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undying

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Before he broke the Stygian Tiger Seal in two, he took one last look at his wrist. Everlasting, it said. Even after everything, his other half still considered their love everlasting.

Wei WuXian murmured a quiet apology to the soulmate he had never met and then he unleashed an unholy nightmare.

-:-

The story was this; since the dawn of time, humanity had walked the Earth with a word written on their wrist. The word described how their other half, their soulmate, would love them.

Some words described a love that would withstand even the harshest of times, others described a love that would be cut far too short. Some had the word of a friend standing by them through thick and thin, others would forever have the love of a family member. Some described a love that would be forever unrequited. Some even had more than one word written into their skin.

No word was the same, even within the same bond, as no person could be said to love another in quite the same way. It was therefore said that the Heavens had, as well as bestowing humanity with these words, also blessed them with the ability to distinguish their soulmate(s) touch from others. 

And while no love should have been considered above the other, it was. Some valued a husband or wife above a friend or sibling. Some disregarded the words and sought matches based solely on social standing or potential rewards.

It was common practice to keep the word hidden until their soulmate was found, but some went beyond what decorum commanded of them. Some never showed their words to anyone, not even those who might have been their match, and others even burned or carved them away. And while such acts kept the words out of sight, whether temporarily or permanently, few could truthfully claim that theirs ever faded from their memory.

For no matter what humanity did, the words were there to stay.

-:-

When Wei WuXian woke up in Mo XuanYu's body, his first act was not to check his wrists. He would not have checked them at all had Mo XuanYu not carved bloodied lines into his forearms to summon Wei WuXian's spirit.

The first he noticed was the white scar on his right wrist. Fleeting, it said.

The second thing he noticed was a word on his left wrist, the same one his own word had been carved into in his other life. Everlasting, it said. The writing was still black with life. Wei WuXian felt a shiver run down his spine.

Was that his other half clawing themselves into Mo XuanYu's skin now that Wei WuXian's spirit resided in it, however temporary? Or had Mo XuanYu been graced with two soulmates and tragically lost one some time ago? Wei WuXian didn't know, nor did he know whether he wanted to.

Wei WuXian let out a breath and pushed himself up. He couldn't afford to let his mind wander. If he wanted to stay in Mo XuanYu's body, he needed to learn what Mo XuanYu had called him back for or risk fading away forever.

-:-

Fleeing from Mo Village felt like the only thing he could do when he heard the pluck of a guqin's strings. Staying to confirm what he already knew would have been reckless – far more than Wei WuXian had ever been in his past or current life.

Wei WuXian and the donkey he had, ah, 'borrowed,' had travelled through the night to get as far away from Mo Village as possible. Considering the state of the Mo Estate he was sure no one would miss one donkey.

He stroked a thumb over the word as L'il Apple – as he had named the donkey – ambled along. Everlasting.

"Who are you?"

Wei WuXian had never met someone whose love he could describe as everlasting, whether it was someone's love for him or someone else. He wondered if he would ever meet such a person. He wondered if he would ever meet his person. The fact that the Heavens had paired them together didn't mean their paths would ever cross. There were as many stories of soulmates never meeting as there were stories of them finding one another – if not more. The world loves tragedies, Wei WuXian had learned early on, no matter the form it took.

He had often wondered what his word had been on his other half, though. Fleeting, like the word on Mo XuanYu's wrist? Doomed or some other derivative of the same? He wondered briefly how his other half had felt when their word faded into a scar before shaking the thought from his mind.

Everlasting wasn't a common word for sibling or friendship matches, but Wei WuXian couldn't imagine a romantic match. He had never felt that flicker Jiang YanLi had described to him once, brushing her thumb over the sleeve that had hidden her word from the world. Thinking of her hurt. Thinking of what he had robbed from her hurt more.

He had never known what kind of match that awaited Jiang Cheng. He had never let anything slip about his soulmate, not even when he and Wei WuXian had been young. The cynical part of Wei WuXian was glad. He had already robbed one sibling of their other half and, later, their life. If he had known surely he would only have ended up doing the same to Jiang Cheng.

Wei WuXian shook his head. There was no use in thinking of his past life. He had been given another chance.

It was nearing midday when they came upon a cart with a damaged wheel and no driver in sight. Wei WuXian pulled L'il Apple to a halt and bribed it with an apple to make sure it didn't wander off while he investigated. "Hello?"

He mourned not having a cultivation tool then. Even Suibian would be better than nothing at all. If the driver was missing for some nefarious purpose or another, there was little Wei WuXian could do to fight the entity. He would have to improvise, then.

Wei WuXian bent to pick up a few errant leaves and hid them in his sleeves as he slowly made his way around the cart. He blinked when he almost stumbled over someone that was crouched around the back by the front wheel, looking every bit like they were hiding from something.

"Is everything alright?"

The figure jolted and stood up in a hurry, almost stumbling over the hem of their robe as they did so.

Wei WuXian was surprised to realise that he recognised them. He had to hold in his first reaction, which was to ask Nie HuaiSang what he was doing on a country road without an entourage to accompany him.

"Hello, Senior," he settled for saying. "Are you stuck?"

Nie HuaiSang spent a long moment simply staring at him. Wei WuXian was tempted to ask if they'd met before – as he sincerely hoped Nie HuaiSang hadn't recognised Wei WuXian's spirit in Mo XuanYu's body – when Nie HuaiSang pulled out a fan and started fanning himself. "...This one is."

"Then allow me to be of help."

Wei WuXian walked back around to where the damaged wheel was. He was aware of Nie HuaiSang scrambling out of the ditch to follow him.

He put his hands on his hips and eyed the cart. "Between the two of us, I'm certain we can fix it." Wei WuXian never actually fixed a wheel in his life, but it couldn't be that hard. Surely.

"...Ah."

By the sound of things, neither had Nie HuaiSang.

Wei WuXian quickly discovered that his new body not only looked slimmer than his previous one, it was also weaker. Between the two of them, they were both huffing and puffing long before they had even removed the wheel. Wei WuXian decided then and there that he would focus more on his cultivation from now on and strengthen his powers as well as his body.

Nie HuaiSang spent most of his time fanning himself while Wei WuXian did what he could to fix the wheel. He could feel Nie HuaiSang's eyes on him every now and again, though the other didn't speak. Wei WuXian wondered if he should have gone with his first instinct and asked if they had met before. He could have played forgetful if Nie HuaiSang had answered affirmatively; he had certainly done so in the past. But it was too late for that now.

He only troubled Nie HuaiSang to help him put the wheel back on, in the end. It was safer that way.

Nie HuaiSang clambered into the cart and took hold of the reins. The ox flicked its tail, looking as impressed as L'il Apple had been the entire time Wei WuXian had spent helping his one-time friend. "Thank you," he said, decidedly not looking in Wei WuXian's direction, "for your help."

Wei WuXian grinned. "It was my pleasure."

Nie HuaiSang's head snapped around to stare at him again.

Wei WuXian felt his smile fade away. There was something he was missing; he was certain of it. But before he could ask, Nie HuaiSang had cracked the reins and gotten the ox moving.

He mulled over the decision for a moment before deciding to wave the other off. "Take care!"

Nie HuaiSang jolted again and glanced back several times before he and the car disappeared over the ridge and were gone.

Wei WuXian went back to L'il Apple and started pulling it along. He couldn't help but wonder what Nie HuaiSang had been doing all by himself on the road out of Mo Village.

-:-

Wei WuXian met a group of rogue cultivators the next day when they all sought refuge under a large tree as the sun beat down on them. Wei WuXian felt tired in a way he hadn't in a very long time. He spoke very little, content to rest and listen to their chatter more than to contribute to it.

The group didn't stay long, not even a full hour by Wei WuXian's count. Still, he appreciated their company and gave his heartfelt thanks to one of them when lingered behind long enough to hand him a few apples. She blushed prettily before rushing to join her group. Wei WuXian waved after them, already feeding one of the apples to L'il Apple.

He ate one of the apples himself after they had left. He longed for a proper meal but had no coin to spare. In many ways the kindness he had been offered was Heaven-sent! Maybe his luck was finally turning?

Wei WuXian was feeding the core to L'il Apple when he noticed what sounded like whistling. He leaned around the tree and saw that not all of the rogue cultivators had left. There was a young man leaning against the trunk, legs crossed at the ankles and arms folded behind his head. A straw-hat cast a deep shadow over his face, but Wei WuXian knew he had been spotted regardless.

"Hello," he greeted the other.

"Greetings, Young Master."

Wei WuXian sincerely doubted he qualified for that title. The face he had seen reflected in the bronze mirror and rivers when he stopped to drink looked young, but looks could be deceiving. The body he was in was likely around the same age Wei WuXian had been when he'd died all those years ago.

Age aside, Wei WuXian had never been anyone's master.

"Did your companions leave you behind?" he decided to ask rather than to correct the other on his presumptions.

The young man's laughter was unexpected and sharp. "Not my companions," he said, sounding almost amused.

Curious. Hadn't he been travelling with them? Wei WuXian was sure he hadn't seen anyone else arrive while he and the rogue cultivators had been resting under the tree, so if the other man hadn't arrived with them...when had he appeared?

The young man pushed away from the trunk and turned towards Wei WuXian. He bowed respectfully. "Xue ChengMei."

Wei WuXian was surprised by the greeting. His clothes marked him as a servant and not one from a well-off household. Several days on the road and the ordeal the body had been through before and after Wei WuXian entered it saw to that. Even a traveller such as Xue ChengMei surely had a higher social standing than him and the other should have been able to see that.

"Mo XuanYu," Wei WuXian heard himself say. It almost sounded genuine.

Xue ChengMei tipped his head back enough for his face to become visible under the hat. He was young; likely a few years younger than Wei WuXian had been in his past life. There was an edge to his smile and something in his eyes that made Wei WuXian feel wary.

"Where are you headed, friend?"

Wei WuXian's first instinct was to lie. He wasn't sure why. The night-hunt the rogue cultivators had talked about sounded fruitful, but he was reluctant to share that with Xue ChengMei. Wei WuXian's instincts hadn't steered him wrong before. He hoped he was doing the right thing by heeding them now.

"The night-hunt the others spoke of seemed promising," Wei WuXian began, "but too popular for my tastes. I think I'll set my sights elsewhere."

Xue ChengMei nodded.

"What about you, friend?" Wei WuXian returned the greeting, hoping it would keep the waters calm.

"I think I'll follow the others." Xue ChengMei grinned sharply as he pushed himself to his feet. "I don't mind a bit of competition. It'll make my victory tastes all that much sweeter."

Wei WuXian saw that there was a dizi hanging from his belt next to a covered sword. He felt a sudden longing for Chenqing but pushed it down. He doubted the dizi had survived the Siege of the Burial Mound – or, if it had, that it hadn't been destroyed for being one of his infamous tools.

He rose as well and realised to his surprise that the two of them were the same height. Xue ChengMei merely gave off the air of wanting to tower over people all the same.

"I wish you luck, then."

"Don't need it," Xue ChengMei said, looking oddly thrilled, "but thanks, friend."

Wei WuXian just nodded to him.

"Pray we meet again," Xue ChengMei said, and it sounded more like a threat than a promise.

Wei WuXian did a quick bow but said nothing.

He waited until he could no longer see Xue ChengMei's form in the distance, and then he started leading L'il Apple in the opposite direction.

-:-

It was inevitable; Wei WuXian's good luck could only go so far. Only someone with his penchant for bad luck would literally run into not one, but three prominent figures from his past all within a few days of each other.

Wei WuXian had done his best to avoid the place that every available cultivator seemed drawn to, only to find himself at the base of the very same mountain. It was strange. He could have sworn he'd walked in the opposite direction of the rogue cultivators and Xue ChengMei. Ah well.

He escaped his first encounter with Jiang Cheng and Lan WangJi without losing that much face. He regretted the thoughtless words spoken to his nephew, but he was in no position to take them back. He would have to find some other way to atone for them.

Jiang Cheng was different now, Wei WuXian was sad to say. Angrier. Wei WuXian hadn't realised that was possible. Angry and, it seemed, determined to see Wei WuXian in every demonic cultivator he stumbled upon. He had been fortunate that Lan WangJi's mere presence had convinced Jiang Cheng to leave him be.

His second encounter with Lan WangJi, however, was going rather poorly.

Even though Wei WuXian had helped in taking down the God Statue, there was no mistaking that he'd done so by using demonic cultivation. And Lan WangJi had caught him red-handed.

Lan WangJi's hand felt like a brand around his wrist. It was as though his touch burned, even through the layers of cloth that separated them. He pushed through the feeling and kept playing until Wen Ning was safely back under his command and understood that Wei WuXian wanted him to flee.

"Where is that sound coming from?"

People around them were clamouring, but Wei WuXian blocked out the sound of their voices. Even with Lan WangJi's fingers digging into his wrist, Wei WuXian refused to stop playing until Wen Ning finally turned and fled.

Wei WuXian almost collapsed in relief. He moved his mouth away from the dizi instead, allowing the sounds around him to reach his ears again.

"Who was controlling the Ghost General?"

"Over there!" someone called out. "Stop them!"

Wei WuXian could only blink as several cultivators started running after a shadowed figure who seemed to be going in a wholly different direction than the one Wen Ning had taken – or the one that would lead them to Wei WuXian. Lan WangJi, unsurprisingly, didn't move. He had already caught the true perpetrator, after all.

Wei WuXian slipped the make-shift dizi up his sleeve and was surprised when Lan WangJi let him. He had half expected Lan WangJi to take it from him and snap it in two.

Lan WangJi didn't speak. Wei WuXian swallowed. He felt too apprehensive to turn to meet Lan WangJi's gaze again. He was gathering the necessary courage to speak when another figure pushed through the trees and stopped in front of them. Wei WuXian felt his blood turn to ice. He had been lucky to escape Jiang Cheng's wrath earlier. He didn't think he'd be so lucky a second time.

"HanGuang-Jun," Jiang Cheng said coldly.

"Sect Leader Jiang."

Jiang Cheng's gaze turned towards Wei WuXian. "You again."

Wei WuXian saluted him as much as he could with Lan WangJi holding onto one of his wrists. He regretted it immediately afterwards, as Jiang Cheng's eyes went to the point of contact between Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi.

Something settled over Jiang Cheng's expression. "Do you perhaps know each other better than I first assumed?"

Wei WuXian forced a smile. "No, no. I have never met the esteemed HanGuang-Jun before tonight."

The look in Jiang Cheng's eyes begged to differ. Before he could verbally accuse them of that, the other cultivators started to come back to the clearing by the cave. Wei WuXian could see several shadowed figures and heard some of them grumbling to each other.

"They got away, Sect Leader!" one of the cultivators called out.

"Did they now," Jiang Cheng said, too low for the one that had called out to hear him. He hadn't taken his eyes off Wei WuXian the entire time.

Wei WuXian held back the urge to swallow.

Zidian crackled around Jiang Cheng's finger. Wei WuXian knew he wasn't going to get a second warning. He was praying to the Heavens that the strike wouldn't land somewhere overly painful when he saw the whip fly out.

Lan WangJi moved between one moment and the next, releasing Wei WuXian's wrist to block the strike with Bichen.

Jiang Cheng's initial look of shock quickly melted into fury. "I see how it is."

Wei WuXian rather doubted it.

"If you protect him, then I am even more certain of his identity."

...What was Jiang Cheng saying?!

"Step aside, HanGuang-Jun."

Lan WangJi remained standing between Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng. Some of the cultivators had begun to make their way through the trees to their location – most notably Jin Ling. While most of them appeared bemused, Jin Ling went from frowning to scowling the moment he laid eyes on them.

