When Wei Wuxian woke, he was in an unfamiliar room. Lan Wangji was sitting on a chair beside the bed, reading a book. Still half-asleep, Wei Wuxian gazed at him, the picture of elegant beauty, with the sun streaming through the windows backlighting him so Wei Wuxian could see the little motes of golden dust floating around Lan Wangji’s face like he was some kind of deity, sent down to judge the mortals.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked, squinting at him. It was bright in the room—the sun must already be high in the sky judging from the light.
Lan Wangji’s eyes moved from the book to him. “How do you feel?” he asked, putting the book down when he spoke. “You drank a lot last night.”
Wei Wuxian felt tired, but not because of the alcohol. “I’m fine. I have a high tolerance,” he said, slowly sitting up. They were still in the brothel and those jars of liquor he’d emptied last night sat on the table, some overturned and some upright. The room still reeked of liquor.
“How did you know I was here?” Wei Wuxian asked, yawning. He wondered how long Lan Wangji had been here, a little surprised that he was here at all since he couldn’t imagine Lan Wangji willingly setting foot in a brothel without job necessity. But of course, Lan Wangji was also Wei Wuxian’s legal keeper thanks to Jiang Cheng, and no matter how much he disliked Wei Wuxian, Hanguang-Jun was nothing if not responsible.
“Yang Feifei showed me,” Lan Wangji answered.
The ghost had betrayed him?
“And I thought she was being nice,” Wei Wuxian muttered. He shook his head when Lan Wangji gave him a questioning look. “It’s nothing,” he said. “You could have woken me if you wanted to leave earlier.”
“You were tired,” Lan Wangji answered.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “I know I already cause enough trouble for you, Hanguang-Jun. So you don’t have to bother with me. I can take care of myself.”
Lan Wangji frowned. “Wei Ying, regarding last night, I—”
“Nevermind. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen,” Wei Wuxian said, waving away whatever he was about to say. While he didn’t exactly feel comfortable with Lan Wangji after what had happened last night, he also didn’t feel like arguing with him again. “All right, I’m awake. We can go back.”
Lan Wangji sat in place for a moment, watching as Wei Wuxian put on the outer robes that he’d shed sometime during the night and straightened his hair. “What are you waiting for?” Wei Wuxian asked when he finished. “I’m ready.”
Lan Wangji stood, but hesitated at the door. “Wei Ying, regarding last night, I apologize. I did not intend to let Jin ZiXun insult you or your family.”
“But you still did,” Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji frowned. “Do you still believe you are in control?”
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Lan Zhan, I know neither of us wants to be stuck in this marriage, but at least let’s not make it worse than it is,” he said. They were never going to see eye-to-eye no matter how much Wei Wuxian tried. “I’m too tired to fight with you today so just please, be quiet.”
Lan Wangji looked at him for a moment longer. Wei Wuxian met his gaze and held it until Lan Zhan finally turned away and opened the door.
For a couple of weeks, things settled down. Wei Wuxian continued going to the library pavilion every day and put in his hours sitting with the Purification Stone. Lan Wangji, though, stopped watching over him and would spend his days going about his own business. Wei Wuxian would see him every once in awhile passing by his area in the library, but he never stayed to supervise. Even though they shared a room, thanks to their different sleeping schedules, Lan Wangji was always asleep by the time Wei Wuxian returned to the bed at night, and gone again by the time he woke in the morning.
Without someone keeping track of his every move, Wei Wuxian also breathed a little easier and began enjoying himself again. He spent most of his free time with the Wen clan. The majority of the family, barring the very old and very young, had joined the GusuLan Sect and happily wore their white mourning robes and plain forehead ribbons. Wen Qing was now a part of the GusuLan medical team and trailed admirers, both male and female, asking her questions everywhere she went. Wen Ning had been let out of seclusion, and after the new living quarters of the Wen clan were completed, Wei Wuxian saw bunches of children around him almost always, making him carry them or put them up in trees—no hint of fear on any of their faces as they called for his attention and pulled his hair.
