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before those hands pulled me from the earth

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Okay, but like, what if Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui are playing outside one day? They're kids, but they're older kids- ten or so. Old enough to not need constant adult supervision, and also old enough to know better than to go by the old earthworks the entire village avoids. It's a few li out of town. A sort of tumulus that's said to be haunted, dangerous. Some grannies still talk about the huli jing in the mound.

But like, they're kids! Jingyi is terrified of potential spirits, but Sizhui is charismatic and very good at convincing him to explore anyway. So they're there, mostly playing, but also pulling bark off trees and picking flowers and building their own tumulus so they can tell their interpretation of the story of the mound, with props. Each of them, obviously, getting more and more extreme to try and freak the other out. Sizhui is off collecting more bittersweet for his rendition of the great bloody ancient battles and malevolent hungry ghosts that remain when there's a loud cracking sound and the earth gives way below him.

Cut to Jingyi, terrified, as he stares down the open maw of earth into the cavernous room below, where Sizhui is lying on the ground.

"A-Yuan!!" Jingyi calls, desperate, and is relieved when Sizhui looks up at him and yells back, "I'm okay - but I can't see a way out of here."

Jingyi wants to make sure Sizhui gets out of there. He knows he should run and get help. Hanguang-jun is really smart and yells less than any other parent (Sizhui is lucky) and so he'd be a good resource here. But Jingyi does not want to leave Sizhui alone here, in this hole, because what if ghosts get him? And even the lenient Hanguang-jun would probably get super mad that they were playing by the mound.

Sizhui gets up and dusts himself off, to prove to Jingyi that he's not hurt. Then, in the scant light streaming in from the hole he fell through, he starts poking around. As Jingyi is frantically running through options, lying on his belly and staring down into the hole, trying to figure out the quickest route to Hanguang-jun since he's not old enough for his own sword to ride yet, Sizhui gives a shout of surprise.

"Jingyi, there's someone down here!" he says. "It looks like- it looks like they're sleeping"

Jingyi: wants to leave Sizhui even less. What is it that's down there? What if it wakes up?? What if it hurts him??? What if it's Jingyi's fault, for letting his friend talk him into going to the earthwork and then leaving him alone there to face this unknown danger????

Sizhui: fascinated, staring at this waxy body. He can't see it breathe, but he pokes its arm and it's warm to the touch. Not like a fierce corpse at all, which is only ever room-temperature.

He's old enough to know he's in over his head. "go get my dad," he tells Jingyi, sternly. When Jingyi still hesitates, Sizhui tries another tactic. Lets his voice wobble, holds his eyes wide enough that tears prickle, and says, with a (very fake) half-whine, "Jingyi, I want my dad."

It may be obviously fake, but it still works. So Jingyi runs, stumbling over his own feet, to go get Hanguang-jun.

It takes a terrifying half a shi for him to reach Sizhui's quiet little home on the edge of the village. Hanguang-jun is sitting in the garden. He's moved his guqin table outside, but he's not playing. just resting his hands on the strings and staring into the middle distance.

Jingyi is a perceptive kid. He knows Sizhui's dad is often sad and tries to hide it. He would normally feel really bad about interrupting his quiet contemplation, but there are much, much more pressing matters at hand. "Hanguang-jun," he yells, even though the villagers discourage yelling. (There is, after all, no telling what will hear.) "Sizhui — A-Yuan — We were playing near the mounds—"

Hanguang-jun whirls and stands in one graceful motion. His sleeves seem to float on the air, and then settle at his side. "Jingyi," he says, in a hoarse whisper. "What happened?"

The second the story gets out, Hanguang-jun whips out Bichen and stands atop it. He picks Jingyi up like Jingyi is a baby, and not ten whole years old, and they fly off to the tumulus. (Jingyi has never gone so fast on a sword before. Sizhui's dad is POWERFUL.)

Sizhui has spent the time Jingyi's been running around trying to explore the area. His golden core is still developing, but he has light talismans and once he's stopped being so shaken from the fall, he uses them to illuminate the chamber.

