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Look Not With The Eyes

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It’s an unseasonably warm day for fall in Gusu, and Wei Wuxian takes long, easy strides next to Lan Wangji. Their pace is unhurried, almost leisurely, and Wei Wuxian inhales deeply, savouring the warm wind as it passes into his lungs. It’s been nearly a year since he’d set off into the world without a plan or a roadmap, and he’s never been through this part of Gusu before, but with Lan Wangji treading a light and steady path beside him, Wei Wuxian has never felt more relaxed, more certain of his route.

That, it seems, has not changed.

This sense of security, the overwhelming rightness of having Lan Wangji at his side again; it soothes something restless in Wei Wuxian that he’s been carrying even since before he went away. Their reunion on the cliff had been exhilarating, a soft and thunderous recognition of each other, as if to say, yes, there you are, before the juniors came tumbling over the ridge to swarm him. But it is only now, a week after his gratefully exhausted collapse in the Jingshi, here on this less travelled road with Lan Wangji by his side that Wei Wuxian feels at peace, where his heart has settled back into its natural rhythm, beating in time with Lan Wangji’s footsteps.

“What is it?” Lan Wangji asks, conscious of being watched.

“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian grins, eyes fixed on Lan Wangji’s pristine profile. “Just admiring how handsome the Chief Cultivator is.”

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji exclaims, dismissive but warm.

“How much farther is this town, again?” Wei Wuxian wants to know.

“Only a few hours, once we reach the mountain inn. We will stay the night there, and continue on in the morning.”

“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian muses, raising his chin towards the sky appraisingly. “It would have been a couple of hours by sword, I imagine?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji confirms. “The villagers will not begrudge us the extra time,” he assures Wei Wuxian.

“I think not,” Wei Wuxian grins. “Not when the esteemed Chief Cultivator himself is coming to alleviate their suffering.”

Lan Wangji inclines his head in agreement, although he seems a touch apologetic. “I would not wish for people to think that I can afford to take my time whenever it pleases me, but I am told that the matter is not yet urgent.”

“A low-level water ghoul in a well is hardly something to get up in arms about,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “Especially if there’s an alternative water source, but I respect the fact that it would pose great difficulty for an aging population--Or a young one, for that matter. Didn’t you say a child nearly got pulled into the well?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods. “And the nearest clean stream is an hour’s walk north.”

“Well, in that case, you’re solving an inconvenience for sure. How nice for you, getting to take a leisurely stroll to dispatch a small nuisance.” Wei Wuxian lets his eyes drift to the side again, tracking the play of sunlight across Lan Wangji’s jade-like complexion. “I bet it beats being cooped up with all of those missives from disgruntled sect leaders. All this fresh mountain air must be a relief.”

“It is a welcome reprieve,” Lan Wangji allows, voice smooth and level as his stride.

“I hear the mountain inn is something of a famous attraction in these parts,” Wei Wuxian continues, idly twirling Chenqing between his fingers. He spares Lan Wangji another glance, tracing the lines of his countenance like the strokes of a calligraphy brush.

“Oh?” asks Lan Wangji, eyes trained resolutely forward.  

Wei Wuxian darts ahead and spins around, planting himself firmly in Lan Wangji’s line of sight and walking backward, Chenqing now clasped behind his back. Wei Wuxian warms at the way Lan Wangji’s gaze softens, the way Lan Wangji’s eyes seem to melt around the edges as they focus solely on him.

“I have heard,” Wei Wuxian drawls, “that the innkeeper’s wife is so beautiful that many a traveller has fallen in love at first sight. That it’s not unusual for an overnight stay to transition into months of mournful, fruitless courtship, and that the innkeeper grows wealthy from the prolonged stays and the offerings to his wife.”

“Indeed?” Lan Wangji inquires, one perfect, sword-stroke eyebrow arched in something like amusement.

“It’s said that she’s a very loyal woman,” Wei Wuxian continues. “That no matter what she’s offered, she remains true to her husband, content to stay the mistress of a tiny, mountaintop inn, even though she’s been offered the riches to many a kingdom.”

“I might wonder at how many kings have passed this way unnoticed,” Lan Wangji says drily. “It sounds more like an obstacle than an attraction.”

“Perhaps,” Wei Wuxian laughs, delighted. “But Lan Zhan, just think: What do you suppose we could be walking into? What do you think? Are you in any danger, Hanguang-Jun?”

“I think not,” Lan Wangji answers smoothly, softly, the hint of a smile playing on the edge of his lips.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes disappear into crescents as he twirls back around, falling into step once more, side by side with the man who sets his heart at ease. He hears the crunch of leaves underfoot, the quiet birdsong that heralds the oncoming evening. He whistles the notes of a song he doesn’t know the name of, and it sounds a lot like contentment.

 

---

 

“Welcome, welcome,” the innkeeper says, beckoning the two of them inside with a series of quick, deep bows. He’s a small man, thin and wiry, with eyes that seem incapable of holding still, his gaze darting back and forth between them like some sort of buzzing insect. His manner is nervous and obsequious, and Wei Wuxian can’t help but feel a little disappointed. He’d been hoping for someone charismatic, someone eager to chat, and someone worthy of a woman as compelling as his wife is supposed to be, but perhaps the rumours were rubbish after all.

“What do you think, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks as they are seated in the far corner to take their dinner. The innkeeper hastily drops off a teapot at their table before bowing and darting away. The room is warm and bustling, neat and well kept, although nothing about it especially stands out. “Do you think the rumours of this place have been greatly exaggerated?”

“Hanguang-Jun,” says a clear, silvery voice. “What an honour it is to have you as a guest.”

Wei Wuxian turns in his seat to find a woman next to their table, her hands folded demurely in front of her and her body lowered in a deep, reverent bow.

“Please accept the hospitality of this simple mountain inn. We are not great or grand, but we hope that you will be comfortable here tonight. This humble servant is at your disposal.”

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji solemnly intones. “Although there is no need for ceremony. Our needs are neither great nor grand.”

“You are too kind,” the woman says, raising her head at last, and Wei Wuxian suddenly has to catch his breath.

The woman is stunning, graceful and fine-boned and altogether too delicate for the raucous noise of the dinner rush. Her skin is smooth and flawless, like fine, translucent porcelain, and her eyes are light like spring water reflecting the first morning burst of sunshine. There’s something luminescent about her, like the soft glow of a pearl, and Wei Wuxian finds himself staring, jaw agape, for what is probably an embarrassing, impolite stretch of time.

“Will you allow me to be so bold as to suggest a special menu for your dinner tonight?” she asks. “This humble inn has few specialties, but we pride ourselves on the freshness and the quality of our meals. And of course,” she adds smoothly with an elegant glance at Wei Wuxian, “we offer a selection of the finest local spirits.”

It takes a moment in the ensuing silence for Wei Wuxian to realise she is waiting for a response. His response, judging by the way her light eyes are politely downcast in his direction. He startles a little and snaps his jaw shut, swallowing thickly and feeling the way that Lan Wangji is glaring a hole into the side of his head.

“Yes!” He pipes up at last. “Spirits! Local spirits would be perfect, thank you. The stronger the better,” he enthuses with a grin, having recovered enough to look confidently rakish.

“Then,” she says, inclining her body ever so slightly toward Lan Wangji, “if Hanguang-Jun has no objections?”

“None whatsoever,” Lan Wangji replies somewhat stiffly.

“Thank you. It will only take a moment, your Excellency,” she says with a bow. “Young Master,” she bows to Wei Wuxian as well.

“Thank you, Miss..?” Wei Wuxian trails off.

She raises one delicate hand to hide a small smile. “I am merely the wife of this humble inn’s keeper, young master.”

“You must have a name,” Wei Wuxian says, shamelessly bold. “What should I call you?”

“Madam is only proper, Young Master,” she says with a delicate flush.

“I guess so,” Wei Wuxian drawls, grin lopsided. “But I’m not feeling very proper.”

Impossibly long lashes dust rosy cheeks as she ducks her head demurely and angles her body away, but she glances back, sideways and sly, before speaking.

“Young Master will please call me Madam,” she demurs, before bowing one more time and gliding away toward the kitchen.

Wei Wuxian is grinning from ear to ear, extremely pleased with himself, as he turns back to face Lan Wangji.

“Was worth a shot,” he quips. “What?”

Lan Wangji is glowering at him, perfectly sculpted brows drawn together in obvious disapproval.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian wheedles. “What’s a little harmless flirting? Aren’t you happy to see that the rumours are true? Isn’t that exciting?”

“Hardly,” Lan Wangji bites out, dropping his gaze to his teacup and taking a perfunctory sip of tea.

Wei Wuxian studies him as the innkeeper skids to a stop next to their table, presenting Wei Wuxian with a large jar of wine before skittering off again to see to the other tables. Wei Wuxian pours himself a generous serving and tosses it back, enjoying the way it warms his throat on the way down.

“Not bad,” he says, keeping his eyes on Lan Wangji’s face and pouring himself another bowl. The other man is determinedly not looking at him, eyes downcast and back ramrod straight. There is something about the set of his jaw, the lines of his mouth, that anyone else might read as severe but neutral, but Wei Wuxian knows better.

“Are you pouting?” Wei Wuxian asks, his smile stretching wickedly across his face.

Lan Wangji flicks his eyes up at last, his brow creased in annoyance.

“Ridiculous,” he says.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian drawls. “Don’t tell me you’re in danger after all?”

The look Lan Wangji gives him is enough to send Wei Wuxian into a fit of uncontrolled laughter, his eyes scrunching up and his head falling back with the force of his mirth. He falls forward again and wipes a tear from his eye as he downs another bowl of liquor, and he’s chuckling through his third serving by the time the innkeeper’s wife arrives with their dinner.

“The pheasant was caught just this morning. I hope it is to your tastes,” she says, presenting the simple, crispy-skinned fowl on the table in front of them along with a selection of braised wild mushrooms and tofu.

“And for his Excellency, a simple delicacy of our fresh, fragrant mountain grasses,” she says, as she places a dish full of vibrant greens on the table in front of Lan Wangji. “The grasses here are famous for their medicinal properties and their light, floral flavour. Please enjoy,” she says with a bow.

Lan Wangji nods his thanks as she withdraws, and Wei Wuxian swallows his fourth bowl of wine, his eyes glittering with laughter. He watches adoringly as Lan Wangji primly arranges his sleeves before picking up his chopsticks, every movement smooth and graceful. He pauses and glances up, one eyebrow raised in question.

“What is it?” Lan Wangji asks.

The annoyance from earlier seems to have dissipated, washed away with a ritual cup of tea, and in its place is an open, honest enquiry. Lan Wangji hasn’t the faintest idea what Wei Wuxian finds so amusing, but he looks ready to endure an explanation, no matter how nonsensical, and Wei Wuxian is overcome by a sudden wave of fondness, an affection so heady he almost swoons.

Before he realises what he’s doing, Wei Wuxian has swung himself around the corner of the table, sidling up beside Lan Wangji so that their knees knock together.

“Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan,” he croons, throwing an arm around Lan Wangji’s shoulders. “My good Hanguang-Jun. Do you have any idea how good you are?”

Lan Wangji pulls back against Wei Wuxian’s arm, but he’s not pulling away; he’s only angling his body so that he can face Wei Wuxian more directly, and Wei Wuxian finds himself staring straight into those clear, liquid eyes. It’s a long, taut moment before Lan Wangji’s eyelids flicker down, his gaze landing on Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and his lips part on a warm breath that scatters across Wei Wuxian’s face.

“I’m not half as good as I pretend to be,” Lan Wangji says, voice low and rough, and Wei Wuxian feels warm all over, the heat from the wine pooling low in his gut before rushing back up his windpipe to take what’s left of his breath away.

Suddenly dizzy, he lets his head fall forward until his face is buried in Lan Wangji’s neck. He can’t look at him anymore. He can’t bear to be looked at.

“Not true,” Wei Wuxian protests. “Hanguang-Jun is the best. The very best.”

“Wei Ying…”

“Hanguang-Jun takes good care of me, even when I’m insufferable,” Wei Wuxian continues, pushing past the sudden lump in his throat. “I missed you,” he whispers.

He feels Lan Wangji’s sharp intake of breath, feels him exhale less sharply, the slightest tremor of air across the side of his face.

“I missed you, too,” Lan Wangji breathes. He’s so quiet, Wei Wuxian wonders if he imagined it.

Wei Wuxian heaves out a gust of air, ignoring the sudden urge to nip at Lan Wangji’s neck, and pushes himself upright again.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, his head having swivelled toward the table. His arm is still looped around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, but he lets his eyes focus on the pile of fragrant greens in front of him. “Your reputation precedes you. They are feeding you actual rabbit food.”

Lan Wangji lets out a puff of warm air. It’s almost a laugh.

“I won’t force you to partake,” Lan Wangji promises him.

He gently disentangles himself from Wei Wuxian, removing Wei Wuxian’s arm from around his shoulders with a firm grip on Wei Wuxian’s wrist, his other hand coming to settle on the small of Wei Wuxian’s back. Wei Wuxian can feel himself pouting, held steadfastly at arms’ length, his eyes still on the offensive plate of vegetables.

“They are feeding you literal grass, Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian says. “Aren’t you offended?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says softly, his hand tracing a soothing circle over Wei Wuxian’s back. “I’m honoured.”

“I don’t have to eat it?” Wei Wuxian asks hopefully.

“No,” Lan Wangji replies, clearly amused. “Now,” he says, giving Wei Wuxian’s wrist a tender squeeze. “Go back to your seat.”

Wei Wuxian scoots dutifully around the table, hazarding a glance back at Lan Wangji’s face. His eyes are downcast and his lips are slightly parted, just the slightest bit damp from his last sip of tea.

Wei Wuxian desperately wants to kiss him.

The realisation is like a punch to the gut, and Wei Wuxian hastily slams back another serving of wine, hoping to blunt the sudden impulse to surge forward and crush their lips together. He eyes Lan Wangji over the rim of his wine bowl, watching as Lan Wangji raises the first bite of greens, and his breath stalls at the glimpse of a perfectly pink tongue just beyond the barrier of Lan Wangji’s lips.

Yes, he thinks. He is feeling anything but proper tonight.

“How is it?” Wei Wuxian croaks out, a century later.

“Pleasant,” Lan Wangji replies, chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. “No more talking during meals.”

“Right,” Wei Wuxian concedes, helping himself to a piece of pheasant and cramming a mouthful of rice into his cheek. “Rabbit food,” he reiterates, and he feels himself warm at Lan Wangji’s almost imperceptible smile.

 

---

 

Wei Wuxian comes awake slowly, leisurely, and not at all like he’s got something important to do like save a small town’s well from a water ghoul. He rolls over and blinks into the encroaching light from the window, his eyes coming to focus on Lan Wangji’s seated figure where he is meditating on the far side of the room.

It is well past five. Judging by the angle of the sunlight, it’s much closer to 9 o’clock. Wei Wuxian sits upright and stretches, his spine cracking gently in relief.

“Lan Zhan,” he yawns. “Why didn’t you wake me? I expected to be kicked out of bed by seven at the latest, and here I am, waking up naturally at nine. Why so lenient? Was I extra good last night?” he asks, batting his lashes for added effect.

“You were not,” Lan Wangji replies, eyes still closed. “The village elders expect us at noon. There was no need to rouse you early.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says again, his tone too serious to be anything but playful. “You’re getting soft. I might think you mean to spoil me.”

Lan Wangji opens his eyes at last, turning his head to fix Wei Wuxian with that warm, melted stare. He says nothing; he merely regards Wei Wuxian with that open, artless expression that makes something in Wei Wuxian’s chest lurch, and soar, and drop into the bottom of his stomach.

His stomach, which is suddenly growling. Loudly.

“Breakfast,” Lan Wangji says, inclining his head toward the table in the centre of the room. It’s set with a steaming tureen of congee, a pot of tea, and a plate of fried fish.

“Will you be joining me?” Wei Wuxian asks lightly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and making his way to the table.

“I have already eaten,” Lan Wangji answers, but he rises and makes his way to the table nonetheless.

“Ah, but you will join me,” Wei Wuxian says, filling a teacup and pushing it toward Lan Wangji where he’s seated himself across the table. “Of course you will, my good Hanguang-Jun. You know how I get lonely.”

“Were you lonely?” Lan Wangji asks, suddenly serious.

Wei Wuxian pauses, his own teacup halfway to his lips.

“Sometimes,” he confesses. “Especially when the nights grew longer. I would write to you when I was lonely.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes are hooded as he replies. “Then perhaps I am glad that you did not write often.”

Wei Wuxian stares into his teacup, something like embarrassment twisting in his gut. It’s not that he hadn’t written often; it’s just that he hadn’t finished most of his letters. The majority of them had ended up as half composed fragments, errant thoughts and untamed feelings scribbled over top of each other on the borders of his talisman experiments.

He doesn’t regret his time on the road. In fact, he treasures it. He’d needed that time to re-settle himself in a body that had only felt half his own. To reintroduce himself to a world that hadn’t known him for sixteen years. To say goodbye to the shadows of the past. To figure out where he might possibly fit into a second chance he’d never expected to have.

It wasn’t loneliness that had brought him back to Gusu. He had not been driven from his journey by despair. His path had merely circled back, because it was time to come home.

And home, if he still had hope for such a thing, was with Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji, who is silently, carefully ladling out Wei Wuxian’s breakfast into a simple, earthen bowl. His motions are smooth and elegant, his long sleeve held gracefully out of the way by his left hand. He passes the bowl gently along the table before sitting back and taking up his own cup of tea.

Wei Wuxian aches with words unsent and unspoken.

How does he tell this man in front of him, with his liquid eyes so soft around the edges, that he’d only ever left him behind because he was sure he’d be allowed to come back? That when Lan Wangji had let him go, the true gift wasn’t his freedom to wander, but his invitation to return.  