Even Lan Qiren, who had been the most against letting a living corpse into the Cloud Recesses, was defeated by Wen Ning’s mouse-ish personality when Wei Wuxian, Wen Ning, and A-Yuan had run into him once—in A-Yuan’s case, literally.
That night, they were on their way back to the Wen quarters, and A-Yuan had been trotting a little ahead of Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning, eagerly telling them about a new friend he had made. As they turned the corner of a building, the child ran head-first into Lan Qiren’s legs with enough momentum that he bounced back and sat on the ground hard.
“You’re fine, A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian said, having found that telling an uninjured child he was fine stopped tears much more quickly than making a fuss about it. It usually worked on A-Yuan who was well-behaved to begin with, but this time, he looked up at the face belonging to the legs he’d run into, and Wei Wuxian could see the exact moment the child recognized Lan Qiren.
A-Yuan’s eyes filled with tears, he opened his mouth, and he began bawling at the top of his lungs.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Sorry, Uncle, looks like he’s afraid of you,” he said, going to pick up A-Yuan who immediately buried his face in Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, but didn’t stop crying.
Lan Qiren narrowed his eyes at him, and Wei Wuxian prepared himself for another long lecture about how running and loud noise was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.
But before anyone else had an opportunity to speak, Wen Ning immediately began bowing. “I’m so sorry, Elder Lan,” he said, bowing over and over. “Please forgive my cousin. I will teach him good manners. I am so sorry we have not taught him well yet.”
Lan Qiren, mouth half-open, shut it again.
“I’m really sorry. I’ll keep a better watch on him. Please forgive us,” Wen Ning continued, bowing so low he was nearly bent in half.
Lan Qiren didn’t seem to know what to do in the face of such extreme politeness and after several moments of Wen Ning’s continuous apologies, he raised his hand. “No need. He is only a child,” he said stiffly.
“Thank you so much, Elder Lan,” Wen Ning said, bowing even more. “I will make sure he stays out of your way. Thank you really so much.”
Lan Qiren cleared his throat, looking anywhere but at the bowing corpse. “It’s only a small matter,” he said. “Carry on. Have a good night.”
Wei Wuxian almost burst out laughing right then and there. “I can’t believe you actually managed to counter the old man,” he whispered to Wen Ning when they were out of earshot. “I didn’t think it was possible!”
“Young Master Wei, you really should stop teasing your uncle-in-law so much,” Wen Ning said reproachfully. Even with his stiffened facial muscles, he looked highly relieved not to be under Lan Qiren’s scrutiny any longer.
Wei Wuxian snorted. “Uncle-in-law for what marriage?” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Young Master Wei,” Wen Ning began. “Hanguang-Jun is—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Wei Wuxian said, stopping him before he could begin.
Ever since Wei Wuxian had let slip that he and Lan Wangji weren’t getting along, which was really nothing new for them, Wen Ning had taken to giving him unsolicited advice about making up with him.
Wen Ning looked at him in that mousey, reproachful way that made Wei Wuxian feel like he was bullying a baby, and he turned his attention on A-Yuan, ignoring him.
“A-Yuan, he’s gone, you can stop crying,” he said, bouncing him in his arms.
But apparently A-Yuan had decided to team up with Wen Ning against him today, because he stopped wailing only to blubber, “I want to see Lan Er-Gege.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. “You can’t,” he told him point blank. “He’s busy so you can’t just bother him whenever you want.”
But maybe because it was getting late or he was in a bad temper that day, A-Yuan would not be consoled. He kicked his little legs and wailed that he wanted to see Lan Wangji. He was making so much noise that other GusuLan disciples who passed by were shooting them disapproving looks.
Wei Wuxian tried to detach A-Yuan from him. “Take him to bed. He’s tired,” he said to Wen Ning.
“No! I want to see Rich Brother!” A-Yuan wailed, snot and tears dribbling down his face. He clung to Wei Wuxian, fisting his little hands into his robe.
“Why don’t you just take him to see him,” Wen Ning said, making no move to take the child. “A-Yuan, will you be good if Xian-Gege takes you to see Lan Er-Gege?” he said in utter betrayal.