"Unwilling to move, huh?" Jiang Cheng chuckled. It was not a pleasant sound. "Very well."

Wei WuXian knew there was only one way this could end without bloodshed. He steeled himself and ducked around Lan WangJi. He held out his hand in Jiang Cheng's direction. "Do it," he said. "Hit me."

Jiang Cheng stared at him. He clearly hadn't expected Wei WuXian to volunteer himself to Zidian's touch.

Lan WangJi grabbed onto him. Wei WuXian felt him try to pull him back, but he stood firm. It's ok, Lan Zhan, Wei WuXian wanted to say. He didn't know why. It was going to hurt, but Wei WuXian had been whipped by Zidian before. He'd even died before. He could weather a blow by his little brother, surely.

The only warning Jiang Cheng gave was Zidian powering up in his hand.

Crack!

Lan WangJi's grip around his wrist was as tight as a shackle, but it didn't stop Wei WuXian from jumping up and down as he waved his hand in an attempt to lessen the pain. "Did you have to be so rough, Sect Leader Jiang?" Wei WuXian whined.

Jiang Cheng's eye twitched.

Wei WuXian blew at his palm, where the skin was reddening steadily. His little brother hadn't held back at all. It was clear that he didn't harbour any fond feelings for Wei WuXian if he was willing to treat someone that might have been harbouring his spirit this way.

Lan WangJi's grip gentled ever so slightly.

"Not possessed."

Jiang Cheng worried Zidian with his thumb. "I'm still not convinced."

"No possessed spirit survives Zidian's touch," Lan WangJi said as though Jiang Cheng wasn't aware of the fact.

"Then perhaps it isn't possession," Jiang Cheng snapped.

Wei WuXian stilled. The last thing he needed was for Jiang Cheng to start thinking of other ways Wei WuXian may have come back. He had to thoroughly distract Jiang Cheng before it was too late!

He couldn't go with Jiang Cheng. Wei WuXian knew that would spell his death. That left him with two options; either he annoyed both men so thoroughly that they left him alone in fear of catching his madness or he endeared himself to Lan WangJi so thoroughly that he felt compelled to spare Wei WuXian from Jiang Cheng's wrath.

Wei WuXian plastered on a pout and went for the only option he could reasonably accomplish; the first one.

Chapter Text

He was a little surprised when Lan WangJi was adamant he come back with them to the Cloud Recesses after the show he'd put on. But if he had been given a true opportunity to choose between Lan WangJi's cool façade and Jiang Cheng's sizzling ire, he still would have chosen Lan WangJi. Jiang Cheng's glare had promised death, after all, and not a swift one.

Lan JingYi and Lan SiZhui – the two junior cultivators Wei WuXian had noticed in Mo Village while pretending to be crazier than he was in reality – joined them on the journey to Gusu. Wei WuXian was glad for their company. No matter how much he complained or whined, Lan WangJi barely seemed to pay him any mind. Even Lan SiZhui tried to keep things brief. Wei WuXian thanked the Heavens for Lan JingYi, who seemed far more eager to chat.

He wasn't always in the mood to talk, however. It was during these moods, as long as no one was looking, that he would clasp his own wrist discreetly in an attempt to cause the same reaction Lan WangJi had. He always failed. Most often he just stroked his thumb over the mark under his sleeve.

He tried to make a scene once they arrived at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Cloud Recesses, but Lan WangJi still wouldn't leave him behind. And so Wei WuXian found himself safely nestled up at the Cloud Recesses behind the shielding that wouldn't let him through unless he carried a token on his belt. Wei WuXian bit back several curses. Planning his escape suddenly got more difficult.

A lot more difficult, Wei WuXian corrected himself, when he was told where he would be sleeping for the duration of his stay. There was no way he could sneak away easily with Lan WangJi sleeping in the other room!

He was naturally confined to the Jingshi while Lan WangJi went to tell his brother the sect leader about their new arrival. Wei WuXian quickly became bored. And when Lan WangJi failed to return promptly, his boredom turned to restlessness. Not even death had cured him of that particular trait, it seemed.

Wei WuXian battled with his restlessness for hours until he could no longer stand it. After listening to ensure that there were no guards outside, he snuck out to investigate the area a little more thoroughly.

It was true that he had spent a summer studying in the Cloud Recesses, but it both felt and was a lifetime ago. He could do with getting reacquainted with the grounds without any Lans dogging his step. Perhaps there was another way off the mountain that didn't require a token?

He wandered around the grounds until he stumbled upon the cold spring he could vaguely remember from when he had studied at the Cloud Recesses.

He lost himself in the beauty of the pool and its surrounding that he almost didn't notice the figure in the middle of the water. Wei WuXian recognised them immediately. It was none other than Lan WangJi. And he was naked. Wei WuXian was shocked to see that he had even taken the forehead-ribbon off!

Wei WuXian was still staring when Lan WangJi looked up and caught him looking. Neither of them spoke.

He knew he was behaving incredibly rudely, but he couldn't seem to stop staring. He was distantly aware of needing an excuse to be out and about, so Lan WangJi wouldn't think he was looking for a way down the mountain, but his clever tongue seemed to have abandoned him.

Before he was aware of moving, Wei WuXian was already in the process of taking off his outer robe. He paused briefly before deciding to go with it. An excuse was an excuse at this point.

The removal of his robe finally seemed to wake Lan WangJi up. "What are you doing?"

"What does it look like?" Wei WuXian countered.

Before Lan WangJi could open his mouth again, Wei WuXian had already removed his shoes and gotten into the water. He shivered. He had known that it wasn't going to be warm before he went in, but he hadn't remembered the spring being this cold either!

Lan WangJi was frozen in place.

Wei WuXian waded closer. As he did so, he realised he had been mistaken. For while Lan WangJi had indeed removed the forehead-ribbon from its usual place, it was only to wrap it around his wrist instead. Wei WuXian supposed it was only natural that the Lan sect would want to hide their words. After all, that was why he hadn't taken off his inner robe before getting in.

He was almost so taken by the different placement of the forehead-ribbon that he missed the brand on Lan WangJi's chest. Wei WuXian quickly lowered the hand that had been reaching up before it could touch the place he had once had a corresponding mark.

He knew that brand; he had once been marked by the very same one. But how had Lan WangJi come to have it? The Wen sect's tyrannical rule had long since been brought to an end the last time they had seen each other.

"Why are you here?"

Wei WuXian's eyes snapped up to meet Lan WangJi's. He licked his lips. "I felt like bathing. You don't mind, do you, HanGuang-Jun? We will be sharing rooms for the foreseeable future, after all."

Lan WangJi kept staring at him.

He itched to reach out and touch the brand, to see if it felt like his had. Wei WuXian held himself back. He waded a little further back instead, to remove himself from the temptation that only seemed to be getting stronger with each passing moment.

Lan WangJi was still staring at him.

Wei WuXian was startled to realise how naked he felt under Lan WangJi's gaze when he was the one that was the most dressed of the two. Something in Lan WangJi's eyes had him feeling as though Lan WangJi could see his very soul. It was difficult to keep from shivering.

The silence seemed to echo around them. The more time went without Lan WangJi uttering 'Shameless,' or 'Ridiculous,' the clearer it became that it was up to Wei WuXian to break it.

Wei WuXian knew Lan WangJi had changed since their youth, but he was startled to realise how much. A younger Lan WangJi would surely have chased him out of the cold spring a long time ago. The older Lan WangJi barely appeared to be blinking as they looked at each other.

There was only a matter of time before he gave in and touched the other. Wei WuXian could feel the tingling in his fingers and knew he had to leave before that happened. So he stuck his nose up into the air and said, "If you are unwilling to entertain me, I will find my amusements elsewhere," as he waded towards the edge of the spring.

Lan WangJi said nothing.

Wei WuXian was tempted to steal Lan WangJi's clothing – to slow his pursuit as well as to give himself an opportunity to look for his jade token – but decided against it. It would likely only lead to Lan WangJi tackling him to retrieve his clothing.

He froze in the middle of pulling his robe back on. His cheeks flushed and he quickly dressed again so he could escape before Lan WangJi could catch up with him. He hurried away without allowing himself to look back.

He was so preoccupied with getting as far from the cold springs as he could that he almost stumbled over Lan JingYi and Lan SiZhui.

Lan JingYi blinked at him. "Senior Mo?"

Wei WuXian quickly put a smile on his face. "If it isn't my favourite Lans."

The two shared a look.

"What of HanGuang-Jun?" Lan JingYi piped up.

Wei WuXian blinked in surprise. "...My favourite junior Lans?" he tried instead.

Lan JingYi smiled brightly. "That's more like it, Senior Mo!" he practically chirped.

This one was a sweet boy, Wei WuXian thought to himself. It was good to see that GusuLan wasn't full of stuck-ups like Lan QiRen.

"Are you enjoying a stroll before curfew sets in?"

Bless him, Wei WuXian thought. Lan JingYi had successfully provided him with a convenient excuse. He nodded. "Yes, it is a lovely night."

Lan SiZhui frowned slightly. "But Senior Mo, why are you wet?"

Wei WuXian froze.

While his dark outer robes would not show the moisture that was clinging to his skin as clearly as the GusuLan robes would have, the ends of his hair were still wet and limp, and he was undoubtedly creating a puddle beneath his feet as surely as he must have with every step he had taken so far. There was no hiding that.

"I did not see HanGuang-Jun without any clothes on," Wei WuXian heard himself say into the silence.

Lan SiZhui and Lan JingYi stared at him.

Now that he had said as much, Wei WuXian knew he had to stay true to the character he was portraying. "And I most certainly did not see HanGuang-Jun bathing."

"..."

"..."

"And I certainly didn't get in with him. That is most definitely not the reason I'm wet."

Lan JingYi clapped his hands over his ears just a little too late.

"Indecency is prohibited!" Lan SiZhui spluttered.

What wasn't prohibited, Wei WuXian thought to himself. Breathing perhaps? Though he could easily picture Lan QiRen hammering a rule prohibiting breathing too loudly into the mountainside because one of his disciples had annoyed him.

"Who said anything of indecency?" Wei WuXian blinked at them innocently.

Lan JingYi stared far too pointedly at him for someone who was pretending to be deaf. Lan SiZhui's ears were so red that Wei WuXian couldn't help but be reminded of Lan WangJi.

He was tempted to tease the boys on how quickly their minds had gone down that route when he noticed that Lan SiZhui and Lan JingYi were no longer looking at him. Their gazes seemed focused on something just over his shoulder instead. They looked horrified.

Wei WuXian turned his head slowly.

Lan WangJi was staring at him. His expression was unusually chilly; far more so than it had been back at the springs.

Wei WuXian swallowed. He felt the need to call for a tactical retreat.

"Ah, is it that late already?" He laughed. "I better hurry or I'll be late for curfew!" he said and took off before anyone could say or do anything to stop him.

"Running is -"

"Prohibited, yes, I know!" Wei WuXian threw over his shoulder, but he didn't slow down.

It wasn't long before he was caught. Lan WangJi plucked him out of thin air as though he weighed nothing and threw him over his shoulder.

Wei WuXian blinked.

Lan WangJi tightened his grip on Wei WuXian's body before slowly heading back towards the Jingshi.

Wei WuXian felt his cheeks slowly start to burn. He was too mortified to even consider struggling. Knowing his luck that would only result in him landing awkwardly and need help to walk back to the Jingshi regardless. It was better to save himself the embarrassment.

Lan WangJi carried him all the way inside. He didn't release Wei WuXian until they reached the room Wei WuXian was meant to sleep in. There Lan WangJi dumped him unceremoniously onto the bed and stepped back.

Wei WuXian stared at him.

"Sleep," Lan WangJi said firmly. Then he turned on his heel and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind himself.

Wei WuXian was still staring after Lan WangJi a long time after he had left the room.

-:-

Wei WuXian spent a long time staring up at the ceiling, stroking a thumb over the place the brand had used to be. He was not sad to see it go even if he had gotten it in another's place. The skin had felt tight around the brand, though the area itself had remained dead after it healed. It should perhaps have felt weird, to have such an obvious part of his body feel dead to the touch, but Wei WuXian thought it was appropriate. There was a part inside of him that was dead and lived on in Jiang Cheng; why shouldn't there be something on the outside of him that was dead as well to match?

He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. What was he doing, thinking these dark thoughts?!

Wei WuXian paused when he pulled his hands back. His sleeves had fallen back to show his inner arms. He found himself touching the word that had followed him through death.

He remembered suddenly the day he had seen Wen Ning looking at his wrist at the Burial Mound. He'd hid his hands as soon as he noticed Wei WuXian looking, brushing away Wei WuXian's questions into the matter.

It had been a short glimpse, but the word had stuck with Wei WuXian nonetheless. He still couldn't help but wonder how someone like Wen Ning could have been cursed with a love that was unrealised. If anyone deserved such a love, then it was Wei WuXian.

He shook his head firmly. If his thoughts were determined to stay so dark, then he was thoroughly giving up on sleep.

It was quiet outside. He hadn't heard any bells in a while. Could it be that the curfew had come into effect while he had been lying there thinking? Wei WuXian pushed himself up and looked out the window. It had certainly grown darker since he'd laid down. He couldn't see the patrol he knew must be out there, keeping the peace and enforcing the curfew.

Perhaps this was his chance. If the only things that stood between him and his freedom was a few scattered guards and a missing token...well, Wei WuXian had snuck past many guards in his past. He could do it again.

As for the token...

He snuck into the main room, careful not to make a sound. The Jingshi was quiet around him. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief before sneaking over to the room he assumed Lan WangJi slept in.

He stopped in the doorway.

Wei WuXian couldn't remember a time he'd seen Lan WangJi sleeping. He'd been the one to pass out in the Xuanwu cave, after all, to the soft plucking of broken guqin stings. Lan WangJi looked peaceful, Wei WuXian decided. It was truly a shame that Wei WuXian had to disturb the peace, but needs must!

He snuck over and started rifling through Lan WangJi's clothing.

It wasn't long before he became aware of eyes on him. Wei WuXian quickly turned away from Lan WangJi's previously neatly folded clothes.

Lan WangJi's eyes were open.

Wei WuXian froze. He knew he had to act fast. Unless he wanted Lan WangJi to guess he had been trying to steal a token to escape, he needed to move now.

He climbed into Lan WangJi's bed.

Wei WuXian didn't know which one of them was more surprised – Lan WangJi or him. He licked his lips, more from nerves than any attempt at being seductive. "Didn't I warn you what might happen if you let me stay, HanGuang-Jun?"

Lan WangJi stared up at him.

Wei WuXian didn't know what to do now that he was on the bed. Lan WangJi wasn't throwing him off – which Wei WuXian had expected him to the moment he even touched the bed.

Lan WangJi reached up and grabbed his waist. For a heart-stopping moment, Wei WuXian thought Lan WangJi was going to kiss him. He was instead pulled down to lie on Lan WangJi's chest and held there. After a stunned moment of silence, Wei WuXian tried to move and found that he couldn't. Lan WangJi had cast the body-bind spell on him?!

Wei WuXian tried to open his mouth to ask what Lan Zhan was thinking and found that he couldn't. He had used the silencing spell as well?!

Lan WangJi merely nodded and closed his eyes again.

Wei WuXian couldn't believe this. How was he meant to sleep now?! Lan WangJi surely wasn't serious!

But the chest beneath his cheek quickly resumed its earlier rhythm. Lan WangJi's heart-rate had even slowed! Lan WangJi had truly fallen asleep with Wei WuXian lying on top of him.

Wei WuXian cursed his luck.

