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The world is burning. The dawn of a new day breaks accompanied by screams of the dying, and by the time night falls again, Nevernight will be littered with corpses. Wei Wuxian has stopped playing his flute at last, standing in the middle of the battlefield and looking lost. It is of no matter; no one would dare touch him now.

And one by one, people start to kneel. Some are more reluctant than others, and others yet refuse entirely and are quickly killed for their effort. Soon, everyone is either dead, or down on one knee. The two people left standing now are Wei Wuxian, who is watching this entire display in bewilderment, and Lan Wangji, who’s watching Wei Wuxian. Jiang Wanyin, he notes, is nowhere in sight.

At last, Wei Wuxian tugs his flute into his robe, pushes some stray hairs out of his eyes, and laughs. It’s not a happy sound. “And what am I going to do with you?” he asks. Then he notices Lan Wangji. His face does something complicated that Lan Wangji is utterly incapable of reading, and then it’s gone again. “You’re not kneeling, Lan Zhan.”

“No.”

Wei Wuxian steps closer, and closer still, like he’s waiting for Lan Wangji to move away. Lan Wangji stands his ground and doesn’t react even when Wei Wuxian lifts a hand to trail a finger down his cheek, his chin. The entire cultivation world is watching, but there’s no point in dwelling upon it. Who would tell them to stop?

“You should leave,” Wei Wuxian tells him, so close that his voice is nothing but a whisper across his skin.

“No.”

For just a second, Wei Wuxian closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he’s smiling. His fingers tighten abruptly around Lan Wangji’s chin, tight enough to bruise. “Ah, Lan Zhan,” the Yiling Patriarch says. “You should have run.”

The world is burning, and his heart is set aflame.

***

The next time Lan Wangji wakes, it’s to a new dawn.

Where previously filled with hardened warriors bending their knee, Nevernight is now empty. There are only corpses to keep him company.

Lan Wangji carefully assesses himself. His arm is injured, his leg still faintly twinging from never fully healing. He feels exhausted, weak. His core, however, is thrumming steadily. In time, he will recover.

Because there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see, Lan Wangji stays. He stops the crows from feasting on the bodies, and then, he starts digging.

The soil is soft from rain and blood. With only his sword and his power, Lan Wangji is able to dig several makeshift graves.

He buries the ones closest to him first, paying no mind to their sect affiliations. He doesn’t look at any faces, and he doesn’t think about it.

He only stops when the moon is high in the sky, bathing everything in a pale light. Lan Wangji refastens his grip on his sword, takes a step back from the hole he’s just made, and only now as he looks up for the first time all day does he realise the impossibility of his self-appointed task.

Over the day, he has managed to bury maybe a hundred cultivators.

More than three thousand have died. If he intends to bury them all, it will take until the next full moon.

It is fortunate, then, that Lan Wangji has nothing but time now.

By the second day, the unfamiliar movements have become routine. He works swiftly and efficiently, yet without rush. Two hundred more bodies are laid to rest.

It is on day three that it occurs to Lan Wangji that he has made yet another miscalculation.

Winter though it may be, Qishan has always enjoyed a warmer climate. And for all their spiritual strength, once cultivators die, they become corpses like everyone else. And corpses rot.

For a few minutes, Lan Wangji just stands there, unmoving in the face of his mistake.

Wei Wuxian, if he were here, would surely laugh at him. Ah, so Young Master Lan is not so infallible, after all? Lan Zhan, who knew!

One of Wei Wuxian’s fundamental misconceptions has always been to assume that Lan Wangji is incapable of failure. But he is not here right now, and Lan Wangji is, and so, Lan Wangji must find a solution.

He spends the next few hours making talismans. When he runs out of talisman paper, Lan Wangji takes off his outer robe, then the next layer, then the next layer still, until he’s stripped to everything but his inner robe. But he has enough paper now.

He doesn’t have ink to run out of. He uses blood from the start.

It takes three days, and at the end of it, Lan Wangji is swaying from exhaustion. But all the talismans have been written and distributed, and now, the bodies are safe from decay until he is ready to bury them.

He notes distantly that it has been a while since he has eaten. It is of no consequence. Lan Wangji’s core is strong. It will be enough to nourish him for a while.

The days go on. Lan Wangji digs more graves. At first, he is cold all the time, a chill right down to his bone that can only come from his lack of proper clothing. Then, the cold gives way to a welcome numbness. Lan Wangji embraces it. He keeps working.

Sometimes, he thinks he sees movement at the periphery of his vision. He never turns around.

His injuries stop bothering him at some point. He knows that this is not because they healed, but rather, that his body has become accustomed to the pain.

He keeps working.

It is after perhaps two more weeks that Lan Wangji falls and cannot get back up. He has been no stranger to fainting spells recently: even his strong cultivation isn’t enough to account for the combination of physical exertion, injuries, and malnourishment.

So far, though, he has always been able to return to his task.

Today, he lies on the battlefield for what feels like hours. His curiously absent pain has returned with full force, and Lan Wangji succumbs to it, unable to do anything but.

Tears prick his eyes. He refuses to let them fall. As soon as he can move again, he does, striving to make up for missed time.

Working becomes harder. Lan Wangji has to recalculate; his original estimate of a month is adjusted upwards.

Some days, he cannot work at all. Those times, he lies on the ground and stares up at the clouds, and sometimes, he hallucinates.

He sees his brother, his uncle, even his mother. He doesn’t see his father, for he doesn’t know his father’s face.

He never sees Wei Wuxian.

About three fourths of the fallen cultivators have been put to rest. Lan Wangji’s hands shake all the time now, and he knows it is not just from fatigue. With the end of his task comes the end of order. He doesn’t know what he will do, once he is finished here. He doesn’t know what he could do.

For nearly two moon cycles, he has avoided the world beyond Nevernight. He finds in himself no particular inclination to return to it now.

It does not do to dwell on the future, so he stops, and concentrates on the task at hand.

He has just buried a cultivator in Jin colours when it happens.

A strange wind whistles through the ruins of Nevernight. Listening closely, it almost sounds like a voice.

Lan Wangji shivers. The wind grows stronger, and stronger still, until it’s no longer wind at all. This is a storm, and Lan Wangji is about to be undone.

Then, it stops, just as abruptly as it had begun. Someone says, “Lan Zhan.”

It seems strangely fitting, Lan Wangji thinks, right before the world fades to black, that his final hallucination should be Wei Wuxian after all.

***

The first thing Lan Wangji notices upon waking is that he is no longer in pain. At first, he thinks that his body has simply gone numb again, a way of his mind to protect itself. He quickly realises, however, that he can feel other things: the blanket against his bare skin; his hair, washed and brushed and pooling down his back; his hands, finally steady. Not numb, then.

The presumed source of his newfound health enters the room just as Lan Wangji had been starting to drift off again. He hasn’t seen Wen Qing since his visit to Yiling. He is oddly glad to find her alive.

“Hanguang-jun,” she says. Lan Wangji attempts to return her bow, and finds that he cannot. His arms don’t obey him, and when he looks up, Wen Qing is frowning. “Don’t try to move,” she says. “You are going to be bedridden for a while longer yet.”

“I feel fine. There is no need to concern yourself,” Lan Wangji says, sharper than he intended. He regrets it at once; his poor health and his poorer temper are not Wen Qing’s fault.

Either used to sullen patients, or not caring, Wen Qing ignores him, holding a steaming cup against his lips. “Drink.”

Lan Wangji glances at it. “What is it?”

“Something to replenish your blood. You’ve lost quite a lot.”

Talismans, Lan Wangji thinks, and with that thought, it all comes back. He sits up, this time successfully. The sudden movement has knocked the cup to the ground, its liquid spilling out. Wen Qing steps neatly aside, and goes to fetch another one.

“I need to go,” Lan Wangji says.

“Hanguang-jun-“

“I have something to take care of,” he insists, and swings his legs off the bed. The second he stands up, he topples down again, and by the time that he tries again, Wen Qing is there, steadying him and manoeuvring him back onto the mattress. “I need-“

“You’ve done enough,” Wen Qing says. She replaces the blanket and leaves the room, and the second her back is turned, Lan Wangji moves once more.

He doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t know how he got here, and he doesn’t know what’s expected of him. But he does know that he left a task behind.

This time, he makes it to the door.

Then, there is a muffled curse, the sound of quickening footsteps, and finally, the sharp sting of a needle in the back of his neck. The world goes dark again.

***

After the battle at Nevernight, two days pass. On the third day, three messengers arrive at three of the main sects. They arrive on sword, and they’ve brought with them word of the Yiling Patriarch.

The Yiling Patriarch, they report, has grown tired of fighting. He desires peace, and he desires not to be stabbed in the back as soon as he grants it.

The new rules are as follows: the sects may keep their lands and maintain their autonomy. Nothing is required of them, except to fulfil their duties as cultivators.

If they conspire to harm the Yiling Patriarch, or one of his people, they will be killed, and their sect will be burned to ash.

The messengers leave. And soon after that, the sects meet in secret.

The absence of Yunmeng Jiang Sect is noted upon, as is the absence of Hanguang-jun.

In the end, it’s Jin Guangshan who suggests it first.

“We need an alliance with him. And what better alliance than through marriage?”

Silence.

Nie Mingjue snaps, “Are you offering up your son?”

Standing behind Jin Guangshan is Jin Guangyao, born a bastard, now the sect leader’s only legitimate son, gone deathly pale.

“If you will excuse my boldness,” Lan Xichen cuts in smoothly, “I have known Wei Wuxian for some time in his youth. I do not think an arranged marriage with an unwilling spouse is the way to win his heart.”

