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The first time A-Yuan calls Lan Wangji father, to say that it takes him by surprise would be an understatement.

They’re both seated across from each other in the Library Pavilion. A-Yuan practises his calligraphy with a single-minded focus that’s both commendable and endearing, while Lan Wangji marks the essays of some of the more senior disciples. Just as he finishes making a few notes in the margin of one, he hears A-Yuan’s tiny voice saying, “Um, HanGuang-Jun, I’ve finished…”

Lan Wangji hums, looks over to A-Yuan’s paper, then nods in approval. Every character is neat and precise, not a stroke out of place. “Well done,” he tells the child, unable to keep a note of pride out of his voice. A-Yuan is quickly turning out to be one of the more promising disciples amongst his age group. He’s diligent, perseverant, and a quick learner, not to mention well-mannered and courteous. In fact, it’s come to the point where Lan Qiren often singles him out as a model student for other disciples, and even the elders have stopped muttering darkly about allowing Wens to study in the Cloud Recesses, and have granted him their grudging approval.

A-Yuan practically glows under the praise. “Thank you, baba! ” he says.

Lan Wangji freezes. Oh. Oh no. “You should not call me that,” he says, keeping his voice as gentle as possible. “I am not your father.”

A-Yuan deflates visibly. “Oh…” he whispers. “I’m sorry, HanGuang-Jun...it won’t happen again!”

“It is fine,” Lan Wangji assures him, then proceeds to panic internally for the rest of the session. A-Yuan is even more subdued than usual, looking almost on the brink of tears, and Lan Wangji itches to comfort him, but what can he say in this situation?

The bell tolls, and A-Yuan hastily gathers his things, mumbles a goodbye, and flees.

Lan Wangji sits there in silence for a moment more, then rushes to his guqin.

 

Wei Ying is beside himself with laughter when Lan Wangji tells him what has happened.

<It is not funny,> Lan Wangji snaps, when almost a minute has passed and Wei Ying’s mirth shows no signs of abating.

<Oh, but it is, Lan Zhan!> Wei Ying cries. Lan Wangji gets the impression that, were he here physically, he’d be rolling around on the floor. <I told you you were spoiling him too much! With all that attention you give him - no wonder he wants you to be his father!>

<But I am not, > Lan Wangji insists, hoping Wei Ying can sense his desperation and give him some actual advice. <The Wens are his family.>

Wei Ying finally sobers up. <Yeah, he’s related to them, and yes, they are his family,> he plays. <But...family’s not just about blood, you know? He’s around you so much, no wonder he looks up to you like a father. And correct me if I’m wrong, Lan Zhan, but...I rather get the impression you wouldn’t mind having him as a son yourself.>

<I wouldn’t,> Lan Wangji plays. He is, indeed, exceedingly fond of A-Yuan, and so are Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren, even if the latter won’t admit it. <But the Wens ->

<Go talk to them!> Wei Ying insists. <I’m sure this will all work itself out, if you just clear it up with them!>

With this in mind, Lan Wangji approaches Wen Qing, Wen Ning and Granny Wen with something that can only be called trepidation. When he explains the situation, Wen Ning laughs softly and says, “A-Yuan is so cute…” Wen Qing glowers at him.

“Well?” she snaps. “I don’t see what the problem is. Go ahead and adopt the kid - you obviously want to.”

“But he is part of your family,” Lan Wangji says.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes, and Wen Ning says, “Of course he is! We’re not saying we’ll, uh, give him up, it’s just...he can be part of your family too!”

“Unless you’re not planning on ever letting him visit us here again,” Wen Qing says, raising a brow.

“Of course not.”

She huffs. “Then, again, what exactly is the problem?”

Lan Wangji turns to Granny Wen. “Is this okay?” he asks her.

The old lady gives him a gummy smile. “Didn’t you say A-Yuan is doing well in his studies? He can actually have a good future - unlike the rest of us here. But if his name is Wen, then…”

Lan Wangji understands. The vitriol against the Wen Sect is unlikely to die down any time soon - A-Yuan will have access to much more opportunities if his name is Lan and not Wen.

Still, he’s hesitant. “Are you sure?”

Wen Qing clicks her tongue. “What, is it that you don’t want him?”

“I do.”

“Does your family have a problem with it?”

“No.” Quite the opposite - Lan Wangji thinks his uncle might possibly like A-Yuan even more than him.

“Then quit dawdling and go adopt him!” Granny Wen says.

Wen Ning smiles gently. “Good luck!”

 

And that’s how Wen Yuan becomes Lan Yuan. The sect elders, predictably, grumble loudly when they hear, but Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren somehow manage to get them to agree to it. It’s all worth it, though, for the way A-Yuan smiles when Lan Wangji tells him to call him Father.

 

About a year later, Lan Wangji gets injured on a night hunt in Lanling.

Not badly enough to die, but badly enough that when he regains consciousness, it’s to the sight of Wen Qing standing over him brandishing a needle like a weapon, and A-Yuan standing beside her, rather teary-eyed.

“Father!” the boy cries, and moves forward like he’s going to try to hug him, but Wen Qing grabs him by his collar and hauls him back.

“Your father’s wounds have only just healed,” she scolds. “Do you want them to open again?”

A-Yuan retreats, embarrassed, and mumbles, “Sorry, Qing-jie…”

“It’s fine,” Wen Qing says. “Go fetch my brother, and tell him to bring more bandages when he comes.” A-Yuan nods, then scurries off, after sneaking on last glance at Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji tries to sit up, then winces when his stomach twinges with pain. “How long was I unconscious?” he asks Wen Qing when she tsks and pushes him to lie down again.

“Almost a week,” she says. “Do you remember what happened?”

Lan Wangji thinks. The last thing he remembers is… “A beast. In the form of a tiger.”

Wen Qing nods. “From what I’ve heard, you tried to do something stupid and self-sacrificing, as usual, and got gouged through the stomach as a result. If you weren’t in the hands of such a capable medic, you would’ve certainly died from those wounds. I doubt your ghost boyfriend would’ve have been too happy to hear that.”

“He’s not my -” Lan Wangji begins to protest automatically, before he remembers - it has been almost a week, and Wei Ying likely doesn’t know what has happened. Would he be worried? “I need my guqin.”

“You need to rest, ” Wen Qing corrects.

“Wei Ying -”

Wen Qing waves her needle threateningly in his face. “What part of gouged through the stomach is so foreign to you?” she demands. “You need to use your spiritual energy to recover, not to go reciting love poems to your boyfriend. I’m sure he’ll agree with me.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Lan Wangji repeats.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. Your ghost husband.”

Lan Wangji wishes his pride would allow him to pull the blanket up over his head. As it is, all he can do is mutter, “We are only friends.”

“Please don’t insult my intelligence,” Wen Qing says witheringly. She adds some herbs and water to a bowl, then starts grinding them to a paste with her pestle. “We all see the besotted look on your face whenever you’re playing for him - even Granny has commented on it, and she’s half blind.”

“Am I that obvious?”

“Yes,” Wen Qing tells him bluntly. She comes over, removes his bandages, and begins slathering the paste on his wound. “I’m surprised your uncle hasn’t commented on it yet. I don’t think he’d be too happy to hear you’ve pledged yourself to a ghost.”

“He does not know,” Lan Wangji says. He knows his uncle would be beside himself with ire were he to find out, which is why he’s especially careful not to let that happen.

“Congratulations,” Wen Qing says drily. “Does your brother know?”

“Yes.”

“How’d he take it?”

“Not well.”

Wen Qing shrugs. “To be expected. Don’t take this the wrong way, HanGuang-Jun, but...how do you expect this story to have a happy ending?”

“I don’t,” Lan Wangji says truthfully. “I will just enjoy what time I have with Wei Ying, before he leaves.”

Wen Qing scoffs. “What a hopeless romantic you are. Pining away like a lovelorn maiden. Whatever happened to the esteemed HanGuang-Jun, whose demeanor could rival frost?” They both know it’s not an uncommon sentiment about him.

Lan Wangji would shrug, if it wouldn’t hurt so much. He’s spared from having to reply by the arrival of Wen Ning, A-Yuan in tow. Wen Ning greets him shyly - he’s still timid, but not nearly as much as he was four years ago. “Hello, HanGuang-Jun.”

“Hello, Wen Ning,” Lan Wangji replies.

