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maybe you'll take the long way home

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Love is a good look on Wei Wuxian. He arrives at this natural conclusion three hours into dragging Lil Apple into deep, overgrown forest, dark with resentful energy. It has been two months since he woke up camped somewhere to the north of the river that divides Gusu and Lanling and realized every day he spent apart from Lan Zhan felt like torture.

And Wei Wuxian is intimately familiar with torture.

One hand patting Lil Apple’s rump with the barest hint of force and the other swinging at his side, he thinks back to the day he had received his life’s calling: courting the Chief Cultivator, pride of the cultivation world. Him. Yiling Patriarch. Symbol of demonic cultivation. Dark where Hanguang-jun is light, evil where Lan Wangji is righteous, and flamboyant where Lan Zhan is reserved.

Dawn broke that day at precisely the moment he sat up from his bedroll, and the morning oranges and reds had greeted the birth of his inner crisis. I cannot bear to be separated from Lan Zhan for another moment, he had realized with startingly clarity, gazing at the clear-skied sunrise, thinking the unbearable thought that he would have to live through another sunrise without Lan Zhan.

In typical Wei Wuxian fashion, however, he had packed up immediately and rode in the opposite direction of Gusu.

Two months after working his way up from the gentle south, he now rides through the lower edges of Qinghe, summer-swollen riverbank guiding his path. Wei Wuxian is an expert at doing that which feels like walking toward death – both now deeper into this tangle of humid vine and mist, and these past months farther from the Cloud Recesses.

It’s unnatural, the way he suffers for the sake of what he believes is right, a twisted, perverted version of Lan discipline. Much in the same way Lan disciples find strength in regulation, he relishes in the willpower it takes not to ride straight back to Gusu and declare to Lan Qiren his intention to court Lan Zhan. Maybe give him a qi deviation or two.

Why do you always need to be the hero?!

But there is nothing heroic about this. There is nothing heroic about love, just the simple nature of it. How it sits, curdling some days and expanding warm on others, right between his heart and ribs. Like the mercurial weather of the northern provinces of Gusu, it is at once a wonderful thing to behold and yet always a storm to be feared. Wei Wuxian is in love with love. It fascinates him.

But here he has gone and fallen in love with the most respected and adored person in the cultivation world. It is so easy to love Lan Zhan, he knows, but so hard to be in love with him. The only thing worse than the longing is the knowledge that he will never be enough, not even if he spends the rest of his life being nothing but righteous.

Good thing Wei Wuxian doesn’t give up when he’s made up his mind. Two months ago, nearly a year since he and Lan Zhan had parted ways officially, he had seen the sun rise and decided he would give himself three years to prove himself a man worthy of courting Lan Zhan. In three years, Wei Wuxian hopes his name will precede him as he makes his way back to Gusu, this time the malicious rumors threaded through with equal light. He thumbs Chenqing with his free hand; he still can only walk the single-plank road of darkness, but he would like to prove that he can do it with grace.

He will not see Lan Zhan before then.

Love looks good on Wei Wuxian, and this is why he ties Lil Apple loosely to a tree with plenty of apples where the darkness of the forest will not harm it, and steps bravely into the mist. The humming woodland is, after all, the rumored location of the legendary creature of evil, Bixi of the Flame. A cruel and corrupt version of the divine protector of luck Bixi, a dragon with a turtle’s shell. In his youth, a group of disciples had nearly died against Xuanwu of Slaughter – Wei Wuxian is alone this time, but he figures his twenty extra years of experience will probably make up for it. Even if he doesn’t remember anything from his years of being dead.

The universe wouldn’t be so cruel as to kill me twice, right? After all, the universe did allow him to come back, ignoring that cosmic justice probably bends only to the will of Nie Huaisang. But he’s in Qinghe territory anyway, and Sect Leader Nie could definitely orchestrate another revival.

“Heavens above, where are you…” he mutters as he steps over gnarled roots and ducks under thorny undergrowth that threatens to swallow him whole. With a turtle’s shell but a dragon’s body, Bixi is sure to reside somewhere near water but far enough away that there is no risk of the water dousing its inner fire. By following the river and rumors heard from villagers in the region, Wei Wuxian has finally made his way deep into the patch of forest bordering the water. His Compass of Evil fails to work on maliciousness of this magnitude, and resentful energy swallows the forest and muddies his perception.

Most likely the work of a flood. He is probably walking on a trail of bodies. That’s a good sign for him – once he finds the den, he’ll be able to wake up an army of fierce corpses to do his bidding. Finally, after ten boring minutes of being lost, he rests against a tree and lets out a resigned breath of air. The easiest way to do this would be to use Chenqing or otherwise draw on the resentful energy around him. At this point, he knows his own limits, knows how to stop before his vision starts to blur and his heart grows corrupt, but he had been hoping to save most of his energy for defeating Bixi. He could probably camp out and wait to recover, but there is no one here to play Clarity for him, and it’s equally important to save his food stores for when he could be trapped in Bixi’s den.

He trudges around the area for another hour, digging his boot into the ground to look for secret entrances and scanning the land for any areas that lead upward, potentially to a hillside cave. It’s a sunny summer morning, but the mist is making visibility a challenge, and sometimes he even has to activate a light talisman when the tangle of vegetation and towering trees block out the sky.

Finally, Wei Wuxian hits upon a copse of trees where the resentful energy swirls the strongest, and under all that energy, there pulses a bone-chilling sense of corruption. Like something gone irreversibly wrong. He can still hear the rushing of water from where he is, so this must be the place where the legendary creature of evil resides. He lifts his robes out of the way and sits on the ground, using a bastardized version of the meditation form he’d learned those brief months in Gusu.

Once he blocks out the mist and the errant sounds of the forest, it becomes much easier to focus on the core of the dark energy and how it pulses at the base of an ancient tree a hundred meters to the northwest. To better focus on the source, he lets his eyes stay closed as he walks toward what he now knows is the entrance to an underground cave hiding beneath the arching roots of the tree.

With one sharp, reedy note on Chenqing, he pulls a corpse out of the ground and has it rip apart the roots so Wei Wuxian can better access the rather large hole waiting within. It grumbles and roars a bit at the thin stream of sunlight that’s made it through the canopy but does its task willingly before collapsing back into the earth. Opening his eyes, Wei Wuxian notes how the resentment grows stronger and almost overpowering. Although this creature lives in Qinghe, even the Nie cultivators refuse to disturb it. The nearby villagers report it every year because the darkness breeds more darkness in other, lower-level monsters that terrorize nearby towns. Even so, the Nie sect has not dared to launch an assault on the Bixi. Wei Wuxian might be the first to even find its den.

And he is alone. Tugging his robes up once again, he slides into the hole with ease. Unlike the drop into the Xuanwu’s cave, this one is an easy slide down a loose dirt tunnel. At the bottom, he takes stock. The resentment is ever thicker, but Wei Wuxian has met darker, has been darker. Hanging at his waist he has Chenqing, and in a qiankun pouch, he stores enough dried food to last a week provided he eats extremely sparingly. In another pouch, he has an immense stock of talisman papers. Wet ink would be inadvisable, so his only plan is to use his own blood to write. Because he can no longer go without sustenance for long periods of time, thanks to the lack of a golden core, he also brings a waterskin on his belt.

Despite being alone, he isn’t truly alone. It takes little effort to notice the corpses buried above his head and on his sides. They’ll be hard to control, but doubtlessly powerful. The best situation he could have asked for.

Carefully, he ventures down the tunnel toward where the feeling of wrongness resides. It’s a different malevolence from the Burial Mounds, less living, shifting energy and more a heavy, corrupted mass. Every step makes gravity just a bit heavier, drag a little harder on his limbs. In just three minutes, his boots have begun squelching lightly in growing patches of mud. The light talisman he has activated flickers and dims, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t mind. It’s better if the light doesn’t draw attention, anyway. If the monster is used to living in the dark, the light could enrage it easily.

Finally, he makes it to the largest cavern, hidden in the back. It’s so vast that he can’t see the end of it, darkness swallowing the far wall. His light talisman is all but extinguished, providing him the barest amount of visibility. However, his eyes have slowly begun to adjust at the same rate that the light dies, so he can still see the roots twisted through the dirt walls to his left and right.

Twenty years ago, he might have felt somewhat claustrophobic. After being stuck in a cave without food or drink for a week, after being tossed in the Burial Mounds and all but smothered by resentment, the underground no longer truly scares him. (Other things do: nightmares. His fading memories.)

Suddenly, the energy around him changes and twists, lashing through the air like Zidian as a pair of golden eyes suddenly blink open from across the cavern.

Okay. No problem. Light work.

“Come here, kitty,” he mutters as his fingers grasp at another light talisman so he can place the creature properly. The light flares for a brief moment then sputters to nothing again.

So. Vision will not be a thing during this fight, apparently. That’s okay, it really is. Wei Wuxian is a real expert in being blindfolded and still performing his best. The problem is, there are so many people buried here he can barely sense Bixi.

Damn, I wasn’t planning on using this much from the get-go. Rambling to himself usually helps, but he’s realized that Bixi may have sharp ears. He hasn't read up on Bixi (Lan Zhan is usually in charge of that), so he knows very little about the creature’s hearing besides rumors from the villagers.

Fortunately, his hearing is good enough that he can hear the creature’s tail thudding methodically against the ground as the golden eyes get closer to him. It’s still a good 300 meters away at least, so Wei Wuxian pulls out his talisman papers and aggressively bites his thumb. Writing without being able to see is a challenge, but it’s not like his handwriting has to be good, just in the right spot. Besides, the basic light talisman is easy – he just needs to alter a few core components. Make it brighter. Make it last longer. Have a sticking property. Using blood is stronger than cinnabar anyway, so the ones he’s making are naturally more powerful than the standard.

He figures if the creature has lived in the dark its whole life, a few (read: many) well-timed flashbangs may blind it long enough for him to attack. Also, he’ll be able to see for a few seconds and gauge the size of the cavern and the shape of the monster.

With a flick of his fingers, he sends the talismans to the walls, although he can’t tell if the farthest ones have truly landed right. The monster can definitely see him, although why it’s not attacking is beyond him. He readies himself, then flicks one final talisman right in between the two golden eyes approaching unblinkingly.

That gets Bixi to react, letting out a roar of unimaginable magnitude. Wei Wuxian doesn’t have time to cover his ears before a gout of flame erupts from that very roar and races toward him. There is so much fire that it near engulfs the entire cavern, leaving no room to run. Thinking quickly is his specialty, however, and he immediately raises five fierce corpses and slaps protective talismans on each one, letting them fan out in a shield around him. The fire passes harmlessly, but the corpses crumble into ash. Fuck. If Bixi can produce fire endlessly, he’ll spend the entire time on the defensive.

And the fire had been so hot that the centers of the flames burned white, illuminating the cave walls just enough so that Wei Wuxian could see his talismans stuck to them. Unfortunately, the size of the flame didn’t afford him a glance of Bixi itself. If Bixi could handle the brightness of the flame, maybe his flashbang idea wouldn’t be enough.

Either way, there is still a talisman hanging by a thread in between Bixi’s eyes – he feels his own blood powering it. Raising Chenqing to his lips, he activates every talisman at once, flooding the cavern with explosions of pure light. The one in between its eyes in particular shines the brightest, and the extra strength worked into the lines of blood keeps every talisman from flickering out instantly.

There’s more roaring coming from where Wei Wuxian can now see Bixi thrashing in the middle of the cave, still some 200 meters away. A steady tune from Chenqing pulls fierce corpses out of the walls all around them as they move with inhuman strength toward Bixi by Wei Wuxian’s command. Now that he can see the monster, he pays attention to its features.

The golden eyes are squeezed shut for now, and its wicked black head is tossing back and forth, baring teeth sharper than any sword and a forked tongue swirling with dark smoke. It looks straight out of a nightmare, spine and limbs littered with pointed spikes that shine grotesquely in the light. The tail, at least, looks relatively normal, blood-red tufts of hair hanging limply from the end. The abnormal part of this whole monster is the gargantuan turtle shell, as expected, protecting its soft belly and otherwise exposed back. It looks impenetrable, much as Xuanwu’s shell was, only this time, Wei Wuxian doesn’t have Lan Zhan’s help to kill it. Bixi runs maybe twenty meters from head to tip of the tail, shell covering half of that.

The eyes are starting to squint and inch open, meaning that Bixi is likely adjusting already. The fierce corpses have reached it, and attack viciously. Wei Wuxian plays the most pointed notes he knows, pushing at the resentful energy and redirecting it all onto the tough body of the monster.

There must be at least twenty corpses piled on it, trying to rip their way into the shell, but Bixi, in a life or death situation, is now ignoring the light talismans and easily dismembers corpses with its teeth and claws. Besides, the corpses don’t like the light either. Only his song is keeping them together.

Gritting his teeth and playing Chenqing one-handed as well as he can, he draws another talisman, this one a binding one. It sticks to Bixi for a minute, allowing the corpses to break off several of its spikes. Still, because of the nature of the spikes and limited mobility of his army, more are being impaled than are succeeding in doing any harm. For every corpse that drops, Wei Wuxian calls another, but he knows this can’t go on forever. The light talismans are fading, and his vision doesn’t adjust as fast.

However, as the light is siphoned away, Bixi’s eyes open. Wei Wuxian moves fast. He throws his strongest binding talisman at Bixi’s mouth, focusing all of its power on keeping the jaws shut. The fire is most threatening, and he can’t allow it to attack the way it did before. The talisman manifests in binding ropes, shining blue with energy. Still playing Chenqing, he closes his eyes briefly to open himself to the overwhelming resentment. The feeling makes him feel blurry like he can’t remember if he’s here or back at the Burial Mounds, thousands of corpses under his command. Blowing with even more purpose, hundreds of corpses flood the cavern, Wei Wuxian in control of them all.

It’s tough but doable. Bixi is snorting and trying to throw them off, but its eyes are open, and that’s what Wei Wuxian is aiming for. The binding ropes are barely, barely holding on, but it’s enough for his army to render the monster blind in both eyes, blood running in rivulets down its horrid face. The pain and fear stink up the air, however, and its rage is enough for it to rip right through the ropes. Immediately, it spits flame in every direction. Without sight, its only choice is to attack seemingly endlessly.

Wei Wuxian barely has time to throw up more protection talismans before the flames hit him, but his army of corpses is getting decimated before he even has a chance to call them back. “I’m going to bite through my thumb at this point,” he says, trying to tamp down a sense of dread that tells him he’s running out of corpses and talisman paper, and he might run out before Bixi runs out of flame. “I shouldn’t have provoked it, but I mean, provoking things and people I shouldn’t is practically my life motto.” His laugh rings rather empty.

The only strategic choice is to somehow attack before he runs out of defense. The problem is, Bixi has retreated all but its head into its shell while continuing to breathe fire. Offense of a dragon but defense of a turtle? Criminally unfair.

Luckily, Bixi has not yet thought to attack the air. Some of the flames reach the height of the cavern, but with a cleverly invented sticking talisman he makes up on the spot, he crawls up the walls and reaches a relatively protected ledge just as the last of his corpses falls. Well. Controlling them all definitely took a toll on him, and they’re burned to ashes. He’s running out of his best resource. Lan Zhan will have to play Clarity for him at least two weeks straight before the darkness evaporates from his soul. Already, his eyes are starting to puff up and the heat of the fire did manage to scorch him, leaving red welts that range from just irritable to I should probably get treated for this. The constant eruption of flame is giving off so much smoke that his eyes water and his nose wrinkles from the odor of charred flesh. Sweat drips from every pore on his body.