Jin Guangyao clears his throat, then shakes his head when everyone turns to look. “No, forgive me. Just a silly thought.”

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says, his voice warm and supportive. “Please, speak.”

Jin Guangyao hesitates for a few more second before evidently encouraged by Lan Xichen’s nod. “Er-ge said ‘unwilling’. But what if the spouse we offered was not?”

“What do you mean?” Lan Xichen asks, at the same time as Jin Guangshan huffs and says, “Who’d willingly marry him?”

“Forgive me,” Jin Guangyao repeats, “but I recall – reports, you could call them – of Wei Wuxian’s friendship with Lan Wangji. Could we not-“

“No,” Lan Xichen says harshly. He, too, is pale now, at odds with the hard look in his eyes. “No, we cannot.”

“Er-ge –“

“My brother died at Nightless City. I’m afraid he won’t make it to the altar.”

The words cause a ripple of shock to spread through the cultivators. No one has seen Lan Wangji, not since the final battle. They’d assumed him to have returned to Cloud Recesses. They assumed wrong.

The discussion is tabled, afterwards. They will meet again soon. Until then, they will swear allegiance to the Yiling Patriarch, and hope for his mercy.

What no one dares say aloud, even though everyone is thinking it, is this: if Wei Wuxian killed Lan Wangji, what mercy can they hope for?

***

“How is he?”

“Recovering.”

“Wei-gongzi said to-“

“I know. But- quiet, he’s waking up.”

Lan Wangji opens his eyes to find Wen Qing and the Ghost General standing by his bed, watching him.

He remembers Wen Ning from the guest lectures in Cloud Recesses. A boy then, younger than the rest of them, shy and not particularly talented. A good archer, though, and always following Wei Wuxian – to class, to the waterborne abyss, and later, into battle. Wei Wuxian is good at inspiring loyalty, and Wen Ning, Lan Wangji thinks, might be most loyal of them all.

Now, Wen Ning is holding yet another hot beverage out to Lan Wangji, and this time, he accepts it. It tastes like herbs, though not the kinds that grow in Gusu.

“Where are we?”

“In Yiling,” Wen Ning answers, looking faintly surprised. “Wei-“

“You were asleep for nearly a week,” Wen Qing interrupts, silencing her brother with a glare. “Your cultivation is strong, but it’s still going to take months to regain your full powers. What were you thinking?”

Lan Wangji was thinking that the world was burning, and there was nothing left for him but the dead. But admitting that would bring with it a question he doesn’t know he wants to hear the answer to. So he stays silent, stubbornly waiting until Wen Qing speaks up again.

“If you’re worried about the burials, don’t be. You were almost done. It wasn’t hard to finish what you started.”

“The dead-“

“-are all laid to rest now. You’ve done well, Hanguang-jun.”

The compliment falls flat because Lan Wangji knows better. If he had done well, there wouldn’t have been any dead to bury in the first place. What he has done is simply the desperate attempt to clean up his mess, doomed from the start. The confirmation that someone else completed the job in his name makes his cheeks heat up with shame. His failure, his responsibility. He should be whipped for this.

“Your forehead ribbon is on the bedside table,” Wen Qing says. She’s shifted her attention away from his face in order to check on his bandaged leg, a fact that he is grateful for. “No one has touched it, not since taking it off.”

Lan Wangji nods his thanks. He doesn’t take the ribbon, and Wen Qing doesn’t comment on it.

Once she is satisfied with the state of his leg, she inspects his arm. Lan Wangji has had little medical training beside the basics, but he knows himself, and he can read a healer’s silence. The news, whatever they are, are not good.

He’s right.

“The cut on your arm was deep, but someone of your cultivation level should have recovered soon enough. However, when you continued to aggravate the injury, it became infected. Most others would have lost the arm.”

“And I?”

“You’re very fortunate, Hanguang-jun. We have treated the infection, and the wound should be fully healed in a matter of weeks. I’m afraid there is a downside, though. Any more strain, and the injury becomes permanent. If you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in chronic pain, you must take precautions for the next six months.”

“Precautions?” Lan Wangji asks.

“You mustn’t carry the sword, and you mustn’t practice the guqin. For six months. Give your muscles time to heal. You’re not invulnerable.”

Wen Qing eyes him calmly, though she seems ready to spring into action, should he voice his protest. She needn’t be nervous; Lan Wangji does not plan to.

So he can’t practice the sword, and he can’t practice music. Not so long ago, that would have been a devastating verdict for any cultivator, let alone one from Gusu Lan. But many things have happened since then. Being forbidden to use Bichen and Wangji seems laughably easy, in comparison. It’s not like Lan Wangji has any place to be.

He asks, “May I go?”

“Go where?” Wen Qing asks.

“Out.” Despite not having been awake for that long, Lan Wangji already feels trapped. It’s a small room, clearly meant for medical examinations, with nothing particularly offensive about it. Lan Wangji longs for the open sky regardless, perhaps a side effect of having spent two months without shelter, perhaps something else.

Wen Qing’s eyebrows have almost risen to her hairline. “You can’t use the sword. You can’t even carry it.”

“I won’t,” Lan Wangji tells her. When Wen Qing continues to look sceptical, he adds, “I will leave it here. I just want to see.” He considers, and says, “I will return.” It is an odd thought to him, to think that she should care whether he returns or not, but he’s familiar with the healers of Gusu Lan. They would have wanted the confirmation, even if he had no intention of following it.

After several seconds of hesitation, Wen Qing slumps. “Alright. But only for an hour, and I’m sending someone with you.”

Lan Wangji stiffens. “I was not aware I was a prisoner,” he says quietly.

“Not a prisoner,” Wen Qing says. “A patient. If you collapse, I want someone to be ready to catch you.”

Lan Wangji is tempted to argue that he can take care of himself, but in the end, he simply nods his assent. Prisoner or patient, there is hardly any difference, and he doesn’t much care either way.

He expects Wen Ning to be the one to accompany him on his hard-won walk. But the Ghost General has left the room and hasn’t returned since, and instead, someone else enters.

“Hanguang-jun,” says Jiang Wanyin, “let’s go take you for your walk.”

***

Once they exit the medical wing, the corridors become wider yet more winding, like the architect was designing in spirals instead of straight lines. Strangely shaped lights guide their way, and Lan Wangji cannot look too closely at them without getting a headache.

They walk slowly. Every now and then, Jiang Wanyin will forget, and it will take a few steps before he realises that Lan Wangji is no longer by his side. He waits each time, scowling but never protesting, until eventually, they reach a set of doors that lead out onto a small balcony. Jiang Wanyin holds open the doors without being prompted, and when Lan Wangji steps out, he nearly faints again.

He had not given much thought to where he is, but he is no fool. He suspected they were in Yiling, for that is where he saw Wen Qing last. He even suspected they were in the Burial Mounds, for where else would they be?

But this -

The last time he was here, it had been a small settlement. A handful of derelict huts, each meant to hold up to ten people. A fireplace, some meagre attempts at farming. Lan Wangji had appreciated their efforts, even if it had been obvious that none of these people were builders or farmers.

That is not what he sees today.

Down below are undeniably the Burial Mounds. But there are actual streets there now, leading up the mountain all the way up to what can only be described as a castle – the castle Lan Wangji is standing in right now. His vantage point doesn’t enable him to see the full building (he would have to go outside for that, and watch from a distance), but he can see now what wasn’t evident before: the castle is built of what is a mixture of solid stone and strange roots, no longer just an inanimate object. When he tilts his head back, he sees how massive the castle really is. From here, it almost looks like it could reach the sky itself.

He turns back to Jiang Wanyin, who has been watching him warily. “What is this place?”

Jiang Wanyin smiles. There is no amusement in it. “Can’t you see? This is the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. And the demon has started slaughtering.”

Lan Wangji wants to see the rest of the castle, but when they leave the balcony, he stumbles. Jiang Wanyin is quick to help him, and after that, he leads Lan Wangji back to the medical wing with a stubbornness that grates on Lan Wangji’s nerves.

“Stop,” he says, when they pass a set of hallways that he recognises from the way there. “I require no more assistance. I can find my way from here.”

Jiang Wanyin doesn’t hesitate for long. “Don’t tell Wen Qing.”

He leaves, and finally, for the first time in over a week, Lan Wangji is alone.

He wasn’t lying; his spatial memory is excellent, and returning to his room from here would be an easy feat.

He turns, and walks in the other direction.

The demon has started slaughtering, Jiang Wanyin said. That night at Nevernight feels long ago, yet Lan Wangji remembers it clearly. He saw Wei Wuxian kill thousands of cultivators with ease. He saw the survivors surrender.

He has spent so much time with the dead recently that it only now occurs to him to think about the living.

At first he tries to find the exit. He walks down corridors and staircases, walks past hundreds of doors and several more balconies.

The entire time, he doesn’t meet a single soul.

After what feels like hours, he stops, admitting defeat. It should not be this hard to find the main gates, and yet, he has not managed it. His arm and leg are hurting again, and more than once he has had to pause, using the walls to steady himself. They felt warm under his palm, like a living, breathing thing.

If the exit is not open to him, he can at least explore the rest of the castle. Except that when he turns back, he realises that the hallway has changed. The tapestry has the right colour, the windows are in the same places, and overall, there is very little to indicate that this is not the hallway Lan Wangji was walking down mere minutes ago, if one isn’t paying attention.

Lan Wangji has been paying attention from the moment he woke up. And he knows that wherever this corridor is leading, it isn’t leading him to where he came from.