Wen Ning offers the bandages to his sister, who snatches them away and says, grudgingly, “You brought the right type for once...not bad.”

“I do remember what you yell at me for,” Wen Ning mumbles.

“What was that?” Wen Qing demands sharply. “Stand up straight, and don’t mumble! I’m not going to eat you!”

 

Lan Wangji is warned on pain of paralysis to refrain from playing Inquiry for another week, until his wound is sufficiently healed. He spends the entirety of the week feeling fidgety and restless, much to his brother’s amusement and Wen Qing’s irritation. He knows Wei Ying is most likely not worried about him - either because the spirit just doesn’t care about him enough to be, or because the strange flow of time in his spirit realm makes him completely unaware that something is even amiss. Still, the moment Wen Qing declares him to be as well as he’s going to get after a wound like that, he’s off to speak to Wei Ying.

Wei Ying replies almost before the final note of the opening is played. <Lan Zhan! What happened?!>

<You noticed something was wrong?> Lan Wangji asks.

<Of course I did, you didn’t call for ages! I was so worried!>

<You were?>

<What the hell do you mean, was I worried? How could I not be?>

<I am fine,> Lan Wangji plays, feeling something warm and happy settle in him at Wei Ying’s words. He was worried about me...does this mean he cares about me? <I was injured in a night hunt and could not play while I recovered.>

<What exactly do you mean, injured? > Wei Ying plays slowly. <How badly?>

<Pierced through the stomach,> Lan Wangji plays, then startles at the discordant screech of the chords.

< Pierced? > Wei Ying demands shrilly. <How are you being so calm about this?>

<I am fine,> Lan Wangji plays, wondering why Wei Ying seems so upset. <I have suffered worse injuries before.> If anything, this only seems to agitate Wei Ying more.

<Was that supposed to make me feel better, Lan Zhan?> he demands. <What the hell even happened?>

Lan Wangji tells him. It had been a more or less routine night hunt, in a small patch of forest near the Lanling border. According to the nearby villagers, an overlarge tiger had started off devouring their livestock and had now progressed to devouring the villagers themselves. The village was too small and out-of-the-way for most major cultivators to take notice, which is why Lan Wangji hadn’t been surprised to find himself the only cultivator there. But then Jin Zixun had appeared.

About a year ago, Jin Zixuan had been severely injured during a hunt in Qinghe. Although he survived, he came out of the ordeal paralyzed from the waist down. He had been forced to resign as Sect Leader, appointing Jin Guangyao - who was, after all, his half-brother - as his successor, and then moving to Yunmeng with his wife and child.

So far, during his time as Sect Leader, Jin Guangyao's leadership has been nothing short of commendable - still, rumors are bound to spread. And it's a bit of an open secret that Jin Zixun hadn't been entirely happy about the fact that Jin Guangyao, a prostitute's son, was chosen over him, a more 'legitimate’ member of the family, to inherit the position.

Lan Wangji is not particularly fond of Jin Zixun, and from what he can tell, the feeling's mutual. Jin Zixun had been the one responsible for 'overseeing’ the remaining Wens before Lan Wangji had brought them to Gusu, and neither of them have really forgiven the other for the role they played in the incident. Still, Lan Wangji had managed to avoid interacting with the other cultivator in the years that had passed - until they had run into each other during the night hunt.

Lan Wangji had inwardly wondered what had brought Jin Zixun there, considering how unlikely this particular beast was to bring him any kind of renown by killing it. Jin Zixun had offered no explanation either, only brusquely ordering his own cultivators to set elaborate traps around the perimeter. Before they could finish, however, the beast had appeared.

Despite its initial appearance as an ordinary, mid-level beast, the tiger turned out to be much more vicious than Lan Wangji had expected. It had killed two Jin cultivators before they could even draw their swords, and then turned to Jin Zixun. Realizing that by the time he managed to land a blow, it would be too late, Lan Wangji had put himself in the beast’s path - hence the wound.

<You idiot, > Wei Ying plays feelingly, oddly reminiscent of Wen Qing. <Be thankful I don’t have a physical body, otherwise I would’ve beaten you up even more! What the hell did you do that for?>

<It would have killed Jin Zixun otherwise,> Lan Wangji replies, rather alarmed. This is probably the angriest he’s ever heard Wei Ying sound since that awful time during the Sunshot Campaign.

< And? You could have been killed, Lan Zhan!>

<It would have been for a good cause.>

<I hardly think the life of Jin Zixun is worth you losing yours!>

Lan Wangji frowns. <One of the rules of my Sect is to put others’ lives above our own. Our personal feelings do not matter.>

Wei Ying plays a wordless note of frustration. <Aurgh! Lan Zhan, you’re impossible! It’s alright if you want to go and throw away your life, but how do you think your family - your uncle, your brother, A-Yuan - would feel? How do you think I would feel?>

<My family would understand the reason for my actions,> Lan Wangji tells him, which is true. <And...would you care? Much?>

<Would I - oh, what the fuck, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying snarls, definitely angry now. <What kind of question is that? >

Lan Wangji blinks. What does Wei Ying mean? <I ->

<Of course I would care if you died, Lan Zhan!>

<Because you would no longer be able to communicate with the living?> Lan Wangji asks tentatively.

<No, because I care about you! You idiot! >

Lan Wangji’s hand almost slips. <Oh.> He feels a telltale warmth in his ears, and he feels his lips curve involuntarily. He knows Wei Ying probably doesn’t mean it in the same way, the way he hopes, but it’s fine - this is more than enough. <I care about you too, Wei Ying.>

Wei Ying plays a short series of notes that sounds almost like a splutter. It’s hopelessly endearing. <That - that’s - don’t try to distract me, Lan Zhan! I’m still supposed to be mad at you!>

It’s a good thing no one ever enters the Jingshi, because Lan Wangji is sure that if anyone were to see the way he’s smiling, they’d think him possessed. <I apologize,> he plays, and laughs softly at the way the tiny orb bobs up and down in indignation.

<I will forgive you, this once ,> Wei Ying huffs, <but don’t ever think of pulling a stunt like that again! If you die, the moment I find you here in the afterlife I’ll punch you!>

<I’ll keep that in mind,> Lan Wangji promises. <But there was actually something else I wanted to ask you about.>

<Yeah? What is it?>

<There were many talismans stuck to the beast,> Lan Wangji plays. <But I had never seen those characters before - and they were drawn in blood. They seemed to radiate resentful energy. Do you have any idea about them?>

<Hmm,> Wei Ying plays thoughtfully, <I might. Can you describe them?>

Lan Wangji tries his best to do so. When he’s finished, Wei Ying hums pensively. Finally, he plays slowly, <I know what talisman you’re talking about. It’s purpose is to attract resentment, instead of repelling it like a normal talisman. This particular talisman alters the energy of an animal and turns it into a beast - with as many talismans on that poor tiger as you’ve said, no wonder it was so vicious.>

<How do you know so much about this?> Lan Wangji wonders.

Wei Ying pauses. Eventually, carefully, he plays, <Because I was the one who designed it.>

<What?>

<It was back when I was alive. I never used it, I swear!> Wei Ying plays hurriedly, like he’s still worried Lan Wangji will condemn him for his cultivation. <It was only an idea I had. But...I don’t know how anyone could’ve found about it, much less to recreate the exact talisman.>

<Did you make a record of it somewhere?> Lan Wangji asks.

<Yeah,> Wei Ying says, <I think I jotted it down in this book I always carried around with me. But I always thought that got destroyed when I...you know…>

<Are you sure?> Lan Wangji presses, despite wanting to do nothing more than to escape this topic.