“I should have sent you more letters,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly morose. "There was so much I wanted to share with you.”

“You shared what was needed,” Lan Wangji says, voice mild and gaze soft. “There is time, now, to share what you’d like.”

“Even with you being so busy as his Excellency? Will Hanguang-Jun ever have a moment to spare for me?”

“There will be time,” Lan Wangji avows, and Wei Wuxian can feel his heart seizing up with want.

“Promise?” he asks, voice quiet and just a little rough.

“I promise,” says Lan Wangji, gentle and sincere. “Eat,” he prompts, before taking up his teacup again.

Wei Wuxian complies, spooning the congee into his mouth as he snips off a chunk of fish with his chopsticks. The steam from the bowl curls up into his face, and Wei Wuxian blinks back the prickling at the corners of his eyes.

 

---

 

The trek down into the valley is steep, but the path is well worn, and they arrive in the town centre just before noon. The elders are summoned and they are escorted to the well, trailed by a stream of curious children. By the time they reach their destination, an eager crowd has gathered to witness the proceedings. Wei Wuxian can’t really blame them. In a small, peaceful town like this, isolated from so much of the world by the steep mountains on every side, a cultivator of Lan Wangji’s calibre must be a rare sight indeed. The fact that the Chief Cultivator himself is here to dispatch their water ghoul has stirred up more excitement than the town has seen in years.

Wei Wuxian allows himself a soft, secret smile as he watches Lan Wangji listen gravely to the elders. A slight wind has picked up, and it sweeps Lan Wangji’s hair back from his shoulders, billows his sleeves, and kicks up the colourful leaves at his feet as if clearing a path for him. He is beautiful. Unearthly. Still going where the chaos is, even as the most powerful cultivator among the four great clans.

Wei Wuxian knows that Lan Wangji could have dispatched a group of junior disciples to handle this situation, and doubtless there are clan leaders who would deem this a frivolous waste of the Chief Cultivator’s time, but Wei Wuxian also knows that Lan Wangji does not consider any job beneath him. No problem or person is too small to escape his notice. He staunchly refuses to rule from on high, and for that, the common people love him. It’s trips like this that help to build trust among the non-cultivator citizenry, that pave the way for new laws or projects that could impact their lives. It frustrates the higher-up officials, but it swells Wei Wuxian’s heart in a way that nothing else does. Lan Wangji has kept their promise, and Wei Wuxian is achingly proud of him.

He hazards a glance around the circle of faces while the Head Elder drones on, and he can’t help but feel pleased with what he sees. Everyone is rapt with attention, eyes huge and filled with admiration. Many of the women are blushing and have covered their mouths to hide their irrepressible smiles, while all of the men appear awestruck, several of them with mouths agape.

Wei Wuxian nudges the man closest to him, and he startles as if jostled out of a trance.

“How many cultivators pass through this town in a year?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Do you have much need of them here?”

The man shakes his head, looking a little flushed. “About half a dozen rogue cultivators came through last year, but there’s not often much that needs doing in town. The Lan sect is very generous with their attention to us, and they’ve set up wards for our protection. We’re not sure how this troublesome ghoul got through.”

“Water ghouls can be tricky,” Wei Wuxian muses. “And they’re not uncommon in the mountains where there are so many rivers and streams. It probably wandered over after hiding on a fisherman’s boat. But you’re saying not many creatures come down this far?”

The man shakes his head again. “They say there are fearsome demons deep within the mountains, but they rarely come close to the valley. Wild boars the size of elephants, and serpents large enough to swallow them whole. The farther north you go, the closer you get to them.”

“I see,” says Wei Wuxian. “Then this well becomes even more important if the nearest water source lies an hour north.”

“Yes, you’re right, Young Master,” says the man, but he’s half distracted, and Wei Wuxian follows his errant gaze back to where Lan Wangji has finished speaking with the Head Elder.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji calls, and Wei Wuxian goes to his side.

Together they stride forward and take stock of the well, Wei Wuxian leaning over the opening to peer into the darkness. It takes a moment, but he can just make out the flash of milky eyes before they disappear beneath the surface.

“How should we lure it out?” He asks lightly, twirling Chenqing. “They said it nearly pulled in a child. I think it must be hungry. Shall we go fishing?”

“What would you suggest as bait?” Lan Wangji asks, eyebrows raised ever so slightly.

Wei Wuxian cocks his head toward a group of young children and grins wickedly at them, causing them to shriek and scatter while Wei Wuxian throws his head back and laughs.

“Okay, okay, no fishing with live bait. But why not use a bigger fish to flush out the smaller one?”

“How big?” Lan Wangji asks, eyes narrowed.

Wei Wuxian indicates a negligible amount of space between his thumb and his forefinger.

“This big,” he promises.

Lan Wangji lets out a sigh, but it’s more fond than exasperated.

“I will allow it,” he says.

Wei Wuxian grins, eyes glinting as he raises Chenqing to his lips. If the crowd had gathered for a show, they are certainly going to get one.

The first few notes trill high and sharp, and there’s an uneasy murmur from the crowd as the wind picks up and seems to coalesce in front of Wei Wuxian. The form of a young man, footless and translucent, wavers into existence as Chenqing’s song gains momentum, and the crowd gasps and shrieks at the sight of him. He lingers a moment, fathomless black eyes locked on Wei Wuxian before he flies headfirst into the well.

The sound of shrieking, this time from inside the well, has the crowd shuffling backward in fear, but Lan Wangji stands imperiously beside the opening, hand on Bichen’s hilt. It’s only a moment before a pair of webbed hands are grasping the edge of the well, the head of the water ghoul popping into view as it scrambles to escape the ghost that pursues it.

In a motion so swift it’s barely visible, Bichen flashes from its sheath and cleaves the water ghoul clean in two, its head falling to the ground with a splat while its body disappears momentarily back into the well before it’s carried out between the teeth of the ghost and deposited alongside the head. The ghost remains quivering beside the well as Chengqing warbles into silence.

The tension in the air is palpable; the crowd is now staring at a much bigger problem than a water ghoul, but Wei Wuxian isn’t worried about cleaning up his mess. He has Lan Wangji with him, after all.

“Lan Zhan,” he grins, sweeping Chenqing toward the ghost as if to introduce him. “I think he’d like to meet you,” he says.

Lan Wangji is already seated, having summoned his qin and prepared to play. The first notes of inquiry ring loud and clear within their windswept circle, and the ghost’s first answer vibrates back after only a heartbeat.

“His name is Zhang Zhen,” Lan Wangji states, fingers poised above the strings.

“Ask him how he died,” Wei Wuxian says, eyes fixed on the ghost’s face.

Two notes, sharp and fast.

“Murdered,” intones Lan Wangji, voice solemn.

“Ask him why he’s been following us since the inn,” Wei Wuxian demands, and the murmurs from the crowd grow even more shocked and tense than before.

“Help,” says Lan Wangji in the echo of a long, mournful note.

“How can we help him?”

There’s a series of notes in halting succession, and Wei Wuxian seriously hopes he’s not asking them to kill anyone.

“Burial,” Lan Wangji says simply, raising his eyes to glance at Wei Wuxian, who frowns a little in consternation.

Of course, if the man had been murdered, he wouldn’t have had a proper funeral, but how likely was it that his body was still whole? Depending on how his murderer had disposed of him, he may already be buried somewhere, just without the proper funeral rites. Worst case scenario, his body had been dumped into a river or a lake, torn apart by the currents and carried away piece by fish-eaten piece.

But this ghost is not violent. He hadn’t lied when he’d promised Lan Wangji that the ghost was a small one. His resentful energy is surprisingly low, all things considered, and his dying wish is ostensibly a straightforward and peaceful one, but locating his remains might not be that simple.

“Does he know where his body is?”

One definitive note.

“Mountain,” Lan Wangji says flatly.

Wei Wuxian is about to bemoan how unhelpful that is when the ghost strikes another chord.

“River,” says Lan Wangji. His brow furrows as the ghost plays on. “Forest. Cave. Sky.”

“A mountain with a river in a forest with a cave?” Wei Wuxian scratches his chin. “I guess that’s more specific than just ‘mountain’ but what does he mean by sky?”  

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “He says he is in them.”

“What, all of them? Has he been dismembered?” Wei Wuxian says in dismay. “And how can he be in the sky?”

The strings of the qin remain silent.

“Are we at an impasse?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“I am afraid so. The best thing to do for now would be to play Cleansing so that the well may be purified.”

“And what of our friend Zhang Zhen?”

“Dismiss him, for now. He may follow as he wishes. He is not malevolent,” Lan Wangji says, running his hands across the strings to say thank you before preparing for the next song. “He may not be strong enough to stay visible this far away from whatever tethers him to the earth.”

Zhang Zhen has indeed begun to blur around the edges, his inky black eyes the only things that remain almost solid. Wei Wuxian raises Chenqing to his lips and releases him. He dissipates into a cloud of grey smoke, carried away on the wind like ashes, just as he had arrived.

The chords of Cleansing vibrate out from Wangji, rippling over the surface of the well and echoing down into its depths. It’s as if the crowd is holding its breath, afraid to disturb the air and disrupt the melody, but as the song winds down to a close, there is a collective sigh of release, a warmth that scatters through the fallen leaves and sweeps away into the mountains.

Laughter and wonder ripple through the bystanders as the children come alive again, the older ones dashing forward to get a look at the qin before Lan Wangji vanishes it with a flourish. The children are delighted, jumping and dancing in the space where the instrument had just been, and the bravest of them crowd close around the hem of Lan Wangji’s robes, clamouring happily for his attention. He patiently disperses the crowd with a handful of candy, the children scrambling amongst themselves to trade for the choicest pieces.

“Well done,” says Wei Wuxian, stepping forward and knocking their shoulders together. “I didn’t know you came so prepared.”

“One picks up a trick or two,” Lan Wangji says, smoothly folding his hand behind his back.

“What now?” Wei Wuxian asks, almost impatient to be moving again. “Do we have to stick around for anything official?” He hopes not; He has a puzzle to solve, and he’d like to get going, to bounce his thoughts off Lan Wangji as they trek back up the mountain.

Before Lan Wangji can reply, the Head Elder steps forward, hands clasped in gratitude, his eyes alight with so much admiration it’s bordering on awe.

“How can we ever thank you enough, Hanguang-Jun?” the elder gushes. “We are forever indebted to your skill and your kindness. Thank you for blessing our poor, humble town.” 

“There is no need,” Lan Wangji demurs. “It is an honour to serve the people of your town.”

“Will you stay the night?” the old man asks hopefully. “The sun goes down so quickly in these parts, it will be dark long before you summit the mountain pass. To continue on toward the inn is most inadvisable in the dark. The path is rocky, and treacherous, and steep, and we would not wish his Excellency and his companion to come to any harm. Not after the service you’ve rendered us.” 

“We’d be honoured,” says Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian temporarily deflates, his hopes for a quick departure officially dashed.

He cheers up quickly as they make their way into the heart of the town, the crowd dispersing along the way, chattering excitedly about what they’d witnessed. They pass through a busy merchant street while the Head Elder extolls the virtues of the town’s artisans, in particular their woodworkers, who turn the soft, pliant mountain spruce into all manner of furniture, utensils, and art. He appeals to the opinion of the young woman at his side whom he introduces as his granddaughter, but she mostly stutters and blushes through her responses, and Wei Wuxian can’t help grinning at her. She is constantly sneaking glances at Lan Wangji while shyly ducking her head, and at one point she is so distracted that she nearly trips over a bump in the road. Wei Wuxian reaches out to steady her, but she pulls back in embarrassment before stammering an excuse and rushing on ahead.

Just as they arrive on the front steps of the inn, they are accosted by a swarm of giggling maidens, and Wei Wuxian barely has time to blink before he and Lan Wangji are practically buried in flowers. The Head Elder is spluttering, incensed at the blatant flirting, but before he can shoo them away, the boldest among them manages to sneak a snow-white azalea behind Lan Wangji’s ear. She retreats as quickly as she appeared, skipping down the steps of the inn toward the street with the rest of her cohorts, laughing joyfully all the way.

Wei Wuxian takes one look at Lan Wangji’s startled expression and cannot hold back his laughter. It spills out of him in great, rolling peals as Lan Wangji’s ears grow increasingly pink.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian wheezes, slapping Lan Wangji on his stiff, rigid shoulder. “You look as if you’ve seen another ghost! Although you weren’t nearly this shocked by the last one.”

“My apologies, your Excellency, Young Master Wei,” the Head Elder frets. “The youth these days can be so improper!”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Wei Wuxian waves away his concern with a smile. “A man doesn’t mind being reminded how handsome he is now and again, does he, Hanguang-Jun?”

“Quite,” Lan Wangji grits out, primly picking the last of the petals out of the folds in his robes.

Wei Wuxian can’t help laughing again, sweet and light.

“Here,” he says, plucking the flower from behind Lan Wangji’s ear and tucking it behind his own. “I’ll keep this one safe for you,” he says with a wink.

The look Lan Wangji gives him is no longer startled. It’s thoughtful and searching, and Wei Wuxian falters a little. He’d been enjoying a flustered Lan Wangji, and he had been hoping to rile him up some more with the wink, but that plan seems to have backfired. Now he is faced with an intensely soft-eyed Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian is the one feeling hot and flustered.

It’s another moment before Lan Wangji drops his gaze and turns toward the entrance, and Wei Wuxian pauses before following him, just one step behind, his heart racing and his blood roaring in his ears. 

 

---

 

“So what made you want to stay the extra night?” Wei Wuxian asks, sipping slowly at his wine this time around. Lan Wangji has done his best to decline any special treatment, but they are still seated at the best table in the house, and there appears to be no shortage of delicacies on offer.

“The Head Elder was correct that the sun sets early,” Lan Wangji says, placing a sumptuous piece of poached fish onto Wei Wuxian’s rice. “And it affords me the opportunity to receive missives directly from a population that rarely gets any special attention.”

“I thought the Head Elder gave strict instructions to the innkeeper that we weren’t to be disturbed,” Wei Wuxian points out, smearing the fish in ground chili paste.

“They will be written and brought to our room. I will read them tonight and review them tomorrow morning. There will be a small town hall that the innkeeper has offered to host. Whatever we do not discuss tomorrow I will carry home for further review.”

“Do you think there will be that many?” Wei Wuxian asks. From his conversation at the well earlier in the day, Wei Wuxian has come to the conclusion that the town is practically idyllic.

“I’ve learned not to presume who needs the most attention,” Lan Wangji says, filling his cup of tea. “I suspect, if anything, that there will be requests for a better route in and out of town.”

“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian muses. “It’s not an easy trek, is it? Certainly nothing the average cultivator can’t handle in a day, but I can’t imagine lugging all those spruce goods up and down that mountain pass if I were a normal person. Also, what’s it like in winter?”

“Inaccessible, unless by sword,” Lan Wangji states. “No one who is not a cultivator goes in or out until the snow melts in the spring, and winters in Gusu are long.”

“I see,” says Wei Wuxian, swirling the wine in his bowl. “A road really would change all that. Is there the will to have it built?”

“Among the younger generations, possibly. The elders prefer to remain secluded.”

“I can see the appeal to that, too,” Wei Wuxian sighs, suddenly wistful. For a moment he pictures himself in a small mountain house, just far enough from the outskirts of a scenic little town like this one to be blissfully alone. But he wouldn’t be alone, not entirely. Lan Wangji would be there, and—

Wei Wuxian gives himself a shake and stares into his empty wine bowl. Just how strong is this stuff?

The innkeeper arrives at their table with a new jar of wine, and he quickly refills Wei Wuxian’s bowl, much to Wei Wuxian’s delight. He sets the jar on the table and turns to Lan Wangji with a look that’s clearly adoration.

“Is there anything else I can provide for you this evening, your Excellency?” the innkeeper gushes, and Wei Wuxian can’t help but be amused by his enthusiasm.

“No, thank you, I believe we are fine now,” Lan Wangji replies.

“Wonderful, just wonderful,” the innkeeper rushes on. “Do let me know if you require anything else. And don’t worry about the payment, it’s all taken care of!”

Lan Wangji is taken aback. “I must insist on paying,” he protests. “You are being far too generous.”

“Oh, no, not at all!” the innkeeper hastens to assure him. “You misunderstand me. Your meal has been paid for in full by the young master over there, and he wishes me to tell you that the tab is still open for as long your companion would like to drink.”

Wei Wuxian turns to look as Lan Wangji glances past the innkeeper, his gaze landing on the table in the far corner. A young man sits there alone, enjoying a simple dinner and a pot of tea. Wei Wuxian estimates he can’t be more than twenty. His eyes are bright and lively beneath his refined looking brows, and he stares right past Wei Wuxian to make eye contact with Lan Wangji. He raises his teacup in a two-handed salute and nods in their direction, a small smile playing at his lips, and when Lan Wangji returns the salute, he drinks his tea with practiced elegance.

Wei Wuxian raises a toast to him as well before turning back toward the table, but suddenly the wine is sitting heavily in his stomach. There’s something about the way the young man had looked right past him, an intensity and fervor to his gaze that Wei Wuxian finds unsettling. He glances up at Lan Wangji, but he seems unaffected. Wei Wuxian gives his head a shake. Maybe that second jar of wine hadn’t been the best idea after all.

When he looks up again, Lan Wangji is watching him closely, concern etched around the edges of his eyes.

“Are you all right?” Lan Wangji asks, his voice impossibly gentle.

Wei Wuxian swallows thickly, the wine churning as his stomach does a backflip.

“Tired,” he manages to get out. “I’m just tired.”

“Shall we retire?” offers Lan Wangji.

Wei Wuxian nods, suddenly wanting to be away from the noise and the bustle of the dining room. He wants to be alone with Lan Wangji, ensconced in their room with the rest of his wine and the puzzle of Zhang Zhen to solve.

