Wei Wuxian is one jar of wine into his evening when he realizes that the restless melancholy that has plagued him the last two months has a name. He’s not bored, he’s not depressed, he’s not wandering the world trying and failing to find himself. He’s homesick.
It is, he thinks, a particularly useless feeling. He doesn't even have a home to miss. He hasn't really had one since Yu Furen put him and Jiang Cheng on that boat and sent them away. The last times he was at either of the places he nominally called home in his previous life—the rebuilt Lotus Pier and the Burial Mounds—didn’t exactly inspire positive feelings in him. Mostly he got attacked.
It's not even that he wants to stop traveling or night hunting, he wants...to go home. Wherever that is.
He's about to ask for another jar of wine, have a really good wallow, when a glowing gold butterfly lands on the back of his hand and Jin Ling's voice fills his head.
Wei Wuxian, Hanguang-Jun disappeared. He was out surveying flood damage and was supposed to meet with me after returning, but didn't arrive. Sizhui and Jingyi are freaking out and their uncle is worried enough that he let me contact you. If you're near or can get here quickly, you should come.
Wei Wuxian feels like he's been punched. He's dimly aware that everyone in the inn is staring at him and the butterfly as it dissipates, but he doesn't care. Lan Zhan can't have disappeared. He's the most powerful cultivator in the world. He's extremely capable and resourceful. There must be some other explanation.
He forces himself to take a deep breath, then another. Whatever else is happening, Sizhui is, according to Jin Ling, freaking out. If Wei Wuxian can help with that, he will.
He stands, downs the remaining wine, and goes to find the innkeeper.
"More wine?" she asks.
"Thank you, but no. Turns out I need to leave, but I can't take my donkey with me. I don't know how long I'll be, but hopefully this will be enough," he says and hands her almost the entire contents of his money pouch.
Her eyes widen. "We'll take care of the beast, no problem."
"Thank you," he replies. "Lil' Apple will probably be glad of the reprieve from travel. You can convince the stubborn thing to do almost anything with–"
"Apples?" the inkeep asks.
"With apples," he confirms. "Here's hoping I see you again soon."
He exits the inn and walks until he's left the town entirely. He leaves the road and walks a few paces into a thicket, then pulls his jade token of passage into the Cloud Recesses and a half-complete talisman paper from his qiankun bag. He affixes the jade token to his belt, slides the tip of his finger over the edge of the dagger he keeps in his boot, and finishes the lines.
"Well. If it doesn't work, it probably won't kill me," he says, thinking back on all the experiments he's conducted up to now. "Probably."
He activates the talisman. When he opens his eyes, he's standing just inside the gates to the Cloud Recesses.
There's a shout and then someone gasps. "Wei-qianbei, where did you come from?"
"Nanping," he replies absently and walks further into the Cloud Recesses. These paths don't feel quite right without Lan Wangji at his side. He wants, more than anything, to go right where the path splits, wants to go to the Jingshi and find his favorite person waiting with tea and a jar of Emperor's Smile. Instead, he goes left toward the Yashi.
The disciples at the door seem startled to see him, but open it for him without hesitation.
"Wei-qianbei!" Jingyi practically shouts when he sees him. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jin Ling straighten up and Lan Qiren shake out his sleeves, but he has eyes only for Sizhui who is standing straight and still, with one hand behind his back like the man who raised him.
"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says quietly as he crosses the room toward him. Within moments, Sizhui's posture crumples and he throws himself into Wei Wuxian's arms.
"He's always come back when he said he would," Sizhui whispers into his neck. Wei Wuxian presses a kiss to the crown of his head and holds him tight. "Something's wrong. Something is really, really wrong."
The reality of the situation hits him in the chest with the force of a boulder. Lan Wangji is missing.
"I will find him and I will bring him home," he promises with a rough voice and closes his eyes against the burning at the back of them. A-Yuan won't lose anyone else while Wei Wuxian lives and breathes. Sizhui nods, but doesn't say anything else, just clings. Wei Wuxian lets himself cling back for several long moments, before he squeezes Sizhui and steps back.
"Lan-xiansheng," he says and bows. Lan Qiren doesn't look irritated at his lack of initial greeting, so that's either a sign of his very real worry or his fondness for Sizhui. Maybe both.
"Wei Wuxian," Lan Qiren replies. "Thank you for coming."
"Of course, xiansheng," Wei Wuxian says. "Please. Tell me everything you know."
"My nephew set out two days ago for the Shihe. The Tan Sect and the surrounding lands experienced severe flooding of late. Wangji wanted to survey the damage for himself," Lan Qiren explains.
"Pretty sure he was just bored," Jingyi mutters. Lan Qiren cuts a look in his direction that makes Jingyi look somewhat shame-faced, but he doesn't scold. Interesting.
"He was supposed to return this morning. We expected him before the midday meal," Lan Qiren says. "He would not have missed his meeting with Jin-zongzhu without sending word."
"A-Ling, what was your meeting supposed to be about?" Wei Wuxian asks.
Jin Ling picks at something on his sleeve. "It wasn't that important. Just...normal stuff. Nothing anyone would have purposefully tried to keep him from attending."
"Nothing to do with Jin Guangyao?" he asks.
Jin Ling shakes his head. "No, we already...that's sorted. It was just. Trade and 'continuing the close relationship between LanlingJin and GusuLan,' even though I'm pretty sure he's still mad at me for–whatever."
Wei Wuxian reaches out to squeeze Jin Ling's shoulder. "I'm not mad at you for anything. For the record. And you're right, that probably wasn't the reason."
He takes a breath and lets it out slowly. "I will go to Shihe and speak with Tan-zongzhu."
"I'm coming with you," the boys all say in unison.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. "If there is something or someone in the world that can harm Hanguang-jun, I will need to be able to focus on it and if you three were with me, I would be worrying about you."
Jin Ling scowls and Jingyi pouts, but A-Yuan drops his head and his shoulders slump.
"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says, steps close, and takes his shoulders in his hands. "I need to know you're safe."
"But who will worry about you?" Sizhui asks the floor.
"Is Wen Ning around?" he asks after a moment of thought.
Sizhui shakes his head. "Ning-shushu went to Dafan Mountain for a couple of weeks. He won't be back for at least four days."
"Lan Xichen?" he asks, looking at Lan Qiren.
"No," Lan Qiren says. "He is still in seclusion and should not be disturbed unless things are dire."
"His brother disappearing isn't dire?" Wei Wuxian asks incredulously.
"I trust Wei-gongzi will inform us if things are dire," Lan Qiren replies seriously, meeting Wei Wuxian's gaze.
"Get jiujiu," Jin Ling says.
"A-Ling, that's not a good ide–"
"Do you think he wouldn't help?" Jin Ling demands. "He would," He glares at Wei Wuxian and crosses his arms over his chest.
"Please, Wei-qianbei," Sizhui asks. His voice trembles and Wei Wuxian knows he can't—won't—tell him no.
He clenches his jaw, then forces himself to relax it again. Lotus Pier is the closest sect to ShiheTan. It would hardly even be out of the way.
"All right," he agrees. "I'll ask Jiang Cheng. If Lan Zhan comes back–"
"I'll send another butterfly," Jin Ling promises.
"How will you get to Lotus Pier?" Jingyi asks. "How'd you get here for that matter?"
"I made it, didn't I? I'll get there no problem. Don't worry about that," Wei Wuxian says lightly.
Jingyi's eyebrows draw together, but he doesn't say anything else.
"Unless anyone has anything else for me, I should go," Wei Wuxian says. "There's no time to waste."
"I trust you to bring my nephew home safely, Wei Wuxian," Lan Qiren says gravely.
Wei Wuxian swallows and bows. "I will not let you down, Lan-xiansheng."
He pulls Sizhui into a tight hug and presses a kiss to his forehead above his ribbon. "I promise, A-Yuan. I'll bring him back."
He squeezes Jin Ling's shoulder and claps Jingyi on the back. "I'm trusting you two to take care of Sizhui, all right?"
They both nod and Wei Wuxian strides back out the door, back over the path he came in on, and back out the gate. He walks until he rounds the bend where he saw Lan Wangji for the first time, beyond where anyone guarding the gate or the walls can see, and pulls another talisman out of his qiankun pouch. Lotus Pier will be even easier to get to than the Cloud Recesses was.
He activates the talisman and opens his eyes under a familiar tree. His stomach churns at the thought of requesting entry and seeing Jiang Cheng again, but he promised Sizhui, promised Jin Ling. He won't break that promise, especially not when Lan Zhan very probably needs help.
He squares his shoulders and walks toward the gates of Lotus Pier.
"Shishu!" the startled guard at the gate exclaims, then remembers herself and bows toward him. "We weren't expecting you."
Shishu. That's. Odd. Maybe she was one of the younger kids around back when he still was.
"I'm very sorry for showing up without warning, but I need to speak with Jiang Ch–zongzhu if possible. It's urgent," he says. The chance Jiang Cheng will tell him to get out of Yunmeng without even seeing him is high, but he won't break his promise. He'll at least try to ask first.
He follows the guard in through the gate, waits as she calls for someone to take her place, then trails behind her down walkways he could still traverse in his sleep toward the receiving hall. It's still relatively early, but late enough that Jiang Cheng would have retired to his quarters for the day.
"Please wait here," the guard says. "I'll go get Jiang-zongzhu."
Wei Wuxian nods and tries not to pace. He gives up and lets his feet take him back and forth in front of the lotus throne. It hasn't yet been twelve hours. It's entirely possible Lan Wangji got waylaid being his usual impossibly good self. It's entirely possible he'll get a butterfly from Jin Ling telling him everything is fine.
Possible, but extremely unlikely.
"Wei Wuxian, what the fuck are you doing here?" Jiang Cheng barks as he strides into the room.
Wei Wuxian is saved from making a fool of himself and jumping out of his skin by having turned toward the entrance just as Jiang Cheng came through it.
"I'm. Wow, um. I'm sorry to disturb you, but." Wei Wuxian stops and swallows.
"But what? Spit it out." Jiang Chent is scowling at him. It's such a familiar expression that it's almost comforting.
Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. "Lan Zhan is missing. I need your help."
"Missing. How the fuck does Lan Wangji just fucking disappear?" Jiang Cheng demands.
"I don't know!" Wei Wuxian yells, throwing his hands up in the air. "I don't know."
Jiang Cheng stares at him for a long moment, long enough for Wei Wuxian to sigh.
"I'll go, then. It's fine. I'll...I'll figure something out." As he turns to leave, Jiang Cheng's hand closes around his arm.
"Sit the fuck down, Wei Wuxian. Start at the beginning," Jiang Cheng demands.
Wei Wuxian does as he's told, tells him everything Lan Qiren and the boys told him. Tells him how he was drinking in Nanping when he got Jin Ling's butterfly.
"Stop. You were where how long ago?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"Nanping. Um..an hour and a half ago?" Wei Wuxian replies.
"You traveled from Nanping, to the Cloud Recesses, then here in the space of an hour and a half?" Jiang Cheng asks, voice flat.
"Yes, I did do that," Wei Wuxian replies.
"Take an immense amount of spiritual power, which I don't have. I know. I didn't use one," Wei Wuxian says. "Well. Not a traditional one, anyway. I've been working on something that can tap into any ambient energy around. Doesn't matter what kind. Never travelled that far on it before, but needs must."
Jiang Cheng stares. He's never traveled anywhere on them before, but he keeps that to himself.
"It worked! I got there in one piece and then I got here in one piece!"
The frustrated noise that comes out of Jiang Cheng then is straight from their younger days, and then he sighs.
"It's too late to do anything tonight. We'll set out at first light."
Wei Wuxian bites hard on the inside of his cheek and breathes in through his nose, then out again. He doesn't want to waste a second of time, but Jiang Cheng is right and he knows, he knows he shouldn't set out alone.
"I don't think I can sleep," he admits after a beat.
"Follow me," Jiang Cheng orders.
Wei Wuxian stands and follows him toward the sect leader's rooms. Wei Wuxian still can't quite think of them as belonging to Jiang Cheng, though by this point they've been his for longer than Wei Wuxian was ever at Lotus Pier and knew of them as Jiang Fengmian's rooms.
Jiang tells him to wait and disappears inside. A moment later, he returns and hands Wei Wuxian a phial. "It will help."
Wei Wuxian swallows hard and nods. "Thank you."
"It's nothing," Jiang Cheng says gruffly. "You can sleep in your room. It should be prepared."
"Your room. Or have you forgotten how to get there?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"No. I...okay. My room," Wei Wuxian says. "Sleep well, Jiang-zongzhu."
"Fuck off," Jiang Cheng grouses and slides the door shut between them with a decisive bang.
Wei Wuxian makes his way across the compound until he's standing in front of the room that was his in Lotus Pier once he and Jiang Cheng no longer shared. It was badly damaged by the Wens, most of his old things destroyed, but the building remained standing and he had occupied it again when they returned.
He takes a breath and slides open the door.
It doesn't look the same, his old things aren't scattered around like he left them or anything so foolish, but it's still his room and it isn't occupied.
The disciple at the gate calling him shishu pops into his head, but he pushes that aside. He can't think about anything right now. His head only has room for one big, earth-shaking thing at a time. Right now, that thing is Lan Wangji. He kicks off his boots, closes the door behind him, and downs the sleeping drought.
He barely manages to get his outer robe off and slide into bed when sleep takes him.
"Hey, asshole! Wake up!"
Wei Wuxian's eyes feel heavy as he tries to open them. He's not entirely certain where he is, but he's woken up in any number of inns in any number of cities lately. Usually the innkeepers aren't quite so rude, though.
"Wei Wuxian, get up or I'm throwing a bucket of water over your head! I have shit to do before we leave."
Lan Zhan is missing.
Wei Wuxian presses his palms against his eyes briefly, then forces himself to his feet. He stumbles toward the door and slides it open.
"I'm up, I'm up, stop shouting," he says. "If you're so busy, why didn't you send a disciple?"
"As if I would subject any of my disciples to you before at least nine," Jiang Cheng retorts. "There's food for you. Go eat. I'll meet you at the gates in half an hour."
Wei Wuxian nods and moves to pull on his boots and his outer robe and Jiang Cheng disappears to do whatever he needs to do. Despite the years, the distance, and the broken promises, Wei Wuxian's feet take him to the family table he used to eat at with the Jiangs. Sure enough, there's food and tea set out for him.