For just a second, he’s torn, caught in indecision. He puts one hand against the wall again to support himself against an oncoming wave of dizziness. When the stars dancing in front of his eyes have faded, he notes that once again, the wall is emitting an odd warmth. It should be unsettling, yet Lan Wangji feels reassured.

He chooses the path of the changed hall, wrong though it is.

He arrives at the medical wing within minutes.

Wen Qing is already waiting, the look in her eyes scathing. “Took you long enough.”

Lan Wangji bows, unable to bring himself to apologise.

He follows her back to his room and allows her to help him into bed. The minute he’s settled on the mattress, a bone-deep exhaustion comes crashing over him. He doesn’t protest the cup Wen Qing hands him, managing to drink half of it before he has to lower his arms.

“You were a better patient when you were still asleep,” Wen Qing says, returning to take the cup back.

Lan Wangji inclines his head; this, he thinks, sounds like an accurate assessment.

Wen Qing sighs. “No need to apologise on my account. You’re not the only one bad at heeding medical advice around here. Next time, I suppose I’d better send someone who won’t be manipulated so easily.”

This gives Lan Wangji pause. “There was no manipulation of any nature. Jiang Wanyin-“

“Please,” Wen Qing says. “You forget that I’m an older sister, Hanguang-jun. Do you think I don’t know how this works? What did you say to him? That you’d find your way back alone?”

Lan Wangji says nothing, knowing he has coloured slightly.

“I thought so,” Wen Qing says.

She’s already on her way out when Lan Wangji remembers to ask her something. “This place. There’s something strange about it.”

He hadn’t expected Wen Qing to simply shrug. “We’re all strange, Hanguang-jun. The castle has a mind of its own, and it can be quite stubborn. Doesn’t that sound familiar?”

Hours later, waking from a fitful sleep, Lan Wangji still hasn’t figured out if she meant Wei Wuxian, or himself.

***

Some time passes. Every day, Lan Wangji goes on a walk through the castle. At first, Wen Qing sends people with him: a servant, her brother, or Jiang Wanyin, who never fails to scowl. After Lan Wangji is able to walk longer distances without assistance, he is permitted to go alone. And every time without fail, he wanders through long, empty corridors until he feels the first hint of exhaustion, the first bit of dizziness – which is when, every time, he will turn a corner and find himself back at the medical wing.

He doesn’t dare to enter any rooms, mindful of invading the privacy of whoever else lives in this castle. Then, one day, he finds one door ajar.

Lan Wangji closes it, and keeps walking.

Two corners later, there is another open door, the gap somewhat wider this time. Lan Wangji closes it, and keeps walking.

For a while, there are no doors at all, until finally, Lan Wangji gets to a crossroads. He chooses the path on the right and finds himself in yet another corridor. The doors are back. All of them are wide open.

Lan Wangji purses his lips and gives a slight shake of the head. He can’t scold the castle like he would scold a junior disciple, but he intends to make his displeasure clear regardless. “Privacy is sacred,” he says, and only realises afterwards that he’s quoted one of his sect’s rules.

He has been trying very hard not to think of his sect.

The castle is silent, as it is wont to be. Lan Wangji thinks about it, and sighs. Rewarding bad behaviour is counterproductive, but he has always known himself to be irreparably soft. A failure in character, his uncle would call it.

Lan Wangji says, “Only once,”. He goes through the first door he finds.

For all the castle’s insistence that he explore more than its corridors, the room is not actually all that remarkable. There is a bed, a desk, a painted screen that hides a bathtub. On second glance, he spots a second, smaller bed, made to fit only a very young child. There is also a box of wooden toys in the corner, and a soft, colourful rug on the floor. Undoubtedly this is the room of a child and their caretaker. Why would the castle show him this?

Satisfied that he has seen everything the room has to offer, Lan Wangji turns to leave, only to realise that the door is now gone. There is a new one in its place, and when Lan Wangji opens it, someone very small and very fast comes storming out, hugging his leg.

Lan Wangji freezes.

“A-Yuan?”

A-Yuan looks up and gives him a dimpled smile. “Rich-gege is back! Did you bring any toys?”

Lan Wangji gently extricates A-Yuan from his leg and kneels down, so that they’re of the same height. “It is impolite to greet others with requests,” he says. A-Yuan nods seriously, looking like he understands. Then he asks, “Did you bring any toys?”

Lan Wangji did not, and even though he saw the toy box in the other room, even though he knows that A-Yuan is no longer in need of any new playthings, he can’t help but wish that he had something to offer. He shakes his head regretfully. “I did not. This young master apologises.”

“It’s alright if you don’t have any,” A-Yuan says graciously. “Rich-gege can play with the ones I have now, and then you can bring me something next time.”

“A generous deal,” Lan Wangji says. He rises, and allows A-Yuan to take his hand. His throat has closed up and he doesn’t trust himself to speak any more. He had seen Wei Wuxian on the battlefield that day. He had seen his eyes, glowing red, he had heard the edges of madness in his laugh. He knows Wen Qing and the Ghost General are alive, and he knows that Jiang Wanyin is as well. He had suspected that at least some of the original Wen survivors must have made it too, because Wei Wuxian has never killed innocents. And yet, he hasn’t dared to let himself think of the fate of the child.

He wouldn’t have held it against Wei Wuxian. Mastering demonic cultivation is hard, and it’s harder still when one is selective in one’s targets. Only the strongest of cultivators were spared that day, and it’s not because of Wei Wuxian’s mercy. Someone small, with a barely-formed golden core – even without being on the battlefield, it would have been easy to slip through the cracks.

But A-Yuan is alive, he is well, he is asking for toys.

What does that mean?

A-Yuan leads him into the other room, where an old woman is napping on a chair. There is also a table with an assortment of foods, marking lunchtime, and A-Yuan urges Lan Wangji to eat with him.

These past weeks, Lan Wangji has not felt much of an appetite. Wen Qing has taken to sit with him during mealtimes, watching him choke down mouthfuls of congee or soup until he’s nauseous with it. Everything about the procedure is uncomfortable, but ever since Wen Qing caught him returning his meal to a servant uneaten, she’s insisted.

Lan Wangji does not feel any more confident about his ability to eat than he did this morning, but he knows that adults must lead with example. He fills a bowl of rice for both of them, and is able to eat half of his, a previously unthinkable accomplishment.

At some point, the old woman wakes up. Lan Wangji recognises her from his first visit to Yiling, knows her to be A-Yuan’s grandmother. He attempts to apologise to her, aware of the fact that no caretaker would approve of their ward talking to strange men, but she waves him off, and invites him to return tomorrow. He accepts, thinking that a return visit is not up to him, but to the whims of this castle.

That night, after checking his vitals, Wen Qing gives him a rare smile. “You’re well on your road to recovery. Your leg is fully healed, and if you are cautious, you will be able to take up the sword and the guqin again in five months. Well done.”

“Does this mean I can leave?” Lan Wangji asks. In all his time here, he still has not seen the outside of the castle even once.

The smile on Wen Qing’s face fades. “Do you want to leave?” she counters.

Yesterday, Lan Wangji would hesitated. Today, knowing what he does now, his answer is immediate. “I want,” he says, “to see Wei Ying.”

It's a name he hasn’t spoken in three months. It feels somewhat anticlimactic now.

Wen Qing’s lips have tightened to a thin line. “There’s no one here with that name,” she says.

Impatient, Lan Wangji says, “Then I want to see Wei Wuxian.”

Wen Qing doesn’t reply. She is very pale.

Lan Wangji says sharply, “I want to see the Yiling Patriarch.” As the last word leaves his lips, soft thunder rolls through the castle, like an earthquake that hasn’t quite made up its mind yet. The walls shake, and somewhere in the medical wing, something crashes to the ground. Then, silence.

Wen Qing’s voice is calm when she next speaks, even if her hands are shaking slightly. “You’re in luck, Hanguang-jun. It sounds like he wants to see you, too.”

***

The castle is notably silent. Lan Wangji is alone, and when he brushes one of the walls, he feels it vibrating with anxiety. He withdraws his hand and walks on.
The hallways are narrower the further he walks. Without taking any stairs, Lan Wangji still gets the distinct impression that he’s being taken down to the first level, and then further down still. The basement, maybe. Or perhaps he’s going down to the core of earth itself. Every now and then, the thunder sounds again, almost like it’s calling him.

Then, eventually, the corridor ends. There is nowhere to go but an inconspicuous door. Lan Wangji give himself time to change his mind. He opens it.

When he steps through the door, his first thought is that he’s been here before. And he has. This, he knows, is the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

For all of the castle’s riches, the cave is still as barren as it ever was. There’s a narrow bed, and a pool full of blood, an array of talismans, and right in the middle of the room, his back to him, is Wei Wuxian.

It’s been three months. It feels like a lifetime.

Lan Wangji bows. “Wei Ying,” he says.

At that, Wei Wuxian turns, a strange light in his eyes. “Who’s your Wei Ying?” he asks. “I look around, and I see only monsters. And you.” He comes closer. Lan Wangji doesn’t move. “Hanguang-jun,” the Yiling Patriarch croons, “what are you doing here? Why did you come?”

Lan Wangji meets his gaze unflinchingly. “For you.”

“For me? Or for Wei Ying?”

“For you.”