The fire washes the entire cavern in an eerie glow of white and orange, casting strange shapes on the wall. Bixi doesn’t look like it’s tiring yet. “Can’t you mourn your sight without going berserk?” Wei Wuxian mutters to himself as he pours a thin stream of precious water on the more serious burns, rather annoyed. He knows Bixi is getting increasingly riled up as it senses him but can’t figure out where to aim to kill him.

From a higher vantage point, Wei Wuxian immediately picks out Bixi’s blind spot despite the hazy smoke filling the cavern. He might die from smoke inhalation first – focusing on breathing is the only thing keeping him from panic-inhaling a fuckton of smoke. Well, technically, everything is a blind spot for Bixi, but Wei Wuxian crawls his way from ledge to ledge for fifteen sweaty, harrowing minutes until he gets to a spot on the wall behind Bixi. Obviously, the shell is too large for it to spit fire beyond the two-hundred degrees its head can turn before hitting the shell. Here, the air quality is much better.

It’s just his luck that Wei Wuxian has fought something with a turtle’s shell before and knows that the shell protects what it does for a reason. You keep walls up if you’re easily hurt, he thinks, coming to the sad conclusion that he has more in common with a turtle than he wants. No, actually, you evolve walls to protect yourself if you’ve been hurt in the past. Rolling his eyes at his own self-analysis, he readies himself to jump down and dive into the back end of the shell, where the tail meets it.

It’ll be reckless, but reckless is one, Wei Wuxian’s style, and two, the only way to beat this thing. Besides, it can’t hurt him without hurting itself if he’s in there. Since Bixi is a dragon with a shell, its slim body will leave room where a regular turtle might not have space.

With a breath of thankfully clean air, he hops down to the ground, where it’s cooler. Hot air rises. Bixi is still roaring and doesn’t hear him coming as he braces himself and, avoiding the spikes, grips the back edge of the shell with a hand and slides onto the front of the tail. Immediately, the tail begins whipping and bucking, but he holds on, sliding forward until he can stick his head into the mouth of the shell. It smells fucking vile – not the human corpse soup of the Xuanwu but a rotting gamey smell of dead animals and burning flesh.

He slaps his last binding talisman to Bixi’s back as he crawls into the shell, binding himself to the creature so that it can’t shake him off. He figures if he gets thrown off into the rock-hard shell, he’d probably lose consciousness and die in here. The flames have subsided now that Bixi knows he’s in here, but it continues to make mad attempts to dislodge him, enough that Wei Wuxian is straining to keep the binding talisman from breaking. It’s a blessing, however, that Bixi is no longer drawing on its weary inner fire because the inside of the shell is like a toaster. The bare skin on his palms is hissing and steaming just from coming into contact with the scales, and it hurts like all hell.

“I should’ve brought a fucking sword,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, sliding so he’s bound to the side instead and can reach the soft underbelly. That makes Bixi go mad, but the talisman holds. “I could just stab the thing and be done, but no…I had to renounce the way of the sword and now all I have is a dizi.”

For a moment, he slips into a wishful daydream where Lan Zhan is here too, wielding Bichen, that godawfully heavy sword, and his guqin. His guqin playing is ridiculously sexy. The flames earlier were dangerous, though, and so were the sharp claws and teeth and spikes. He was lucky to have a corpse shield, but any group of disciples or cultivators who walk the righteous path could have been turned to smithereens instantly. I’m doing this so Lan Zhan doesn’t have to. Because I’m the only one who can do this. Because doing this will make me worthy of Lan Zhan.

Taking stock, he realizes that while Chenqing definitely isn’t sharp or long enough to be used as a weapon, his dizi will be the key to slaying the monster. Without the confusing resentment of the hundreds of corpses buried underground, here, pressed to the heart of the monster, he can clearly sense the source of the evil. It will be possible to manipulate it and destroy it from within with its own darkness, but he needs to be somewhat recovered for it unless he wants to end up destroying his soul along with it. I might get destroyed by the ensuing mess anyway.

Good news: he can probably kill it. Bad news: he’s going to have to stay bound to this thing for at least another two days before he’s well enough to do so. Also, he might die in the process. Nothing sounds more unappealing at the moment than being stuck to a monster with binding ropes for two days, smelling like dead game and at constant risk of being thrown off if the bind doesn’t hold.

Not only can he forget about sleeping, but he’s worried about Bixi retreating into the shell like a turtle does. The legs can retract, but he’s hoping the long, coiling part of the dragon’s anatomy prevents it from pulling its head in and just burning Wei Wuxian to a crisp. Of course, that would be essentially killing itself, but it’s undoubtedly crazy enough to at least try. He takes a sip of water and makes sure his uncorked waterskin doesn’t touch any of the gunk. If his water becomes infected, it’s all over.

Without his golden core, not sleeping and staying vigilant will be a Herculean task, but Wei Wuxian isn’t a legend that strikes fear into the heart of all children under the age of ten for nothing. Besides, Lan Zhan mourned said evil legend for thirteen years without fail; Wei Wuxian thinks he can last a couple of days thrashing around on the back of a real monster.

Now that he has nothing to do but carefully eat his dried food and focus on the binding talisman (and try valiantly not to inhale too deeply for the smell), his thoughts naturally return to Lan Zhan, good and wonderful and beautiful Lan Zhan. The truth is Wei Wuxian has always been somewhat of a flirt because he’s never comprehended what real love feels like. It’s the same way he has always wanted to wander because he’s never known what a real home means.

Lan Zhan feels like both of those at once, and for once, Wei Wuxian wants to keep the warmth of his feelings cupped inside of his atriums and breathe it for as long as he can. Even the love feels like coming home. The pulse of a hearth. Three years would be an unbearable time to wait if this was a passing fancy.

Three years feels good and solid when he gets to carry around this piece of Lan Zhan with him – yes, the memories, but also the knowledge of what it feels like to love him and know him. There are not many cultivators who share that honor, maybe just Lan Xichen and Lan Sizhui at best.

And Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly afraid of rejection, because Lan Zhan is so righteous that if he truly does not return his feelings, he will decline with no hesitation whether now or three years from now. Wei Wuxian just wants to make this a little easier for Lan Zhan, so that if Lan Zhan does love him back, he can accept with more pride and less pain. In the cultivation world, just love is never enough. History tells this story time and time again: his love did not save shijie, it has not brought Jiang Cheng back to him, it was not enough for Madame Yu.

So he really isn’t peacocking for Lan Zhan, not really trying to defeat Bixi for the glory or the fame. The little Jiang Cheng voice in his head is snarling something about his heroics and inability to let things lie without thoughtless self-sacrifice, but this isn’t his attempt to save anyone or show off. The recklessness of his youth has faded a little, and now he just wants to do this because it’s realistic.

He’s not good enough for Lan Zhan without this. Fuck, he’s not even good enough for Lan Zhan with this.

“Aiyah, how much money am I going to have to spend on courting gifts?” Maybe I can get Nie Huaisang to open his coffers up after I slay this beast? Bixi slams a claw against the ground as if hearing his thoughts, but more likely just reacting to his voice.

He stuffs another piece of dried jerky in his mouth as he considers courting gifts. Passing the time by shouting his gift suggestions out loud and hearing his own voice echo around the shell, he makes up a neat system. If Bixi’s body ripples after his idea, that’s a yes. If it dances wildly, almost throwing him off, that’s a hard no. If it dashes its shell against the rock wall furiously in an attempt to dislodge him but ultimately just ends up stunning itself, that’s a maybe-but-only-if-he’s-poor-and-can’t-afford-anything-else.

So far, Bixi wants him to buy a silver hair ornament, a calligraphy scroll done by a master, and will maybe accept a free back massage coupon if he can’t squeeze out the appropriate money for the other items. “Come on,” Wei Wuxian whispers, patting the flank of the beast much in the same way he pats Lil Apple. “This humble cultivator needs you to help him out. Now would be a really convenient time to die so I can go nag Nie Huaisang about a monetary reward.” Bixi’s only response is to smash its shell angrily into the ground, rocking side to side.

The first night passes like this, Wei Wuxian just on this side of delirious by the time day breaks, although he can’t really tell what time it is in the pitch black of the shell and surrounding cave. His adrenaline had worn off by the sixth hour, and his body aches from being bound to a moving, living creature. With Wei Wuxian hanging on for dear life, Bixi had not slept for even a moment.

As much as his mind has cleared from his manipulation of resentful energy previously, his body has also deteriorated from the stress of being awake from so long and maintaining the talisman. If only he had a golden core, this would be nothing! But if I had a golden core, I may not have gotten this far. Then he quickly realizes: If I had a golden core, I wouldn’t even need to kill this godforsaken monster. Lan Zhan would be mine already. Maybe. If Lan Zhan likes him back. Or even loves?

Take the fucking hint, Lan Zhan! I called you my soulmate like four thousand times to your face, and you still think I’d be content with being platonic buddies who hang out on the front deck of the Jingshi and go nighthunting for fun sometimes? To be fair, Wei Wuxian hadn’t discovered the depth of his feelings until two months ago but being hypocritical miles away from civilization and strapped to the back of a legendary creature of evil isn’t hurting anyone.

For a moment, he ponders the thought of Lan Zhan already knowing about Wei Wuxian’s feelings somehow and just choosing to ignore it to spare him the pain but figures it would be pretty stupid for someone as inexperienced as Hanguang-jun to have figured matters of heart out first. Or, well, maybe not inexperienced. It’s not like they’ve spent time going over every affair that happened in the thirteen-year window of Wei Wuxian’s death.

Hmm. Or now. He’s pretty sure Lan Zhan hasn’t been with anyone since he came back to life, which means anything during those thirteen years couldn’t have been serious. But now that he’s wandering the countryside, risking it all in the name of love, Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, esteemed Chief Cultivator, could technically be having anyone he wants.

For all the cultivators that sneer at cutsleeves and call them disgusting, Wei Wuxian knows half of them would drop their robes instantly if Lan Zhan were even to raise one interested eyebrow. The question is: does Lan Zhan even like men? Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he himself likes both men and women but unfortunately spent most of his formative years being spat on by his foster mom and then dying so he’s had precious little time to truly think about it.

“It would be really funny,” he says aloud, words muffled from where his face is pressed into Bixi’s scorching hot back, “if I did all this, came back, and Lan Zhan isn’t even a cutsleeve.”

He probably is, based on the hidden erotic cutsleeve art Wei Wuxian found hidden in the Jingshi the last he was there. But he knows a lot of highbrow cultivators who’ll buy cutsleeve books and artwork for personal pleasure but denounce love between two men in public. Lan Zhan would never do that but owning artwork really isn’t enough basis for a full-fledged conclusion.

Wei Wuxian is still figuring out if he’s attracted to men the same way he likes women, but what he does know is that he is so attracted to Lan Zhan it makes him struggle to breathe sometimes. When he sees those long fingers stretched out over the guqin or combing through sleek black hair, he thinks about how they might look splayed across the jut of his hipbones. He falls asleep to dreams of squeezing the meat of Lan Zhan’s thick, corded thighs so hard that his fingers leave white marks behind. And with his mouth, he wants to do all sorts of crazy things – swipe his tongue under the flutter of Lan Zhan’s eyelashes, bite the juncture of neck and shoulder, and suck marks into the sensitive skin of the inner thighs until they bloom with color.

He wonders if Lan Zhan wants to do all those things with him too, and shivers. The binding ropes shudder for a moment before Wei Wuxian pulls his attention back and holds them taut. Another half day of this torture, and he will make his stand; longer and he will fall from lack of sleep, shorter and his heart will be corrupted. He hums Clarity to himself as he waits, but the powerless notes do nothing.

Waiting for the hours to pass is like watching clouds: they float by like they have nowhere to be but blink and somehow the sky has completely shifted. Like this Wei Wuxian keeps careful stock of the resentment diminishing in his body and how Bixi grows stiller and stiller with each minute as it too tires.

The dark thing in Bixi pulses like a heartbeat although it is not alive, and he lets his eyes fall closed so he can pattern his own heart after it. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Finally, after an eternity, he positions himself carefully where he is bound, stomach flat on the monster’s back, and lifts Chenqing. The choke of the ropes against his waist doesn’t allow him to take a full breath, but he’s played in much worse conditions, during much worse times.

The first notes come easy. The rest of the song does not go gentle.

To be exact, the song lasts thirteen hours, starting as single vector notes and ending as an intricate melody of his own composition. The first two hours, Wei Wuxian is still aware of the roughness of his own clothes chafing him, the dig of his qiankun pouches into his hip, and tightness of the ropes. After the two-hour mark, he loses sense of the world outside of his music and the malevolent energy.

He walks a single plank road. Not the same one he has always walked, but one of his own making. On the left is endless corruption, the chilling tangle of dark energy that he bends to his will, pushing against the physical prison of Bixi’s body. On the right is his own lightless soul, not dark and not light, but simply empty. If he falls, he will be devoured. The death will not be painless.

He puts one foot in front of the other, fingers blistered and raw from playing Chenqing with no rest. His jaw aches. He thinks of afternoons in the Jingshi, Lan Zhan writing correspondence with his impeccable hand while Wei Wuxian scribbles notes on new inventions. Warm summer evenings with the rabbits, soft pink noses twitching with shy delight and curiosity. Kind and dependable Sizhui, pulled running down the Cloud Recesses hallways by Lan Jingyi on their way to greet him after a successful nighthunt. Things he refuses to lose.

Four hours later, he emerges out of the darkness to the awareness that his body is on fire. Bixi, in a state of pain as its energy is wrenched around to attack its physical form, overloads its inner fire and spits flame furiously, once again suffocating the inside of the shell in terrible heat. Wei Wuxian grits his teeth and continues playing, even as his lips crack and his exposed skin erupts scarlet and begins to peel.

The energy isn’t yielding yet, tangle too thick for Wei Wuxian to locate the center. His notes dig through the strands and knots of corruption, but the core eludes him. Two more hours and he isn’t sure he knows what he’s playing, only that it is a song.

The binding talisman snaps then, and he falls from the body into the shallow pile of animal corpses in various states of decay. Still he plays, dizi melody loud and clear.

Wei Wuxian does what he does best: he holds on. He sacrifices and gives and lets go of his control of the resentment stirring inside him, but he doesn’t sacrifice, give up, let go of the fight.

By the time he untangles the last of the knots and takes control of the last incandescent pearl of evil in the beast, he is barely conscious, only muscle memory leading him forward on the sliver of road he is afforded.

Hold on, says shijie’s voice from beside him.

Hold tight, says Jiang Cheng’s voice from beside him. 

Hold fast, says Lan Zhan’s voice from behind him.

Ah, you really shouldn’t be here, Wei Wuxian manages to think before Bixi screams, a horrible, wretched noise, and its corporeal form shatters along with its dark energy, tendrils of it slithering into Wei Wuxian’s still opened mouth. He’s thrown, and he feels himself airborne for a moment, every inch of skin throbbing in pain, before the same emptiness from before consumes him and the rock wall meets his head.