He sits down and finds himself fiercely missing Lan Wangji who gently nudges him awake, passes him cups of strong tea, feeds him breakfast, and waits patiently for him to be ready to face the world. Lan Wangji who has disappeared.
Wei Wuxian eats his food alone and guzzles down tea that tastes too much like the past. At least it helps banish the last of the sleeping drought and clears his head. He's done before it's been half an hour but he doesn't want to stay at this table any longer, so he makes his way out toward the gates.
There are very few disciples out and about at this hour. Most are probably still eating breakfast or doing morning meditation. The two he encounters on his walk toward the gates bow to him as he passes.
It makes him feel strange. And old.
He's relieved to see Jiang Cheng coming from the other direction before anyone else has a chance to come talk to him. It's too early for him to have to navigate any conversations he might have with anyone here.
"Let's go," Jiang Cheng says and strides out of the gates. "We can get there in an hour."
Wei Wuxian stares at the back of his head and jogs to catch up. He doesn't particularly want to say this, but apparently he's not being left any choice. "I can't fly, Jiang Cheng."
He gets an eye roll. "That's not something I'm likely to forget. Obviously you're flying with me."
Wei Wuxian steps onto Sandu with Jiang Cheng. He grabs hold of Jiang Cheng's shoulders and he stiffens, but doesn't say anything. As they rise into the air, all he can see in front of them is the Lotus Lake. It reminds him of the invincibility of being sixteen. It feels deeply strange. He's pretty sure he doesn't like it. At all. But he's not stupid enough to say such a thing to Jiang Cheng.
They've barely put Lotus Pier behind them when he starts talking.
"Lan Zhan is one of the strongest cultivators alive today. It would be next to impossible to take him by surprise. Either he was drugged, or something really fucking strange happened." Or something terrible. He can't bring himself to voice that part.
"Who's to say he didn't stop somewhere and do his usual Hanguang-Jun routine?" Jiang Cheng asks tartly.
"He wouldn't have. He's...he wouldn't have."
Wei Wuxian knows he wouldn't have, because otherwise maybe Lan Wangji would have chosen to stay with him.
As they fly north, the evidence of the recent flooding becomes more and more apparent. It's no wonder Lan Wangji felt the need to come here and offer the assistance of the Chief Cultivator.
When they arrive at the Tan Sect compound, morning exercises are in full swing. One of the seniors calls out formations. The same thing is happening in every sect in the world right now. It might be a comforting thought if Wei Wuxian were in a place where he would find anything comforting.
A nervous looking disciple greets them and takes them directly to Tan-zongzhu's private office.
"Sandu Shengshou!" the man exclaims. "I was not expecting you. First Hanguang-Jun, now you. We don't often get such distinguished guests."
He turns to greet Wei Wuxian and his eyes go wide. "A-and Wei-gongzi as well!"
"We are here because Lan Wangji never returned to the Cloud Recesses yesterday." Wei Wuxian feels ill even saying it, but the thought of listening to the man stumble over more pleasantries as he studiously tries not to look at Wei Wuxian is unbearable.
The man's eyes go wide. "He left here early. Didn't even stay to breakfast, said he had an important meeting he wanted time to prepare for."
Wei Wuxian glances over at Jiang Cheng who looks grudgingly pleased that Lan Wangji is treating a meeting with Jin Ling as important.
"Did he say anything about making any stops on the way?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"I told him if he made good time he could turn a little south, the flight over the lakes near the Yangtze is particularly beautiful this time of year and if he went down there, he may as well fly to see Huangshan as well. He thanked me, said he may well do that, and left!"
It's believable, and he knows Lan Wangji would not want to miss natural beauty if he had the time to see it. "If I find out you're lying to us, that you know anything about this, I will come back and you will wish the floods had taken you."
"Wei Wuxian," Jiang Cheng says mildly, but Wei Wuxian hears the warning in his tone.
Sect Leader Tan looks terrified, but squares his shoulders. "That's all I know, I swear it. Hanguang-Jun came here personally to examine the damage. Shihe will be ruined for several seasons without his Excellency's help."
Wei Wuxian takes a breath and bows to the man. "Then I thank you for your assistance."
"We ask for your discretion regarding this matter for the time being," Jiang Cheng says. He flexes his hand. Zidian doesn't spark, but the message is clear.
Tan-zongzhu nods and swallows. "Whatever you need, ShiheTan will do its best to provide. It doesn't make sense that Hanguang-Jun wouldn't have returned."
They both bow to Tan-Zongzhu and they leave. They fly southeast toward the Yangtze River, then Jiang Cheng takes them down lower over the water and asks, "What are we even looking for?"
"I don't know," Wei Wuxian replies, "but anything or anyone who could capture Lan Zhan...I'll be able to sense the resentful energy."
"And if it's something completely mundane?"
"We are not currently exploring that as a possibility," Wei Wuxian replies. It's probably stupid and definitely stubborn and he knows it.
"I'm just saying, asshole," Jiang Cheng snaps.
"We can reevaluate if we pass Huangshan and find nothing," Wei Wuxian allows. He absolutely cannot think like that right now. He'll think about it if he has to and not a moment sooner.
Sect Leader Tan was right, the lakes along the Yangtze are beautiful from the air right now, but he can't appreciate them. All that matters is Lan Wangji.
As they reach the foothills of Huangshan, Wei Wuxian is starting to lose hope. It's then that he starts hearing it. Whispers of resentful energy breathe in his ears, ask him to come to them, to find what he seeks.
"Do you feel that?" Wei Wuxian asks.
"Yeah," Jiang Cheng replies grimly and takes them down in the direction of the resentful energy. He tries to go directly to the center of what they're feeling, but he can't get that close.
There are many places around the mountains of Huangshan where non-cultivators can't get at all, that they don't even know exist, and which are blocked from most cultivators, even if they can sense them. One rumor is that Baoshan Sanren's immortal mountain is within the mountain range. Wei Wuxian doubts this because then it wouldn't be such a secret if there were so many rumors about it. Regardless, it's a strange place filled with strange magic. Despite all that, none of those places are like this, none are seething masses of resentful energy like this is. He can absolutely understand why Lan Wangji would feel he needed to stop here.
Jiang Cheng lands outside a tall, white wall with a tall, arching gate at the south end of the wall. The area around them is about as wild as you can get, not anywhere near the more traveled paths. There's barely a path here at all, but they walk down it toward the gate.
"The fuck is this?" Jiang Cheng asks. He doesn't bother sheathing Sandu.
"I guess we're about to find out," Wei Wuxian says, tilting his head and reaching out with his senses. "Looks like a garden, though."
"A garden in the middle of nowhere radiating resentful energy. Great." Jiang Cheng's lip is curled as he looks at the wall.
"If nothing else, it will be interesting," Wei Wuxian says with a quirk of his lips. He steps forward through the gate, Jiang Cheng close at his heels. The moment they're clear of the entrance, a noise like a muffled gong sounds behind them and the air above them shimmers, a ward slamming into place.Wei Wuxian doesn't even turn around. "And now we're stuck here."
It almost seems like they are standing in a normal courtyard in a normal garden, but something has happened to the light. It's still early enough in the day that most of this part of the countryside is in the shadow of the mountain, but there is no tree cover over the courtyard, no clouds in the sky, no pavilion roofs or towers to obstruct the light. It should not be this dark.
He stays still as he lets his eyes adjust to the light. He doesn't think it's the light that's making everything look sinister.
"I think it's safe to assume everything here is a corrupted version of what it should be," Wei Wuxian says as he looks around.
"If a tree that's turned into a yao tries to eat me, I'm going to break your fucking legs," Jiang Cheng threatens.
"The tree will probably beat you to it," Wei Wuxian retorts and cautiously steps further into the courtyard. There's a moon gate directly in front of them. The view through it is perfectly lovely on first glance, but the longer he looks, the more the tree branches begin to look like reaching fingers.
It reminds him of the Burial Mounds. The first time.
To the left, there's a pavilion. Its name is obscured by vines.
"Something tells me we don't actually want to know the name anyway," Wei Wuxian mutters. "Forward, or through the pavilion?"
"I can't say I love the idea of going inside a building in this place," Jiang Cheng says, "but I doubt we'll have a fucking choice and it won't be the last, so let's just go."
Wei Wuxian slides open the door with little effort. As he steps over the threshold, it feels as if fingers brush over his neck, his arms, his sides, his legs. He shudders and strides further into the building. He hears Jiang Cheng suck in a startled breath behind him.
"How did a place with this much resentful energy go unnoticed for so long?" Jiang Cheng asks. "The last place I felt anything like this is—"
"The Burial Mounds," Wei Wuxian interrupts.
"I was going to say Nightless City," Jiang Cheng says.
Wei Wuxian stops himself from flinching, swallows hard, and flicks his wrist to activate a light talisman.
"Someone must have been obscuring it for a long time. It either got too strong for them to contain, or they stopped caring," Wei Wuxian says. "Either option is bad."
The building is...empty. There is no furniture, no decoration apart from what is physically part of the building already. Wei Wuxian moves to get a closer look at the carved panels around the door and is utterly unsurprised to find ghosts, yao, and sinister-looking plants instead of the more typical landscapes, beautiful flowers, and auspicious beasts as they appear from further away.
The feeling of fingers grasping at his robes, hair, and limbs comes back. He brings Chenqing up to his lips and blows a short, sharp command.
Stop. The fingers recede.
"So was that fingers for you or is it making us feel different things?" he asks conversationally.
"Fingers," Jiang Cheng confirms shortly.
"I'll just...run upstairs and check up there, then we can get out of here," Wei Wuxian suggests.
"You're so fucking stupid," Jiang Cheng says. "I'm going with you."
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes but doesn't protest when Jiang Cheng follows him up the stairs. He reaches the top of them and the fingers come back, but there's nothing more. Another note from Chenqing is enough to get them to recede. They walk to the center of the room and look around.
"There's nothing," Jiang Cheng says, sounding baffled.
A chill goes down Wei Wuxian's back and he looks up, but even the rafters are empty of anything but maybe a little dust. "Huh."
They make their way back down the stairs. Wei Wuxian expects to be attacked as soon as they step back into the main room, but nothing happens.
He slides open the door and steps out. The terrace outside the door looks out onto the lake in the middle of the garden. Once again, everything looks idyllic at first glance. Wei Wuxian doesn't get a chance to look closer because the moment he takes another step further out onto the terrace so Jiang Cheng can exit the pavilion, something flies out of the water, wraps around his ankle and pulls.
Wei Wuxian yells as he falls to the ground and starts whacking what's around his ankle with Chenqing and kicking it with his free foot. It pulls him across the stone directly toward the water.
Jiang Cheng catches him around the chest and shoulders and holds on tight.
"What the fuck?" he yells as whatever it is thrashes in the water, trying to pull Wei Wuxian in with it.
"Hit the water with Zidian!" Wei Wuxian gasps and keeps trying to hit the thing.
"And if you get backlash through whatever the fuck that thing is?" Jiang Cheng shouts in his ear.
"I can take it! Just fucking do it!"
"Fuck! Fine!" Jiang Cheng yells.
Wei Wuxian hears Zidian crackling near, feels his hair stand on end and then watches it arc through the air and slap the water with a resounding crack.
There is a bit of backlash, he can feel the lightning in his ankle, but he's had worse from Zidian and whatever it is around his ankle loosens enough that he can kick it off and scramble back back out of the way.
"Again, Jiang Cheng!"
Jiang Cheng draws back his arm and hits the spot where they can see bubbles on the surface of the water. The bubbles stop and something huge bobs to the surface.
Wei Wuxian pushes himself to his feet and moves toward the edge of the veranda, peering into the water.
"Is that...a frog???" Jiang Cheng asks beside him.
"This is revenge for that time we caught a bunch of frogs and put them in everyone's beds, isn't it? They played a long game, but finally saw a chance and took it," Wei Wuxian murmurs, staring at the gaping mouth and now limp tongue.
"If that means the next thing we're going to come across is giant snakes I'm turning around and leaving right the fuck now," Jiang Cheng grouses. "You can find your damn...Lan Wangji yourself."
Wei Wuxian swallows. "There's a ward, remember? You're locked in here with me. And the snakes."
Jiang Cheng huffs and they turn to follow the path.
They make sure to keep as much distance between them and the water as they can. Jiang Cheng has Zidian at the ready.
They pass their way through another empty pavilion that makes Wei Wuxian feel like ice water is dripping down his back, but there's nothing there and nothing actually happens
Beyond the pavilion on a small island is a waterfall. It's perfectly beautiful from where they are; it appears to be an idyllic scene that looks almost like a hidden corner in a forest.
The moment they step on the first bridge connecting where they are to the island upon which the waterfall sits, the temperature drops dramatically. Wei Wuxian starts shivering almost immediately, as if he fell through ice on a frozen lake.
"What's wrong with you?" Jiang Cheng demands.
"Did you not feel it get colder?" Wei Wuxian asks.
"I did. Just. Your teeth are chattering," Jiang Cheng says.
"Resentful energy can't keep me warm," Wei Wuxian says lightly as they reach the end of the bridge.
Jiang Cheng's expression darkens.
"Wh–" he cuts off with a yell as he falls to the ground, flat on his back, the moment his foot lands on the stone path on the island.
Wei Wuxian brings Chenqing to his lips as he looks around frantically, waiting for something to attack, but there's nothing. He realizes a moment later that the island is absolutely covered in ice. Even the waterfall isn't flowing; the water coming out of it is frozen solid. It's then that he realizes that the waterfall isn't made of rock and stone, but of skulls.
"Okay. I don't think the ice is going to attack us unless you categorize falling on your ass when you step on it as an attack," Wei Wuxian says.
"Fucking help me up," Jiang Cheng growls.
Wei Wuxian braces himself and holds out a hand to Jiang Cheng. They slip around a bit but manage to keep their footing due to years and years of martial arts training.
They very carefully pick their way to the other side of the island and cross the second bridge. Once on the other side, the temperature immediately rises. It feels like some of the tension should leave Wei Wuxian's body once he's no longer shivering, but it doesn't.
They skirt the edge of the path, keeping away from anything else that might attempt to attack them from the water, but it's perfectly still. Even the ripples from their earlier activities are gone.