He immediately wishes he hadn't. It's vast. It doesn't take up the entire center of the tumulus - that would be structurally unsound - but there's damp rocks bolstering the walls. They look... slimy. There are piles of bones, here, there, everywhere. A dried-up pool crusted in something that isn't water.

He can see, from here, where bamboo was splintered and woven into mats and used to reinforce the - ceiling? - of this space. How tree roots came and grew among it. How he stepped on a spot that had broken down with time, and fallen through. There are so many roots, extending down like haunting limbs dangling from the ceiling.

The bones are in disarray. No clear bodies, but the bones are clearly human. He's faintly sure that the pool had been filled with blood.

And then there's the body. Pristine, still, lying on a bed of desiccated branches. A single talisman fluttering on the chest. He doesn't recognize it; not the particular array of characters and radicals, not what it's meant to do. The script is messy. He's pretty sure he sees 'sleep' and 'subdue.'

He feels like maybe he shouldn't get close enough to try and read it clearly. He watches the body for a long time; it's the least upsetting thing about the room (cavern?). There are no inhales. No exhales. There's no breeze at all within the chamber, but the talisman still flutters.

The body looks like it belongs to a man, pale in - death? Repose? The air in here is stale. There's no entrance or exit beyond the hole he fell through. It's been around long enough for trees to grow on the ground and send their roots shooting through the layers of dirt and rock and grass above. The body has been here for a long, long time.

And yet there's no decay, even though all the remaining flesh in the chamber has decayed a long, long time ago. The body does not smell. The body is warm. The body is dressed in black robes, which have succumbed to the ravages of time; they've fallen away in many spots.

Sizhui averts his eyes from the nakedness where clothes have worn away. He felt brave when Jingyi was a couple dozen chi above him and clearly panicking. It's different now that he's all alone. Now that all he can hear is the far-off scream of a bird, and the oppressive silence of this tomb. He shivers. This body looks distantly familiar in some way.

Not that it should.

He's a smart kid. He can put facts together. He's pretty sure this body has been here much longer than he's been alive.

The dried blood in the indentation in the ground, unnervingly, also doesn't smell.

It's been almost no time at all since Jingyi left for Hanguang-jun. Certainly not as long as it took them to get here to play their game. It feels, however, like an eternity.

He startles when he hears his dad calling his name, desperately, from above. Hanguang-jun pauses only long enough to help Jingyi off Bichen onto the safe(?) ground above the hole and then he's flying in, scooping Sizhui into his arms, and clutching him close.

"You're okay," he says. "Are you okay? You're okay, A-Yuan, I'm here."

Sizhui is a big boy. A brave boy. He can handle things.

He lets out a sob into the thick fabric of his father's winter robes, and lets himself be comforted. "I'm okay," he tells his dad. "I'm not hurt, I'm just -."

He pauses. What is he? He doesn't know. Unnerved. Scared? No. "What even is this place?" he asks, finally. "Did you know it was here, baba?"

Hanguang-jun frowns. "I did not," he admits, glancing around. His face doesn't change much, but Sizhui can read the horror dawning here. "I just knew there was... resentful energy in the area."

Hanguang-jun's eyes alight on the body. He freezes. Gasps. All color drains from his face.

"I know, I thought it was weird, too-" Sizhui starts to say, but his dad clearly isn't listening to him.

"Wei Ying," Hanguang-jun says, still staring at the body, and faints.

"Who the heck is Wei Ying?" Jingyi asks, from where he's still crouched up above. He looks very, very shocked, so Sizhui decides to forgive him the curse word.

"I don't know," Sizhui says.

He is, in all honesty, feeling increasingly frantic. His dad doesn't faint. His dad doesn't know secret maybe-dead people whose bodies have been lying underground for untold years. His dad is mostly normal, for all that he's a powerful cultivator living in a small village in the area once known as gusu. He makes Sizhui breakfast every dinner. Forces him to do chores. He's plain just not cool enough to faint when facing an unfamiliar body in a forgotten cavern under the village's feared tumulus! Sizhui loves his dad but the only cool thing about him is his guqin collection and that he's teaching Sizhui to form a really strong golden core.