He thinks he wakes up once, still in the cave, eyes opening a fraction to the darkness. There is not a living thing besides him here, completely underground with not even a sliver of light. For this reason, he cannot tell if this is still nightmare or just living.

The next time he wakes, things are much different. For one, his body isn’t splayed against a rocky cave wall, but rather cocooned by the softest bed he’s slept in since he left Gusu. His eyes are fluttering open, crusted over with sleep. They track to the ceiling, then to some of the room decorations in his periphery. Ah. He’s in the humble home of Sect Leader Nie, somewhere in the heart of the Unclean Realm.

This is probably a much better fate than being dead. What had he said before? If anyone, Nie Huaisang could probably pull off the impossible and revive him again. Well, he’s proven his point.

Not all too different from that brief flashpoint of consciousness in the cave, he still can’t move, and he still feels like one wrong note from Chenqing will take him right back to the way he was a week before his first death, delirious and mad with resentment. It’s a miracle he can even think this clearly now. His whole body aches, especially his head, which is absolutely pounding with pain despite what he knows is some Nie healer’s best effort at passing him useless spiritual energy and probably injecting bitter herbal medicine straight into his bloodstream.

Perhaps not much time has passed since the cave, then.

There is a sharp rap at the door, and then it slides open with no further warning. Wei Wuxian sees the fan first and wants to roll his eyes. He is unable to. That fan reminds him every time that while Nie Huaisang is one of his best buds, his xiongdi, Wei Wuxian is right to only trust him as far as he can throw him. Which, right now, is not far at all. Maybe harsh words for a man who saved his life.

“Wei Wuxian, you’re alive!”

Wei Wuxian wants to say something along the lines of all thanks to you, I’m sure, but can’t muster the energy to open his mouth. Also, his throat is dry as all hell.

“I’m sure you’re wondering how you came to be here. If you could move, you might even be wanting to kneel on the floor and thank me for saving you.”

As if!

“After I tell the story, however, I’m sure you will be inclined to go out to the stable and kneel in front of that stubborn donkey of yours.”

“Lil Apple?” Wei Wuxian manages to croak finally, so shocked that he forces his tongue to work despite the swollenness.

“Ah, that’s the name!” Nie Huaisang looks positively gleeful, but he always does. He sits on the chair by Wei Wuxian’s bed and flutters the fan a few times. “Caused such a ruckus when it ran into town, braying and snorting. Lucky a Nie sect cultivator visiting recognized it as the donkey of the esteemed Yiling Patriarch and brought it to the Unclean Realm, knowing we are the closest of friends.”

Wei Wuxian tries to protest, but all that comes out is a half-cracked moan. Esteemed is a kind word. But it had been fortunate that the Unclean Realm itself is so close to the border of Lanling and the river.

“Yes, yes. That donkey must be very loyal to you. It wouldn’t stop stamping the ground until I sent a small group of disciples to investigate, and then, it hurried us along the whole way from here to the cave where we found you.”

It’s funny, but apparently Wei Wuxian has an uncanny ability to inspire love and protection from people and animals that he presumes hate him. (Read: Jiang Cheng. Or teenaged Lan Zhan.)

“You are fortunate the evidence from the fierce corpse you used to rip open the tree roots was glaring, otherwise we never would have known where to investigate. Those disciples found you practically dead, lying there for who knows how long in the remnants of some evil creature and its guts.”

“Bixi,” he manages to say, then adds, “you’re…always bringing me back…from the dead…hm?”

“Yes, and I’m tired of it!” Nie Huaisang whines. “You don’t know how that Lan Wangji would just kill me if I let you die in my territory?” He does look a little surprised at the mention of Bixi, however.

Wei Wuxian feels his heart jump just a little at the mention of his Lan Zhan.

“Ah, actually, we should invite him to play Clarity for you. You will take weeks or months to recover without it, but if his Excellency plays the guqin for you at his level of cultivation, you’ll be out of here by the time your physical injuries heal.” Nie Huaisang makes to leave as if to send the letter immediately. Wei Wuxian panics.

“No!” he yells, wincing right after as his throat feels like it’s bleeding. Being stuck in the Unclean Realm for months is so unappealing but having Lan Zhan see him in this state would be worse. “Don’t…call Lan Zhan. …Busy. Call Zewu-jun.”

“I don’t know, Wei-xiong. Hanguang-jun would drop, and probably wants to drop, all of his duties to play Clarity for you. Besides, our lovely first Jade is still in seclusion.”

“Too far north…ask Third Disciple.”

Nie Huaisang fixes him with an altogether too knowing look. “Tsk. Ah, Wei-xiong, what will I do with you? What will I do with me when Lan Wangji murders me in cold blood for inviting some third young master of the Lan sect to attend to you? You will speak a moving eulogy at my funeral, I’m sure.”

“I’ll resurrect you,” Wei Wuxian attempts to joke. His voice is gravel, and the effect falls flat.

“If you so wish.” He stands and moves toward the door, long sleeves draped over his hands elegantly. “I’ll have someone send a letter as soon as I can, requesting for Third Disciple Lan. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about how you slew Bixi of the Flame. The Nie Sect will thoroughly compensate you for your time. And near death.”

Looks like he’ll be able to afford the nice courting gifts after all. He’s in such a good mood his face doesn’t even flush when Nie Huaisang shoots him a knowing, nosy look.

“I don’t know what’s going on, really, but I will say that the Unclean Realm is lovely in the spring.” Then he turns and leaves, door sliding shut gently.

Pfft. As if I’d want a springtime wedding in Qinghe when Gusu and Yunmeng exist.

Third Disciple Lan, whose name Wei Wuxian’s brain refuses to remember, is a lovely young man. Like all other direct members of the Lan family, he’s dressed in impeccable whites and pale blues, forehead ribbon perfectly straight across a smooth forehead. Even his hair is silky and black as anything Wei Wuxian has ever seen, draping unhurriedly down a broad back.

Wei Wuxian has been fully conscious for nearly a week by now, regaining his physical strength. Much to the doctor’s chagrin, his voice recovered first, and he’s been chattering nonstop since then, both meaningless rambles and sly attempts to avoid taking medicine. And avoid explaining why his injuries aren’t healing as fast as they should (if word even gets near Nie Huaisang that he’s missing a golden core, he’s sure Jiang Cheng would be in this room by the next morning). Well. He can blame it on taking the twisted path of demonic cultivation.

Third Disciple Lan is kneeling now with his guzheng, preparing to play Cleansing, the most difficult part of the Song of Clarity. Of course, the man plays beautifully, elegantly, but it is nothing compared to the notes of Lan Zhan’s guqin. Still, Wei Wuxian can feel some of the resentful energy lift from his spirit, dissipating almost gratefully.

Cleansing is truly arduous magic that requires not only strong cultivation but also unerring artistry. After an hour of playing, Third Disciple Lan (or is it Third Young Master, respectfully?) packs up his guzheng and stands to bow.

“Thank you very much, Young Master Lan,” he says from the bed. He doesn’t truly know his age but figures he can get away with pretending the man is younger. Yiling Patriarch notoriety and all that. His ass is going numb from laying on his back all day, so he sits up slowly and does his best rendition of a proper bow.

“It is of no consequence, Master Wei,” Third Disciple says. “I will return to play until you are fully recovered.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. The cultivation world is technically in peacetime, but still, doesn’t the third disciple of one of the Five Great Sects have better things to do with his time?

Seeing the question written all over his face, Third Disciple quirks his lips into the semblance of a smile and says, “It is ordered by His Excellency, Hanguang-Jun.” He steps forward and pulls a letter out of his sleeve.

It is a letter from Lan Zhan.

The letter occupies all of Wei Wuxian’s attention, so he barely notices when Third Disciple says something to excuse himself and exits, leaving him all alone in the room.

“Calligraphy neat as ever, hm, Lan Zhan? You just don’t know when to quit being perfect. This all would be easier if you had just one flaw, like a giant wart on the index finger of your left hand or something. Hahaha, that would be so funny, wouldn’t it? It might just become my favorite part of you then.” Ah, maybe the Wen brand – still don’t know the story behind that but it can’t be good.

He unrolls the letter and begins to read carefully, fingers skimming every character to pay each one due respect.

Wei Ying,

I received word from Sect Leader Nie that you are currently bedridden with injury. He assured me that you are recovering well. I am glad.

I must ask Wei Ying to regard his life as precious, as many around him do. Your safety is of the highest priority. Sect Leader Nie has also informed me that Lan Ziyang was requested to play Cleansing so you may recover more efficiently. He will arrive with this letter and stay with you until you are well.

It is a hot summer in Gusu and in Caiyi this year. I went down to the market to purchase Wei Ying a suitable gift, and there was fierce lightning to the east. At the market there were many beautiful things I could have chosen, but I selected to send you something I hope will be helpful to your condition.

Until I see you next, and even after then, I wish you the best of luck in your travels and that you finally feel free and content. That is all this one wishes for Wei Ying. Sizhui and I are both doing well, and he sends his greetings. 


Lan Wangji

Wei Wuxian hurriedly pulls at the little packet stuck to the bottom under Lan Zhan’s gorgeous signature, opening it with great gusto.

He’s silent for a good minute before looking up into the sky pleadingly. “Heavens, he sent me medicinal herbs? I wish I could pretend to be touched but this is the least romantic thing that has ever happened to me!”

Besides, does Lan Zhan even want him to visit? “Would it kill you to write ah Wei Ying you are the best and I miss you every day like the tide misses the moon and the heavens miss the earth come back to Gusu right now that’s how much I miss you?” Wei Wuxian winces. Okay, that last part sounds a bit too reminiscent of his times in the Burial Mounds. Lan Zhan gets touchy when talking about Wei Wuxian’s last, brilliant moments of his first life; his eyes narrow just a bit, and the seal of his lips tighten just enough for Wei Wuxian to want to lick them open. Not. That he thinks about. Doing That.

Well, if Lan Zhan sends him medicinal herbs, Wei Ying will use them. Then he can get the hell out of here and be on his merry way to earn enough money to buy some real courting gifts. The Unclean Realm always makes his entire body itch like he’s allergic. It’s a site of tragedy but also an unwavering sense of fierce righteousness that does some sort of violence on Wei Wuxian’s brain. With Nie Huaisang as Sect Leader, all of Qinghe has just been reeking of secrets and trickery. Harmless though it may be, he wants to leave as soon as he can.  

Later, he passes the pouch to the doctor, whose bitter herbal tea makes Wei Wuxian hallucinate for a moment that he’s back in the Cloud Recesses. He holds onto that line of thought and gives himself a wonderful lucid dream that night of being a student there again, bothering Lan Zhan with erotic art and pretty portraits. He lets the dream morph to something a little less pure, because he at least still has mobility in his wishful fantasies, and he wakes up hard and wanting. It’s new but the desire somehow feels familiar.

He should’ve seen it then with the way he ran around foolishly trying to catch Lan Zhan’s attention, even though Lan Zhan hated him with a cold intensity. His Excellency’s gaze has warmed in the two decades in between anyway, mirroring how Wei Wuxian has suddenly come to terms with his own feelings. He can only hope that the gentleness in Lan Zhan’s countenance is something more than friendship, and if not, that the gentleness will stay.

Wei Wuxian knows Lan Zhan well enough to recognize that he’s much pettier than he ever lets on to others. Reflective and thoughtful most times, Lan Zhan only has to step on the same cobblestone path as Sect Leaders Ouyang and Yao for that gentle demeanor to completely shift. Oh, and when he sees Jiang Cheng, for whatever reason. The two of them represent his two homes, and it’s shitty that they don’t get along. He sort of understands why, but Lan Zhan doesn’t need to get so bitter on his behalf, and Jiang Cheng is just an asshole because he knows Lan Zhan hates him. That’s the only possible explanation.

Most cultivators readily recognize Jiang Cheng as a little bitch boy, but Wei Wuxian knows Lan Zhan has that unfathomably deep current of Lan-style emotion running through him. They are both bitch boys, but Lan Zhan is a bigger one (Jiang Cheng is more along the lines of immature asshole). Those shoulders? Yeah. Wei Wuxian kind of loves him for it. It is impossible to be truly righteous without empathy and connection with one’s feelings. Lan Zhan has mastered the art perfectly. Being good and true to what is moral requires deep self-reflection and genuine study of both logic and emotion.

Wei Wuxian is sometimes lacking on the logic front. Which is why it’s been two weeks and he’s still in Qinghe, because he did something without thinking. But he did it for love. And love conquers all, right?

Also, he’s still alive. It was incredibly stupid to get so injured without a golden core, but he’s nearly out of the tunnel of injury, with only a couple of nasty burn scars on his hands from when they were pressed exposed against Bixi’s scaly back. His face is still in the process of peeling, unfortunately, so he looks a little like a snake shedding its own skin.

Altogether, he’s grateful Lan Zhan hadn’t made the trip, because he might be at peak ugly right now, even more so than his pre-death period.

Lan Ziyang has been faithfully playing Cleansing for a week now, and the resentment is manageable, to the point where Wei Wuxian figure he can probably strike out on his own as long as he doesn’t get into any major scuffles along the way. He’s written a letter to Lan Zhan for Nie Huaisang to send, but it won’t get there until he’s already left.

With a careful hand, he’d struck all useless feelings from his words. He’s sure if he’d allowed himself to ramble on as per usual, Lan Zhan would be able to tell instantly. The man is too perceptive for his own good at times, and Wei Wuxian absolutely cannot reveal anything right now. The letter had been brief and more descriptive than reflective; he’d sent along a little gift with it, a scale from the monster he’d found in the ruined black robes the Nie Sect had kindly saved and washed. The robes would be going in the trash, but the scale was iridescent and somehow both thin and near unbreakable.

The gift will be the first of many. To Wei Wuxian, it’s a promise, even if only one of them knows it. It’s a way for him to say here, as you mourned me I will now make myself worthy of you. Here, as you laid down your grief I will now lay down my love. Here, a scale. Here, my heart.

Getting back on the road isn’t easy. He rides on Lil Apple when he can, but each step jolts him uncomfortably, aggravating the soreness that still resides in his bones. Luckily, Nie Huaisang’s generous compensation for killing Bixi means he can meander around taking small odd jobs for a few weeks and still afford to stay in cushy inns. More importantly, the rumors of the Yiling Patriarch doing good are already spreading through Qinghe: the baby-eating red-eyed demon gossip is on the decline, sexy and powerful do-gooder Yiling Patriarch is on the rise.

Exactly as he’s planned.

He spends the next month traveling from town to town, making a loop around southern Qinghe until he finds himself back near the border of Lanling. He’s basically fully recovered, and it’s high time he pays a visit to his favorite nephew anyway. Not to mention he needs to start really working again if he’s going to save up for gifts.

Jin Ling is likely busy now, what with preparing to attend the fall Discussion Conference Lotus Pier is hosting soon. Wei Wuxian would make some sort of grand appearance at it, but Jiang Cheng would quite literally break his legs; besides, Lan Zhan is required to lead conversation as Chief Cultivator. Wei Wuxian has quite the kink for competency, and seeing Lan Zhan in Hanguang-jun mode, deftly directing discussion and ignoring annoying sect leaders would force him to do something drastic.