“You realize I can control you if I want to,” Wei Wuxian hissed to him.
Wen Ning gave him a look like he’d just kicked a baby.
A-Yuan nodded. “A-Yuan will be good,” he said, his sobs turning into hiccups, rubbing his red, tear-stained cheeks with his little fists.
Wei Wuxian sighed and gave in. “Fine but only for a few minutes,” he said. “Wipe your face. Your Lan Er-Gege is going to think I bullied you,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe the child’s tears.
A-Yuan beamed at him and nodded.
Wei Wuxian sighed again and began heading back to the Jingshi. At this time of night, Lan Wangji would probably be getting ready for bed which was exactly why Wei Wuxian preferred to stay out past then.
On the other hand, he had been putting off discussing his shijie’s wedding with Lan Wangji and with the date creeping up, he couldn’t keep putting it off.
It had been a full two weeks since Wei Wuxian actually spoke to Lan Wangji, and he took a deep breath outside the Jingshi. Inside, the lanterns had been lit and he could hear the soft strum of the guqin.
“Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian said, striding in. “A-Yuan wouldn’t stop crying until he saw you,” he said, putting down the child.
Lan Wangji had been sitting at the table in the main room, his guqin placed out and the incense burner lit, the cool scent of sandalwood permeating the room. If he was surprised to see Wei Wuxian, it didn’t show on his face.
A-Yuan beamed at him and toddled forward as soon as Wei Wuxian put him down. “Lan Er-Gege,” he said, sitting quietly next to him as though he hadn’t just been wailing his lungs out three minutes ago.
Lan Wangji had stopped playing when they came in, but when it seemed A-Yuan had nothing in particular to say to him, he began playing again.
Since Wei Wuxian had nothing to do but wait until he was done or A-Yuan was ready to go to bed, he also sat a little distance from them, listening.
The song that Lan Wangji played was a slow one with a beautiful melody. Wei Wuxian couldn’t place where he’d heard it before, but he found himself humming along, knowing exactly when the dips and rises in the song came.
Lan Wangji looked up at him when he finished.
“What is that song called?” Wei Wuxian asked, feeling more relaxed in his presence than he had in a long time. “Who composed it?”
“I did,” Lan Wangji answered.
Wei Wuxian was surprised. He’d heard Lan Wangji play guqin a number of times, but it was always either in attack or for some spell such as Evocation or Inquiry. “It’s a spell?” he asked.
“No,” Lan Wangji said.
“When have I ever heard you play anything that wasn’t one?” Wei Wuxian asked half to himself, but he couldn’t remember when he might have heard this piece of music. “What’s its name?” he asked. “When did you play it before?”
“You don’t remember,” Lan Wangji said, more of a comment than a question.
“If I remembered, I wouldn’t be asking you,” Wei Wuxian said. “So when did you play it for me before?”
Lan Wangji frowned. “Think for yourself,” he answered.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Everyone knows I have a bad memory,” he said, but gave up trying to coax an answer out of him. “A-Yuan, you saw your Lan Er-Gege and even got hear him play a song. Satisfied?”
A-Yuan was staring wide-eyed at the guqin, though, and reached a hand out to touch the strings.
“A-Yuan, don’t touch,” Wei Wuxian said. “You’ll get the guqin dirty.”
Lan Wangji, though, took a handkerchief out and wiped A-Yuan’s hands for him. “Would you like to learn to play?” he asked.
A-Yuan’s whole face bloomed as he smiled.
“It is almost 9,” Lan Wangji said to him. “Go to sleep now. I will teach you tomorrow.”
A-Yuan nodded even more enthusiastically and got up on his own to go to Wei Wuxian.
“What do you say?” Wei Wuxian prompted him as he also got to his feet.
“Thank you, Lan Er-Gege,” A-Yuan said shyly.
“I’ll take him back first,” Wei Wuxian said, letting A-Yuan cling to his leg as he walked back out. Once they were out of earshot of the Jingshi, Wei Wuxian bent and poked A-Yuan in the forehead. “What a little traitor you are,” he said. “So you do like your Lan Er-Gege more than me,” he said. “How many times have you heard me playing the flute and you never asked to learn from me.”