"Dad," Sizhui says, loudly. He's doing all he can to support him from falling down, but his dad is heavy and Sizhui is small for ten. "Dad, wake up, who's Wei Ying? Dad, are you okay?"

He doesn't want to send Jingyi for more help. He doesn't want to be alone.

Since there’s now a talisman lighting up the chamber, Jingyi can see the fear clearly written all over Sizhui’s face. He absolutely doesn’t want to jump into the hole - not least because someone needs to be able to go get more help if Hanguang-jun doesn’t wake up - but he still feels frantic with his utter inability to help. He shouts down reassurances and offers to get more people.

He's just about to go look for something to help when Hanguang-jun stirs and blinks.

“Are you okay, sir?” Jingyi calls, as Sizhui cries “Baba!” and peers at him anxiously.

“What happened?” Hanguang-jun asks

"I don’t know,” Sizhui says. He's near tears. “Dad, who’s Wei Ying?”

His dad looks confused. “What?”

“What?”

"I don’t know a Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun says. He frowns. “Why do you ask?”

“You looked at that corpse and said Wei Ying and passed the heck ou- sorry, I mean. passed out,” Jingyi offers from his perch above the hole.

“The body.” Hanguang-jun’s brow furthers deeper. “Sizhui, we should leave. That body should not be preserved in such a way. This place is too old.” His mouth is a razor-thin line. "I suspect demonic cultivation, given—“ he gestures at the tumulus around them.

Sizhui, next to him, and Jingyi, above, both shiver. Demonic cultivation is a myth. Rumor has it that it’s been outlawed for five hundred years.

“But dad, what happened?” Sizhui asks.

"I don’t know,” Hanguang-jun says, honestly. “There was a swell of resentful energy - you’d have felt it if you were a little older, it’s a strength-of-core thing - and then suddenly you and Lan Jingyi were calling my name.”

“We need to get out of here quickly,” he decides. “Gather people to cleanse this place or rope it off.”

But when he draws Bichen, it falls to the floor.

“Dad?!”

“Whatever happened must have drained my spiritual energy,” Hanguang-jun says. He draws a rope out of his qiankun bag and ties it to Bichen’s hilt. “Sorry, and thank you,” he murmurs to the sword spirit, and calls, “Jingyi, catch!”

Bichen launches. Jingyi grabs the rope as it passes him, but misses. The edge of it falls on top of the body and knocks the fluttering talisman loose.

The earth groans.

The earth groans, and shudders.

There’s an eerie whistle that whips through the trees like wind. Jingyi falls to his knees - luckily, away from the hole and close to Bichen. He takes the hilt gingerly in hand.

Below, the piles of bones are drawing up into skeletons. Some have gaps. Some of the gaps have tiny bone-dust particles floating within them, like the skeletons know which bones belong where, and to whom, and are leaving space when the bones no longer exist in one piece.

In the center of the chaos: Hanguang-jun, curved protectively around Sizhui. And the body, inert no more, standing instead on its stick-bed.

The body holds a black flute to its mouth. The body's eyes are closed as it blows into the flute. The skeletons, to Jingyi's ever-increasing horror, are responding to the terrible flute noise. Gathering around the body, protectively. Directing menacing empty eye sockets toward his friends

"Sizhuiiiiiii," Jingyi yells. He's not a brave boy in the face of dead things, but he can be brave for his best friend. He has Hanguang-jun's sword. He can leap into the fray and protect them.

Before he can jump, though, the body's eyes open. They glow red, like rubies, like magma gathering below the surface, burning hot and bright.

The body pulls the flute away from its lips, which curve into an awful, terrible smile. The winds are whipping its robes around it, showing flashes of bone-white skin.

"Who dare enter my home," the body says. "Don't you know who I am?"

Jingyi's dander is up, watching Hanguang-jun try to protect Sizhui with no sword. "No," he yells, as loud as he can, gripping Bichen, ready to let it fly back down. "And I'm not scared of you!"