Like propose in front of all the sect leaders. Or kiss him and run. It’s almost embarrassing how frequently he’s had daydreams about these scenarios, but it’d deeply damage Lan Zhan’s reputation, and he can’t let that happen. Well, just showing up as Wei Wuxian would damage Lan Zhan’s reputation, much less doing something shameless.

Either way, by the time he stops in the first wayside town in Lanling, he’s greeted with slightly wary but still friendly smiles. It’s a huge step up from the outright fear of before, when all people knew was that the Yiling Patriarch was back from the dead for revenge. Even after he’d exposed Jin Guangyao and essentially saved the cultivation world (lack of humility may be his fatal flaw), most civilians saw it as an act of righteous if not terrifying revenge. Most had never seen his bright smile and playful personality. The older generations had remembered his bloodshot eyes, armies of corpses, and waves of black smoke and dark energy. They had passed that knowledge down to their children.

Now, still a couple of weeks out from Koi Tower, the townspeople are readily approaching him with their problems. Although they can’t pay much, he hunkers down in an inn and accepts all their pleas for help, even if it means doing physical labor out in the field.

Jin Ling is still a young and green Sect Leader, even if his best efforts and tutelage from Jiang Cheng have made him formidable at his age. Having switched leadership twice in two decades under such terrible circumstances, the Lanling Jin sect is still not yet adept at handling unrest and complaints domestically, especially in places like Laoling, where aggressive minor sect politics and sheer distance from Koi Tower make things difficult. The fringes of the territory under the sect’s control suffer, especially the common folk who live off the land.

That’s how Wei Wuxian finds himself digging up sweet potatoes at five in the morning, wiping his sweat as the sun rises and paints the fields golden. Fingers deep in mud, he uses his teeth to pull his sleeves back up, noting the new muscle flexing in his forearm. The past few weeks have often left him sore but satisfied, skin freshly tanned and glowing. As much as he’s doing this for Lan Zhan, he’s grown to love the work itself – helping others and in a way, helping himself.

Wang-ayi, the middle-aged lady who’d recruited his help, makes casual conversation with him as they dig together, and her husband is farther up the field with their eldest son, who is just about how old Wei Wuxian would be if he discounts the lost years.

“I’ve only seen Sect Leader Jin once,” she tells him, straightening up to gesture with her hands. “I was shocked at how small he was.” She draws an invisible line just a few inches above her own head. “I know he’s very accomplished, but a boy is a boy, you know. Mothers can’t help but look and see their own sons.”

Wei Wuxian thinks about how Jin Ling doesn’t have a mother anymore and feels a sudden wave of emotion at the thought of village ladies seeing him as the kid he is, and not the distant Sect Leader image Jin Ling likes to present.

“You don’t think he behaves like a young mistress?”

“Aiyah, who cares if he’s a little spoiled if he gets this place back in working order? As long as he’s not two-faced like Jin Guangyao and utterly despicable like Jin Guangshan, I’m satisfied.”

The bar is on the fucking floor. “I don’t think he could deceive someone even if he tried,” he says while laughing, remembering how Jin Ling’s every thought gets broadcasted by his facial expressions without permission.

“He was raised honestly and raised well,” Wang-ayi says, winking at Wei Wuxian. Sometimes he forgets it’s common knowledge that the Yiling Patriarch was of the Yunmeng Jiang sect and brother to Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli. It seems like a secret he should be holding close to his chest, this memory of home and family.

Still, he’s shocked at Wang-ayi’s open praise despite knowing that he’s the one who took the lives of Jin Ling’s parents.

This family has been kinder to him than “reputable” and “respectable” cultivators. The hypocrisy of the cultivation world baffles him every day.

“You too,” Wang-ayi cuts into his thoughts. “You look just about the same age as my son,” she says, patting his cheek and smearing mud all over the flushed rise of his cheekbones.

Wei Wuxian laughs abashedly and tries to deflect. I’m no one’s son, he tries hard not to say. “I’m a bit older, I think.”

“No matter,” she reassures, “You act just like a kid. I’m glad you’re here digging sweet potatoes with me. Pick up real life lessons that way.”

“I’m glad too,” is all Wei Wuxian can offer without breaking into sobs right there in the pale light of dawn. Two decades ago, he would’ve resented the thought of being called a kid – back when he had a family to prove things to. Now, he’d give anything to be someone’s kid again. To have the luxury of being bratty and still hold someone’s unconditional love.

The truth is, there are two types of people in the world. Those with parents, and those without. Crossing the threshold to either world cannot be articulated through language – it’s voiceless, asphyxiating. And Wei Wuxian hasn’t had a parental figure for a long, long time. Over the years, he’s had to give up a lot of things – his home, his family, and his cultivation. But no one talks about losing pieces of identity, adjectives and verbs that used to make up his being. I spent too much of my teenage years living, he thinks, and not enough time digging graves.

Before, he was a beloved son and brother. But they’re conditional words, and all his bridges were burned so long ago. And no one in the world would call him beloved. When people think of him, they think Yiling Patriarch. They think powerful or they think terrifying. There is no one left to remember him as sweet or loving or noble, or even mischievous. He holds space to grieve those words too and wonders how his mortal body can carry so many graves. One day he will lose all his verbs, starting with being a son, being a brother, being beloved, until someday he will relinquish being as well.  

For now, he fits his fingers around another sweet potato buried deep in the ground and enjoys this charade of being mothered.

He makes it to Koi Tower just as preparations are beginning for the Discussion Conference. Messengers are scurrying in all day with questions for Sect Leader Jin – trivial things like his favorite foods but also more serious topics like which minor sects in Lanling to invite without causing political fallout.

Of course, even the bustle is no reason to turn away the Yiling Patriarch and the sect leader’s uncle, even if Jin Ling refuses to call him dajiu.

He drops Lil Apple off at the luxurious stables, where it begins feasting on juicy apples as soon as he turns his back. Lil Apple has definitely had it hard these past several months, and Wei Wuxian still owes it one for saving his life, so he doesn’t tell the stablehand to go easy on the treats like he normally does.

His things are put in his fancy Jin Sect sponsored room before he makes his way to the main hall where Jin Ling must be. Luckily, he knows Jiang Cheng can’t possibly be here because Yunmeng Jiang is hosting this year and he’s expected to lead preparations there. He loves Jiang Cheng, would do anything for him, but Wei Wuxian is just sometimes exhausted from being yelled at. Feels like he’s been exhausted for years already. All of it is easier to take when he remembers he owes a great debt to the Jiang sect for taking him in, but he doesn’t need to feel reminded of it at every waking hour.  

Right now, however, he is relieved to find Jin Ling in the main hall, alone save a few top advisers and the head disciple. Although the young sect leader should have received word of his arrival long before, his face still goes white when he sees Wei Wuxian, dismissing everyone so quickly it borders on rude.

“What, want some alone time with your dajiujiu?” Wei Wuxian gleefully asks, twirling Chenqing playfully in a way that could cause an international incident if they were in a room full of cultivators.

“No way,” says Jin Ling, standing up from his seat and striding over. “Didn’t want their ears to get damaged by whatever shameless thing you have to say.”

Wei Wuxian ignores the jab. Aiyah, even his walk has gotten more confident. Kid is growing up! “It’s good to see you, Lingling,” he says, pulling Jin Ling into a rough hug without asking. I mean, someone should mother him.

The combination of the childish nickname and the hug render Jin Ling speechless for a good minute while he stands in Wei Wuxian’s embrace.

Don’t call me that,” he seethes, but quickly forgets his anger. “So why are you here?”

“It’s not enough to miss my favorite nephew?”


“Well, that’s exactly what it is.” Wei Wuxian shrugs. “I was in the area.”

“Why are you in the area?” Jin Ling frowns and the mask of sect leader hovers faintly over his young face. “Has there been trouble?”

“Just helping out here and there.” He ponders telling Jin Ling about his courtship plans but doesn’t trust the kid not to immediately blab to Sizhui and Jingyi, and, oh heavens, Ouyang Zizhen. “Not too much trouble, just the usual. I really was just wandering, Sect Leader Jin,” he teases, “but looks like it was a good idea to stop here if not just to see how much you’ve grown.”

Jin Ling tenses completely, which Wei Wuxian understands. ‘How much you’ve grown’ is usually followed by a parade of aunties who then proceed to comment on height and weight and make stinging comparisons to their own children. With a lack of aunties (or too many unrecognized aunties?), Wei Wuxian knows that ‘how much you’ve grown’ for Jin Ling probably means Jiang Cheng awkwardly threatening to break his legs. Either way, trauma.  

“You really didn’t have to,” he says, head down so low his chin is almost digging into his chest. For a brief moment, Wei Wuxian wonders why his ears are so red, but it all makes sense with his next words. “But I’m glad you stopped by.”

Wei Wuxian resists the urge to sweep him in another hug and loudly make fun of him for expressing emotion. No, he must reward this behavior so that Jin Ling will allow himself to be more emotionally vulnerable in the future. As much as it pains him, Wei Wuxian has to be seriously genuine back. Wow, maybe Jin Ling and I have matching emotional repression, except I’m loud to cover it up and he gets angry. “It’s so good to see you, Jin Ling. Thank you for having me.” He’s not even joking. Something fluttery and delicate around his heart had tightened just now, at being treated like family. Wei Wuxian doesn’t deserve forgiveness for what he’s done, and he’s shocked every time he gets it.

Jin Ling gives him a weird look at that, but quickly moves on, not wanting to stay in the sticky tender moment for too long. “So, have you had lunch? Because I haven’t.”

Wei Wuxian hasn’t even had breakfast, so he enthusiastically agrees to a meal with his nephew.

“I can’t bring you into town,” Jin Ling says haughtily. “That would be a blow on my reputation.”

“Reputation as what, a young mistress?”

“No, as someone who keeps good company!”

“Where are we going then?” Wei Wuxian asks curiously.

“My quarters. Someone will bring us our meal there. While you’re here, I may as well wheedle some information out of you, and where better to talk than my room?”

He sincerely cannot think of a single thing that he can offer Jin Ling in terms of advice and tells him so. Tacks on a “go ask your other uncle” for good measure.

“I wanted to know about your plans, like if you’re going to the Discussion Conference.”

“Well, I didn’t get an invite.”

“That’s because no one can track you down,” he says, rolling his eyes. “When invitations were sent out, all we knew was that you’d just left the Unclean Realm after killing Bixi. By the way, congrats on skirting death yet again. Anyway, not even the headshaker knew where you were.”

“Let me guess,” he says, shaking his head in an approximation of Nie Huaisang. “He said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I really don’t know!’ and then you couldn’t get any information out of him.”

Jin Ling doesn’t respond but looks appropriately furious, which is answer enough. After a long stretch, they make it to his quarters. Before he slides open the doors, he says, “You know you have a place at the conference, with or without invite.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to barge in,” Wei Wuxian says as he opens the doors and saunters into Jin Ling’s rooms without waiting for an invitation.

“I know at least one person who’d be excited if you showed up,” Jin Ling mutters as if he’d rather be discussing anything but this. Which is funny, because he’d brought it up.

“Oh, I know you’d be so happy if I attended as your loving dajiu, but even I can’t spoil you like this by showing up to the Discussion Conference! No way! So many serious, highbrow folks there. I simply wouldn’t fit in.”

“Not me,” Jin Ling emphasizes as he settles into a seat at a low dining table. Wei Wuxian does the same after looking properly disgusted by the gold thread on the embroidered cushion that serves as his seat. A servant brings a mediocre green tea to the table, but the tea leaves do look properly expensive. “I meant His Excellency. And Lan Sizhui. Maybe Lan Jingyi too – you’ve got him in your pocket, really, he’s unlike any proper Lan I’ve met.”

“Oh, you’ve been meeting a lot of Lans, have you?”

A year ago, Jin Ling probably would’ve gone red and raised his voice; now, he just looks bored and asks, “I don’t know, isn’t that more your thing?” God, he’s taking being a teenager so much better than Wei Wuxian ever had.

Wei Wuxian props his chin on his hand and blinks a few times. “Me? Since I left, I’ve been nowhere close to Gusu. I haven’t even seen the Lan disciples trudging around in their spotless white robes conducting nighthunts.”

“Yeah, border politics are super rough right now. All my stupid advisers leftover from Jin Guangshan’s era want to prohibit outside nighthunting in Lanling but I told them absolutely not.”

“Working on your backbone?”

Jin Ling does go red at that. “I did send a letter to jiujiu first, actually, and he just replied saying absolutely fucking not. I…modified the language somewhat.” Jin Ling has been trying to lead the sect more or less on his own now because he doesn’t want people assuming there’s unfair Jiang sect influence on the seat of power in Lanling. Sometimes, however, his instinct is still to contact Jiang Cheng first.

“Poor Lans!” Wei Wuxian cries. “I bet you want to see your friends again too, hm? Just a bit before you’ll see them all at the conference.”

“More like I’ll spend all my free time consoling Lan Sizhui because his favorite Senior Wei didn’t show up to see him.”

He laughs at that. “No way, it’s not like A-Yuan expects me to come, right?” But the thought makes him warm and fuzzy inside.

“You’re dumb,” Jin Ling grouses, “if you don’t think Sizhui would take any chance he has to see you.”

“Ah, how flattering, what a filial son! But look,” he says, face growing serious. “I’m not sure I could really be of use there. And if I’m not helpful, well…it doesn’t matter that I exposed Jin Guangyao. Just looking the wrong way at a cultivator could cause a serious incident.”

“Since when do you care about causing incidents?”

“I’m not going to ruin one of the first giant conferences untainted by Jin Guangyao’s schemes! Not when it’s at Lotus Pier and I know Jiang Cheng is banking on it going smoothly to restore confidence in cultivation across sects.” The food finally arrives, and Wei Wuxian is gratified to note that there’s a pot of chili oil on the side. The oil itself isn’t very spicy, but it lends a nice flavor to the dishes.

Luckily, this isn’t the Cloud Recesses, and they manage to continue their conversation during the meal.

“You’d be surprised,” Jin Ling says, picking up his chopsticks, back straight even during meals. Seeing someone again after months of absence is always so surprising, and the new maturity in Jin Ling’s spine is welcome. He takes after the peacock, sure, but Wei Wuxian reluctantly admits that even the peacock had grown out of his assholery at some point, and Jin Ling is doing the same. He pointedly does not think about how much more growth Jin Zixuan could have had in his life had it not been cut short by the Ghost General.

“About what?”

“Your reputation. At least in Qinghe and the northern parts of Lanling, the Yiling Patriarch isn’t just a mass murderer anymore. He’s a reformed mass murderer.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow and lets a grin overtake his face. “All according to plan, of course.”

“What plan?” Jin Ling sounds a lot more suspicious than he has any right to be. All the snakes live in the north, anyway, and Wei Wuxian is a southerner at heart. He’s good with his tricks but doesn’t play the long game enough to backstab or betray (just disappear off the face of the earth and blindly walk his own path).

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says airily, flapping his hands around, “you know, rectifying my reputation. Becoming a good, honest, organic man.”

Nothing about you is organic, Wei Wuxian.”

“Hey, what happened to calling me dajiu!”

“Like hell I’m calling you that! Not until you come to the conference!”