-:-

Wei WuXian was surprised to find that he wasn't the only one visiting – if it could be called that, in Wei WuXian's case – the Cloud Recesses.

(He was more surprised that Lan WangJi had said nothing about Wei WuXian's surprise visit to his room the night before. Or perhaps Lan WangJi was biding his time on that one?)

Jin GuangYao was walking with Lan XiChen, no doubt discussing official Sect Leader matters. Or perhaps not. They had been friends before any of them had inherited the title, Wei WuXian reminded himself. It could just as easily be a friendly visit as an official one.

Wei WuXian wondered what Lan XiChen thought of his presence at the Cloud Recesses. Lan WangJi had informed him, of course, but Wei WuXian had yet to speak with the sect leader himself. Though if Lan XiChen was entertaining guests, it certainly explained why Wei WuXian was being kept waiting.

"Senior Mo!" someone called out and it took a moment before Wei WuXian remembered that was him. He turned towards the voice and saw Lan JingYi practically jumping up and down as he waved at him. Lan SiZhui stood like a statue next to his companion.

"I thought shouting was prohibited in the Cloud Recesses," Wei WuXian said as he approached the two.

Lan JingYi grimaced.

"It is," Lan SiZhui said. "You're lucky Lan QiRen didn't hear you."

Lan JingYi looked faintly green. "Don't invoke his name! He might appear!"

The other didn't even blink.

Lan JingYi glanced around anxiously and only seemed to relax when Lan QiRen didn't appear out of thin air to smack him with one of his many teaching scrolls. Wei WuXian knew all too well how Lan JingYi must be feeling.

He was glad that the two seemed content to leave what had happened the previous night behind them. If Lan SiZhui and Lan JingYi had been horrified to hear that Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi had bathed together, it wasn't difficult to imagine how the boys might react if they learned that they had shared a bed – however unintentionally it had been.

"Say, Senior Mo, how did you know?" Lan JingYi asked.

"What?"

"About the rule," Lan JingYi clarified. "Did you know someone that studied here?"

"Oh, I saw that on the wall as we were climbing up," Wei WuXian deflected. He didn't want Lan JingYi to ask him just who 'Mo XuanYu' had known that studied at the prestigious Cloud Recesses. The fewer lies he had to tell, the better.

"You have a good eye!" Lan JingYi said. "What other rules did you see?"

"Ah." Wei WuXian scrambled desperately for the rules he remembered Lan QiRen screaming at him after he broke them. "No running, something about not breaking curfew..."

Wei WuXian nearly swallowed his tongue when he looked over to see Jiang Cheng stalking up the steps to the Cloud Recesses.

"Senior Mo?" Wei WuXian heard vaguely from somewhere next to him. He couldn't say whether it had come from Lan JingYi or Lan SiZhui.

He was only aware of saying something to the boys before rushing away in a hurry before Jiang Cheng spotted him and had him whipped again, but harder this time.

Wei WuXian hid in the Jingshi, staying beneath the window in case he would need to make a sudden escape. Even if he hadn't found a way out of the Cloud Recesses yet, maybe he could grab a token on his way as he fled? He lingered there until it became clear that no one was coming to knock down the door looking for him – not even the junior cultivators to see if he was well.

He frowned. He had been certain that Jiang Cheng was there for him. Had he been wrong? No, surely not. But then why wasn't Jiang Cheng coming for him?

Wei WuXian snuck out through a window in case the door was being watched. He hid in the shadows of the buildings as he tried to imagine where Jiang Cheng might have gone and what he was doing in the Cloud Recesses.

He did not have to wonder for long.

"I demand the right to interrogate him myself!"

Even though Jiang Cheng had studied in the Cloud Recesses with Wei WuXian in their shared youth, it seemed he didn't care for the many rules either. At least, so Wei WuXian assumed, considering the volume he used to communicate.

Before Wei WuXian could remember what a splendidly bad idea it was, he had already climbed onto the roof of a nearby building and crouched down to watch.

Jiang Cheng was standing closer than what was perhaps considered appropriate and snapping up at Lan XiChen. Somehow through all of that, Lan XiChen hadn't stopped smiling.

"Senior Mo is a guest," Lan XiChen said. "If he is to be questioned of anything, it will be on the incident at Mo Village where Lan JingYi and Lan SiZhui first saw him."

"And what of the incident at Dafan Mountain?" Jiang Cheng countered. "Should he not be questioned on that as well?"

"It is to my understanding that he has been," Lan XiChen answered. "By yourself, for one."

"That is why I want to question him again," Jiang Cheng stressed. "I am not satisfied with the answers he gave!"

Wei WuXian felt more than he saw Lan WangJi come up next to him. Lan WangJi said nothing, though Wei WuXian was certain eavesdropping was on the list of things that were forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. Perhaps Lan WangJi had questions as well that his brother was not inclined to answer?

"I will ask him if he is amenable to speaking with you again," Lan XiChen said, sounding very reasonable.

"You speak as if he's a member of your sect. He's not!" Jiang Cheng snapped. "You have no authority over him. If I want to question him, then I will question him!"

"Tell me, HanGuang-Jun," Wei WuXian began without turning to look at him, "do you think your esteemed Sect Leader will release me into Sect Leader Jiang's tender care?"

"No."

Wei WuXian blinked in surprise. He opened his mouth to ask what made Lan WangJi so certain, but Jiang Cheng spoke over him.

"And if he is who I think he is," Jiang Cheng's voice was practically a growl, "then his return is a matter for the YunmengJiang sect, not GusuLan."

Lan XiChen's smile stayed firm, if perhaps a little stiffer than it had been. "If he is who you think he is, was he then not cast out from your sect?" he said. "You have forfeited the exclusive right to deal with him."

Wei WuXian stared and he wasn't the only one. Jiang Cheng didn't look to be blinking.

"If you are keeping Wei WuXian from me..." Jiang Cheng growled, Zidian crackled threateningly.

Lan XiChen only smiled. "I am not keeping Wei WuXian from you."

Wei WuXian frowned. Something about Lan XiChen's wording seemed...off, somehow.

Lan WangJi was suddenly standing in front of Wei WuXian, which thoroughly distracted him from what was happening down below. "Come," he said.

Wei WuXian tried to look around him, but Lan WangJi would not let him.

"But -"

"Come." Lan WangJi's voice was firm.

Wei WuXian bit back a pout and let himself to be guided away.

-:-

Lan XiChen stopped by the Jingshi that evening, not long before the infamous curfew.

"Brother, he cannot stay here."

Wei WuXian frowned. Lan WangJi hadn't scolded him for eavesdropping earlier, though Wei WuXian was certain it was prohibited in the Cloud Recesses, but the walls were thin and he had not been ordered to wait outside while the brothers talked. If he overheard anything, it was on them.

There was no doubt who they were talking of; it could only be himself. But what had happened since he last saw Lan XiChen that he was now ordering Wei WuXian out of the Cloud Recesses?

"People are talking."

"Gossip is prohibited," Lan WangJi countered immediately.

There was a sigh, likely from Lan XiChen. "You know as well as I that it isn't that simple," he said.

Lan WangJi said nothing.

"WangJi, if you want to protect him..." Lan XiChen trailed off.

Lan WangJi still said nothing.

Wei WuXian mourned that he wasn't there to see their expressions. He was certain that he could have seen entire monologues play out that way. Perhaps not in Lan WangJi's expression, but surely in Lan XiChen's.

There was another sigh, also likely from Lan XiChen. "Sect Leader Jiang will not leave until he's been permitted to see him," he cautioned Lan WangJi. "I can only do so much."

Wei WuXian frowned. That sounded like Lan XiChen was protecting him; but why? For all that he and Lan WangJi knew, Wei WuXian was just a boy from Mo Village who had turned to demonic cultivation when he'd been denied the opportunity to continue studying with LanlingJin.

"I understand," Lan WangJi said. "Thank you, Brother."

"Take care, WangJi," Lan XiChen said before he left.

The Jingshi was silent after his departure. Wei WuXian couldn't even hear Lan WangJi moving about.

Wei WuXian was missing something, he was certain of it.

Chapter Text

Wei WuXian doubled his efforts to steal a token the next day. He needed to leave before Jiang Cheng took matters into his own hands, regardless of their surroundings. He doubted the Cloud Recesses' no killing rule would do much to prevent Jiang Cheng from wringing his neck if Wei WuXian so much as slipped.

He spent the day walking around mapping the comings and goings of several GusuLan cultivators. At no point did he see an opening he could use to take a token.

He pushed through the disheartened feeling rising in his chest. There were other ways of getting out, he was certain of it! Perhaps if he tried waiting a little longer before sneaking into Lan WangJi's room that night, he might be able to grab his token?

The thought left a sour taste in his mouth. The Two Jades were clearly trying to shield him, though Wei WuXian didn't know why. It felt more discourteous than it should have to imagine stealing from them, even if it was only a small token that he could easily leave outside the barrier to be found later.

He was tempted to leave that as his last resort. Surely there was some way he hadn't tried to get himself excused politely, but firmly from behind the sect's protective walls. He just needed to think of a new angle.

Wei WuXian was deep in thoughts when he found himself grabbed and pulled into a shadowed alcove. He wasn't surprised that someone had come after him, but he was surprised at the man in front of him. Jin GuangYao?

"What are you doing here?" Jin GuangYao hissed.

For a moment Wei WuXian had forgotten that being Jin GuangShan's son meant he was also Jin GuangYao's half-brother. Of course, that didn't mean they were on speaking terms – if Wei WuXian was reading Jin GuangYao's expression correctly. Wei WuXian didn't know how Mo XuanYu's time at LanlingJin had ended, other than landing him in disgrace. But was there truly no end to Wei WuXian's terrible luck?!

He tried to pull his arm out of Jin GuangYao's grip but found that Jin GuangYao was unwilling to let go. He frowned. "HanGuang-Jun brought me."

Jin GuangYao grew pale.

"If you think you can sleep your way into his good graces -" what in the world?! "- think again. I have the Sect Leader's ear."

Wei WuXian had a feeling he was being threatened, but why? What on earth did Jin GuangYao have to fear from a disgraced lunatic bastard like Mo XuanYu?

"HanGuang-Jun brought me because I'm suspected of cultivating on a different path," Wei WuXian said dryly. "And I don't know whether to feel flattered that you think I could corrupt HanGuang-Jun or offended on his behalf."

Jin GuangYao stiffened. "You -"

"What is going on here?"

Even though Wei WuXian was glad for the interruption, he would rather it have come from anyone else. Even Lan QiRen was better! At least then he wouldn't desperately want the earth to swallow him whole.

Jiang Cheng was staring at them with a glimmer in his eye that Wei WuXian didn't recognise.

That was when Wei WuXian noticed that Jin GuangYao had finally let go of his arm. Jin GuangYao was smiling pleasantly, though it was visibly strained. "Sect Leader Jiang."

"LianFang-Zun," Jiang Cheng returned.

"Mo XuanYu and I were simply talking."

Wei WuXian struggled not to start laughing outright.

"Oh?" Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. "What about?"

Jin GuangYao look of surprise almost set Wei WuXian off. Wei WuXian had to bite his lip to keep the laughter at bay.

"Sect matters," Jin GuangYao said.

Sect matters? Wei WuXian glanced at Jin GuangYao. Mo XuanYu had been thrown out of LanlingJin and likely – knowing Jin GuangShan's usual treatment of his bastards – received nothing in the aftermath. Every member of LanlingJin Wei WuXian had met so far seemed to loathe the very name 'Mo XuanYu.' Surely Jin GuangYao would have been safer to say something else, to diminish the tie between them.

Wei WuXian held back a frown. He knew he was missing pieces of the puzzle at hand and he hated it.

"Uncle."

At the sound of the greeting, Wei WuXian was tempted to turn on his heel and run.

Jiang Cheng glanced briefly over at his nephew but made no move towards speaking.

Jin Ling frowned when he saw that his uncle's attention was caught elsewhere. Wei WuXian lamented that he started to look around as well, easily spotting Jin GuangYao. "Uncle?"

"Jin Ling," Jin GuangYao returned.

Jin Ling scowled when his eyes landed on Wei WuXian next. "You too?"

Wei WuXian held in a sigh. No one was going to greet him nicely ever again, were they?

Jin Ling looked between all three of them and frowned. "Why are all three of you here?"

"Yes, why are we?" Jiang Cheng challenged.

Wei WuXian folded his hands behind himself and opened his mouth. "The esteemed LianFang-Zun was accusing me of taking advantage of HanGuang-Jun."

Jin GuangYao choked.

"Which I haven't, naturally," Wei WuXian continued. "Alas, he is not a cut-sleeve like me. My heart mourns."

Utter silence.

"SHAMELESS!" Jin GuangYao shrieked. Wei WuXian had never heard a man reached that note before. He was almost impressed.

"Are you impersonating a Lan, Sect Leader Jin?"

Jin GuangYao's entire body twitched.

Jin Ling stared at him like he had never seen Wei WuXian before. That was the danger of playing a dead man, Wei WuXian thought to himself. He hadn't known Mo XuanYu before. He didn't know how to behave like Mo XuanYu with the people that had known him in more than a passing capacity. Even if there was some animosity there, clearly Jin Ling had known him enough to recognise the mannerisms Wei WuXian was failing to copy.

"I am not without concerns!" Jin GuangYao insisted.

Wei WuXian pushed Jin Ling out of his mind and tilted his head in Jin GuangYao's direction. "Have you seen any inappropriate behaviour between HanGuang-Jun and myself, Sect Leader Jin? If so, pray tell."

Jin GuangYao's cheeks resembled the colour of Jiang Cheng's robes.

Wei WuXian grinned sharply. "I thought as much."

He could feel Jiang Cheng staring at him. He pushed the feelings that were building to the back of his mind. He didn't have time to worry what his little brother thought of him now – even if Jiang Cheng's opinion was of Mo XuanYu, not Wei WuXian himself.

Wei WuXian was preparing to say something that would let him slip away when he noticed something odd about Jin GuangYao's appearance. He had only caught a brief glimpse of the man earlier but he still couldn't remember a pouch being tied to his belt, let alone one that size. He focused on the pouch and wasn't too surprised when he felt the hint of a resentful aura emitting from it.

There was no reason Jin GuangYao would be carrying something emitting such energy onto GusuLan grounds. Wei WuXian knew it was possible that Lan XiChen had given his sworn brother some item or another to investigate, and that was why Jin GuangYao had come, but Wei WuXian doubted it. He recognised the pouch. He had travelled beside it on the way to the Cloud Recesses.

If he was wrong, then ah well. Perhaps he could try to claim he meant no harm. But if he was right...

Wei WuXian whistled sharply and couldn't keep from grinning when the pouch on Jin GuangYao's belt started to thrash about. The aura grew to a thick, dampening wave. The taste of it was all-too-familiar.

Zidian crackled sharply and Jin Ling had an arrow nocked before most people could blink. Wei WuXian complied and raised his hands. Though while the arrow was pointed at Wei WuXian, it was clear that the majority of Jiang Cheng's attention was on the still trashing pouch on Jin GuangYao's belt.

Jiang Cheng's voice was dark when he said, "What do you have there?"

Jin GuangYao took a step back. The smile remained, but his cheeks were too pale for it to be genuine. "Nothing, nothing."

Wei WuXian calmly kept his hands in the air.

Zidian crackled loudly around Jiang Cheng's finger. "What do you have there." It was clear from his tone that he was done asking.

Even though he knew he had thoroughly exposed himself and wasted his chance to run, Wei WuXian thought it was worth it if a dubious individual was also caught in the process.