<Um,> Wei Ying plays haltingly. <The thing is...the events leading up to my, uh, death, are kind of...blurry? I don’t remember much of what happened during those last few days. I mean, I remember the end really clearly, which is, ha, not such a good thing...but I do remember not having the book with me, then. Nor any of my talismans, nor my sword, or my flute...I guess I always just assumed that they were destroyed by the corpses as well? But now that I think about it...maybe I did lose them before that. I can’t remember, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry.>

<Do not apologize,> Lan Wangji plays. <It is not your fault.>

<Still,> Wei Ying plays, <I wish I could be of more help.>

<It is fine.>

<What I am curious about, though,> Wei Ying plays, <is why anyone would actually use that talisman? I mean, what purpose could creating that beast serve? Did they mean to set it upon the village? Is there...any significance to that place?>

<The Mo Village? I cannot say,> Lan Wangji plays. Although, now that he thinks about it…<It is situated on the border between Gusu and Lanling. I know that the LanlingJin sect has been trying to get its people to submit to LanlingJin jurisdiction, but the villagers insist on remaining under GusuLan.>

<Huh,> Wei Ying plays, contemplatively. <And...after this night hunt, did they give into LanlingJin?>

<Yes,> Lan Wangji plays. <After all, it was Jin cultivators who slew the beast.>

<I see,> Wei Ying plays. <And you did say that Jin Zixun usually wouldn’t bother showing up to night hunts like these, didn’t you?>

<Mm.>

<Well…> Wei Ying plays, dragging the note out. <I don’t really want to say it, but… >

Lan Wangji is sure they’ve both come to the same conclusion. <You think LanlingJin sect created the beast and set it upon the village so that they could rescue the people and gain ownership of the land.>

Wei Ying snorts. <I wasn’t exactly going to say it so directly, but yeah. Basically.>

Lan Wangji frowns. <This matter will have to be investigated. I will tell my brother.>

<Oh, don’t bother,> Wei Ying says. <I doubt anyone will believe you.>

<Wei Ying,> Lan Wangji plays, reproachful.

<What? It’s true!> Wei Ying protests. <After all, all the evidence we have is circumstantial - no one besides myself knew about that talisman - and if it comes down to the word of the entire LanlingJin sect against the word of one cultivator and a ghost, well. You can imagine how that’ll go.>

Lan Wangji huffs quietly. <I must still do something,> he insists.

<Well, go talk to your brother if you think it’ll do any good,> Wei Ying says. <But what I also wonder is how exactly LanlingJin got their hands on that book.>

<I will ask them.>

Wei Ying sighs. <Lan Zhan, please don’t tell me you’re planning on dramatically barging into Koi Tower and interrogating the Sect Leader...although, it would be kind of cool, now I think about it…>

<I was not planning to,> Lan Wangji plays. It’s only half a lie and, by the disbelieving strum Wei Ying plays, it’s obvious he can tell.

<Well, I’ll leave you to it then, Lan Zhan,> he plays. <Go get some rest - you need to recover!>

<I am recovered.>

<Ha, like I’m going to believe anything you say when it comes to your own health,> Wei Ying retorts, and plays an increasingly loud series of discordant chords until Lan Wangji ends the Inquiry.

 

Lan Wangji does talk to Lan Xichen about his theory but, as Wei Ying had predicted, not much can be done. Lan Xichen does believe him, but he tells Lan Wangji essentially the same things Wei Ying had, only in much gentler terms - essentially, no one else would believe him.

Lan Wangji is quietly angry about it for a while, but eventually decides that, until he can obtain more evidence, he had better just bide his time. He manages to almost put the matter out of his mind for the next year and a half, until the next Discussion Conference, which happens to be held in Lanling.

Jin Zixun spends the majority of the event strutting around arrogantly, which not a particularly novel occurrence. What is new is the wide array of talismans he shows off to anyone who’ll listen - all talismans Wei Ying had already talked to Lan Wangji about designing. There’s a particular one, a flag which attracts spirits and monsters to the wearer, that Jin Zixun claims will be highly useful during night hunts - and then proceeds to offer to sell for a correspondingly high price.

“What has gotten you so upset, Wangji?” Lan Xichen asks, probably picking up on his sour mood.

“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji says, continuing to glare fixedly at the talismans.

Lan Xichen follows his gaze. “Ah,” he says. “I see.”

Lan Wangji asks Jin Zixun about it later, and the response he gets is that of course LanlingJin sect designed it ourselves; after all, we are by far the most talented in every area of cultivation!

Lan Wangji resists the urge to curl his hands into fists - how shameless must Jin Zixun be to claim Wei Ying’s ideas as his own? But he says nothing, and asks Jin Zixun about it again, three hours and five cups of wine later. This time, the response is much more honest.

“It’s a whole damn manual on demonic cultivation,” Jin Zixun slurs. “We had it locked up in the treasure room for heaven knows how long, no one wanted to use it…”

“Where did you get it?” Lan Wangji presses, trying to ignore the dread that’s creeping up on him steadily.

Jin Zixun snorts, swiping a dismissive hand across the table and scattering empty cups everywhere. “Some upstart little rogue cultivator, a bunch of years ago...wanted to act like he was all high and mighty, better than us…” He laughs again. “Wasn’t so proud after we gave him a good beating and took his little diary with us!”

Lan Wangji inhales, counts to ten and back. Losing his temper will do him no good now - but he has never been more sorely tempted to strike another person in his life. “So you robbed him,” he says, evenly.

“Eh, it wasn’t robbery!” Jin Zixun says. “He was trespassing on LanlingJin land - eating our food, hunting our beasts, and not paying a single coin in taxes! Everything he owned was rightfully ours, don’t you think?”

“You left him for dead!” Lan Wangji snaps, self control finally abandoning him.

Jin Zixun huffs disparagingly. “So what if I did? Who’s going to care about the fate of one rogue cultivator? Their kind get picked off every damn day!”

I care, Lan Wangji wants to say. I’m in love with him. Instead, he says, “No matter who, robbery is still a crime.”

“Come on, don’t be so self-righteous all the time, HanGuang-Jun!” Jin Zixun groans. “It’s exhuasting.”

This entire conversation is exhausting, and Lan Wangji longs desperately to talk to Wei Ying, but he has to find out more. He says, “Why did you only start using demonic cultivation now, if you have had the book for years?”

“Well, obviously none of us were stupid enough to try the stupid shit some demonic cultivator came up with, so we found someone who was .”

“Xue Yang,” Lan Wangji realizes.

“That street rat was foaming at the mouth to get his hands on that shit,” Jin Zixun says. “He’s the one who actually figured out how to use the talismans...oi, where are you going?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, not sparing him a glance as he sweeps out of the room. Sure enough, he hears the telltale sound of snoring from behind him.

 

Lan Wangji’s first instinct is to go to his brother. But then he thinks: if Xue Yang is being held as a guest cultivator of the Jin Sect, then it’s more likely than not that Jin Guangyao is aware of exactly what he’s doing. Which means that even if Lan Xichen were to confront him about it, Jin Guangyao might be hesitant to actually take action against Xue Yang.

Then, at ChiFeng-Zun’s insistence (and likely due to the bad reputation they were gaining for housing a known criminal), the Jin Sect claims to have executed Xue Yang for his past crimes. Lan Xichen later tells Lan Wangji that when asked about the manual, Jin Guangyao had claimed to have found no trace of it in Koi Tower’s treasure vault. Lan Wangji rather doubts he’s telling the whole truth, but what proof does he have? Besides, Jin Guangyao is Lan Xichen’s sworn brother  - Lan Xichen must trust him for a reason.

About a month later, Jin Zixun drunkenly falls from the Tower and dies.

<I am sorry I could not do more,> Lan Wangji tells Wei Ying. Jin Zixun may have died, but the demonic cultivation manual is still unaccounted for - as are Wei Ying’s sword and flute. Not to mention, rumours abound that Xue Yang is not actually dead - after all, why would the Jin Sect so resolutely refuse to present a body? If Xue Yang is still alive, and has the manual -

<Weren’t you the one who said that between us, there’s no need to say sorry?> Wei Ying plays. <Lan Zhan, it’s fine - I know you tried your hardest. And what’s in the past is in the past - I’m not bothered by it anymore. No need to worry that I’ll turn into a vicious ghost, or something like that!>

When Lan Wangji had told Wei Ying what he’d found out from Jin Zixun, he’d been worried about how his friend would react. Wei Ying, however, took it with surprising calmness - he claimed not to remember anything about the attack. Lan Wangji, however, had managed to piece together that it was probably the encounter with Jin Zixun that had sent Wei Ying into the enraged frenzy that had resulted in him losing control of the corpses.

All in all, he thinks Wei Ying is taking the news with less anger than he himself is.

Now, though: <Now that Jin Zixun is dead,> he begins, then stops. Does he really want to know the answer to the question that’s on the tip of his fingers?

<Mm?> Wei Ying hums. <Now that he’s dead, what?>

<Are you,> Lan Wangji plays, one note at a time, trying to drag this out, <able to move on?>

Wei Ying is silent for a long time, to the point that Lan Wangji has to play <Wei Ying?> just to make sure he’s still there.