“Why are you so insistent anyway? I didn’t go to the one last year.”

“That’s understandable. You’d just left on your travels and the world was in upheaval. No one wanted the Yiling Patriarch there anyway.”

“And now they do?”

“Now…” Jin Ling fidgets. “…it’s just…”

Wei Wuxian leans closer, sensing something incredibly embarrassing that Jin Ling is hiding. As a proper qianbei (like, a literal ancestor – he’d died, after all), it would be wrong of him not to pry it out and tease him for it.

“…I’ve been exchanging letters with Sizhui–”

Wei Wuxian wiggles his eyebrows extremely obnoxiously even though his heart pounds at the thought of even joking about the love life of his A-Yuan.

“–and he says Hanguang-jun looks sad–”

“Lan Zhan is sad?” Wei Wuxian cuts in right away. “Why?”

“I’m getting to that part,” Jin Ling grumbles, stuffing a piece of meat in his mouth and chewing aggressively in annoyance. “Sizhui says it’s because he misses you.” Suddenly, his face flushes red completely. “Not that I would know anything about that. Nor do I care. I’m just passing it on, obviously, and I don’t even know how Sizhui can tell, because Hanguang-jun is like a block of stone–”

“Take that back about Lan Zhan, he’s not stone, he’s the finest jade–”

“–no one can read him anyway, and,” Jin Ling processes what Wei Wuxian has cut in with, “oh, ew, that’s disgusting, Wei Wuxian.”

I’m disgusting?” he’s so momentarily disgruntled he upends the entire chili oil pot into the fish stew, which has Jin Ling glaring at him with cold fury. “I’m not the one begging his estranged dajiu to come to a discussion conference because his boyfriend mentioned that his dad would be sad if said uncle didn’t show up. I think Ouyang Zizhen could write a book about this.”

Jin Ling is so red it looks like he’s on the verge of sweating. “Okay, there are so many things wrong with that. First, Sizhui is not my boyfriend, and I don’t want him to be my boyfriend. Second, I’m not begging you to go. I’m just saying it might be in our best interest to have a happy Chief Cultivator leading discussion.”

Lan Zhan is, well, always happy to see Wei Wuxian for whatever reason, even when he’s just there fooling around and being a general nuisance. Whether or not it’s romantically, he knows that to be true, and he can understand it if Lan Zhan misses him. He certainly misses the hell out of the other man, but he’s a guy on a mission, and he actually can’t show his face at the conference for political reasons. And mostly because what’s the fucking point of showing up to a three-day-long meeting where everyone hates you and wishes you were dead?   

“What a coincidence I showed up to visit you, hm? No wonder you invited me to a meal. You were just waiting to spring this request on me. Well, I still can’t go, and I don’t really feel inclined to share why. But if you would pass a gift on to Lan Zhan for me at the conference, I would be ever so grateful.”

Jin Ling looks torn for a moment between complaining and agreeing. He settles on acceptance. “Fine, but can’t you just send him a letter?”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “But if you want him to be in a good mood, then why not give him a gift from me? It’ll be like I’m there. Sort of. I know you’re still terrified of Hanguang-jun.”

They agree on that after Jin Ling is properly embarrassed for his lingering fear of Lan Zhan, and then move to discussing less controversial topics, which mostly involve Wei Wuxian trying his best not to tease Jin Ling to violence. Trying to channel his inner-shijie is harder than it seems.

After the meal, he passes over a few scrolls for the gift, all of which contain drawings he’s done on the road, some of memories and some of the scenes he’s passed. One memorable one is of the sweet potato farm, black ink outlining figures in the distance. Another is a portrait of Lan Zhan from memory, not completely accurate but still mystical in a way that tells Wei Wuxian he had managed to capture Lan Zhan’s basic essence.

“Give this to him, okay? Say it’s from Wei Ying.”

“I’ll say it’s from Wei Wuxian,” Jin Ling sniffs haughtily, which, okay, fine.

Wei Wuxian is not supposed to be here.

Nearly two months have passed, and his unconscious body is lying somewhere in the bushes, guarded only by a very shifty Lil Apple.

Wei Wuxian is full of shitty ideas.

One of them is sending a paperman into the Fall Discussion Conference at Lotus Pier just to get a glimpse of Lan Zhan’s face.

Okay, who can blame him? Who in the world wouldn’t want to get a glimpse of Hanguang-jun’s face? It’s the stuff of legends and quite literally the backbone of multiple myths (from the less flattering he looks like his wife died to face carved from jade, cheekbones sculpted by the sky and the earth, strong brows that are stern yet reassuring, plump and wine-red lips that would open so tenderly if Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue–). Well. That one’s still a prediction, still in the works.

His paperman edges its way into one of the long hallways – fortunately enough, there’s a servant carrying a tray of tea toward what he still remembers is the main hall. It kills him a little that this space is so familiar despite his best attempts to stop thinking of it as home. He hops onto the bottom of the robe and hangs on for dear life as the servant powerwalks toward the conference, which has to be in its third hour already.

It’s late afternoon, and opening talks had already finished in the morning. Now, it’s less pleasantry and more business. The fun will happen later, with a scheduled swordplay, archery, and nighthunt cumulative competition (Wei Wuxian is betting on Lan Sizhui; that kid somehow inherited his brains and Lan Zhan’s righteous nature and discipline.).

He knows that the cultivators are likely starting to fall asleep around now, and it’ll be the ideal time to sneak in quickly. Unlike Jin Guangyao, Hanguang-jun refuses to cater to or mollify individual sect leaders, and only speaks when necessary. The sect leaders who come to the conference yearly just to make trouble and squabble amongst themselves are going to go home without even being dignified with a response. The smart ones who’d realized that have probably already begun daydreaming during session.

Sure enough, no one gives the tea server a second look when they walk into the main hall, where just the sect leaders are gathered. He shoots Jiang Cheng a look and finds him intently awake and nailing the front of the room with a sharp stare. And, oh, Lan Zhan.

He hasn’t seen that lovely face in, what, over a year? He’s wondering if Lan Zhan misses him just as fiercely, just as tenderly, when he spots the pile of scrolls resting just behind the Chief Cultivator. Those are his scrolls! The art he gave Jin Ling! Wei Wuxian twitches where he’s lying in the bushes. Lan Zhan surely would’ve had the time during lunch to put them in his qiankun pouch or have a servant store them properly in his belongings. Then…why?

Do you feel the same yearning, Lan Zhan? Is that why you can’t bear to part with my gift? Do you miss me as you miss a friend, or is it something more? Wei Wuxian drinks in every glance he can get of the planes of Lan Zhan’s face. Legends? Myths? None do justice to how beautiful Lan Zhan is in real life, the motion, the movement of his body in real time. Paintings can’t capture his slow blinks, the gentle arc of his chin when he turns to face another cultivator, the minute shifts in an eyebrow when one too many ridiculous requests are made. There is something so special about the finite nature of these little motions. Wei Wuxian tracks the start and finish of a frown, the caving of a dimple in and out.

A beginning, an ending, and everything in between is magic. This could be an infinity too.  

The front dais draws closer as the server pauses at each table to refill empty cups. The cultivators are rather heatedly discussing the idea of disciple exchanges, which are a good idea in theory but have been completely tainted by the Wen Sect’s perverted idea of what a study exchange looks like. Lan Zhan looks bored. But he understands how important it is for every sect to be heard and share their ideas, as long as they are decently respectful, and he doesn’t cut the discussion off.

Even though so many of these cultivators are hypocrites and played large parts in war crimes, their lives have all been touched by war and bloodshed. Wei Wuxian, after all, played his own enormous part in committing atrocities. No one is sinless. Everyone carries with them the unending memories and traumas of the war, something that doesn’t excuse their behaviors both in the past and now, but many times explains them.

Lan Wangji was the only suitable choice for Chief Cultivator besides his brother because his truthful, righteous demeanor sat on the opposite end of the spectrum from Jin Guangyao, who lied with ease. He doesn’t trigger the old fears, at least not as easily.

Wei Wuxian knows that Lan Zhan doesn’t like his job. It’s too bad he needs to do it anyway.

Finally, the server reaches the front of the room where His Excellency the Chief Cultivator is perched gracefully. The paperman rapidly skirts around to the back of the server’s robes so Lan Zhan won’t notice him, but he forgets how detail-oriented Lan Zhan is. He can feel the physical gaze burning into his paper body as the server turns around and takes the empty teapot back toward the door. Fuck! He must have noticed the movement and slight rustle of the paper.

Praying to every deity he knows that Lan Zhan just forgets about it, he tunnels into the inner robes and lets himself get carried out.

It’s too late for that. Lan Zhan’s crisp, clear voice cuts through the drone of the cultivators. How he has missed that voice.

“…ten-minute recess…” he catches as he crosses the threshold of the door and literally bolts out of the robes and toward the nearest window. The moment he makes it onto the windowsill, he sees Lan Zhan sweeping out of the main hall. Although he’s sure Lan Zhan sees him hop out the window, those elaborate blue robes make a turn and head outside in the opposite direction.

No way, he’s looking for my body! And he’s going in the right direction, although that has to be luck, right?

Careful not to damage his paper body, Wei Wuxian books it to the row of bushes, relieved to find that Lan Zhan has not made it there yet, at least. Wei Wuxian still knows Yunmeng best, after all, and it would be downright embarrassing for Lan Zhan to have found his hiding spot so rapidly.

Eight of the ten minutes have passed by the time Wei Wuxian is saddled and riding out on Lil Apple, heaving a deep sigh of relief. This reminds him of escaping Mo Village way too much for his own comfort. He turns back to give Yunmeng one last look, and nearly falls off his donkey when he sees white robes swirl into view as he rounds the corner.

“Ahaha, I’m sorry Lan Zhan, I can’t stay,” he mumbles to himself, shifting back and forth in his saddle. “You miss me, right? I miss you too, I miss you so much, I wanted to blow you a kiss back there so bad.” In two minutes, Lan Zhan can’t possibly come after him, and Wei Wuxian knows that he wouldn’t leave his duties for anything, not even Wei Wuxian. It breaks his heart to know that Lan Zhan has to watch his back riding away again, knows that it has to hurt, but being associated with the Yiling Patriarch at the largest cultivator conference of the year would do so much damage to his reputation. It’s just not worth it; nothing would be worth that. His eyes are watering a little. “Aiyah, be well Lan-er-gege, stay well. I’ll see you soon, so soon.”

Seeing Lan Zhan has Wei Wuxian more determined than ever: he needs the best of the best from all his travels. That means first edition meditation scrolls and precious metals from Lanling, painting and calligraphy scrolls from Qinghe preferably vetted by Nie Huaisang, rare folk music scores and embroidered cloth from Yunmeng, and well, from Gusu…there can’t be anything in Gusu that Lan Zhan doesn’t already have. He’ll think about it once he returns there.

The next year passes quickly like this – when Wei Wuxian sets his mind to doing something, he makes it happen through his own efforts as much as possible. Yes, there is the constant ache of loneliness, of constantly being on the road, but he has friends (sort of, because Jiang Cheng is somewhere between brother and sworn enemy but definitely not friend) in every region he travels to. He’s sat with the soreness of being alone for so long that it’s an old traveling partner by now, and he doesn’t mind it as much.

With the powers of Nie Huaisang on his side, his scouring of Qinghe goes rather quickly. He hates to ride north again, especially during the winter, but there’s a little thrill too about riding around in the snow, fingers numb from cold. Although he doesn’t stop by the Unclean Realm for very long, because god knows he’s spent enough time there, Sect Leader Nie very graciously gives him a list of top-tier merchants around Qinghe without asking what for. Wei Wuxian suspects, or rather is pretty certain, that Nie Huaisang already knows what’s going on. His help is so appreciated Wei Wuxian figures he can let himself forget that Nie Huaisang once left dead cats all over the place specifically for junior cultivators to find just to achieve justice for his brother’s death.

The food in Qinghe is delicious too, not spicy like his favorite dishes in Yunmeng, but rather savory and rich. It’s earthier and gamier but sits heavy in his stomach just like a tongue-numbing stew of xiangla pig blood and fish would.  

He stays the winter in Qinghe, spends much of the contents of his purse on three magnificent one-of-a-kind scrolls he knows Lan Zhan will like, and works the rest of the time away. His willingness to do all sorts of labor, including manual work and talisman-writing on top of killing fierce corpses, earn him his keep as he travels in Qinghe. His warming and heat talismans are perfected by the end of the season to the point where he rides into Lanling in late February with warm fingers and a face not even pinked from the chill. Even Lil Apple is marginally happier with a talisman glued to its flank.

This solidifies Wei Wuxian’s opinion even further: stuffy in-person classes are nothing compared to trial and error in the real world. Walking amongst the people, so to speak.

Just as before, in Lanling, Wei Wuxian finds that he enjoys the process of working as much as he loves getting the reward that brings him closer to his goal of traveling back to the Cloud Recesses. He calls Qinghe a resounding success, because while some rural towns are still exceedingly wary of him, most of the region at least regard him as their friendly neighborhood fixer upper. He gets more calls to dig new outhouses and sell warming talismans than loaded insults from generational trauma.

He understands most prejudices come from lack of direct interaction and personal experience, so he has learned how to subject each village to the Personal Experience of Being Wei Wuxian. Authenticity and follow-through are key, especially in small towns. He attends community meetings to hear about the greatest need. He never assumes himself as the expert in town problems, just offers his services when he can fill the gap. He engages with everyone honestly and truthfully. He never lies about being the Yiling Patriarch.

These aren’t unfounded prejudices either. They are very much founded. Wei Wuxian understands their fear of him and what he represents – a mercurial all-powerful figure able to raise corpses and decide on a whim where his allegiance lies and who he’ll kill. It’s been thirteen years. Thirteen years is not a long time for the fear and grief of losing a loved one to dissipate. Wei Wuxian knows. It could be fifty years and he would still remember how and why shijie had been killed. These days, he’s much too tired and in love to do any of that (read: mass-slaughtering), especially after the hellish experience of killing Bixi, but still, he gets it.

As for his allegiance? Well, a big chunk of his heart goes to Lan Zhan. Lan Wangji, not Gusu Lan or the Cloud Recesses, although this could change if he were to marry into the sect. Then, he holds more space than he maybe should for Yunmeng, for Lotus Pier, for Jiang Cheng. People who have turned away from him. But he has allegiance to Jin Ling too, Wen Ning, and A-Yuan, and oh hell, he’s got the tiniest shittiest part of his heart reserved for Lan Jingyi and especially Ouyang Zizhen. No one comes out of Yi City without a few lifelong bonds. Speaking of, he can scrape out a few crumbs for Nie Huaisang. And since he’s left Gusu, there’s now Wang-ayi, and then the Qinghe family that took him in during the week-long snowstorm, and the Laoling farmer who’d cursed the local government with him over wine, and the twin girls he’d rescued from fierce corpses in what used to be Qishan Wen but is now Qinghe Nie territory….now there were a lot of people.

Besides Yunmeng Jiang when he was young, Wei Wuxian had never felt the need to swear allegiance to a sect or a politic or an ideology. His allegiance is really, truly, to love. This overwhelming, burning need to do good by starting with loving.

He feels like he is finally figuring out what to live for, instead of surviving on thoughts of what he’d die for.