-:-

Wei WuXian's only consolation was that he wasn't the only one that had been locked up after the incident. He would have preferred not to be locked up at all, but he supposed certain things couldn't be avoided – especially after blatantly showing off demonic cultivation practices.

He wasn't surprised when he received visitors, but he was surprised when he saw it was Lan WangJi and that he was alone.

"HanGuang-Jun."

Lan WangJi stared down at him.

Wei WuXian wondered briefly what Lan WangJi saw when he looked at him. Did he see a young man from Mo Village who had made some questionable choices in his life, or was Lan WangJi like Jiang Cheng and saw Wei WuXian in every demonic cultivator he met? Wei WuXian didn't know.

Then Lan WangJi spoke. "Wei Ying."

It was as if his heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest. Wei WuXian could only force himself to stay seated and do his best not to let it show.

"My name is Mo XuanYu. Perhaps HanGuang-Jun -"

Lan WangJi was frowning. "Wei Ying."

Wei WuXian closed his mouth.

He had been found out, but...how? Wei WuXian knew he could have been more careful, but surely he hadn't revealed himself so quickly!

Then again, perhaps Lan WangJi was just testing him to see if he would break and confess. He made to ask again if Lan WangJi wasn't mistaken, but the Lan WangJi's expression stopped him. Lan WangJi wasn't testing him; Wei WuXian could say that with absolute certainty. The look in Lan WangJi's eyes was foreign, undoubtedly, and not that of a man that was looking for his prisoner's weaknesses.

Wei WuXian sighed. "How did you know?"

There was a pause before Lan WangJi said, "...You told me."

Wei WuXian stared at him. "I did?!"

"Mn," was all Lan WangJi said.

Wei WuXian searched his – albeit spotty – memory, but he could not think of a moment when he might have decisively revealed himself. "...When?"

Lan WangJi didn't answer.

"Lan Zhan!"

There was a small and almost invisible twitch to Lan WangJi's mouth. Still, all he said was, "Figure it out yourself."

Wei WuXian stared at him.

Lan WangJi's voice was softer than he had expected. Their relationship had not been the easiest, or indeed the closest, before but Wei WuXian could still remember Lan WangJi's insistence that he come back to Gusu with him. He had been wary of Lan WangJi's intentions then, but perhaps he had been wrong to. Lan WangJi was acting no different now than he had been when Wei WuXian had pretended to be Mo XuanYu.

...Had Lan WangJi always known? No. Surely not.

But he wasn't condemning Wei WuXian now, nor had he condemned Mo XuanYu earlier. Perhaps Wei WuXian had more allies than he realised.

"If you won't tell me how that, then would you instead tell me how much trouble I'm in?"

Lan WangJi sat down next to him. He didn't have to speak for Wei WuXian to see the severity of the situation in his expression.

"Ah." Wei WuXian winced.

If Lan WangJi had discovered his true identity, then it was very possible he wasn't the only one. If Jiang Cheng had done the same...then Wei WuXian knew his time on this earth could soon be counted in months, if not weeks. Perhaps even days.

Wei WuXian blinked when Lan WangJi suddenly grabbed one of his hands. "Lan Zhan?"

Lan WangJi's grip was careful. His fingers didn't stray further than the back of Wei WuXian's hand. Still his wrist seemed to burn.

Wei WuXian was surprised to feel that his heart had started to race again. He wondered if he was ill. If so, it was a very inopportune moment for his health to fail. Lan WangJi would surely get the wrong idea and think Wei WuXian was afraid of him.

He had never been afraid of Lan WangJi, not even when he perhaps should have.

"I will be with you," Lan WangJi said, "when they come."

Wei WuXian was gripping Lan WangJi's hand before he could stop himself. And Lan WangJi...allowed it. He even gripped Wei WuXian's hand in return. Wei WuXian forced down the urge to blush.

"Lan Zhan is too kind," he said. "I must have done something truly good in my past life to deserve Lan Zhan's support."

Silence.

"Ahaha, too soon?"

"Wei Ying."

-:-

True to his word, Lan WangJi was still there when the time came for Wei WuXian's official interrogation.

Lan XiChen did not look surprised to see his younger brother in the room with Wei WuXian. Jiang Cheng, on the other hand, looked furious. Wei WuXian couldn't say for certain whether he was furious at Wei WuXian or that Lan WangJi was sitting next to him. He was not given a chance to ask.

The GusuLan sect leader folded himself into a seated position like he saw nothing wrong with Lan WangJi holding onto Wei WuXian's wrist so tightly it almost hurt. His expression was calm, not quite kind but not quite stern either. "You know why we're here?"

"I can hazard a guess," Wei WuXian answered glibly.

Jiang Cheng's eye twitched.

Lan XiChen didn't even blink. "Demonic cultivation."

"Whistling is considered demonic cultivation now?"

"YOUR EYES WERE GLOWING RED, YOU IDIOT!" Jiang Cheng snarled.

Wei WuXian jumped.

Ah. Wei WuXian had forgotten they did that whenever he drew on those powers. It was admittedly a bit of an oversight on his part. Then there was no way he could pretend he hadn't been doing what he had at that moment.

"If I may ask -"

Jiang Cheng stared at him like he'd never heard anything more outrageous in his life.

"- what was in the pouch?"

Jiang Cheng glared at him. He looked ready to start spitting fire.

Lan XiChen held up a hand in Jiang Cheng's direction and sighed. His expression was that of a man who was at least a decade older than his true age. "The arm from Mo Village."

Wei WuXian frowned. "Why?"

"A-Yao would not say," Lan XiChen said, sounding as tired as he looked. "We were hoping you -"

Wei WuXian was shaking his head before Lan XiChen could finish speaking. "I only saw that something was different with him and decided to investigate. Who knew I would uncover a theft in the process."

A pause.

It was true that Wei WuXian had suspected that Jin GuangYao had perhaps come about the pouch in an unsavoury manner, but there was no reason to point it out.

"All I can tell you is what you already know," Wei WuXian said. "The arm is infused with great resentful energy. Something terrible must have happened to their owner before or during their death, for parts of their body to remain so charged. As the arm attached itself to people to possess them, I believe it's likely it will not rest until it's reunited with the body it belongs to."

Lan XiChen nodded. "We have also deduced as much."

"If you hoped I might know the identity of the owner, then I'm sorry. I do not." Wei WuXian shrugged. "I have been dead for thirteen years. There is much I don't know."

Lan WangJi's grip shifted around his wrist, tightening suddenly before releasing just as quickly. Wei WuXian tugged until he could slip his fingers between Lan WangJi's again. Perhaps then he would be less inclined to squeeze so tightly.

"Then you admit it?" Surprisingly, it was Lan XiChen that asked him that.

"Is there a point in denying it?" Wei WuXian countered.

Lan XiChen shook his head, but Jiang Cheng spoke over what he might have said. "NOT WITH HIM CLINGING TO YOU LIKE A STICKY CHILD!" he roared and pointed angrily at them both.

"It's nice to see you too, little brother," Wei WuXian said as evenly as he could manage.

Jiang Cheng looked ready to fly at him then and there. Zidian was crackling threateningly.

Lan XiChen held up a hand and Jiang Cheng sat back, arms folded across his chest. Zidian crackled one last time before settling down.

"Allow me to ask you plainly." Lan XiChen looked different without his smile. Not quite older and not quite severe. Tired, perhaps.

Lan WangJi's grip tightened briefly around Wei WuXian's hand.

"Mo Village," Lan XiChen said, "was that you?"

Wei WuXian shook his head. "Nor was it Mo XuanYu."

Jiang Cheng snorted. "How could you know?"

"Because he wouldn't have needed to call for me if it were," Wei WuXian said plainly.

Silence.

Lan XiChen cleared his throat. "Then we are no further on the events that transpired in Mo Village."

"How did you come back?" Jiang Cheng asked suddenly.

"Sect Leader Jiang -" Lan XiChen began.

"No, I want to know."

"You may question him later."

Wei WuXian had to put a hand on top of Lan WangJi's to stop him from crushing his fingers to smithereens.

"Oh," Jiang Cheng said darkly, "so you are letting me now?"

"Little brother -"

"Did I ask for your opinion?" he snapped, throwing Wei WuXian a glare.

Lan XiChen shook his head. "Then I fear we are done here." He stood. "For now, at the very least."

Jiang Cheng was still scowling when he pushed himself to his feet.

Wei WuXian's heart reacquainted itself with his throat. "Have you tried asking the villagers about the arm?"

Lan XiChen nodded, expression sombre. "We have questioned everyone there about the incident, but it seems they too are clueless as to who the arm might belong to."

Wei WuXian frowned. "Everyone?" he echoed. "Even Nie HuaiSang?"

Another silence.

"Why would we question Sect Leader Nie?" Jiang Cheng asked suspiciously.

Wei WuXian tried not to take Jiang Cheng's behaviour to heart. "Because I saw him there."

Jiang Cheng looked even more suspicious. "You saw him where?"

"On the road leading out of Mo Village," Wei WuXian said. "Why?"

Jiang Cheng's expression darkened.

-:-

It took a lot more prodding than Wei WuXian thought it would to get Lan WangJi to leave. Why, Wei WuXian didn't know. But the hesitation in him was clear, in the way he lingered in the doorway to the tightness around his mouth. Wei WuXian thought he was at long last getting better at reading Lan WangJi.

It was almost as though he feared Wei WuXian might not be there when he came back.

Once Wei WuXian was alone, he crossed the room to the nearest wall and slid down until his back was pressed tight against it. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath.

It would be a few days before Nie HuaiSang would arrive – perhaps even a full week. That was too long for Wei WuXian. He wasn't meant for sitting still or setting a puzzle aside simply because he had no new clues to examine.

Why had Nie HuaiSang been on that road that day, not to mention alone and in an ox-cart?

He cast his mind back. Had there been anything in the cart? Nothing that came to mind – but then maybe Wei WuXian hadn't been paying enough attention. But surely he would have noticed if there had been a body or something like it in it.

Wei WuXian opened his eyes and frowned. Maybe there had been something like a body in it at some point. Maybe Nie HuaiSang had used the cart to transport the arm to Mo Village. But that begged the question; why would Nie HuaiSang be travelling with an arm to Mo Village? It was well outside of Qinghe. If Nie HuaiSang had been travelling anywhere with a body or parts of one, he'd surely be taking it to one of his sect's burial grounds.

Then...it couldn't have been Nie HuaiSang that set the arm loose.

But if it wasn't Nie HuaiSang, then who could it be? And why had he been there?

Wei WuXian rubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed. His mind was going in circles. He wasn't going to be able to crack the mystery that way.

He was lucky, he supposed, that his would-be cell came with a window. It was far too small for him to squeeze through, but it allowed him to see rather than just sense the time passing. He couldn't imagine what it would have been like to be locked in a room where the passing of time could only be judged through heart-beats and a slowly growing sense of hunger and thirst.

Wei WuXian didn't know how long he sat there staring at the darkening skies before the door opened again.

"Wei Ying."

Wei WuXian turned towards the door and smiled. "Couldn't stay away, ah, Lan Zhan?"

Lan WangJi waited until the door closed behind him before walking into the room. He was carrying a tray which he placed down on the low table in the middle of the room. Wei WuXian had tried laying over briefly before in an attempt to nap sometime earlier, too lazy to move over to the bed that came with the room. It had, of course, been far too short for any kind of support, but it had been something to do for a little while. Of course, when he'd tried the bed later he hadn't been tired anymore.

Wei WuXian pushed himself over once the smells coming from the tray hit his nose. "You brought food?"

"Mn."

Wei WuXian grinned at him. "Lan Zhan is the best."

Lan WangJi said nothing as Wei WuXian dug in. It was the same bland food that Wei WuXian remembered from his time studying in the Cloud Recesses, but he was too hungry to care. Mo XuanYu's body was unfortunately not used to practising inerdia.

"I assume I'll be staying here for a while, then?"

Lan WangJi frowned but didn't correct him.

Wei WuXian sighed. "Well, I have stayed in worse places," he said cheerfully. Like the Burial Mound during those months he tried to block from his memory, when he'd reshaped his body as much as his mind. He'd only had the cold, hard ground then, and the endless whispers of the restless souls keeping him company.

Somehow Lan WangJi's frown only got deeper.

"Haha, it's all right, Lan Zhan," he said with a smile.

"Do not make light of your suffering."

Wei WuXian nearly choked on his tea.

Lan WangJi looked terribly serious – more so than Wei WuXian thought he had ever seen. It made his heart begin to race.

"Lan Zhan," he breathed. "It wasn't suffering. It was -"

"There is no need to lie, Wei Ying," Lan WangJi interrupted in a decidedly un-Lan-like manner. "I saw you."

Wei WuXian swallowed.

He hadn't forgotten Lan WangJi's visits to the Burial Mound. How could he have? Those were some of his fondest memories in his final years. He was reminded of A-Yuan suddenly and felt a terrible ache. He hadn't thought of the boy once since coming back. He was a terrible parent – would-be or otherwise.

He wondered what had happened to him.

"...Wei Ying?"

"Hm? Oh," he forced a smile, "it's nothing, Lan Zhan."

Lan WangJi did not look convinced.

He sighed. "I was just thinking of back then, that's all," Wei WuXian admitted softly. "I don't know what became of the remaining Wens after the...the Siege." He swallowed past the lump in his throat.

Lan WangJi was silent for a long moment. Wei WuXian had already picked up the chopsticks again when Lan WangJi said, "Wait here."

"What?" Wei WuXian blinked at him.

Lan WangJi got up and headed for the door.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei WuXian called after him, but the door closing was the only answer Wei WuXian got to his unspoken question. He blinked. What had that been about?

Wei WuXian tried to take his time, but even then he finished his meal long before Lan WangJi came back. He played with the chopsticks for a while before laying himself out on the floor. He wasn't trying to sleep, or he would have moved to the bed. He just didn't want to stay seated anymore. His heart was beating a little too fast in his chest. He tried to slow it down but he was mostly unsuccessful.

What could have caused Lan WangJi to run off like that, Wei WuXian thought to himself. It surely couldn't be good.

When Lan WangJi finally came back, it was with Lan SiZhui in tow.

Wei WuXian blinked and pushed himself up. "Lan Zhan?"

Lan WangJi didn't answer that unspoken question either. He gestured for Lan SiZhui to take a seat at the table before sitting down himself.

Wei WuXian folded his hands in his lap. He glanced between the two men, but Lan SiZhui appeared to be as confused as he was.

Lan WangJi turned to Lan SiZhui and said, "Lan Yuan," before turning to Wei WuXian and saying, "Wei Ying."

Wei WuXian's breath caught in his throat. The name could have been a coincidence, he knew, but then why would Lan WangJi had brought the boy to see Wei WuXian? It would have been unusually cruel of Lan WangJi, far more than Wei WuXian had thought him capable of before.

Lan SiZhui blinked and turned to Wei WuXian. "You are not...Senior Mo?"

"Ah, no," Wei WuXian cleared his throat. He was hoarse all of a sudden. "I haven't been, since before the Mo Village incident."

Lan SiZhui glanced at Lan WangJi before saying, "Then you are Wei WuXian?"

Wei WuXian somehow managed a smile. "Yes."

Lan SiZhui didn't seem to breathe or even blink before he was leaning forward and putting his arms around Wei WuXian. "I have missed you, Mother," he said then, voice quiet.

Wei WuXian hesitated before curling his arms around Lan SiZhui. "I've missed you too, A-Yuan."

Lan SiZhui grabbed onto him tighter.

Wei WuXian's heart broke and mended all in one breath. "I'm here, A-Yuan," he murmured as he fought not to give in to the tears. "I'm not leaving you again, I promise."