They pass through another moon gate and into another courtyard scene. The light is even dimmer in this one due to all the vegetation. They follow the path through into the center where there's a small rock garden.
"This...seems normal?" Jiang Cheng says.
"Now you've done it," Wei Wuxian groans.
As if in answer he feels the resentful energy swell in the air, and black tendrils of smoke drift up from the soil and into the plants.
Wei Wuxian can't help but stare as the plants begin to seethe with resentful energy and to move and expand. He's never seen anything quite like this, not even at the Burial Mounds the first time, before he managed to bend it to his will.
"Wei Wuxian!" Jiang Cheng snaps, grabs his arm, and tugs him toward the exit.
"Right," he says and follows.
Except the plants move faster, they cover the exit and move around them almost like being in the center of a cyclone or a whirlpool made of vines and resentful energy instead of water. They swirl until the column of whirling vines towers over their heads.
It doesn't take long to realize the column is constricting slowly but surely.
Jiang Cheng lifts Sandu and starts hacking at the vines. They writhe frantically and snap at them like whips. They don't recede; they constrict further.
"Jiang Cheng, stop," Wei Wuxian says and puts a hand on Jiang Cheng's sword arm. He stills.
Wei Wuxian brings Chenqing up to his lips and blows a few notes of command. He's ignored.
He squints at the vines and a moment later, he realises.
"The water in the vines," he says, pulls a blank talisman out, and slides a finger over Sandu. He draws the talisman in quick, precise strokes, then slams it to the ground with his hand.
There's a rumble and the earth starts to move. The vines start to recede away from the moving ground. Wei Wuxian uses Chenqing to amplify the effects of the talisman and they're able to move down the path. The moving earth disrupts the plants over the gate enough that they're able to slip through and out.
There's another pavilion in front of them with the doors pulled wide and the movable walls open. In the center of the room there's a low table, but there's nothing on it or around it, not even a stray seating mat or two.
Like the first pavilion, when they pass the threshold it feels like fingers brush over their skin and through their hair.
"You know, I think I'd rather have the frogs. Or even the vines," Wei Wuxian says. Jiang Cheng grunts in agreement.
They make a cursory circuit around the whole room and up the stairs to the second floor and back again. The feeling of fingers is creepy and unsettling, but there's nothing else here.
The courtyard on the other side of the pavilion is dedicated to flowers. The smell of the air is sweet, almost cloying, and despite the dim light the blooms are all fully open. Wei Wuxian makes the mistake of brushing against one as he walks by and sees a puff of powder go into the air.
He leaps out of the way but crashes into Jiang Cheng, who swears at him but doesn't shove back because he sees the plume of powder as well.
"That doesn't look like pollen," Jiang Cheng says.
"I'm pretty sure it isn't. Pretty sure it's corpse powder. Let's...not touch the flowers. I left all my glutinous rice in Little Apple's saddlebags," Wei Wuxian says.
Not touching the flowers is easier said than done. The path through the garden is narrow and the flowers are abundant.
It takes several long minutes of moving carefully, but they finally manage to reach the door to the pavilion on the other side of the courtyard. Wei Wuxian slides open the door and steps forward. There are no fingers this time, but before he can think or react, dark clouds of resentful energy coalesce and rush directly toward them.
In an instant, Wei Wuxian is filled with an old, familiar terror. He hasn't felt this since Wen Chao dropped him in the Burial Mounds.
This time, instead of voices accusing him and beckoning him by turns, offering him retribution if only he will heed them, his mind is assaulted by images.
The tip of a blade coming rapidly toward his neck.
A mob of people calling for his blood.
A dog bearing down on him.
He grasps tightly to the knowledge that this isn't real, that he is only seeing what the resentful spirits want him to see and he is not in danger.
And then Jiang Yanli is dying in front of him, her front drenched in blood. It should be him. It should be him.
He falls to his knees.
The vision shifts to the bodies of the Wens hanging from the walls of the Nightless City.
It shifts again and he watches Jin Guangyao slice through Jin Ling's throat, watches the blood gush down over his chest.
It shifts again. Jiang Cheng lies in his bed in the Yiling Supervisory Office and wastes away. He dies before Wei Wuxian can convince Wen Qing to make the transfer.
Wei Wuxian pulls Lan Wangji over the edge of the cliff with him.
A-Yuan lies cold and forgotten in a dark corner of a cave.
Sizhui and Wen Ning, dead in an isolated clearing in a far-off forest.
Jin Ling, stabbed in the back by a gold-robed assailant.
Lan Wangji, lying broken and bloody in the middle of the room in front of him.
"No," Wei Wuxian breathes, then it rips from his throat, "no, no no!"
"Wei Wuxian!" It's loud enough that he looks up just as hands grasp his shoulders and shake him. "None of this is real!!!"
He looks up at Jiang Cheng's stormy face and back toward the body in the center of the room.
There's a resounding crack, and his head jostles and his eyes close. It takes a moment for him to realize that Jiang Cheng slapped him, and yet another moment for him to feel the sting of the hit. He opens his eyes again and the room is empty of all but a few remaining wisps of resentful energy. Jiang Cheng hauls him to his feet and drags him through the pavilion and out the other side.
Wei Wuxian drops to his knees and bile rises in his throat as Jiang Cheng starts to yell.
"You fucking idiot! Are you or are you not the grandmaster of demonic cultivation? You know how resentful energy works for fuck's sake!"
Jiang Cheng keeps yelling as Wei Wuxian breathes through his nausea and when his ears don't stop ringing, he tugs on Jiang Cheng's cloak. He falls into silence.
He wonders what lies the resentful energy tried to tell Jiang Cheng and realizes it doesn't really matter. Jiang Cheng was strong enough to look it in the face and not let it cloud his judgement. Maybe there was a time when, if pressed, he would have reluctantly said he was stronger—more resilient—than Jiang Cheng. That time is long past. He thinks maybe it's one of the things the Burial Mounds took from him. We will lend you our power, but we will take your strength.
He can't think about what could happen if he lost someone now. If he lost Lan Wangji.
He can't think about what could have happened if no one had contacted him. Would he have heard of Lan Wangji's disappearance in the streets as if he were any other random person?
His breath starts coming faster and he leans over, planting his hands on either side of his knees.
Lan Wangji could be dead right now. They could make it through this whole hellish garden only to find a dead body. Or they might not find him here at all. Wei Wuxian might never see his face again, never see his tiny smile or watch his hands playing the qin while he sips wine in the quiet of the Jingshi.
He might never be able to tell him all the things that have been building in him for two lifetimes, might never feel Lan Wangji's warmth at his side, their hands brushing as they walk.
"I can't. I can't."
"Wei Wuxian! Snap the fuck out of it!" Jiang Cheng barks.
"I can't live in a world without him."
"Oh, fuck you," Jiang Cheng says and Zidian sparks. "He lived in a world without you. We all lived in a world without you. I don't give a shit what we find, you don't fucking get to give up again."
Wei Wuxian swallows hard and thinks of Sizhui back at the Cloud Recesses and takes a breath. He thinks of Wen Ning, of Jin Ling, of Jiang Cheng, and takes another.
As he pushes himself to his feet, he staggers a little. Jiang Cheng's hand lands on his shoulder and steadies him.
"Let's keep going."
The resentful energy feels denser the further they go down the path. Considering what's behind them, that's more than a little bit concerning.
When a fierce corpse comes flying at them, both of them are prepared, but Jiang Cheng feints left while Wei Wuxian goes right and they nearly collide.
Wei Wuxian is abruptly reminded that it's been a long time since they fought the same enemy side-by-side. He falls back a few paces and lets Jiang Cheng charge forward with Sandu and Zidian. He plays a few notes on Chenqing, half afraid whoever this fucker is has made a Stygian Tiger Amulet of some kind, but the fierce corpse heeds his commands and Jiang Cheng cuts it down easily enough.
Then another fierce corpse appears. And another. And another.
Wei Wuxian strikes out at one of the fierce corpses with Chenqing and nearly gets Zidian around his wrist for his trouble.
Jiang Cheng scowls at him and thrusts Sandu into the corpse behind him without looking.
Fighting together used to come as naturally as breathing. Even after Wei Wuxian came out of the Burial Mounds using a flute rather than a sword, they still hadn't had any trouble fighting beside one another.
Before he died, he'd fought beside Lan Wangji much more recently than he had Jiang Cheng. Since Mo Xuanyu performed the ritual he has fought on his own, or with Lan Wangji.
Yet another reason he misses Lan Wangji desperately, he thinks, then immediately feels guilty. Jiang Cheng is here, helping him. Given...everything, that is no small thing.
He's so lost in thought, he nearly misses that another fierce corpse is within an arm's length of him when Jiang Cheng cuts it down.
"Get your fucking head out of the clouds and back here!" Jiang Cheng snaps.
Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders as three more fierce corpses come flying at them. He focuses most of his attention on Jiang Cheng, sparing little for the corpses, and begins to play. He ducks when Jiang Cheng strikes out with Zidian, and strikes around behind him with Chenqing and hits the corpse hard enough to make it stagger back, which gives Jiang Cheng time to cut it down with Sandu.
Wave after wave of corpses come at them. There are no more near misses. It's maybe not as smooth and natural as fighting with Lan Wangji, but it feels good to find a rhythm.
They fight. Wei Ying does his best to control the corpses, but there are so many, keeping up is a challenge. It's not as many as were at the Burial Mounds, but enough.
"Where the fuck do you even contain this many fierce corpses in a walled-in garden?" he shouts over the clang of Sandu and the crackle of Zidian.
The only answer is Zidian snapping out to wrap around a corpse and fling it high into the air.
Finally, finally, the corpses stop coming. There's a mound of them beside them, somehow looking even more grotesque in the dim light of the garden than they would if the light was normal and natural.
"What the fuck is even going on?" Jiang Cheng asks as he catches his breath.
"Even if this has nothing to do with—" WWX cuts himself off. "Places can be corrupted by resentful energy and transform naturally."
"Like the Burial Mounds."
"I mean, there were battles and the Wens kept dumping people there, but...essentially. This doesn't feel like that. It feels like someone is deliberately cultivating a resentful energy-themed garden, not like resentful energy corrupted this place," Wei Wuxian says.
"If someone did this on purpose, they're dangerous," Jiang Cheng says grimly.
Resentful energy can take root anywhere with the right amount of carelessness. It's dangerous for that reason alone. What few people know is that when you invite it in, it becomes much, much easier to command. Anyone with that knowledge who uses it for the purpose of turning a beautiful, inviting place into a walled-in nightmare is more than dangerous.
"Very. Let's keep going." He points at the sign above the next pavilion. Scholar's Pavilion, it reads. "If there are any answers to be had, they'll probably be in there."
Wei Wuxian slides open the door and looks into the building. Unlike all the other pavilions, this one looks like a normal room in a normal place. There is a writing desk, several work tables, and shelves of books and scrolls.
Everything seems...normal. It's not meticulously neat, nor is it particularly messy. The most abnormal thing about the room they walk into is that it's in use.
Wei Wuxian moves directly toward the writing desk where there's a stack of notebooks. He picks up the one on top and starts leafing through it until he spots Lan Wangji's name.
Of course I knew him immediately. Even if I had never met him before, even if Sect Leader Su had not been so fixated, I would have known him. There is no mistaking Hanguang-jun.
According to the notebook, nothing had been able to subdue Lan Wangji as he made his way through the garden. The writer mentions he came out of the room of fear looking harrowed and broken, but he still managed to make it beyond the fierce corpses and into the Scholar's Pavilion. Like Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji clearly had been surprised to find something inside. That was all the distraction needed for them to incapacitate him. They don't say how they accomplished this, but Wei Wuxian doubts it was anything so gentle as acupuncture needles.
"Wei Wuxian," Jiang Cheng snaps. "We should not linger here. It'd be too fucking easy to trap us."
"One more moment," WWX replies without looking up. "Find Bichen."
As Jiang Cheng starts rifling around the room, Wei Wuxian turns to the last page with any writing on it. This page is messier than the others. The person clearly struggling with what to do with such a prominent captive. They have clearly made a decision by the final words on the page.
Those words make Wei Wuxian feel rage start to choke him like it hasn't in so long, like it hasn't since the day he died and now there is no tiger seal to amplify that feeling. This is all him.
I will make him part of my garden.
"Well?" Jiang Cheng demands as he puts Bichen into his qiankun pouch.
"If they are still here, they will never leave this place again," Wei Wuxian responds, sets the notebook back down on the desk, and wraps his hand tight around Chenqing.
He walks out of the Scholar's Pavilion and follows the path where it leads, down the walkway toward the pavilion in the middle of the lake. Jiang Cheng follows without a word.
A man stands in the center, and behind him Wei Wuxian can Lan Wangji on his knees.
"You've made the last mistake of your life," Wei Wuxian tells him, lifts Chenqing to his mouth, and begins calling the resentful energy to bend to his will.
"Wait!" the man shrieks. "Wait, I'll give you Hanguang-Jun if you'll just go! I was only experimenting! Surely you understand that!"
Wei Wuxian pulls Chenqing away enough to speak. "I understand experimentation. I understood why you did what you did. Right up to the moment you let your experimentation override your conscience and innocent people paid the price. And then you thought you could make my zhiji part of your experiments."
He blows a series of shrill notes and all of the resentful energy carefully cultivated in this garden by the man in front of him bends to Wei Wuxian's will and flies toward its keeper from every direction.
The man starts screaming as it wraps tightly around his legs, torso, and arms, then pushes inside his mouth, his nostrils, his ears. Wei Wuxian watches in grim satisfaction as blood starts trickling from his qiqiao.
He lets his eyes move away from the man and to Lan Wangji. His chest rises and falls with breath, but his eyes don't open. Wei Wuxian keeps playing until he and the resentful energy reach a crescendo.
The man's screaming stops abruptly in a spray of blood. He shouldn't have touched his zhiji.
When Zidian wraps around the body, Wei Wuxian tucks Chenqing into his belt, sprints toward Lan Wangji, and sinks to his knees in front of him.
"Lan Zhan," he breathes. His face and robes are covered in blood, but it's not his. Wei Wuxian frowns in distaste and reaches up to wipe it away from his face with his sleeve. "Lan Zhan?"
Lan Wangji doesn't stir or open his eyes. He's tied with deity-binding ropes, but that doesn't explain why he's still kneeling while unconcious.