By the end of February, winter is easing up slightly, and he rides into the western part of Lanling. Back when he’d plotted his route after the Discussion Conference, he’d been terribly wiped out at the thought of having to curve up north to the coast again just to visit Lanling’s most famous temple complexes for diligently kept scrolls. Now, however, he feels as if he has time for it, needs the time.

On his way, he even manages to stop by the Wang family farm (Wang-shushu gives him a gruff hello and says to call him Lao Wang, and Wang-ayi has to cuff their son on the head before he’ll give Wei Wuxian a proper bow). Regretfully, he can’t stay for long, but he writes them a few safety talismans and scours the area for fierce corpses just in case. Where he’d been harvesting before, the ground is now still frozen and cracked with frost from the winter. Soon, the soil will grow soft and open up to possibility, to life.

Since he spent a good sum of money in Qinghe, it takes longer for him to work his way to the temple as he stops to take jobs frequently. He arrives when the flowers are first unfurling, green buds twisting and giving way to velvet petals. The air is fresh out here, and although he’s not close enough to see the ocean, the seafood is fresh too.

The lack of typical Jin opulence is welcomed – here at the temple, the silence and natural beauty seem infinitely richer than the gold and silver of Koi Tower. The monks are stewards of this entire coastal region up the peninsula, and they function somewhat as an autonomous zone.

Unsurprisingly, Wei Wuxian and the monks don’t get along.

“Silence in the main temple,” he is told, and has to fold his lips together so he doesn’t chatter along like usual.

“Balance in diet and body,” he is told, and almost gets chased out of the temple after suggesting he has never had food blander than this, not even in the Cloud Recesses.

Then, they ask him to pray in front of the 2000-year-old statue of Buddha, saying that “each second will bring you a thousand blessings.” He lasts maybe three. His prayer is also very predictable. Lan-er-gege~!

Still, the monks need money to maintain the temple, and Wei Wuxian is dripping in silver compared to the regular religious visitors. They let him wander around. Temple is a light word to call the complex what it is. It is, in fact, more like a sprawling network of smaller temples, separated by landscaped gardens, and culminating in the largest multi-floor miao, which is where Wei Wuxian is now.

Each little miao contains a shrine to a different bodhisattva, from Guanyin to Milefo, butter lamps flickering intensely in front and walls muralled with different protector spirits, like the White and Green Taras.

The spirituality of the place scares even Wei Wuxian a bit, and he thinks he understands why the monks have devoted their lives to learning and understanding the histories and wisdoms of the religion.

After taking the afternoon to walk from shrine to shrine, his prayers start getting longer, and he begins to take more time to think about what he really wishes for.

I wish that one day I’ll be worthy of Lan Zhan’s love.

That what’s left of my family remains in good health. He walks three times around the main miao and finishes by prostrating once, briefly.

That I can always do what is right and never abandon those who need help the most.

He squeezes his eyes closed and lets exhaustion bear his head down as he makes one final prayer.

That I live a long, happy life.

Lotus Pier in the summer is indescribable.

First, sight. Sweeping stretches of glittering water, darting fishes making ripples between the lotus flowers. Oh, the flowers, to see the flowers bloom thick like a forest so that boats must weave between them like jumping water striders. Each iridescent pink, purple, and gold petal framing a tender green center, ripe for picking. The docks have been newly renovated, splinter-free and covered in knotted, fraying rope. The street vendors are an explosion of color, dotting the pier and the walkways down to the main buildings.

Then, sound. The whirring of invisible cicadas, irritating at first then comforting background noise. The lazy splashes of oars catching the water. Vendors shouting not only prices but greetings at each other, like family. And this one – this one hurts a little – sometimes, if you listen closely, you can catch the sound of young children laughing, swords clanging, bows twanging. It’s a sound that has not always been here.

Finally, touch. The warmth of the sunshine on Wei Wuxian’s tanned skin. The gnarled wood underfoot. The shy flirtation of a petal against his fingers, a wonderful and terrible softness.

No matter how much he loves Lan Zhan, the Cloud Recesses will never compare to his first home. There are things he can’t train out of himself: the feeling of diving into the lake on a summer’s day, savoring the sweetness of lotus seeds, eating dishes so spicy they shine crimson…

Earlier this year, in Lanling, he’d sent Jiang Cheng a nervous letter, informing him that he’d be traveling around Yunmeng and would like to stay in Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng had agreed, letter so abrupt that Wei Wuxian hadn’t been able to discern any semblance of tone at all.

That hadn’t been enough to quell his anxiety fully. He knows he has to tell Jiang Cheng of his courtship plans. Whether or not Jiang Cheng still wants him as a brother, completely blindsiding him with news of an engagement would burn the last remnants of any bridge that lies between them now. Jiang Cheng has always had a troubled relationship with the concept of family. He’s an all-in sort of man, someone who gives their whole heart and soul to those he loves. Any perception of betrayal or disloyalty ruins him. When it’d seemed like Wei Wuxian, his last surviving family member, had left him to protect the Wens, there was little chance of ever repairing that relationship save abandoning the Wens completely. And that hadn’t been an option.

Wei Wuxian isn’t an idiot – he knows how much Jiang Cheng is hurting from seeing Wei Wuxian turn to Lan Wangji time and time again after resurrection. It must feel like a second betrayal.

He does not feel shame for Jiang Cheng’s inability to reconcile his own pain with how much he’s hurt Wei Wuxian. It’s taken Wei Wuxian awhile to stop singlehandedly shouldering the blame, but Jiang Cheng desperately needs to get over himself. Wei Wuxian isn’t here to beg for forgiveness or even apologize. He’s just here, simply, to announce his intent to court Lan Zhan to his brother, to his family, and then ask for advice. If he’s lucky, perhaps Jiang Cheng will agree to represent Wei Wuxian as a member of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. He’s not banking on it.

If Jiang Cheng reacts poorly, that’s fine too. It’ll sting, but sometimes both parties are irreversibly hurt and yet both in the right, at once to blame and at once the victim. Wei Wuxian is lucky in that he has the Cloud Recesses to return to, a home free from trauma and responsibility. Jiang Cheng lives in the ghosts of his mistakes and worst nightmares. He has no one in his corner. Wei Wuxian knows what that’s like, at least.

He can’t help but greet the vendors as he makes his way toward the main gate.

“It’s me, Wei Wuxian!” he calls as he thumbs through their wares and even buys a couple for ridiculous prices. These stalls are their livelihoods after all, and if he can afford it, he won’t haggle over the trinkets. “Granny, nainai, remember me? Ah, yeye, that’s right, I’m the one who stole all your lotus seeds before, yes, I’m sorry, I died once to repent, yes, I know that’s not enough, how about I buy this bracelet then? Mm, you’re right, it’s for my girl back home…” How funny it’d be if he gave Lan Zhan a tacky tourist’s bracelet from Yunmeng as a courting gift? He tucks it into a pouch carefully.

By the time he is finally welcomed into the main hall, Jiang Cheng is sitting there waiting.

He looks good, eyes sharp and mouth even, face devoid of emotion. His head is tucked up into its normal knot, simple hairpiece marking him as Sect Leader Jiang.

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian all but yells as he skids into the room, all but glowing from the joy of talking to the locals and bathing in the Lotus Pier sunshine. He bows properly at least, then corrects himself. “Sect Leader Jiang. Thank you for welcoming me to Lotus Pier.”

“Just Jiang Cheng is fine,” he says, small wrinkle appearing between his brows at Wei Wuxian’s noise. As Wei Wuxian sits down opposite him and fiddles with the teacup and snacks, he goes silent for a long moment. His back straightens impossibly further. “What’s your business here?” Why are you visiting now after staying away for so long?

“Oh, come on, do we have to get into business right away? Can’t we shell some peanuts and talk about our days?”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Since when do we have that relationship? Tell me what you need and then you can get the hell out.”

Wei Wuxian indulges him. “Okay, Jiang Cheng, what I’m about to tell you is confidential. Absolutely, 100% secret. Are you sure you can keep a secret?” Of course, he knows Jiang Cheng is trustworthy, has always known that. Jiang Cheng hates going back on his word.

“Why are you telling me? Go tell your Hanguang-jun.” Still, one of his eyebrows rises slightly. He looks pleased by the idea of being entrusted with something, even from someone he despises.

“Well…it’s about Lan Zhan. It wouldn’t do to tell him.”

With that, Jiang Cheng’s expression shutters again. “Of course it’s about Lan Wangji. I forgot the last time you weren’t about Lan Wangji. Was it when we were fifteen, or fourteen?”

Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath and tries to ignore Jiang Cheng’s reactions. It’s harder than he expects, and his eyes keep flitting to the tight curl of Jiang Cheng’s mouth and the angry wrinkles curving across his forehead. Finally, he gets up from the cushion and kneels on the hard floor in front of Jiang Cheng. If being shameless is his reputation, he might as well own it. Pressing his forehead to the floor, he says, “This one humbly announces his intent to court His Excellency, the Chief Cultivator. He asks for Sect Leader Jiang’s aid in searching for a suitable gift to represent Yunmeng.” He sits up and makes direct eye contact. “Jiang Cheng, I wanted to let you know before anyone. It would be an additional honor if you could represent me during the proceedings and any potential future opportunities.”

Jiang Cheng’s knuckles are white with how tightly he grips his robes, arms trembling lightly. His eyes are wide with seeming shock, and he hasn’t started yelling, so Wei Wuxian thinks it’s altogether a pretty good afternoon so far.

Finally, his lips part unconsciously. His tongue flickers out to wet them, and then he opens them again with purpose. “You…You and Lan Wangji will bow to…me?” It’s as if he’s torn between a deep-set satisfaction at the privilege of being told, anger because Wei Wuxian will always place Lan Zhan first, and a terrible sorrow at the reminder that he is the only possible person who could represent the Jiang family. With that sorrow, he’s always reminded that his greatest loss is Wei Wuxian’s fault. Which. Instant anger.

“I mean, if you agree. And let’s not be hasty too, Lan Zhan might not even say yes. I’m asking you for advice precisely because of that reason – so won’t you help me pick out a gift? I think some of our famous folk music scores or embroidered money pouches might just do the trick.”

“You’re stupid, Wei Wuxian.”

“Hey!” he protests, scooting back onto the cushions now that he has avoided imminent death. Jiang Cheng doesn’t sound angry, just exasperated, the way he was whenever Wei Wuxian had done something shameless as a teenager. He hadn’t thought he would ever hear that tone again. Love makes you do crazy things, like a poke a giant sleeping bear named ‘My Relationship with My Brother Who Wants to Kill Me.’

Jiang Cheng heaves a long sigh as if he’s the one courting a super unattainable, attractive, rich, esteemed cultivator. “Wei! Wu! Xian! If you think Lan Wangji will say no to you, you are just as ignorant and thoughtless as everyone thinks you are!”

“No one thinks I’m thoughtless,” Wei Wuxian says, because okay, he can be ignorant at times. “I’m the Yiling Patriarch. I’m an evil cunning mastermind.”

“That’s not what I hear from northern Yunmeng. Did you really think I wouldn’t fucking know the moment you came parading into my territory on your way here? The word on the streets is that the Yiling Patriarch is back in Yunmeng, and his greatest deed is nearly braining himself carrying wood to build an outhouse.”

Wei Wuxian flushes. Leave it to Jiang Cheng to get under his skin. “That was once! I regret it!”

“I regret that you weren’t brained!”

Well, he doesn’t know what to say to that.

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and huffs again. “Never mind. Why the fuck do you think Lan Wangji might say no?”

He shrugs. “He’s Lan Zhan. I’m me. Why do you think?”

He might be disruptive and blunt, but Jiang Cheng isn’t stupid and has the years of Sect Leader experience to match. “So that’s why you’re running all over the place on your dumb donkey.”

“Lil Apple isn’t dumb! He saved my life back in Qinghe.”

“I heard about that. You almost sent the Chief Cultivator back into mourning, dumbass.”

“Aww,” he coos, leaning forward and almost tipping over the peanut tray. “Were you worried?”

“When did I say I was worried?! Forget it. Pretty gifts won’t make Hanguang-jun more likely to marry you. Even I know that, and we…are not on speaking terms.”

Wei Wuxian knows. “I want to do everything properly anyway. The whole courting thing. It’s not right that he doesn’t get to experience that from someone who really loves him. And if I do it without mistakes, there’s no reason for anyone to spread bad rumors about his marriage, and it won’t hurt his reputation.”

“So your thick face shed a few layers after all.” Jiang Cheng seems like he grudgingly approves, which is more than Wei Wuxian could have ever expected. “And then you’re just going to gallivant off to the Cloud Recesses? Wear white? Wear a fucking…a forehead ribbon? Follow three thousand rules? Wei Wuxian, I didn’t think you were the type.”

He frowns a little, heart twinging for a feeling he can’t place. “Well…I’d go on nighthunts. Teach the juniors, maybe. I could travel, still.”


Wei Wuxian can tell that Jiang Cheng is fishing, and it’s almost unbearable to take the bait. But he’s the older brother – even if the years are all fucked up now – and he’s so tired of waiting for Jiang Cheng to take all the opportunities he’s leaving wide open. “Yes, travel. Would I…do you think–”

To his surprise, Jiang Cheng cuts in. “You’re staying here tonight. And for however long it takes for you to find the right gifts. I had the staff take your things and your donkey from outside and put them in your old rooms.” He pauses but tightens his jaw and goes on. “And…the rooms will be maintained for you should you need accommodations at Lotus Pier in the future.”

Now it’s Wei Wuxian’s turn to drop his jaw. Not even in his wildest dreams…could he have predicted this!

Jiang Cheng leans forward, eyes narrowing into a sharp glare. “Tell that Lan Wangji that I’ll thrash him with Zidian if you come back a perfect Gusu Lan disciple.”

“Haha, you couldn’t beat Lan Zhan if you tried!”

“Shut up, Wei Wuxian! I mean it! Swear it on your life, if you become a perfect little Lan then you can piss right off and never come back!” He looks nervous – it’s subtle, but Wei Wuxian knows what to read for – as if he’s scared that Wei Wuxian really will just up and leave.

How could he?

“I won’t, I won’t. Now really, Jiang Cheng, you’ll really help me find gifts?”

He waves his hand dismissively. “I’m busy. Yinzhu and Jinzhu can help.”

To be honest, Wei Wuxian still carries secondhand trauma from Yinzhu and Jinzhu, because they remind him of Madame Yu. But he’ll take what he can get. “Sure, sure.” He bows deeply again, because he really is appreciative. Jiang Cheng knows, too, just how much it means to have family there at a wedding, hates to think of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian bowing to a room full of white. “Thank you, Jiang Cheng,” he whispers, voice showing the exhaustion he’s been carrying since his resurrection.

“Thanking me? If you have that much time, go kneel in front of our family and say sorry to my parents and A-Jie.”

Ah. So it’s still ‘my parents.’ Wei Wuxian sits up and smiles broadly, laying his hands flat on the table. “Of course.” Truthfully, he has had so much to say to Jiang Fengmian, Yu Ziyuan, and Jiang Yanli. There have been so many words he’s kept under lock and key for years, even when they were all alive. He has never dared to approach the Ancestral Hall, not without Jiang Cheng’s permission.

