Lan Zhan is certain that the wounds on his back won't kill him, but the dreams might.
The nightmares are typical, if devastating. Watching Wei Ying fall. Holding his broken and lifeless body. Watching A-Yuan fall. Holding his feverish body and watching it catch fire in his arms, watching him burn to death like all the other Wens had died. He wakes up sobbing and miserable and the pain of his ruined back is almost a blessing because at least it’s a pain he’s capable of endearing.
The worst ones aren’t the nightmares.
He dreams of Wei Ying playing his guqin. He dreams of him sitting by his side, his teasing voice accompanying the music, although Lan Zhan can never make out what he’s saying, no matter how hard he tries. Sometimes he thinks he feels Wei Ying’s fingers in his hair or against his cheek.
But then he wakes up and opens his eyes and he’s alone. It’s somehow worse every time, that split second where he forgets and thinks that Wei Ying is alive, that he’s beside him and touching him and talking to him, and then he remembers and it’s like losing Wei Ying all over again, like another new whip across his back. It’s killing him.
He hopes it never stops. Those short, hazy seconds are precious to him and he hoards them greedily, longing for them even though he knows how painful they are in the aftermath.
Wei Ying is dead and Lan Zhan doesn’t know how he’s going to manage to live the rest of his life. The whips didn’t kill him, which is good, he thinks. He’d expected them to, those first couple of days, but they hadn’t, so now he has to figure out how to survive.
He has to figure out how to want to survive.
He’s a strong enough cultivator that his life is going to be very long, unless something unexpectedly cuts it short. He has more than the average person’s lifetime to live and he has to live it without Wei Ying. He has to figure out how to live in a world that had killed Wei Ying.
Part of him thinks that maybe he doesn’t have to. He could simply let his golden core stop healing the wounds and let nature take his course, let thirty three lashes and infection do to him what it would do to anyone else, and then he doesn’t have to figure out how to manage. His brother would come for his daily visit and find him cold and still, not so different from how he was alive, really.
He doesn’t. He’d like to say it’s because of what it would do to his brother, because of what it would do to his uncle, because he’s unwilling to find the world unworthy of further study just because it no longer contains Wei Ying. He’d like to say that, but it’s not true.
Xichen brings him A-Yuan two weeks after he’s carried to the Jingshi, when all he can do is lie on his back and see if the infection and blood loss will win out against his spiritual energy. A-Yuan looks better, is in the white Lan robes with a disciple ribbon around his forehead. His fever’s broke and he looks a little pale but he’s awake and aware and alive.
“Be gentle,” Xichen says quietly, “he’s hurt.”
Lan Zhan almost breaks his silence to demand what happened, who had dared touch A-Yuan, when A-Yuan nods solemnly and Lan Zhan realizes that Xichen hadn’t been talking to him. A-Yuan lays down next to him, mirroring his position so he’s turned his head to face him and rested them on his hands. “Hello.”
Wangji doesn’t realize he’s crying until A-Yuan reaches out to clumsily wipe at his face, his chubby, uncoordinated fingers poking into his cheek.
“Don’t be sad,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
Lan Zhan breathes out, then croaks, “Do not be sorry.” He sees his brother startle and doesn’t react to it. It’s the first thing he’s said since his bitter words during his punishment. “You have done nothing wrong.”
“Okay,” he says, but seems doubtful. He stops wiping at his face to put his hand on top of Lan Zhan’s, his dark eyes wide and concerned, and all his memories are gone, but in that simple fearless compassion he sees Wei Ying.
This is Wei Ying’s son, as much as if they shared blood, and he’s alive. The world is large and life is long and the only person Lan Zhan can trust with Wei Ying’s son, the only person he can trust to not raise him on twisted, untrue tales of his father, is himself.
A-Yuan is here, and alive, which means Lan Zhan must also be here, must also live.
“You are wearing the wrong ribbon,” he says. He reaches up, ignoring the wave of fire along his back as scabs rip themselves open and blood flows freely down his back, and unties his own forehead ribbon. He doesn’t have the strength to twist his body enough to tie it on A-Yuan for him, so instead he places it in A-Yuan’s hand. “Wear this one instead.”