Lan SiZhui buried his head in Wei WuXian's shoulder. He was shaking faintly – or was that Wei WuXian? He couldn't rightly tell. Not that it mattered, really. He wouldn't point it out and doubted Lan SiZhui would either. He rubbed a hand down Lan SiZhui's back and allowed himself to thank the Heavens that his boy was here, safe and sound.

Wei WuXian swallowed and looked at Lan WangJi over Lan SiZhui's head. 'Thank you,' he mouthed to him.

Lan WangJi just smiled in answer.

Chapter Text

He was sitting by the window when he noticed Nie HuaiSang arriving. One of the men he was travelling with seemed oddly familiar though Wei WuXian couldn't remember why, let alone his name. Wei WuXian frowned.

Lan XiChen greeted Nie HuaiSang where Wei WuXian was able to see them from the window. Wei WuXian thought that was likely deliberate.

As they talked, the man Wei WuXian knew he recognised from somewhere started to look around. Their eyes met. Wei WuXian was tempted to wave but held back the urge just in time. Better he make as little spectacle of himself as possible until his name was cleared of the Mo Village incident.

Lan XiChen guided Nie HuaiSang and his entourage further into the Cloud Recesses. Wei WuXian watched until he could no longer see them.

Though Jiang Cheng had threatened to continue his interrogation, Wei WuXian hadn't seen him since the day he had revealed himself. And now that Nie HuaiSang had arrived Wei WuXian wondered if Jiang Cheng had forgotten him entirely. Only, surely not. Jiang Cheng might have found himself occupied by other matters, but his hatred for the art Wei WuXian practised couldn't have faded. Wei WuXian was willing to stake his life on that.

Still. Though Lan WangJi brought him supper every day and stayed until it was time to sleep, Wei WuXian spent most of the day alone. Lan SiZhui and Lan JingYi stopped by occasionally, but not nearly as frequently due to their studies – or so Wei WuXian suspected. He didn't mind. He knew that his A-Yuan was alive and well and that was enough for now. Wei WuXian was, however, getting close to wishing Jiang Cheng would see fit to continue the interrogation if only to properly break up the monotony.

Wei WuXian got his wish granted when the young man from before appeared in his doorway. He was carrying a covered sword and a dizi on his belt. Wei WuXian frowned, feeling that he really should be recognising the man from those two items alone.

The man looked around the room before crossing the floor briskly and grabbing Wei WuXian's hand. "Come," he said as he started to pull Wei WuXian along. Wei WuXian was caught off guard and found himself following before he could tell his body whether to move or stay still. "I'm getting you out."

Wei WuXian dug his heels in to make them stop. "Why?"

The other man stared at him. "To save you."

Wei WuXian shook his head and pulled his hand back. "I don't need to be saved."

"They will kill you again if you stay!"

Wei WuXian paused. It occurred to him that this young man knew who he was – not Mo XuanYu, but Wei WuXian. That couldn't bode well.

"Listen -"

The young man grabbed his wrist, the same wrist that Lan WangJi gravitated towards. Wei WuXian waited for the same warmth to course through him, but all he felt was cold.

"They will kill you," the man said. There was something manic in his eyes. "I won't let them. We have come too far. I would sooner raze the swine to the ground."

A chill ran down Wei WuXian's spine.

That was when he recognised him. Xue ChengMei, the rogue cultivator he'd met on the road to Dafan Mountain. He must have known who Wei WuXian was even then. But how?

"Who are you?"

Xue ChengMei paused. Wei WuXian saw the moment the other man decided to lie to him; whether by withholding important facts or obscuring the truth remained to be seen.

"Xue ChengMei. Senior remembers me, doesn't he?"

Wei WuXian shook his head firmly. He was not in the mood for games. "You know me. You knew me then. How? Who are you?"

Xue ChengMei hesitated. He licked his lips before uttering the name, "Xue Yang," as though it would mean something to Wei WuXian. "I brought you back."

"No, that was..."

His texts. Mo XuanYu had been in possession of his texts. How had he gotten them?

"The Xianshe."

Xue ChengMei – no, Xue Yang nodded. "Now you see."

Only he didn't, because Wei WuXian couldn't understand how it all made sense. Had Xue Yang given Mo XuanYu the texts hoping he might summon Wei WuXian one day? Or had it gone deeper? Had they planned everything; from how to bring Wei WuXian back to setting free the arm?

No, that didn't make sense. If Mo XuanYu and Xue Yang had indeed collaborated, then they surely would have realised the scrutiny Wei WuXian would fall under if the soul-summoning and release of the arm coincided. And Wei WuXian very much doubted Mo XuanYu would sacrifice his life and body to Wei WuXian just to set him up. He also doubted Xue Yang would be working so hard to drag Wei WuXian from his confinement if their goal had been to make him a scape-goat.

Wei WuXian had no love lost for puzzles he couldn't solve, and this one was particularly aggravating.

"Now come." Xue Yang grabbed Wei WuXian's wrist again. "We need to leave before -"

The door opened. Wei WuXian's daily visitor had arrived – though a little early, Wei WuXian thought. What had prompted that?

"Lan Zhan," Wei WuXian breathed.

Lan WangJi's eyes immediately went to Xue Yang, then to the hand he had wrapped around Wei WuXian's wrist. His expression was as cold as Bichen's glare.

"Lan Zhan, it's not -"

Xue Yang let go of Wei WuXian to pull back the cloth covering his sword. He drew it and pointed it at Lan WangJi. "Want to die, old man?"

"...I'm as old as he is, you know," Wei WuXian heard himself say.

"Wei Ying."

Xue Yang's expression turned ugly, fast. Wei WuXian knew he needed to act fast before a deadly fight broke out in the little hut.

"You can't hope to win against HanGuang-Jun in a fight, Xue Yang," he said. "He's second on the list of young masters."

"I don't care who or what he is," Xue Yang snarled. "He can't have you."

Lan WangJi's expression darkened.

The air froze in Wei WuXian's lungs. It had been decades since he had last seen that look in Lan WangJi's eyes. It had been aimed at him once; when he had been younger and more foolish. He had hoped never to see it again, even if it wasn't currently directed at him.

Wei WuXian moved before anyone else could, putting himself firmly between Xue Yang's sword and Lan WangJi.

"Wei Ying!"

Lan WangJi grabbed his arm and tried to pull him back, but Wei WuXian stood firm. "You fight in this room and I'll surely become collateral," he said to Xue Yang. "Is that what you want?"

Xue Yang hesitated. It was only for a moment, but he hesitated. Then the rage came back.

"That's what I thought," Wei WuXian said and activated the leaf he'd left on Xue Yang's clothes as he ducked past him.

The sword dropped and rolled, luckily away from where Xue Yang's body landed a moment later.

Wei WuXian had naturally been searched and stripped of any cultivation items days ago, but they had left him in a room with an open window. And as GusuLan practised Inquiry and other rituals to speak to the dead, the dead naturally flocked closer. It had been child's play for Wei WuXian to craft the talisman he needed with what was available to him.

Lan WangJi's hand was still gripping his arm. Wei WuXian stepped aside and waved at Xue Yang with his free hand. "If you would, HanGuang-Jun."

Lan WangJi was staring at him. "Lan Zhan," he corrected, though it sounded absent-minded. There was a pause before he released his grip on Wei WuXian.

Wei WuXian grinned and tucked his hands behind his back. "As you wish, Lan Zhan."

Xue Yang swore at them both.

-:-

"A demonic cultivator?" Wei WuXian echoed. "Him?"

"Oh yes," Lan XiChen said. He had dropped in after Lan WangJi had taken Xue Yang off to be placed in what Wei WuXian assumed was a more secure cell. Wei WuXian knew he was, all things considered, being let off very easy – at least when it came to his accommodations. "He was found guilty of such, only his accusers withdrew their claim. He was folded into the Jin sect afterwards."

Wei WuXian frowned. "How convenient." A little too convenient, Wei WuXian thought to himself.

Lan XiChen's grimace told Wei WuXian everything he needed to know.

"He has a brilliant mind," Lan XiChen explained. "Many said it rivalled yours, back when you had still been considered...well."

Sane? Yes, Wei WuXian could see why Lan XiChen hadn't wanted to finish that sentence.

"But the path he walked left much to be desired, or so I understand." Lan XiChen shook his head. "They say he created a second half for the Stygian Tiger Seal and that it worked."

Wei WuXian was on his way to mention the GusuLan rule about gossiping when the rest of the words sank in. It felt as though someone had walked over his grave.

"He had it on him. We confiscated it, of course," Lan XiChen added.

"Destroy it," Wei WuXian said instinctively.

Lan XiChen looked surprised.

"It should not exist. Destroy it. Both halves, if you can."

"We had every intention of doing so," Lan XiChen said. He hesitated before continuing. "You did it once before."

Wei WuXian shook his head before Lan XiChen could ask him the question he knew he was coming. "I couldn't do it again. Not without great risk to myself or everything around me."

He saw the moment Lan XiChen understood what he refused to say.

There was a pause before Lan XiChen said, "We will look into it, then."

Wei WuXian nodded to him.

He expected the sect leader to leave it there, but it seemed Xue Yang's crimes were vaster than Wei WuXian had imagined.

"But the sword he carried." Lan XiChen looked grim. "It was Shuanghua. Xiao XingChen's," he added, likely seeing Wei WuXian's confusion.

"Xiao XingChen?" The name meant nothing to him.

Lan XiChen nodded. "He was another student of Baoshan Sanren."

Wei WuXian knew that name. Did that mean Xiao XingChen was his mother's shidi?

"The cultivation world has been looking for him for a long while now, for the murder of the last member of the YuegangChang sect. But if Xue Yang has his sword..." Lan XiChen shook his head. "It likely means something terrible has befallen him. We will have to question Xue Yang and see what he says."

Wei WuXian felt his breath catch. He hoped it wasn't so. Xiao XingChen would be a link to his mother, no matter how small. If something had indeed happened to Xiao XingChen and that link severed before Wei WuXian could speak to him...

He didn't even want to think the words.

"If -" Wei WuXian cut himself off.

Lan XiChen blinked. He gestured for Wei WuXian to speak.

"If he proves unwilling to speak..." Wei WuXian shrugged. "Perhaps I could try. This is the second time he's sought me out."

Lan XiChen frowned. "He is a very dangerous cultivator."

"You forget, Sect Leader," Wei WuXian said, "that so am I."

He bid Wei WuXian farewell shortly after that. Wei WuXian wasn't surprised. He was, however, surprised when Lan XiChen took him up on his offer only a few hours later. After agreeing, he was brought to a part of the Cloud Recesses he had never set foot in before. This was a proper holding area, Wei WuXian thought as he looked around. The hut he was locked in tantamounted to glorified house-arrest. Xue Yang was being kept in a cell.

Lan WangJi was waiting for him outside what he assumed was Xue Yang's room. He glanced over at Lan XiChen, who had been escorting Wei WuXian, before settling on Wei WuXian again.

"Are you certain?" Lan WangJi asked.

He didn't know why Lan WangJi appeared worried. Still, it made something inside of him feel warm. "Yeah," Wei WuXian said, voice softer than he had expected. He put a hand on Lan WangJi's arm. "It's ok, Lan Zhan. He won't hurt me."

Lan WangJi hesitated before opening the door.

Wei WuXian thanked him with a smile before slipping inside. He felt more than he saw Lan WangJi follow him inside.

Xue Yang seemed to have dropped his disguise since Wei WuXian last saw him. The colours that had marked him as a part of QingheNie sect had been stripped away, leaving him in stark robes that seemed to swallow what little light hit them.

"Why didn't you want to run?" he asked before Wei WuXian could even sit down. "Don't tell me you like it here with these people." His gaze was clearly on Lan WangJi, who seemed to have settled against the wall behind Wei WuXian.

Wei WuXian kept his expression calm. He blocked out Lan WangJi's presence as much as he could. Talking to Xue Yang would require him to be cold and ruthless – the opposite of the emotions Lan WangJi inspired in him. "These people you speak of," he said, "are old friends of mine."

"Old friends that had you killed."

Wei WuXian's mouth curled in the corner, but it was not to show a smile. "You give them too much credit."

He couldn't remember his death in his other life – a blessing he did not deserve – but he could remember the moments leading up to it. Wei WuXian remembered the Seal and pushing everything of himself that he could into it so he could, if not break it entirely, make sure it could never be used the same way again. He wondered faintly if his body disappeared in the blast or if there was something left of him to be found after – by other cultivators or the corpses he was no longer controlling. A fitting death for someone like him was the latter.

Wei WuXian could see that Xue Yang wanted to ask him about his death, but Wei WuXian didn't give him the opportunity. "They tell me you made another half for the Stygian Tiger Seal."

Xue Yang nodded eagerly. "Yes, I -"

"Why would you do such a foolish thing?" Wei WuXian said brusquely. "I destroyed it for a reason."

The shock was visible in Xue Yang's expression before he smoothed it away. "I can control it."

"If I couldn't control it, what makes you think you could?" Wei WuXian lips pulled back. "I am the Grandmaster of the art you think you understand. I know more than you can dream of knowing."

"You know nothing," Xue Yang hissed. "I fixed it and I made it work for me."

"That's what the Seal makes you think," Wei WuXian said flatly. "It was like that for me too, at first. Then I slaughtered an entire city because a fool tried to kill me and missed," he hissed, shooting to his feet.

Xue Yang stared at him.

"I slaughtered an entire city," he said, shaking faintly as he slammed his hands into the table, "because they took my shijie from me!"

"Wei Ying!"

He wasn't aware of moving until Lan WangJi was there, pulling him back. He felt like he was shaking apart and the only thing holding him together was Lan WangJi's arms.

Xue Yang was still staring at him. Wei WuXian wondered faintly what he saw; the Yiling Patriarch or the broken man that desperately tried to pick up the pieces after the Sunshot campaign.

Wei WuXian was distantly aware of Lan WangJi's hands on him, pulling him back towards the door. He didn't struggle, not even when Lan WangJi opened it and tried to pull him through. He just kept his eyes on Xue Yang and let him see what the parts of the ferocious Yiling Patriarch that were still in him.

"Did you keep it on you at all times?" Wei WuXian asked as Lan WangJi made to close the door. "Because then you'll never know if the people you killed were because you wished it, or because it wished you to."

The door shut.

-:-

Lan WangJi moved him to the Jingshi after the interrogation. Wei WuXian did not know whether he was meant to be taken back to anywhere other than his previous place of confinement, but he didn't overmuch care.

"Wei Ying."

"That did not go as planned," he heard himself say. "I hope your brother's next attempt fares better, Lan Zhan."

"..."

He felt cold. It was the first time he'd thought – truly thought – about his death, as well as his shijie's, since Mo XuanYu had brought him back. It brought him back to that moment, to the moment the backlash hit him, to Jiang YanLi's hand on his chest pushing him back, to the cold and dark seeping into his mind and hollowing him out.

The Stygian Tiger Seal was powerful; too powerful. He should never have invented it. Better he die a thousand deaths by fierce corpses than Jiang YanLi sacrifice herself for him even once.

"Wei Ying."

"It should have been me," he said, voice hoarse. "I should have been the one that died."

"Wei Ying."

There were hands on his shoulders, braced like they meant to shake him but had a change of heart partway through. "Wei Ying," Lan WangJi repeated. "You did." Lan WangJi didn't sound like himself, but Wei WuXian was too preoccupied to wonder why. "Die."

A piece of his heart shattered. "THEN I SHOULD HAVE STAYED DEAD!" he screamed.