“A-Yuan wants to,” A-Yuan said, letting go of his leg and toddling on his own so he could rub his forehead. “But Uncle Ning said I shouldn’t learn it from you.”
“Wen Ning is also a traitor,” Wei Wuxian said, narrowing his eyes.
“Xian-Gege, when can I come tomorrow?” A-Yuan asked, tugging on his robes as he trotted alongside him down the path toward the Wen quarters.
“Hm, why are you asking me?” Wei Wuxian said.
“Because Xian-Gege doesn’t wake up until 9,” A-Yuan said. “Won’t Xian-Gege also learn?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Such a privilege isn’t for outsiders like me,” he said. “I still have to go to the library tomorrow. You can spend time with your favorite brother by yourself!” Then, thinking of the song he’d just heard, he bent and looked A-Yuan in the eyes. “Tomorrow, tell your Lan Er-Gege to teach you the song we heard today,” he ordered him. “And ask him when he played it for me, okay?”
“Why doesn’t Xian-Gege ask Er-Gege himself?” A-Yuan asked.
Wei Wuxian straightened up again and kept walking. “If he wanted to tell me, he already would have. Be good and find out for me, okay?” he said.
When Wei Wuxian finished walking A-Yuan back to the Wen quarters and returned, Lan Wangji was still awake and playing the song again. Wei Wuxian stood, leaning by the door, listening until he finished.
“You’re really not going to tell me when I heard it?” he asked. “Why are you so against letting me know?”
“Why is your memory so bad?” Lan Wangji answered.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Fine, don’t tell me,” he said and pulled out a piece of folded paper. He took a deep breath. “My shijie’s wedding is coming up in two weeks,” he said, passing the paper between his fingers as he spoke. “Do you know of any good craftsmen in Caiyi Town?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. “Show me the design. I will bring it to him tomorrow.”
Wei Wuxian didn’t realize he’d been tense until Lan Wangji replied. “Here,” he said, handing him the folded paper. He had drawn design after design for days until he was satisfied, and then, because he didn’t know how to bring it up to Lan Wangji, kept it on his person until he had the opportunity.
Lan Wangji looked at the picture and nodded. Then he carefully folded it and put it inside his pocket. “Bedtime,” he said and got to his feet. He made no move to force Wei Wuxian to obey curfew, only retreating to the bedroom himself.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian called out. “You’re still coming to my shijie’s wedding with me, right?” he asked. It wasn’t exactly an apology because Wei Wuxian wasn’t sorry, but he wanted to stop this cold war.
“Mm.” Lan Wangji inclined his head.
Wei Wuxian felt the tension leave his shoulders. “Thank you,” he said when Lan Wangji paused at the door.
“No need to thank me,” Lan Wangji said.
A week later, Lan Wangji returned with a small wooden box that he brought to Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian almost dropped the Purification Stone in his excitement as he opened up the present. He pulled back the soft red cloth covering it, and his eyes widened. It was a nine-petal lotus comb. The comb itself was made of gold, and the lotus petals were each made of a beautiful, deep purple jade. The artisan had followed Wei Wuxian’s design exactly, overlaying the jade with intricate gold patterning. The entire effect of the comb was tasteful and delicate, suited to more formal occasions if Jiang YanLi paired it with fancier hairpins, but also for everyday use—well suited to his shijie and Wei Wuxian’s plans for this comb.
Wei Wuxian held the comb in his hand and smiled up at Lan Wangji. “Thank you,” he breathed out.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said.
Once he was gone, Wei Wuxian got to work. He had only a little more than a week to finish his shijie’s present. It took him a full seven days working all day and late into the night, only sneaking back into the Jingshi right before five o’clock to pass out for an hour or two before getting up to start all over again. But it was worth it when he finished. He had infused the comb with power—enough power to keep away any creature below a certain level. When his shijie wore this comb, she would be safe.