The innkeeper bows to them at the bottom of the stairs and ushers them cheerfully toward their room, and Wei Wuxian graces him with a winning smile as he falls into step behind Lan Wangji. But suddenly, Wei Wuxian feels eyes on them again, and when he turns to look back into the dining room, he finds every face upturned toward Lan Wangji, who for his part appears blissfully unaware that the entire room is tracking his every step.

Wei Wuxian stops for a moment, blinking at the sea of awestruck faces, then he snaps his head back around and vaults up the stairs two at a time, catching up to Lan Wangji just as he rounds the corner and disappears down the hallway.

 

---

 

The room is small and sparse, the two beds separated by only an arm’s length, but it’s clean and well kept, and the candles have all been lit. Wei Wuxian flops onto the bed nearest the window as Lan Wangji proceeds to the small table on the far side of the room. Sure enough, it’s piled high with letters, and Wei Wuxian lets out a low whistle of appreciation.

“You weren’t kidding, were you?” He sits up and settles the jar of wine in his lap. “These people really do need attention.”

“It would appear so,” Lan Wangji agrees, taking a seat and retrieving a letter from the top of the pile.

“I’m going to talk at you while you read those, okay?” He takes a swig of his wine. “You don’t even have to listen to me really, but I need to speak my thoughts out loud for a bit.”

“I will listen to you,” Lan Wangji assures him, shuffling the stack into some semblance of order.

“Okay, great,” Wei Wuxian says. Away from the heat and the noise of the dining room, he’s feeling remarkably awake again. “What do we know about our friend Zhang Zhen?” he begins.

Lan Wangji regards him carefully, waiting for him to continue, the letter still sealed in his hands.

“We know he was murdered. We know he wants to be buried. He knows where his body is, but that’s where it gets tricky. Mountain, river, forest, cave, and sky. Not sure what that means, especially the last one. And you say he said he was ‘in’ them?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji confirms. “He seemed quite particular on that point.”

“If he were dismembered, I’d expect him to be angrier. More resentful,” Wei Wuxian muses, twirling a strand of hair around his finger. “But he’s barely got enough energy to maintain his presence. He’s been following us since we left the mountain inn, but he doesn’t mean us any harm. Do you think he must have died there? At the inn?”

“It’s possible,” Lan Wangji frowns. “But we’ve had no reports of a haunting. You yourself say the rumours surrounding the inn have only to do with the innkeeper’s wife.”

“True,” Wei Wuxian allows. “And she was the only exceptional thing about the whole place, good or bad. She really was something, though,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, remembering the way she’d seemed to glow from within. It wasn’t charisma, not exactly, but she’d had a magnetism to her that Wei Wuxian has never encountered before.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, tone suddenly clipped, dropping his eyes to the letter in his hands and breaking the seal with a snap.

“There’s nothing really up there but the inn. Oh! We didn’t ask him who killed him, did we? That’s kind of a careless miss on our part. Lan Zhan do you think you could ask him? Maybe not now—but wait, actually, yes, right now, because I feel like that would really help.”

Lan Wangji remains silent by the table.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian tries.

Lan Wangji looks up from the letter, his face utterly perplexed.

“Lan Zhan, are you okay?” Wei Wuxian squints at him. “You look a little confused.”

“I—” Lan Wangji begins, but he cuts himself off, clearly unsure what to say. He drops his eyes back to the letter in his hand before glancing back at Wei Wuxian.

“What’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian asks, swinging his legs off the bed and heading over to stand by Lan Wangji. “Is someone asking for something ridiculous?”

Lan Wangji frowns. “They’re not asking for anything.”

“They’re not? Then what is it?” Wei Wuxian asks, dropping cross-legged onto the floor next to Lan Wangji and peering at the letter in his hands.

“It’s a poem,” Lan Wangji says. It sounds a bit bewildered for such a definitive statement.

“A poem?” Wei Wuxian asks, and Lan Wangji offers it up for his perusal.

 

As Wutong-trees, live life as one

As Mandarin ducks, mate til death

As a pure-hearted girl loves only her husband

I swear in life, to be faithful forever

For a billowing wave cannot stir

A water-like-spirit in a timeless well

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian deadpans. “This is a poem.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes out in exasperation.

Wei Wuxian looks up to meet his eyes, mouth curving up in mischief.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says again. “This is a love poem.”

Lan Wangji bristles, obviously annoyed. “I am aware of that.”

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian crows. “You have an admirer!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, voice pained.

“This is so exciting! I wonder who she is—I wonder what she looks like! Oh, do you suppose it’s the Head Elder’s granddaughter? She could barely walk and look at you at the same time!”

“Wei Ying!”

“Or, oh! How about the girl who gave you this?” Wei Wuxian pulls the azalea out of his sleeve where he’d tucked it for safekeeping. “She was pretty brazen, you have to admit, getting the jump on you like that. I admire that sort of audacity. Did you get a good look at her? Do you think she’s pretty?”

Lan Wangji just sighs.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian waves the flower in his face. “Don’t look so dour! This is a happy thing.”

Lan Wangji catches his hand, and Wei Wuxian goes still under the weight of Lan Wangji’s suddenly pointed stare. The dancing candle flames are reflected in his eyes, and Wei Wuxian is caught, leaning forward almost unconsciously, drawn to the flickering light.

“Is it?” Lan Wangji asks, voice pitched low and quiet.

“Um,” Wei Wuxian says stupidly. “Yes?”

“Are you happy?”

“What?” Wei Wuxian asks, still stupidly.

“Are you happy that I have an admirer?” asks Lan Wangji.

“I—” Wei Wuxian starts, then stops abruptly, confounded by the question. “I guess? I mean, it’s nice, isn’t it? To know someone likes you.”

Something flickers across Lan Wangji’s eyes, sharp but fleeting. It’s almost mournful, but it’s gone so quickly that Wei Wuxian wonders if he’s seeing things.  

“It could be,” Lan Wangji says, voice just above a whisper.

Wei Wuxian swallows thickly, mouth suddenly dry, and he tears his eyes away from Lan Wangji. His gaze lands on their hands, on Lan Wangji’s fingers wrapped gently around his wrist, and he feels a hot flush creeping up his neck. He clears his throat and retracts his hand, tossing the azalea onto the table. It lands on the open letter, obscuring the characters of the poem.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says. “In any case, I think you should be flattered. I would be!”

“Hmm,” Lan Wangji hums in agreement, cracking open the next letter and getting back to business. He pauses again, blinking in confusion.

“What now?” Wei Wuxian wants to know.

“It’s another poem,” Lan Wangji says.

“What?” Wei Wuxian exclaims, reaching out to grab it. “Another one?”

It’s a lot longer than the last one, and the calligraphy is not as elegant, but there can be no mistake. It’s another love poem.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Is this normal for you? Do you often get love poetry mixed in with your Chief Cultivator petitions?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “Never.”

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says, snatching another letter off the pile and cracking the seal before Lan Wangji can stop him. “If I just broke some sort of law, I apologize. Just tell everyone I’m your secretary.”

“Don’t be absurd,” says Lan Wangji, retrieving another letter himself.

It’s a moment before Wei Wuxian bursts into delighted laughter.

“Lan Zhan, look,” he laughs, holding the letter up for inspection. “This one came with pressed flowers!”

But Lan Zhan is not looking at him. He’s staring at the letter in his own hands, he’s gone perfectly still, and the telltale flush of pink has begun to suffuse the tips of his ears.

“What is it? What’d you get?”

Lan Wangji quickly closes the letter and puts it aside. “More of the same.”

Wei Wuxian snatches it up, letting the page unfold and devouring what’s written there. He starts to cackle while the pink on Lan Wangji’s ears deepens.

“Oh, sure, more of the same, except—“

“Florid,” Lan Wangji cuts him off.

Wei Wuxian grins. “That’s one word for it. I can’t believe this. Hanguang-Jun, you’ve been holding out on me! I had no idea being Chief Cultivator was this much fun.”

“It’s not,” Lan Wangji insists, shuffling through the rest of the letters. “This is highly unusual.”

“And improper, I’m sure. Who knew such a small town housed such a wealth of poets!”

Lan Wangji spares him an exasperated look before selecting another letter, but his expression brightens just a touch as he takes in the seal.

“Ah,” he says as he breaks it. “This one is from the Head Elder. No more nonsense.”

“Too bad,” Wei Wuxian chirps. “I was enjoying the nonsense. Do you think those girls from earlier are playing another prank on us? Talk about bold. And in the end, it’s harmless, so I’ve got to hand it to them. They really got us! Even I wasn’t that shameless at their age. Kids these days, right, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer him.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian tries again. He peers at Lan Wangji’s pale, stricken face and feels a flash of concern. “Is the Head Elder asking for something impossible after all?”

Lan Wangji makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat before looking up to meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes. If Wei Wuxian had to give a name to his expression, it would probably be dismay. Wordlessly, he passes Wei Wuxian the letter.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide and his mouth drops open.

“Lan Zhan. This… This is—“

“A marriage proposal,” Lan Wangji finishes for him. He sounds horrified.

“He wants you to marry his granddaughter?” Wei Wuxian asks, incredulous.

“It would appear so,” Lan Wangji says.

“You can’t do that!” Wei Wuxian exclaims.

Lan Wangji blinks at him, startled by Wei Wuxian’s sudden vehemence.

“I mean…” Wei Wuxian collects himself. “Your uncle probably wouldn’t approve.”

“No. Certainly not.”

“He’s serious, though, isn’t he?” Wei Wuxian asks. “This can’t be a prank, can it?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “Not unless someone stole his official seal.”

“This is nuts,” Wei Wuxian mutters, unfolding another letter. “Lan Zhan. What the Hell?”

“What is it?” Lan Wangji asks, voice cautious.

“Another marriage proposal!” Wei Wuxian bursts out. “Some rich merchant wants you to marry his daughter. What the Hell, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji pales as he takes the letter from Wei Wuxian’s hands.

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous. They can’t all be like that, right?” Wei Wuxian rifles through the diminishing pile. “I’m gonna find a real one,” he says, suddenly determined.

But his search is in vain: the rest of the pile contains a great deal of poetry, several outright declarations of love and devotion, and no less than three more marriage proposals.

“This one is actually kind of impressive,” Wei Wuxian admits. “’I can sit no longer in silence,’” he reads. “’I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. I am half agony, half hope—‘”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji almost hisses. “Enough.”

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “It’s really well written.”

Lan Wangji just gives him a pained look.

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to reason this all out. “Is it possible that the entire town is collaborating to pull off an elaborate prank on the Chief Cultivator?”

“To what end?” Lan Wangji asks.

“That, I have no idea. But it’s possible, Lan Zhan. Because otherwise…”

“Otherwise, these are all sincere,” Lan Wangji finishes for him.

“Right,” Wei Wuxian states. He takes a deep breath and holds it for a minute, but in the end, he exhales in defeat. “Yeah, sorry, that’s all I’ve got.”

Lan Wangji sighs, looking forlornly at the pile of discarded letters.

“If nothing else,” Wei Wuxian offers, lips twitching with barely controlled mirth, “I bet the town hall tomorrow is going to be a riot.”

 

---

 

It’s not a riot.

Not exactly.

But as Wei Wuxian takes in the sight of the people crowded into the lower floor of the inn, spilling over the barrier of the patio and out into the street, he can’t help but think it’s turning into a bit of circus, and that he and Lan Wangji are unwittingly the main attraction. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure how Lan Wangji plans to handle the lack of official business; how he is supposed to address anything at all from the letters is a mystery to Wei Wuxian, and he doesn’t envy his friend as Lan Wangji takes his seat at the front of the room.

Wei Wuxian takes up a position off to the side, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed. Lan Wangji is saying something to the elders about not being able to address the petitions from last night.

“The majority of them require private attention,” Lan Wangji explains, and the elders all nod in agreement, the Head Elder especially.

“I’m sure you will give them all due consideration,” the Head Elder says with a significant look. “Perhaps you will be so gracious as to hear some new petitions today?”

Lan Wangji inclines his head slightly. “I would be glad to hear from your people for the next hour.”

“Very good, your Excellency. Would anyone—“

Before he can finish, a young girl springs forward from the crowd and throws herself to her knees in front of Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian recognizes her immediately as the girl with the snow-white azalea.

“Your Excellency!” she exclaims, her voice high and breathless. “Hanguang-Jun! Please allow this humble servant to express her heart’s desire. I have no father to speak for me, so I must—I must take this chance! Hanguang-Jun, I beg of you, please take me as your wife!”

Lan Wangji is speechless, eyes gone wide with shock, and the room erupts with startled gasps and exclamations.

“You!” the Head Elder splutters. “Yan Mengmeng! Have you no shame? How dare you!”

Wei Wuxian stares, mouth agape, incredulous laughter bubbling up in his throat, as the young girl glares defiantly at the Head Elder. Another woman has made her way to the front, and she flings herself down beside Yan Mengmeng, touching her forehead to the ground.

“This mother apologises for a wilful daughter, your Excellency! The fault is mine, truly, for she takes after her mother, but please, I beg of you, consider her words. I would do anything to see her happy, to see you wed, for if I cannot have you myself—“

“What is the meaning of this?” the Head Elder roars. “Control yourself, Madam!”

“Stay out of this!” she hisses back at him. “I know you are merely angling for your own granddaughter!”

“Preposterous!” the Head Elder fumes. “There is a right and a wrong way to do these things, and this is most certainly not right!”

“Do you deny it?” Madam Yan cries. “You haven’t petitioned him on behalf of your granddaughter?”

“If I have, I have done it properly!”

“Grandfather, please!” the granddaughter rushes forward, trying to calm the Head Elder down. “H-Hanguang-Jun, p-please forgive us, we meant no offense—“

“Using your grandfather’s influence to get your proposal to the top of the pile, now who’s shameless!” snaps Yan Mengmeng. She turns her pleading eyes back to Lan Wangji and reaches out to take hold of his sleeve. “Hanguang-Jun, please—“

Lan Wangji springs to his feet, eyes wild and ears red, but there’s nowhere for him to go. The room is packed and the wall is at his back.

The crowd is in a tittering uproar, and Wei Wuxian pushes off the wall to make his way to Lan Wangji, too bewildered even to laugh like he wants to. But before he can reach him, yet another woman has surged forward to corner Lan Wangji against the wall.

“Is it true?” she wails. “How many proposals have you received? Please don’t say mine was lost beneath the rest!”

Lan Wangji just gapes at her.

“All right, all right,” Wei Wuxian interrupts, sweeping in beside Lan Wangji and holding up his hands in a placating manner. “If you’re really curious,” he says to the woman, “he’s had five marriage proposals in total.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji almost groans.

“Look,” says Wei Wuxian, “This is obviously absurd, but you might as well be straight with them.”

The Head Elder’s granddaughter takes a timid step forward, her hands trembling and her eyes wet. “Is it true, Hanguang-Jun? W-will you answer us?”

“I…” Lan Wangji swallows, stiffening as all four women seem to close in around him. “I do not wish to have a wife,” he manages to get out.

There’s a moment of perfect silence, as if the whole room has stopped breathing while the granddaughter tears up, and Wei Wuxian watches in amazement as she heaves one shivering sob before passing out in a dead faint, toppling forward into Lan Wangji’s arms.

“She did that on purpose!” shrieks Yan Mengmeng, and the whole room explodes into chaos.

“Hanguang-Jun! Please consider my daughter instead!”

“Your Excellency, please! Please reconsider! My niece is—”

“Hanguang-Jun! Forget these poor daughters, I’m a rich widow! Have me, instead!”

“Your Excellency! You’ve read my poem, now please, hear me out—”

“Hanguang-Jun! Your beauty, your grace—”

“Hanguang-Jun! The women in my family are famous for bearing sons! Please let me give you an heir!”

“Didn’t you hear him? He doesn’t want a wife. Hanguang-Jun! Please accept a husband!”

“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian declares.

He looks to where Lan Wangji is awkwardly holding the Head Elder’s granddaughter at arms’ length away from his body. He’s gripping her by her upper arms, holding her perfectly upright.  It looks as if she’s fallen asleep standing up, her head lolled uncomfortably to one side, and Wei Wuxian resists the urge to laugh again at the terrified look on Lan Wangji’s face.

Taking action at last, Wei Wuxian springs forward and takes the Head Elder’s granddaughter out of a distressed Lan Wangji’s grip, guiding her down to sit propped against the wall. He grabs Lan Wangji’s wrist, yanking him away from the circle of wailing women and making a beeline for the stairs. They just manage to escape the swarming crowd, and Wei Wuxian ducks into the nearest open room, hauling Lan Wangji behind him. He shuts the door and leans back against it to catch his breath.

“Lan Zhan,” he gasps. “What the fuck.”

Lan Wangji just stares at him helplessly, eyes huge and horrified.

Wei Wuxian can’t help it. He bursts into laughter. He’s been holding it in for what feels like forever, and now it escapes him in nervous, giddy waves, and he doubles up with his arms crossed over his stomach. When it’s finally out of his system, he straightens up and wipes at his eyes, conscious of the way Lan Wangji is now glowering at him.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” he manages. “That wasn’t very helpful. But Lan Zhan. This is fucking ridiculous! What the hell is going on?”

“I know as much as you do,” Lan Wangji retorts. “Something is clearly wrong here.”

“I don’t know, I mean, you’re pretty irresistible,” Wei Wuxian offers, feeling the laughter beginning to well up again.

“Wei Ying, be serious,” Lan Wangji pleads.

“Would it really be so unreasonable to think an entire town has fallen desperately in love with you?”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji is fully exasperated. “This is clearly not normal behaviour.”

“I suppose they are all being rather intense,” Wei Wuxian muses. “And I have to admit, it’s unusual to get proposed to so publicly. That girl really is audacious, throwing herself at you in front of the whole town.”