"Jiang Cheng, the ropes," he says and Sandu flashes in his peripheral vision as Jiang Cheng cuts through the bindings. As soon as they fall away, Lan Wangji slumps forward into Wei Wuxian's arms.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian repeats and cradles him close. He takes a deep, shuddering breath and places a hand over Lan Wangji's chest. He's breathing, but he's so, so cold. "Lan Zhan, my love, please."
Jiang Cheng kneels beside them, takes Lan Wangji's wrist in his hand, and starts feeding him spiritual energy. As he does that, Wei Wuxian tries to wipe away the rest of the blood from his face. It makes it hard to tell if he's injured, but he can see some bruising around his temple. His larger guan is gone, leaving only the smaller silver pieces tangled and askew. His hair has fallen down around his face and Wei Wuxian almost wishes to raise that man from the dead so he can kill him again. No one but those Lan Wangji chooses should be able to see him so undone.
He closes his eyes and takes another breath. His anger will do Lan Wangji no good now.
After several long minutes of a constant feed of spiritual energy, Lan Wangji's chest heaves and his eyes flutter open. "Wei Ying?"
"I'm here," Wei Wuxian whispers. "I'm here, Lan Zhan."
"Good," Lan Wangji says, then his eyes close and he's unconscious again.
"He needs a doctor," Jiang Cheng says. "And probably Cleansing."
A bitter laugh escapes Wei Wuxian's lips. "I can play it, but I can't put any spiritual power into it, so it won't do much good."
"Can you get him to the Cloud Recesses with...whatever it is you did to get to Lotus Pier?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"I don't...it's one thing if I use it on myself, I can't–"
Jiang Cheng cuts him off. "So you shouldn't have used it on yourself and it's not an option."
Wei Wuxian looks down into Lan Wangj's face and tries to think. "Jin Ling. He should still be in the Cloud Recesses."
"I'll tell them to come to the town we passed on the way." Jiang Cheng stops passing Lan Wangji spiritual energy in order to send Jin Ling a butterfly. "How are we going to get to town?"
"You'll have to take him," Wei Wuxian says, feeling sick. "I'll follow on foot."
Wei Wuxian is surprised he doesn't argue, but it really is the only solution that makes sense.
"Let's go, then," Jiang Cheng says and leans down to lift Lan Wangji into his arms. "Clear the way."
Of course it's the most sensible thing to do. Wei Wuxian doesn't have the strength to carry Lan Wangji very far.
He has never regretted his lack of golden core more than he does in this moment.
Wei Wuxian pushes himself to his feet and walks back down the path. There's one more pavilion to pass through. It appears to have been turned into sleeping quarters and is completely mundane.
When they exit the pavilion and enter into the final courtyard. Wei Wuxian can see the entrance to the garden through the moon gate at the other end of the courtyard. He expects there to be something, one more obstacle, but apart from the fact that all the plans look sinister and half dead, there's nothing. As he steps through the moon gate the sound of a bell echoes around them and there's a shimmer of light over the entrance.
"That'll be the ward lifting," Wei Wuxian says and walks out.
"What the fuck," Jiang Cheng says behind him. He's standing just inside the garden, but when he tries to step forward, he can't step beyond the gate. Wei Wuxian turns around and walks back in, then out again with no problem. He has a terrible, sinking feeling in his gut as he crosses back into the garden and gently takes Lan Wangji from Jiang Cheng.
"Now try," he says.
Jiang Cheng walks out of the garden.
Wei Wuxian tries to follow him with Lan Wangji, but he can't move beyond the gate.
"We let that fucking piece of shit off easy," he says tightly, and moves back more fully into the garden.
"Let me take him," Jiang Cheng says. In this moment, it's the very last thing Wei Wuxian wants to do. He doesn't know what that fucker did to make it so Lan Wangji can't leave. He doesn't know what Lan Wangji has been through. He wants to hold him close and never let anyone touch him ever again. But his muscles are starting to shake, so he swallows and lets his brother take his zhiji from him.
"Let's go back to the Scholar's Pavilion," he finally says. "I'll start going through all his notes, see what I can figure out."
Before he can sit down and read, there are other things he needs to do first. As they pass through the sleeping quarters, he gathers up all the bedding and other life necessities into a tub he finds overturned in the corner of the room.
"Why don't we settle him here?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"Because I won't leave him and...I don't like this room," Wei Wuxian replies.
The fact that Jiang Cheng has no response either means he agrees, or he's being...kind. Which isn't outside the realm of possibility, but even Jiang Cheng's kindness tends to come with barbs, even when he doesn't mean them.
The Scholar's Pavilion feels almost warm. Almost familiar. It will be much more comfortable to spend however long he needs to spend here.
Jiang Cheng gently sets Lan Wangji down then turns to Wei Wuxian. "What do you need me to do?"
"Um. I need to clean him up. Can you...if we're stuck here, we'll need to ward and secure this building," Wei Wuxian says.
Jiang Cheng nods. "I'll do that, then go meet the Lans."
As he's walking away, Wei Wuxian calls after him, "Jiang Cheng. Thank you."
Jiang Cheng pauses and waves a dismissive hand over his shoulder and keeps going.
Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath, then collects some water and lights the fire in the corner. Once it's burning nicely, he sets the tea kettle over it. As he waits for the water to boil, he starts going through the supplies he has. He carefully removes Lan Wangji's outer robe, checking the sleeves as he goes. He finds an only slightly rumpled clean set of robes as well as other travel supplies, which will come in useful for what he's about to do.
He empties the hot water from the kettle into the tub and sets the kettle to heat again. It takes many more full kettles to get the bath to a pleasant temperature. If he had spiritual energy, he could heat it in a moment. As he waits for the kettle to boil each time, he uses the bedding to make a bed in the corner, then finds a clean cloth in Lan Wangji's things as well as soap, then kneels beside him.
"Lan Zhan," he murmurs. "We need to get you cleaned up. Can you wake up for me?"
The only response he gets is a small sigh.
"I'm used to you not saying much, but...it's been so long, Lan Zhan. I miss all your expressions and how you listen to me even when I'm speaking utter nonsense," Wei Wuxian says with his own heavy sigh. "I'm going to get you in the bath now, all right?"
He lifts Lan Wangji up and into the tub.
"You've got that asshole's blood in your hair and it's got to come out," Wei Wuxian explains, then uses the kettle as a pitcher to wet Lan Wangji's hair.
"I wanted to do this for you while we were traveling. After," Wei Wuxian confesses softly. "I never imagined it like this, though. When we were younger—before...everything—I might have. I always wanted to impress you. I thought if only I could be gallant and helpful maybe you'd pay attention to me. And then we were all in Qishan and you were actually injured and it was terrible and I realized how stupid that was."
Wei Wuxian delicately removes Lan Wangji's forehead ribbon with a whispered, "sorry, Lan Zhan," then carefully scrubs at the dried blood in his hair until the lather of the soap has turned a ruddy shade, then rinses it out. He's afraid the forehead ribbon might be a lost cause, but he can work on that later.
He takes a breath and lets his forehead rest against Lan Wangji's wet shoulder. "Lan Zhan, I don't know what I'll do if–you can't leave me. I know I'm being selfish and unreasonable. I left you. I shouldn't. I don't have the right to ask you to stay. Please stay, Lan Zhan. Please."
Wei Wuxian dashes a hand over his eyes and gets back to work. He gently scrubs the dirt off of Lan Wangji's hands, out from under his nails, from the places it rubbed into his calluses enough to be difficult to get clean. He doesn't stop until all the dirt is gone.
As he continues, his eyes fall to the brand on Lan Wangji's chest. His hand jerks back as he stops himself from touching. He could. There's no reason why he shouldn't in this particular context, yet somehow that feels like a line he shouldn't cross. "You never told me about this. I have so many questions about...everything. And I never asked. Why didn't I just ask?"
Wei Wuxian forces himself to keep going. He doesn't want the bath going cold around Lan Wangji, that would do him no favors right now. He doesn't let himself linger over anything more, not even the scars lining Lan Wangji's back.
He takes his time combing out Lan Wangji's hair. "You don't remember, but I've done this for you before. I think I did a pretty good job considering we were stuck in a cave and I didn't actually have a comb. But you seemed so lost and off-balance without your forehead ribbon. I had to put it back."
He smiles. "I didn't think I'd ever miss that time.”
Once that's done, he sets about getting an unconscious and wet Lan Wangji out of the tub. It's much harder than getting him into it, but Wei Wuxian perseveres and succeeds without any new injuries to Lan Wangji and only a few bruises to himself.
As he dries Lan Wangji off and dresses him, Wei Wuxian takes a full stock of his injuries. Most of it is bruises. There are a few lacerations on his arms, which could be from the vines. There's nothing that seems like it could be causing this extended unconsciousness. He sighs and settles Lan Zhan on the bed he made near the fire, pulls the blankets up, and folds his hands over his chest.
"What I wouldn't give for you to just be drunk and about to wake up and get us into mischief, giving me chickens, carving your name somewhere like a kid," Wei Wuxian says with a heavy sigh and pushes himself to his feet. He goes and retrieves all the papers and journals from the desk and tables and takes them back to Lan Wangji's bed and sits next to it.
He takes a breath and closes his eyes, trying to center himself so he can focus and get to work. He won't be able to do much for Lan Wangji without a doctor's help, but he can look through everything in this room more thoroughly. If he knows what was done to this garden, to Lan Wangji, he'll at least have an idea of where to start on solving all this.
He sorts through the journals by age and begins reading the oldest one.
Shen Jingyuan of the MolingSu sect discovered an abandoned garden years ago. The place was overgrown, all the signs over the pavilions and courtyards were gone, but otherwise it was well-preserved. He started visiting in his spare time. He took any night hunts that might bring him this direction, any diplomatic missions to sects which would allow him to feasibly stop for a few hours. He found it meditative to gradually restore the garden to its original beauty.
He didn't notice the seed of resentment at first. A place so close to the Yellow Mountain would naturally have some kind of power, and with its original purpose scrubbed away, whatever was left–whatever was nearby–was able to take root and grow.
He didn't know what to do. Every cultivator has experience with resentful energy in beasts and in the dead, but it's far more rare to have a place infected with resentful energy.
There are pages upon pages of him wondering what to do. Should he report it? Such a place would be of great interest to the cultivation world, but he felt protective. Possessive. This was his garden and he did not want to share it.
And then his sect leader asked for a volunteer to study resentful energy more closely. Su Minshan declared there was a possibility they would have access to the Yiling Patriarch's notes in order to learn ways to counter his methods.
Shen Jingyuan volunteered. He almost wished he hadn't when the person who delivered the promised research turned out to be Xue Yang, but apart from several extremely uncomfortable and vaguely terrifying hours, he never saw Xue Yang again.
Using Wei Wuxian's own research, he began harnessing the resentful energy at the center of the garden, encouraging it to spread and grow.
He started with the vines and nearly got caught in his own trap. The frogs were his first experiment with living beings. He was astonished when it actually worked, and even more astonished when the creatures grew to the size they did. He could not play the dizi, but he learned to use his qin to control the resentful energy within his creations.
From there, his experiments grew and he started acquiring corpses.
The first time a normal person stumbled into his garden, Shen Jingyuan was horrified, but despite his horror he did nothing to help. And then, after everything the garden put the hapless wanderer through, they rose as the fiercest corpse Shen Jingyuan had yet managed to create. After that, he started deliberately luring people into the garden.
MolingSu fell, but it meant little to Shen Jingyuan. Why should it when he had his garden?
While Wei Wuxian was aimlessly wandering the countryside, Shen Jingyuan finished creating the room he called the Chamber of Terror.
Naturally, I will record the reactions of all who enter the Chamber. I wish there were a way to know the life stories of each person. Will those who have experienced more fear and loss in their lives react more strongly than those who haven't? Or will those who have led softer lives have a stronger reaction due to their lack of experience? I will do my best to discover these answers, but it may prove difficult.
Wei Wuxian reaches a shaking hand out to lay it over Lan Wangji's chest. He closes his eyes and concentrates on the rise and fall of his chest.
Shen Jingyuan is very, very lucky he's already dead.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly through his nose, then reaches for the stack of notebooks containing Shen Jingyuan's research. If there are any explanations for why Lan Wangji cannot leave this garden, they will be in there.
The first notebooks from years ago contain information barely more complex than what junior disciples learn. It's certainly nothing Wei Wuxian didn't already know even before his first sojourn in the Burial Mounds. Things start getting somewhat more interesting once he receives Wei Wuxian's notes, but it's still several years before the research begins to get less familiar to Wei Wuxian.
As he reads, he realizes that nothing the man did was at all groundbreaking. He worked and experimented until he got results and then moved on. There is nothing new here, merely the logical conclusions to the hypotheses Wei Wuxian scribbled down hastily before he dashed off to the next thing requiring his attention so many years ago.
The admirable work ethic just makes Wei Wuxian hate him more; he meticulously set out to learn how best to create and amplify suffering.
Wei Wuxian grits his teeth and continues reading until he reaches a passage that makes his blood run cold.
The frogs keep escaping, even through wards. The last one almost made it to the village before I managed to catch up with it and kill it. I can't have the damn things be seen by anyone. The nearby sects are hungry for glory and I'd be found out in short order. I need to figure out a way to keep them here. To bind them to the garden so they can't leave.
He keeps reading, wrapping his fingers around Lan Wangji's wrist. Whatever he finds will likely give him the answers he's looking for. He can only hope he'll be able to fix it.
There are records of many experiments, many attempts at binding anything within the walls of the garden to it. None of them worked until Shen Jingyuan made a discovery quite by accident while doing something unrelated.
The garden has a core! Its function is much like a golden core, but rather than a conduit for spiritual energy, it feeds on resentful energy. Spiritual weapons are, in a sense, bound to golden cores. Perhaps I can forge a similar bond between the creatures and the core of the garden.
He does. It's the most brilliant thing Shen Jingyuan accomplished by far. When he finally manages to bind the yin energies of the frogs to the core of the garden, they became more aggressive and grew even larger.
Once he had the basics of the technique down, it became easy for him to make adjustments and transfer it. He did it again and again with creatures, with fierce corpses, even with plants to some success.
There are notes about possible adjustments that would be needed for a living human, but it doesn't get further than that until several pages later.