Satisfied with his gift, he put it away in his pocket, too proud and excited to leave it anywhere else. Throughout the day, he pulled it out to look at it again. Lan Wangji really did have good taste, he thought. Although he hadn’t specified what the comb be made out of, Lan Wangji’s choices for it—a refined gold for the metal that would represent the Jin family, and a purple jade for the flower that would represent the Jiang family, and maybe even a little of the Lan since it would be both his and Lan Wangji’s gift to her—were perfect. As expected of someone nicknamed the Second Jade of Lan, he thought.
Wei Wuxian put the comb away again, and prepared to finish up for the day. He was so pleased with the comb that he thought about having dinner with Lan Wangji that night—but then, Lan Wangji surely enjoyed eating by himself more where he wouldn’t have to tell Wei Wuxian to eat in silence five times a meal.
But as Wei Wuxian began putting the Purification Stone away in its box, he noticed a small gray smudge on the white. He frowned and rubbed at it. When the smudge didn’t come away with his finger, he used the hem of his sleeve to rub a little harder, but the cloth made no difference.
Wei Wuxian frowned, holding the stone up to the fading sunlight, and as he did, his heart began to beat fast. The little gray smoke-like curl was not on the pure white stone, but inside of it.
Wei Wuxian swallowed hard, giving it one last scrub in a futile attempt. When his robe came away and the blemish was still there, he put the stone back in its box, covering it with the red cloth and tucking it back on the shelf.
It was so faint, Wei Wuxian thought. It might just be a trick of fading light, he told himself. He’d check again tomorrow morning.
But under the bright morning sun, the stain remained and seemed to be larger than it had been the night before. For the first time since starting purification, Wei Wuxian tried to let the stone do what it ought to do and take away the resentful energy. In the past weeks, he merely held it, keeping as much of his gathered resentful energy inside himself as he could because he would need it for demonic cultivation. Now, he let it out, feeding it into the stone so it could do what it should and cleanse him. But by noontime, the smudge had grown to the size of his thumbnail and darkened in color.
Even when Wei Wuxian stopped actively passing it resentful energy, the spot continued to spread though its growth slowed down again. By the end of the day, even though Wei Wuxian tried to contain all the resentful energy to himself, the dark spot had grown to the size of a grape. That was when he realized it was coming from inside the Purification Stone. Whatever he had done to it, the very core of the Purification Stone was corrupted—it was just that it had taken weeks for the darkness to spread to the surface.
No matter how he looked at it, this couldn’t be a good development. For the first time since he’d started demonic cultivation years ago, Wei Wuxian felt a thin icey trickle of fear. And yet, what could he do?
Wei Wuxian tucked the stone away in his pocket, putting its box back on its shelf so unless someone opened it, they wouldn’t notice it was gone. Then he went back to the Jingshi, looking for a place to hide it until the next morning.
The Jingshi was, in line with Lan Wangji’s personality, almost entirely bare. What furniture was there, apart from the dumb bed, was spare and tasteful along with the decor. Even the wardrobe where Lan Wangji kept his clothes was neatly kept, with every item folded so perfectly, Wei Wuxian almost thought it was a shame for him to take clothes out to change into. On the other hand, Wei Wuxian had been given half of the wardrobe when he first came, and already, there were robes tossed in there unfolded, a load of half-scribbled parchment and scrolls, talismans and other artifacts that were strewn in alongside the robes since it was the only storage space he’d been given. He was trying to shove the Purification Stone as far into the back of his wardrobe, fighting with a particularly tangled robe, when he heard Lan Wangji’s voice behind him.
“What are you doing?”
Wei Wuxian startled, and the Purification Stone went slipping from his grasp. He reached for it at the same time as Lan Wangji, their fingers brushing, but it was Lan Wangji who picked up the stone.
“The Purification Stone.” Lan Wangji frowned. “Why did you bring…” His eyes widened when he saw the black spot on the formerly white stone, swirling gently inside the white glow.
“I don’t know what happened,” Wei Wuxian began confessing. “It started turning black yesterday, and I swear I haven’t done anything to it. I’ve only been letting it absorb the resentful energy, Lan Zhan.”