“Which is, as I said, not normal behaviour,” Lan Wangji insists. “There is something else at play here.”

“A curse?” Wei Wuxian suggests. “That’s a lot of people to affect. It would have to be very strong magic.”

“I have never heard of such a curse,” Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Love spells are notoriously difficult. They exist largely in the realm of fiction.”

Wei Wuxian snaps his fingers. “But what if it’s not them? Lan Zhan, what if it’s you? What if you’re the one who’s cursed? I mean, no one is falling in love with me. It’s all aimed at you. It has to be coming from you.” 

Lan Wangji looks pained. “When could it have happened?”

Wei Wuxian thinks back, tapping his nose and running through the memories of their journey thus far.

“Now that I think of it,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, “everyone has been pretty taken with you since we showed up. I thought it was just the usual sort of awe and admiration for a cultivator like yourself, and you are his Excellency, but now that I think of it…”

Wei Wuxian looks up at him, coming to a conclusion. “All of those love letters and proposals came in last night. Lan Zhan, it has to have happened before we entered the town. They’ve been falling in love with you since yesterday, I’m sure of it.”

“At the inn, then,” says Lan Wangji, coming to the same conclusion.

Wei Wuxian nods, beginning to pace back and forth.

“We saw no one for hours until we got to that inn. It was pretty full. The dining room was packed that evening. It could have been anyone staying there. But who’d want to curse you?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I cannot think of anyone powerful enough to inflict this sort of curse on me. To instill love in an unwilling person is no small thing.”

“What if they’re willing?” Wei Wuxian stops and points out. “Would that make it easier? You do inspire a lot of admiration. That’s kind of like love.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head again. “It makes no difference. As I said, love spells are a thing of fiction.”

“And yet, here we are,” Wei Wuxian says. “Whatever the Hell it is that’s going on downstairs, it’s real, and it’s happening.”

As if on cue, the notes of a forlorn, warbling love song drifts up toward the door, and Wei Wuxian bites his cheek to keep from laughing again.

“Someone is serenading you, Hanguang-Jun.”

Lan Wangji gives him another longsuffering look, and Wei Wuxian resumes pacing. 

“Okay,” he says, wracking his brain. “Ever since the stay at the inn, you’ve been cursed to make everyone fall in love with you. And not only that, they’re so in love with you as to be behaving outrageously. Since no one did anything crazy until today, I’m going to assume that the longer you’re in close proximity, the worse it’s going to get.”

“But it is not consistent,” Lan Wangji says.

“How do you mean?”

Lan Wangji eyes him warily, a hint of apprehension in his face. “You are unaffected.”

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to reply.

Closes it again.

Blinks a few times.

Wei Wuxian’s hesitation is clearly agitating Lan Wangji; his posture has stiffened and his eyes have widened in something like dread.

But Wei Wuxian is struck dumb by the sudden realisation that, yes, he had momentarily considered kissing Lan Wangji that night at the inn. He had buried his face in Lan Wangji’s neck and thought fleetingly about biting him there. But that was different, wasn’t it? He’d been drunk, and needy, and finally feeling the effects of their reunion after so long. That was normal, wasn’t it?

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji tries. He sounds a little choked.

Finally, Wei Wuxian bursts out laughing, and Lan Wangji’s shoulders relax, although now he looks a little irritated.

“Lan Zhan, don’t be silly! Of course I’m not affected!” He spreads his hands wide in front of him. “I’m the same as always, aren’t I?”

Lan Wangji heaves a weary sigh. “Yes. Quite.”

“There has to be something,” Wei Wuxian continues. “There has to be something we’re missing. We’ve been together this whole time. Neither of us noticed anything malicious at the inn. We’ve been followed by a low-level ghost, but he doesn’t seem to mean us any harm, and who’s ever heard of a ghost casting a spell? No, it can’t be Zhang Zhen. But who else…” Wei Wuxian trails off, brain whirring.

“Wei Ying?”

“The rumours,” Wei Wuxian blurts out. “About the innkeeper’s wife. How everyone falls in love with her at first sight. How people spend all their savings just to stay at the inn and court her. Lan Zhan, what if the rumours are true?” he asks excitedly. “What if she’s casting a spell?”

“But why cast it on me?” Lan Wangji asks. “And I did not detect any spiritual energy from her.”

“I didn’t either, which means it has to be something else, maybe something talisman based, or an array, but that wouldn’t make any sense—where would she hide that, your bed? How would she know which one was yours, unless it was random selection? She definitely knew who we were, I feel like this has to be targeted, but we share basically everything and—”

Wei Wuxian abruptly stops pacing, eyes going wide.

“Holy shit,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Wei Ying?”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, turning to face him. “It’s the fucking rabbit food.”

Lan Wangji blinks at him.

“Think about it,” Wei Wuxian insists. “It’s the only thing that’s happened to you this whole trip that hasn’t also happened to me. She prepared it especially for you. We shared everything else except the wine, and that was all for me, so it’s irrelevant.”

“How is that possible?” Lan Wangji asks, brow furrowed with doubt. “What could she possibly have put in it?”

“I don’t know,” replies Wei Wuxian. “But I think we’d better go back to find out.”

The last lines of the love song have trailed off, and all that’s left to be heard from the lower floor is the faint murmur of the buzzing crowd. It doesn’t sound like anyone has left, but Wei Wuxian is glad they seemed to have at least calmed down. He’s in the middle of strategizing how to get them both out of the inn when there is a knock on the door.

They exchange a wary look before Wei Wuxian shrugs and opens the door a crack. It’s the innkeeper, looking flushed and deeply frazzled, but he bows politely and begins to speak.

“Hanguang-Jun, Young Master Wei, this humble innkeeper apologises for your troubles this morning.”

“No need,” says Lan Wangji. “This was not your fault.”

“Allow me to be of service one last time, Hanguang-Jun. There is a back exit. Let me take you there,” the innkeeper says, his eyes huge and earnest.

“Please do!” exclaims Wei Wuxian. “We need to get out of here.”

 The innkeeper exits the room and leads them both down the hall, unlocking a door that takes them down into the kitchen, and they exit the inn through there, coming out into a small alleyway.

“Thank you, Sir,” Wei Wuxian says. “We owe you one.”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of it,” the innkeeper says, but his glossy eyes appear to shimmer with sudden sorrow, and suddenly, he drops to his knees in front of Lan Wangji, grasping desperately at his sleeve.

“Forgive this worthless innkeeper,” he sobs. “This unworthy servant! But oh, Hanguang-Jun, to think I may never see you again, I beg of you, let me, just this once—”

“Sir, please, I must—“

But before Lan Wangji can finish his sentence, the innkeeper has seized Lan Wangji’s hand and pressed a firm, wet kiss to his knuckles. The look of perfectly horrified panic on Lan Wangji’s face is going to be imprinted on Wei Wuxian’s memory forever, he decides.

“Yes, thank you, thank you very much, Sir!” Wei Wuxian manages to blurt out. The situation is so bizarre, he’s starting to feel a little unhinged. Lan Wangji appears to be incapacitated by shock, so Wei Wuxian grabs his wrist and tears his hand free from the innkeeper’s grasp. The two of them flee down the alley, leaving the innkeeper knocking his head on the ground behind them.

 

---

 

The trek back up the mountain pass feels like the longest four hours of his second life, and Wei Wuxian can’t help but mourn the comfort and the ease that had existed only a day earlier on the same route. He’s trying his best to keep pace with Lan Wangji, but without a core, it’s strenuous work, and he knows that he’s slowing them down. Lan Wangji is obviously eager to get back to the inn; his entire manner is dour and withdrawn, and he’s barely said two words to Wei Wuxian the entire trip up.

For his part, Wei Wuxian is still trying to parse out their odd situation. He’s certain that he’s right about the strange and fragrant grass; it’s the only thing that makes sense. But he’s stuck on why anyone would target Lan Wangji with such a scheme. He could easily imagine someone making Lan Wangji the object of a love spell, but in that scenario, it seems to Wei Wuxian that the logical desire would be to have Lan Wangji fall in love with them, not the other way around. If Lan Wangji was the object, giving oneself an endless parade of rivals hardly seems wise.

And where does Wei Wuxian fit into all of this? Does he have some part to play? Why is he the only one not affected? Nothing for him has changed. He still regards Lan Wangji with the same affection, the same warmth, the same trust as always. He’s certainly not feeling the need to throw himself on the ground and propose marriage.

And yet.

There’s something uncomfortable scratching at the edges of his consciousness, something dark and queasy roiling in his stomach at the thought of Lan Wangji having so many suitors. It was funny at first when they were reading the letters, but something about the reality of seeing Lan Wangji pursued with such fervor leaves a bitter taste in Wei Wuxian’s mouth. It’s unnatural, of course; these feelings were inspired by wicked means, but that doesn’t stop the dissatisfied unease coiling its way through Wei Wuxian’s gut. It doesn’t stop the clenching of his heart.

Wei Wuxian sighs heavily, and Lan Wangji turns back to look at him, immediately concerned.

“We are almost there,” he says, voice apologetic. “I am sorry to rush you.”

Wei Wuxian waves away his concern. “I’m fine, don’t worry. I’m still just trying to figure this mess out. I sincerely hope the innkeeper’s wife has an explanation for all of this because right now, I just don’t get it.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees.

“How about you?” Wei Wuxian probes. “How are you holding up?”

“Fine,” Lan Wangji says, somewhat stiffly. “I want to wash my hands,” he confesses.

Wei Wuxian lets out a laugh, happy to break the tension. “I’ll bet.”

It’s mid-afternoon by the time they reach the inn, and the outer dining area is chock full of people enjoying a late lunch or an afternoon tea. Wei Wuxian strides on ahead, but Lan Wangji hesitates at the end of the path, lingering back behind the cover of the foliage.

“What is it?” Wei Wuxian asks, stopping a few paces ahead.

“Too many people,” Lan Wangjji says.

Wei Wuxian grimaces. “Right.”

The last thing they need right now is a repeat of this morning.

“Tell you what,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’ll go in and book us a room. Who knows how long we’re going to need to strategize. When the crowd thins out a bit, we’ll sneak you in. And then, we figure out how to get the innkeeper’s wife alone for a minute. Sound good?”

Wei Wuxian knows that asking Lan Wangji to hang out in the bushes for a couple of hours is probably a little ridiculous, but it’s no more absurd than the situation they are already in, and Lan Wangji nods his agreement.

“I will make myself scarce,” Lan Wangji says, glancing into the woods on the side of the path.

“Don’t go too far,” Wei Wuxian warns. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” Lan Wangji promises, and Wei Wuxian feels a warmth spreading in his chest.

“Here,” Wei Wuxian says, fishing around in his sleeve and coming up with a talisman. “Take this. It’ll lead me right back to you.”

Lan Wangji reaches out to accept it, their fingers brushing ever so slightly with the exchange.

“I hopefully won’t be too long,” Wei Wuxian promises.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji replies. “I will see you soon, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian watches Lan Wangji head into the woods, and then he turns on his heel and makes his way to the inn. The innkeeper is at the front desk when he walks in, and he looks up at Wei Wuxian with a sour look of recognition. Wei Wuxian gets the distinct impression that the innkeeper is not happy to see him.

“Young Master,” says the innkeeper. “Welcome back. How can I help you?”

“I need to book a room for the night,” Wei Wuxian says, flashing his brilliant smile. “I hope you have room for me again.”

“I have a single room available, yes,” the innkeeper says, flipping a page in his ledger.

“A double, if you would, Sir,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m still travelling with company.”

The innkeeper squints up at him, face pinched. “I only have the one single room left, Young Master.”

Wei Wuxian sighs in frustration. “All right,” he says. “I’ll take it.” He can’t afford to be picky right now.

“Very well, Young Master,” the innkeeper grouses. “Will you be joining us for dinner?”

“We’ll have it sent to the room at five, please,” Wei Wuxian replies. Exposing Lan Wangji to a crowded dining room seems like a bad idea. Then again, so does eating anything from the inn at all, so it doesn’t really matter.

“Very well,” the innkeeper says again, scribbling in the ledger and scrambling for his keys. “This way.”

Wei Wuxian follows the innkeeper to the room and waits as he unlocks the door and ushers him inside. He surveys the small room then turns back to the innkeeper.

“Might I trouble you for a jar of wine?” Wei Wuxian asks. “It’s been a long day, and I could use one.”

“Right away, Young Master,” bows the innkeeper, and then he slinks out of the room.

Wei Wuxian removes Chenqing from his belt before flopping down onto the bed, his mind still whirring. He doesn’t know how long it might take for the crowd outside to thin, or if more people from the village at the foot of the mountain will simply make their way up for dinner. There has to be a lull in between, he reasons, when he can duck out and retrieve Lan Wangji.

He sits up at a knock on the door, and then it swings open to reveal the innkeeper’s wife with the wine on a tray. Her movements are graceful, and her expression serene, but Wei Wuxian detects a flicker of surprise on her exquisite features as she sweeps the room with her eyes and finds him alone.

“Young Master,” she inclines her head in a small bow before placing the wine on the table beside the bed. “Have you parted ways with his Excellency?”

“No, I haven’t,” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully. “Luckily for you.”

She blinks at him in confusion. “Young Master?”

Wei Wuxian pushes himself off the bed and comes to stand in front of her. She’s petite, almost fragile looking, and Wei Wuxian towers over her.

“Don’t act so surprised,” he says lightly. “I’m sure you must have expected us back. You looked a little disappointed just now to find me alone. I don’t blame you, to be honest. Who wouldn’t rather see the elegant Hanguang-Jun?” He pauses, and his voice takes on an edge when he speaks next. “What do you want with him?”

Instead of stuttering, or blushing, or shrinking away, she raises her head and fixes Wei Wuxian with a contemptuous, haughty glare. It’s nothing like the demure and alluring act she’d pulled the night they’d met; here is fire and steel, and Wei Wuxian sees her clearly for the first time.

“Bring him to me, and I’ll tell you,” she declares, voice like ice.

“Why should I?” Wei Wuxian bites back.

“Because if you don’t, you’ll never know what afflicts him,” she sneers.

“Oh, I’ve got a pretty good idea about that already,” he deadpans. “It’s not like the effects are subtle.”

“What good would they be if they were?” she retorts. “You still don’t know how to cure it. And you won’t, if you do not bring him to me.”

“Why should I believe you?” Wei Wuxian asks. “How do I know you don’t mean to harm him further?”

“You don’t,” she says flatly. “But I assure you, that’s not what I want. In fact, I need him in top form, so perhaps you ought to bring him inside where it’s comfortable, instead of leaving him outside in the woods.”

“There’s nothing comfortable about having a swarm of strangers clamouring for your hand in marriage,” Wei Wuxian says drily. “I think he’s happier where he is at the moment.”

“Fine,” she scoffs. “Have it your way. I can wait. If he’s back in time for dinner, I’ll just catch you then.”

“Yeah, about that,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’d better not be planning on feeding us any more of your specialty mountain grass.”

She smirks at him, looking somewhat pleased. “Well, at least you’ve figured that much out.”

“That was the easy part,” Wei Wuxian drawls. “But perhaps you’ll enlighten me on another part of the mystery. Why am I not affected?”

She raises an eyebrow at him. “You mean to tell me you’re not?”

“No, I’m not,” Wei Wuxian says.

She shrugs dismissively. “How should I know? I wasn’t planning on you. Figure it out for yourself.”

“I see,” he murmurs, rolling that over in his mind. If he wasn’t part of the plan, maybe he still has a chance to ruin it.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she says slyly. “But don’t think just because I wasn’t expecting you that there’s some failsafe you can find. The reality is this. Your friend is doomed to live a life enchanting everyone he meets unless I deign to cure him. And I’m not going to do that until I get what I want.”

“What’s to stop me from torturing you until you give me the cure?”

“Your conscience, for one,” she says, giving him a smug look. “Besides,” she adds. “There’s nothing you can do to hurt me. There’s nothing to threaten me with. I have nothing left to hold dear.”

“Not even your husband?” Wei Wuxian asks.

She scoffs in disdain. “By all means, eliminate him. But I think you’ll find that if you do, I’ll become more your problem than ever.”

“You’re already pretty troublesome,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “I don’t understand what you want.”

“If you bring me your friend, I will explain everything to you. Until then, suffer in ignorance,” she spits.

“Fine,” Wei Wuxian begrudgingly relents. “I’ll hold you to that.”

She smiles, sharp as a knife’s edge. “I’ll be happy to bring you your dinner, then. We’ll have a nice, long chat.”

Wei Wuxian purses his lips and watches as she departs, the door clicking shut behind her. He paces back and forth a few times before scooping up Chenqing and the jar of wine and heading downstairs to the dining room. At least down here, he can monitor the flow of people and wait for an opportunity to go retrieve Lan Wangji. And if he manages to eavesdrop on anything interesting, so much the better. He hasn’t completely given up on the idea that he can figure out this situation before Lan Wangji returns.

He settles near a table of older men, each of them comfortably sprawled in their seats, deep into their cups. Their conversation is loud and spirited, and Wei Wuxian gets the feeling that this is their regular haunt. Deciding to take a chance, he sidles up to their table and clears his throat to get their attention.

“Excuse me, gentlemen. I couldn’t help but overhear. You sound like you know these parts well. Would you humour this poor traveller by answering some questions?”

“Certainly, Young Master!” the eldest amongst them says, patting the space beside himself. “Have a seat, have a seat. What is it you wish to know?”

“Thank you, Grandpa,” Wei Wuxian says, dropping into the offered seat. “Do you get many travellers in this area? I was told it was more remote, but this inn seems to be packed.”

“Ah,” says a man across the table, a glint in his eye. “This inn has many regulars like us. We hail from the village at the foot of the mountain. It’s how we enjoy our retirement,” he laughs. “But there are plenty of wanderers who make their way through, even sometimes powerful cultivators, looking to cultivate in the back mountains.”

