despite having no reason to feel so, Lan Wangji did not fully allow himself to believe that Wei Ying was safe until now. Relief floods him, loud and hot in his blood. His knees go watery as he forces himself to take step after step until they both hear the shuffle of his approach and turn.
Wen Qing purses her lips. Wei Ying, who is using a knobby walking stick to stay upright, smiles and says, "Lan Zhan!" with such joy it is nearly too much for Lan Wangji to take. His expression falters. "Should you be out here? You look pale."
"You shouldn't be out here either!" Wen Qing says, not quite shouting, but sharp as a blade nonetheless.
Wei Ying ignores her and shuffles to meet Lan Wangji. He's panting by the time they get their arms around each other.
Lan Wangji has so much to say and so much to ask him, but he cannot convince his tight throat to release a single sound. All he can do is hold Wei Ying close, breathe in the scent of his hair and his skin. He is alive. He is alive.
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan." The words carry so much of the love that Lan Wangji wants to articulate.
Eventually, Wei Ying wriggles in the embrace. "Lan Zhan," he whispers. "You know what will happen if you keep holding me like this."
A laugh gusts out of Lan Wangji, loosening the tightness around his ribs. He shakes his head, caught in the smiling aftermath of it, his lips brushing Wei Ying's damp cheeks. "Shameless," he murmurs.
"I will show you how shameless I am later, there's a place in the barn where—"
"Tell him," Wen Qing's voice cuts in like a winter wind. "Tell him, or I will."
Wei Ying takes a trembling step back, startled gaze flicking to Wen Qing where she's still perched on the tractor, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her eyes rimmed with exhaustion. He opens his mouth as if poised to protest, and deflates with a sigh, leaning more heavily on the walking stick he still holds.
"Wei Ying. Tell me what?" Lan Wangji makes the question as gentle as he can, even as dread climbs up the ladder of his spine.
"It isn't important and I don't know why it has anything to do with anything right now," Wei Ying begins, taking a winding path through his discomfort. "It happened, like, years ago, anyway, and obviously I'm fine."
"Wei Wuxian," Wen Qing threatens.
"Ah, you are cruel," Wei Ying says without venom. He hasn't looked Lan Wangji in the eye once since Wen Qing told him to speak. His gaze settles somewhere in the space between them, unmoored. "Jiang Cheng was hurt bad. He — his core was crushed."
Lan Wangji shakes his head immediately. He searched for Wei Ying beside Jiang Wanyin. He would have known if he'd lost his core, it would have been obvious.
The dread grows teeth and gnaws at him.
"Anyway," Wei Ying says, mumbling in a way he never does, "now he has mine and it's fine."
"Now he has yours," Lan Wangji repeats. It's like he's beside the bees again, like they're swarming. "Your golden core." He seeks confirmation from Wen Qing, who looks — she looks guilty, looks away.
And then he understands. The scar. The abrupt shift from cultivating on a righteous path to adopting forbidden methods, methods that don't naturally align to who Wei Ying is, what he has always been, what he believes. Methods he twisted into something helpful, a way to save good people, a way to communicate with even the most resentful ghosts who simply needed someone to listen to them.
"That was brave of you," Lan Wangji says, his voice thick. He feels it like a stab when Wei Ying's gaze finally catches on his own and there's surprise there. What else did he expect? Anger? "What is done is done. And you are here. That's all that matters to me."
"Lan Zhan." Wei Ying closes his eyes. Tears drop down his cheeks like skipping stones across still water. And then he sways, and Wen Qing is there in a flash, catching one arm as Lan Wangji catches the other. "You are too good."
"You must release the array," Lan Wangji says, fingers tight around Wei Ying's wrist as he steadies him.
"This place has to remain hidden, Lan Zhan. You know that. You've seen them. They'd be massacred."
"We didn't ask you for this," Wen Qing says. "No one here wants to watch you destroy yourself to keep the farm hidden. We'll move if we have to. We'll keep moving."
"No," Wei Ying says stubbornly, looking at the ground, shoulders curving inwards as if he wants to make himself unseen. "A-Yuan has a home here. Running is no life for a child. He'll think it's fun until." His voice cuts off on a ragged breath.
Lan Wangji exchanges a look with Wen Qing, wondering if she knows what Wei Ying sees as he stares at the ground. He only has a hazy understanding of the life Wei Ying lived on the road with his parents. As rogue cultivators, the end they met was likely violent, sudden.
He doesn't want that for this family raising A-Yuan either.
"There's a way," Lan Wangji says softly. "Auntie Sparrow and Uncle Milk want to stay here. I think you can bond them to the array."
"They're not resentful enough." Wei Ying clears his voice. When he speaks again it isn't so small, so wet. "Contentment isn't as powerful as resentment. They like it here."
"I like it here enough to try," Uncle Milk says. "You should let us try."