“Liar,” the Yiling Patriarch says. There’s a cruel slant to his mouth. He’s enjoying this. “Do not lie,” he quotes. “That’s one rule violation. And you’re not wearing your ribbon. Two rule violations. Who’s going to administer the punishment?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. The Yiling Patriarch waits for a second; then, when nothing comes, he laughs. “Why are you really here?” he asks. “To find out about the sects? They survived, they lived, they started plotting against me the second I turned my back.

They wanted to offer you as part of the bargain, you know.” He steps closer still, reaching out but stopping just short of actually touching skin. The last time he touched Lan Wangji, he left bruises. Lan Wangji can feel the phantom pain of them now, making his jaw ache, setting his veins on fire.

“Would you have liked that?” the Patriarch whispers. His breath ghosts over Lan Wangji’s lips. “You refused to kneel for me once. They knew that, and still they wanted to give you to me. The great Hanguang-jun, put on his knees like a whore-“

“Stop.”

The Yiling Patriarch stares at him. For just a second, he looks genuinely shocked, before his face smooths out. He’s laughing again. “Of course, I forgot. Vulgarity is also forbidden. Lucky for you, then, that they discarded that plan. You wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.”

Lan Wangji clenches his jaw, breaking eye contact at last. There’s more laughter, followed by an exaggerated yawn. “Go on, now. You can go. I’m bored, you’ve bored me.”

The Yiling Patriarch is already wandering into the deeper parts of the cave, his dismissal obvious. In just a few seconds, he’s going to disappear into the shadows. Lan Wangji knows that when he does, chances are that this will have been their last meeting.

He asks, “May I come back tomorrow?”

This time, it’s the Yiling Patriarch who doesn’t reply immediately. Eventually, he says, “If that’s how Hanguang-jun wants to spend his time, I can’t stop you. But don’t waste your breath.”

He leaves. Lan Wangji takes a few seconds to take deep, measured breaths before he leaves as well, through the same door he entered.

The Yiling Patriarch has made it clear he does not want Lan Wangji around. But, Lan Wangji thinks, he also lied. If he truly wished for no company, he could make it happen. This castle obeys its master; if he so desired, he could lock all the doors, preventing Lan Wangji’s return. Or he could simply kill him; choke him, stab him, reach into his chest and rip out his heart.

And yet Lan Wangji lives, and the doors open to him today.

He will simply wait to see how it will be tomorrow.

***

“We must send someone,” Jin Guangyao says. He has grown bolder since their first meeting, just as his father has grown weaker. They say he is suffering from chest pains now, and they only increase in severity. His personal healer, arranged by Jin Guangyao himself, has been able to ease his suffering, but has not made the illness disappear. He’s too weak to even appear at this meeting himself, having sent his bastard in his place.

“An assassin?” Nie Mingjue asks bluntly.

Jin Guangyao looks shocked. “Not an assassin, Da-ge! We will send a representative, to show our good will. They will bear gifts, and signed documents from each sect leader to further confirm our alliance. The representative will do their best to win the Patriarch’s trust, nothing more! And then, if – if! – they find the Patriarch in a vulnerable moment, or uncover some sort of weakness, then would it not be reasonable if they took a chance, on all our behalf?” He has put one earnest hand over his chest, and at the table nearest to his, Lan Xichen can be seen nodding reluctantly.

“He has a point. It pains me, but-“

“Xichen, have you lost your mind?” Nie Mingjue snaps. “That’s not how an honest man fights! An honest man wins in the light of day, not in the shadows of the night!”

“Sometimes,” Jin Guangyao says firmly, “it is the shadows we must seek.”

Nie Mingjue opens his mouth to protest again, until Lan Xichen lays a hand on his arm, silencing him. There is something self-deprecating in his smile. “Wei Wuxian has powers we cannot dream of. I have already lost one brother to him. If this continues, I am sure to lose another one. Please.”

Very slowly, Nie Mingjue loosens his grip on Baxia. Every other cultivator in the room relaxes minutely. “Fine,” he says. “For you.”

Jin Guangyao smiles. “Excellent. So the only question is – who do we send?”

***

 For the next few weeks, all the days are the same: breakfast at the medical wing under the scrutiny of Wen Qing, exploring the sheer endless castle in the morning, then lunch with A-Yuan, then either playing or, when his body is too weak, resting. And every evening without fail, he bids his goodbye, and goes to see the Yiling Patriarch.

After that first time, the Yiling Patriarch never comes as close to him again, and he never, ever, touches Lan Wangji. It doesn’t matter, because Wei Wuxian has always been a good archer. His mocking and his casual cruelty hit Lan Wangji as effectively as an arrow, never once missing their target.

“I hear you can’t use the sword anymore,” the Yiling Patriarch says on the fifth night. He’s lying on his bed today, and he hasn’t glanced in Lan Wangji’s direction even once. “Nor the guqin. A cultivator who can’t cultivate. Your core is wasted on you.”

“Not for long,” Lan Wangji replies quietly. “I will fight again. I will play music again.”

“Did Wen Qing tell you that? You better hope she’s right, then.”

“She would not lie.”

“Healers make mistakes,” the Yiling Patriarch says airily. “It happens every day. If you can’t cultivate anymore, what will you do?”

“Curb the violent, assist the weak. Stand with justice.” A beat, before Lan Wangji adds, “Have no regrets.”

Laughter echoes through the cave. Lan Wangji thinks of how easy it used to be, to make Wei Wuxian laugh. He was free with his smiles, living his life waiting for the next joke. It used to annoy Lan Wangji, and later, it made him jealous: that Wei Wuxian should be so easy with his affections seemed unfair to him.

But the person laughing right now isn’t the Wei Wuxian from back then, even if they share a face. To the Yiling Patriarch, the whole world is a joke, and only he is in on it.

“One day,” the Yiling Patriarch says once his laughter has ebbed away, “you will break your vow. Mark my words.”

“Perhaps,” Lan Wangji allows. “I cannot see the future. But I was not alone on the cliff that day. I will uphold my vow until you honour yours again.”

He doesn’t wait for the Yiling Patriarch’s dismissal this time.

He trusts Wen Qing’s professional opinion, no matter what Wei Wuxian has said. But that doesn’t make him any less impatient, once he is healed sufficiently enough that he no longer needs to stay in the medical wing. He is given new quarters. There is nothing very noteworthy about them, their impersonal nature close to the room he had before, with the exception of the view. His new room has a view on one of the inner gardens, and Lan Wangji spends many hours sitting by the windowsill, wishing he could find a way to enter the garden in person.

He may not be a prisoner, but it’s hard to find a different word for his continued presence in the castle, in the Burial Mounds. Now that there is no longer the excuse of medical care, there is no reason why he shouldn’t leave, and yet he still cannot find the exit, no matter how hard he searches.

It’s not the castle’s fault. If he wants to feel the sun on his skin again, he must talk to his warden.

“The exit?” the Yiling Patriarch echoes that night. “Are you bored with me already? It’s only been two weeks.”

Two weeks since he first started visiting the Demon-Slaughtering Cave every night. Almost two months since he woke up, and found himself in the Burial Mounds.

“I suppose I can’t keep you here,” the Yiling Patriarch says when Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. He waves a lazy hand. “Fine, you can go. When you leave, you’ll be taken straight to the front doors. But I have to say that I’m disappointed in you, Hanguang-jun. I thought you would last longer than that.”

Lan Wangji has never been good at reading people, and Wei Wuxian is harder to read than most. It takes him a few seconds to discern what has been said; when he does, he freezes. “You misunderstand,” he says. He doesn’t kneel, but he does bow his head, a silent apology. “I have no desire to leave the Burial Mounds. I merely wish to go into the garden.”

“The garden,” the Yiling Patriarch repeats. For once, it doesn’t sound derisive.

Lan Wangji gives one sharp nod.

“Why?”

“I enjoy nature.”

He does, he always has. As a child, he used to pick flowers for his mother. Later, he would sometimes dream about picking flowers for Wei Wuxian, only to suppress such thoughts immediately upon waking. It had been a ridiculous idea.

“You keep surprising me. Go into the garden, if it pleases you. Go into as many gardens as you wish; we have an abundance of them. And the next time you’re looking for an exit, you’ll find that, too. You’re making it sound like I kidnapped you.”

Lan Wangji goes into the garden the very next day. There is a slight breeze, and it looks like it might rain later. None of it matters, because Lan Wangji still stays out from dawn to dusk, savouring the feel of simply being outside after so long of being trapped.

The Yiling Patriarch’s words are still running through his mind, though. You’re making it sound like I kidnapped you.

Lan Wangji knows the Yiling Patriarch doesn’t actually care about his being in the castle, hasn’t once thought of himself as a victim in all this. And yet, it does bring up a question he hadn’t considered before.

He spent two months at the ruins of Nevernight, and no one cared to look for him. What changed? And who brought him here?

 

His newfound freedom is enough, for a while. But Lan Wangji is selfish, and he quickly discovers that where he used to believe he’d found his equilibrium, made his peace with himself and this new world, that is no longer the case. Perhaps it was never true to begin with.

His fingers itch for something to do. He takes up meditation again, but for the first time, he understands why Wei Wuxian used to complain about it to no end. Meditation is a highly successful method of cultivation, but only in the right state of mind. One needs a calm spirit, a gentle soul. Lan Wangji used to excel at it. He no longer does. His skin is buzzing with the constant reminder of his uselessness. Be still like a lake, Lan Xichen used to instruct him. In between hours and hours of fruitless meditating,

Lan Wangji realises that not every lake is still.

He never mentions anything to the Patriarch, but something about his demeanour must give him away regardless, because one night, the Yiling Patriarch sighs and says, “If you’re so bored, come help me with something.”