“You have no teahouse in town, then?” Wei Wuxian asks, taking a sip from his wine jar.

“Certainly we do,” says a man with a thin beard. “But nothing compares to the fine wine and the service at this inn. It’s worth the trek,” he says with a wink.

“You mean the innkeeper’s wife?” Wei Wuxian probes. “I hear she is a famous local beauty.”

“See for yourself!” cries the eldest. “You have eyes, don’t you Young Master? Tell me, have you ever seen her equal?”

“Indeed, Suyin is a rare beauty,” agrees the man with the beard. “The kind of beauty that men would go to war for.”

“And are there many wars fought around here?” Wei Wuxian asks lightly.

“Indeed, there are, and many a wandering cultivator has succumbed to her charms. They vie for her attention through all manner of deeds, but none has ever triumphed. They’ve all since disappeared into the mountains, never to be seen again. They say all of them have died of broken hearts.”

“It’s a marvel indeed,” the man across the table agrees. “Her loyalty to her husband is a thing of great poetry. None of us can understand what she sees in Enze, but who can fault her faithfulness? To think there is such a woman,” he says with a sigh.

Wei Wuxian bites back a laugh, remembering all too clearly how Suyin had casually suggested that Wei Wuxian could go ahead and kill her husband.

“I never could understand what drew her to Enze over his brother. But who knows? The ways of a woman’s heart are a mystery.”

“The innkeeper has a brother?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“Indeed he does,” says the eldest. “He was the first to fall.”

“What do you mean?” Wei Wuxian presses.

“He disappeared into the mountains some five years back, around the same time Suyin arrived in town. They say he was crazy with love for her, but she married his brother, and he went into the mountains in despair. No one has seen him since.”

“This brother,” Wei Wuxian says, something clicking into place. “What was his name?”

“Zhen, Young Master,” the man with the beard replies.

“His name was Zhang Zhen.”

 

---

 

The sun is just starting to set by the time Wei Wuxian makes it to the edge of a small, peaceful spring. The sound of a qin reaches him partway down the path, and the talisman in his hand is glowing a bright red.  Lan Wangji is perched at the side of the spring, his qin before him, playing a quiet, meditative song in the fading light of day, the brilliant orange of the sunset reflecting off his eyes like fire.

Wei Wuxian stops to catch his breath at the sight, his steps faltering at the sudden pang in his heart, and Lan Wangji looks up from his qin to pin him with his soft, golden stare.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji calls in greeting, and Wei Wuxian’s heart skips a beat the way it always does when Lan Wangji says his name like that.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian replies, skipping over a rock and coming to stand in front of Lan Wangji. “Sorry for the wait. That place is busier than it has any right to be.”

“No need to apologize,” Lan Wangji assures him. “I passed the time comfortably.”

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says, gesturing back to the path. “Let’s get you inside. We have an appointment with the innkeeper’s wife.”

“You’ve spoken with her?” Lan Wangji asks.

Wei Wuxian nods. “It wasn’t a very friendly conversation, but she agreed to explain everything so long as you were there.”

“So I am indeed the target,” Lan Wangji concludes.

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian confirms. “This was no accident.”

“As to another thing which was not accidental, I played inquiry again. I asked Zhang Zhen who killed him, as per your request.”

“Let me guess,” Wei Wuxian says. “Was it his brother?”

Lan Wangji blinks in surprise. “Yes,” he replies. “How did you know?”

“I went fishing for information from a bunch of locals. Apparently, Zhang Zhen went missing five years ago when the innkeeper’s wife first showed up. They all say he disappeared into the mountains in despair when she married his brother, Zhang Enze the innkeeper.”

Lan Wangji tilts his head in question.

“Apparently, Zhang Enze had every reason to be jealous of his younger brother,” Wei Wuxian continues. “Zhang Zhen was everything he’s not. Handsome, outgoing, kind-hearted, and generous.”

“As the elder son, you’d think Zhang Enze would have many advantages,” Lan Wangji points out. “He did end up with the wife.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you think he considered his own brother a threat in that regard?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I have another idea,” Wei Wuxian says as they arrive back at the inn. “We’ll see in a moment if I’m right.”

They sweep past the few patrons still lingering at the tables outside and pass through the door of the inn as quietly as possible. There are still quite a few people in the dining room, but most of them thankfully don’t look up as Wei Wuxian dashes up the stairs with Lan Wangji close behind him. It doesn’t take long after they’ve entered their room for there to be a knock at the door, and the innkeeper’s wife enters bearing their dinner on a tray.

She places it on the table before straightening up and fixing Lan Wangji with the same haughty stare that she’d used earlier on Wei Wuxian. Predictably, it has no effect, and her mouth twitches up in the beginnings of a satisfied smile.

“Your Excellency,” she says, executing a perfect bow. “So nice to see you again. Although I hear that our house specialty did not agree with you.”

Lan Wangji remains silent, studying her with a cool, flinty stare.

“Dearest Suyin,” Wei Wuxian sings, rejoicing in the way her eyes narrow at the use of her name. “I believe you owe us an explanation.”

She spares Wei Wuxian a vicious look before turning to Lan Wangji.

“Hanguang-Jun,” she begins. “I require your services as a cultivator. There’s something I need you to do for me. Once you have accomplished this task, I will give you the antidote for the Yao grass.”

“Yao grass?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Is that what it’s called?”

“Just so,” Suyin says smoothly. “A most powerful and potent love potion for which only I know the antidote. Do this task for me, or else remain forever cursed to make everyone fall in love with you.”

Lan Wangji’s face remains impassive.

“And the task is?” Wei Wuxian prompts.

“I’ve lost something,” she replies. “I need you to retrieve it for me.”

Wei Wuxian hums loudly, sounding satisfied. “What could you possibly have lost that you need someone as powerful as Hanguang-Jun to get it back for you, I wonder?”

She spares Wei Wuxian an annoyed glance. “It’s something very important to me.”

Lan Wangji speaks at last. “How am I to retrieve it if I do not know what it is?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” she says evasively.

“How marvellous!” Wei Wuxian sings. “What a generous description!”

“You,” says Suyin, “are annoying.”

“And you,” says Wei Wuxian, grinning wickedly, “are not human.”

Suyin’s eyes go wide with shock, but it transforms quickly into anger. “I don’t know what you mean,” she bites out.

“Oh, I think you do,” Wei Wuxian says. “Are we by any chance going to be looking for your robe?”

Suyin’s delicate skin flushes an angry red across her cheeks.

“You’re a celestial,” Wei Wuxian continues. “And you can’t go home, because your husband has your robe.”

“You think if it were that easy I would still be here?” Suyin bursts out, all pretense forgotten. “You think I couldn’t outwit that despicable man?”

“Oh, I’m sure you could,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “Which brings us to why you haven’t. After all, how would you lose your robe to him in the first place? Don’t tell me you lost it while bathing, just like in all the old myths?”

“You wretch!” she hurls at him. “You think me so careless? Contemptible man, how dare you!”

“I don’t actually,” Wei Wuxian says lightly. “I think you were more than careful. I think you were deliberate. There’s only one way you could have lost your robe,” he declares.

She glares at him, eyes aflame, every fibre of her being shaking with rage, but then Lan Wangji’s voice breaks through the tension, gentle as the first spring rainfall on the surface of a lake.

“You gave it away,” he says.

Suyin’s head snaps toward him, eyes wide and frantic.

“You gave it to Zhang Zhen.”

She inhales sharply, looking as if she’s been stabbed.

“You fell in love with a mortal,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “Didn’t you?”

Suyin bursts out crying, her wild eyes spilling over, tears streaking down her delicate face. Slowly, she sinks to the floor, coming to rest on her knees, her hands balled into fists.

“He was a good man,” she sobs. “The best, the kindest, and he—” she chokes on another sob. “He’s dead because of me. His brother killed him over me. We were supposed to leave this mountain together. We were supposed to have a life!”

Wei Wuxian kneels down to her level, taking in her pitiful figure, watching her shake with her grief.

“His brother killed him, and took possession of my robe. But in order to keep it from me forever, he wrapped his brother’s body in it and carried him deep into the woods. There’s a cave, three days north of here. A Bashe lives there, larger and more fearsome than the all the other serpents on the mountain. He fed Zhang Zhen’s body to the monster, knowing it would never be disgorged.”

“How is that possible?” Wei Wuxian asks gently. “A Bashe is said to disgorge the bones of its prey every three years. Sooner, if the prey isn’t that large.”

“It’s the robe,” Suyin explains. “It keeps his body from decaying. It will preserve him perfectly for as long as he wears it. It’s been five years, and still, his body remains inside the monster.”

“Sky,” Lan Wangji murmurs. “He’s wrapped in the robe of heaven.”

“And he moves through rivers, forests, and caves in the belly of the beast,” Wei Wuxian adds. “Ah, our poor friend Zhang Zhen. What an end, indeed.”

“You wish for me to retrieve him,” Lan Wangji says softly.

Suyin raises her teary face to look up at him. “The only way I will ever see him again is if he is at peace. He cannot re-enter the cycle of reincarnation without a proper burial. If you bring me my robe, and his body, then he can be at peace, and I can go home.”

“Why go to all this trouble?” Wei Wuxian asks, not without sympathy. “Why not just ask us to help you?”

“Do you have any idea how many before you have failed? How many cultivators have gone into the mountains, never to return?”

“I could hazard a guess,” Wei Wuxian says. “From what I heard today, they were all in love with you. Does that mean you…?”

“Yes,” she replies. “I ate the Yao grass. It was easy to ensnare them all. I’m a goddess, after all. But in this pitiful human body, I needed the extra help from the effects of the grass. But it was all a waste,” she says bitterly. “None of them were strong enough.”

“So why make Lan Zhan eat the grass?” asks Wei Wuxian. “Why not try to ensnare us both?”

“What good is the selfish love of a man?” she scoffs. “How many of them professed to love me, but sought to keep the robe for himself? I could only be grateful that the Bashe put an end to them, one by one. It took so many failures to realise what I needed. I don’t need blind devotion. I don’t need violent, selfish love. I need strength, and cunning, and determination. And a touch of desperation wouldn’t hurt.” She fixes Lan Wangji with a wet, resolute stare. “When I heard you were coming, I had to take the chance.”

“You seek to use the leverage of the Yao grass spell to ensure that I will not keep your robe,” Lan Wangji says. “I would never do that.”

“So you say now,” she says. “But a celestial’s robe is a powerful thing. They are as alluring as the gods who wear them.”

“Ah, Suyin,” Wei Wuxian says ruefully. “You may know men, but you do not know Hanguang-Jun.”

She sniffs, gathering herself and standing up. She wipes away her tears and regains a little of her imperious air. “Perhaps not,” she says, smoothing out the folds in her robe. “But I couldn’t take that chance. What’s done is done, and you will help me now.”

“It’s still a bit of gamble isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian points out. “Who’s to say the effects of the Yao grass won’t just wear off once it passes through his system?”

Suyin snorts. “It’s a divine plant. Do you know how long a mortal body would take to fully absorb it?”

“No,” Wei Wuxian admits. “How long?”

“About ten thousand years,” she says.

Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji. He looks a little ill at the thought.

“I swear to you,” Suyin vows. “Complete this task for me, and I will give you the antidote. Bring me my Zhang Zhen, bring me my robe, and our paths will never have to cross again.”

“We really don’t have a choice, do we?” Wei Wuxian sighs.

“No,” Lan Wangji answers. He turns to Suyin, his gaze resolved. “We will do as you ask, and trust that you will uphold your end of the bargain.”

“Thank you,” Suyin says, offering Lan Wangji a deep and serious bow. She turns to Wei Wuxian and offers him the same. “I’m glad we understand each other. Now please,” she says. “Do enjoy your dinner.”

And with that, she exits the room.

 

---

 

“What do you think it’s been like all these years?” Wei Wuxian asks, swirling his wine around in the jar. “For Suyin, I mean.”

“I imagine it has been awful,” Lan Wangji says. “She is married to the murderer of her lover.”

“Why doesn’t she just leave?” Wei Wuxian wonders. “She can’t go back to heaven, but why not leave the mountain and get as far away from him as possible?”

“She would be giving up any chance she has of going home again,” Lan Wangji points out.

“Why not just kill him, then? She certainly seems like she’d have the stomach for it.”

“She is a celestial,” Lan Wangji says. “If she were to commit a murder, she would be sentenced to a mortal life.”

“Now that I think of it, she did say that if I killed her husband, she’d be my problem. Do you think ownership of the robe would pass to me if I did that?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“It’s possible,” Lan Wangji says. “Although if any of her other suitors had known that, they might have killed him themselves.”

“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “Good point. Still. It seems like she’s beholden to him. It must be because he is the robe’s current owner. How sad for her,” he sighs. “No wonder she thinks all men are selfish.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, sounding thoughtful.

“I feel sorry for her,” Wei Wuxian continues. “If she hadn’t cursed you with a love potion, I might have liked her.”

Lan Wangji gives him a strange look.

“Ah, no, not like that,” Wei Wuxian stammers, realising what he’s just said. “I just mean that she seems like she could be nice. A good person.”

Lan Wangji nods his understanding, looking thoughtful again.

“In any case, I’ll be glad to help her out. I mean, obviously I want the antidote for you, but I can’t say I’m not going to enjoy bringing a murderer to justice. Once we have the body, we can prove Zhang Enze killed him,” Wei Wuxian reasons. “I don’t think it’d be that difficult to get a confession out of him. And then our friend Zhang Zhen can really rest in peace.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says again, and there’s something fond about the tone of his voice.

“What?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Why are you looking at me like that, Lan-er-gege?”

“I am only thinking that you are still the kindest person I have ever met.”

Wei Wuxian feels a flush crawling up his neck.

“Lan Zhan,” he splutters. “You can’t just say things like that! It’s embarrassing! My poor, weak heart can’t handle that kind of earnest praise.”

“Hmm,” Lan Wangji hums, looking pleased with himself. He’s clearly unconcerned about giving Wei Wuxian a heart attack, and Wei Wuxian feels like pouting.

“Well, in any case, we should probably go to bed. It’s almost nine,” Wei Wuxian says. But then suddenly, he remembers.

There’s only one bed.

This time, Wei Wuxian feels a flush all the way from his toes to the top of his head.

“L-Lan Zhan—”

“It’s all right, Wei Ying. I will take the floor,” Lan Wangji says gently.

“No! That’s not at all what I wanted! If anyone should take the floor, it should be me. I’m used to sleeping outdoors, so even just a mat is a luxury for me,” Wei Wuxian points out.

“All the more reason that you should have the bed,” Lan Wangji explains. “I would prefer to give you comfort, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian can feel his face heating up again. How can Lan Wangji just say things like that?

“Absolutely not,” Wei Wuxian protests. “If word gets out that the Yiling Patriarch made the Chief Cultivator sleep on the floor, your reputation would be ruined. We can’t have that, you know. We—”

The look Lan Wangji gives him is so serious and grave that Wei Wuxian swallows his next words whole.

“I would not care what people thought,” Lan Wangji says, voice solemn. “I do not care now.”

Wei Wuxian takes a moment to collect himself, his stomach doing somersaults under the intensity of Lan Wangji’s stare.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian begins. “If you don’t take the bed, I’m just going to sleep on the floor with you.”

So there, he thinks.

Lan Wangji regards him carefully, that soft-eyed look back on his face.

“Then,” he says quietly, “wouldn’t you rather sleep on the bed with me?”

Wei Wuxian stops breathing.

“What?”

“It’s wide enough for two people,” Lan Wangji explains.

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says.

Lan Wangji just continues to watch him patiently.

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian almost squeaks.

Lan Wangji gestures to the bed. “Which side would you like?”

“Uh,” Wei Wuxian swallows. “Um,” he says. “I’ll take the outside.”

Lan Wangji nods at him. He moves over to the water basin and washes his hands and his face before coming to sit on the corner of the bed, where he begins the process of removing his elaborate hair ornament.

Wei Wuxian watches him for a moment, feeling a little lightheaded, but then he gives himself a shake and goes to splash some water on his face. He resists the urge to dunk his whole head in the basin, and by the time Wei Wuxian is finished washing and removing the ribbon from his hair, Lan Wangji has already settled himself on the side of the bed nearest the wall.

Wei Wuxian sits gingerly on the side of the bed, looking anywhere but at Lan Wangji and chiding himself for feeling so nervous. What’s there to be nervous about? They are just two friends, sharing a bed for the night.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian hazards a glance at Lan Wangji’s face.

It’s a mistake.

Lan Wangji’s eyes are liquid gold in the remaining candlelight, warm and soft around the edges. He is studying Wei Wuxian with all the intensity of moments before, but there’s an openness to him now, something tender and exposed, like the soft underbelly of a cat. Wei Wuxian yearns to touch him, to curl into his warmth, to run his fingers through the ebony strands of his hair, so thick and inviting out of its topknot. He wonders what Lan Wangji might do if Wei Wuxian could just fall into him right now. He wonders what Lan Wangji’s breath might taste like.

But Wei Wuxian doesn’t fall. He only reaches out to snuff out the candle, plunging the room into blackness, Lan Wangji’s silhouette backlit against the window. Wei Wuxian lies down and turns his head away so that the moonlight won’t reveal him. He’s certain that his turmoil is written all over his face.

“Goodnight, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is low and smooth and perfect.

“Goodnight, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers.

He closes his eyes and prays for sleep, breathing deeply in an attempt to slow his racing heart, but it’s well into the early hours of the morning before exhaustion finally takes him.

 

---

 

He wakes to the sound of Lan Wangji’s qin, the soft notes vibrating quietly throughout the room. It’s not a melody he knows, but the sound is soothing, and as he blinks his eyes open in the morning sunlight, he feels more refreshed than he should be for having such a restless night. He’s ended up on the far side of the bed where Lan Wangji had laid last night, he’s tucked securely into the sheets, and his whole body is wrapped around a pillow. He turns over slowly to face into the room, dragging the pillow over with him.