<I’m here,> Wei Ying plays. Then with a weak chuckle, <You still...care about that?>

<Of course,> Lan Wangji plays immediately. What he wants for himself is completely different from what he wants for Wei Ying - he just wants the spirit to be happy, no matter what that happiness will cost him. He hopes Wei Ying doesn’t think that Lan Wangji will force him to remain here just because he…

<Well, Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays, <I think you’ll be disappointed. That’s not, uh...what’s keeping me here. I’m sorry.>

<Do not apologize,> Lan Wangji plays, hating himself for how selfishly relieved he is to hear it. Wei Ying had sounded so glum - is it that he’s upset that he’s trapped here? <We will keep trying.>

<Yeah,> Wei Ying mutters. <I guess.>

 

One stormy night, there’s a soft knock on the door of the Jingshi, interrupting Lan Wangji from his conversation with Wei Ying.

<Please excuse me for a second,> he plays, then gets up from the guqin and opens the door to find a drenched A-Yuan standing outside, dressed only in his sleeping robes.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, ushering his son inside and closing the door behind him. He rummages around in his wardrobe for a towel, then wraps it around A-Yuan and begins to pat him dry. “It is late. You should be in your dormitory.”

“I know,” A-Yuan mumbles. “I’m sorry, Father, it’s just...I had a nightmare, and the storm…can I stay here, just a bit?”

Lan Wangji sighs. His uncle would refuse, insisting that Lan disciples needed to conquer their fears from an early age, but...Lan Wangji remembers when he himself was A-Yuan’s age, and had developed an unreasonable fear of the dark corner of his room next to the door. His brother had stayed with him all night, comforting him, showing that there was no monster lurking there.

(“Don’t worry, A-Zhan,” he’d reassured him, “you’ll become a big, strong cultivator one day and if there is a monster, you’ll be able to fight it yourself!”)

With this in mind, Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan, “You may stay for a while. But you must return to your dormitory later. And what is rule number one thousand, two hundred and twenty-six?”

“‘Giving into one’s fears is prohibited,’” A-Yuan recites, then beams and says, “Thank you, Father!”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, and finds an old spare robe for A-Yuan to change into.

<Who’s that with you?> Wei Ying plays, briefly startling Lan Wangji - he’d almost forgotten the spirit was still in the room with them.

He returns to the guqin and plays, <A-Yuan.>

<Ah!> Wei Ying exclaims delightedly. <What’s this? Father-son bonding time?>

<He had a nightmare,> Lan Wangji explains.

“Er, Father?” A-Yuan asks. Lan Wangji turns to face him. A-Yuan fiddles with the sleeve of his overlarge robe and says quietly, “May I...ask? What it is you’re playing? And how your guqin plays itself, sometimes?”

Technically, Inquiry won’t be on A-Yuan’s syllabus for a few more years, but Lan Wangji supposes a little extra tutoring won’t hurt. “It is called Inquiry,” he explains. “It is a song that allows me to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Different notes correspond to different syllables. The spirits themselves may play the instrument to respond.”

A-Yuan’s eyes widen. “So...you’re talking to one right now?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, just as Wei Ying pipes up, <Wait, what’s happening?>

<I am explaining Inquiry to A-Yuan,> he replies, just as A-Yuan gasps softly.

“Father,” he says, “is this the same spirit you spoke to in the evenings? When you would visit the village?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji repeats.

“What is their name?”

“His name is Wei Ying.”

<What’s going on?> Wei Ying plays impatiently. <I feel so left out!>

<He wants to know about you,> Lan Wangji tells him.

<Oho, and just what are you telling him? Only good things, I hope!>

<I told him you’re shameless.>

<Ah! Lan Zhan, don’t slander me like that when I can’t even defend myself!>

“Is he your friend?” Lan Yuan asks.

Lan Wangji hesitates. Friend feels like too small a word to describe everything Wei Ying is to him, but he still says, “Mm.”

“Ah,” A-Yuan says. “I wish I could meet him.”

At almost the same time, Wei Ying plays, <You know, Lan Zhan, I wish I could talk to A-Yuan - I want to see how you’ve been raising him! I hope you’re not still spoiling him rotten!>

“He wants to meet you too,” Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan who blinks, startled.

“He knows about me?”

“Of course,” Lan Wangji says. “You are my son.”

A-Yuan smiles bashfully, then says, “Um, if it’s not too much trouble...could I learn to play Inquiry? If it won’t bother you, of course.”

“It will not,” Lan Wangji says. “Let us begin.”

“What!” A-Yuan yelps. “Right now?”

“Why not?” Lan Wangji says, already explaining the situation to Wei Ying. “Do you have something else to do at the moment?”

“Well, no,” A-Yuan says.

“Then listen,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Ying plays, <Hello, A-Yuan!>

“What did he say?” A-Yuan asks.

Lan Wangji repeats the message, then says, “Listen again.” To Wei Ying, he says, <Play it slower.>

Wei Ying plays carefully, one note at a time, and Lan Wangji interprets. “Hel - lo - A - Yuan. Did you hear it?”

A-Yuan nods, and Lan Wangji says, “Now you try.” He takes his son’s hands and guides them to play the notes that spell out, <Hello, Wei Ying. I am A-Yuan.>

<Ahh!> Wei Ying cries happily, when he’s done. <Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, did he play that? Wow, he sounded so good - as expected from HanGuang-Jun’s son!>

“He said you did well,” Lan Wangji tells A-Yuan, who goes bright red and stammers, “Thank you!”

“Thank him ,” Lan Wangji says, gesturing to the guqin. “Here, I’ll show you.”

About half an hour later, after they’ve made it through most of the basic phrases of Inquiry, a rather amused Wei Ying offering encouragements at every turn, Lan Wangji says, “A-Yuan, it is late. Time to return to bed.”

A-Yuan briefly looks like he’s considering protesting, but ends up just nodding. “Thank you for the lesson!”

“It is no problem,” Lan Wangji says, standing. “We will practise more tomorrow. Come, I will walk you back. Do you remember how to say goodbye?”

A-Yuan nods, and plays, <Goodbye, Wei Ying!> It’s a bit shaky, but a good attempt for a child who’s only just learnt an hour ago.

<Goodbye, A-Yuan! See - you - late - er!> Wei Ying chirps, and Lan Wangji hides his smile behind his sleeve.

As they walk to A-Yuan’s dormitory, the entirety of the Cloud Recesses silent except for the low chirping of crickets. A-Yuan asks, softly, “Father...is Uncle Xichen okay? I haven’t seen him recently.”

Lan Wangji hesitates. How does he explain this? “Your uncle is sad,” he decides on. “One of his friends has passed away.” Nie Mingjue’s death from Qi deviation had not come as much of a surprise to anyone, not given the cultivator’s infamous temper, but it was still a crushing blow to many - to Lan Xichen in particular.

“Oh,” A-Yuan says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Not your fault.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Allow him time to grieve,” Lan Wangji tells him. “And tell your friends not to make trouble for him.” They both know which friend in particular he’s referring to.

“I will!” A-Yuan promises. They arrive at the dormitory, and Lan Wangji allows himself to stroke his son’s hair once before he tells him goodnight and returns to the Jingshi.

 

In this fashion, several years pass.

Lan Wangji continues to go on night hunts, to teach the disciples, to care for his rabbits, to visit the Wens, and to play Inquiry every Friday night.

A-Yuan - Sizhui, now - continues his studies, becoming one of the top disciples in the Sect, and continues to learn Inquiry.

And throughout it all, Wei Ying remains a constant, and Lan Wangji only falls deeper and deeper in love.

The presence of Wei Ying is something of an open secret in the Cloud Recesses by now. Even if they don’t speak of it, almost everyone knows that HanGuang-Jun spends his nights talking to a spirit, that Lan Sizhui treats the same spirit almost as a second father. On more than one occasion, Lan Wangji has overheard a disciple asking Sizhui how Senior Wei is doing.

(At some point, Sizhui had started addressing Wei Ying as Dad, and Wei Ying still gleefully refers to Sizhui as their son, totally unaware of the effect it has on Lan Wangj’s heart.)

While Sizhui had initially only spoken with Wei Ying while under Lan Wangji’s supervision, during his lessons, he’s reached the level of proficiency where he can now converse with the spirit on his own. Lan Wangji notices that Wei Ying plays considerably more slowly when he speaks with Sizhui, letting the notes sound out one at a time instead of flowing right over each other like they usually do.