Hanguang-jun was easier to bind to the garden than I expected he would be. Perhaps it has to do with whatever the Chamber of Fear showed him. When he wakes, I will ask him.
Wei Wuxian clenches his jaw and finds the pulse in Lan Wangji's wrist, feels the thump, thump, thump against his fingers for several long moments, before loosening his hold again.
It's been several hours and Hanguang-jun is not yet awake, though he should be. I can't figure out why, but there is no time for that now. Someone on a sword has just landed outside.
Wei Wuxian reads over the notes regarding the binding several more times, then closes the book and tosses it away.
"You're fighting, aren't you?" he asks Lan Wangji softly and presses his forehead against his shoulder. "You're fighting and that's why you can't wake up."
He takes a slow breath and lets it out before sitting up again. He lets himself look at Lan Wangji's face for a few short moments, lets his eyes trace the contours of the beloved face he's missed more than anything, and then he gets back to work.
First, Wei Wuxian sorts out the contents of the room. He moves everything he thinks might be useful to the writing desk and the table closest to it. There are, of course, all the research notes, writing materials, and a fair amount of talisman paper. He finds a chest containing a respectable amount of medicinal ingredients.
In the pavilion Shen Jingyuan used as his living quarters, Wei Wuxian finds his food stores as well as a jar of rice wine and discovers that he's actually very hungry. He takes the food back to the Scholar's Study and settles down next to Lan Wangji to eat. He doesn't drink the wine, despite being very tempted by it.
"Have I mentioned that I really hate that you're asleep?" Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji. "I'm used to you being quiet during meals, but this sucks."
Lan Wangji doesn't answer.
When he's done eating, he goes back to the writing desk and starts making his own notes. He's still writing when he feels a shift in the magic around the garden.
Wei Wuxian stands and steps outside to wait with his hand on Chenqing just in case. He's relieved to hear Jiang Cheng's voice as well as other voices answering him. He's even more relieved when it comes directly toward him and they don't have to go through the whole terrible garden to reach him.
Jiang Cheng and the Lan doctor appear first, then Jin Ling, but Wei Wuxian fixes his gaze on Lan Sizhui bringing up the rear. He is looking around the garden with wide, fearful eyes.
"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says and Sizhui's eyes snap to his. "Come here."
"Wei-qianbei," he says. "You found him."
"I said I would, didn't I?" Wei Wuxian asks and tugs Sizhui into his arms. "And now that you and Lan-daifu are here, we can set him to rights and go home."
"What's wrong with him?" Sizhui asks. Wei Wuxian shifts his arm around Sizhui's shoulder and they walk toward the door to the Scholar's Study.
"Right now, he's unconscious," Wei Wuxian replies and turns to put both hands on Sizhui's shoulders. "A-Yuan, he looks injured and sickly and not much like your Hanguang-jun."
Sizhui nods. "I understand."
Wei Wuxian squeezes his shoulders, then turns and leads him inside. He's not surprised when he hears a small gasp from Sizhui despite the warning. He doubts Sizhui has ever seen Lan Wangji looking any worse than a little tired. Even after the fight at the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji had somehow managed to come out of it with hardly a stain on his white robes.
"He's going to be fine," Wei Wuxian declares with a confidence he almost feels.
"He looks better than he did when I left," Jiang Cheng says.
Wei Wuxian's eyes snap to him and Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow at him. "Do you really think so?" he asks softly.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "I wouldn't have said if I didn't. And it's not just that you cleaned him up."
Wei Wuxian nods, then turns to the other man standing, waiting. "Lan-daifu," he says and bows. "I apologize for not greeting you immediately, but..." he nods his head toward Sizhui who sinks down next to Lan Wangji and with a gesture, his qin appears in front of him and he begins to pluck a quiet, soothing tune that contains no spiritual energy.
Lan-daifu smiles. "No need for apologies. Please, tell me everything."
Wei Wuxian does, including everything he found in Shen Jingyuan's notebooks. "I've been working on the method to sever the bond, and from everything I can tell that will allow him to regain consciousness, but while I understand resentful energy intimately, I can't profess to be a doctor."
"I will examine him, but I expect I'll find you are entirely correct," Lan-daifu says and moves toward Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian steps over to stand next to Jiang Cheng as the doctor moves to examine Lan Wangji.
"So," Jiang Cheng says. "The kid."
Wei Wuxian's entire body goes still. "What about him?" he asks.
"You're very attentive with him," Jiang Cheng observes. "You didn't even look at anyone else when we arrived."
"Lan Zhan raised him," Wei Wuxian says. "Of course I didn't want him to be surprised by seeing him like this."
"Wei Wuxian." For once, Jiang Cheng doesn't spit the syllables of his name like he can't get them out of his mouth fast enough. He sounds tired. "I'm not a fucking idiot. I can add two and two together and come up to four. A-Ling says he spends a lot of time with the Gho—Wen Ning. You call him A-Yuan. He was the boy with you at the Burial Mounds."
The air leaves Wei Wuxian's lungs abruptly and he breathes in anger. "Yes. He is. And if you'd had your way, he'd be dead right now."
"If I had my way, you'd be dead now too, so I guess we're lucky I don't get my way, then, aren't we?" Jiang Cheng says acidly.
And just like that, the anger leeches away.
Before he can voice a response, Jin Ling cuts in. "I thought you were done arguing about the past. Let's figure out how to help Hanguang-jun so we can leave. This place is creepy."
Wei Wuxian huffs out a laugh. "You're telling me."
The doctor murmurs something to Sizhui, and the tune changes to Cleansing. He only plays for a few moments when a strange, low noise reverberates through the air. A beat later, Lan Wangji moans as well.
"Stop playing, Sizhui," Wei Wuxian says. Sizhui lifts his hands off the strings immediately, looking distraught. Wei Wuxian moves back over and squeezes his shoulder. "The garden seems to be fighting it."
Lan-daifu sighs deeply, looking troubled. "I was hoping we could ease his spirit. Wei-gongzi, I believe your assessment was correct. There is little I can do at this point if Cleansing is not an option. The bond with the garden will need to be severed before there will be positive improvement."
"Then I had best get to work on that," Wei Wuxian says.
"Wei-qianbei, I want to help," Sizhui murmurs.
"Of course. I'll need everyone including Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng." Wei Wuxian gestures for them to come closer. "There is a core in this garden. It's similar to a golden core or a beast core in many ways and it channels resentful energy into the whole garden. The first thing we need to do is find it."
Jin Ling frowns in thought. "Shouldn't that be easy? Wouldn't be in the place with the worst feng shui since it's resentful energy?"
Wei Wuxian smiles. "A good guess. Jiang Cheng, would you say this garden is abnormal?"
Jiang Cheng gives him a look.
"I mean, obviously abnormal things are happening in it," Wei Wuxian says. "But the garden itself. The construction of the place, the layout, all the things that make it a garden."
Understanding dawns in Jiang Cheng's eyes. "On the surface, it's a normal garden. Everything abnormal is a corruption of its original purpose."
Wei Wuxian turns his eyes back to Jin Ling. "Therefore…"
"The core would be in the place with the best feng shui because if that were corrupted, the effects would spread to the whole garden," Jing Ling says eagerly.
"That's right," Wei Wuxian says with a smile and reaches over to pat Jin Ling on the shoulder. "And since this is a garden with a place of power like the Yellow Mountain in the distance, I think our best bet is to find the place in the garden which highlights it specifically."
"What are you expecting to happen when we do find it?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"Nothing good," Wei Wuxian replies, then continues when both Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng glare at him. "Okay, okay. Probably a lot of what we've already seen. Corrupted creatures, maybe some fierce corpses if there are any left, ice, plants, but without our gardener friend controlling it, things will be unpredictable. Everything seemed to be contained to each individual section of the garden, but who knows what might happen if it feels threatened. I will start working on severing the bond between Lan Zhan and the core once we find it, but I'll need you three to make sure I can work."
The boys nod seriously. Jiang Cheng meets his eye and nods.
Wei Wuxian swallows hard and takes a breath. "Lan-daifu, if anything changes with Lan Zhan…"
"I will make sure you know," the doctor responds.
"Okay," Wei Wuxian says and finally lets himself look back at Lan Wangji. He looks just as still as he did before. Lan Wangji can be still in ways Wei Wuxian could never dream of, and maybe this isn't actually any different visually, but he knows it is, and that changes everything.
"Come on, Wei Wuxian," Jiang Cheng snaps. Wei Wuxian squares his shoulders and strides out the door.
"I'll be very surprised if it's not the pavilion in the middle of the lake," he says and walks in that direction. "It seems to be the center of the garden and designed to have interesting views out each side."
The pavilion is tacky beneath his boots and it takes Wei Wuxian a moment to realize why, but then he takes in the blood and viscera drying on the planks and rails of the pavilion. "Ah. Right. Let's be quick. Each of you at one of the sides. Look out and tell me what you see."
"Wei-qianbei," Sizhui says before Wei Wuxian can even step over to his own side. "It's here."
Wei Wuxian changes directions and moves to stand next to Sizhui. He looks across the water and there, perfectly framed by the foliage and walls designed just so, is the Yellow Mountain rising above the garden.
"Okay, it won't be far from here," Wei Wuxian says. "Sizhui, why don't you and Jiang Cheng go to the opposite shore. We'll play it a song and see if we can triangulate the location. Jin Ling, stay with me. I'll need you to watch my back if anything comes up while Sizhui and I are playing."
"Be careful," Jiang Cheng says gruffly, and then he strides down the planks with Sizhui trailing behind him.
Jin Ling pulls Suihua from its sheath and stands at the ready, and for a moment Jin Ling is the spitting image of his father: haughty, but determined to protect the person he's been charged to protect. Wei Wuxian can't help but laugh a little.
"What's funny?" Jin Ling demands.
Wei Wuxian smiles. "You reminded me of your dad just now."
Jin Ling's eyes go wide and his expression impossibly eager. "I did?"
Wei Wuxian remembers the feeling of grasping tightly to even the tiniest scrap of information about his parents. It's never really faded, if he's honest. Before he can answer, Jiang Cheng's voice sounds across the water to let them know they're in position. "You did. I promise to tell you more about him soon. And your mother."
Jin Ling nods, eyes shining and eager. Wei Wuxian turns to look over the water at Sizhui.
"Follow my lead," he calls. "I'm going to be making this up as we go, so we'll play together for a while, then you'll keep playing the melody as I move into the harmony."
Sizhui nods his acknowledgement. Wei Wuxian brings Chenqing to his lips and begins to play and Sizhui joins him, following along almost as well as Lan Zhan. As they play through the melody, Wei Wuxian can feel it begin to resonate with the ambient energies in the air between them. They play the melody through twice, and Sizhui doesn't falter the slightest bit when Wei Wuxian shifts to the harmony.
As the melody and harmony intertwine, the new notes pull some of the energies to them and the tension starts to build. Wei Wuxian starts weaving in dissonance, pulling tighter and harder, and then he finds the thread of pure resentful energy and plays a series of trills until it almost feels like he and Sizhui are playing tug of war.
Suddenly, the tension snaps. Out of the water rises a fist-sized globe of deepest black with smoky streams of resentful energy whirling around it.
"Is that all?" Jin Ling asks. "That was pretty easy."
"Jin Ling!" he and Jiang Cheng both yell.
"What?" Jin Ling asks petulantly.
"That's the surest way to guarantee something won't stay easy, A-Ling," Wei Wuxian says with a sigh.
"Sizhui, start playing again," Wei Wuxian calls. "Don't stop or change the song until I tell you, all right? No matter what happens."
He can see the troubled frown on Sizhui's face from three zhang away, but Wei Wuxian knows he won't falter.
Wei Wuxian focuses on the core, still spinning slowly in the air, and starts playing. This time, he begins with dissonance. The core pulses and writhes. Over the sound of Sizhui's qin and Wei Wuxian's dizi, the sound of leaves rustling against one another fills the air.
He hears Jiang Cheng shout, but doesn't take his eyes off the core.
His song becomes a command. Let go of him.
The garden answers with a howl.
Wei Wuxian repeats the command over and over.
Beside him, Jin Ling starts swinging Suihua at tendrils of resentful energy rushing through the air. Wei Wuxian keeps playing.
He glances away from the core for a moment to see Jiang Cheng keeping grasping vines at bay and away from Sizhui as he plays with Sandu while simultaneously striking the surface of the water with Zidian.
Wei Wuxian doesn't need to look down at the water to know there are probably large and alarming things floating in it. He puts his focus back on the core and changes his tune slightly. He softens the command to a polite request, brings himself back into harmony with Sizhui.
It does no good. In fact, it seems to only make the garden angrier.
And then he hears Lan-daifu shout from the direction of the Scholar's Pavilion. "Wei-gongzi!"
Lan Wangji is walking down the planks toward them with purpose, Bichen in hand.
It does not appear as if he's coming to help them.
"Lan Zhan!" he calls. "Lan Zhan, please. I need you to fight it just a little bit longer. I almost have this figured out."
Lan Wangji comes to a stop. He stands frozen in place for a long moment. He takes a step forward, but it's slow and labored. In his hand, Bichen jerks as he lowers his arm.
He's fighting so hard, and Wei Wuxian loves him so much he could drown in it.
The core pulses and the rage of the garden fills the air. Wei Wuxian turns back to it and starts playing again. It would be so easy to play a few more notes and tear it apart, but he can see, now, the tendril of energy linking the core and Lan Wangji. He has no idea what destroying the core or severing that line of energy with no other anchor could do and he may be willing to risk many things, but not Lan Wangji. Never, ever Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji who—though his progress is slow and he's fighting against every step—is still coming down the walkway toward Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling.
"A-Ling, go to Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian orders.
Jin Ling scowls, but flies over to the shore with Suihua.
Wei Wuxian looks between the core and Lan Wangji and makes a decision. He changes his song once again to one he knows better than his own heart, to one he knows will soothe and invite.
If Lan Wangji is tied to the garden, the garden is also tied to Lan Wangji.
The core calms and drifts closer. When it's close enough, Wei Wuxian reaches out and it settles gently into his hand. It feels simultaneously freezing and burning, it feels like Burial Mounds distilled into a ball of energy the size of his fist. It feels like home.
"Wei Wuxian, what the fuck are you doing?" Jiang Cheng yells as Sizhui shouts, "Wei-qianbei!"