Lan Wangji watches him warily, unsure what will be required of him.

The Yiling Patriarch rolls his eyes. “Always so quick to judge! I’m not asking for your virtue, Hanguang-jun. Come with me.”

They leave the cave through a door Lan Wangji has never noticed before. He half-expects to be led outside the castle walls, but instead, he follows the Yiling Patriarch into a large hall. A throne room.

Right before they enter, the Yiling Patriarch hands him what looks to be a veil. “Cover your face, and stand in the back. Just watch.”

Lan Wangji does as he’s told, joining a group of cultivators and commoners alike, while the Yiling Patriarch takes his seat on the throne. He’s been told to watch, but he isn’t forbidden from talking, and so he quietly asks the man nearest him, “What is the nature of this gathering?”

The man frowns at him. “What are you doing here, if you don’t know? Once a week, the Patriarch grants audiences. If your request is reasonable, he’ll grant it.”

Lan Wangji thanks the man, and turns back to the front room. Indeed, a large line of people has already formed. One by one, they walk up to the throne, kneel, and present their cause. Not everyone comes with specific requests; some offer trades or business deals, others seek merely advice.

This goes on for hours, until finally, only a handful of people are left. Lan Wangji is still watching intently, partly because he’s been instructed to, partly because there is little else to do, and so he sees the man immediately.

Su She humbly kneels in front of the Yiling Patriarch, one hand across his chest, and vows that he comes in peace. He talks on, but Lan Wangji is no longer listening; he’s pushing his way through the crowd, desperate to reach the Patriarch before anything happens.

The Yiling Patriarch has his chin propped up in one hand, looking bored. He looks up when he sees Lan Wangji, and sits up straight, holding up a hand to signal Su She to stop.

Lan Wangji knows Su She cannot recognise him, not with his face obscured by the veil. He’s sized by the childish impulse to rip it off; let Su She see exactly who he is.

His words to the Yiling Patriarch when he arrives at the the throne are quiet, yet urgent. “The man in front of you harbours ill intentions. He has proven himself a traitor once already. Do not trust a word he says.”

The Yiling Patriarch studies him for long, long seconds. There is a split second in which Lan Wangji thinks he winks. Then, the moment has passed, and the Yiling Patriarch turns back to the room at large.

“Young Master, you have been heard, and you will be treated accordingly. Let us continue to converse in a more private setting.”

Lan Wangji opens his mouth, ready to protest, when he sees the Yiling Patriarch shaking his head slightly. There is nothing he can do but watch as two servants appear, escorting Su She out of the throne hall, while the Yiling Patriarch announces an end of today’s audiences before leaving himself.

He doesn’t understand what happened until the next day, when they meet in the cave once more.

“You’re unhappy,” the Yiling Patriarch says as soon as Lan Wangji steps through the door. “Something bothering you, Hanguang-jun?”

“Yesterday,” Lan Wangji says, and stops, uncertain how to continue. “You asked for my help, yet did not trust my word. Su She-“

“Su She,” the Yiling Patriarch repeats, with an expression of utter distaste. “Who cares about Su She? Why do you think I asked for your help yesterday?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t have to think about it. “To point out the one whose intentions were impure.”

The Yiling Patriarch gives a short laugh. “Impure! We’re not in Cloud Recesses anymore. Everyone’s intentions are impure. Try again.”

“To point out the traitor,” Lan Wangji says, rather more testily than he intended. The Yiling Patriarch said they are no longer in the Cloud Recesses, yet he is treating Lan Wangji like an unruly pupil.

Possibly sensing that Lan Wangji has grown impatient, the Yiling Patriarch abruptly stands up from where he’d been sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Wrong again! I knew who the traitor would be from the minute the decision was made. Try again.”

Not for the first time, the Yiling Patriarch has hinted having spies in some or perhaps all of the main sects. It’s hardly a surprise, so Lan Wangji ignores it. Instead, he takes the time to consider the question again.

Finally, he says, “To see what I would do.”

“Top marks.” The Yiling Patriarch has procured a painted fan from somewhere, and now he uses it to point at Lan Wangji, who merely frowns at it. “I asked myself, what will Lan Zhan do? Stand by his sect? Perhaps even help out a fellow sect member? But once again, you’ve caught me by surprise!”

“That man is not of my sect,” Lan Wangji snaps. Seeing Su She yesterday reignited an anger in him he hadn’t known he still possessed, and thinking about it now makes his leg ache again, more from memory than actual injury.

The Yiling Patriarch is silent for a couple of seconds. “No,” he says, “I don’t suppose he is.” It takes Lan Wangji a moment to realise that the Yiling Patriarch is looking not at him, but rather his bare forehead. For the first time in a long time, Lan Wangji feels the urge to cover it.

“Anyway,” the Yiling Patriarch says after a beat, “you’ve earned yourself a reward. What would you like? You watched the audiences yesterday, you’ve heard the requests people made. You can ask for anything, and I’ll surely grant it to you.”

Lan Wangji thinks of his headband, currently locked in a drawer somewhere. He says, “Then, I ask for your ribbon.”

The Yiling Patriarch stares at him. Unconscious or not, his hand has gone up to the ribbon holding his pair in place. “This one?”

Lan Wangji inclines his head.

“You could ask for anything.”

“And yet,” Lan Wangji says, “I only desire one thing. I understand if you cannot give it to me.”

“A word is a word,” the Yiling Patriarch says. He pulls, and his hair comes loose. He holds the ribbon out, and watches silently as Lan Wangji takes it and carefully wraps it around his wrist.

Lan Wangji is already at the door when the Yiling Patriarch calls out to him. “Can I ask why?”

Lan Wangji says, “You called me Lan Zhan.”

***

Wen Qing’s eyebrows knit together every so slightly when she sees the red ribbon around Lan Wangji’s wrist, but she doesn’t ask him about it.
Jiang Wanyin has no such compunctions.

He waits for Lan Wangji in the corridor outside of A-Yuan’s rooms and falls into step beside him. For a while, they walk in silence. They arrive at Lan Wangji’s rooms. Lan Wangji glances at Jiang Wanyin, who shows no intention of stopping, and walks past.

It’s another few minutes until Jiang Wanyin speaks. “Don’t get too comfortable with him. He’s not what you think.”

“I refrain from making assumptions,” Lan Wangji says.

Jiang Wanyin snorts, his eyes on Lan Wangji’s wrist. “Looks like a pretty big assumption to me.” He sighs, taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly. His stance is tense. “Two days ago, I saw him cut out a man’s tongue, then skin him alive. He could have used his dizi, speed up the job. He didn’t.”

Lan Wangji thinks of Su She and says nothing.

“But of course, you don’t care about that,” Jiang Wanyin says bitterly. “Hanguang-jun doesn’t care about anything anymore.”

“It is,” Lan Wangji says, “not my place.”

“Your place. Your place! Where, then, is your place? By his side? By his feet? They say you refused to bend the knee. Changed your mind, did you?”

Lan Wangji has been clenching his fists without realising it. He forces himself to relax them, ignoring the way his nails have dug into his palm, drawing blood. He doesn’t look at Jiang Wanyin.

Jiang Wanyin barks out a resentful laugh. “I remember Cloud Recesses,” he says suddenly, and Lan Wangji blinks at the non-sequitur. “I used to think my brother was stupid, following you around, begging for even a scrap of your attention. I thought you didn’t care. But I was wrong, wasn’t I? And now you’ve imprinted on him. Now you’re the one begging.”

“Hold your tongue,” Lan Wangji demands.

“Did I hit a nerve? Too bad. Your family would be ashamed, if they saw you now.”

It happens entirely on instinct. Lan Wangji goes for his sword, only to realise that he doesn’t carry it anymore. But his blood is boiling, his thoughts too incoherent to formulate any sort of response. He experienced this once before, merely days ago, with Su She. But back then, there were people there, and there was the Yiling Patriarch to alert.

There are no people here now.

Lan Wangji takes one step towards Jiang Wanyin, unsure what he’s going to do without Bichen but also too furious to think about it – and the earth shakes.

They both fall to the ground. The windows rattle, the walls are vibrating, and it doesn’t take long for Lan Wangji to realise that this is no ordinary earthquake. It’s not the earth that’s shaking, it’s the castle.

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin yells, raising his voice to be heard against the all-encompassing thunder. “Stop!”

Small bits of plaster rain from above; if Lan Wangji hadn’t spent months discovering just how sturdy this place is, he would fear the ceiling is about to cave in. Then, he remembers A-Yuan, whose room isn’t far from here, who doesn’t understand what’s happening, who has never provoked the Yiling Patriarch’s ire.

Stop, Lan Wangji thinks. He’s still on the ground, his palms pressed to the floor. When he raises them, he sees that he’s left a bloody trace. Stop.

And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it stops. The castle subsides shaking, even if Lan Wangji does not. When he raises a hand, it’s trembling.

Jiang Wanyin looks just as distraught. “What,” he says, “the fuck.”

Lan Wangji ignores him. He is still studying his hands, as well as the bloody prints left on the ground.

Between the two of them, it was always Wei Wuxian who was the inventor, Wei Wuxian who had the lunatic ideas and enough guts to pull them off. He must have finally rubbed off on Lan Wangji, because a lunatic idea has taken possession of him, and he’s about to test it.

He stands. He puts one hand against a wall, feeling the familiar warmth beneath his fingers. He thinks, Open. And watches as right before him, the stones shift and rearrange themselves. Between one blink and the next, there is a newly-formed door.

Lan Wangji doesn’t think about it. He walks through.