Lan WangJi flinched back.

Wei WuXian curled in on himself and buried his hands in his hair. He fought not to start hyperventilating. It was a losing battle.

Though there was room between them, Wei WuXian remained distantly aware of Lan WangJi's continued presence. He stayed there as Wei WuXian fought for and lost and finally regained his breath. He was there as Wei WuXian shook and held in the tears. He stayed even when Wei WuXian lost that battle as well.

Lan WangJi remained by his side as the hours ticked by and the shaking slowly subsided. He stayed as Wei WuXian's eyelids grew heavier and he slipped into an exhausted sleep.

When he woke up, Lan WangJi was gone.

Chapter Text

Lan WangJi was avoiding him. Wei WuXian couldn't blame him. He felt strangely ashamed of his outburst the day before. He hadn't meant to show his darkest and innermost thoughts. Lan WangJi didn't deserve to be exposed to those parts of Wei WuXian.

For all that Lan WangJi was avoiding him, he had not made himself hard to find. Wei WuXian merely had to ask Lan JingYi where HanGuang-Jun spent his time and there Lan Zhan was, in a field of rabbits, calmly petting one while another had made itself at home in his lap.

Wei WuXian didn't want to interrupt the serene scene, but he knew the apology would only become more difficult to utter the longer he waited.

He carefully stepped around a few of the fluffy creatures until he stood in front of Lan WangJi. His eyes were closed, though Wei WuXian knew it was impossible for his arrival to have gone unnoticed. Lan WangJi was too skilled a cultivator for that.

"I'm sorry, Lan Zhan," he said softly. "For what I said yesterday."

Lan WangJi's eyes stayed closed, but he didn't tell Wei WuXian to get lost. Wei WuXian took that as a tentative cue that he could continue.

He gingerly sat down next to Lan WangJi, making sure to keep some space between them, and sighed as he folded his hands in his lap. "I'm not honouring my shijie's memory this way," he said quietly. "She would be disappointed in me." He glanced over at Lan WangJi, an unsteady smile on his lips. Wei WuXian was surprised to see Lan WangJi looking back at him. He tried unsuccessfully to hold back a blush. He carried on, hoping his words would distract from how red his cheeks had to be. Who knew, perhaps the topic could even leech the blood away? "I just don't understand how she could sacrifice herself for me," he said. "She was a mother. I was just -"

"Her little brother," Lan WangJi interrupted.

Wei WuXian looked away, swallowing thickly. "Her son had already lost his father! Because of me! And then I went and -"

"Not you."

Wei WuXian wrapped his arms around himself. It had felt like him in those moments; the ones he could remember, that was. Certain incidents had been attributed him, but the truth was that Wei WuXian could never – and would never – remember which ones he had had a hand in and which one he hadn't.

"Well, I can't imagine she's very impressed by my releasing the Seal's full potential after," he said, trying for glib but falling flat.

Lan WangJi shook his head. "Not you."

"Lan Zhan -"

"The Seal. You said so yourself."

If he let his mind drift enough, he could almost remember what the call had felt like. The thrum had lived under his skin, calling out for violence and death like an itch that never went away.

Wei WuXian shook his head. It was better if he forgot all about it – better still if Lan XiChen saw the last half of the Seal destroyed sooner than later. Oh, it wasn't that Wei WuXian didn't trust himself. He knew he would never seek out that wretched thing again. He could, however, not say the same for everyone around him.

He turned, mouth open to say something that might lighten the mood when he saw that Lan WangJi's attention was elsewhere. His eyes appeared to be locked on something behind Wei WuXian.

Wei WuXian turned his head and stiffened when he saw Jiang Cheng staring back at them. With everything that had happened in the last day or so, Wei WuXian had almost forgotten that his brother had promised to continue his interrogation another day.

"I need to speak to Wei WuXian." Jiang Cheng's gaze seemed to be on Lan WangJi more than the man he claimed he wished to speak with. "Alone."

He turned back towards Lan WangJi. Whatever softness there had been in Lan WangJi's expression had disappeared. Wei WuXian quietly mourned for it. Lan WangJi didn't have to speak for Wei WuXian – and likely Jiang Cheng as well – to know how he felt about Jiang Cheng's request.

Wei WuXian reached out and laid a hand on Lan WangJi's arm. "I'll be all right, Lan Zhan," he murmured.

Lan WangJi still clearly hesitated before giving his assent.

Wei WuXian climbed out of the rabbit hutch and walked over to the man that had once been his sworn brother. He could feel Lan WangJi staring after them as Jiang Cheng guided them away. He was tempted to look back but forced himself not to. He didn't want Jiang Cheng to think...

He frowned. He wasn't sure what he didn't want Jiang Cheng to think.

Jiang Cheng took them to a place Wei WuXian remembered well. They had spent many hours down by this river, lounging under that tree. It brought back memories Wei WuXian didn't know what to do with.

"How do you think you died?"

Wei WuXian blinked.

It couldn't be a coincidence. He had touched on the subject only yesterday. Jiang Cheng must have overheard something, but how?

Jiang Cheng was staring out at the water. His fists were clenched at his sides. It made Wei WuXian long for the time when he could have distracted Jiang Cheng into forgetting his anger, or at least what had caused it.

"I killed you."

Wei WuXian stopped breathing.

"For thirteen years, that's what everyone has been saying." Jiang Cheng's voice was flat, nearly emotionless. "Wei WuXian's shidi killed him." His laugh, on the other hand, was almost cruel.

Wei WuXian hurt – for his brother more than himself. Jiang Cheng had lost so much so early and far too much of it had been Wei WuXian's fault. He could never repay the debt to Jiang FengMian for taking him in and he hadn't been able to fulfil his promise to Madam Yu to keep an eye on Jiang Cheng. He was a disgrace, a spot on the YunmengJiang sect, he –

But this wasn't about him, Wei WuXian reminded himself. Not truly.

"Jiang C-"

Jiang Cheng turned towards him with rage in his eyes. "Are you even sorry for what you did?"

"How can you ask me that?" he cried.

"How can I not?" Jiang Cheng countered. "You killed 3000 people in Nightless City, Jin ZiXun, your nephew's parents, all those Jin guards -"

"They killed my – they killed innocent people!" The anger was still there, Wei WuXian discovered, even after all these years. The anger, the pain, the grief; all of it. He could never quite regret what he had done to those men, not when he remembered what they had done to the sick, elderly and young – all because of their name. "Just because of which sect they once belonged to!"

"So did you, once upon a time," Jiang Cheng reminded him coolly.

"I killed soldiers!" He gestured sharply at the world at large. "They were killing old people, women, children. They killed my friend!"

"And you killed my sister."

Wei WuXian couldn't look at his brother anymore. He turned away and willed the tears back. He had cried enough the day before.

It was fitting, Wei WuXian thought, that Jiang Cheng would come and correct him just as he had begun to question how much slaughter he had engaged in unprompted and how much he had been compelled to bring forth. His last memory of Jiang YanLi was locked away somewhere far inside his mind. Wei WuXian didn't dare to touch it for the fear of what it would make him feel. But he knew it was there in the same way he knew the rest of the Nightless City massacre wasn't. There was a hole there, right until he had started preparing the Burial Mound for the inevitable retaliation.

But Jiang Cheng had been there. He, too, had seen Jiang YanLi draw her last breath. If he felt it right to blame Wei WuXian for her death, who was Wei WuXian to say he was wrong?

Wei WuXian had stolen so much from Jiang Cheng. Perhaps this was how he was meant to repay that debt. He didn't want to die, but if Jiang Cheng asked it of him... "Very well," he said and looked back at Jiang Cheng. "If that is what you think, then kill me – right here, right now."

Jiang Cheng took a step back.

Wei WuXian felt tired, suddenly; tired in a way he hadn't been for thirteen years. "What's wrong, brother?" He borrowed a little from the Yiling Patriarch when he said, "Scared to do it now that I've given you permission?"

Jiang Cheng was looking at him like he had never seen Wei WuXian before. He shook his head numbly and stalked off before Wei WuXian could open his mouth, let alone speak.

Wei WuXian stared after him. He didn't know what Jiang Cheng had wanted to know but doubted he'd left with any answers – let alone those he had been looking for. Wei WuXian turned his eyes back on the place Jiang Cheng had brought him to and allowed himself, just for a moment, to remember running around with his brother without a care in the world. Then he went back to the Jingshi.

-:-

"We would like you to be there for Nie HuaiSang's interrogation."

Wei WuXian pointed at himself. "Me?"

After the conversation with Jiang Cheng, Wei WuXian had gone to bed and not woken up until the next day. Lan WangJi had looked genuinely surprised to see him already awake when he came out of his room that morning.

Wei WuXian knew his mind was not in a good place. It was not like it had been in the Burial Mound, when he had been exhausted from keeping the energy together and contained. He felt restless and sick to the stomach. He had tried to vomit only to have nothing come up. He hadn't eaten in almost a day, after all.

He felt more centred now. He wasn't well by any means, but he was better.

Lan XiChen nodded.

Wei WuXian glanced at Lan WangJi. He was frowning. It didn't look like Lan XiChen had consulted his brother on this, but then who was this 'we' Lan XiChen had talked about? Or perhaps he had, but Lan WangJi hadn't agreed with Lan XiChen's decision?

He shrugged. "If you think my presence will be of help."

Lan XiChen looked almost sad when he said, "I think it will."

Wei WuXian wasn't as certain but followed the brothers to Nie HuaiSang's interrogation room nonetheless. It was closer to the hut Wei WuXian had spent a week in, only more lavish – as lavish as buildings were in the Cloud Recesses, anyway. It was, however, guarded, therefore setting it apart from any other guest accommodations nearby.

Lan XiChen nodded to the guards, who bowed and uttered near-identical greetings of, "Sect Leader," and "HanGuang-Jun."

Wei WuXian wasn't perturbed when no greeting for him followed. Who was he, after all, but the son of a servant in the body of a disgraced bastard? He did glance around to see if there was anyone else waiting to go in with them.

"Has Jiang Cheng excused himself from the investigation?" he asked.

"Not as such," Lan XiChen said vaguely. "He has not left, if you wish to speak to him again."

It was more of a need than a wish. Their last conversation had ended poorly and Wei WuXian knew, for all that he had seemed ready to put Wei WuXian down before, his brother's innermost feelings were likely not nearly as straightforward. If they had been then Wei WuXian would already have been dead a second time. No, he owed Jiang Cheng an apology – especially if there was ever going to be any hope of mending their relationship.

"Ah, perhaps later," was all Wei WuXian said.

He could see Lan WangJi's frown shifting out of the corner of his eye. Wei WuXian wondered why but knew this wasn't the time to ask.

"Shall we?"

Lan XiChen nodded. He only had to turn towards the guards for one of them to reach out and open the door for them. Lan XiChen entered first. Wei WuXian glanced at Lan WangJi only to find the other already looking back. He nodded towards Wei WuXian, clearly as a gesture that Wei WuXian go first.

"Ok, Lan Zhan," he said softly before following the sect leader inside.

The room that met him was a larger and more lavish version of the place that had been his cell for a week. Nie HuaiSang was standing by the large window, fanning himself. There was a tea set on the table, but it appeared that Nie HuaiSang had already finished drinking it or it had long since grown cold.

He turned towards them once Lan WangJi entered after Wei WuXian and the door closed, a smile already on his face. "Er-ge," he greeted, but he froze when he saw the people standing beside Lan XiChen.

"HuaiSang," Lan XiChen returned. He took a seat by the table, ignoring the abandoned tea-set.

Lan WangJi sat as well, next to his brother but on the other edge of the table. He glanced at Wei WuXian.

"Why don't you take a seat?" Lan XiChen suggested, smiling patiently at Nie HuaiSang.

Nie HuaiSang was staring at them. No, Nie HuaiSang was staring at him, Wei WuXian realised. Had Wei WuXian been wrong? Had Mo XuanYu and Nie HuaiSang met before? Because the only other option – that Nie HuaiSang had somehow been able to recognise Wei WuXian in Mo XuanYu even then – was even less likely.

Wei WuXian took a seat next to Lan WangJi. If he played his cards right, then he would be walking away with those answer soon.

Nie HuaiSang seemed to shake himself out of the stupor. He glanced at Lan XiChen, looking faintly worried as he crossed the floor and sat directly opposite Lan WangJi.

"Thank you for coming all this way again, HuaiSang," Lan XiChen said, sounding warm and friendly as always. "As I mentioned, we had some questions regarding an incident that occurred at Mo Village while you were in the area."

Nie HuaiSang said nothing. He was still glancing occasionally at Wei WuXian.

Lan XiChen didn't appear to be offended that Nie HuaiSang hadn't acknowledged any of them. He instead asked, "Have the two of you met, HuaiSang?"

"I believe we have," Wei WuXian said, leaning his elbow on the table. "On the road out of Mo Village, isn't that right, Sect Leader?"

Nie HuaiSang looked faintly caught. "Yes," he said finally. It was anyone's guess whether he was answering Lan XiChen's question or Wei WuXian's.

Wei WuXian knew which he'd bet on, though. And it was all pointing to something he'd entertained before, but not at any great length. Now, however, he was willing to take a gamble. "But that's not where we first met, is it?"

Nie HuaiSang quickly hid his expression behind his fan, but not before Wei WuXian had seen the panic there.

"I should clarify, I'm not Mo XuanYu," Wei WuXian told him. He felt Lan WangJi stiffen next to him. He felt compelled to reach out and soothe Lan WangJi but now wasn't the time. "That's why you acted that way on the road. Because you knew him, but I didn't act like I knew you."

Nie HuaiSang's flinch was visibly even over his fan. He looked away sharply and started fanning himself a little desperately.

Wei WuXian kept his eyes on him as he sing-songed, "Not going to ask who I am, Nie-xiong?"

"Wei Ying," Lan WangJi said quietly, but not so low as not to be overheard.

The way Nie HuaiSang stiffened at Lan WangJi's words said everything Wei WuXian needed to know.

"I'm sorry, Lan Zhan." Wei WuXian flashed him a quick smile before turning his focus back on Nie HuaiSang. "I'll behave."

"You aren't surprised to hear that Wei WuXian is back with us," Lan XiChen remarked.

"I don't know," was Nie HuaiSang's first – and rather telling – response. "He's Wei WuXian. If anyone could, surely it would be him."

Wei WuXian was flattered, but Nie HuaiSang's account was highly incorrect. He'd been dead. If he'd gone anywhere after the Siege on the Burial Mound and Mo XuanYu calling for his spirit, he couldn't remember it. Crediting him with finding some way to come back couldn't be further from the truth.

"I had very little to do with it," Wei WuXian said with a grin. "But enough about me. I'm curious about you and Mo XuanYu. How did you two meet?"

Nie HuaiSang started to fan himself harder. "I don't know."

Wei WuXian noticed that his sleeves had started to fall down his arm from all the fanning he was doing. It wasn't enough that Wei WuXian could see his word, not from the angle he was sitting, but he could see enough of it to tell that it was white.

Nie HuaiSang must have noticed him looking because he paled rapidly and pulled down his sleeves. He switched hands and tucked the other arm around his body, as though to hide it.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, HuaiSang," Wei WuXian said. "You are not the only one with a faded mark."

That somehow made Nie HuaiSang look even more panicked.

Hmm. Why would Nie HuaiSang be panicking about them learning anything about his mark, even the fact that the one on the other end was dead? It wasn't like the four of them were strangers to death. So many had lost their other half or halves in the war they had taken part in.

Or...perhaps it was more personal than that. But unless Nie HuaiSang had been aware of their identity before their death and knew that Lan WangJi, Lan XiChen or Wei WuXian had personally delivered the blow then...why would he be reluctant to even share the status of his soulmate?