Wei Wuxian keeps whistling as he tucks Chenqing into his belt and with his now-free hand, he traces his fingers down the line of resentful energy connected to Lan Wangji and finds the end. He unwinds it from the core and lets the resentful energy that has never fully left him since the moment he fell into the Burial Mounds reach out and grab onto it. He waits until he knows it's secure, until he knows Lan Wangji is no longer connected to the garden, but to himself.
He takes a deep breath and crushes the remaining core in his fist. Shrieking rage fills every single one of his senses and then there's silence.
"Okay! That...went pretty well, I think?" He sways on his feet and looks over to see Lan Wangji blinking, his eyes widening as he takes in what's in front of him. "Yeah, it went okay."
The last thing he hears before he passes out is Lan Zhan's beloved voice calling his name.
Wei Wuxian wakes slowly. The first thing he becomes aware of is warmth. He's so warm and comfortable he doesn't want to move in case, with movement, he might start to feel every ache and pain once again. So he drifts, content to relish the warmth and comfort for as long as he can.
He's not certain how much time passes, but he rises to awareness again when he feels a hand stroke through his hair once, twice. The hand stops and he frowns.
"Don't stop." The hand starts moving again and a wave of contentment rolls over him. He smiles happily and pushes his head against the hand in his hair.
Amusement. Love, love, love. More love than he could possibly hold in his body. The hand keeps stroking.
Wei Wuxian breathes in slowly, then out again, and finally opens his eyes. It seems like he's in a room in an inn, but he has no memory of arriving here. He's not worried, though. There's nothing to be worried about anymore.
It takes another moment for the oddness of that thought, of his situation, to strike him. It takes a moment more for him to remember the last time he was awake, and then his heart is suddenly in his throat. He sits up and the hand in his hair falls to his shoulder.
"We are safe, Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says softly. Wei Wuxian's head whips around and he meets his eyes. He's pale and he still looks tired, but he's awake and whole. The only thing Wei Wuxian can do is pitch forward and press his face to Lan Wangji's shoulder.
"Lan Zhan," he breathes. "Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji's arms wrap around his waist. "I am here."
"You're all right?" he whispers.
"My spiritual energy is low, but will replenish with more rest and meditation," Lan Wangji replies. "I am otherwise fine."
Wei Wuxian knows it's the truth. He can feel it.
"Really?" he asks, ignoring the feeling. "Really, really? Would Lan-daifu agree?"
He's flooded with a feeling of absolute fondness. Lan Wangji brushes the hair back out of Wei Wuxian's face and behind his ear. "I am fine."
They are so close. Closer than they've ever been without something more urgent there to pull them apart again. Wei Wuxian leans forward to press his forehead to Lan Wangji's. He can feel the metal cloud ornament against his skin. He closes his eyes.
"Good," he breathes. "That's good."
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. His voice is soft and full of so many things, but Wei Wuxian doesn't have to guess what they are. He can feel the gratitude, the joy, the undercurrents of sadness and longing, the relief of being together once again, the love.
"Can you feel me too?" he whispers, overwhelmed.
"Yes," Lan Wangji replies.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to force you to—"
Lan Wangji presses two fingers to his lips. "Wei Ying. It is not a burden. Your feelings are not a burden."
Wei Wuxian swallows hard and lets out a slow breath. "I...did Lan-daifu say anything about...this?"
"Now that you are awake, he will want to examine us again," Lan Wangji says.
Neither of them move.
A knock sounds on the door.
"Go away, we're busy," Wei Wuxian yells before Lan Wangji can even open his mouth.
"Is that you, Wei-qianbei? Is...are you all right?" Sizhui asks. His voice is small and Wei Wuxian remembers he's spent the better part of the last thirty-six hours fearing he'd lost the man who raised him.
Wei Wuxian sighs and pulls away. Lan Wangji is looking at him with his tiny, soft smile. The one that snatches Wei Wuxian's breath from his lungs and makes him feel weak during normal times. Now, he can feel what's behind that expression. Now he knows Lan Wangji is so full of love it feels like it might spill over and cover all the world. Now he knows that beside the love is desire, hope, and trust.
"Lan Zhan, you can't look at me like that when our son is right outside the door and you're about to invite him in," he says, only half joking.
Amusement not his own floods him as Lan Wangji calls, "Come in, Sizhui."
Sizhui slips into the room and the look of relief on his face is more than enough to banish all regret at the interruption from Wei Wuxian.
"Come here, A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says and holds out an arm toward him.
Sizhui crosses the room and throws his arms around Wei Wuxian's neck. "I'm so glad you're all right."
"Silly boy. I wouldn't leave you and Hanguang-jun now," Wei Wuxian says into his temple. "Especially not due to the actions of a second-rate demonic cultivator with delusions of grandeur."
"So you'd be fine with...leaving due to the actions of a first-rate demonic cultivator with delusions of grandeur?" Jin Ling asks from the doorway.
"I already did that," Wei Wuxian says. "It didn't stick."
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji admonishes softly.
Wei Wuxian lifts his head and meets his eyes. The emotions he sees there and feels over the bond are a jumble of many things. There's some amusement, but it's tempered by how little Lan Wangji is prepared to hear Wei Wuxian joke about his death.
"I'm here," Wei Wuxian tells him. "And I'm not going anywhere."
Wei Wuxian can tell that Lan Wangji understands his full meaning, understands that Wei Wuxian doesn't only mean that he doesn't intend to die again, when his lips part slightly and his eyes widen. Wei Wuxian smiles at him over Sizhui's head for a long moment, then turns to Jin Ling.
"Anyway, A-Ling, are you here to check on me as well?" he asks.
Jin Ling looks to the side. "Jiujiu is getting impatient."
The emotion that floods Lan Wangji at the mention of Jiang Cheng is immediate, burning hatred. It's so abrupt and so strong, all Wei Wuxian can do is laugh.
"Wow, okay," he says when he manages to quit laughing. "I'll just go talk to him, then."
When he moves to get up, Lan Wangji's hand wraps around his wrist. "I will join you."
"Lan Zhan, you don't have to," Wei Wuxian tells him. "You can stay here and meditate and get your spiritual energy back." Jiang Cheng can be a lot to deal with at the best of times and this isn't the best of times.
He's flooded with stubborn defiance nearly as strong as the hatred.
"I will join you," Lan Wangji insists.
Wei Wuxian doesn't actually want to let him out of his sight, so he doesn't argue further. He feels an echo of the same feeling coming from Lan Wangji.
He pushes himself to his feet, but even using Sizhui's shoulder to steady himself he still feels distinctly woozy.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji admonishes and tugs Wei Wuxian back down onto the bed. "Perhaps Jiang Wanyin should come here."
His tone is even, almost indifferent, but Wei Wuxian can feel how little he actually wants that to happen.
"Just give me a minute and I'll be fine," Wei Wuxian says.
"I would prefer it if you stayed and let Jiang Wanyin come to you," Lan Wangji tells him.
Wei Wuxian can feel the truth of that right alongside Lan Wangji's reluctance.
"All right," he agrees. "A-Ling, will you please go fetch your jiujiu?"
Jin Ling mutters something about being a sect leader as he goes out the door, but he doesn't argue.
Wei Wuxian grins. "I think he's going to wind up a fine young man. Despite everything."
"Mn," Lan Wangji hums. Wei Wuxian is gratified to feel that he agrees. "He has been diligent in carrying out his duties and seeking guidance from others."
"That's right, you were supposed to meet with him," Wei Wuxian says.
"I suspect his willingness to meet with me has more to do with others he will likely find when he visits the Cloud Recesses, but I have done my best to guide him," Lan Wangji says. He had wanted to do the right thing, but he also knew it would make Wei Wuxian happy.
"Lan Zhan," he breathes, as both Jiang Cheng and Lan-daifu come in the room. Jiang Cheng strides over and stands a few feet from the bed with his arms crossed over his chest. He feels a wave of deep irritation from Lan Wangji. His face is remarkably impassive as he stands and bows properly to Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian laughs.
"I thought you were impatient to leave," Wei Wuxian says.
"I don't trust you to tell the truth about how you are," Jiang Cheng says.
There's a flash of amusement from Lan Wangji, and then a feeling of even more intense irritation at having found anything Jiang Cheng might say amusing.
Wei Wuxian laughs, he can't help it. "I'm fine. We're fine. But if it makes you feel better, I will submit to Lan-daifu's examination."
Lan-daifu sends a significant glance toward Lan Wangji, then lifts an eyebrow in Wei Wuxian's direction. "Somehow, I expect you would anyway. How have you felt since waking?"
"Fine," Wei Wuxian replies and feels a wave of what he can only describe as scolding from Lan Wangji. He makes a face at him, then admits, "A bit woozy when I stood up a few minutes ago."
Lan-daifu picks up his wrist and feels his pulse, then follows through the rest of the motions for a standard physical examination.
"And the effects of your stunt earlier?" Lan-daifu asks.
"Is it a stunt if it works?" Wei Wuxian asks.
"Yes," three voices reply in unison. Sizhui nods at him apologetically. Jin Ling huffs and rolls his eyes.
"Okay, fine," Wei Wuxian says, pouting. "Maybe it was a stunt. It still worked."
The doctor gives him a long look.
Wei Wuxian sighs. He almost wishes they could keep this only for themselves, but if there's any chance it could harm Lan Wangji, the doctor should know. "We, uh...I can feel his emotions and he can feel mine. No specific thoughts. Just feelings."
There's a rush of affection between them and Wei Wuxian can't help but look over at Lan Wangji. He swallows and doesn't even try to contain the smile that crosses his face.
"I can see it's not a problem for you," Lan-daifu says dryly.
"Not, um, as such," Wei Wuxian says and forces himself to turn back to the doctor. "It's fine. I think it will fade over time unless we deliberately try to extend it. The bond between the garden and everything in it needed maintenance."
Lan-daifu feels out the shape of the bond for himself, head cocked to the side. "I believe I agree with your assessment, Wei-gongzi."
"I should have expected something like this since the bond with the garden went two ways as well," Wei Wuxian says, rubbing his nose.
"How did you determine that?" Lan-daifu asks curiously as he feels out the shape of the bond for himself.
"It was a hunch at first, but then...I played it a song I knew Lan Zhan would, um. Find soothing? And that's when the core let me take hold of it," Wei Wuxian explains.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, voice soft.
"You still owe me a name for that song, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "Don't think I've forgotten."
"For fuck's sake," Jiang Cheng bursts out. "I can't believe—you two were already fucking insufferable. I didn't actually think it could get worse. I'm leaving."
Lan Wangji's hatred of Jiang Cheng flares in an instant, but Wei Wuxian ignores it and pushes himself up to his feet. "Jiang Cheng," he says. If he lets the excuse of being woozy propel him toward his shidi and catches himself with his hands on Jiang Cheng's shoulders, that's his business. And, he supposes, Lan Wangji's.
"Jiang Cheng," he repeats. "Thank you. Without you...Lan Zhan would still be in that garden and I'd—it doesn't matter. Just. Thank you."
Jiang Cheng huffs, but the furrow between his brows relaxes a bit. "Whatever. You could try coming to Lotus Pier sometime when there's not a fucking crisis, you know. Bring your…his excellency if you want. I don't care."
"I will," Wei Wuxian promises and swallows hard. He feels something like resignation coming from Lan Wangji and laughs a little bit. "We will."
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, and for a moment he's transported to a time when everything was less complicated, when their worries felt so big but were in actuality so much smaller.
"I've got a sect to run," Jiang Cheng says gruffly, then looks over Wei Wuxian's shoulder at Lan Wangji. "Don't let him use his fucking transportation talisman again until he's actually tested it more."
Lan Wangji's whole mind sharpens into a single point.
"Jiang Cheng!" Wei Wuxian hisses.
"Thank you for the information, Jiang-zongzhu," Lan Wangji says. "And for the role you played in my rescue."
"I wasn't about to let this fool go haring off by himself," Jiang Cheng says.
Lan Wangji seems torn between gratitude and irritation, and then settles on the more familiar of the two when it comes to Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian does not laugh, but it's close. He squeezes Jiang Cheng's shoulders and steps back. He feels somewhat betrayed by his body when he sways in place, but then Lan Wangji steps close and wraps a supportive arm around him. That's...fine. More than fine. Maybe he should get woozy more often.
"If you fly over a large concentration of resentful energy, maybe don't stop," Wei Wuxian says.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and turns away from them. "A-Ling, you also have a sect to run."
Jin Ling huffs.
"I'm just going to arrange a new meeting with Hanguang-Jun and then I'll go," he says, only a little bit petulant.
Jiang Cheng waves a hand over his shoulder and then he's gone.
Wei Wuxian is relatively certain Lan Wangji's relief would be palpable to him even if he couldn't feel his emotions. He laughs and lets himself be led over to the bed. They sit down again and Wei Wuxian is annoyed to find he's relieved to be off his feet.
"Jin-zongzhu," Lan Wangji says when they're settled. "Though you are always welcome in the Cloud Recesses, I am uncertain what our timeline for return shall be."
Wei Wuxian feels a small thrill go through him at being a we again. Wherever else he might go in this life, the place he belongs is at Lan Wangji's side.
He feels an answering contentment roll over him like a wave as Lan Wangji takes his hand somewhere beneath those expansive sleeves.
"You could, um. Send for me when you get back?" Jin Ling suggests. "I have no pressing engagements that would prevent me from making the journey to Gusu."
Wei Wuxian has never had to fight so hard to keep a straight face in his life. Jin Ling is trying so hard to be serious and behave as a sect leader should; Wei Wuxian won't make fun of him for it, at least not now, but oh it's difficult.
You would be so proud of him, shijie, Wei Wuxian thinks.
Lan Wangji's hand tightens in his and Wei Wuxian squeezes back. Her absence will always feel like a hole in his heart, he thinks.
"You better be there," Jin Ling says, turning to Wei Wuxian, respectful tone completely gone. "You promised you'd tell me about...about my parents."
"I will be, A-Ling," Wei Wuxian says, finally letting himself smile. There's a note of dissatisfaction from Lan Wangji for the rude tone, but he doesn't say anything to Jin Ling.
"Well, okay. Good, then," Jin Ling says, then flushes and turns back to Lan Wangji and bows properly to him. "I will look forward to your summons, Hanguang-jun."