He half-expected to be taking into the Demon-Slaughtering Cave once more. Instead, he walks straight into a garden.

At first glance, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it. Unlike the one outside Lan Wangji’s window, this one isn’t very well-kept. Weeds have overtaken the flowerbeds, the grass has grown out, and the stone bench is covered in moss. And yet the afternoon sun bathes it all in flattering light, bees are buzzing merrily, and a large blue butterfly settles on Lan Wangji’s hair. He doesn’t brush it off.

Under a large oak tree, there is what looks to be the failed attempt at building a lotus pond.

Lan Wangji frowns. The lotus has been planted, but has not, apparently, properly taken root. The fault might lie with the seeds or the soil, but Lan Wangji suspects it’s more the location of the pond that has prevented growth. Lotus flowers need sun; in the shadow of the tree, they will simply wither.

There is nothing to be done about out, short of felling the tree. The illogic of killing one living thing just to make way for another is nothing Lan Wangji approves of, and so he simply spares a minute of silence for the abandoned flowers that will now never bloom.

Later that day, he goes to see Wen Qing, and he asks her for lotus seeds.

If he can’t practice his sword or his guqin, he can at least do this.

***

Everyone is noticeably subdued at the meeting today. Perhaps this is due to Jin Guangshan’s recent tragic death – Jin Guangyao is still in mourning robes, and has been inconsolable. Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that mere days ago, the assassin they sent to befriend and subsequently get rid off the Yiling Patriarch has returned. He returned without his skin, and had to be carried by a messenger, who dropped the body right in front of the steps of Koi Tower.

The messenger also relayed to them the words of the Yiling Patriarch.

“The Yiling Patriarch, in his endless generosity, has vowed to not take this betrayal personally. He simply asks for one small compensation.”

“And what is that?” Jin Guangyao had asked.

And in front of dozens of witnesses, the messenger had replied, “A sect leader’s head.” In the silence that followed, he had added, almost gently, “It doesn’t need to be yours.”

Then he left.

And today, the sects meet again.

“He’s joking,” Sect Leader Yao says, laughing an uncomfortable laugh that ebbs away when no one joins in. “He has to be.”

“Are you willing to bet your head on it?” Nie Mingjue asks sarcastically. Next to him, Lan Xichen swallows, looking nauseated.

Jin Guangyao rises from his seat at the head of the table, holding up his hands placatingly. “Please, calm down. We mustn’t lose our temper.”

“Only our heads, apparently,” Sect Leader Yao mutters under his breath.

“If I may be so bold,” Jin Guangyao says, loud enough to drone out the grumbling all around the table. “Wei Wuxian is not known for his joking nature.” There’s a round of reluctant nods, from everyone except for Lan Xichen. “And we have all seen what he can, and will, do. The best thing would be, I believe, to take him at face value.”

Silence. Then everyone starts talking all at once. People are protesting, yelling, going for their swords. Some of the less important sect leaders are nervously eying the exit. Only Lan Xichen, face pale, stays quiet throughout it all.

Eventually, when everyone has begun to quieten down again, Jin Guangyao speaks up once more. “Please,” he says, “hear me out. What is being demanded of us is cruel and unreasonable. And yet, what can we do right now but give in? We have already been defeated once. We don’t have the current strength for another attempt. But – hear me out! But I ask you, must we obey mindlessly? No, we must not. The Yiling Patriarch has demanded a sect leader’s head. He has not specified the sect, let alone anything else. I would, of course, never dream of suggesting sacrificing one of my dear fellow cultivators. So let me then ask you all – who is, as of right now, the sect leader of Lanling Jin?”

Everyone’s attention had already been on Jin Guangyao to begin with, but at that, many frown. After Jin Guangshan’s death, is it not Jin Guangyao who has taken over?

It’s Nie Mingjue who realises it first. “The kid. Jin Ling. But-“

Jin Guangyao nods approvingly. “That’s right, Da-ge. I am, after all, born a bastard. My current function at Lanling Jin is merely an – if you want to call it that – interim sect leader at best, standing in for A-Ling until he comes of age.”

“You’re not actually suggesting-“

“Please, Da-ge,” Jin Guangyao says chidingly. “Don’t finish that question, if you don’t want to offend me! Do you believe me capable of killing a child? No. The question is – what does the Yiling Patriarch believe? He has sent us many messengers. I think it only fair if we send one of our own, and remind him that the sect leader’s head he requested could very well be his nephew’s.”

***

Some things have changed, others haven’t. Where the castle used to be an ever-changing labyrinth, Lan Wangji navigates it as easy as though the hallways were built in straight lines now. No door is locked to him anymore, and whenever he has a particular destination in mind, he simply has to turn a corner.

He has also found himself a purpose that is not tied to his cultivation techniques. At first, he builds the lotus pond, which takes several days of research, gathering the materials, and careful planting. Then, while he waits for the seeds to take root, he focuses his attention on other areas in the garden. He removes the weeds and lays out new flowerbeds. He clears the bench of moss, and he builds a bird bath.

He still visits the Patriarch every night, and he still wears the ribbon around his wrist.

And then, one night, he brings him flowers.

The Yiling Patriarch frowns at the small bouquet Lan Wangji is patiently holding out. “What’s that?”

“Flowers.”

“I’ll rephrase. Why are you giving these to me?”

“I thought you might enjoy them,” Lan Wangji says honestly.

The Yiling Patriarch still doesn’t take the bouquet, but he does remove one of the magnolias from it. A second later, Lan Wangji tenses as the stem is pushed behind his ear, so that the petals peak out from his hair. The Yiling Patriarch studies his work and nods in satisfaction.

“You drew me like this once,” Lan Wangji says. He hasn’t thought of it in years, but it comes back to him now. He wonders what happened to the picture.

The Yiling Patriarch taps one finger against his lip in thought. “Did I? I can’t remember. Was it any good?”

“It was beautiful,” Lan Wangji says without hesitation. The Yiling Patriarch laughs. He finally does reach out for the flowers, and Lan Wangji willingly gives them up. As soon as they’ve been handed over, the Yiling Patriarch starts braiding them together, making quick work of it. Within minutes, he has made a crown, which he now places on Lan Wangji’s head.

“There,” he says. “Now all that’s missing is a throne. Would you like one?”

“I have no interest in ruling,” Lan Wangji says. The flowers are light, a barely noticeable weight, and yet they feel like lead.

“What is it that holds Hanguang-jun’s interest, then?”

Lan Wangji presses his lips together, unwilling to meet the Yiling Patriarch’s gaze.

The Yiling Patriarch’s lips quirk up, his smile as mocking as it was when Lan Wangji first arrived. “No need to be shy! Whatever it is, I can give it to you. Or – is it not a what? Is it a who?”

“It is,” Lan Wangji says firmly, “none of your business.”

“Lan Zhan! Who is it? You have to tell me,” says Wei Wuxian, rude and demanding and eager all at once, and Lan Wangji suddenly feels sick with want, because this is Wei Wuxian. He reaches out with one shaking hand, sure that this is an illusion that will shatter the moment he tries to touch it.

He’s right.

In one second, Wei Wuxian is right there, hands on his hips, exasperated that Lan Wangji has hinted at a crush but given him no details. The next, as soon as Lan Wangji cups his cheek, it’s the Yiling Patriarch who blinks at him, and it’s the Yiling Patriarch who raises his eyebrows at the hand on his face.

“Now this,” he says, “is interesting.”

Lan Wangji swallows and steps back. He goes to leave, but suddenly there is a hand on his wrist, preventing him from moving. “Where are you going?” the Yiling Patriarch asks. “So it’s me that you want? You should have said. Ah, but you did, didn’t you? I just wasn’t listening closely enough.”

“Unhand me,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is raspy, hoarse. He sounds like he’s about to cry. Perhaps he is.

The grip around his wrist tightens. “I told you,” the Yiling Patriarch says. “Whatever it is, you can have it. You can have me, even.”

“No.”

The Yiling Patriarch is very close now. He still hasn’t let go. “I can make it good for you,” he whispers. “We can do it however you want. You can even call me Wei Ying. I don’t mind.”

Lan Wangji can’t think. Everything is too much, all his feelings, his thoughts, his leg and arm that have suddenly started hurting again for no discernible reason, the pain on his wrist, the pain in his heart, a stranger with Wei Wuxian’s face but not his smile, and he can’t think, he can’t breathe.

Stop it, he thinks. Just stop.

And, just like it has been doing for weeks now, the castle hastens to obey.

Lan Wangji has long since suspected that this building is connected to the mountain somehow. So far, he has always been in the parts of it that have been made of stone and wood. But they’re in the cave now. And from the soil, a vine shoots out between them, wraps itself around the Yiling Patriarch’s arm, and yanks. The Yiling Patriarch staggers back, looking from the vine to Lan Wangji, his lips parted in surprise.

“So you’ve found a new master,” he says. He isn’t talking to Lan Wangji.

And then the door opens, and Wen Ning comes in. His eyes flit nervously between the two, like he’s not sure who to bow to. He says, “The sects have sent a reply. And Zewu-jun is here to deliver it.”

***

The reception hall is empty today. There is only Wei Wuxian, sprawled lazily on his throne, with Wen Ning and Jiang Wanyin flanking him, acting as guards. There is Lan Xichen, who has come alone.

And there is Lan Wangji, whose face is covered by a veil again, and who is standing to Jiang Wanyin’s left.

“Zewu-jun,” the Yiling Patriarch says, once Lan Xichen has risen from his bow, “I have to say, I didn’t expect this. But then, you Lans have always loved a good self-sacrifice.”