It hurts, to give up the ribbon that Wei Ying had touched, but it’s right that it should go to his son, that he gives away what little of Wei Ying he has to the boy who would have known him as a father in a kinder, more just world.
“Wangji,” Xichen says, startled, “are you sure?”
Lan Zhan places his hand on A-Yuan’s back, comforted by the way it rises and falls with his breaths, and doesn’t look away from the boy he’ll raise as his own son, just as Wei Ying would do if he were still alive. “Yes.”
He has Wei Ying’s son to raise and to love, a world to make a little bright and kinder than it was when Wei Ying left it, and he’s going to live.
Wei Wuxian has been dead for almost two months the first time Lan Xichen hears music coming from the Jingshi.
It’s late, later than he’d come by normally, but he’d just got back from a diplomatic meeting in Lanling, and even being around A-Yao hadn’t made up from for not being able to see his brother. Which is why he’s here now, far past curfew when he knows Wangji is already asleep.
Wangji is still too ill to move, the thin scabs across his back sometimes breaking and bleeding anew if he breathes too deeply. Even if he could force himself to sit up straight for long enough to play the chords, the player is clearly unpracticed. The song is Healing, the music rough and uncertain but unmistakable, and he feels a rush of affection for whichever disciple has risked being thrown from their sect to sneak into his brother’s rooms as he sleeps to try to help him.
For a moment he considers turning around, pretending he never heard anything, but doesn’t. He is willing to overlook this. Uncle and the clan elders won’t be. Wangji is in seclusion and he has to heal on his own, under his own spiritual power.
The thirty three lashes hadn’t killed him, and they won’t. Wangji is already healing so much more quickly than even he thought he would.
He pushes open the door and freezes.
His brother’s guqin is playing itself. The strings are being plucked slowly and carefully, but no one is there except Wangji, who lays unconscious on his stomach. He breathes in through his teeth, too quickly and too loudly, and the playing cuts off with a discordant twang.
The door slams shut on his face. He rushes to yank it open again, but it doesn’t budge. Healing starts up again, and he bangs on the door, trying to rip it open with brute strength in his panic when talismans prove useless. There is something in there with his injured baby brother. He tries a window next, which won’t move, won’t be shattered, but at least now he can see.
He should call for help, should send a flare for Uncle and the other disciples, but he sees something that makes him pause.
Rippling across the strings of the guqin are whisps of red spiritual energy.
Lan Xichen passes the night standing at the window, watching. Healing is played again and again, for hours, until the sky turns grey with morning, until it’s nearly but not quite five. The song is stronger and smoother at the end of the night than at the beginning.
When the song doesn’t start up again, he pushes the window. It opens easily. The door is the same, opening with no resistance.
He sits next to his brother, watching as he slowly awakens. “Wangji,” he greets quietly, “how are you?”
Wangji looks at him. It doesn’t feel like he’s seeing him. The only time his brother reacts to anything is when he’ll bring A-Yuan to see him.
Lan Xichen leans forward and carefully lifts the sheet off his brother’s back. Wangji is a strong cultivator, one of the strongest of their generation, of course. Anything less and thirty three lashes would have killed him. But the thick scabs covering his skin are so much more than he’d had when Lan Xichen saw him a week ago. There’s not even any blood on the sheet.
“You’re healing well,” he says, trying to keep his voice even.
Wangji’s face doesn’t so much as twitch.
He doesn’t know, then.
Lan Xichen talks of his trip and all that’s occurred in the past week and leaves when a servant comes to feed Wangji breakfast. He should get some sleep himself, perhaps, or attend to one of the many duties requiring his attention as sect leader.
Instead he goes to the library. Nothing he finds can explain what he saw. That night he waits until after curfew and makes him way back to the Jingshi. He doesn’t bother with the door, instead going straight to the window, and waiting.
Sometime close to midnight, the guqin starts to play itself, shimmering red spiritual energy pouring over the strings. It’s Healing again and this time it starts better than before, almost smoothly. It’s not perfect but the notes are all correct and once again as the hours pass it improves.
Ghosts shouldn’t be able to learn new skills.
Ghosts shouldn’t be able to harness spiritual energy.
Ghosts shouldn’t be able to interact with spiritual tools.
Then again, Wei Wuxian had always excelled at doing things that he shouldn’t.