(He is.)

He points down at Hanguang-jun "Don't you know who that is? That's the best cultivator in Jianghu, he can totally kick your butt!"

The body's gaze falls on Hanguang-jun, and it noticeably falters. Almost drops his flute. "Lan Zhan," it says, hands clenching into fists. "What the fuck are you doing here? I thought I told you to leave me the hell alone."

"Who's Lan Zhan," Jingyi continues, when it's clear that Hanguang-jun is just going to huddle around Sizhui and stare at the body in complete confusion. "And who the heck are you?"

The body does not look away from Hanguang-jun. "I am the Yiling Laozu," it says. "And this is my home."

Hanguang-jun startles at that. "Yiling Laozu," he says, frowning, like he's turning over the title. "Yiling Laozu?" and then he roars, "Lan Jingyi, GIVE ME MY SWORD. WE'RE GETTING OUT OF HERE IMMEDIATELY."

It's the first time Jingyi has ever heard Hanguang-jun raise his voice. "What's a Yiling Laozu?" Jingyi asks, as Sizhui stirs. He tosses Bichen back down to Hanguang-jun, who grips it in one trembling hand.

"It's that myth, right dad?" Sizhui asks. "From- from that battle that was here. Five hundred years ago. right? When they outlawed demonic cultivation?"

"Yes," says Hanguang-jun. He looks more assured now that his sword is back in hand and he can hold it at the body. "By all accounts, he was a terrible menace around here back then. Had spiritual weapons of untold power and resentful energy. He killed a lot of cultivators. Some of our ancestors died, too, when they laid siege on his..." He trails off. "His tumulus."

The body is staring at Hanguang-jun, eyes narrowed, but he's not calling on the skeletons to attack. "What are you - what are you saying? Lan Zhan, you're talking nonsense."

Hanguang-jun levels his eyes at the body. "By all accounts, even though the cultivators lost the siege, the Yiling Laozu died soon thereafter anyway. Over time, we've lost track of where his tumulus was, which is why there's always a cultivator in villages near burial mounds. To watch, and eliminate any threats that arise."

"Elimna- Lan Zhan?" the body sinks into a sit. Its posture is terrible. It laughs, but Jingyi is pretty sure it's not finding anything funny. "Zhiji? If Lan Zhan wants me dead, too, then there really is no hope for me at all!"

Hanguang-jun hands his sword to Sizhui. "I have my guqin," he tells him. "You know enough. Fly up to Jingyi."

When Sizhui protests, he firms up his voice. "Now, A-Yuan."

"A-Yuan?" the body whispers. Its eyes are losing their glow. They're subsiding into a clear grey. "A-Yuan?"

"Go," Hanguang-jun says, and Sizhui goes.

Jingyi grabs his hand as soon as it's within reach and hauls him out of the hole. pulls him into a huge bear hug.

"Are you ok?" he asks, frantically.

Sizhui shakes his head. "Dad," he says, pointing at where Hanguang-jun is stepping forward.

"I am not your Lan Zhan," Hanguang-jun says.

"But-" the body looks upset, confused. "But the kids are calling you Hanguang-jun, and that boy - that A-Yuan - he looks... are you really not Lan Wangji?"

"I am Lan Wangji," Hanguang-jun says, inclining his head. "But not yours."

"What year is it," the body demands. Despite its overwhelmingly bloodless appearance, when Hanguang-jun tells it the year, it pales even more. Puts its head in its hands. "I- what?"

"There was a talisman," Hanguang-jun explains, and picks it up gingerly. Passes it over to the body.

The body - the Yiling Laozu - takes it. "Oh," it says. "Oh."

"Do you know what happened?" Hanguang-jun asks.

"Everyone came," the body says. Jingyi has to strain to hear it, it's talking so quietly. "To hunt us, because - never mind. They died. Shijie- and Jiang Cheng- and, and you."