Sizhui has been allowed to assist Lan Wangji with his weekly Inquiry session now. It wasn’t lonely before, but Lan Wangji can’t deny that it’s...nice, having someone besides the spirits to keep him company on those nights.

The Wens have managed to flourish in their little settlement at the base of the mountain, whether they’re working in the Cloud Recesses, or in Caiyi, where the fervent hatred of all things Wen has finally died down enough to allow them to make a decent living in the town. Wen Qing is the head medic in the Cloud Recesses. Wen Ning and Granny Wen grow flowers and sell them in the town.

All in all, life is probably as good as it can get.

Sometimes, Lan Wangji and Sizhui talk to Wei Ying together. At times like these, Lan Wangji thinks about all those offhand comments Wei Ying makes about Sizhui being their son, and has to wonder: is this what it would feel like? For the three of them to be a family?

One such night, as Sizhui is telling Wei Ying about his day, he happens to mention, <Oh! Father had a meeting today, with another potential suitor…>

Lan Wangji stiffens. Wei Ying plays, <Oh?>

Sizhui notices the change in Lan Wangji’s demeanor. “Sorry,” he says, “should I...not have told him?”

“It is fine,” Lan Wangji says.

<Suitors?> Wei Ying plays. <Are you...looking to get married, Lan Zhan?>

<It is nothing,> Lan Wangji plays, then rather unsubtly changes the subject.

Later, after Sizhui has said his goodbyes and gone off to bed, Lan Wangji feels the need to tell Wei Ying, <I do not want to get married.>

He doesn’t want to get married - to anyone besides Wei Ying, at least - but that’s not a wish shared by the Sect elders. Apparently, he’s of an age where his lack of a cultivation partner has become a hotly contested topic amongst the general public. While his reputation had suffered somewhat, first from the attacks of resentful energy that seemed to follow him during the Sunshot Campaign, and later from his rescue of the Wens, it has apparently recovered to the point that offers of marriage have begun to arrive from various other Sects.

The elders insist that he accepts one which will be beneficial to the Sect. Lan Wangji insists that he will not marry anyone to whom his heart does not belong.

For a Sect with such a romantic history, he thinks rather bitterly, its elders are quite insistent on the issue.

At every meeting that is arranged between him and a suitor, he wastes no time in turning them down politely, but firmly. And with every unsuccessful meeting, the ire of the elders only increases.

It comes to the point that Lan Qiren himself tells him, “Wangji, I know you may not want to marry some stranger, but don’t you think that you should take some companion?”

“I have Sizhui,” Lan Wangji says. “And you and brother. And the Wens.”

Lan Qiren sighs. “Why not marry Wen Qing, then? Are the two of you not close?” Wen Qing must have really proven her worth in exceptional fashion for Lan Qiren to grant her his seal of approval to marry his nephew.

“Wen Qing is only my friend,” Lan Wangji says. He also suspects that she is altogether uninterested in men, but that’s a different story.

Lan Qiren can only sigh and mutter about disrespect.

Lan Xichen, when he hears about his brother’s predicament, gives him a knowing look and says only, “Wei Ying?”

Lan Wangji nods.

Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Wangji...you know this cannot end well. Have you not considered...moving on?”

“I cannot,” Lan Wangji says. He’s given too much of his heart, too long ago, to Wei Ying to ever hold hopes of getting enough back to give to anyone else .

“Yes,” Lan Xichen sighs, “I know.”

 

Lan Wangji briefly explains the situation to Wei Ying, who strums a note that sounds almost like a sigh of relief, except that doesn’t make sense. <So you’re not interested?> he plays. <In any of your suitors?>

<I am not,> Lan Wangji repeats.

<But...don’t you want to get married?> Wei Ying presses. <Lan Zhan, aren’t you lonely?>

<No,> Lan Wangji plays, <I have you.>

<Aah!> Wei Ying cries. <You call me shameless, Lan Zhan, and then you go around saying things like that! But you know that’s not what I mean! Surely you want to find a cultivation partner - or do you intend to spend the rest of your life a bachelor?>

<I cannot marry someone I do not love.> Lan Wangji feels a dull twinge of unhappiness at how insistent Wei Ying seems to be that he get married to someone else. He hadn’t wanted Wei Ying to be unhappy at the prospect, but...

Wei Ying hums. <Maybe even if you don’t love them now , you’ll grow to love them later, once you’ve gotten to know them better. Come on, Lan Zhan, give it a shot!>

<Doubtful,> Lan Wangji plays. <I already love someone.> Then immediately curses himself mentally - why would he tell Wei Ying that ?

Wei Ying is silent, then plays shakily, <Y-you do?>

He supposes there’s no getting out of this. <Yes.>

<Ah,> Wei Ying plays softly. Then, <Who is it? Ha, I wonder which maiden has managed to catch the attention of the great HanGuang-Jun - let me guess, what kind of woman would you like? Someone quiet, probably, respectful ...pretty, definitely, if she’s managed to attract someone as beautiful as you ...>

Lan Wangji looks down at his hands. Wei Ying’s guesses are so far from the truth it is honestly bewildering. <It does not matter,> he plays finally, <they have already died.>

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays, <shit, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan. How...how long ago did it happen?>

<About twenty years ago.> Twenty years...that’s how long he’s known Wei Ying.

<And...you’ve been in love with them? This entire time?>

<Mm.>

<Oh,> plays Wei Ying. <What were they like?>

Lan Wangji lets himself smile. Something tells him that Wei Ying will find out soon enough - this secret he's been keeping for so many years. Why not let himself be as direct as possible?

But...how can he possibly put into mere words everything Wei Ying is, everything he means to him?

<He is lovely,> he plays finally.

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays again, softer. <Aha, Lan Zhan, I can't believe you were in love with someone this entire time and I never knew about it! Was I really that dense?>

<I didn’t want you to know,> Lan Wangji plays.

He realises it was the wrong thing to say when the only response from Wei Ying is a trembling, <I see.>

<Wei Ying, I didn’t mean ->

<No, it’s fine, Lan Zhan, I get it,> Wei Ying plays. <Listen, I...I think it’s best if we, uh, say goodnight for now.>

Lan Wangji sighs. Part of him wants to beg Wei Ying to stay, to try to explain to him. But he’s never been good at expressing himself - most likely, he’d only end up creating further misunderstandings. Best then to give himself another day to gather his thoughts. <Okay,> he plays.

<Alright, then,> Wei Ying replies. <Goodnight, Lan Zhan.>

 

The next day, Lan Wangji worries briefly that Wei Ying will not come. But he does, with only a few minutes to spare till curfew.

<Wei Ying,> Lan Wangji plays, wondering if the relief he feels is palpable enough that it conveys itself to Wei Ying.

<Lan Zhan,> Wei Ying plays. Not only is he rather more subdued than usual, but the form of his spirit trembles and flickers in a way that’s worrying to Lan Wangji - has something happened?

<Wei Ying?> he asks. <What is wrong?>

<Nothing’s wrong, Lan Zhan, I’m just...uh, nervous, I guess.>

<Why?>

Wei Ying laughs softly. <No, just something, ah, a bit stupid. Lan Zhan, let me ask you something. Do you...care for me?>

Lan Wangji frowns. How is this even a question, after all these years? <Of course.>

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays, <that’s - that’s good. Yeah. Anyway, um, the thing is, I...sort of have something to tell you.>

<Mm?>

Wei Ying hesitates. <Lan Zhan, I want you to...ask me. If I know what is keeping me here. Come on, you used to do it so frequently.>

Lan Wangji stiffens. <Why?>

<Just do it, Lan Zhan.>

The notes are tight, clipped. Cold dread creeping down his spine, Lan Wangji plays, <Do you know why you remain here, Wei Ying?>

<Yes.>

Lan Wangji freezes. It has been over a decade since he’s asked the question - he kept telling himself that it was because he was sure Wei Ying would tell him himself if he figured it out, that asking too frequently would only make Wei Ying think Lan Wangji didn’t want him around -

But the real, selfish, reason is...he was always afraid that the answer would be yes.

<Don’t you want to know what it is?> Wei Ying asks.