Wen Qing's eyes widen. The hair on her forearms stands on end. "Is that one of your passengers?"
Lan Wangji nods, watching Wei Ying for a response.
Wei Ying's brow is pinched with thought. "They're not an endless resource."
"Neither are you." Lan Wangji does not like having to point this out. "And they're already dead. You're not."
There's a scheming edge to Wei Ying's gaze now. He shakes them off and sinks to sit on the ground. Humming to himself, he brushes dead grass away to make a patch of dirt, where he sketches a small array with his fingertip. "If I… this small modification. It might. It should actually hold. Long enough for us to find more ghosts." He looks to the side, as if he's listening. "Are you okay with more company here?"
He laughs at something Lan Wangji doesn't hear, and Lan Wangji makes an effort not to feel a sting at being excluded from the conversation.
"I am a good judge of character," Wei Ying says. "I found you, didn't I?"
"Did he spend your whole trip talking to ghosts?" Wen Qing asks Lan Wangji.
"Much of it," Lan Wangji admits.
"Just because I'm talking to ghosts doesn't mean I can't hear you," Wei Ying says. He rolls his eyes as his attention returns to the blank space before him. "I know. Listen, you're the ones volunteering to stay here. Yeah I know there's space. You have to be sure, that's all. If you're sure we can — I can try. I know. I know!"
"Ten seconds," Wen Qing murmurs.
Lan Wangji glances at her, concern prickling at the back of his neck. "What?"
She directs her gaze to Wei Ying. "Five, four…"
"Rude," Wei Ying breathes, just before he pitches forward, face-first into the dirt he scrawled a makeshift array in.
Two days go by before Wei Ying has the strength to take them on a long walk around the perimeter of the farm. They don't have a working vehicle beyond two rattling bicycles, and the going is slow.
It's beautiful outside, at least. Holding Wei Ying's hand, Lan Wangji listens to him argue with Wen Qing about whether or not she pulled the curse from him too quickly, and whether or not her acupuncture has an impact on his ability to hold the array without wearing himself out, and whether or not A-Yuan should be allowed to say bad words if he uses them in the proper context.
Lan Wangji used to walk the perimeter of Cloud Recesses, but always by himself. Always certain that the loneliness he felt was a weakness and a distraction from the important task of making sure his home remained secure from outside threats. It was during those day-long chores that he began to wonder if there was a person for him in this world, and if he was a person who would know how to love another if there was. He knew, at the time, that he should not let his mind wander so, but it was so quiet. And there were so many things he longed to point out to another. A patch of moss that formed the shape of a word. A snail painting a glistening trail across wet rock. A pale white butterfly. On the best days, a shy rabbit darting through the damp, tall grass.
He squeezes Wei Ying's hand, his heart full of gratitude.
"What?" Wei Ying asks, winded but smiling. They're almost to the next tree he's carved a small talisman into. It only needs a slight adjustment to accommodate the difference between his resentful energy and the ghosts'.
"I am glad to have you by my side," Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying bumps shoulders with him. "You are a sentimental farm boy deep down, aren't you Lan Zhan?"
"No." It's the truth. He would feel this way if they were swallowed by a city or cast away in the middle of a wide blue sea. He will feel this way when they are old men. He will feel this every morning, every night. He is certain of that.
Wei Ying gives him a quizzical look and laughs, soft and musical. "Alright."
They stop often, finding big granite boulders to lounge on, eating snacks and drinking cold water. "People do this for fun," Wei Ying says, idly gnawing at Lan Wangji's shoulder over his blouse. "Hiking. I don't hate it. I could hike. We could hike."
"We won't find many ghosts hiking."
"We'd find the ghosts of dead hikers."
Wen Qing exhales impatiently, but there's a small curve of amusement at her lips. "You would be unlikely to find a high volume of dead hikers anywhere you'd be able to reach safely."
"Safely! Listen to her. My boyfriend can ride a sword. We can reach anywhere safely."
"You're absurd," she says, unable to hold back a breathy chuckle. "Come on. It's going to be dark before we ever get done if you keep stopping."
They all pretend like she isn't the one stopping them, like she isn't the one checking Wei Ying's pulse every time they do. She pushes sweets into his hands and makes him drink more water than he wants to. She frowns when she feels his forehead.
"It's a good thing these ghosts are generous," she says under her breath.
Lan Wangji finds that he isn't afraid. It's a strange feeling, this lightness. If Wei Ying falls, he will catch him. If they need to find more ghosts, they will. The world has no shortage of restless dead, lonely souls who will be glad to find a family in this gentle place.
"It is a good thing," he agrees, ducking to kiss the back of Wei Ying's neck at his hairline, at the place that makes him shiver and giggle breathily.
"Lan Zhan," he says, sounding happy.