"Not me," Hanguang-jun murmurs. He's keeping a few inches between them. Jingyi can see the hand he has on his qiankun bag and the guqin within. Gods, Sizhui's dad is such a cool and smart cultivator. "Your Lan Zhan?"

The body nods. "My Lan Zhan," it says. "So, I couldn't..."

It trails off for a moment. Hanguang-jun waits.

"I broke the seal," the body says, eventually. "I think - the Wens were gone by then, and my siblings, and my-" it breaks off, scrubs a hand across its eyes. "So I broke the seal in the room with all the bodies, but they wouldn't take me. Even when I couldn't control them, Shijie wouldn't... you wouldn't..."

It shudders. "It wouldn't stop. So I guess I figured there was only one surefire way to take myself out of the equation." It looks at the talisman in its hand, then crumples it up. "It's nothing like what I did for Wen Ning," it says. "but I learned a lot with him. I learned-" it shakes its head. "Is this the new world I was waiting for? Since you--?"

"I am not sure what the talisman does," Hanguang-jun admits, gravely. "I cannot say. I do not know. Only you can know."

The body shakes its head, and shudders. Rubs a hand over its eyes again.

As Jingyi watches, Hanguang-jun reaches over to pat the body's shoulder, consolingly. The body's threadbare robes shift; Hanguang-jun's hand brushes against the skin of its shoulder.

Hanguang-jun freezes. "Wei Ying?" he says, in a voice like nothing Jingyi has ever heard from him.

"What?" Jingyi hisses.

Sizhui shushes him: "I don't know either, just watch!"

The body has frozen too. "Lan Zhan?"

"Wei Ying?" Hanguang-jun sounds frantic. He's blinking a lot; Jingyi can see the shadow of his eyelashes as he does. "Is it - are you - am I... Wei Ying!"

Hanguang-jun's hand falls. Lands on top of the body's fingers.

There's a long quiet.

"They sure are staring at each other a lot," Jingyi observes.

"Jingyi," Sizhui hisses. "Do you think they're okay?"

"HEY, HANGUANG-JUN," Jingyi yells. "ARE YOU OKAY?"

"Do not worry, Jingyi," Hanguang-jun calls. He's still not looking away from the body.

"DO YOU WANT US TO SEND YOUR SWORD DOWN?" Jingyi asks. "BLINK THREE TIMES IF YOU WANT BICHEN, HANGUANG-JUN, WE CAN THROW HER RIGHT ON DOWN."

"Do you think we should go down there?" he asks Sizhui, when Hanguang-jun doesn't respond.

Sizhui is staring down the hole, too. "Let's give him the sword," he says, contemplatively. "And then I think maybe we should go.... somewhere else. I haven't seen that look on dad's face before but I've seen it on your dad's face, and like... we probably shouldn't be here."

"Are you talking about...?"

"Cooties," Sizhui says, in a horrified tone. "DAD, WE'RE SENDING BICHEN DOWN! PLEASE USE IT TO FIGHT THE COOTIES!"

"Boys," Hanguang-jun says, mildly, still not looking away from the body.

Jingyi knows what happens when Hanguang-jun sounds mild. Stuff starts to go down when Hanguang-jun sounds mild. He absolutely eviscerated another cultivator who was totally in the wrong on an academic night-hunt two months ago while sounding particularly mild throughout.

"BYE HANGUANG-JUN SEND A MESSENGER BUTTERFLY IF YOU NEED US," he yells as Sizhui sends Bichen down and they make their escape to the little mock-tumulus they'd started building all those hours ago.

They don't go home, of course. They don't want to be too far from the hole, just in case.

Hanguang-jun finds them there a full shi later. He's astride Bichen. The body is in his arms, held tight; Hanguang-jun has one arm under the body's knees and the other around its shoulders. "This is Wei Wuxian," he says, as they alight on the ground. "He'll be staying with us for a while."

"Mom says you should never bring random corpses home with you," Jingyi says. "Isn't there an entire Lan clan rule about it?"

"I think so," Sizhui adds, but he smiles and bows at the body. "But I'm happy to have you as a guest, Yiling Laozu."