The playing cuts off abruptly and he doesn’t understand why until he hears a soft sob.
Wangji is crying, eyes still shut, shifting painfully. “Wei Ying,” he gasps. It’s the first time Lan Xichen has heard him speak since his punishment without A-Yuan present, and for a moment he thinks Wangji has woken up, that’s he heard the playing and figured it out, but his eyes are still closed.
He’s having a nightmare.
Lan Xichen means to force his way inside, angry ghost of the Yiling Patriarch or no, but then his brother lets out slow breath, settling, the pain easing from his face as he falls back into a more peaceful sleep.
His hair is moving on its own, so subtly Lan Xichen might not have noticed it if he hadn’t been looking at Wangji so intently. It’s like someone’s running their hand through his hair.
The window frosts over suddenly, thick enough that he can’t see through it. Anxiety spikes through him so quickly he’s nauseous with it, but then the frost melts away and the opening notes of Healing start up again.
He can’t tell if it’s a warning or not. Maybe it’s just an acknowledgement. Wei Wuxian knows he’s there.
Lan Xichen comes back every night for the next week. He’s a strong enough cultivator that he can get away with a couple hours of sleep in the middle of the day with no ill effects, but it’s far from pleasant.
It’s the same thing. Wei Wuxian plays for about half the night. If Wangji has a nightmare, he runs his fingers through his hair or does something else that Lan Xichen can’t make out until he calms. Once the nightmare had been too deep and too violent and Lan Xichen had watched his brother’s body jerk roughly and strangely, as if someone were shaking his shoulder, before he’d groggily opened his eyes, face wet with tears and his hand reaching for someone who isn’t there. Wei Wuxian hadn’t come back that night.
He waits until after curfew but before midnight to take out his own guqin. The first notes of Inquiry are almost a shock, as if he really can’t believe he’s doing this, but his fingers remain steady.
No one answers.
He frowns, playing, Wei Wuxian?
That’s impossible. He’s skilled enough that spirits should have no choice but to answer him, and however strange he might be, Wei Wuxian is still a spirit.
He tries again. Wei Wuxian. Answer me.
There’s a crash, glass shattering, and he lifts his arm to protect his face before he realizes it’s just his teapot from this afternoon, the pieces of the porcelain scattered all across his floor, too many and too far flung than if it had just been tipped up on its side. It looks more like someone had lifted it above their head and hurled it down on the floor.
The cold dredges of tea drag across the floor until they’re recognizable words.
That’s almost more baffling than if Wei Wuxian hadn’t answered him at all. He should be answering through Inquiry, should have to answer using the guqin language. Lan Xichen is the best player in the clan. He stares at his hands, running the notes over again in his mind, trying to see where he’d slipped, but can’t. He plays again, more carefully this time. Who are you?
It’s possible the spirit isn’t Wei Wuxian.
The teacup goes sailing to land right in the middle of the words scribbled in tea, cracking right down the middle.
There are two quick, sharp knocks against his wall. It’s not guqin language, but is easy enough to translate. Fuck. You.
He goes to play another question, but the strings play themselves. Not like they do when interpreting a spirit’s answer, but as if someone else is playing them. Red spiritual energy flickers in front of him as the opening to Inquiry is played back at him, jerkily if correctly, and Lan Xichen can tell he’s being mocked.
He slams his hand against the strings, silencing them, heart in his throat. He doesn’t know what happens when a ghost plays Inquiry, since it shouldn’t be possible, but he doesn’t want to find out. “Alright,” he croaks, banishing the guqin with a wave of his hand. “Okay.”
There’s silence. He’d like to say that he could sense another presence, that he knows he’s being watched, but he doesn’t. He’s been around ghosts before, can usually sense them a mile off, but not Wei Wuxian. If he didn’t know that he wasn’t alone, he wouldn’t suspect anything.
What does it mean? What kind of spirit or ghoul has Wei Wuxian become in death?
Not a normal one, clearly. So perhaps the normal methods of communicating with the dead are unnecessary.
“Wei Wuxian?” he tries, pleased when his voice comes out even.
Another knock. Yes.
Right. He can work with this. He’d rather it was the guqin, where they could have more complex conversations. He’d rather it was the guqin, where Wei Wuxian couldn’t lie to him.