Lan Xichen’s expression is perfectly smooth, revealing nothing. He is thin, somewhat pale, but those are the only indicators that he’s not well. Lan Wangji, who hasn’t seen his family in almost half a year, whose last image of them has been his brother, kneeling in the blood-soaked ground before Wei Wuxian, drinks in the sight of him.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I am not here to offer my head. I came to – Wangji?”

Everyone freezes. Lan Xichen is looking directly at Lan Wangji, his eyes wide, the first crack in his façade.

Even despite the veil, even though Lan Wangji has neither moved nor spoken, he has recognised him.

Lan Wangji spent the better part of the last six months thinking as little about his remaining family as possible. When faced with Lan Xichen, who is looking at him with a mixture of grief and hope, Lan Wangji feels a stab of guilt.

He takes off his veil.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen repeats quietly. “I thought you had died.” He walks up to him, only to be stopped by Jiang Wanyin’s sword blocking his path.

“This far, and no further.”

“It’s fine,” Lan Wangji tells him, slightly taken aback to learn that apparently, Jiang Wanyin’s stubborn protectiveness extends towards him, as well. But Jiang Wanyin shakes his head.

“It’s not you I’m afraid for.”

Lan Wangji darts a glance at the Yiling Patriarch. He has avoided looking at him all the way here, and in the Yiling Patriarch in turn has not spoken to him even once.

Right now, the Yiling Patriarch is staring at Lan Xichen with his eyes glowing red, dangling Chenqing between his fingers and resentful energy gathering around him.

Lan Xichen, his face blank again, takes one step back, then another, until he is no longer within touching distance of Lan Wangji.

The resentful energy subsides, and the Yiling Patriarch’s eyes return to their normal colour. “Speak,” he says.

Lan Xichen hesitates. It’s no more than a second. But Lan Wangji has known his brother for a lifetime.

He bows to the Yiling Patriarch and says, “This humble servant has a request to make.”

“Granted,” the Yiling Patriarch says.

Lan Wangji nods, still bowing. “Then, you must leave.”

“I- what?”

“I request to speak to my brother alone.”

“No,” the Yiling Patriarch says at once. “Not granted. I won’t allow it.”

Lan Wangji meets his gaze and says, “A word is a word.”

“Lan Zhan-“

“I can,” Lan Wangji says firmly, “take care of myself.” He has no sword. He has no guqin. But when he raises a hand, several vines break through the floor and the wall, snaking up his arms and legs to form a protective layer.

“Fine,” the Yiling Patriarch says. “But I will be right outside. And if anything happens to you, some people are going to wish that their heads are all I take.”

He leaves, Jiang Wanyin and Wen Ning following closely behind. The doors close with a resolute click. Finally, they are alone.

“Wangji. May I-“

Lan Wangji nods, the vines withdrawing, and Lan Xichen steps forward to pull him into a tight embrace. It feels oddly reminiscent of their childhood, wherein Lan Xichen would impose physical contact upon his person and Lan Wangji, distant even as a child, would be unable to do anything but stand there and take it.

The only person Lan Wangji ever craved touch from has attempted to seduce him mere hours ago, and still, Lan Wangji refused him.

“It’s so good to see you again,” Lan Xichen says, letting go at last. “I mourned you. I thought – but that is of no importance now. Wangji, you must listen closely. We have worked hard to end Wei Wuxian’s reign. Very soon, you will regain your freedom. You must-“

“Brother,” Lan Wangji interrupts, and pauses. Words do not come easily to him. But he must make his brother understand.

He holds up his wrist, noting how Lan Xichen’s eyes immediately focus on the red ribbon he still wears.

“I am not imprisoned,” Lan Wangji says. “No rescue is required.”

“I can see that you believe that with all your heart. Am I not allowed, then, to believe with all my heart that you can be saved?”

Lan Wangji cannot think of an answer to that. Instead, he drops his arm, letting his sleeve cover the ribbon again. He asks, “Why have you come?”

Lan Xichen tells him.

***

The sects have met two days ago. Yesterday, Lan Xichen arrived at the Burial Mounds.

At midnight today, the Yiling Patriarch goes to war.

“If they want so desperately to incur my wrath, they can have it,” he says on his way out, Jiang Wanyin and the Ghost General following suit. “And no one will be using my nephew as a hostage.”

He is walking fast enough that Lan Wangji’s leg hurts from keeping up with him. But keep up he must, as he has known from the minute the doors closed in Lan Xichen’s betrayed face.

The Yiling Patriarch ignores him until they arrive in the courtyard, where three horses have already been prepared. Then he turns, one hand caressing the mane of his mare. “Go back inside, Hanguang-jun,” he says. “You’re not needed for this.”

“Take me with you.”

“No.”

The Yiling Patriarch prepares to mount his horse. His dismissal stings, but time is running out, and Lan Wangji can’t spare his injured pride any thought.

He falls to his knees.

“Get up,” the Yiling Patriarch commands. His voice is icy enough to freeze over lakes. But Lan Wangji has grown up in the mountains. He is used to the cold.

“No.”

“I said, get up.”

“I will not.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian snaps impatiently. “You didn’t kneel for me before. Why do it now of all times?”

“To have no regrets.”

The Yiling Patriarch is silent for several long, long seconds. Lan Wangji doesn’t move.

Eventually, there is a sigh, and then a hand is being extended to him, pulling him up. “Come on. We can share a horse.”

 

The ride to Koi Tower doesn’t take nearly as long as it should. The Yiling Patriarch uses resentment energy to speed up the horses. Lan Wangji tenses at first, expecting to have to ward his mind against the shadows gathering around them, but instead, they don’t come near him even once. He doesn’t know what that means.

Wei Wuxian steers the horse for most of the ride, but at the last leg of the journey, he lets Lan Wangji take the reins.

“And what will you do?” Lan Wangji asks.

He is seated in front of Wei Wuxian, and therefore can’t see his face. But he hears the smile in his voice as the Yiling Patriarch replies, “Me? Oh, I’m just going to play some music.”

He does.

For a while, nothing happens. There is just the starry night and the sounds of someone playing the dizi.

Then, Wei Wuxian says, “Turn left here.”

Lan Wangji does. He steers the horse onto a graveyard. Behind them, he can hear Jiang Wanyin and Wen Ning do the same.

And suddenly, there’s movement where before, there was nothing.

Wei Wuxian keeps playing as all over the cemetery, corpses start breaking free from their graves. He plays until every single grave is empty before instructing Lan Wangji to ride on.

They ride on, hundreds of corpses now following behind.

The same thing happens at the next cemetery, and at the next. The Yiling Patriarch is creating an entire army on the spot. Lan Wangji absently wonders how the cultivation world ever thought they stood a chance.

He has been to Koi Tower only once before, right after the Sunshot Campaign, right before Wei Wuxian defected. It was raining back then, he remembers. The skies had opened up, mourning Wei Wuxian’s rebellion before anyone else had the chance.

It’s not raining today. They have spent the entire night on horseback, and the sun has just started rising by the time they arrive at the main staircase leading up to the sect residence.

The Yiling Patriarch lowers his flute at last. He dismounts, and attempts to help Lan Wangji do the same. Lan Wangji, who has been on horseback since he was five, ignores him and descends without help.

When the Yiling Patriarch speaks, his voice is magically enhanced, loud enough to resonate through all of Koi Tower.

“Sect Leader Jin Guangyao has an hour to hand me my nephew. After that, I will come in to get him in person.”

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin says with a scowl. “Do you honestly expect that to work?”

The Yiling Patriarch looks honestly surprised. “Of course not. But I need an hour to make a talisman that will spare the servants and A-Ling when it razes Koi Tower to ash. We might as well make him scared.”

By the time Jiang Wanyin has reluctantly nodded, the Yiling Patriarch has gone to work. For just a second, he looks up as something seemingly occurs to him. He raises a hand, and several dozens of corpses come to form a protective circle around them.

Satisfied, he returns to his talismans.

Jiang Wanyin and Wen Ning seem content to wait, and it’s clear to Lan Wangji that he is expected to do the same.

He has seen what the Yiling Patriarch is capable of. He knows that if Wei Wuxian says he can create a talisman like this, he speaks the truth.

But Lan Wangji thinks of Jin Ling, not even a year old and about to lose his home to an all-encompassing fire.

Lan Wangji’s own home has already gone up in flames once before. So has Wei Wuxian’s.

If he can prevent the next generation from suffering a similar fate, he will.

And the circle of corpses has only been instructed to keep things from coming in, not out.

He makes sure to wait until neither Jiang Wanyin nor the Ghost General are looking in his direction before he slips out.

 

He walks through Koi Tower in unhurried steps. He must still cut an intimidating figure, because guards everywhere are parting for him. Some of them openly stare, like they’re not sure whether they’re hallucinating.

Walking without his sword has become second nature to him during these past few months. In the Burial Mounds, everyone either knew the reason or didn’t care. In Koi Tower, he does not have that kind of luxury and so has to endure several raised eyebrows at his bare hands. He wonders if this is how Wei Wuxian used to feel, after he first returned.

The nursery isn’t hard to find, even without the aid of a magic castle. Lan Wangji goes in, takes Jin Ling out of his crib, and turns to find a sword pointed at him.

Lan Wangji blinks dispassionately at Jin Guangyao. In his arms, Jin Ling lets out a small, contented noise before going back to sleep. Lan Wangji absently strokes the soft tufts of hair on his head.

“Hanguang-jun,” Jin Guangyao says, not lowering the sword. “I thought you were dead.”