Wei WuXian would have suspected Nie HuaiSang of thinking it was one of them, except the word was white. And he sincerely doubted it was either him or Mo XuanYu.

Wait. Mo XuanYu.

"Your mark faded recently," Wei WuXian said, ignoring the disapproving look Lan WangJi was giving him. There was a point to what he was saying, Lan Zhan. He just needed time to prove his theory. "It hasn't even been a month, has it?"

Nie HuaiSang's eyes were huge over his fan.

Wei WuXian was tempted to scratch at his own word. He folded his arms over his chest instead. "You were surprised to see me because Mo XuanYu was supposed to be dead."

Lan XiChen opened his mouth to speak, but Nie HuaiSang beat him to it.

"You don't know what you're saying!"

"Don't I?" Wei WuXian said flatly. "I think your reaction speaks for itself. I have a white word, so do you. And besides, it was a fleeting connection anyway."

Nie HuaiSang looked like Wei WuXian had stabbed him through the chest.

Wei WuXian should probably have felt bad about using Nie HuaiSang's word against him, and perhaps one day he would, but not until he was certain Nie HuaiSang had had nothing to do with the Mo Village incident or even Mo XuanYu's death.

"You wouldn't understand!" Nie HuaiSang cried.

Wei WuXian arched an eyebrow. "Then explain it to me."

"You wouldn't understand," Nie HuaiSang repeated, louder this time.

"Then make me."

Nie HuaiSang suddenly seemed to realise they weren't alone. He closed his mouth firmly and shook his head. The hand around his fan was shaking slightly.

Wei WuXian didn't need him to speak. A bleak picture was forming in his head. Much in the way Wei WuXian had few prospects as the son of a servant, Mo XuanYu had been the disowned bastard of a prominent sect leader and treated as a slave by his mother's relatives. It wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been thrown out of the LanlingJin sect. Had Mo XuanYu been allowed to stay, he wouldn't have been far below Nie HuaiSang in standing. And as soulmates, few would dare to call them cut-sleeves – at least to their faces. They might have been happy, if fate had let them. But fate hadn't.

Nie HuaiSang hadn't.

Wei WuXian didn't know why Mo XuanYu had been thrown out of the LanlingJin sect, as he certainly didn't trust the official story anymore. He could only hope that Nie HuaiSang hadn't had a hand in it.

"Very well." Wei WuXian folded his hands on top of the table. "Then I hope you covered your tracks well, Sect Leader Nie. Or we will uncover them."

Nie HuaiSang faltered, but only for a brief moment.

"Why were you in Mo Village?" he asked.

Nie HuaiSang shook his head and kept fanning himself. His knuckles were white from how hard he was gripping it.

Wei WuXian changed tactics. "What do you know about the arm?"

"Nothing, I know nothing."

Wei WuXian narrowed his eyes at Nie HuaiSang. Something about that didn't ring true. "It's a pity," he said, "that it wasn't the right arm."

Nie HuaiSang froze. It didn't even look like he was breathing.

"That's where his word is, after all."

"How did you know?" tumbled out of Nie HuaiSang's mouth.

Wei WuXian grinned at him. "I didn't. But thank you for the confirmation."

Nie HuaiSang's mouth snapped shut.

"So then it's someone you know so well that you wouldn't set lose the marked arm in fear of someone recognising it." Wei WuXian folded his arms over his chest and leaned back. "Who might that be?"

The room was silent. Nie HuaiSang's grip on his fan was so tight it was a wonder he hadn't broken it yet.

Lan XiChen leaned forward slightly. His left hand was clenched around his other wrist. "Tell me you didn't, A-Sang," he said, voice so soft it was almost a whisper.

Nie HuaiSang looked to Lan XiChen a little frightfully. He stopped fanning himself, though he didn't loosen his grip on it. Whatever answer Lan XiChen was looking for, Wei WuXian wagered he found it in Nie HuaiSang's eyes.

Lan XiChen lowered his gaze and swallowed thickly. "You should have come to me."

"Er-ge, I didn't -"

Lan XiChen shook his head firmly. He took a deep breath before saying, "Where is the rest of him?" His voice was ever so slightly unsteady.

Nie HuaiSang's bottom lip was trembling.

When Lan XiChen looked up again, there were tears gathering in the corner of his eyes. Lan WangJi looked like he was holding himself back from comforting his brother by the skin of his teeth. "A-Sang," Lan XiChen said. "Where is the rest of my soulmate?"

Nie HuaiSang finally broke down and told them everything.

Chapter Text

Lan XiChen looked sick. He excused himself first, saying words that Wei WuXian didn't think he'd remember after, before fleeing the room.

Nie HuaiSang was looking at his hands. His fan was clasped between them, which was probably the only reason he wasn't wringing them as well. His expression hadn't recovered ever since he'd broken under Lan XiChen's gaze.

Wei WuXian didn't know what to feel about his old friend. A part of him wanted to feel sorry for the connection he'd found and lost, but the word on his wrist said everything about how that connection had ultimately turned out. If Wei WuXian's word had promised a connection like the one between Mo XuanYu and Nie HuaiSang, he would still have fought tooth and nail to make it work. After all, what was a relationship – any kind of relationship – if you didn't work for it?

He was shaken out of his thoughts when Lan WangJi rose. He looked up to see Lan WangJi holding out a hand towards him. Wei WuXian grabbed it and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. They were almost to the door when Nie HuaiSang spoke.

"You said," he said, "white word. Implying that you have two?"

Wei WuXian frowned. He was tempted to answer, but it didn't feel right. Not after what Nie HuaiSang had told them.

"You should know," Nie HuaiSang continued, "that Mo XuanYu only ever had one word."

Wei WuXian stilled. He curled his fingers around his wrist. Did that mean...he really had gotten his old word back? That his soulmate really was out there waiting for him?

But he couldn't afford to think about that now.

"I didn't expect that courtesy from you, HuaiSang," Wei WuXian said plainly. "But, thank you."

Nie HuaiSang didn't look up. He just nodded, though more at the table than any of them.

Wei WuXian prepared to leave, even going as far as to turn to Lan WangJi, but he couldn't make himself step outside.

"I thought I knew you better, HuaiSang," he heard himself say. He turned back to his former friend. "I never imagined you would doom your soulmate in such a way."

Nie HuaiSang's mouth twisted. "Our love was not meant to last."

Wei WuXian remembered how one of the cuts on his wrist had been suspiciously close to the word there, as though Mo XuanYu had meant to sever it to begin the pact with Wei WuXian but hesitated at the last moment. It spoke volumes as to how their relationship had ended.

He hurt for Mo XuanYu. Even if he had brought Wei WuXian back to kill his abusive family, he had been driven to that point. And the one person that should have been helping him – his own soulmate – had only made it worse. There was no excusing that.

"It doesn't excuse what you did," he said.

"I did nothing!" Nie HuaiSang cried, shoulders hunched. He still hadn't dared to look up.

"So you didn't get Xue Yang to help him the papers? You didn't tell him the name he should use to inflict the most pain on those that deserved it? Did you not just tell us that you did both of these things and more at that?"

Nie HuaiSang shook his head. Apparently admitting to his actions once was as far as he was willing to go.

Wei WuXian looked away. "I hope you think it was worth it, HuaiSang. Because I cannot see how else you will be able to live with yourself from now on."

Someone squeezed his hand pointedly. Wei WuXian looked down and noticed to his surprise that he and Lan WangJi were holding hands. He looked up to find Lan WangJi still looking back. Or had he even looked away at all?

Ah, it didn't matter. Wei WuXian squeezed his hand back before heading for the door.

Lan XiChen was waiting for them outside. He looked a little better, though his eyes were still faintly red. He glanced quickly down at their hands before looking away.

"I will need to confirm his account with...A-Yao," Lan XiChen said. He swallowed.

"I will speak with Xue Yang," Lan WangJi volunteered.

Lan XiChen gave a tired smile. "Thank you, WangJi."

"Mn."

"I will go back to the Jingshi." Wei WuXian felt strangely reluctant to let go of Lan WangJi's hand, but if they were going in opposite directions then there was nothing he could do.

"You are not a prisoner here anymore, Wei WuXian," Lan XiChen said to Wei WuXian's surprise. "We can safely say you had no hand in any of the actions that have recently transpired."

Wei WuXian blinked. "Ah, but I am still..." he glanced around for the guards, but found that they'd disappeared at some point, "the Yiling Patriarch?"

"Are you?" Lan XiChen countered. "I thought you were Mo XuanYu."

Wei WuXian almost choked.

"Brother."

The smile that followed was almost enough to fool Wei WuXian into believing Lan XiChen was all right again. "Very well, WangJi." He looked to Wei WuXian. "For the atrocities you were found guilty of, you would likely have been sentenced to death. As a result of the Siege of the Burial Mound, you were killed. So then you have already received your punishment." Lan XiChen glanced at his brother before continuing, "I believe a clean slate is in order."

Wei WuXian couldn't help but stare. It couldn't be that easy, surely. "ZeWu-Jun."

Lan XiChen waved a hand at him. "Aren't we are closer than that, Wei WuXian?"

Wei WuXian gaped at him.

Lan XiChen bowed to them both and wandered off, all before Wei WuXian could find his tongue again.

He grabbed onto Lan WangJi's sleeve. "Lan Zhan."

Lan WangJi turned to him.

"Tell me your brother didn't just pardon me," he breathed.

"He did."

That wasn't the answer he had asked for, Lan Zhan!

Lan WangJi untangled Wei WuXian's hand from his sleeve. He squeezed it gently before releasing it. "I must go."

"Yes, of course." Wei WuXian's hand was tingling, all of a sudden. He slipped them behind his back. "I will do as I said to your brother and go back to the Jingshi. I think I need some time alone," he added when it looked like Lan WangJi was going to protest and say something about how he wasn't a prisoner anymore.

Lan WangJi relaxed, ever so slightly. He nodded and gave Wei WuXian a look he couldn't quite decipher before walking off.

Wei WuXian looked back at the little house they had just come out of and wasn't entirely surprised to see that the guards had reappeared. They were both visibly looking anywhere but at Wei WuXian.

Ah, the Lan people and their baffling concept of propriety. Wei WuXian shook his head before taking the long way back towards the Jingshi.

-:-

Sitting inside the Jingshi doing nothing only let his mind run wild, so Wei WuXian scrapped that idea less than an hour after coming back.

He knew that thinking things over and allowing himself to process them would be better in the long run, but he wasn't ready. And it didn't feel right to do it while the sun was shining. Brooding thoughts were surely more appropriate for darker times of the day.

He poked around the Jingshi but quickly felt guilty for it. Lan WangJi and his brother had taken him in – Lan XiChen had even pardoned him! It wasn't right for Wei WuXian to start sticking his nose in places it wasn't meant to be, even if that loose floorboard in Lan WangJi's room intrigued him.

Wei WuXian was lying on the porch outside, eyes closed as he listened to the small hints of life that were scattered about the Cloud Recesses. Someone in the distance was practising their guqin. A bell had rung earlier, so class was probably in session. There were faint murmurs every now and then, which grew louder then faint again as the people carried on. Sometimes there were only footsteps and the sound of birds tweeting in the far-off trees.

He frowned when he noticed an uptick in footsteps and how they were moving directly past him. Wei WuXian opened an eye and saw a purple-clad figure walking away. In the direction of the gate.

Wei WuXian quickly scrambled to his feet. He hurried after. "Jiang Cheng!"

The Jiang sect leader halted abruptly.

Wei WuXian could see a small gathering of people further ahead, who must have paused at his shout as well. They were all dressed in purple robes – except for one. He tried not to look too long at his nephew or risk incurring Jin Ling – or Jiang Cheng's – wrath.

"What do you want," Jiang Cheng ground out.

Wei WuXian hesitated. He hadn't seen Jiang Cheng since their last and disastrous conversation. His temper had returned. Wei WuXian didn't know whether to be relieved at the familiarity or worry about what Jiang Cheng might be angry about now.

"To talk."

"Not interested," Jiang Cheng snapped, almost quicker than Wei WuXian could finish his short sentence.

It was clear that Jiang Cheng didn't want to revisit their previous conversation. That was fine with Wei WuXian. He wasn't particularly interested in doing that either. Only, he knew he needed to apologise. If shijie had been here and had heard them arguing...

But she wasn't. Hence why they were arguing.

"I wanted to apologise -"

"Not necessary," Jiang Cheng interrupted.

Wei WuXian bit at his lip. "Were you just going to leave?"

Jiang Cheng sneered at him. "I see no reason to stay."

"A-Cheng -"

"DON'T CALL ME THAT!"

Wei WuXian closed his mouth. He supposed he had forfeited that right.

"Jiang WanYin."

Jiang Cheng's eye twitched faintly.

Wei WuXian decided to change the subject. If Jiang Cheng wasn't going to let him apologise now then perhaps another time. He prayed there would be another time. "...How is ou- how is your nephew?" he corrected himself quickly.

"...Tch." Jiang Cheng turned and made to stalk away.

"Jiang WanYin!" Wei WuXian called after him.

Jiang Cheng turned back and growled, "WHAT."

"Brother, please -" The glare Jiang Cheng sent him was enough to freeze the blood in his veins. Still, Wei WuXian pushed on. "Will I see you again?"

"Why would you want to?" Jiang Cheng sneered.

"You're all I have left of them. And we made a promise -"

"Don't worry," Jiang Cheng snapped, "I won't hold you to it."

"I want you to!"

"Don't make me laugh!" Jiang Cheng said, voice harsh. "You wouldn't choose me over this place." He gestured back the way Wei WuXian had come. "Him!"

Him who? Lan Zhan? What did Lan WangJi have to do with this?

"A-Cheng -"

"I told you -" Jiang Cheng snarled.

"What is going on?" a third voice asked.

"Stay out of his, Jin Ling!"

Wei WuXian saw the moment Jiang Cheng regretted taking that tone with their nephew. Still, he didn't apologise.

Jin Ling must finally have had enough with simply watching Jiang Cheng snapping at the man he thought was Mo XuanYu and come to investigate. Unless...had Jiang Cheng told Jin Ling he was Wei WuXian? No, he couldn't have. After all, Jin Ling hadn't greeted Wei WuXian by sticking his sword through his abdomen.

As much as Wei WuXian preferred not to be run through, Jin Ling deserved to know. While he didn't appear to have any love lost for Mo XuanYu, he still deserved to know that the uncle before him was not the one he thought. He owed Jin Ling a debt much in the way he did Jiang Cheng.

"Jin Ling, there is something you should know."

Jin Ling frowned at him.

"I am not Mo XuanYu." He steeled himself before speaking. "I am Wei WuXian."

The blood drained from Jin Ling's cheeks. His hands were shaking as he pulled out his sword – the one that had once been his father's. He pointed it at Wei WuXian.

"Do you want to hurt me?" Wei WuXian spread his arms. "Go ahead. I welcome it."

Jin Ling's hands were still shaking, but Wei WuXian saw him brace himself to move.

He never got that far.

"Jin Ling, NO!" Jiang Cheng said and grabbed the sword right out of Jin Ling's hands.

Wei WuXian wasn't sure which one of them looked more surprised; himself, Jin Ling or Jiang Cheng.

There was a heavy silence.

Jiang Cheng swallowed. "Killing is forbidden inside the Cloud Recesses," he said, voice rough.

Wei WuXian tried not to let it get to him. It was only natural that Jiang Cheng would want to spare his nephew of GusuLan's strict punishment. He didn't know whether Jiang Cheng had sampled it himself, but Wei WuXian remembered his encounter. It was not a fate he would wish on anyone.