He’s not sure what to ask. If he’s going to hurt Wangji? He’s pretty sure that will just get him more shattered glass.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
This time it’s less of a knock and more the sound of someone tapping their nails against the wood, as if impatient.
He resists the urge to point out that he’s not the one insisting on this inefficient communication method. “Are you here for Wangji?”
“Are you only here for Wangji?”
This time a sound like slapping an open palm against his wall. No.
He swallows. “Revenge?”
A slap, louder this time. No.
Lan Xichen expects that to be a comfort. It’s not. He looks at the shattered glass and the tea which has dripped out of the formation so they’re no longer spelling anything unrecognizable. “You’re angry with me.”
“For Nightless city.”
Another pause. Slap. No.
That’s unexpected. “For what happened to the Wens?” Healers and old men and even older women all killed. The supposed cultivator army Wei Wuxian had been leading had never made an appearance.
A longer pause, but still another slap. No.
“Why not?” He hadn’t meant to ask that, but he can’t take it back now.
Nails tapping. It’s not a yes or no question and Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem interested in spelling out any more helpful messages in his tea.
Lan Xichen is almost grateful to move on when one his books topples to the ground. The pages flip for several moments, then stop. He has to step carefully over the glass to pick it up. It’s a book of poetry, one he wouldn’t have expected Wei Wuxian to have read. It’s open on a poem titled Expectations.
“There’s no use in getting angry about that,” he says, not quite able to put a name to the tone of his own voice. “It’s what you all knew would happen. That’s why you hid. We were only acting as you expected we would.”
He smooths the page even though it isn’t bent. Wei Wuxian thought they would murder the Wens, and they had. He thought they’d come for him for trying to protect them, and they had.
“Why did you kill Jin Zixuan?” As the leader of violent, bloodthirsty sect, it had made sense. As a desperate man trying to protect a band of half starved refugees, it made no sense at all.
He blinks. “You didn’t kill Jin Zixuan.”
Nail tapping, but quicker this time.
“You don’t know?”
They aren’t speaking through Inquiry. Wei Wuxian could be lying.
He puts it aside for now, not sure what to do with this information even if it’s true. “I still don’t understand why you’re angry with me.” Wei Wuxian hadn’t ever seemed to dislike him when he was alive, even when he and Wangji had been at odds with each other.
He’s not expecting the blow and it drives him to his knees, the book falling from his hands and his knees crashing into the broken glass. It’s a line of fiery hot pain across his back once, then twice, and the third time forces a gasp past his lips even as he tries to remember a banishment talisman strong enough that it may work on Wei Wuxian.
Then it’s gone. He reaches for his back, expecting to find blood and tattered robes, but his skin is unbroken, and all that’s left is the memory of pain.
He doesn’t understand until he does and the realization leaves him cold. “You’re angry with me because of what happened with Wangji.”
This time the knock is loud enough that it echoes.
He breathes in deeply, holding it for a moment before letting it out. “Wangji was punished because of what he did to defend you.”
Another knock, quieter this time.
“This is because of you,” he says, letting some of the bitterness creep into his tone.
Knock. He thinks this might be easier if Wei Wuxian would deny it, if he refused to take responsibility for his injured baby brother.
Except he is taking responsibility, isn’t he? Wangji is healing far quicker than he would normally. He’s having his nightmare soothed. Wei Wuxian is taking care of Wangji, as much as he can, in ways a spirit shouldn’t even be capable of.
He looks down, his eyes catching on the book of poetry again. Expectations. Wei Wuxian had expected his refugees to be killed. He’d expected them to hate him and destroy him. Those weren’t things he was angry about with him specifically because he’d already accepted them.
He’d expected Lan Xichen to protect his brother, and he hadn’t, and now Wei Wuxian is angry.
“I didn’t have choice,” he says tightly.
More tapping, but not impatient this time, sharper and trailing off. He can almost hear the sound of Wei Wuxian’s mocking laughter in the sound.
An impossible choice is still a choice. Wei Wuxian had made his impossible choice and it had ended up killing him and all the people he was trying to protect, but he’d still made it.