"Wait, A-Ling, you have people here, right? You didn't leave all your retainers in Gusu, did you?" Wei Wuxian asks. "You're a sect leader, you shouldn't travel alone back to Lanling."
"Ugh, you sound like jiujiu," Jin Ling grouses, straightening out of his bow.
Wei Wuxian has absolutely no idea how to respond to that, but he thinks he might be pleased. Instead of saying anything, he raises an eyebrow at Jin Ling.
"Yes, I have people here," Jin Ling responds with a dramatic sigh, then looks a little shifty, glancing over at A-Yuan.. "But if you wanted to send Sizhui with me, I wouldn't argue."
"If Sizhui would like to join you, he may," Lan Wangji says.
Sizhui looks between them, then settles on Wei Wuxian. "You're really coming back to the Cloud Recesses?"
"I'm really coming back to the Cloud Recesses," Wei Wuxian confirms.
Sizhui's smile is only matched by the contentment he feels from Lan Wangji.
"Then, if you'll be there, I think I'd like to go with Jin Ling," Sizhui says.
Jin Ling grins wide. Wei Wuxian wouldn't have even thought to hope for it back then, but he is so happy they're friends.
"Keep each other out of the bad kind of trouble and get each other into all the other kinds," Wei Wuxian tells them.
Sizhui laughs, then surges forward to wrap one arm around Wei Wuxian and the other around Lan Wangji. "I'm really happy you two are...I'm really happy."
Wei Wuxian leans his head against Sizhui's and reaches up to hug him back and closes his eyes at the burning he feels in them.
Lan Wangji is warm at his side and in his mind. Wei Wuxian feels as if his entire being is lit up with happiness.
Jin Ling coughs and Sizhui pulls back, smiling the same sweet smile he used to give Wei Wuxian all those years ago. His chest feels tight as it does every time he thinks even a little bit about that small, precious little boy who brought so much light into a dark place. As it does every time he thinks about how the young man in front of him is that same precious boy.
"Such a good child you raised, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says and leans fully into his side.
"I merely finished the work started by others," Lan Wangji says as Sizhui flushes.
It's so much more than that, but before Wei Wuxian can say anything, Sizhui bows.
"We'll be going now," he says. "I'll see you at home."
"See you at home, A-Yuan, A-Ling," Wei Wuxian says.
Jin Ling nods sharply, Sizhui smiles, and then they're gone, leaving only Lan-daifu.
''I don't know that either of you are trustworthy regarding your own health individually, but I have the feeling that together, you'll manage to take care of one other rather well," he says.
"Hanguang-jun has always done his best to take care of me," Wei Wuxian says. "I know I don't make it particularly easy for him. I haven't had many opportunities to return the favor, but rest assured, I will now."
Lan-daifu laughs. "As I expected. Then, with the strong advice that you stay in this inn for at least the night and travel easy tomorrow, I shall make my way back to the Cloud Recesses. In the unlikely event that the bond does not behave as expected, please do return right away."
"We will," Lan Wangji promises.
"Then I, too, will see you at home," Lan-daifu says and then he leaves the room, pulling the door shut behind himself.
They're alone with no danger of anyone interrupting them or needing them for anything, and Wei Wuxian is suddenly overwhelmed with the possibilities.
Since Mo Xuanyu called him back to the land of the living, Wei Wuxian has been alone with Lan Wangji countless times, has shared rooms in inns with him in towns all across the country. Being alone with him now has a weight to it that feels foreign and unknown.
He feels lips at his temple and Lan Wangji's hand closes around his.
"Is it really so different?" Lan Wangji asks, voice barely above a whisper, against his hair.
"I...yes," Wei Wuxian replies.
Lan Wangji hums, an inquisitive little uptick at the end which he feels in his mind as well as hears. Why?
"Because...for the first time...I know I can have everything I want," Wei Wuxian replies. It's a paradigm shift. It changes everything. He feels dizzy with it. Or perhaps that's the after-effects of passing out earlier.
He has tried very hard throughout his life to stop himself from wanting. Even when it felt as if the future could only be bright and full of glory, there were still obligations he knew he would not—could not—turn away from. Even those all-too-brief days when he and Lan Wangji travelled together, when they met Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan for the first time, when he could see a path in front of him that looked much like theirs with Lan Wangji at his side, even then he knew that path would not be permanently open to him. Maybe they could snatch a few weeks every year. That would have to be enough.
Everything went to hell fast after that. Lotus Pier fell. Jiang Cheng's golden core was melted away. Wen Chao threw Wen Wuxian into the burial mounds and he didn't die.
After that, there was no point in wanting. He could have nothing. Time was rapidly running out even on his obligations. If he had not taken the Wens to the Burial Mounds, he could not have bluffed his way through life as YunmengJiang's head disciple for much longer.
And then he died.
There is no wanting in death.
He doesn't remember being dead, he barely remembers the days leading up to his death, apart from a few crystal-clear moments. Wherever he was, whether he was floating in nothingness or he was in the underworld and drank Meng Po's soup on the Bridge of Forgetfulness before waking up again, that time softened some of his wants, blunted their edges and made them easier to live with.
Others...others grew stronger, as if to step into the place of the old wants.
He did not leave Lan Wangji's side five months ago because he wanted to leave. He did not leave because he felt he would wear out his welcome, though he wasn't at all sure he wouldn't. Wei Wuxian left because his selfish desire for more than Lan Wangji had already given him was growing overwhelming. He left because he knew that the longer he stayed, the more he would want and wanting only ever led to disappointment for him.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says and uses two fingers to turn Wei Wuxian's head so their eyes meet. "What are you thinking that's making you feel like this?"
Wei Ying smiles. "Ah, Lan Zhan. In my life, wanting things has never ended well for me. I don't...this feels too good to be true."
"I am yours and you are mine," Lan Wangji says. "That is true. It has always been true. Now, we have nothing standing in our way."
"Not even ourselves," Wei Wuxian says and lets out a humorless laugh. "Not even me."
Lan Wangji lifts his hand and cups Wei Wuxian's cheek.
"You say that as if I did not also stand in our way at various points," he says gently.
Wei Wuxian smiles and leans into Lan Wangji's hand. "Lan Zhan. I keep leaving you."
"And I keep letting you go," Lan Wangji returns.
He feels a mirror of his own regret from Lan Wangji and squeezes his eyes shut in a vain attempt to stop the tears from spilling over.
"I don't want to leave you anymore, Lan Zhan," he whispers. "Wherever you are, that's where I want to be. That's where I belong."
He's implied as much in the time since he woke up, but hearing him say it directly causes such a surge of joy in Lan Wangji that it makes Wei Wuxian gasp.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji breathes out. His other hand slides up Wei Wuxian's jaw until his thumb presses gently against his lips. "Please."
He opens his eyes to meet Lan Wangji's. "I'm yours," he says, lips moving against Lan Wangji's thumb. "And you're mine. And I need you to kiss me now, Lan Zhan. I've needed you to kiss me since—"
Lan Wangji's lips meet his. It's soft. Just a dry press of Lan Wangji's perfect mouth against Wei Wuxian's. It's overwhelming, it's twenty years of feeling and wishing and loving reaching a crescendo and he feels it through his entire body.
If Wei Wuxian is overwhelmed, Lan Wangji is undone.
Wei Wuxian can feel the moment he starts trembling. Through the bond, there are so many emotions that flow so deep he knows he couldn't parse or catalogue them all if he tried.
"Lan Zhan, my darling, my love," he says, and his eyes burn as Lan Wangji pulls back and presses his forehead against his shoulder. Wei Wuxian wraps one hand around the back of his neck and the other around his waist.
"You were gone," Lan Wangji says, voice hoarse.
Wei Wuxian's heart shatters. "I left you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji shudders against him. He doesn't make a sound, but he doesn't need to for Wei Wuxian to know that years of grief have shaken loose. He closes his eyes and swallows hard.
"I won't leave you again," he whispers into Lan Wangji's ear. "Never again, I swear it. I love you. I need you so much. Every day. You're going to get so sick of me—" there's a vigorous head-shake against his shoulder and in his mind. Wei Wuxian laughs and kisses his temple. "Ah, Lan Zhan. You will. I'll splatter your good ink all over the Jingshi when I get distracted and fling the brush around, and drop talisman papers everywhere and then never pick them up. I'll spill the wine you bring me and leave my sash hanging in a new place every night and never in the place it should go."
"All of it will be proof you came back to me," Lan Wangji says and finally lifts his head again. "Even if I am annoyed, I will not be sick of you; I will not stop loving you. You died and I did not stop loving you. Splattered ink is nothing."
His eyes are red-rimmed and a little bit wet, but his expression is so tender, the emotions Wei Wuxian feels from him so full of overwhelming love, of devotion, that Wei Wuxian can't help the tears that well up, can't help when they spill over.
He's known since practically the moment he woke up in the inn. He's felt Lan Wangji's love for him in the background even in the moments he was annoyed with Jiang Cheng. He didn't expect hearing it now would affect him so much.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, reaches up to cup Wei Wuxian's cheeks again "Love you," he breathes as he leans in to press a kiss to his forehead. "Need you," he says and kisses his cheek. "Every day."
Their lips touch once more. This time, Wei Wuxian wraps his arms around Lan Wangji's neck and sinks into it as Lan Wangji's arms slide around his waist. It's a little clumsy. He's not practiced at this. It occurs to him that he has no idea if Lan Wangji is or not, but in the end, all that matters is the two of them now. As with everything they do together, be it fighting battles together with ease and grace or playing music with one another, he knows they'll improve until they perfect it.
They kiss and kiss. Wei Wuxian experiments, he catalogues everything he feels from Lan Wangji, how he likes the feeling of Wei Wuixan's tongue against his, how a small scrape of teeth over his bottom lip makes his desire flare and makes him gasp. They kiss until their bodies start to remind them they need food and rest.
When they finally pull apart, Lan Wangji's lips are red and a little swollen and his expression is impassive, but Wei Wuxian can feel how grumpy he is about the need to stop. It's adorable and it makes him want to lean in and kiss him again.
"Ah, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says and grins over at Lan Wangji as he runs his fingers through his hair in an attempt to make himself somewhat presentable. "Are you going to be insatiable now?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji replies, instantly and without shame.
Wei Wuxian can only laugh as heat climbs his cheeks. "Lan Zhan!"
Lan Wangji lifts an eyebrow at him and Wei Wuxian can feel the question through the bond.
"I suppose I didn't expect you to be like this," he says.
"How did you expect me to be?" Lan Wangji asks.
"I...didn't expect anything at all," Wei Wuxian admits. "I never let myself think about it."
"Nor did I," Lan Wangji replies softly. "Until after. At first in dreams."
Wei Wuxian holds his breath. He's not feeling distress from Lan Wangji, but maybe the memory of distress.
"Perhaps my unconscious mind was grieving for all the things I'd never let myself imagine. All the lives we could have built together. I was glad of the pain from my wounds because it never let me forget what was real," Lan Wangji says. His hands curl into tight fists where they rest on his lap and Wei Wuxian reaches out to take them in his own.
"Ah, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whispers. "I put you through more than you ever should have had to endure."
"I would endure it again if it meant having you by my side now," Lan Wangji replies with a steady voice and clear eyes.
Wei Wuxian swallows hard. He could live the rest of his life helping the poor and healing the sick and never come close to deserving this depth of love.
Wei Wuxian clears his throat and asks, "You said 'at first in dreams?'"
"Later, I imagined all the ways I would touch you if I ever got the chance," Lan Wangji replies. "All the ways I should have touched you when I did have the chance. Not only in passion, but in comfort, in support, to help, to heal."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says and squeezes his hands.
"For half my life, I have wanted to touch you," Lan Wangji says. "Now that I know I am allowed, I cannot imagine a time when I will not want to touch you in some way. I cannot imagine that ever being satiated."
Wei Wuxian draws in a shaky breath and pulls one of Lan Wangji's hands to his mouth and kisses his palm. "How is it that every word you speak tonight is making me cry? Do you like me red and blotchy?"
Lan Wangji's expression shifts into his soft, beautiful smile. "I like you every way."
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian exclaims. "Really, if you keep speaking words like this, I won't be able to take it."
Lan Wangji brushes his thumb over Wei Wuxian's lips and slides his hand around the back of his neck and tugs him close. "You will be fine."
Wei Wuxian huffs, but wraps his arms around Lan Wangji's waist. "So long as you take responsibility."
"Of course," Lan Wangji says, low and soft against his ear. Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and lets the feeling of deep contentment radiating off of Lan Wangji wash over him.
For the first time in longer than he can remember, since well before he died, Wei Wuxian feels no doubt. He is exactly where he should be, doing exactly what he should be doing.
Eventually, they pull apart and get food and drink from the innkeeper. As they eat, Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji about everything that happened, about getting Jin Ling's butterfly, about using his experimental transportation talisman to get to the Cloud Recesses as quickly as possible, about A-Yuan practically begging him to not go alone.
"He was right," Wei Wuxian admits. "Without Jiang Cheng...I'm afraid we both would have been trapped in that garden."
"What did it show you?" Lan Wangji asks.
Wei Wuxian smiles into the distance and runs his finger around the rim of his jar of wine. "Ah, Lan Zhan. Of course you would know where I almost failed. It showed me lots of things, but I was able to resist it until it showed me you."
Lan Wangji reaches across the table and wraps his fingers loosely around Wei Wuxian's wrist. "I am here."
Wei Wuxian turns his hand and laces their fingers together. He can't quite bring himself to ask what it showed Lan Wangji, but he doesn't really need to; it's easy to guess.
"I am glad Jiang Wanyin was with you," Lan Wangji says. And he is. Wei Wuxian can feel his sincerity.
"Me too," Wei Wuxian says and squeezes his hand. "It was...good."
Necessary, he thinks. On several levels.
Wei Wuxian feels when he starts fading. Between the day and the alcohol, he feels himself growing more tired by the minute. He resents his body's need for sleep at the best of times, but now he can feel an answering exhaustion from Lan Wangji. The thought that they can get into bed together, that Wei Wuxian won't have to stop himself from curling into Lan Wangji's side makes his resentment drain away, leaving only tired happiness.
By unspoken agreement, they bathe separately. Wei Wuxian allows himself to imagine, just for a moment, how nice sharing a bath with Lan Wangji will be. Through the bond between them, he feels warmth and desire. Soon.