"Ahh A-Yuan, you're so polite in this life too," the body says, as Jingyi sniffs surreptitiously. The body doesn't smell, weirdly enough.

There’s a tremulous look in Hanguang-jun’s eyes. like maybe he’s found something he didn’t even realize he was looking for. Jingyi knows the feeling; he rediscovered his old favorite childhood toy when he was tidying his room a few weeks ago and was delighted to play with it again. He's glad, though. Sometimes Hanguang-jun has seemed a little lost when things are quiet and it’s late at night and Jingyi is interrupting his silent contemplation to ask for a cup of water. He doesn’t get why some old (un?)dead guy might help with that, but surely anything that does can’t be all bad.

"I only stay with Hanguang-jun when my parents are on a night-hunt,” he tells the body. “so I don’t really get a vote. but I guess it’s okay if you stay.”

He glared as he says it, so the body knows that it should be careful with Hanguang-jun and Sizhui.

The body bows to him. “thank you, young master—“

"Lan Jingyi,” Hanguang-jun supplies.

"Lan Jingyi,” the body repeats.

Jingyi smiles at it, with all of his teeth. The body looks taken aback. Good.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui hisses, so Jingyi takes his hand and squeezes it reassuringly. "If it gets weird,” he whispers, loudly, “to have this ancient body in your house, Sizhui, you can always stay with me.”

The body fiddles with its flute, a strange small smile crossing its face as it regards them. “You’re very good at protecting your friends,” it observes.

Jingyi’s chest puffs with pride despite himself. "I am,” he says.

They make their way back to the village. Walking, because there’s just one sword between the four of them.

The corpse walks like a regular guy. no stiff joints. Jingyi lets himself relax a little. He's a good student. He knows that most ghosts and corpses and jiangshi get stiff in death. This body moves languidly down the hills and towards the faint lights in the distance.

And Sizhui seems okay. That's what’s important here: that Sizhui and Hanguang-jun stay okay.

+++

In the coming days, Hanguang-jun will call for the big, powerful cultivators to cleanse the mound. Jiang Wanyin. Wen Qing. Nie Mingjue. His own brother. Jin Zixuan. Luo Qingyang.

The body, growing more and more alive the longer it spends out of that cavern, will take on color from the sun and from the fresh air around them. It will grow vivacious, mischievous. Strict in weird and unexpected ways.

It knows more about scary things than Jingyi has ever considered. Some of its stories make ghosts almost less scary to him.

The body will cries when those other cultivators come. “Shijie?” it asks of Jiang Wanyin, who frowns in consternation until Hanguang-jun encourages them to shake hands.

Understanding dawns on his face. There’s more tears.

It’s all incredibly boring, actually. Jingyi thought powerful people would be more interesting, like Hanguang-jun.

It is, at least, cool to watch them cleanse the cavern. He and Sizhui are supposed to stay home, but they sneak out and watch from the trees; the way Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun and the body calm all those skeletons with music while everyone else fights the angrier ones with swords.

(Jingyi is SO glad that he's learning to cultivate, too. That one day he'll be the one who can fight all the ghosts and corpses. Maybe when he learns to liberate and suppress and eliminate these things, they won't be quite so scary.)

After the cavern has been cleansed and the hole re-sealed, Jingyi and Sizhui scramble out of the tree and sneak back home. They take the shortcut, which is why they see some of the cultivators who came (Jin sect, Jingyi is pretty sure) corner the body and try to - suppress? it? Sizhui turns to run and get Hanguang-jun, but Jingyi jumps in front of the cultivators before they can finish whatever it is they're trying to do to the body.

"What are you doing?" he demands. "Wei-qianbei isn't some hungry ghost for you to eliminate!"

"Jingyi," says the body. "It's okay. I'm not - natural. It makes sense that they'd try to cleanse a body that slept without dying for five hundred years."