“It was the right choice,” he says, because it was. He hated it, but his brother needed to be punished, and this was better than some alternatives. What was he supposed to do? Leave the clan and take his brother away and become wandering cultivators? It’s what Wei Wuxian would have done, perhaps, but he’s not Wei Wuxian.
Another slap. No.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer any more questions that night, but when Lan Xichen walks out to the Jingshi, the smooth, almost perfect notes of Healing hang in the air.
Jiang Cheng hadn’t been able to find his brother.
He doesn’t understand. Cultivators don’t fall to their death, especially not ones as strong as Wei Wuxian. He goes down looking for him, anger and grief and fear roiling in his stomach, but doesn’t find him. If he’d just disappeared, then Jiang Cheng would assume he’d just walked away, gone back into hiding, but it’s not that what he doesn’t find.
It’s what he does.
A torn, bloody over robe, bunched up together as if someone had tried to use it to put pressure on a wound. More blood, a trail of it like someone had dragged themselves, because they couldn’t walk, to the edge of a rushing river at the bottom of the cliff. Then nothing.
Wei Wuxian is a strong swimmer. But the river is churning swiftly and if he hadn’t been strong enough to walk, he wouldn’t have been strong enough to swim.
The most damning, of course, is Chenqing.
The flute lies abandoned and bloody. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t leave it behind, not on purpose, but it’s not just that. Chenqing is a spiritual tool, like Zidian but somehow even more volatile. It doesn’t let anyone besides Wei Wuxian handle it.
But when Jiang Cheng picks it up, it doesn’t so much as burn against his fingertips.
Chenqing is too temperamental to be handled by anyone besides its master. Unless, of course, his master is gone.
Unless Wei Wuxian is dead.
People keep congratulating him for killing the Yiling Patriarch, as if that’s something he’d meant to do, something he’d wanted. A-jie had died to protect their brother. How could he spit in the face of her sacrifice by killing him?
How could Wei Wuxian die after their sister had given up her life for his? With both of his siblings dead, what was the point of any of it? But Wei Wuxian shouldn’t be dead, that fall shouldn’t have killed them, and they never found a body, so – so.
He works late now. He always does, falling asleep at his desk more often than not, because – because –
Because, is all.
He’d been working on the disciples’ training schedule and hadn’t gotten further than a vague outline before his eyelids had refused to open and he’d put his head on his desk, telling himself it would just be five minutes. He wakes up a little before dawn with a deep ache in his shoulder from how he’d slept slumped over and winces as rolls it out, sending a burst of spiritual energy to ease the ache, but then he ends up blinking at his desk in confusion.
He’d barely started the disciple training regiment before falling asleep. But there are several pages of plans in front of him and a half empty ink well. He skims them, baffled, because they’re good, actually, brilliant, even if he wouldn’t have put together an archery regime quite so demanding or a talisman course that detailed.
He pauses, wondering if perhaps he’s still dreaming. He wouldn’t have done that. He didn’t do this.
This isn’t even his handwriting.
But it’s handwriting he recognizes.
He stands up so quickly the chair goes toppling backwards, looking around the room wildly, as if expecting to find his brother in a corner, laughing at him and smiling and not dead.
But no one is there. He interrogates the patrol, but they hadn’t seen anything. He picks up Chenqing and it still doesn’t react to his touch. Still masterless. Maybe they’re old lesson plans, ones Wei Wuxian drafted, before everything. Maybe he’d found it before going to sleep and just doesn’t remember.
It doesn’t explain the half empty inkwell.
He doesn’t understand. But he uses the lesson plans. When he gives them to Li Shuchun, his current first disciple, she stills, running her fingers over the dried ink, and his words die in his throat.
Li Shuchun had been right behind him and Wei Wuxian, and his brother had always had more patience and time to teach the disciples than he had. It would probably have caused some rumors, him picking his brother’s favorite pupil to take his place, but the Jiang don’t gossip and no one else cares. “Problem?” he snaps.
She looks up at him then, eyes wide, and his anger melts away under her grief, until he’s sure she can read his own just as easily, as she holds lesson plans obviously if inexplicably written by his brother’s hand.
The Wen had called Wen Ruohan their clan leader until their last breath.
It would take a lot more than Nightless city for his disciples to stop thinking of Wei Wuxian as Senior Brother Wei.