Lan Wangji draws a deep, shuddering breath. He’d always known Wei Ying would have to leave, eventually - this should not come as a surprise. <Mm.>

<It’s you.>

Lan Wangji can’t have heard right. <What?>

<You heard me,> Wei Ying plays. He’s still trembling, but the notes are stronger, surer. <I stayed for you.>

No. No.

<You -> Lan Wangji plays. <Why?>

<Because, because I…> the notes fade, till they’re barely audible, <because I thought you wanted me to.>

No. This cannot be happening. Lan Wangji is the reason why Wei Ying has been trapped here for twenty years, why he cannot move on, why he cannot be happy?

He has to - he has to let Wei Ying go.

<You should not have,> Lan Wangji plays, soft.

Wei Ying’s spirit flares, like he’s startled. When he plays again, it sounds much more uncertain. <I - you didn’t want me to?>

Of course Lan Wangji wants to be with Wei Ying. He wants it more than anything. But he doesn’t want it to come at the cost of Wei Ying’s own happiness. <No.>

< Ah, > Wei Ying breathes. <Lan Zhan, I thought - I thought you’d be happy, to hear it…>

A horrible thought occurs to Lan Wangji. Does...does Wei Ying know how he feels about him? Is that why he’s stayed? Out of some sense of obligation, just to make Lan Wangji happy? What kind of person does he think Lan Wangji is, to imagine that he’d be happy to be the reason for Wei Ying’s suffering? <I am not,> he plays tightly.

<Oh,> Wei Ying plays, softly, like a whisper. <I - I see. Look, I know you don’t want to hear it, Lan Zhan, but I’m sorry.>

<Do not apologize. It is not your fault.> It is mine.

<Still,> Wei Ying plays, <I shouldn’t have...stayed. All these years.> Lan Wangji closes his eyes, exhales.

<It is not your fault,> he repeats. <But now, you can move on.>

The strings still.

<Is that really what you want?> Wei Ying plays finally.

He sounds so small, so vulnerable in a way Wei Ying so rarely is. The last thing Lan Wangji wants to do is to hurt him, to make him feel unwanted. But he cannot keep selfishly clinging to Wei Ying. If he tells Wei Ying just how much he adores him, how much he wishes that he’d stay by his side forever, that would only bind Wei Ying even tighter to the earth.

Spirits cannot lie through Inquiry.

But Lan Wangji can.

<Yes.>

Wei Ying bobs up and down once, like a nod. <Okay. That’s - that’s fine, I guess. Um. Can I at least talk to our - to Sizhui, one last time? Before I leave.>

<Of course.>

<Alright,> Wei Ying plays. <I’ll, um, get going now. Guess I can see the light already, hah.>

<Mm,> is all Lan Wangji trusts himself to play, with how strongly his hands are trembling.

<Well,> Wei Ying plays, <Goodbye, Lan Zhan. It’s been good knowing you.>

<Goodbye, Wei Ying.> He almost tells Wei Ying something else, but the spirit vanishes before he has the chance to.

Lan Wangji crumples, bowing low over his guqin and burying his face in his hands.

 

For the first time in many, many years, an entire month goes by without Lan Wangji speaking to Wei Ying.

It's fair to say that it's one of the worst months of his life.

It's made all the more unbearable by the knowledge that this is it , this is permanent. At least, all the other times he and Wei Ying had been separated, Lan Wangji could rely on the knowledge that Wei Ying would still be there at the end of it. That he'd be waiting, just a strum of the guqin away. Even that time during the Sunshot Campaign, when they hadn’t spoken to each other in weeks, he’d known that Wei Ying was still out there, somewhere. And that maybe, possibly, he’d return to Lan Wangji.

He has no such comfort now.

Wei Ying is gone, and he has no one to blame but himself.

But at least Wei Ying can finally be happy. That’s the thought he keeps in mind constantly.

Sizhui's eyes are red-rimmed for the first couple of days after Wei Ying leaves, but he carries himself with remarkable composure, considering he's lost someone who's been a parent to him in all but blood for almost his entire life. Lan Wangji knows that Sizhui doesn't resent him for it, though, and for that he is grateful.

He doesn't know if he'd survive losing his son as well.

Lan Wangji doesn't cry. Not at first. He wants to, just to find some outlet for the misery that threatens to consume him, but he can't. He thinks he probably doesn't know how to.

His brother notices, as always, and tries to comfort him.

“I see Wei Ying has moved on,” he says, pouring Lan Wangji a cup of tea as they sit together in the quiet evening. Lan Wangji nods wordlessly and takes the tea.

“You are unhappy,” Lan Xichen observes.

Lan Wangji doesn’t even try to deny it. “I know it is selfish of me,” he whispers. “I know Wei Ying is happier now that he’s moved on. But I - I miss him. I cannot help it.”

Lan Xichen sighs. “I don't blame you, Wangji. You have known him for what - twenty years now, isn’t it? I’d be worried if you didn’t miss him.” He sets his own tea down, peers closely at his brother. “You know you are allowed to be sad, right? And I don’t mean just quietly endure. Take some time off from your duties if you need to - you and Sizhui both.”

“Excess emotions are forbidden within the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji recites automatically.

Lan Xichen laughs softly. “I’m not telling you to go wailing through the halls - I’ll leave that to Jingyi. But just - take the time you need, Wangji. You’ll feel even worse in the long run, if you don’t give yourself time to grieve properly.”

Lan Wangji nods. He supposes Lan Xichen would know.

Later that night, alone in the stillness of his Jingshi, he lets himself cry, finally, finally.

 

Then, one fateful night, the flare of the LanlingJin sect appears high in the night sky. Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen, and their uncle notice it as they eat their evening meal.

“Mo Village,” Lan Xichen realises. Lan Wangji hasn’t thought about it in years, that tiny village on the border. He wonders what could’ve happened that was extreme enough that the cultivators there felt the need to send up a signal.

“I will go,” he says.

“Why not just let LanlingJin handle it?” Lan Qiren says. “The village under their jurisdiction, after all.”

“Aid may not arrive in time,” Lan Wangji says. “We are closer.”

His brother and uncle exchange a look, then turn to him with unmistakable concern etched on their faces. He meets their gazes steadily. He knows why they’re worried - this is the first hunt he’ll be going on since Wei Ying left. But he can’t wallow in grief forever. He will never get over Wei Ying, but he can at least try to distract himself.

Finally, Lan Qiren sighs. “Go, then,” he says. “And take some of the senior disciples - they could use the practise.”

 

Lan Wangji arrives in Mo Village, Sizhui, Jingyi and a few other disciples in tow, to the frankly rather unbelievable sight of three walking corpses - brawling?

“What the -” Jingyi begins loudly. Sizhui nudges him, and he falls silent.

Lan Wangji draws his guqin, and with a few strums, immobilizes the corpses long enough for the disciples, both from the Lan and Jin sects, to wrangle what appears to be a severed arm into a Qiankun Pouch.

They listen to Jin Rulan - Jin Zixuan’s son, who’d returned to study in Lanling - explain the night’s strange events.

“But the strangest thing was,” he says, “that this cutsleeve lunatic who’d been thrown out of my Sect showed up here - and it seemed like he was…” he trails off, scowling.

“He was what?” Sizhui presses.

“You wouldn’t believe me,” Jin Rulan mutters.

Sizhui smiles gently. “You won’t know unless you try, Young Master Jin.”

Jin Rulan huffs. “Fine! And don’t you dare laugh at me! It looked like he was controlling the corpses!”

Lan Wangji freezes. It cannot be…

Out of the corner of his eyes, he barely notices a young man dressed in black slip off quietly into the night.

 

They are in the forests of Dafan mountain, and Lan Wangji is not entirely sure he’s not dreaming.

All he can do is stare wordlessly as the man from before plays his song - their song - to subdue the corpses he’d summoned to defeat the goddess statue. There are only two people in the world who have ever heard this song often enough to play it so well, even on a hastily carved bamboo flute, and Lan Wangji is one of them. Which means -

The disciples, and Jiang Wanyin (who’d come to the aid of his nephew, descending upon the party like a large purple bat) are staring too, but probably for a different reason - Lan Wangji doubts they’ve ever encountered such demonic cultivators before. But demonic cultivation or not, Lan Wangji couldn’t care less. Wei Ying is here , he’s alive -

Lan Wangji’s moving even before the last notes of the song float out, the corpses having finally returned to stillness. Almost without his permission, his legs take him over to Wei Ying, who notices his approach and looks up, eyes wide.