He remembers how furious and violent Jiang Cheng had been just a few years ago at the idea of Wei Wuxian even entering the Lotus Pier premises. So much has been said already today, yet so many words well up inside him still.

He’ll start with the small things first.

Thank you, and I’m sorry.

He ends up staying in Lotus Pier far longer than planned – for three months until the next Discussion Conference, which is due to be at the Cloud Recesses. He had actually planned to travel around, earning money and retrieving the gifts. With Jiang Cheng’s support, however, the items had been delivered at no cost. (“What, you think family makes family pay?” Jiang Cheng had said scathingly, and then Wei Wuxian had cried a little, and then they’d gotten drunk and both cried some more.)

His reputation is probably still completely shit in some parts of Yunmeng, but it’s improved overall. He couldn’t stay locked up all summer just playing in Lotus Pier. He did end up riding around and taking a couple of day trips, chartering one of the Lotus Pier horses and pointedly ignoring Jiang Cheng’s questions about Suibian and sword flying. The trips had turned into vacations; he no longer needs the money from odd jobs because Jiang Cheng has saved him so much. He has more than enough to spend in Gusu when he returns.

Another blessing is that the Discussion Conference is in Gusu this year.

It’ll be easier to maintain anonymity as just another cultivator come to attend the conference in the more rural areas. Lan Zhan will be too busy both hosting and behaving as Chief Cultivator to hear news of the Yiling Patriarch entering Gusu. His path has already been decided: he’ll start in the south and follow the river out of Lotus Pier and into Gusu, then curve up north, carefully avoiding the Moling Su sect, and then finally ride along the coast south into the Cloud Recesses. This path will bring him there in the early summer, a little less than three years since his realization.

He knows Lan Zhan will probably hear news of his coming and going throughout Gusu, but Wei Wuxian is hard to pin down. This is common knowledge: when he’s traveling, it’s easy to get flickers and rumors of his whereabouts, but nothing solid enough to send a letter, or an invite, or track his current location.

Besides, he’s not important enough where Lan Zhan would drop his all-important duties just to come visit him. Last year’s conference, he did, his brain reminds him.

It was different back then! Lan Zhan probably assumed I snuck in with a message or something. It’s a totally different story when it’s just rumors about the Yiling Patriarch digging up potatoes covered in dirt.

His last week in Yunmeng, he takes full advantage of what seems like his last week of freedom. He steals lotus pods to his heart’s content and goes swimming every day even though the weather in September is a touch chillier than the blazing sun of August. The lotus flowers are just past their prime but still are so beautiful he commits them to memory again and again and again.

Jiang Cheng is busy most days, as he has been the whole summer for all these months. They have dinner together, mostly a stilted dynamic of yelling and teasing, but nonetheless good.

He hasn’t received correspondence this entire time, likely because Jiang Cheng hasn’t taken the time to inform anyone that Wei Wuxian is at Lotus Pier, and anyone hearing rumors would find it hard to believe. The entire cultivation world knows that Jiang Cheng hates the Yiling Patriarch for what he did to the Jiang family. Jin Ling did visit once, to Wei Wuxian’s delight, but it was brief, and he looked embarrassed at the attention of both of his uncles at once. At the time, Wei Wuxian had glanced over and Jiang Cheng and even found him smiling. Family, indeed.

On the last day of the last week, Jiang Cheng finds him and sits him down, a mirror of their first conversation.

With great reluctance, he slams a thick sheaf of scrolls down on the table.

“What’s this?”

These,” says Jiang Cheng with an air of pride around him, as well as an odd disgust, “are your wedding plans.”

Wei Wuxian flips through to find detailed accounts of the clothing, the food, the colors, even the tea. Some of it he remembers from the wedding Jiang Cheng had been planning for shijie for ages, most things are new entries.

“The servants helped,” Jiang Cheng says hastily as if that would soften the emotional weight of the offering. “They did all the transcribing, actually. And a lot of the research. I just had, well, opinions, I suppose. I was consulted.”

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian starts, then stops. “You didn’t need to do this. By all accounts, you shouldn’t have. So thank you.” Jiang Cheng looks like he wants to throw up, but Wei Wuxian barrels on. “Also, you should know that if Lan Zhan says yes, he’s going to scrap everything you’ve just written no matter how great your ideas are and come up with everything himself.”

“What a bitch,” Jiang Cheng mutters.


“Okay, whatever!” He rolls his eyes. “It’s your job, then, Wei Wuxian! You’re Yunmeng, got it? Remember…remember A-jie? She wasn’t ever all Jin sect, she always wore purple with pride.” He rolls up all the scrolls. “You’ll have to come here and retrieve these. Make Lan Wangji come with you. I’ll break his legs if he won’t do as I say.”

“He’ll break your legs and more,” Wei Wuxian counters, but his grin is broad and unfettered. It grows soft with warmth.

“Shut the fuck up. Wei Wuxian, you owe me. You owe my family. Or will you forsake this duty just like all the other ones?”

“Of course I’ll come back for these. These are the hopes and dreams of my little brother, after all!”

“Hopes and dreams?! What do my dreams have to do with your stupid wedding? I just can’t bear to bring shame upon Yunmeng by throwing a subpar wedding.” Jiang Cheng’s whole face is red, the way it gets when he desperately wants wine but realizes this is an important sober conversation. It’s times like these that Wei Wuxian realizes the gap of thirteen years between them is greater than it seems, and most of those years for Jiang Cheng were spent learning to grow up alone.

Well, Wei Wuxian isn’t required to behave like a proper adult. “I might be betrothed the next time you see me, want to have a drinking contest?”

Now this is familiar territory. Yunmeng wine is fantastic, but Jiang Cheng motions for the baijiu instead.

“Oh, you want to get drunk drunk,” Wei Wuxian says, laughing in his normal carefree way. “Don’t cry when I end up kicking your ass!”

“Who’s kicking whose ass?!”

The scrolls are stored away for safekeeping, and this is how the last night ends: empty dishes still gleaming with oil between them, and the two brothers, splayed on the floor, tear tracks still drying on their red faces.

Unsurprisingly, Jiang Cheng is off doing Sect Leader duties when Wei Wuxian departs. More than half of the pier marketplace is there to see him off, and even a couple of the young disciples he’d taught to shoot kites over the summer have escaped practice to wave mournfully at him. They don’t have fun older disciples to show them how to get away with all sorts of shit – he’ll have to come back and teach them the best ways to annoy the fuck out of Jiang Cheng.

It warms his heart to hear them calling him Senior Wei, little purple robes flapping. There are so few of them he easily spots them in the cluster of people waving.

And now he’s on the road again. The traveling feels different this time. He has to acclimate himself to camping on occasion, stopping at shitty inns on other days. Resting in Yunmeng had really let his heart settle for a moment. Now he’s traveling from home to home. Before it had been wandering.

What will he say when he sees Lan Zhan again?

 Sorry I left. I love you, and I will stay this time. Do you want me? No, he’s not sorry he left. If anything, he’s sorry Lan Zhan has had to wait. But leaving? There was no other choice. And Lan Zhan hadn’t asked him to stay.

I have brought you the world. I have nothing else to my name. Will you still take me as I am? Too vulnerable. Wei Wuxian’s face is as thick as they get, but only for trivial matters. The idea of presenting the nothingness of his self makes embarrassed goosebumps rise under his robes.

Lan-er-gege, you’re really great. I like you. Or in other words, I fancy you, I love you, I want you, I can’t leave you, I whatever you. I want to nighthunt with you for the rest of my life. Is that too over the top? None of it is false. Too flirtatious maybe? Mentioning nighthunting is always dangerous territory, because Lan Zhan always assumes they’re nighthunting as best bros the way Sizhui and Jingyi do. Romanticism is dead – the days of sexy nighthunting with your lifelong cultivation partner went out with Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan.

By the time he crosses the border into Gusu, tailing a group of cultivators he remembers seeing around Yiling before, he’s no closer to deciding exactly how to confess.

Well, what does it matter? He’ll wing it. He’s great at winging things.

A few weeks later, having just received payment for defeating a group of fierce corpses, he realizes that winging things is hard. Every gift he lays his eyes on seems dull compared to what is already at the Cloud Recesses. Why gift Lan Zhan this silver hair ornament with clouds? He already owns at least five anyway, of higher quality. He gets chased out of that town by minor sect cultivators who are angry he stole their job. (If only they had been doing their job instead of getting drunk and playing cards!)

The farther he travels, the more desperate he gets. At least the townspeople are kind, which means he gets to spend the winter lodging with a family – he likes this more than staying at an inn indefinitely. The home is just a week’s travel from Koi Tower, right across the border, which means the food isn’t as sugary and bland as usual. Thank the heavens for regional variances in cuisine.

Some of the smaller villages don’t know who he is or haven’t heard the gossip surrounding his resurrection. Those places are the best, villages where he can fade into anonymity and just rest.

His winter lodging is one of them. The Zhou family lives plainly but with heart, and Wei Wuxian helps them fix up their aging house before the winter frost and snow set in. The patched-up ensemble is barely spacious enough to fit Zhou-ayi and Zhou-shushu and their five kids, but they’re the what’s one more kid! type and easily welcome Wei Wuxian into the fold. He hasn’t shared a room in a long while but gets to choose which tiny closet-sized room to squeeze into, which makes it marginally more exciting.

After no deliberation, he chooses the room already occupied by the two oldest – the other room contains three snotty kids and he can’t have them getting into his stuff.

Zhou Ni is fifteen, as annoying as Jin Ling was when he was that age, and it’s clear her parents have no idea what to do with her. Zhou Han is arguably worse. He’s sixteen going on seventeen, and follows Wei Wuxian around everywhere, seeing him as some sort of worldly role model. This is a huge error in judgment, Wei Wuxian wants to say, but never does.

It’s always ge, what does this character mean as he points at a safety talisman, nearly smudging the cinnabar or ge, can you teach me how to play the flute or ge, will you take me nighthunting when Wei Wuxian is preparing to leave to investigate reports of resentful energy. He’s tired of being called older brother! Not even Jiang Cheng ever did this to him.

Learning what constitutes normal family dynamics for most people is somehow a difficult, arduous task for Wei Wuxian. He figures out how to say no to Hanhan without making him cry, and sits through several awkward sulking sessions courtesy of Zhou Ni before realizing that he should probably lead with Nier, what’s wrong? and not Nibao, I’m trying to focus can you please be angry outside?

How did Jiang Cheng ever raise Jin Ling on his own? How did Lan Zhan raise A-Yuan, with whom he had no familial ties whatsoever? How the fuck did Zhou-shushu and Zhou-ayi raise five whole kids with their limbs and fingers and toes all still intact?

His gege experience is limited to making fun of Jiang Cheng and then almost dying on his behalf. From dealing with Zhou Ni for a winter, he learns that conflict resolution and emotional vulnerability with a healthy dose of patience might be more helpful.

There’s no way in hell he’ll ever try that on Jiang Cheng, but maybe Jin Ling.

For what it’s worth, Zhou-ayi tries to teach him how to cook, but he’s hopeless and doesn’t want to burn down their newly repaired house. He can deal with ghosts and monsters and the smell of death, but he still leaps away with a squawk whenever the sizzling oil jumps at him.

The other three kids are masters of the silent stare. Everywhere he goes in the house, their little heads swivel and follow him as if he’s magnetic. It gets creepy at times, but it reminds him of how A-Yuan used to toddle behind him in the Burial Mounds.

Winter passes by in the blink of an eye, marked by snowball fights and warm dinners around a rickety wooden table. The idea that this is something anyone could have is startling. This: a family built around care, annoyance free of anger and shame, happiness free of guilt, and love free of expectation. He’s almost sad to go when February turns to March and the weather takes a turn for the better.

Of course, he leaves them with protection talismans (after warning Zhou Han not to touch a single one) and promises to return, but he feels as if they’ve given him something intangible he’ll never be able to repay.

March and April take him closer to The Cloud Recesses, back to the place where they parted, where they last spoke face to face. Money pouch full, he scours marketplaces and reputable shops for gifts, but finds nothing that doesn’t seem trivial. After putting down the tenth jade hairpin, he gives up. He has enough treasures in his qiankun pouch and his bag – he’s disappointed, yes, but he’s never needed to provide Lan Zhan with anything from Gusu anyway.

The anticipation of seeing Lan Zhan is killing him – he’s almost scared everything will spill out the moment he lays eyes on him. These days, riding along the coast, he wants to announce to the passerby I’m going to the Cloud Recesses to see the Chief Cultivator! I’m going to ask him to marry me! I am in love with him!  

Keeping his mouth shut is always a struggle, after all.

He’s tired of being on the road. His journey is over, has been over since he left the Zhou family. It’s been four long years.

It’s time to go home.

The hills unfurl before him, stalky grass itching his ankles and reminding him of the last time he’d been here, a seeming eternity ago. The silence receives him.

He remembers the song they’d played together just prior to his departure, music spilling out over the calm beauty of Gusu. That song – he’s never found out the name, but it’s their song. In this world, how many things can Wei Wuxian claim to be truly his?

So few, yet this nameless song must be his, it can’t be anything else. He’s just lifting Chenqing to his lips, when he hears, “Wei Ying,” behind him, in that awfully familiar tone.

All thoughts of playing forgotten, he turns around and sees the man he loves. Heavens above, it’s been so long. Far too long. How had he known to come?

Lan Zhan looks the same as always, one arm tucked behind his back, head held high even with the heavy ornamentation. He looks good.

“Lan Zhan, I’m back! I don’t know how you do it, but you’re always right here when I need it,” he says cheerfully, dragging Lil Apple over. “Is there room for me at the Cloud Recesses? I’ll be good.” Yeah, right. He’s more likely about to upend the entire cultivation world.

“There is room. Welcome back.” The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth curls up in a hesitant smile, and the world stops for a moment before restarting. “Have you been well?” he asks as they begin walking toward the Cloud Recesses. It seems like a pleasure to travel slowly, step by step. For a moment Wei Wuxian pictures his family in his head: the mother sitting atop the donkey, the father holding the reins, and a child riding on his father’s shoulders. Something curls warmly in his gut.

“Oh, I’ve been wonderful,” he chatters, unable to keep silent. “I’ve been all over the place, you probably know, and I met so many people! And I bet you’ve been doing great as Chief Cultivator, you know, corralling the unruly cultivators and all. You should thank me, after all, I gave you all that good practice disciplining a rule-breaking guest disciple. Better put it to good use.”

“The cultivators are simple to call to order compared to Wei Ying.”

“Don’t make fun of me, Lan Zhan!! You didn’t miss me at all, did you?”

“Missed Wei Ying. Did you miss me?”

“Of course I did! I even sent you drawings with Jin Ling that time, did you see the sweet potato farm?”

Lan Zhan answers the affirmative.

Like this, Wei Wuxian manages to fill the air with nonstop small talk until they get to the gate of the Cloud Recesses, where the guards let them in without a second thought. Lil Apple is taken away to the stables first, where Lan Jingyi is sure to spoil it rotten, and then they’re off.