“What time is it?” he rasps.

“Almost nine,” Lan Wangji replies. “There is breakfast when you are ready.”

“Why didn’t you wake me?” Wei Wuxian asks. “I thought we wanted to get an early start.”

“You did not sleep well,” Lan Wangji says. “You needed the extra rest.”

Wei Wuxian winces. “Was I awful? Did I kick you awake?”

“You did not,” Lan Wangji assures him. “Although you tossed and turned somewhat,” he adds.

“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, cringing at the thought of having kept Lan Wangji awake. He shifts the pillow still clenched tightly to his chest and freezes with a mortifying thought. Had he been clingy in his sleep? Had Lan Wangji shoved a pillow at him to keep him from—?

“We will have to make a trip into town for supplies,” Lan Wangji is saying, slicing through the fog of Wei Wuxian’s whirling panic. “We did not originally plan to be gone this long.”

“You mean I’ll have to make a trip into town,” Wei Wuxian corrects him, recovering himself and sitting up at last. “Unless you want to fend off more admirers at the market.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji frowns. “That.”

“I mean, you can still come if you want,” Wei Wuxian suggests. “I bet your pretty face could get us some free stuff. Courting gifts and all that,” he grins.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji admonishes him. “Be serious.”

“Okay, okay,” Wei Wuxian says, shifting off the bed to come and sit at the table where there is a plate of steaming baozi. “In all seriousness, you really should stay here. Just give me the money and I’ll figure it out.”

Lan Wangji reaches into his sleeve and withdraws his money pouch, offering it up to Wei Wuxian.

“What, all of it?” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “You’re just going to hand me all your money?”

“Of course,” Lan Wangji says as if it should have been obvious. “I trust you, Wei Ying.” His eyes are so earnest, his voice so soft, and Wei Wuxian has to look away, his stomach full of moths. 

“Don’t blame me if a couple of jars of Emperor’s Smile find their way into our supplies, then,” he tries to say lightly, but it comes out slightly high pitched. “I won’t be held responsible.”

“You may purchase whatever you like,” Lan Wangji gently insists, and Wei Wuxian’s moth-ridden stomach does a backflip.

Clearly, he must need to eat something.

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says before stuffing a bun in his mouth. He takes an enormous bite and chews thoughtfully. “How long is it to the market?”

“A little under an hour on the way down. Perhaps longer on the way back up.”

“I’ll make sure to hurry, then,” Wei Wuxian says around a mouthful of pork and cabbage.

“No more talking during meals,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian just grins at him while Lan Wangji resumes playing.

 

---

 

He makes sure not to tarry long in the quaint little market, stopping only long enough to buy the necessary supplies for their journey, but he does indeed pick up a few bottles of Emperor’s Smile, just in case. Wei Wuxian figures if he’s going to be stuck in the back mountains for three days in each direction, he might as well have something to keep himself warm.

Something, that is, aside from the temptation to crawl into Lan Wangji’s arms in the middle of the night.

Wei Wuxian flushes at the thought of the previous night, of the way he’d been unable to fall asleep for hours, listening to Lan Wangji’s deep, peaceful breaths while biting his lip and attempting to remain as still as possible. His thoughts had been too loud, his blood too hot, and when he’d finally fallen asleep, he’d woken Lan Wangji after all, judging by what Lan Wangji had said about him tossing and turning. He imagines himself wrapped around Lan Wangji like he’d been wrapped around the pillow in the morning, and Wei Wuxian experiences a sudden bout of vertigo, dizzy at the mental image and slightly sick to his stomach.

He picks up his pace for the last stretch of road, and as the inn comes into view over the crest of the hill, Wei Wuxian perceives a small crowd outside the entrance, buzzing and murmuring with excited, nervous energy. A sinking feeling settles in the pit of his stomach, and sure enough, when he gets to the door, the dining area is unusually crowded for this time of the morning, and most of the people gathered there aren’t actually eating. The innkeeper is frantically trying to herd them out, but they are deaf to his pleas, their attention fixed on the stairwell near the back of the room.

Lan Wangji stands on the bottom step, calmly attempting to quell the enthusiasm of the people gathered closest to him. It’s a circle of young men, several of whom look ready to drop to their knees and beg. Wei Wuxian feels a sudden spike of anxiety, and he pushes his way over to the foot of the stairwell with no small amount of impatience.

“Oh no,” he says firmly, shoving his way into the circle surrounding Lan Wangji and planting himself directly in front of him. “We are not doing this again.”

“Young Master Wei, please, let me finish,” says a youth with a smooth, rich voice. He steps into the circle in front of Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian immediately recognizes him as the young man from the valley town inn who’d purchased their dinner for them. Up close and in daylight, his bright eyes are wide and imploring, his sharp, square jaw set in determination. Wei Wuxian is struck by the errant thought that he is very good looking.

“Hanguang-Jun, I promise that once you allow me to say my piece, I will leave you be, if that is your wish.”

“We don’t want any more marriage proposals,” Wei Wuxian says testily.

“I am not here to propose marriage,” the youth says, voice sharp. “And I am not addressing you.”

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to retort, but behind him, Lan Wangji speaks.

“Wei Ying. Let him finish.”

Wei Wuxian turns around to protest, but Lan Wangji just shakes his head.

“It will do no harm,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian grumbles a little, but he steps to the side, allowing the youth a clear sight path to Lan Wangji.

“Hanguang-Jun. As I was saying, I, Teng Xin, have been cultivating on my own for the last ten years, with nothing but rogue cultivators and the principles of the Lan Sect to guide me. I know it is against my father’s wishes because he intends for me to take over the family business, but please allow me to present myself as a guest disciple of the Lan Sect.”

“If your father does not wish it, I would be hesitant to accept,” says Lan Wangji. “I would not want to encourage discord in your family.”

“There is already discord,” Teng Xin says sadly. “My mother supports me, but as their only son, my father is resolute. However,” he adds, eyes flashing, “I am equally resolved. I will be a cultivator. My younger sister is perfectly capable of running the business.”

Wei Wuxian eyes him curiously. “Aren’t you a little old to start now? Do you even have a core?”

“I do,” Teng Xin insists, eyes flashing once more. “And now that I’ve seen what good a cultivator can do to help people, I am more determined than ever. Hanguang-Jun. I wish to offer you my services.” He bows deeply. “Please accept me!”

“What services?” Wei Wuxian asks suspiciously.

Teng Xin ignores Wei Wuxian, still bowing deeply. “I wish to be your retainer. I wish to serve you in any way—in all ways—that I possibly can.”

Lan Wangji continues to watch him, something like admiration in his gaze, and suddenly, Wei Wuxian is flushed with a bitter, sickly rush of heat.

“I would be loyal. I would be true. I would serve you, and learn from you. I would trust you. I would trust you with my life,” he says with passion. “And I would hope that, in time, you would honour me enough to trust me, too. That one day, we might truly know each other.”

He raises his head to look up at Lan Wangji, eyes aflame. “That one day, you might know the melody of my heart.”

“Okay, that’s it!” Wei Wuxian bursts out, voice too loud and far too hysterical sounding to be his own. “We don’t need a retainer, we don’t have time to take on a disciple, and we don’t need any company on our very important quest, so thank you, no, we’ll be leaving now!”

And with that, he grabs Lan Wangji firmly by the wrist, yanking him down the last step and barrelling into the crowd, sweeping Chenqing out in front of them to clear a path to the door. Once they are out in the street, Wei Wuxian breaks into a run, hauling a protesting Lan Wangji behind him.

“Wei Ying!”

Wei Wuxian ignores him, making a beeline for the edge of the forest where the path forks off to lead north into the mountains. It’s several minutes before Lan Wangji digs his heels in and gives a twist to his wrist, reversing their grips so that he is grasping Wei Wuxian’s wrist instead. He hauls them to a stop and yanks Wei Wuxian around to face him.

“Wei Ying, stop running,” he says, voice irritated. “What has gotten into you?”

“What’s gotten into me?” Wei Wuxian asks, sounding incredulous. “What’s gotten into you? Letting that idiot embarrass himself in front of you like that!”

Lan Wangji blinks at him, taken aback. “He was not behaving like an idiot.”

“Oh, sure he wasn’t!” Wei Wuxian continues, incensed. “All that talk about loyalty, and trust, and knowing you, as if he has any idea! As if he has any clue!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, looking concerned. “Calm yourself. He meant no harm.”

“Of course he did!” Wei Wuxian almost yells. “He has ulterior motives! He just wants to be close to you! And what, were you just going to let him?” Wei Wuxian rails, eyes suddenly stinging. “While I’m standing right there? When I’m right here, right now? When I’m your— When you’re my—

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes. “Wei Ying, please…”

Wei Wuxian takes deep, steadying breaths, gasping in and out, staring at Lan Wangji’s stricken face, and something heavy seems to drop into the pit of his stomach like a stone breaking the surface of a lake. It sends quivering ripples up his spine and scratches at his throat. He stares at Lan Wangji as if for the first time, realisation dawning like a storm rolling into a valley.

“Fuck,” says Wei Wuxian. 

He’s in love with Lan Wangji.

“Oh, fuck,” he says again.

He’s in love with Lan Wangji, and he has been for ages. Before their reunion, before the Yao grass, even before he’d left Gusu. This feeling isn’t new. It’s been building for years, maybe even since his first life, that here is someone he wishes to know, deeply and truly in every way possible. Here is the one person that Wei Wuxian wants to see him. To know him. To want him.

Lan Wangji had eaten the Yao grass, and nothing had changed. Wei Wuxian is still the happiest when he’s with Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian wants to be with him, to touch him, to hold him, to laugh with him. To kiss him. To trust him with his life. Wei Wuxian wants to stay with Lan Wangji forever. He’s always wanted that.

Nothing has changed, because Wei Wuxian was already there.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian manages, voice quavering only a little. “Lan Zhan, I have to tell you something.”

Lan Wangji regards him seriously, still looking worried, and Wei Wuxian swallows, gathering all his courage, the knuckles of his right hand going white around Chenqing. But just as he’s about to speak, something in Lan Wangji’s face shifts, his eyes going wide with dreadful realisation, and he inhales sharply, the lines of his mouth creased with sorrow.

“Wei Ying,” he says, voice edged with panic. “Stop.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, distress creeping up on his heart. “No, Lan Zhan, you have to listen to me. I—”

“Do not say it,” Lan Wangji says.

“You don’t understand, Lan Zhan, please listen to me, it’s true and I have to tell you I—”

“No!” Lan Wangji cuts him off, his voice laced with anguish. “Do not speak those words to me!”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes are still stinging, and he’s starting to choke up.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji pleads, voice softer now. “I cannot bear it.”

“Why not?” Wei Wuxian cries. “Why can’t I say it?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head sadly. “Not now,” he says. “Not like this.”

“Not like what?” Wei Wuxian asks, hurt and desperate. “Lan Zhan... Lan Zhan I—”

“You are not yourself,” Lan Wangji says gently. “Wei Ying, this is not what you really want.”

“Of course it is!” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “I swear it is! Lan Zhan, I’m not affected, remember? The Yao grass doesn’t work on me! I’m the same as always, I know I am, and Lan Zhan I—”

“Wei Ying. Please.” Lan Wangji’s eyes are huge with sorrow. “I am begging you. Please don’t.”

Wei Wuxian is shattered. He hadn’t known his heart could hurt this much.

He doesn’t know how long they stand there, staring each other down, Lan Wangji sadly resolute and Wei Wuxian holding back tears. He reaches deep inside himself, willing himself to calm down, sewing up the vein in his bleeding heart and feeling a new determination take root at its centre.

“Fine,” Wei Wuxian gets out at last. “I won’t say anything right now. But I want you to know that you’re wrong, and I’m going to prove it to you. This conversation isn’t over.”

Lan Wangji sighs, his shoulders sagging ever so slightly as he closes his eyes and nods in acceptance. When he opens them again, they are soft and sad, and Wei Wuxian vows then and there to chase that sadness far, far away.

“When this is finished,” Wei Wuxian says, “when this is done, promise me you’ll hear me out.”

“I promise,” Lan Wangji whispers.

Wei Wuxian gives him a curt nod, then strides quickly up the path, leaving Lan Wangji to follow a few steps behind. It still hurts, this new space between them, but Wei Wuxian smothers his feelings and sets his sights on the task ahead. When this is all over, he knows what he wants.

And Wei Wuxian is going to get it.

 

---

 

They pass the rest of the day in silence, Wei Wuxian keeping up a rapid pace with Lan Wangji remaining just a half a step behind him. Wei Wuxian is conscious of Lan Wangji’s eyes on him, but he can’t be bothered to turn around, plodding forward with mulish determination. It’s not until they have to stop and set up camp for the night that Wei Wuxian allows himself a glance at Lan Wangji’s face. He’s drawn and pale, his expression carefully shuttered and neutral, and he looks more like a jade statue than ever in the flickering light of the campfire. 

Wei Wuxian hates it.

He kicks himself, not for the first time today, for losing control of his feelings. If he hadn’t been so worked up, if he hadn’t been so irrationally jealous of some boy at the bottom of a stairwell, then he could still be sitting pressed up against Lan Wangji, needling him for physical contact. He could have wheedled his way into lying on Lan Wangji’s lap. He could have gazed at the stars while he played with the ends of Lan Wangji’s hair.

But as it is now, here they sit, brooding on opposite sides of the fire. There might as well be a chasm between them. He can’t remember the last time Lan Wangji felt this far away. He doesn’t want to remember it.

Wei Wuxian sighs heavily.

“Lan Zhan. Say something.”

Lan Wangji looks up to meet his gaze, and there is that sadness again, lingering behind the flames reflected in his eyes.

“What would you have me say?” he asks quietly.

“Something. Anything. Just stop looking at me like that.”

Lan Wangji drops his gaze back to the fire. “I apologise,” he says.

Wei Wuxian screws his eyes shut against an oncoming headache. Or perhaps it’s just more tears. He’s too tired to know the difference.

“I’ll be back,” he mutters, climbing to his feet and turning into the forest.

Lan Wangji graciously does not follow him.

He walks as far as he can go without losing sight of the fire, stopping in a small clearing and collapsing with his back against a tree. His eyes are burning, but he refuses to cry. He’s more frustrated than anything. Or at least, that’s what he tells himself. His heart has been aching ever since their confrontation, love seeping past the stitches in the vein he’d sought to close.

What if Lan Wangji’s dread at Wei Wuxian’s attempted confession hadn’t been for fear of the Yao grass spell? What if Lan Wangji was simply disgusted by Wei Wuxian’s affections? What if the thought of Wei Wuxian being in love with him was repulsive to Lan Wangji? Had Wei Wuxian ruined the truest friendship he’d ever known over a momentary lapse in judgement?

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, driving back the nauseating insecurities that seek to pull him under. He cannot believe that. He won’t. Even if Lan Wangji does not return his feelings, he could never be that cruel. He would never forsake their friendship for something so trivial. Wei Wuxian has to believe that.

He makes his way back to the camp to find Lan Wangji already inside the tent, the door left open as if to invite Wei Wuxian in. But he can’t make himself go inside.

He sits by the fire until his eyelids start to droop. He pillows his head in his arms as he gazes into the flames, and he can almost imagine that things are still as they should be. He closes his eyes against the cold of night and dreams of falling, not into an abyss this time, but into a soft pair of arms, his body cradled with so much strength and care, and Wei Wuxian gives in to the pull of oblivion.

 

---

 

He wakes alone inside the tent, awareness coming back slowly. Groggily he sits up and blinks into the dimness, wondering how he got here. The last thing he remembers is falling asleep staring into the fire, and he feels himself flush at the obvious conclusion. He moves to the front of the tent and throws back the flap to be greeted with a cool mountain morning, chilly fog creeping along the dampened ground. 

Lan Wangji is meditating not far away. He has another small fire going, and Wei Wuxian comes to sit beside it, warming his hands over the flames.

“You didn’t have to move me last night,” Wei Wuxian says into the silence, trying to sound light, but it comes out a tiny bit petulant, and Wei Wuxian hates himself for it.

“It started to rain,” Lan Wangji says simply, his eyes still closed. 

“So?” Wei Wuxian says loftily. “I’m not made of sugar. I won’t melt.”

Lan Wangji opens his eyes and fixes him with a questioning stare. “You would rather have gotten soaked, then?”

Wei Wuxian deflates a little. “I guess not,” he admits. “Thank you,” he adds.

Lan Wangji continues to stare at him, and Wei Wuxian heaves out a sigh.

“This is stupid,” Wei Wuxian says. “I was stupid. And I just… I don’t want things to be stupid anymore. Lan Zhan, do you trust me?”

“Of course,” Lan Wangji says immediately. “I see you as I always do, Wei Ying.”

“Good,” Wei Wuxian says, throat suddenly tight. The thought that Lan Wangji might have pulled away due to revulsion—or worse, pity—had been bothering Wei Wuxian more than he wanted to admit. “I’m sorry for being a brat. I’ll behave myself today, I promise.”

“You are not a brat,” Lan Wangji says, and the fondness in his voice is unmistakable.

“If you say so,” Wei Wuxian grins at him. He can feel the tension that was lodged behind his heart uncoiling. “Remind yourself of that when I eat half your dinner and steal your blanket tonight.”

“I will keep it in mind,” Lan Wangji says.

 

---

 

It’s a much more arduous journey than yesterday, as the path disappears in favour of a steep cliff face, and Wei Wuxian feels like a mountain goat as he and Lan Wangji navigate their route up and over. Once they’ve made it to the top, they take a moment to refresh themselves at a small mountain spring, stripping down to their trousers and wading all the way in. It’s not quite as frigid as the cold springs, but it’s close, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t linger long before finding his way back to shore.