“I believe you,” Lan Wangji said, but he was still frowning. He turned the stone over in his hand, looking at the dark spot. Then he held it in both hands. Abruptly, Wei Wuxian felt a surge of spiritual energy. All the hairs on the back of his neck rose, and the very air crackled with energy. The Purification Stone shone so brightly that Wei Wuxian had to look away.
After a long moment, the power surge died away, leaving Wei Wuxian with stars flashing in his eyes. But when he looked at the stone again, that black spot was still there.
Lan Wangji exhaled.
“What is it?” Wei Wuxian asked, staring between him and the Purification Stone.
Lan Wangji shook his head. “Not enough information to make a judgment yet,” he said. He looked at Wei Wuxian. “Have you used demonic cultivation?” he asked.
“Of course not,” Wei Wuxian said before thinking of Jiang YanLi’s comb. “Nothing dangerous, anyway,” he said. “All I did was infuse some power in my shijie’s comb to keep away low level creatures.” It was passive magic—channeling some of his already accumulated resentful energy into something like a shield. He hadn’t pulled in any resentful energy that wasn’t already on him, and anyway, the blemish had clearly been there for longer than a week—it must have begun as soon as Wei Wuxian received the Purification Stone.
Lan Wangji shook his head. He took the stone and left the room.
“Wait, Lan Zhan! Where are you taking the stone? Are you going to tell your uncle?” Wei Wuxian called.
“Investigation,” Lan Wangji paused to answer before continuing on his way.
Wei Wuxian slumped down once Lan Wangji had left. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal, he told himself. Maybe it was just that the Purification Stone didn’t work on him, so Lan Wangji would come back with some other method.
But Lan Wangji didn’t return at all that night or the next morning.
Wei Wuxian started out in the library pavilion, waiting for Lan Wangji to show up and give him instructions on how to fix the Purification Stone or some other GusuLan purification exercises, but he never came. By noontime, Wei Wuxian decided that since he couldn’t do anything other than wait, he may as well distract himself, and left the library. It had been some time since he got to stretch his legs during the day, and with all the other Wens busy, he went to find A-Yuan.
It took some looking around before he found A-Yuan playing with a group of small children all around the same age as himself in one of the courtyards.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian called when he saw him. Like everyone else in the Wen family, A-Yuan had started wearing the GusuLan sect clothes, which Wei Wuxian had always thought was a terrible idea. Dressing a child in white was asking for near-constant laundry. A-Yuan was surprisingly clean, though the same could not be said of the boy he was playing with.
“Xian-Gege!” A-Yuan said and came running.
Wei Wuxian grinned, crouching down to his height and patting him on the head. “What are you doing today?” he asked.
“Practicing cultivation with Jingyi!” A-Yuan declared.
Wei Wuxian’s grin widened. “Cultivation?” he said. “At your age?” The earliest that children could start cultivating a golden core was five years old. He himself hadn’t started until several years after that. Any younger, and children just couldn’t do it—he was willing to bet that even Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen hadn’t started until they were five, though he was sure they’d those three thousand GusuLan rules drilled into their memories far before then.
“So what is this?” he asked, flicking A-Yuan on the forehead where he’d tied a white ribbon.
“Hey! You can’t touch that!” the much dirtier boy beside him shouted, pointing at Wei Wuxian. This child was covered in dust with darker spots at his knees, stained sleeves and a streak of dirt on one chubby cheek.
“Oh? Why?” Wei Wuxian asked and flicked the other boy on his forehead ribbon. Neither of them was wearing an actual GusuLan ribbon, but were playing pretend with white ribbon they’d gotten from somewhere.
“You can’t touch!” the boy shouted even more shrilly. “Don’t you know the forehead ribbon means to ‘regulate oneself,’” he said, sounding like a very small Lan Qiren if Lan Qiren was enthusiastically shouting rules. “You can only let go of all regulations when you’re with the one you love and cherish, your destined person, your cultivation partner!”
“Do you even know what those words mean?” Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow.
“Of course I do!” the boy shouted. “It means the person you marry!”
“Jingyi, shouting is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses,” A-Yuan said, sounding exactly like a tiny Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian burst out laughing. “A-Yuan, I leave you alone for a few weeks and you decide you like your Hanguang-Jun dad more than me? You’re even starting to sound like him.”