Well, perhaps only on certain people.

"They would understand," he heard himself say, even after Lan XiChen's surprising pardon and Lan WangJi's inexplainable support. They would understand his need to repay his nephew and provided Jin Ling didn't kill him, Wei WuXian would make sure Jin Ling wasn't punished.

Jiang Cheng's laughter was sudden and sounded hollow. "Don't be a fool, Wei WuXian." He sheathed Jin Ling's sword for him before grabbing onto his nephew's wrist. "Come, Jin Ling, we're leaving."

"Jiang Cheng -"

"I am not done with you," Jiang Cheng said between gritted teeth. Then he pulled Jin Ling after himself in the direction of the YunmengJiang cultivators. Jin Ling was still looking back, his cheeks pale with shock and horror.

Wei WuXian could only stare as the group left.

Did that mean...Had Jiang Cheng saved him not only to spare Jin Ling being punished for it? But...why? Because he didn't want his nephew to have blood on his hands, or was it because...he didn't want Wei WuXian dead anymore?

-:-

Lan WangJi found him later. Wei WuXian wasn't sure how much time had passed, only that it had. He'd gone back to the Jingshi, though he hadn't gone inside. He'd made himself comfortable with his back to the wall instead, fiddling with the dizi he'd made but never putting it to his lips.

"Wei Ying?"

"I'm fine, Lan Zhan." Wei WuXian tucked the dizi back into his sleeve. "Just thinking."

All the thoughts he had refused to think earlier had rushed through his head at an impossible speed, almost too quick for him to keep up. First he'd thought of Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling, then Jin GuangYao. Then Xue Yang had entered his thoughts, which had brought him to Nie HuaiSang. And then his mind had wandered to Mo XuanYu.

Even after the explanation Nie HuaiSang had given them, and whatever Xue Yang and Jin GuangYao had said in wake of that, Wei WuXian didn't think he'd ever truly understood what had driven the three men to do what they had done.

Lan WangJi held out a hand and Wei WuXian allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. "Did you get any answers out of Xue Yang?" he asked.

"Mn." Lan WangJi nodded as he opened the door to the Jingshi.

"What of Jin GuangYao?"

Lan WangJi nodded again.

Wei WuXian ducked inside, feeling more than he heard Lan WangJi following him. He was tempted to go to his room and sleep. Perhaps he would wake to find that the day had been a dream? Wei WuXian didn't know whether he would prefer that or not.

"I feel for your brother, Lan Zhan," he said softly. Two of his closest friends had committed terrible acts, and for what? To further their own social standing? For revenge? To hurt others simply because?

"Brother is strong."

Wei WuXian gave him a smile. "That runs in the family, I think."

He walked around the room, letting his fingers brush against the walls. He stopped before the window, letting his hand rest on the windowsill. Nie HuaiSang's word was on that wrist. Wei WuXian didn't know how he felt about that.

Lan WangJi came to stand beside him. They were close enough that Wei WuXian could reach out and touch if he so desired.

Wei WuXian wondered if Lan WangJi had found his soulmate. Most likely not. There was no trace of them in the Jingshi. If they were alive, then surely there would have been. No sane person would turn Lan WangJi away if they were soulmates. No insane person either, come to think of it. It was Lan WangJi, after all.

"What is Wei Ying thinking of?"

...Perhaps it was better if Wei WuXian didn't divulge what he'd just been thinking of. Lan WangJi was so private. Wei WuXian didn't want to be accused of prying, even if he did want to know. "I can understand what drove Nie HuaiSang to act out, but why wouldn't he ask your brother for counsel?" He looked to Lan WangJi. "He couldn't have suspected Lan XiChen of anything."

"Brother did teach Jin GuangYao the original melody," Lan WangJi said.

Wei WuXian rolled his eyes. "GusuLan is infamous for resolving conflict, not creating it. It should have been obvious to him that whatever Jin GuangYao was doing, it couldn't have come from your brother."

There was a pause before Lan WangJi said, "Grief clouds judgement."

Wei WuXian sighed. "I suppose you're right, Lan Zhan."

He leaned against the windowsill and clasped his left hand with his right. A part of him wanted to claw the word out, but it was proof that Mo XuanYu had existed. He supposed he owed it to the man that had brought him back to leave it alone.

Lan WangJi took a step closer. Their feet were almost touching. "Something still bothers you."

"Hmm, I don’t know if bothers is the right word," Wei WuXian said, treading carefully as to not make it a lie. "But I have been wondering about something. Lan Zhan," he began before Lan WangJi could open his mouth, "why does A-Yuan call me Mother?" 

There was a pause where Wei WuXian could see Lan WangJi going over his words and choosing just the right ones. 

"After A-Yuan came here," after Wei WuXian had died, Lan WangJi didn’t say, though Wei WuXian wondered why, "he asked if he might call me Father. And whether you might mind if he referred to you as his Mother."

Wei WuXian could almost picture it; a little A-Yuan with a forehead ribbon he had yet to get used to, looking up at Lan WangJi and biting his lip as he made his plea.

Then a thought occurred to him. "But hey, why couldn’t he call me Father too? I am a man, you know."

"Ask him," Lan WangJi replied immediately.

"Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," he pouted. "Surely it wouldn’t be gossip to tell me what he said back then."

Lan WangJi just looked at him. "Wei Ying."

Wei WuXian sighed. "Fine, fine."

"What else?"

"Hm?" Wei WuXian tilted his head. 

"Is on your mind."

Ah, it seemed there was no point in pretending he had spent the last few hours pondering Mo XuanYu’s situation. Lan WangJi could evidently see through him like he was a cup made of the finest china. "You know me so well, Lan Zhan." He tried for a smile but didn't quite manage it. He looked away, out the window and at the darkening sky. "I was thinking of Mo XuanYu earlier. And how Nie HuaiSang betrayed him."

Lan WangJi was silent.

"I don't know what I would have done in his stead, Lan Zhan," he whispered and stroked his thumb over the word that had accompanied Mo XuanYu through his life. "Poor Mo XuanYu."

Lan WangJi shifted on his feet, but when Wei WuXian looked up he didn't appear to have moved closer or back again.

"I never found my match." Wei WuXian looked up into Lan WangJi's eyes. "Did you know, Lan Zhan?"

There was a slight wrinkle between Lan WangJi's eyebrows, but no verbal answer was given.

"I wonder if their word came back." Wei WuXian let his hands drop. "Mine did."

Lan WangJi stilled.

Wei WuXian wondered if Lan WangJi was surprised by the statement. Nie HuaiSang had all but asked him outright and Wei WuXian hadn't denied it. Wasn't that practically an admission? Not that Lan WangJi's surprise was what Wei WuXian should be focusing on.

Everyone knew that soulmates represented one of the greatest bonds you would have in your lifetime. But Wei WuXian had left his soulmate once. Even if his word proclaimed that his soulmate would love him eternally, Wei WuXian couldn't see how. Not after everything he'd done.

"Though what right do I have to go searching for them?" Wei WuXian snorted. "I don't deserve them, Lan Zhan. Who could love me so -"

"Everlasting."

Wei WuXian's breath caught.

There was the word. His word. How did Lan WangJi know?

Lan WangJi didn't seem to notice Wei WuXian's shock. He simply carried on. "Wei Ying deserves to be loved -"

Wei WuXian slammed his palm over Lan WangJi's mouth, cutting him off. Wei WuXian realised then that he was shaking.

Lan WangJi had said his word. That could only mean one thing, couldn't it? Only, no, it couldn't. If it had been Lan WangJi all this time, then how could he not have known? You were meant to know when you touched your soulmate, when you found your heart beating for them like no other – no matter how long the feeling lasted.

Wei WuXian's heart had beat a different tune since the moment he'd met Lan WangJi. He'd always known that. But he'd thought it was the thrill of riling Lan WangJi up, of seeing his beautiful face contorting into another shape. And they'd touched, but never there. Touching someone's wrist unprovoked was frowned upon and likely something that was forbidden inside the Cloud Recesses, knowing how the GusuLan sect operated.

They'd gravitated toward each other – at least Wei WuXian towards Lan WangJi, in their youth. And then later, Lan WangJi had tried to get him to go back to Gusu with him. To punish him, Wei WuXian wondered now, or...for another reason entirely?

If the two of them were, then Wei WuXian hadn't known. How could he not have known, if they truly were...soulmates?

He didn't know he was laughing until the almost manic sound of it reached his ears. "I can barely control myself around you, Lan Zhan," he breathed. "It's as if -"

Wei WuXian didn't realise his hand had dropped until Lan WangJi silenced his rambling with a kiss.

The moment their lips touched, it was as though someone had replaced his heart with fireworks and set them off. Everything felt alive; from the tips of his toes to the ends of his hair. He forgot the need to breathe until Lan WangJi pulled back and Wei WuXian found himself gasping for air.

Lan WangJi wrapped his hand around Wei WuXian's wrist and the warmth came back.

"Oh," Wei WuXian heard himself say. "It is you."

"Mn."

Wei WuXian's other hand was holding tightly onto Lan WangJi's robe, he saw then. He looked up and met Lan WangJi's gaze.

It hadn't changed. The look in his eyes was still the same. But if they were soulmates, if Lan WangJi loved him, then...shouldn't it have changed? Or had Lan WangJi been looking at him this way for so long and Wei WuXian had simply never noticed it?

"Lan Zhan, you...knew?"

Lan WangJi didn't even blink. "Yes."

Wei WuXian tightened his grip on Lan WangJi's robe. "And you never..."

He didn't finish his question and Lan WangJi didn't provide an answer. He didn't have to. Wei WuXian could see it in his eyes. Fear, grief, regret, but most importantly; love.

If Wei WuXian had realised before his death, he didn't know if he could have approached Lan WangJi either. Lan WangJi had seemed so mysterious then, so untouchable. It was only after the Sunshot campaign that Wei WuXian had noticed the softening in his exterior, but by then it had been too late.

Wei WuXian slid his fingers between Lan WangJi's and pressed their wrists together. It was as if the sun itself was flowing through his veins and, judging by the widening of Lan WangJi's eyes, he felt it too.

"I'm sorry I left you, Lan Zhan," he said, squeezing his hand gently.

"Wei Ying came back," was Lan WangJi's quick reply. "That's more important."

He let go of Lan WangJi's hand, but only so he could throw his arms around Lan WangJi's neck and hug him tightly. Lan WangJi didn't hesitate to pull him into a mutual embrace. Wei WuXian's heart was beating so fast it wouldn't surprise him if it jumped out of his chest and ran off, perhaps with Lan WangJi's equally racing heart.

Wei WuXian buried his head in Lan WangJi's neck and promised, "I'm never leaving again."

Lan WangJi's only reply was to hold him tighter. That was all right. Wei WuXian didn't need anything more than that.

-:-

The parcel arrived at the Cloud Recesses some days later. It was addressed to Wei WuXian.

"Should I be worried?" Wei WuXian said dryly as he accepted it.

Lan JingYi shook his head. "We've checked it for anything malicious, Senior Wei! It's clean."

Wei WuXian really approved of this one. He wondered how Lan JingYi had kept his sprightly spirit after being taught by Lan QiRen for so long, but he was very glad that he had. He was also glad because Lan JingYi and Lan SiZhui appeared to be close friends. Or...perhaps more? Wei WuXian hadn't dared to ask. Well, not yet. His curiosity would get the better of him one day soon.

Having completed his task, Lan JingYi bowed to him and walked off. If Wei WuXian remembered correctly, then class was due to start soon. Lan JingYi – having grown up in the Cloud Recesses – likely knew better than to be late for those.

"Say hello to A-Yuan for me!" Wei WuXian called after Lan JingYi, even though shouting was forbidden in the Cloud Recessed.

"Will do, Senior Wei!" Lan JingYi called back.

Yes, Wei WuXian really liked that one.

He walked back into the Jingshi and eyed the parcel. He didn't know who might be sending him mail, but if Lan JingYi said it wasn't anything malicious then there really was no reason not to open it.

Wei WuXian took a seat by the table, far enough away as not to disturb Lan WangJi where he was working, and shrugged before unwrapping it.

What fell out of the packaging was a black dizi. And not just any dizi; Chenqing. The tassel was still attached and looked as vibrant as ever. It even looked freshly polished. Wei WuXian was so taken by it he almost didn't notice the note beside it.

Wei WuXian picked it up. It said;

This belongs to you. Do whatever you want with it.
But don't think this means I'm done with you.

The note wasn't signed, but not even thirteen years of being dead would make Wei WuXian forget his brother's handwriting. And even if he had, the third line was more than enough to identify the author.

Jiang Cheng had not only gone through the trouble of finding his dizi, but he had also taken care of it. Maybe...Jiang Cheng didn't hate him after all.

Wei WuXian looked over to Lan WangJi – his soulmate, and didn't that word fill him with all sorts of tingly feelings – who had been writing something or another, though he paused to look up and met his gaze. There was a question there that Lan WangJi didn't need to vocalise for Wei WuXian to understand.

"It's from my brother," he said.

Lan WangJi's eyes flickered down to the black dizi Wei WuXian knew he was caressing, but he couldn't help it. He'd never thought he'd see Chenqing again.

"I'd like to write him a letter when you're done, Lan Zhan." His eyes flickered to the tools Lan WangJi already had laid out. "May I?"

"Of course, Wei Ying."

Wei WuXian grinned and leaned in to give him a quick kiss. "Thank you, Lan Zhan."

Lan WangJi pulled him back in for a more thorough kiss. Wei WuXian's heart was beating just a little faster when Lan WangJi let him go to resume his work.

Wei WuXian moved around the table and sat down so their thighs were only just touching. Lan WangJi glanced at him, but let him be. Wei WuXian rested his elbow on the table as he started to compose the letter in his head.

Perhaps they could stop by the Lotus Pier on their way to finding Wen Ning and reclaiming the rest of Nie MingJue's corpse, he thought to himself. Yes, that sounded good. Who knew, maybe if they hurried then they could beat the letter to Jiang Cheng. Wei WuXian was almost tempted; if only to see the look on his brother's face.

Their relationship wasn't mended by any meaning of the word, but perhaps it could be soon. Jiang Cheng hadn't needed to send the dizi unless he wanted to reach out and open a line of communication.

It wasn't much, but it was a start. And Wei WuXian was more than happy to run with it.

 


 

Coda:

Lan WangJi knew Wei WuXian was dead before the news started to spread.

For as long as he could remember, his wrist had proclaimed that his soulmate would love him uncontrollably. And Lan WangJi had never met someone as uncontrollable as Wei WuXian.

He was unable to confirm his suspicions – the ones his clan strongly discouraged him of having – until he felt the pain that was the word fading into a white imitation of a scar. Lan WangJi did not allow himself to feel grief until his brother came to give him the news.

His grief found him travelling to Yiling, to finding a small child – the one Wei Ying had called A-Yuan – hiding in the roots of a tree, grieving just as Lan WangJi was. He took the child with him back to the Cloud Recesses and stood firm until Wen Yuan was accepted as one of their own.

The grief followed him for ten years, as attempt upon attempt was made to contact Wei WuXian's spirit and all remained unanswered. The grief stayed with him as the attempts faded away, replaced by a sigh that echoed across the nation in every heart except Lan WangJi's.

Three years later, thirteen years after the potential of Wei WuXian's love had faded into a mourner's white, his wrist prickled again. A word etched itself into his skin beneath the old scar. Uncontrollably, it said.

Wei WuXian had come back. Lan WangJi was determined not to let him go again.

 


 

 

THE END