Despite trying not to stare, his eyes can’t help but linger on the lattice of scars stretched across Lan Wangji’s back. He knows that Lan Wangji does not blame him for them, but his stomach still clenches with guilt at the sight. He wonders if they ever still hurt.

Wei Wuxian stays true to his word, eating almost half of Lan Wangji’s share of the zongzi that night. It’s almost easy now, to laugh and tease the way he always does, but there is still the shadow of something sad and longing flickering deep within Lan Wangji’s eyes, and after a full jar of Emperor’s Smile, Wei Wuxian can’t help but feel a little bit maudlin by the time they turn in for the night. He closes his eyes and inhales the trace of sandalwood that somehow still lingers in Lan Wangji’s hair, and Wei Wuxian lets sleep claim him.

By the middle of the third day, they come within sight of the Bashe’s lair. The bones of various animals litter the ground outside the entrance to the cave, the occasional human skull visible amongst them. Wei Wuxian spares a moment to wonder how many of them had been sent here by Suyin before turning to address Lan Wangji.

“She said this thing is the largest of the serpents on the mountain,” Wei Wuxian says. “How big do you suppose that is?”

Lan Wangji gestures to the skull of a demon boar, larger even than the head of an elephant.

“If it hunts creatures of that size, I would suspect it to be quite large.”

“Do you suppose we could be up against something as big as the Xuanwu?” Wei Wuxian asks.

Lan Wangji nods, looking grim.

“Maybe we’d better rely on the chord assassination technique again? I’m assuming we’re going to have to behead this thing.”

Lan Wangji nods again. “I believe that would be wisest.”

“Think it’s in there right now?”

“Hard to say,” says Lan Wangji.

“Guess we’d better ask, then,” says Wei Wuxian, and he raises Chenqing to his lips.

Zhang Zhen materialises with the trembling flute notes, looking far more solid than he had the first time around.  A few more notes send him flying past the mouth of the cave, his grey silhouette disappearing into the darkness.

Wei Wuxian pauses in his song, feeling the air around him smoke and ripple. How many cultivators had recently lost their lives here attempting to do what they are about to attempt themselves? It’s a grim thought, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t let it bother him. He’s used to attempting the impossible, after all.

Lan Wangji has summoned his qin and prepared to play, and when Wei Wuxian eventually resumes his song, Zhang Zhen re-emerges from the depths of the cave and drifts over to hover in front of them. Wei Wuxian ceases to play, and Lan Wangji strikes up the first notes of inquiry.

“Is it in there?” Wei Wuxian asks after Zhang Zhen plucks out his answer.

“Yes,” replies Lan Wangji.

“How deep is the cave? How far back is the Bashe?”

“Approximately one li. He says the Bashe is at the bottom.”

“Bottom?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Does that mean the cave drops off into a pit?”

The stings of the qin vibrate with Zhang Zhen’s answer.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji confirms.

Wei Wuxian grimaces. “Think we’d better draw it out rather than go in after it?”

“Perhaps,” Lan Wangji says. “It may have more freedom to move and strike outside, but I do not relish the idea of fighting within its lair. Inside, I believe it would have the advantage.”

“Agreed,” Wei Wuxian concurs. “Where is the best place to lay our trap?”

“There,” Lan Wangji says, pointing to a large grove opposite the cave. “I’ll weave the web through the network of trees.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier just to use the mouth of the cave?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Snip its head off just as it emerges?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “The rock looks too brittle. I fear the strings may be easy to dislodge from there. The Bashe might tear them loose.”

“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian muses. “How shall we direct it? Want me to be live bait?”

Lan Wangji does not look pleased with that suggestion.

“You’re going to have to be lying in wait, ready to tighten the noose,” Wei Wuxian points out. “I can summon other distractions, but you may not like them.”

“Would I prefer them over having you try to outrun a Bashe?” Lan Wangji asks drily.

“Possibly?” Wei Wuxian hazards. “They might not even be that strong, but judging by the number of skulls I can see from here, this thing has eaten its fair share of humans. Their spirits can’t all be free of resentment. You must feel it, too. This place is crawling with Yin energy.”

Lan Wangji frowns. “It is,” he agrees. “But I would not have you do anything that might do you harm.”

“I’ll be fine,” Wei Wuxian reassures him. “They’ll be just like Zhang Zhen, and look how well behaved he is!”

“You don’t know that,” Lan Wangji sighs. “But I will allow it.”

Lan Wangji spends the next half hour weaving a complicated net of qin strings in between the largest and sturdiest of the trees. If they can lure the Bashe directly down the path they’ve created, Lan Wangji can collapse the net and garrotte the beast into pieces.

For his part, Wei Wuxian lines the inside of the cave with fire talismans. He goes as far back as he can before the ground starts to slope and drop away. He returns to the mouth of the cave, Zhang Zhen trailing after him. Wei Wuxian twirls Chenqing and speaks lightly to the ghost beside him.

“We’re almost there, friend,” Wei Wuxian says. “Soon we’ll have your body back. We’ll have you buried and resting in peace in no time.” The ghost regards him silently with those dark, fathomless eyes. “I’m sorry we can’t do more for you. But I promise that your brother will see justice.”

Zhang Zhen simply floats beside him, wavering in the fading light of day.

When the trap is set, Lan Wangji stands before Wei Wuxian and looks him in the eyes.

“Be careful,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian grins at him, feeling the adrenaline start to course through his veins.

“Same to you, Hanguang-Jun.”

He turns to Zhang Zhen as Lan Wangji mounts Bichen and soars away to his position in the treetops.

“Time to get to work,” Wei Wuxian says. “Let’s see if I can’t get you some backup.”

Raising Chenqing to his lips, Wei Wuxian sends out a series of sharp, piercing notes, and an eerie melody begins to take shape as black mist rises from the flute. The wind picks up, whistling through the maze of invisible qin stings just enough to stroke them softly, like the fingers of a phantom musician, and then, the phantoms themselves begin to coalesce.

There are half a dozen of them, hollow-eyed and wasted, thin and jagged like what remains of their skeletons littered all over the ground. They are low-level ghosts, but each of them seethes with just enough resentful energy to be useful. As the song weaves higher and sharper, their fingers and teeth begin to take shape, sharp and flinty, and Wei Wuxian marches the lot of them to the right side of the cave’s entrance before relocating himself to the high ground off to the left.

He glances up to see Lan Wangji perched atop the tallest tree, his white robes billowing, brilliant as the moon against the darkening sky. Chenqing falls from his lips, and Wei Wuxian takes a moment in the ensuing silence just to admire Lan Wangji, his heart clenching fondly. 

He takes a deep breath, and then, Wei Wuxian snaps his fingers.

The fire talismans explode into flames, heat and smoke unfurling in waves, racing down into the depths of the cave where the Bashe begins to stir, alerted to a threat outside its lair. Wei Wuxian can feel the earth tremble beneath his feet as the beast uncoils violently within the cave, and he raises Chenqing to his lips with bated breath before suddenly, the Bashe bursts forth with a roaring hiss, trailing smoke and tattered talismans in its wake. Its head is massive, its body as thick as Wei Wuxian is tall, and it moves like liquid lightning, striking and snapping at the air with its venomous fangs.

Chenqing trills high and shrill, and the ghosts fly into action, swooping at the Bashe’s head, flitting in and out of range of its fangs and striking along its body with their teeth and their nails. The Bashe thrashes, its giant head whipping around to clamp its jaws down on the misty body of a ghost, scattering it like ashes. The ghosts are no more effective than a swarm of mosquitoes, their needle teeth glancing off the thick scales of the Bashe’s back, but the monster is incensed, frenzied with the desire to rid itself of these pests, and Wei Wuxian begins to guide it toward the net in the trees.

It’s almost there when the wind shifts and the Bashe snaps its head around, having caught Wei Wuxian’s scent. Its enormous yellow eyes come to settle on him, the blackened pupils narrowing to slits. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to leap from his perch as the Bashe sweeps its tail in a vicious arc to come crashing down where Wei Wuxian had just been standing. Wei Wuxian ducks into a roll and comes up running, diving behind a rocky outcropping just in time to avoid being crushed by another strike of the tail. Without the control of Chenqing, the ghosts scatter, and Wei Wuxian sneaks a glance around the rock to see the Bashe slithering toward him, teeth bared and tongue lashing.

The notes of Vanquish pierce the air, sending a vicious strike across the Bashe’s nose as it surges toward Wei Wuxian, and the beast recoils, whipping its head around to find the source of the attack. Lan Wangji hovers high above the trees atop Bichen, the black surface of his qin glinting in the last light of the evening. The Bashe lets out an angry hiss, its noxious breath billowing out in a poison cloud, and Lan Wangji strikes again, lancing the beast’s left eye with a blast of high-pitched chords.

The Bashe writhes, a hissing shriek escaping its throat, and it lashes its body around to face Lan Wangji where he has descended to hover at the mouth of the trap. Wei Wuxian gasps as the beast coils, ready to strike, and it explodes forward, quick and deadly as a lightning bolt.

“Lan Zhan!”

But Lan Wangji is already on the move, flying directly through the centre of the net, avoiding the deadly strings with impossible grace, the Bashe in hot pursuit. It’s like threading a needle, and as soon as Lan Wangji is through to the other side, he yanks with all his strength, using Bichen’s momentum to sweep upward again, collapsing and tightening the network of strings like a razor-edged noose around the Bashe’s winding body, narrowly avoiding its snapping fangs as its head makes it through the other side.

The Bashe writhes, twisting and jerking within the net as the strings constrict and begin to cut into the thick armour of its scales, lacerating its paler, softer underbelly. Wei Wuxian is sprinting along the length of its body, racing toward where Lan Wangji has leaped off of Bichen and is straining with the effort of tightening the noose. It’s almost there, the strings beginning to slice into the beast’s neck, but Lan Wangji is beginning to be dragged forward again, the soft earth giving way where he’s braced his feet.

They just need one more pull, one more spurt of momentum, and as Wei Wuxian approaches, he calls to Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan!” he yells. “Whatever you do, don’t let go!”

Wei Wuxian sees the understanding dawn in Lan Wangji’s eyes, sees the way he sets his jaw, and Wei Wuxian sprints that last small stretch before he takes a flying leap, hurtling into Lan Wangji’s body with all the force he can muster. His arms go round Lan Wangji’s torso, tackling him backward as Lan Wangji holds tight to the end of the strings, and that final jerk forward, aided by the weight of their bodies as they fall to the ground, is just enough, and the strings snap together through the flesh of the Bashe’s neck. There is a resounding crash as the rest of its body lashes around in its death throes, splintering the surrounding trees before coming to rest, twitching its final spasms on the ground.

Wei Wuxian lies sprawled atop Lan Wangji, having knocked the breath out of them both. It’s several moments before he raises his head from Lan Wangji’s chest, pushing himself up on his forearms to look at Lan Wangji’s face. His eyes are closed, and he’s breathing deeply, the rise and fall of his chest a steady and controlled thing.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian croaks out, every inch of his body feeling bruised. “Lan Zhan, are you okay?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji breathes out, and his eyes flicker open to stare up at Wei Wuxian, tired and warm and relieved. “And you?”

“Never better,” Wei Wuxian grins, but he winces as he shifts his weight to try and move off of Lan Wangji, his back twinging a little at the motion.

Lan Wangji’s arms tighten around Wei Wuxian’s waist, and Wei Wuxian goes still.

“You are certain you’re not hurt?” Lan Wangji asks, concern lacing his voice.

“I’m sure,” Wei Wuxian assures him quietly, caught in Lan Wangji’s searching stare. This close, Wei Wuxian can count the flecks of gold in Lan Wangji’s eyes. “And I should be asking you that. You took the worst of the fall.”

“I am fine,” Lan Wangji says. “I was merely winded for a moment.”

“Sorry about that,” Wei Wuxian says, tone apologetic. “Desperate times, and all that.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says quietly, the hint of a smile playing on his lips.

Lan Wangji relaxes his arms, and Wei Wuxian pushes off and gets to his feet, offering Lan Wangji a hand up. Lan Wangji accepts, and Wei Wuxian pulls him upright.

“Lan Zhan, your hands are bleeding,” Wei Wuxian frowns, turning Lan Wangji’s palm up to reveal the gash that cuts across it. The sun has set, and the blood glistens in the moonlight.

“It is not deep,” Lan Wangji assures him. “It will heal quickly.”

Wei Wuxian gives his hand a small squeeze before releasing him. “Will it hurt to wield Bichen?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head.

“Good,” Wei Wuxian says, picking up the sword where it’s fallen on the ground and handing it back to Lan Wangji. “Shall we?”

“Mn.”

They make their way to the remains of the Bashe, walking past the giant head where it’s lying with its jaws agape. The body of the beast has luckily ended up on its side, the slightly softer skin of its belly exposed.

“Well that’s handy,” Wei Wuxian quips, then he steps back to let Lan Wangji work.

Lan Wangji takes a moment to imbue the sword with a burst of spiritual energy, and then he sends it flying toward the body of the beast with a powerful throw. The ice-blue blade slices deep into the underbelly, the spiritual energy burning through the armoured flesh as Bichen travels the length of the Bashe’s body. Noxious smelling innards spill out onto the forest floor, and Wei Wuxian nearly gags, waving uselessly at the stench and trying not to be sick.

“Gross,” Wei Wuxian chokes out. “I swear, if we have to wade through all this detritus—”

But he cuts himself off as his attention is caught by a slight luminescence halfway along the length of the Bashe’s body. It glows softly in the dark, gentle and diffused, and when the wind whistles through the trees to let a moonbeam pierce the grove, the glowing intensifies, sparkling like the moon’s reflection off the surface of a rippling lake.

They make their way silently to the source of the light, and there lies the body of Zhang Zhen, shrouded from head to toe in the celestial robe. Tentatively, Wei Wuxian pulls back the edge of the shimmering cloth. It’s just as Suyin said: Zhang Zhen is perfectly preserved, right down to what was clearly his death-wound, a strike to the back of his head.

“Hello, dear friend,” Wei Wuxian says gently. “Sorry to keep you waiting, but please be patient just a little bit longer. You’ll be home soon.”

They remove the robe and store both it and Zhang Zhen in separate qiankun pouches. They make their way out of the grove to where the sky is open and clear, the moonlight illuminating the sharp white edges of the scattered bones in front of the cave mouth. It’s far enough away from the Bashe that the stench has faded, and Wei Wuxian turns his face skyward, inhaling a deep mouthful of the fresh mountain air. He’s still running a bit high from the adrenaline, but the temperature is dropping, and Wei Wuxian is beginning to feel it, exhaustion creeping up on him.

“What do you say, Lan Zhan? Are you ready to fall over? Should we make our camp here, inside the lair of our vanquished demon foe?”

He turns to find Lan Wangji staring at him fondly, his eyes aglow with moonlight. His pristine white robes have been marred by mud and dirt, his hands are still bloody, and there are wet leaves clinging to the folds in his sleeves. But his face is resplendent, and his long ebony hair billows out around him in the wind.

He has never looked more beautiful, and Wei Wuxian has never loved him more.

Wei Wuxian reaches out and takes a hold of Lan Wangji’s sleeve, giving him a little tug. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s go start a fire.”

They tuck themselves in against the side of the cave, just far enough inside to shelter them from any possible rain. Wei Wuxian leans back gratefully against the rock, shoulder to shoulder with Lan Wangji, basking in the heat of the fire.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says into the crackling flames, “I’d say that’s one for the history books.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, and Wei Wuxian can feel Lan Wangji’s body relaxing beside him.

“Seriously, this one’s going to be an extra fun story to tell,” Wei Wuxian says, feeling warm and soft and satisfied.

“Oh?” Lan Wangji asks.

“Absolutely,” Wei Wuxian insists. “You wove such an intricate net, and then you lured it in yourself after the first ruse didn’t work. You were totally magnificent.”

“Technically,” Lan Wangji says, the hint of a smile in his voice, “you struck the killing blow.”

“I know!” Wei Wuxian crows, eyes sparkling with mirth. “Just think of it, Lan Zhan. I’m the only cultivator in history ever to kill a Bashe with a tackle hug.”

“Indeed,” says Lan Wangji, and this time, the smile is unmistakable.

 

---

 

The trip back to the inn goes much quicker than their journey into the mountains, partly because it’s all downhill, and partly because Wei Wuxian keeps up a rapid, enthusiastic pace. At times, he is nearly skipping down the mountain path, giddy with eager impatience. They stop only once on the final day at another mountain spring to wash off the remnants of their battle with the Bashe and to change out of their ruined clothes. Thus refreshed, they head back into town, coming out at the bottom of the path just as the evening crowd is starting to settle in at the inn. 

Good, Wei Wuxian thinks. Looks like they’ll have an appreciative audience.

“Come on, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chirps. “Let’s go get you that antidote.”

The crowd at the inn is thick with Lan Wangji’s admirers, but Wei Wuxian pays them no mind as they stride through the door amidst the hushed voices and the dreamy, lovesick sighs. Suyin looks up at the ripple of excitement that passes through the crowd, and her face is desperately hopeful at the sight of them. She immediately drops what she’s doing and weaves her way toward them, eyes wide and searching and hungry.

“You’re back,” she gets out, anticipation quickening her breath. “Is it finished? Is it dead?”

“It is indeed,” Wei Wuxian confirms, voice light and cheerful. “And we have what you want. Do you have what we need?”

“Yes!” she cries, her voice piercing through the din of the dining room. “Yes, of course, yes! Just show me that you have him!”

“What’s going on?” the innkeeper asks, appearing behind Suyin with a cross, anxious look on his face. “Why are you yelling? Be silent, woman!”

Suyin rounds on him, her face livid. “I will not!” she screams. “Never again will I be silent for you! Murderer! Fiend! I despise you!”