“It has been a common misconception,” Lan Wangji agrees.

“And you haven’t just returned in one piece, but you’ve also come to pay your respects to my future sect leader! Hanguang-jun truly is kind.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and attempts to move past him.

Jin Guangyao blocks his path. He is smiling. “I’m afraid it’s A-Ling’s nap time right now, so you must return him to his crib. And I’m also afraid that now you’ve provided us with another hostage.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. He hopes Jin Ling has been fed recently, because when he came in, Jin Guangyao killed the wet nurse.

He is still being threatened with a sword, and so, Lan Wangji dutifully puts Jin Ling back in his crib.

He is a cultivator. He has not been able to practice his two main methods of cultivation in several months.

That does not mean anything.

He is a cultivator. His core is strong, his instincts are sharp, and where everything used to feel like a fever dream, he woke up the second the Yiling Patriarch started calling him Lan Zhan.

And Jin Guangyao, for all his accomplishments, is weak.

So when Jin Guangyao waits until his nephew is safely in his cot again and then raises his sword to Lan Wangji’s throat, Lan Wangji reacts fast. He grips the sharp blade with his bare hands and then whips it away, yanking it out of Jin Guangyao’s grip.

Blood is dripping steadily down his palm, making the hilt wet and slippery. But now Lan Wangji has a sword, and Jin Guangyao doesn’t.

Jin Guangyao is still smiling, although it’s tense now. “I see how it is. The Yiling Patriarch is known for his wicked nature. It’s no surprise that even Hanguang-jun has fallen under his spell! The cultivation world will mourn you. A great loss to all of us.”

“Do not speak.”

“I have to wonder, though. Didn’t your rules have something to say about this? What was it? Ah – thou shall not befriend the devil. Thou shall not bed him, either, I assume. What would your brother say?”

“Walk out the tower with me,” Lan Wangji says, “and give yourself up to the Yiling Patriarch’s mercy. No more casualties.”

Jin Guangyao’s dimples deepen, just a bit. “How is your arm, Hanguang-jun? Feeling the strain yet?”

“Walk out with me.” Even as he says it, he knows that Jin Guangyao is right – his arm is trembling already. He forces himself to brush it off, letting the sword rest against Jin Guangyao’s chest. With his other hand, he reaches back into the crib, taking out Jin Ling once again.

Jin Guangyao begins to move, allowing himself to be forced out into the hallway and then led down Koi Tower’s corridors. Lan Wangji’s hands are still bleeding, bleeding, bleeding, and with every step, his arms feel heavier. Carrying a sword should pose no problem. Carrying a baby, even less so.

But Wen Qing warned him of this, and Lan Wangji can do nothing but endure.

At some point, Jin Ling starts crying. It is, Lan Wangji thinks, an understandable sentiment.

“I can take him,” Jin Guangyao offers. “You wouldn’t want to drop him, I’m sure.”

“Silence.”

At last, they reach the front gates. The sun is still in the process of rising, which means that the hour can’t be up yet. Lan Wangji, taking deep breaths and summoning up all of his remaining strength, orders Jin Guangyao to walk down the stairs.

All the Jin disciples seem to have gathered outside. Their numbers are no match for the army of corpses, and they haven’t attempted to break the barrier yet. Wei Wuxian and his two generals are still standing inside the circle, even though Wei Wuxian has abandoned his talisman work. His eyes are on Lan Wangji for the entire time it takes to reach him.

The corpses part to let them through.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian calls out to him. “You came back! And you’ve brought me a gift.”

“I have brought two,” Lan Wangji says.

“I can see that. And what,” the Yiling Patriarch says, smiling unpleasantly at Jin Guangyao, “am I going to do with you, now that I have you?”

And Jin Guangyao frowns, a concerned look on his face, and says, “With me? I’m honoured by your concern. But first, you must take care of Hanguang-jun! I insist. After all, the poison I put on my blade has surely spread by now, and I’m not sure that I’m inclined to remember the antidote.”

He meets Lan Wangji’s gaze and winks. Lan Wangji is aware, on some distant level, that there’s some sort of commotion around him, panicked voices, a sword being drawn. He ignores it all, right until someone tries to take the baby from him. He tightens his grip, enough to make Jin Ling cry out again, and turns away. The world has gone very hazy; has been like this for some time now. He thought it was because he went against Wen Qing’s orders. Now he knows it to be the poison making its way through his bloodstream.

It hardly matters now.

In a way, he thinks, this is comforting. It’s almost like he’s back in Nevernight, like the past few months have been a dream.

He’s finally ready to wake up.

***

He opens his eyes to find Wei Wuxian peering at his face from a very short distance. Lan Wangji flinches instinctively, and Wei Wuxian flinches in turn, almost flinging himself off his chair in the process.

“Lan Zhan! You scared me.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji is, he notes, once again in the castle’s medical wing. It has become a tedious routine at this point. The only difference is that now, there is Wei Wuxian, holding vigil by his bedside.

There is no one else in the room. That means-

“Jin Ling?”

“Sound asleep in his crib.” Wei Wuxian smiles at him. “Very much alive.”

“Jin Guangyao?”

“Very much dead.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t elaborate, and Lan Wangji has no intentions of asking.

Something is off. He can’t quite put his finger on what.

“The poison. Did it-“

“Oh! Don’t worry about that. It’s funny how people are happy to tell you anything, just to stop you from sawing off their limbs. We found out about the antidote in no time.”

Lan Wangji nods; he had suspected as much. He has been poisoned before, and right now, there are none of the typical symptoms to indicate that he suffered long-lasting effects.

So if his body has recovered, and Jin Ling has survived, what else is there?

There is certainly one thing. Experimentally, he says, “Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan? – Oh no, are you crying? Why do you cry?”

Lan Wangji forces himself to blink back tears. It’s impossible to speak, impossible to think. “Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian’s cheeks are flushed. “Aiyo, Lan Zhan, you can’t just say my name like that! In that voice! With no warning! How shameless you’ve become.”

Suddenly, it seems unthinkable to be this close to Wei Wuxian without touching him. Lan Wangji reaches out, intending to take his hand, only to find that he cannot.

He frowns.

He is, for some reason, unable to lift his arms, no matter how much he tries.

Wei Wuxian has watched his futile attempts out of big, worried eyes. His smile is gone. “Ah, Lan Zhan,” he says. “There’s something I haven’t told you yet.”

Lan Wangji considers this. “Paralysis,” he guesses.

“No! But – you really, really shouldn’t have done what you did. What were you thinking! Carrying someone else’s spiritual weapon would have been exhausting for anyone. But with those injuries – Wen Qing told you not to put any strain on them. You knew! You can’t tell me you forgot.”

“I did not forget.”

“Two more months, and it would have been fine. Just two.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “Tell me.”

Wei Wuxian’s gaze is fixed on the blanket. His fingers are tapping a nervous rhythm on the mattress. “If I had anything left to give, I would have given it to you. But I don’t.”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian swallows audibly. He attempts a smile again. It falls flat. And at long last, he tells Lan Wangji what he had meant to hide.

“Wen Qing did the best she could. Your recovery up until that point had been flawless. Maybe if it hadn’t been a spiritual sword – but, it doesn’t matter. Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry. You’ll regain the use of your arms. But you won’t carry the sword again.”

Lan Wangji takes a moment to consider this. Then he nods, more to himself than anything else.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian sounds anxious. “Say something. What are you thinking? You have to tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I am thinking,” Lan Wangji says slowly, “that out of all the things I have done, and all the consequences of my actions, I have only one regret.”

“What is it?”

Lan Wangji meets his eyes. “That I cannot play music for you anymore.”

***

Two years later

Nevernight looks different from how it was in his memories. The soil is no longer red with blood, and nature has already started to take over the manmade buildings. And, of course, there are no longer any corpses here. Not above ground, anyway.
Lan Wangji lets his gaze sweep over the place that he once spent two months of his life in, and finds  very little that is familiar. He has no feelings about this place, one way or another.

Wei Wuxian had wandered off within minutes of their arrival, but he returns to Lan Wangji’s side now, taking his hand. “Getting nostalgic?”

“No.”

“I think I am. I never told you how I found you, did I? At first I thought you had gone back to the Cloud Recesses, and when I realised you weren’t there, I thought you had died. Everyone did. I was ready to put on mourning robes! But then I heard reports of a white-clad cultivator, burying all the dead of Nevernight. I knew it had to be you. And I also knew I had to come get you immediately! Couldn’t have you cleaning up my mess.”

“I never blamed you. But everyone deserves a burial.”

“Ah, well. I would have made for a terrible widower, anyway. You’re not allowed to die! Not now, not ever.”

“If that is what the Yiling Patriarch wishes, then I must obey,” Lan Wangji replies demurely, bowing his head. Wei Wuxian’s laughter rings across the former battlefield.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. You’ve never obeyed me even once.”

Lan Wangji catches his gaze and allows his lips to curve upwards, just a bit. The red ribbon around his wrist flutters in the wind as he lifts Wei Wuxian’s hand to his mouth, pressing a soft kiss to his knuckles.

Then he says, “We must leave. The sects have requested another audience.”

“Let them wait. I’m busy.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says quietly, his tone chiding. It doesn’t have the intended effect. Wei Wuxian’s eyes are very dark, and he somehow manages to step even closer.

“I never get tired of hearing you say my name,” he says. “Say it again.”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian kisses him like he’s dying, like they both are, like the world is burning and these are their last minutes on earth.

The world is burning, and Lan Wangji’s heart is set aflame.