“He’s not my dad...” A-Yuan said, turning red.
“Hanguang-Jun is your dad? Is that why he teaches you guqin?” Jingyi demanded, his eyes wide and shining. Wei Wuxian had, in fact, forgotten entirely about the guqin lessons since he was always in the library during the day. Apparently, Lan Wangji had taken his promise seriously and really was teaching A-Yuan to play. “That’s so cool!”
“Oh, you hear that, A-Yuan? You should be proud that Hanguang-Jun is your dad,” Wei Wuxian said. “Jingyi wishes Hanguang-Jun was his dad too.”
“Your mom is weird, though,” Jingyi said.
Wei Wuxian sputtered. “How am I his mom?” he said, pointing to himself.
“Aren’t you married to Hanguang-Jun?” Jingyi said, putting his hands on his hips. “A-Yuan told me!”
“Well you’re not wrong…” In the face of such logic, Wei Wuxian could only laugh. “Guess I’m your mom now, A-Yuan.”
“But I don’t want to call you mom,” A-Yuan said. “It’s so weird.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged his shoulders. “It can’t be helped,” he said. “Your friend here says I am, so we’ve got no choice, son.”
“It’s your dad!” Jingyi gasped, grabbing A-Yuan by the sleeve and pointing.
Wei Wuxian turned in time to see Lan Wangji walking on the path by the courtyard, entirely within earshot of what they had just said.
Even with his thick skin, being caught in such a lie, Wei Wuxian felt a little embarrassed, but he pretended like Lan Wangji hadn’t heard a thing. “Lan Zhan,” he said, straightening up. “You weren’t in the library this morning, so I…”
“Wow, I can’t believe your dad is Hanguang-Jun! You’re so lucky!” Jingyi said, tilting his head up more and more to continue staring at Lan Wangji as he walked over. Jingyi patted A-Yuan on the arm as though he were proud of him.
“Lan Er-Gege,” A-Yuan said politely. “A-Yuan has been practicing the guqin,” he said.
“Very good,” Lan Wangji said, nodding to him and then his friend, which was apparently too much for little Jingyi to handle.
“We’re going to practice cultivation!” Jingyi shouted. He began dragging off A-Yuan only to pause and turn to Wei Wuxian. “Can me and A-Yuan go cultivate, A-Yuan’s mom?” he asked politely.
Wei Wuxian had to keep from laughing at the question and put on his best serious expression. “So you do know how to ask for permission,” he said imperiously. “You may go, but come back in time for dinner,” he told him.
“We will!” Jingyi shouted.
Wei Wuxian smiled, watching them run around, pretending to cultivate and fight and fly. He remembered those days when he and Jiang Cheng and the other disciples used to play as children too—back when he had only just started learning how to cultivate and thought Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu were the most amazing cultivators in the world. He and Jiang Cheng had often played just like this, pretending to fight. Jiang Cheng always wanted to boss everyone around and assign roles, and got mad when Wei Wuxian ignored his instructions. Jiang YanLi would laugh as she watched them, always ready with snacks when they grew tired.
Once the children were gone, he straightened up.
“Come with me,” Lan Wangji said and turned, striding toward the Jingshi. He said nothing until they were inside and he shut the doors, muffling the sounds outside. He went to the table and knelt at it. Wei Wuxian slowly did the same, a little nervous that Lan Wangji wasn’t saying anything.
Lan Wangji reached into his robe and took out the Purification Stone, putting it down on the table. The black spot seemed to have gotten a little larger, a little darker.
Wei Wuxian swallowed, looking down at it. “Lan Zhan, I—”
“What happened to your golden core?” Lan Wangji asked.
Wei Wuxian felt the breath die inside of him as he stared at Lan Wangji. His heart dropped to his stomach and knotted up there. “Lan Zhan, I—I—”
“What happened?” Lan Wangji repeated when Wei Wuxian couldn’t force any other words out of his mouth.