The room has gone silent in the face of Suyin’s outburst, shocked gasps and nervous tittering the only noise left. The innkeeper looks wildly between her and Wei Wuxian, his beady eyes wide with fright.

“How dare you!” he shrieks, “What kind of nonsense—“

“This kind of nonsense,” Wei Wuxian interjects, brandishing the qiankun pouch in front of him. “Do you know what this is?”

“H-how should I know?” the innkeeper stutters, shrinking back from Wei Wuxian’s penetrating stare.

“How indeed,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “For a qiankun pouch can contain pretty much anything. But I’ll give you a hint. He’s been missing for five years.”

The innkeeper pales like sour milk.

“Care to tell the crowd how he died?” Wei Wuxian asks, eyes dark and voice cutting. “Or shall I bring him out so they can all see the hole in the back of his head?”

“Enze, what is he talking about?” the old man with the thin beard tentatively asks.

“Zhang Zhen!” Suyin cries. “It’s Zhang Zhen! He didn’t go missing! Enze killed him and threw away his body in the back mountains! I’ve been powerless to prove it until now, but they’ve retrieved his body. You can’t deny it now, you despicable piece of trash. You murderer! Murderer!

“H-how… How can you… S-Suyin, h-how dare you—”

“You have no power over me now!” she spits at him. “And I’ll see you dead for this!”

“No! No, you don’t understand!” the innkeeper wails. “It was an accident! An accident, I swear!”

“Liar!” Suyin hisses. “You greedy, evil lech!”

“I never meant to kill him! I didn’t want him to leave! The both of you, planning to leave me here! He slipped, I swear, I never—”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian pipes up. “Remind me again. What’s the punishment for desecrating or throwing away a corpse?”

“He who mangles, destroys, or casts away a corpse shall be punished with 100 blows of the long stick and be transported for life to a country three thousand miles distant,” recites Lan Wangji.

“Tsk,” Wei Wuxian says, voice like a razor blade. “And which of the five punishments applies to those who would kill their own brother?”

Lan Wangji levels an icy stare at Zhang Enze.

“Death,” he says. “By slow cutting.”

What little colour is left in the innkeeper’s face drains away like water through a sieve, and his eyes grow wide with panic. He whips his head from side to side as the echoes of horror and disbelief ricochet across the room, and his body starts to coil like a spring, quavering with his rising distress.

Suddenly, viciously, the innkeeper shoves Suyin to the side and makes a dash out the door, but he doesn’t get very far before Wei Wuxian shoots the binding talisman out after him. There is a cry and a thud as the talisman finds its target, snapping taut, and Wei Wuxian casually makes his way outside with Lan Wangji trailing after him.

Zhang Enze lies sprawled on the ground not ten feet from the door.  He’s fallen backward and knocked himself unconscious in his foolish attempt to flee. Wei Wuxian comes to stand over him, and Lan Wangji briskly checks his vitals.

“I take it he’ll be waking up to stand trial?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“Mn,” confirms Lan Wangji, rising and turning to an astonished looking man at the front of the crowd that has emerged from the inn to watch the spectacle. “Go fetch the magistrate,” Lan Wangji instructs him, and he takes off in a sprint.

“Gentlemen,” Wei Wuxian addresses another group of men currently gawking from their seats on the patio. “Would you be so kind as to keep an eye on our friend Zhang Enze while the authorities are on their way?”

Suyin emerges from the crowd, most of whom are still twittering in shock and awe. “You can keep him in the first room on the left,” she says, offering one of the men a key.

As they carry the innkeeper away, Suyin turns to face Wei Wuxian, eyes still hungry. She extends her hands, palms upward, and she is only shaking a little.

“Please,” she says, her voice pitched just a touch too high. “Please give him back to me.”

Wei Wuxian obliges, handing her the qiankun pouch containing Zhang Zhen. Suyin cradles it gently to her chest, a single tear making its way down her softly curving cheek.

“And the robe?” she whispers.

Wei Wuxian draws it from the second qiankun bag with a flourish, its billowing white folds unfurling in the evening breeze, reflecting fire from the beginning of the sunset. The crowd gasps at the sight, awed and enchanted, and Suyin steps forward with her hand outstretched, her face alight with longing.

But Wei Wuxian takes a step back, withholding the robe from her.

“The antidote,” Wei Wuxian insists. “Give it to him, first.”

Suyin nods and retracts her hand, reaching into a pocket in her apron, instead. She draws out a vial containing a greenish-yellow liquid and presents it to Lan Wangji.

“What’s that?” says a familiar voice, and Wei Wuxian turns to find Teng Xin at the front of the crowd, eyeing the vial warily. Behind him, Wei Wuxian recognises several people from the valley town, including the Yans and the Head Elder’s granddaughter. Idly, he wonders just how many of the townspeople have made their way to the inn in search of Lan Wangji.

“Drink it all,” Suyin instructs Lan Wangji. “I promise you, I’ve kept my word, as you have kept yours.”

“Hanguang-Jun?” probes Teng Xin, sounding concerned. “What’s going on?”

There are murmurs of agreement rippling through the crowd. Lan Wangji’s admirers are beginning to get restless, and Wei Wuxian is itching to see them disperse before anyone can start proposing marriage again.

Lan Wangji accepts the vial, no doubt conscious of the same impending thing, and Wei Wuxian holds his breath as Lan Wangji unstoppers it and downs the contents in one fluid motion. Wei Wuxian watches Lan Wangji’s throat work as he swallows, and he feels his pulse quicken in giddy anticipation.

A moment passes.

Then another.

“Well?” Wei Wuxian prompts.

Lan Wangji watches him for a moment before turning warily to face the crowd. They seem to stare back at him, stunned, as if seeing him for the very first time. Several of them are suddenly wide-eyed and blushing, self-conscious and uneasy.

“Does anyone here,” Wei Wuxian bellows, pointing at Lan Wangji, “want to marry his Excellency?”

There’s an awkward amount of shuffling and an unnatural hush that’s settled over the crowd.

“Anyone?” Wei Wuxian calls. “Anyone at all?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, sounding pained.

Wei Wuxian ignores him.

“You!” he says, pointing directly at Teng Xin. “How about you? Still want to be a private retainer and give your life to Hanguang-Jun?”

“I—“ Teng Xin stammers, flushing scarlet. “I mean, I— I want to be a cultivator, but that… that—”

Suddenly, a bit flushed, Teng Xin drops into a deep bow. “Hanguang-Jun, this humble servant begs your forgiveness! Please excuse my earlier impertinence! I… I don’t know what came over me!”

Wei Wuxian watches as Lan Wangji’s shoulders relax just a fraction.

“And you,” Wei Wuxian turns to face Yan Mengmeng. “Still want to throw yourself at Hanguang-Jun’s feet and beg him to marry you?”

The girl gapes at him, eyes wide with embarrassment, flicking back and forth between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. “Oh my… Did I… Did I really..?” She seems to choke a little. “Did I really do that?” she squeaks.

“I won’t mention it again if you won’t,” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully, and Yan Mengmeng buries her face in her hands with a mortified wail.

Beside her, the Head Elder’s granddaughter is white as a sheet. Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows at her in question, but she rapidly shakes her head, covering her mouth and shrinking backward, too shy and embarrassed to utter any words at all.

“You see?” says Suyin. “It is just as I promised you. Now,” she says, her eyes pleading. “Give me my robe.”

Wei Wuxian strides over to stand in front of her, the robe in his hands glowing gold in the light of the setting sun. She fixes him with her imperious stare, and Wei Wuxian returns her gaze, steady and resolved.

“He’s been cured, then,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Yes,” replies Suyin.

“The Yao grass effects have been completely neutralized,” Wei Wuxian states. He lets his gaze drift to Lan Wangji, who is watching him intently.

“Yes,” confirms Suyin.

“There’s absolutely nothing left of the spell,” Wei Wuxian presses. He locks eyes with Lan Wangji and holds fast.

“Nothing whatsoever,” Suyin insists, beginning to sound impatient.

“Then,” Wei Wuxian says, his pulse quickening, “whatever happens now, happens freely.”

“Yes, of course, yes!” Suyin declares.

“Good,” Wei Wuxian says, and he drops the robe into her outstretched hands, his eyes still locked with Lan Wangji’s.  

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji breathes.

Wei Wuxian steels himself, his heart in his throat, and then he takes three long, quick strides and hurls himself at Lan Wangji.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji gasps, catching Wei Wuxian around the waist as Wei Wuxian’s arms go flying around his neck, and Wei Wuxian holds on tight, clinging to Lan Wangji like a barnacle. His blood is roaring in his ears, and his heart feels ready to explode in his chest, but he’s committed now, and Wei Wuxian is done waiting for this.

Distantly, Wei Wuxian registers the murmur of the crowd, the astonished twittering of a captive audience, and he pushes them away, solely focused on the man in his arms. Let them gawk, he thinks. Let them stare.

“Lan Zhan,” he gets out, voice thick with emotion. “Lan Zhan, I like you. I like you so fucking much.”

He pulls back just far enough so he can see Lan Wangji’s face. Lan Wangji’s eyes are wide with shock, that old, lonely sorrow coiling within their depths, and Wei Wuxian remembers his vow to chase it away.

“Wei Ying, you—“

“You promised me,” Wei Wuxian insists. “You promised to hear me out. I finally get to say it. I’m in love with you,” he says, voice softening. “It’s just me, Lan Zhan. No spell, no grass, just me. And I love you,” he whispers.

Lan Wangji looks absolutely shattered, disbelief warring with hope across his face. “Wei Ying,” he chokes out. “How can you—How is this—” His hands are trembling where he holds Wei Wuxian around his waist. “Can you really—?”

Wei Wuxian laughs then, light and wistful, bringing his hands up to cradle Lan Wangji’s face.

“You absolute idiot,” Wei Wuxian croons. “You stupid, noble fool. Did you really think I couldn’t love you without some ridiculous spell? Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan. How could I not love you? It’s always been you.”

“Wei Ying…” it sounds like a plea.

“So please,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “Please let me love you.”

Lan Wangji lets out a ragged breath, and then he surges forward, crushing their lips together in a rough, messy kiss, and Wei Wuxian kisses back, all the desperate tension of the last few days falling away, burning up in this new, exhilarating heat. He pushes up against Lan Wangji’s body, tangling his hands in Lan Wangji’s hair and opening his mouth in invitation. Lan Wangji deepens the kiss, his arms tightening around Wei Wuxian’s waist, crushing them together, impossibly close.

It’s not close enough, it’ll never be close enough, and Wei Wuxian keens into Lan Wangji’s mouth, shivering at the way Lan Wangji slides his hand up Wei Wuxian’s back to grip at his neck and angle his head so that Lan Wangji has better access to Wei Wuxian’s mouth. Lan Wangji kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him until Wei Wuxian forgets how to breathe.

It’s agony to finally pull apart, and Wei Wuxian’s eyes flutter open as he pants into Lan Wangji’s still open mouth. He presses their foreheads together and wills his heartbeat to slow down where it’s thundering against his ribcage. He’s burning up at every point of contact. He can feel Lan Wangji’s hands on his hips, burning through the fabric of his clothes. He imagines what those hands would feel like on his bare skin, and Wei Wuxian has to steady himself, suddenly weak at the knees.  

“Lan Zhan,” he rasps out, voice ruined. “Lan Zhan.” It’s all he can manage.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji answers, low and rough. “Forgive me,” he says.

“What for?” Wei Wuxian asks, stroking his thumb across Lan Wangji’s cheek.

“For doubting you,” Lan Wangji replies.

Wei Wuxian just laughs, sounding a little rueful. “It’s fine,” he says. “My timing was terrible. I would have doubted me, too.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says fondly, and the softness is back in his eyes, that liquid warmth that makes Wei Wuxian feel seen and safe and cherished.

“I understand why you’d need to be sure,” Wei Wuxian continues. “I mean, you did just have an entire town try to marry you. I really should have been more conscious of that. I just—I really love you, and I just realised, and I really needed to tell you!”

Lan Wangji lets out a short puff of air in lieu of a laugh. “Indeed,” he says. “But I will never doubt you again, Wei Ying.”

“Never?” Wei Wuxian asks, tone light and teasing. “Does that mean you’ll believe everything I say from now on, no matter how outrageous?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “I trust you. You are the one who knows me, Wei Ying. The only one.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, feeling himself choking up. “You can’t just say things like that. You’re going to give me a heart attack.”

Lan Wangji thumbs at the wetness gathering at the corner of Wei Wuxian’s eye, and Wei Wuxian feels his heart swell, aching sweetly for this beautiful, impossible man.

The crowd shifts and shimmers, brimming with awkward approval, the murmurs heating up until someone starts clapping, and soon there is a cacophonous clamour, a whistling uproar, and Wei Wuxian feels himself grinning, overwhelmed by the devotion that’s taken root at the very heart of him.

“Kiss me again,” Wei Wuxian demands.

And Lan Wangji does, lips hot and insistent, and Wei Wuxian melts into the contact as the sun drops below the horizon, the newborn nightfall cradling them both, and it’s sweet, and it’s hot, and it’s dizzying. It’s altogether perfect, and it’s everything that Wei Wuxian has ever wanted.

 

---

 

Zhang Zhen’s burial is a small affair. Suyin selects a small, auspicious clearing near the edge of a cool mountain spring, and together, they lay Zhang Zhen to rest amongst the towering trees.

“This is where we first met,” she tells them, her liquid eyes gone misty. “He can finally rest now. My Zhang Zhen.”

“What will you do?” Wei Wuxian wants to know. “Will you go home now?”

“Not right away,” Suyin replies. “I will stand as a witness at Zhang Enze’s trial, and I will sell the inn before I leave. It’s a prosperous enough establishment, well situated as it is. Someone can make something of it after I am gone.”

“I hope you find a kind and eager buyer, then,” Wei Wuxian says, warm and sincere.

“There is some interest from a pair of women in the valley town,” Suyin explains. “A mother and a daughter.”

“The Yans?” Wei Wuxian grins. “I love an ambitious and audacious set of women, don’t you, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji gives Wei Wuxian an amused look, but he does not reply.

“And what of you?” Suyin asks. “Where will you go?”

“The Chief Cultivator has been away from the Cloud Recesses for far too long, neglecting his duties in favour of slaying a mighty Bashe,” Wei Wuxian winks. “It’s time for him to go home.”

Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji, a sweet smile stretched across his face.

“And I will go where he goes,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “For as long as he will put up with me.”

Lan Wangji regards him softly, his eyes infinitely warm and loving.

“Then I bid you farewell, and a safe journey,” Suyin says, and she bows deeply to them both. “Thank you for the service you have rendered me. I will not soon forget it.”

“Likewise,” says Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian stifles a laugh at the wry amusement in his voice.

“If our paths ever do cross again, I hope it’s under happy circumstances,” Wei Wuxian says, offering a bow of his own. “Be well, Suyin.”

Suyin inclines her head once more. “Farewell, Master Wei. Hanguang-Jun.”

And with that, she resumes her contemplative vigil by the grave, and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji head back towards the inn, leaving her and the clearing behind them.

 

---

 

“What do you think, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks, walking leisurely along the path, leaves crunching underfoot. “Are your advisors going to yell at you for being away for so long?”

“No,” Lan Wangji replies smoothly. “Yelling is unlikely. But they may whine a little.”

“That’s much worse, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian scrunches his nose up in distaste. “I hate whining.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, voice soft and face serene.

Wei Wuxian spins around and darts ahead, walking backward in front of Lan Wangji.

“Want to make them really mad?” Wei Wuxian asks slyly.

“Oh?” Lan Wangji replies, eyebrows raised ever so slightly.

“Let’s take the long way back,” Wei Wuxian enthuses. “I saw another trail on the map. Much less travelled. It winds northwest before looping back toward the Cloud Recesses. I’ll bet it’s really pretty in the fall. What do you say, Lan Zhan? Care for an adventurous side trip?”

The faintest traces of a smile seem to dance around Lan Wangji’s lips. “You are very fond of the road less travelled, aren’t you?”

“It’s kind of my thing,” Wei Wuxian grins. “And let’s just say I’m enjoying the opportunity to have you all to myself,” Wei Wuxian winks. “You’re going to be swamped when you get back to the Cloud Recesses. I might never see you at that point!”

“I will make time,” Lan Wangji says, his voice suddenly serious. “I want to spend time with you, Wei Ying.”

“Good!” Wei Wuxian says. “So do I. But Lan Zhan, let’s do this. Let’s take that detour. I’m not ready to go back and settle down just yet.”

Lan Wangji’s gaze remains soft, but something mournful flickers across his eyes. “You are still hungry for the open road, then?”

“With you by my side? Absolutely!” Wei Wuxian declares, but he stops walking, and Lan Wangji stops as well.

Wei Wuxian takes that last step forward, closing the distance between them and wrapping his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck, humming approvingly when he feels Lan Wangji’s hands come to settle on his hips. He leans in and brushes their lips together, just the whisper of a kiss, before drawing back enough to rest their foreheads together.

“Lan Zhan,” he croons. “My Lan Zhan. Do you know how much I missed you this past year? How much I wanted to see you? Can’t you see that I came back to you? That I came back for you?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji whispers, voice rough like sandpaper.

“I want to be with you,” Wei Wuxian says. “I want to stay with you. Wherever you are, that’s the only place I ever want to be.”

“Come home with me, then,” Lan Wangji says. “Wei Ying. You will always have a home with me.”

Wei Wuxian swallows past the sudden lump in his throat, his eyes welling up.

“I’d like that,” he manages to get out. “I’d like that a lot.”

Lan Wangji raises his hands to cup Wei Wuxian’s face, thumbs stroking across his cheeks.

“We can still take the long way,” Lan Wangji murmurs. “If you’d like.”

Wei Wuxian laughs as his eyes spill over.

“Yes please,” he says. “Kiss me, Lan Zhan.”

And Lan Wangji kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him.

 

Fin