"NO," Jingyi says. He watches, anxiously, for Sizhui to come back with Hanguang-jun. "Isn't the point to cultivate immortality? Shouldn't they be asking you for tips instead of trying to suppress you? Sleeping without dying for five hundred years is closer than probably anyone has ever come!"

"Baoshan Sanren," someone says, but Jingyi's never heard the name before so it can't belong to anyone important.

"You should be ashamed of yourselves," Jingyi says. "I don't get the whole thing where like a bunch of you guys were there in Wei-qianbei's earlier life and you're back again now except no one remembers him and no one else lived that entire time. Maybe it's because I wasn't there back then. But he's not like evil, you know?"

"Actually," Wei-qianbei starts. "I did kill all those-"

"You're not helping," Jingyi tells him, sternly.

Wei-qianbei shuts his mouth exaggeratedly, a small smile playing around his lips.

The Jin cultivators are staring at Jingyi, so he crosses his arms. Then he uncrosses them and bows, because he's a nice boy and knows his manners.

"I believe Hanguang-jun has arranged for you to stay in the village loom-house for the night," he says, and wraps his hand around Wei-qianbei's wrist. "Come on, Wei-qianbei, I'll show you the way home."

"I know the way home," Wei-qianbei whispers, as they make their way carefully away from the confrontation.

"I know, but someone's got to keep you out of trouble," Jingyi whispers back.

Wei-qianbei stares at him. "You're the weirdest ten year old i've ever met, Lan Jingyi."

"Yeah, well you're the weirdest undead corpse body I've ever met," Jingyi tells him. "So there."

Wei-qianbei's mouth quirks again, a smile tugging at its corners.

Hanguang-jun and Sizhui catch up a minute later. It feels nice, if a little weird, for Hanguang-jun to thank Jingyi so profusely for helping out. Jingyi just doesn't like bullies, that's all, and someone who tries to treat a person like a ghost is probably a bully.

(He still doesn't get why Hanguang-jun reacted so strongly to Wei-qianbei, either. His mom told him he'd understand when he's a little bit older, which Jingyi is pretty sure is the stupidest thing adults tend to say. But Hanguang-jun clearly really likes Wei-qianbei, as weird as he is and as quickly as that affection developed, so maybe Wei-qianbei is an okay guy. It's nice to see Hanguang-jun happy.)

After that, things will settle. The tumulus will grow quiescent again. Jingyi and Sizhui will stop sneaking out to play on it for a while, and then, as they enter their teenage years, will start again, with booze now. Eventually, Hanguang-jun and Wei-qianbei will get married.

+++

One day, years from now, Jingyi will be sacked out on the floor of an old, broken-down cottage with his best friend and some new cultivators after taking down a xiangliu.

One of the new guys, an Ouyang Zizhen, will be reading a salacious book on the history of cultivation. "Man, some of this stuff just sounds way too out there to be true," Ouyang Zizhen will say. "Like, this Yiling Laozu character? No way someone invented demonic cultivation and killed thousands of cultivators and just disappeared like that."

Sizhui will make a strangled noise.

"Uh actually, he's real," Sizhui will say, after Jingyi kicks his leg and makes a pointed Face at him. "He slept for like a million years in some cave in our hometown, but me and Jingyi accidentally woke him up when we were kids and now he's my stepdad."

Zizhen will laugh uproariously

"No, he's telling the truth," Jingyi will say. "He taught me how to do a kickflip on my sword and whistle with my fingers." And how to piss a ghost off enough with said whistles that it'll leave him alone for good, but Jingyi doesn't offer that kind of insight into his own fears up to anyone he's known less than his entire damn life.

"You guys are full of it," Zizhen will say, laughing still. "What is this, hazing the new guy hours?"

"Mom says he's her former self's shidi," Jin Ling will offer, out of the blue. "I dunno though. Seems weird."

Part of Jingyi will want to leap to Wei-qianbei's defense, but he'll let the urge rest. One day Zizhen will meet Wei-qianbei, and then he'll figure it out for himself.

Instead, Jingyi will drop it. He will reach over and brush a finger against Sizhui's sleeve and let himself settle down and smile.