“No,” she says finally, and bows, the lessons plans held reverently in her hands.
If it were just that once, maybe it could be something he could ignore. But it’s not once. He falls asleep over a pile of work and wakes up to find it done, his correspondence drafted and the complaints sorted, even the accounting books balanced, with a couple of notes that certain merchants are overcharging them. All in his brother’s hand.
He interrogates all the disciples, cold and furious and betrayed at the idea that any of them would think this an acceptable sort of prank to play, at the idea anyone in his sect could be this cruel, but they all swear up and down that they had nothing to do with it. He locks the doors and it doesn’t make a difference, he can’t catch whoever keeps sneaking into his office to finish his work.
One night he wakes up slowly and opens his eyes just enough to see the brush gliding across the page all on its own. It pauses, then taps itself against the edge of the desk in a quick, irritated rhythm that Jiang Cheng would know anywhere, before going back to writing, not quite as quickly.
Tears leak out of his eyes and drip down his nose onto whatever papers he’s laying on. He stays still, breathing evenly, and watching the brush move for hours with half lidded eyes. It’s still the middle of the night when the brush wipes itself clean and the night’s work is organized into tiny little piles.
“Wei Wuxian?” he whispers.
Everything stops. He closes his eyes again, resigned, but then he feels the pressure of a familiar arm around his shoulders, no warmth but the right weight, and then it’s gone.
He buries his face and arms and cries for a long time, in the middle of the night, in his office, where no one can see him, the only place he’s allowed to cry for his brother.
Wei Wuxian is a ghost.
That means Wei Wuxian really is dead.
It means Jiang Cheng killed the brother their sister died to save.
No one at Lotus Pier says anything about his red, swollen eyes. Why would they? It’s not like he doesn’t have plenty to mourn.
It keeps happening and Jiang Cheng can’t decide if he wants to laugh or cry. Of course Wei Wuxian is more useful dead than when he was alive.
Of course he leaves him notes about greedy merchants and not anything useful, like where his body is or if he’s able to talk to A-jie or if he hates him.
Wangji is well enough that he can sit upright for a few hours a day. The only time he speaks is to A-Yuan, the war orphan he’s claimed as a son, and he sits with him in his lap for those hours that he’s able to keep himself upright. The doctors make incredulous notes about his progress, speaking of the impressive strength of Hanguang Jun, and Lan Xichen smiles and nods and tries not to think of the smooth, perfect chords of Healing that fill the Jingshi each night.
The first night Wangji has the spiritual energy to spare, he plays Inquiry.
He plays it the next night, and the one after that, and every night after. It’s a waste of spiritual energy. He never receives an answer.
Lan Xichen tries not to feel grateful for that and fails. Wei Wuxian is still hiding his presence from his brother, but it’s for the best. Wangji will never be able to move on from his grief, to heal, if Wei Wuxian is there constantly tearing the wound open anew. Wangji still has nightmares of Wei Wuxian falling, is still sunken deep in his grief. The only thing that pull him out is the child, and the daily visits shouldn’t be allowed, technically, but Lan Xichen can’t help but encourage this one thing that holds his brother’s attention that has nothing to do with Wei Wuxian.
He worries, sometimes, that if weren’t for A-Yuan, his brother would have simply faded away in front of him, in a way that had nothing to do with his injuries.
It’s a cold night and he’s out too late when he walks by the children’s dorms to hear a soft giggle. He pauses, listening. He doesn’t enforce the curfew that strictly, especially not with children, but it’s so late that not being asleep is past the point of irresponsible into being unhealthy, so he slides the door open.
He experiences a horrible moment where he thinks, almost hysterically, that he’s been through this before. Thankfully, this time the door doesn’t slam shut in his face. He should leave, or come forward, but this way he’s mostly hidden from sight while still being able to see everything himself.
A-Yuan is sitting upright in his bed and paper butterflies are flying around his head, the movements smooth but small, as if they’re being moved by invisible hands rather a talisman. “Give, give!” he whispers, eagerly making grabbing motions, and one of the paper butterflies makes its way into his hands. “Kiss?”
The other paper butterfly dutifully taps against the other.