The sun is setting when they reach the final joint in the array that circles the entire farm. Lan Wangji pulls a blanket and his guqin from his qiankun pouch. Wen Qing retrieves a small, sharp blade, telling Wei Ying to stop biting his damn fingers when he needs to use his blood.
"Old habits," Wei Ying says with an uncomfortable laugh. He touches the tree where he first marked it, closing his eyes as if communing with it. Lan Wangji knows his posture well enough to know he is tired, that he is drawing strength from within to stay on his feet. In the late golden light, he is a reed. Beautiful in borrowed yoga pants and a tee that's too short, exposing the dark hair that dusts his belly. He's comfortable in his skin, in his expression of comfort.
Wei Ying surfaces from wherever he's gone to find the will to stand, and gives Lan Wangji a small smile and a smaller nod. "It's not going to hurt more than this did," he says, thumbing the place where the scar is covered by the waistband of the black yoga pants.
"That's not funny," Wen Qing says. She cuts his thumb neatly and squeezes it a few times, working a steady stream of blood that looks inky in the dying light. "If it doesn't work within three minutes, I'm pulling you out of it and breaking the array entirely."
"Yes, yes," he says, waving her off. "It better work. The van isn't going to hold seventeen of us."
"Shut up." She sounds worried.
For a moment, Lan Wangji's body tells him he should be worried as well. But he will not be. He cannot be. He will play Clarity, and he will bolster Wei Ying, and Auntie Sparrow and Uncle Milk will fill the array with their energy when Wei Ying pulls his energy out. It will be an overload, a circuit reversed. It will be too much too fast.
But it will also free Wei Ying from the tether that's been killing him for weeks.
It's the only way.
"Okay." Wei Ying lowers to his knees and widens them to steady himself. He draws in a shaky breath and takes the knife from Wen Qing to modify the carving in the bark. The tree thrums, glowing where it bleeds, where Wei Ying fills the furrows with his own blood.
The brush around them grows very quiet, birdsong evaporating. The bugs hush.
Though he has braced himself for it, the sound of Wei Ying's sudden, sharp scream nearly makes Lan Wangji leap up. Instead, clenching his jaw, he plays and plays. As if glued to the tree by his splayed palm, Wei Ying writhes. His other hand slaps against the bark, clawing and failing to gain purchase.
He doesn't have the strength to scream for long. Dark, thick energy bleeds from the tree, coiling like snakes down Wei Ying's arms, around his neck. The shadowy nothing of it enters his mouth and chokes him.
"Wait," Wen Qing says, standing close by. "It's close. He's nearly got it. Fuck. I hate this."
Auntie Sparrow rises from the ground beside Wei Ying, her slender, heat-shimmer hands clearing Wei Ying's mouth so he can sob out a breath. She dips and kisses the top of his head.
Then she says, very clearly, "Play the song he likes."
"It isn't — it's only a song," Lan Wangji says. The strings vibrate under his fingers.
He can't see her mouth, but he knows she is smiling. "Play it," she insists.
So he does.
As the song in Lan Wangji's heart rises over the fire-crackling sound of resentful energy, Auntie Sparrow sinks beside Wei Ying and puts her arms around him. "I know it hurts," she says.
Lan Wangji doesn't think she means the energy transfer. It's a deeper, more lingering pain. The pain of having something to lose.
Wen Qing catches Wei Ying when the array releases him and he collapses. There's blood on his face, blood all over his mouth.
But he's breathing.
She drags him into her lap and weeps and swears, telling him that's the last time she's going to watch him scream, he can go fuck himself, fucking idiot.
The tree is once more a tree. A bee buzzes by Lan Wangji's ear. A mockingbird trills, echoing the notes Lan Wangji plays. He exhales and finishes the song, playing softly and slowly, playing I love you, I love you.
It takes a week and a minor amount of theft to find tires and get them back to the farm. A week of long naps, long meals, and longer walks to quiet places where Wei Ying can get loud when Lan Wangji finds ways to make him laugh and yelp and cry. They're well-rested in the morning when it's time to leave.
Wen Ning carries a small, sleepy A-Yuan to keep his footie pajamas out of the wet grass. They pass him around, accepting his neck-hugs and cheek-kisses and yawning goodbyes.
"Be good for Auntie Sparrow and Uncle Milk," Wei Ying tells him. The ghosts are fond of the boy. He can see them more easily than the adults, with the exception of Wen Ning, who can always see them clearly and has taken to spending more time with them than anyone else on the farm.
"Be good for the rich man," the boy says, startling and starting to cry when everyone laughs.
It's still dark when they pull out onto the road, headlights cutting a smoky yellow line through the morning fog.
"Where to?" Wei Ying asks, fiddling with the radio. He sits taller, an ease to his shoulders that Lan Wangji hasn't seen since they were foolish boys together.
Lan Wangji has never been more sure of anything in his life when he says, "Anywhere you want to go."