“Oh,” he says, panicking visibly, “I can -”

Lan Wangji doesn’t let him finish, sweeping him up into his arms like he’s been dreaming of doing for the past twenty years. Wei Ying squeaks. “What -”

Lan Wangji buries his face into his soft, dark hair. “ Wei Ying, ” he breathes.

He feels Wei Ying stiffen against him. Then, so soft he has to strain to hear it: “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji nods wordlessly, not trusting himself to speak, and thinks his heart might burst from happiness when Wei Ying’s arms tentatively come around his waist to hug him back.

Lan Wangji has so much he wants to say to Wei Ying, but for now, this is enough.

He hears Sizhui’s voice, hesitant: “Um, HanGuang-Jun? What…”

Lan Wangji releases Wei Ying, who turns to Sizhui and gasps. “Wait - are you Sizhui? Oh my heavens! You’ve grown so big! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, why didn’t you ever tell me our son was so cute ?”

Sizhui’s eyes go very wide. “Senior Wei?”

Wei Ying huffs, and even though Lan Wangji has never heard the sound before, it’s infinitely familiar from the countless times he’s listened to the equivalent strum of guqin strings. “Lan Sizhui! What’s with this ‘Senior Wei’ and ‘HanGuang-Jun’ nonsense? How many times have I told you to call me ‘Dad’?”

From somewhere behind them, Lan Wangji hears Jingyi holler, “IS THAT SENIOR WEI?! SIZHUI’S OTHER DAD?!” and has to suppress a smile.

Wei Ying cackles. “Ahaha, you must be Jingyi! Sizhui always tells me you’re the loudest person he knows!” And oh, his voice . Lan Wangji knows that this is not Wei Ying’s original body, that this voice is not the one he’s used to, but it is Wei Ying , and so just the fact that he can speak now means that his voice is the sweetest thing Lan Wangji has ever heard.

“WHAT!” Jingyi shrieks.

“Okay,” Jiang Wanyin growls, “can someone please tell me what the fuck is going on?”

 

In the end, Jiang Wanyin is still rather wary of Wei Ying’s...unusual methods of cultivation, but he relents and allows Lan Wangji to take him back to Gusu with him. Lan Wangji makes up some half hearted excuse about keeping Wei Ying and his cultivation under observation, but he doubts Jiang Wanyin believes him, going by the deeply skeptical look the Sect Leader throws his way. Still, Lan Wangji can’t bring himself to care.

The entire way back to the Cloud Recesses, he can hear the disciples excitedly gossipping amongst each other. He chooses to ignore them - after all, his behaviour must seem rather strange to them, who until now have only seen him as the stoic, composed HanGuang-Jun, not like this: utterly and completely enamoured.

Sizhui spends the majority of the trip clinging to Wei Ying like a little limpet, both of them chattering happily. Lan Wangji allows himself a small smile at the sight of them - his family, two of the people he cares for the most in the world.

When he’s alone with Lan Wangji, though, Wei Ying is strangely subdued. Lan Wangji tries not to worry about it too much, telling himself that Wei Ying’s still getting used to having a corporeal body after spending over twenty years as a spirit - of course he’d be having difficulty adjusting. He keeps thinking back to the way they parted - Wei Ying hadn’t exactly seemed happy.

When they finally reach the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen takes just one look at Lan Wangji and knows.

“You must be Wei Ying,” he says, a huge smile beginning to spread over his face. “It is good to finally meet you. Tell me, how did you come by this body?”

“It’s a long story,” Wei Ying says blithely. It is: Wei Ying had told him some of it, but Lan Wangji gets the feeling that there’s still much even he doesn’t know. Lan Wangji knows what his brother is worried about, even though he’s not going to ask about it directly, so he glances just once at Lan Xichen, knowing his brother will read the reassurance in his eyes. The body was offered to him. Lan Xichen nods slightly.

“Well, you’ll have to tell me about it later,” he tells Wei Ying. “Unfortunately, I must leave soon for the Discussion Conference, so I cannot linger, but I hope we’ll have more opportunities to converse in the future.”

Wei Ying smiles tentatively. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Lan Xichen returns the smile. “Oh, and rest assured, I’m very happy that you’re back. You’ve made my little brother so happy for so long - for that I must thank you.”

Brother ,” Lan Wangji hisses, feeling his ears burn.

Wei Ying is blushing too. “I did? I mean, uh, yeah, you’re welcome, uh, Zewu-Jun -”

Lan Xichen chuckles. “Please, call me Xichen-ge. I will take my leave now. And give you two some time alone to yourselves,” he adds, completely unsubtly.

“He’s nice,” Wei Ying comments, as Lan Wangji leads him to his Jingshi (to his Jingshi! he thinks, giddily). “I mean, you always told me he was, but it’s nice to see it firsthand.”

“Brother is very kind,” Lan Wangji acknowledges.

Wei Ying laughs softly. “So are you, Lan Zhan, the two of you aren’t so different in that regard. Not to mention,” he adds with a wink, “you’re both beautiful beyond comparison, so I guess the rumours were true!”

Lan Wangji ducks his head to hide his smile.

When they enter the room, Lan Wangji sets his guqin down carefully on the table. Wei Ying walks over, brushes his fingers lightly over the strings. “This is…” he murmurs.

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, knowing he’s staring and completely unable to do anything about it. He’d been worried he’d get awkward and tongue-tied with this physical incarnation of Wei Ying, the way he does when he has to hold verbal conversations with most people but, new body or not, this is still Wei Ying. Lan Wangji has known him for more than half his life. Being with him is as easy as breathing.

Wei Ying smiles softly and, while Lan Wangji watches, sets off to explore the Jingshi. Once he’s made a complete round, he sits perched on the edge of Lan Wangji’s bed.

(Lan Wangji’s breath hitches at the sight. While he supposes that this body Wei Ying is in is objectively attractive, the mere fact that it’s Wei Ying makes him unbearably beautiful. And he’s sitting on Lan Wangji’s bed. )

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying starts. Then pauses, frowning.

Lan Wangji walks to stand by the bed. While he gives Wei Ying time to gather his thoughts, he says, “You may sleep in here, if you wish. I will get you some spare robes. If you would like to take a bath, you may -”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, firmer. Lan Wangji stops talking, and his heart drops when he realizes that Wei Ying isn’t smiling anymore.

“Um,” Wei Ying begins awkwardly. “I’m very grateful for you standing up for me on the mountain, and for offering me a place to stay, but. That’s not necessary, Lan Zhan. Just give me a change of clothes and I’ll head out as soon as possible. I mean, I’m used to being on my own, so...”

Lan Wangji - cannot speak. His throat seems to have closed up. Wei Ying doesn’t want to stay. Wei Ying doesn’t want to be with him.

And why should he? After all, he’s already been forced to spend twenty long years with someone as dull and awkward as Lan Wangji as his only company. Of course, given the chance, he’d want to get away from him. Wei Ying is alive again, and has the whole world ahead of him - and Lan Wangji was going to be selfish, again, and keep him contained in the same place with the same person he’s had to endure for so many years?

He hadn’t even asked Wei Ying properly if he wanted to come back to Gusu, he realizes with horror. He had just assumed, foolishly, selfishly -

“Lan Zhan?” he hears Wei Ying ask tentatively. “What’s wrong?”

Lan Wangji inhales. Tries to regain his composure. There is no good letting Wei Ying see how upset he is - Wei Ying would only force himself to stay out of a misplaced sense of guilt, like he had for twenty years. “Nothing,” he says.

Wei Ying frowns. “Don’t bullshit me, Lan Zhan. I’ve known you for so long, you think I won’t be able to tell when you’re upset?”

Of course he would. Wei Ying has always been able to read him better than most, even if it’s only through Inquiry. “I know it is...selfish,” he says, “but I thought you wanted to stay. With me.”

Immediately, he lowers his gaze, so he won’t have to see the expression on Wei Ying’s face. Will it be annoyance, at how clingy Lan Wangji is being? Disgust? Amusement?

However, when he dares to look up again, he sees none of that. What he does see is pure, wide-eyed shock.

“You - you thought - of course I want to stay with you!” Wei Ying bursts out. “ You’re the one who doesn’t want me here!”

What. “Why would you say that?” Lan Wangji asks, trying to keep his voice steady.