“You have to promise not to tell anyone,” Wei Wuxian blurted out, hands sweating and cold as he clenched his fingers against his knees. “If anyone finds out, I—I don’t want the Wens to have to leave here,” he said. “They’re safe finally, and A-Yuan is so happy. He even has kids his own age he can play with. I can’t make them go back to the Burial Mounds. I can’t—” He couldn’t drag their happiness away from them now.
“I will not tell anyone without your permission,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian chest lightened a little with the promise, but he worried his lip, staring down at the blemished Purification Stone on the table. “I gave it to Jiang Cheng,” he said. “It was right after Lotus Pier—after everything that happened at Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng was caught by Wen cultivators, and by the time I rescued him, Wen ZhuLiu had already melted his golden core. I could live without a golden core as a civilian, but his life would be over, so I...so I gave mine to him.” It was the first time he’d said it out loud since begging Wen Qing to do the surgery for them.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji said, more emotional than Wei Wuxian had ever heard him up until then. “You—how you could you—”
“If his parents hadn’t adopted me, I wouldn’t have been able to cultivate one anyway!” Wei Wuxian said. “So it was just paying them back for all those years,” he said. He finally looked up at Lan Wangji, clenching his fists. “So you tell me not to practice demonic cultivation, but what choice do I have?” he asked. “How was I supposed to protect everyone without a golden core?” He met Lan Wangji’s golden eyes in challenge. “If it hadn’t been for demonic cultivation, I—I’d be a useless person by now.”
Lan Wangji’s gaze burned into his. He seemed to be deciding what to say. “How?” he asked after a long moment.
Wei Wuxian felt that knot in his stomach loosen a little more. Lan Wangji hadn’t yelled at him or gotten angry. And so the truth came pouring out—how he had convinced Wen Qing and Wen Ning to help him, the reasons why he was so indebted to the pair of siblings. Lan Wangji asked questions every so often through the story, how long the surgery took, whether it was painful, and Wei Wuxian answered honestly now that he could.
At the end of it, Lan Wangji was very still, looking at him, and Wei Wuxian waited for a response.
Now that the truth was out, he felt strangely relieved. One person apart from Wen Qing and Wen Ning knew, but Lan Wangji was different from them—where the Wens were in no place to judge him for demonic cultivation, Lan Wangji was the most righteous man Wei Wuxian knew, and he came from an upright, honorable sect. If Lan Wangji was able to accept him, then—
“Stop using demonic cultivation,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian didn’t realize he’d been holding onto hope—hope that Lan Wangji might understand, that he might accept him—until it was cut to pieces. He felt suddenly angry. “Then what I am supposed to do?” he demanded. “I can’t cultivate the normal way anymore! I can’t even fly on a sword without you! You can’t actually expect me to stay nicely by your side locked up in the Cloud Recesses forever, can you?”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji said.
“Tell me what I’m supposed to do!” Wei Wuxian challenged him. “If you have such a great solution, then spit it out!” he shouted. “Spit it out!”
“The demonic path is not healthy for mind or body,” Lan Wangji said. “You should not continue.” His eyes fell to the corrupted white stone sitting on the table between them.
“That might be true for everyone else, but I have no choice,” Wei Wuxian said, following his gaze down, and taking in that visual representation of what was happening to the stone that must be happening to him as well. “Even if it’s bad for me, I have no choice.” He turned away from Lan Wangji. “You wouldn’t understand what being helpless feels like.”
Lan Wangji was silent. After awhile, he got up again, but didn’t leave, standing there as though wanting to say something.
Wei Wuxian refused to give him face and ask.
“I will be leaving for a few days,” Lan Wangji said finally.
At that, Wei Wuxian looked up. “What? Now?” he asked. Jiang YanLi’s wedding festivities began in three days, and Lan Wangji had agreed to attend.
“Do you wish me to stay?” Lan Wangji asked after a moment.
Wei Wuxian turned away, not sure why the question hurt. “I don’t care,” he bit out. “Do what you want.”
Still, he didn’t realize he hoped that Lan Wangji would come back, would attend the wedding with him until the day GusuLan left for Koi Tower, and Lan Wangji still had not come home.