Lan Zhan sweeps him from the entrance of the Cloud Recesses toward the Jingshi at a punishing pace, but Wei Wuxian still manages to catch glimpses of his surroundings as they rush by. They make his gifts seem so inadequate. Yes, the paintings and calligraphy scrolls he purchased in Qinghe are likely some of the finest in the world, but how could they compare to the ancient scrolls carefully painted by Lan ancestors that grace the walls of the Cloud Recesses? The hair ornaments and embroidered pouches seem so frivolous now that he’s seen the graceful wrought-silver piece that adorns Lan Zhan’s elegant knot of hair and the classic cloud-embroidered pouch hidden in Lan Zhan’s sleeve.

All his gifts are so worldly – he has courting gifts from every corner of the universe, yet they all seem mismatched in the harmonic, secluded world that is Lan Zhan’s treasured home. The trinkets in his bag seem more like the spoils of his travels than carefully considered gifts meant to reflect his respect to the Lan family and their ancestral home.

Surprisingly, he remembers at this moment what Jiang Cheng had said. Pretty gifts won’t make Hanguang-jun more likely to marry you.

The gifts are frivolous. He’s giving them because he wants to do this right, because he wants to give Lan Zhan pretty things for the sake of it too.

When the reach the Jingshi, Wei Wuxian steels his nerves. The door slides open to a familiar scene: guqin polished in the corner facing the light, neat stacks of letters and scrolls lined up on a low table, and tea already prepared in the center of the room. It brings an overwhelming sense of safety. Jing is the right word for it.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, testing the name out on his tongue.


“Let’s have tea. There’s something I want to tell you.”

“Please sit.” Lan Zhan motions for him to drop his things and get comfortable, but instead, he chooses to lug everything over to the tea-table.

They sit in silence like that for a while, relishing in the comfort of each other’s company. The tea is good, much better than the Jin Sect’s expensive crap, and Wei Wuxian finds himself fidgeting with his robes.

“Lan Zhan,” he begins again, setting down his teacup. “I have a lot of stories from my travels. Will you hear them?”

“Yes. I am interested in hearing about your travels. Wei Ying was busy and did not send many letters, so there is much to catch up on.”

The bitchiness is endearing at this point, and Wei Wuxian has to fight back a smile. He reaches into his qiankun pouches and travel bag and begins pulling out the courting gifts he’s accumulated.

Lan Zhan’s gaze is steady and serene, but Wei Wuxian can see confusion sit in the quirk of an eyebrow. He pumps a mental fist when he sees Lan Zhan eyeing each item with unhidden curiosity, gazing heavily in particular at some of the traditional music scores from Yunmeng.

“Wei Ying…what is this?”

“Well…I said I had many stories. I wandered all over, from Qinghe to Lanling to Yunmeng to Gusu. I traveled along rivers, deep within forests, and across all seasons. I saw so many sights and met so many people. But really, this all just becomes one story.” He straightens, the sighs and slumps again, unable to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes. “Lan Zhan, this is that story.”

“I am listening.”

“It started nearly a year after we parted on those hills. I woke up one day with the sun, and I knew. It was a realization so great I immediately turned, and rode toward the north, toward Qinghe…” He tells the story, tracking Lan Zhan’s reactions. The horror at his conquest of Bixi. The minor twitch at Wei Wuxian’s slightly overdramatic retelling of how Lan Ziyang nursed him back from near death. The warmth at his stories of helping people and doing good, rediscovering his love for life. The stoniness at his reconciliation with Jin Ling and to an extent, Jiang Cheng. There are a lot of holes in this story – he doesn’t explain why he had stayed at Lotus Pier for months, nor why he had snuck into a Discussion Conference. Lan Zhan doesn’t dare to interrupt. “And then…” He grows silent as he reaches the natural conclusion, his journey into Gusu.

“And then,” Lan Zhan prompts, with no hint of impatience.

“Lan Wangji,” he says. Lan Zhan’s eyes narrow. “Hanguang-jun.” Hanguang-jun twitches again. “Your Excellency, Chief Cultivator. This humble one would like to tell you the end of the story. It ends like this: my name is Wei Wuxian of Yunmeng Jiang. I have brought you these gifts as signs of my goodwill, and of my intentions. I do not presume any forthcoming conclusion or returned sentiment, but I wish to formally announce my intentions to court you. Lan Zhan.” He allows himself to bow until his forehead touches the ground.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Zhan moves as if to stand, but Wei Wuxian rises first.

“No, Lan Zhan, not yet,” he says, face desperate but calm. “Give me a little more time first. I have one more thing to give you.”

It seems to take Herculean effort for Lan Zhan to sit back properly, his hands fisted oddly in his white robes.

“Presented here I have the best gifts I could find from Qinghe, Lanling, and Yunmeng. Normally, I would hope to give them to you over the course of months or years. I didn’t feel like I could wait months. I didn’t feel like I had years. Aha, Lan Zhan, I know what you’re thinking. Have I forgotten Gusu? Of course not. I have one more gift to give. You see, I don’t have many things that are my own, especially not from Gusu. But years ago, far from here, a Gusu Lan cultivator gave me a song. Today, I’m taking it home. I don’t know the title nor the words, and I don’t know what the song was intended for. When I play it today, however, rest assured, it is a love song.”

Lan Zhan jolts visibly at the word ‘love,’ but otherwise is frozen as Wei Wuxian takes out Chenqing and holds it to his lips.

He begins to play.

It’s a song he hasn’t allowed himself to play in years, not since they parted. It’s unforgettable.

It’s halfway through the song, before the swell of it, when Lan Zhan gets up and retrieves his guqin, and adds in, as if he can resist no longer.

Ah, Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and listens to the call and response of the dizi and guqin. So this was a love song all along. So Lan Zhan has loved me all along.

The realization doesn’t accompany surprise nor relief, just a settling of the soul. There is a home in his heart now, something wondrous and big, untamed by the music. Another thing worth living for.

The last notes peter out into the air, and neither of them speaks for a tender moment.

Finally, surprisingly, it is Lan Zhan who speaks first. “Apologies,” he murmurs, “for interrupting your gift. It was improper.” There is another beat of silence. “The name of the song. It is Wangxian. Has always been.”

Wei Wuxian is grinning ear to ear. “So, Lan Zhan, what do you say? Ah, wait, I want to say it for real. I even practiced it. You’re really great. I like you. Or in other words, I fancy you, I love you, I want you, I can’t leave you, I whatever you. I want to – um – play music with you for the rest of my life! Lan Zhan,” he says, eyes shining. “Will you marry me?”

“…like you,” Lan Zhan replies, standing up and moving around the table at an incomprehensible speed. “Fancy you, want you, can’t leave you…Wei Ying. I love you. You can do whatever you want with me. Play music. Marry me. Wei Ying. Everything is yours.”

Mine. Mine? What do I have that is my own? Nothing. The answer is nothing. Everything, all of it, it’s ours.

Wei Wuxian meets him in the middle in an embrace, head resting again the warmth of Lan Zhan’s solid chest. His head is a mess of incoherence, punctuated occasionally by the word husband. It’s not that he can’t believe it, it’s that he hadn’t allowed himself to imagine the after. The rush of excitement at all the open possibilities of his life, stretching forward into happiness, is overwhelming. Lan Zhan’s heartbeat under his ear is rapid.

Without meaning to, his hands have clenched in the fine material of Lan Zhan’s robes, and he feels as if he could stay in this position forever. Is he crying? He might be crying. Lan Zhan is definitely crying.

Finally, they separate, sitting where they stand so that they clasp hands over their touching knees. Wei Wuxian looks around the Jingshi, and then back at Lan Zhan, where silent tears roll down his face with ease. Even crying looks effortless for him! I’m probably red and sweaty and gross. “I get to have this,” he says wondrously, squeezing Lan Zhan’s hand.

“Every day,” says Lan Zhan. “Until there are no more days. And even then.”

It’s his first forever thing. “How long, Lan Zhan? How long have you waited for me?”

He closes his eyes, and Wei Wuxian can tell that he is reliving, rewinding his memories back. There had been so much pain in between. How does he bear all the pain that Wei Wuxian had caused him? Curiously, Lan Zhan’s ears go pink.

“Lan-er-gege, are you embarrassed?”

“I am not.”

“You are! Did you like me when I was an annoying little disciple studying at the Cloud Recesses?”

A beat of silence, then, “Yes.”

Wei Wuxian’s jaw drops. “No way! Lan Zhan, there’s no way…so when I messed up all your notes and fought you on the roof and made you supervise me in the Library Pavilion all that time, you thought that was hot?”

Lan Zhan is very stiff, but there’s also a strange amusement etched on his face. “It was…endearing.”

“Endearing!! Lan-er-gege, don’t be cute, my heart can’t take it,” Wei Wuxian whines. “I’ll mess up your notes every day, how about that?”


“I’ll disrupt you while you’re teaching all the young, impressionable Lan disciples.”

“Mn.” Lan Zhan’s eyes are gleaming with laughter.

“And I’ll barge into your important Chief Cultivator meetings just to kiss you in front of all the cultivators.”

“Wei Ying.”

“That’s a yes?”

Then Lan Zhan is on him, and it’s a travesty, honestly, that it took him this long to kiss him, even after that heartfelt confession, the self-control–!

It takes them a second to figure out how to kiss, a moment to tilt their heads and remember that their mouths were meant to fit together like this, and Wei Wuxian has only ever been kissed once, back then on Phoenix Mountain. This feels different. This feels like a natural conclusion, an ending to a story and the beginning of another, better one.

Wei Wuxian is halfway in Lan Zhan’s lap, hands knotted all the way back in Lan Zhan’s hair, when his finger brushes Lan Zhan’s forehead ribbon. He leans back just enough to rasp, “Lan Zhan – your ribbon – I–” before Lan Zhan reaches up and unties it deftly, just to wrap it around Wei Wuxian’s wrist. “Lan Zhan, are you sure?”

“Wei Ying,” he says, in a devastatingly deep voice, pupils so dilated his eyes are ink black. “You are going to be my husband.” And that’s the end of it.

“Husband,” Wei Wuxian whispers back, just to watch the way pink spreads from Lan Zhan’s ears all the way down his neck and into his robes.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says as if he can’t quite believe it himself.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. We could’ve had this so long ago. I’m sorry I made you wait even more, but we can have this now, can’t we? It was all for the best, really, there were so many gifts I wanted to find!”

Lan Zhan sits back gently as if just putting the pieces together. “…ah. These past three years, Wei Ying was…searching for suitable courting gifts.” He makes a look like Wei Wuxian is stupid, which, rude.

“Yes, and helping out, as I said earlier! Even if the cultivators don’t, a lot of people like me now. You’re Chief Cultivator, you know, and it’s just not right for you to marry someone so universally hated. I wanted to be someone worth knowing, worth loving.”

“Wei Ying. I want to know everything about you. I have wanted.” Lan Zhan’s brows are furrowed. “And I have loved. The gifts, they are lovely. But they do not matter. I would have married Wei Ying had you given me nothing.”

“That’s what Jiang Cheng said too – oh, don’t give me that look, Jiang Cheng and I made up – but you couldn’t have, Lan Zhan. That’s not the way things are done. I would’ve tarnished your reputation. You’ve been through so much; I couldn’t have asked you to go through more pain for my sake.”

“Since when has Wei Ying cared about the way things are done?”

“Since it’s about you!”

His brows furrow even further. “You did not have to present me with gifts or change how the world perceives you. You are enough.”

Wei Wuxian laughs because this is the one thing no one has ever told him – that he himself is enough, for happiness, for joy. “Three years, then, I wasted.”

“Not a waste. You were happy.”

And looking back on it, Wei Wuxian had been happy. Maybe not at the beginning, throwing himself blindly at a deadly monster, but he’d found happiness, more than he had ever felt like he deserved. “As always, you’re wiser than me, haha, you’re right. I would’ve been happier if you’d written me more letters!” he says shamelessly as if he hadn’t stopped sending letters after leaving Qinghe because he had been afraid of showing too much of his hand.

“You – were avoiding me. I did not wish to trouble you with my words.” He takes a deep breath. “And when you were at Lotus Pier, Wei Ying, I thought you wished to live there. Permanently. I thought perhaps you did not think to write because you were settling into your new home.”

“Me? Lotus Pier?” Wei Wuxian laughs maniacally, almost falling over. Lan Zhan gives him a concerned look, which is even funnier because of the way his hair is still rumpled from making out and his eyes are still red-rimmed from tears. “I mean, it was great to stay there in the summer. It was great for me, look, I got all tanned and everything. But living there…no way! It never even once crossed my mind. Jiang Cheng might just kill me – sorry, that was in poor taste. I mean, we talked, but I don’t think I could live there. Oh! Lan Zhan, by the way, Jiang Cheng has already planned our entire wedding down to the very last detail. I promised him we’d go together to Lotus Pier to take a look if you said yes.”

Lan Zhan, subtle for anyone else, but extremely blatantly for him, gives Wei Wuxian the stink eye. That sets him off again laughing, clutching at Lan Zhan’s robes for purchase.

“See, I told him you wouldn’t want it!”

“Mn. Tell Sect Leader Jiang that Gusu Lan will take care of wedding preparations,” which is Lan Zhan’s way of saying tell Jiang Cheng to fuck off and shove his wedding plans up his ass! Wei Wuxian thinks that’s adorable. Wei Wuxian also thinks he’d really like to use some of things Jiang Cheng has written and resolves to slowly wear Lan Zhan down over the next months. Leading up to the wedding. A wedding!! His wedding. Heavens.

“We’ll see,” says Wei Wuxian diplomatically. “We have time.”


“I’d also like to visit Zewu-jun soon if that’s possible. And your uncle – I’m dreading it a little, to be honest, but when I said I’d do this right, I really meant it.”

“Wei Ying’s choice?”

“Yes, Lan Zhan, my choice! It’d make me happy.”

“Then we will see Brother tomorrow. Tonight, rest.”

Wei Wuxian wiggles his eyebrows. “Rest? Are you tired, Lan Zhan?” He leans forward and does what he’s been thinking about for the last ten minutes – drags his tongue slowly across Lan Zhan’s bottom lip.

Lan Zhan’s eyes darken again and zero in on his forehead ribbon, still tied securely on Wei Wuxian’s wrist.

“Mn. Not tired.”

The story never ends, not really.

Here’s the thing about being brought back to life. It doesn’t fix all the things that were wrong before you died. Wei Wuxian knows this – remembers letting go in his first life and wanting to let go in his second.

Jiang Cheng would call it being self-sacrificial or always wanting to be the hero. Jiang Cheng had always thought he’d forsaken Yunmeng Jiang just to take care of a bunch of Wens. Some stupid morals over the debt owed to family.

He hadn’t wanted to forsake either – he kept thinking if he walked off the righteous path there had to be some way in the middle, some compromise, some way to bring all the people he loved together. Loved, again, in the past tense; now it’s all grief. Grief is love left out to rot, with no body to receive it, and of the Wens, all he has left is Wen Ning and A-Yuan. For a while, he’d thought he’d lost both. It was never about sacrifice or a hero complex, it was always because he didn’t want to sacrifice anything. It was greed. The filthy desire to be known and to be loved, and thus love too many. He saved Lotus Pier by losing his golden core. He saved the Wens, however briefly, by losing his home. Would saving all of them be worth it if it meant losing himself?

A thousand times, yes.  

Or back then, that was what he had believed.

Is it worthy, too, to save yourself?

This, now, a thousand times, yes.