It's not unlike any number of evenings they spent together in the past, but this time when they're both ready for bed, instead of retiring to separate beds or carefully settling in next to one another without touching, Lan Wangji settles down and immediately pulls Wei Wuxian to him.
"Goodnight, Wei Ying," he says against Wei Wuxian's hair.
"Goodnight, Lan Zhan. See you in the morning," Wei Wuxian replies and closes his eyes.
It's strange to sleep with someone when you're accustomed to sleeping alone, Wei Wuxian decides. It's a good strange, a strangeness filled with promise. He wakes up several times in the night and the brief confusion gives way to a happiness he can't tamp down. In turn, that wakes Lan Wangji and they trade sleepy, happy kisses until they both fall back to sleep.
He wakes for good when his mind fills with the warmth of desire not his own. Their positions haven't changed much since the last time he fell asleep with his back to Lan Wangji's chest and their fingers laced together over Wei Wuxian's sternum. He feels how much Lan Wangji desires him against his ass and abruptly his own desire flares bright.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji breathes in his ear and his hand flexes where it rests on Wei Wuxian's hip.
"Lan Zhan," he says and rolls his hips. Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji's low moan in his chest and the frisson of pleasure that rushes through him in his mind. The fingers on his hip tighten.
Suddenly, it becomes intolerable that Wei Wuxian isn't kissing Lan Wangji right this second. He turns over under Lan Wangji's arm.
His eyes are warm in the dim light. "Good morning, Wei Ying."
"For the record," Wei Wuxian says, "ff you want me to wake up early without complaint, this is how to do it."
Wei Wuxian wraps his hand around the back of Lan Wangji's neck and presses their mouths together before he can be smug at him. Unfortunately it doesn't work because he can't stop Lan Wangji from feeling it, can't stop himself from feeling the echo of it through the bond between them.
It takes a moment for his brain to catch up to the fact that the low noise he feels against his chest more than hears and the puff of air he feels from Lan Wangji's nose is laughter.
Wei Wuxian pulls back again and meets his eyes in the dim light of the early morning. "Lan Zhan, are you laughing at me?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji replies and kisses his nose, then the corner of his mouth as his hand reaches for the tie holding Wei Wuxian's inner robe together.
Wei Wuxian moves his hand from Lan Wangji's neck to his cheek, traces the curve of his smile. "You really are happy."
He can feel it, can feel how it fills Lan Wangji's mind until it spills over the bond into Wei Wuxian.
"I am," Lan Wangji agrees, then starts pulling at the ties in earnest as the happiness bleeds into desire.
It's Wei Wuxian's turn to laugh. "Ah, so eager, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji doesn't dignify this with a verbal response, merely pushes Wei Wuxian's inner robe to the side and curls a hand over his now-bare hip.
"How long have you wanted to get into my robes, Hanguang-jun?" he tries to tease, but his voice comes out breathless and his hips twitch forward as Lan Wangji's eyes trail down his torso.
"For far longer than I realized that's what I wanted," Lan Wangji says and wraps a hand around Wei Wuxian's cock.
He gasps and his hips thrust forward almost without his permission. A feeling of awe fills his mind. It's almost too much for him to bear that the first touch between them born solely of desire has made his most beloved person feel like this.
"Ah, Lan Zhan," he breathes. "How can I ever live up to these things you're feeling?"
Lan Wangji swallows audibly and presses his forehead to Wei Wuxian's. "There is nothing to live up to. You are my life's greatest miracle. You are more than enough."
Wei Wuxian takes a deep, shaky breath and blindly reaches for the ties to Lan Wangji's robe. They're close now, but not close enough; he needs to feel Lan Wangji's warm skin under his hands. Wei Wuxian pushes the fabric off his shoulder and his eyes immediately fall to the brand mark over Lan Wangji's heart. He lifts a hand and traces the lines of it with the tip of his finger.
"Lan Zhan," he whispers.
Lan Wangji shakes his head, puts his hand over Wei Wuxian's, and presses it against his chest. Wei Wuxian feels the echo of pain, of a deep, terrible grief. He doesn't say anything and Wei Wuxian doesn't need the words. Maybe someday he will know the story. For now, it doesn't matter. He pushes Lan Wangji onto his back and presses his lips to the brand in a soft kiss.
Fingers thread through his hair as he trails his mouth up from the brand to Lan Wangji's neck where his pulse beats like hummingbird wings under his lips.
Wei Wuxian slides his leg over Lan Wangji's thigh and rolls his hips. He lets out a moan as his cock comes into contact with warm skin. He feels a muted rush of his own pleasure through the bond, the answering enjoyment of lips and cock against skin. Each sensation is amplified by what Lan Wangji feels through him and answered with his experience of each movement.
"Fuck," he gasps, overwhelmed. With sensation, with possibilities, with love. "Fuck, Lan Zhan. This is...there are so many things I want to do, and I'm not going to—"
His mouth snaps shut as one of Lan Wangji's big hands closes around his shoulder and pushes him onto his back as he settles his body on top of him.
He knows, then, that neither of them are going to last very long and he knows it doesn't matter.
"We will have time," Lan Wangji says and leans down to kiss him. Wei Wuxian wraps himself around Lan Wangji and stops thinking.
It only takes a moment to fall into a rhythm. They have always moved well together and now they are perfectly, sublimely in sync.
"Lan Zhan, Lan er-gege, you feel so good," Wei Wuxian says against his lips and runs his hands up and down Lan Wangji's back, feeling the scars there for the first time. It's right, he thinks, that it's like this.
Lan Wangji hums and as he moves to brace himself with his elbows on either side of Wei Wuxian's head, he can feel his muscles move beneath his hands. Those muscles are so strong, so capable, and right now Lan Wangji has them entirely focused on the task of bringing pleasure to them both.
Wei Wuxian loves the feeling of Lan Wangji's body against his, loves the feeling of their cocks pressed between their bellies. Even beyond the pleasure of it, beyond the way it rushes through his body every time they move together, beyond the answering pleasure he can feel from Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian thinks he might rapidly become addicted to this closeness. They already know one another as well as they know themselves, this is another way they can know each other.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. His voice is low, rough, and his eyes are shining.
"Ah, my zhiji," Wei Wuxian breathes and cups Lan Wangji's cheek with his hand. "I can't wait to know you like this."
A wave of love, of pleasure, of the same eager wonder Wei Wuxian feels flows over him like a wave and Lan Wangji turns to press his lips to his palm.
After that, the air fills with the sound of their heavy breathing, of the bed creaking faintly below them, of the wet sound of their lips as they trade kisses, and of Wei Wuxian breathing praise and his pleasure into the air between them. He feels Lan Wangji's reaction to his words and it's a heady, heady feeling to know how much he likes hearing them.
Lan Wangji may not be as verbose as Wei Wuxian, but he's not silent. He gasps when their cocks move together just right, and moans when Wei Wuxian's hand slips and he scratches down his back.
"Do you like that, Lan Zhan?" he asks as Lan Wangji picks up the pace. "I like you on top of me. Holding me down like this."
That prompts another moan, and Wei Wuxian feels the end of it against his lips because Lan Wangji kisses him again.
They move together, hips flush, arms wrapped around one another until the world narrows to the points they're touching, physically as well as mentally. Until Wei Wuxian doesn't know where his pleasure ends and Lan Wangji's begins.
"Lan Zhan," he gasps, and then it overtakes him. Wei Wuxian's arms tighten around him as he starts to come and half a beat later, Lan Wangji presses his face to his shoulder and joins him. As the pleasure echoes between them it grows until it's so intense that Wei Wuxian is practically sobbing, until the entire world goes white, and he thinks he would float away but for Lan Wangji's weight keeping him grounded.
He closes his eyes and concentrates on every sensation, on the feeling of breath against his neck, the press of their bodies together, how Lan Wangji's hair feels as he runs a hand through it over and over. As wonderful as they are, the physical sensations are nothing compared to the happiness he feels from Lan Wangji. It seems impossible that Wei Wuxian is the reason for that happiness, but all of the evidence shows he is. He's going to spend the rest of his life making sure Lan Wangji is this happy as often as possible.
"Not every time can be like this, you know," he says conversationally after their hearts have returned to their normal pace and their breathing is slow and easy. "We won't be able to feel each other forever."
Lan Wangji lifts his head and his eyes glint.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian leans up to kiss him. "You don't have to take that as a challenge."
"Strive for excellence always," Lan Wangji intones.
"Lan Zhan, did you just quote one of your GusuLan rules while naked on top of me?" Wei Wuxian asks.
"You have them memorized," Lan Wangji reminds him. "You tell me."
Wei Wuxian can no longer contain his laughter. "You did, you did! Surely that's a desecration of some kind."
"Veneration," Lan Wangji counters and leans down to kiss the corner of his mouth.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian breathes, his cheeks heating. "You really are like this, aren't you? Such a romantic."
"Mn," Lan Wangji hums. The expression on his face is so warm, the feelings from the bond so full of love that Wei Wuxian has to pull him back down for another kiss.
"I love you," Wei Wuxian breathes when they part. Lan Wangji smiles at him and Wei Wuxian has to squeeze his eyes closed. "No, you have to stop looking at me like that or I'll never be able to stop kissing you and then we'll never leave this bed. I promised Sizhui and Jin Ling that I'd go back to the Cloud Recesses."
After one final kiss, Lan Wangji reluctantly pushes himself up and off Wei Wuxian. They're sticky and reeking of sex, so they order another bath. This time, they bathe together.
The tub really isn't large enough for it but they make do, taking turns washing one another and then touching until they both reach completion again before getting out and dressing for the day.
They gather their things together and make their way down to the dining area for breakfast. As they eat, Wei Wuxian fills Lan Wangji in on all the details of the last few days he'd skipped over before.
"That place will need to be cleansed thoroughly," Wei Wuxian says with a sigh.
"Jin-zongzhu left some of his disciples to guard it until a plan is made," Lan Wangji says, "and Jiang-zongzhu pledged to send for more. When we get back to Gusu, I will send GusuLan disciples to join them."
Wei Wuxian nods, smiling at the feeling of irritation he feels from Lan Wangji at the mention of Jiang Cheng, then and makes a face.
"What is wrong?" Lan Wangji asks.
"I don't want to go back there," he admits.
"Then we won't," Lan Wangji says, as if it's that easy.
"I should make sure it's neutralized," Wei Wuxian says.
"That is not your responsibility," Lan Wangji replies firmly.
"Sure it is, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "He couldn't have done even half that without my research."
"Who gave him that research?" Lan Wangji asks.
"I...Xue Yang. The Jins," Wei Wuxian replies.
"And why did they have it?" Lan Wangji asks.
Wei Wuxian swallows. "I...Lan Zhan, I can't just—"
"You can," Lan Wangji interrupts. He sounds absolutely sure. He feels absolutely sure. "If those who are sent to do the work find it challenging enough that your expertise is requested, then perhaps we will need to revisit this discussion, but not until then."
"Okay," Wei Wuxian says and takes a deep breath. He's a little bit ashamed of how relieved he feels, but Lan Wangji is looking at him steadily and there's not a single bit of judgement in his expression or from his mind. Lan Wangji reaches across the table and squeezes his hand. "Shall we go?"
"Yeah," Wei Wuxian replies. "Let's go. Not that Little Apple will care to see me, but the damn donkey will be absolutely thrilled to see you."
Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji's amusement and he laughs. "Ah, Lan er-gege, if only I'd known sooner how often you're laughing at your zhiji."
"Not at," Lan Wangji says and stands, rounding the table and reaching for Wei Wuxian's hands to tug him up to his feet.
Wei Wuxian lets the momentum of it carry him directly into Lan Wangji's arms.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji admonishes, but there's no shame there, just a quiet joy.
"You'll hold me the whole way to Nanping, won't you?" he asks.
"Of course," Lan Wangji replies. Wei Wuxian beams. Of course.
As they fly to Nanping, Wei Wuxian settles himself into the circle of Lan Wangji's arms and starts telling him about his travels, about the people he's met, the night hunts he's gone on, the food he's eaten. Everything that crosses his mind, he shares. He knows that over anyone else in the world, Lan Wangji genuinely enjoys listening to him, but it's really, really nice to feel that coming from him. To know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lan Wangji isn't getting tired of hearing him talking.
Something inside him that has been wound tight for a long, long time starts to unwind.
With a long break for lunch, they arrive in Nanping just before the evening meal. They immediately go to the stable to check on Little Apple, who, as predicted, is indifferent to Wei Wuxian's presence but perks up immediately upon seeing Lan Wangji, especially when he produces an apple from his sleeve.
Wei Wuxian can only laugh. "Little Apple will never go anywhere without you ever again, at this rate."
A feeling of satisfaction floods him from over the bond and Wei Wuxian laughs hard enough that he has to bend over. When he catches his breath he stands again, and Lan Wangji stands in front of him with his fist behind his back and a soft expression on his face. Looking at him makes Wei Wuxian feel settled and at ease. He can't help but lean over to kiss Lan Wangji until Little Apple starts nosing them, looking for more apples.
"Come on," Wei Wuxian says. "The wine here is decent and I think you'll like the food."
"You're back, then," the inkeep says when they walk through the door.
"I'm back. My thanks for caring for our donkey. I hope there was no trouble?" he says.
"None at all. You're back so soon, you definitely overpaid," she says and reaches into her purse.
"No need, no need," he says, waving his hands.
"Then you'll eat and drink free here tonight, and if you need a room I'll have one prepared," she says.
"That sounds fair," Wei Wuxian says. "We will be needing a room, thank you."
The only open table in the room happens to be the one he sat in just two nights previously. They sit down, and moments later the inkeep places a jar of wine and bowls on their table.
"Tea as well, please," Wei Wuxian requests. It's amazing, he thinks, how different he feels now than he did two days ago.
He watches as Lan Wangji holds his sleeve and pours Wei Wuxian a bowl of wine. His chest feels too full for his body.
As he lifts the bowl to his lips and takes a sip, he realizes that the restless homesickness has left him entirely. His home is seated across from him with a soft smile on his face as he watches Wei Wuxian drink. He feels his eyes start to burn and he blinks back the tears.
"Wei Ying?" Lan Wangji asks softly.
"I'm fine, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian replies with a smile and reaches over to squeeze his wrist. "You're here."