“Because you told me so!” Wei Ying is almost shouting. “I told you I was staying for you, and you told me to leave!”

Lan Wangji can barely breathe. “I wanted you to be happy.”

“I was happy!” Wei Ying exclaims. His eyes flash, and his face is flushed. Despite the situation, Lan Wangji distractedly thinks that he really is lovely. “Did I seem unhappy?”

“I -”

“Don’t even try, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying snaps. “I know you probably just got tired of me, taking up so much of your time -”

This is all horribly reminiscent of their fight so many years ago, and Lan Wangji cannot let that happen again. He cannot lose Wei Ying, not now, and if the price to pay is to finally, finally be honest, well...it’s really a bit overdue anyway, isn’t it?

He reaches out and takes Wei Ying’s hand. Wei Ying’s words cut off with a splutter, and he stares at their joined hands. “Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says lowly, “asking you to leave was...the hardest thing I have ever done.”

Wei Ying turns his wide-eyed gaze up to him, and Lan Wangji suppresses the urge to turn away from the full force of his attention. “So why did you do it?” Wei Ying whispers.

“Because I just wanted you to be happy,” Lan Wangji replies, equally quiet. “No matter my feelings.”

“And what are those feelings, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying murmurs. His thumb strokes over Lan Wangji’s knuckles, and Lan Wangji shivers. “Why was it so hard?”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes, inhales and exhales once. Lets himself take courage from the comforting weight of Wei Ying’s hand in his. Even if Wei Ying doesn’t feel the same way - at least he will know that Lan Wangji has never wanted him gone.

“Because I love you,” Lan Wangji says, then flinches when he feels Wei Ying yank his hand away. He braces himself for the worst - Wei Ying shoving him away, leaving him for good -

Except, the next thing he knows, Wei Ying is getting to his feet and flinging himself at him so hard they both go stumbling back a few steps. Wei Ying’s arms wrap tightly around his waist, and he buries his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. At a loss for what to do, Lan Wangji rests his hands gingerly on his back. “Wei Ying…?”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles, voice muffled. “You...you are so foolish!”

What is happening? Is Wei Ying angry?

“You said you just wanted me to be happy,” Wei Ying continues. “Well, don’t you realize that the times I was happiest were when I was with you?

Lan Wangji inhales sharply. Wei Ying’s arms tighten.

“You know,” he says, “when you told me you were in love with someone, I...I thought you were talking about me. I hoped you were talking about me! And the next day, when I told you why I was staying, I, I was trying to -”

Wei Ying pulls back just enough to look him directly in the eyes, and wraps his arms around his neck. His fingers fiddle with the knot of Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon, and - doesn’t he know what it means? He has to, Lan Wangji has told him -

“I was trying to tell you that I’m in love with you too!” Wei Ying declares. Lan Wangji’s heart all but stops.

“You are?” he manages to ask, hating how small his voice sounds.

Wei Ying nods furiously. “Yes! Lan Zhan, you have to believe me, come on! We’ve spent twenty years together - how could you not realise?”

“You -” Lan Wangji wants this so, so badly he can barely breathe, but this can’t be happening, it can’t be this easy. “You are just saying that because I’m the only one besides Sizhui you’ve spoken to in a long time,” he grits out.

Wei Ying smacks the back of his head. Not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to make his eyes widen from the shock. “Lan Wangji!” Wei Ying snaps. “Don’t tell me the wise HanGuang-Jun is entertaining such foolish thoughts! Of course you’re not the only person I’ve talked to for twenty years! Do you know how many spirits I meet every single day? How many I talk to? I was never lonely!

“Do you know how long it has been since I realised why I was staying here?” he continues, eyes flashing. “Thirteen years! I could have left any time I wanted, but I chose to stay, because I love you, and I want to be with you! I want to spend the rest of my life with you, go on night hunts with you, do whatever with you - it has to be you! So, Lan Zhan -” and here Wei Ying’s voice goes low, his lashes dropping. Something like uncertainty crosses across his face, and how can he ever doubt Lan Wangji’s feelings for him? “I’ve told you what I want. Now - what do you want?”

Maybe, just maybe, Lan Wangji can let himself have this. He pulls Wei Ying in close again, hearing him squeak in surprise (so cute!) and noses into his hair. He can feel Wei Ying’s heart where their chests are pressed together. It’s beating at a breakneck pace - just as fast as his own, he’s sure. “I just want you,” he murmurs.

Wei Ying laughs, loud and carefree. Even though he’s never heard it before, Lan Wangji still recognizes the sound - how many times has he heard it, but in the form of plucked guqin notes? “That’s all you had to say, Lan Zhan! Why did it take you so long?”

“I was scared.”

Wei Ying scoffs. “What, of me? Scared of the big, bad demonic cultivator? Come now, Lan Zhan - what’s the worst I could do to you?”

“Leave me.”

Wei Ying stiffens, then melts into Lan Wangji’s arms with a peal of laughter. “So shameless, Lan Zhan, saying such things with a straight face! Well, you don’t have to worry about that - I fully intend on staying right by your side from now on! Even if you get sick of me, you won’t be able to get rid of me -”

“Will not happen,” Lan Wangji assures him, stroking his hair.

He feels Wei Ying smile into his neck. Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to do with this - this happiness, threatening to overwhelm him completely - it’s almost frightening, the intensity of it.

“That’s good to hear, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “And hugging is fun, and all, an excellent use for a physical body, but -” he pulls away again, smirks up at Lan Wangji, whose breathing stutters. “Can I kiss you? I mean, I’ve been wanting to for a long time, and I wasn’t lying when I said you were really beautiful, like, wow, I must be the luckiest man alive -”

Lan Wangji knows from experience that left uninterrupted, Wei Ying can and will continue rambling for a good ten minutes, and he really doesn’t know if he can wait that long, so he just cuts Wei Ying’s words off himself with a kiss.

Wei Ying makes a muffled noise of shock, but soon recovers and kisses back with rather startling enthusiasm. Objectively, technically, it’s probably not that good a kiss, considering Wei Ying doesn’t seem to have much more experience than Lan Wangji in the area - which is to say, none. But Wei Ying is in his arms, and he’s kissing him, and Wei Ying’s nimble fingers are undoing the knot of his forehead ribbon and letting it slip from his hair so, all things considered -

Wei Ying pulls back, breaking the kiss. Lan Wangji finds himself swaying forward unconsciously, chasing the warmth of his lips. Wei Ying is flushed, his hair in disarray, and he’s smiling so widely his cheeks bunch up adorably. “Lan er gege,” he says, laughing breathlessly. “We...are so bad at this!”

Lan Wangji can’t really argue with that. “Mm.”

“What,” Wei Ying says, low and teasing, “was that your first kiss or something?”

“Mm.” Who else does Wei Ying think he’d have wanted to kiss?

Wei Ying gapes. “It was?” The forehead ribbon almost slips from his slack grip; Lan Wangji catches it, and, in a fit of impulse, ties it around Wei Ying’s wrist. Wei Ying stares at it, then flushes even darker.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “Was it not yours?”

Wei Ying flails weakly, then protests, “Well, yeah, but I died when I was fifteen! What’s your excuse?”

“Never wanted to kiss anyone but you,” Lan Wangji says, and can’t help but smile at how hopelessly flustered Wei Ying seems at the words.

“Aaah!” he hisses. “You - you - this is unfair! You can’t just - ah, just kiss me again! We both need the practice!”

Lan Wangji smiles again, and is only too happy to comply.

 

Every Friday, at seven in the evening, Lan Wangji takes his guqin, a scroll of parchment, a brush, and some ink out to a lonely stretch of grass deep in the mountains behind the Cloud Recesses and plays Inquiry.

Except, now, he’s not alone. A teenager in white sits on the grass besides him, his own guqin in his lap, playing Inquiry almost as well as his father.

A dark-robed man sits huddled closely up against Lan Wangji’s side, his head resting on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, listening as he plays. A myriad of rabbits surround them, nosing at their instruments, trying to climb into their laps. The dark-robed man’s laughter rings out into the night as he strokes their ears, plucks them away when they get too close to the guqins.

A small, almost imperceptible smile appears on Lan Wangji’s lips. He has a home, friends, and a family and here, in the peace of the Cloud Recesses with his husband and son bathed in the soft glow of the spirits, he lets himself believe in happy endings, and a forever.