“Noooo,” A-Yuan whines, still speaking softly enough not to wake the other children. He points to himself. “Kiss!”
A pause, then A-Yuan’s hair moves itself off his forehead. He flinches and Lan Xichen grips the doorframe. Surely Wei Wuxian wouldn’t harm a child –
“Cold,” he mutters, rubbing at his forehead, then frowns and points at his cheek. “Kiss!”
This time he giggles rather than flinching. Lan Xichen wonders if it’s still cold. He repeats the motion, pointing to his other cheek, and A-Yuan’s laughs loud enough that one of the disciples shifts in his sleep. He clasps his hands over his mouth and then lowers them enough to whisper, “Sorry.”
The paper butterflies both settle on A-Yuan’s nightstand and then the covers pull themselves back. A-Yuan pouts but dutifully snuggles beneath them. Lan Xichen watches the blanket tuck itself in around A-Yuan’s shoulders and his hair move strangely, like someone’s running their hand through it, which continues until his breathes deepen into sleep.
There’s a cold blast of air against the back of his neck and he slaps his hand against the exposed skin on instinct. There’s a tapping sound along the doorframe, quick and light, as if Wei Wuxian is laughing at him.
Lan Xichen isn’t laughing.
Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe Wei Wuxian came across a kid who couldn’t sleep and decided to entertain him. Maybe he sought A-Yuan out because he’s Wangji’s adopted child.
But he remembers Wangji bringing the child back, burning with a fever so high that it had taken all of the child’s memories with it. Wangji said the child’s name was Yuan and they hadn’t questioned it, hadn’t had the time to question it with everything that had been going on. But perhaps they should have.
He finds himself looking at the child’s face whenever he sees him, trying to find traces of Wei Wuxian there, but if anything the child looks more like Wangji. If the Yiling Patriarch had fathered a child, someone would have heard about it. He thinks.
He could ask, either Wei Wuxian or Wangji, but if it’s true he doesn’t think either of them would tell him, and if it’s not then he gains nothing by asking. So he doesn’t.
But he watches. A-Yuan isn’t the only child Wei Wuxian interacts with, doing it brazenly out in public, where anyone could see him. Except no one but him knows to look. Having an imaginary friend isn’t forbidden, not for children so young, so no one thinks anything of it when the kids giggle and talk to someone who isn’t there, when they pretend to hold a hand that doesn’t exist or their hair ruffles strangely in the breeze.
It’s possible to chalk it up to Wei Wuxian liking kids and not having much to do, considering he’s dead and lingering as a ghost. But he spends the most time with A-Yuan from what he can see, and Lan Xichen has made it almost a habit to walk by the child’s dorms a little after curfew.
Almost always there’s quiet laughter, almost always Wei Wuxian tucks him into bed and gives into multiple demands for kisses on chubby cheeks.
He could try and put a stop to it, but if A-Yuan really is his son, then it seems cruel. If he’s not, then, then – he doesn’t know, but it’s not as if he’s doing any harm. Lan Xichen has been watching, and he really isn’t doing anything malicious, because then all of this would be too easy of course. If Wei Wuxian were a vengeful spirit or cruel or disruptive, then Lan Xichen could justify banishing him, but.
But instead he plays Healing for Wangji and plays with children, one of which may or may not be his son but is certainly Wangji’s.
He could ask, but he doesn’t.
He feels like he’s doing a lot of that lately.
Lan Zhan knows that he’s expending valuable spiritual energy that he could be using to speed up his healing process, but it’s not a waste.
Even if Wei Ying doesn’t answer, it’s not a waste. He just doesn’t understand.
Even weakened like this, his grasp of Inquiry is unapparelled by anyone except perhaps his brother. Spirits should have to answer his call. Wei Ying should answer.
Spirits who have moved on, who no longer linger at the edges of the mortal realm, can only be compelled to answer a few questions. Their name. How they were killed. If they’re at peace. He knew the answer to the second question and didn’t intent to ask it, although perhaps he would, just to get Wei Ying’s presence to linger a couple moments longer, even if it hurt to hear.
He’d thought that maybe, considering how he’d died, Wei Ying might be close to the mortal realm still. He’d thought that maybe he’d be able to get something close to one last conversation out of Wei Ying, even muted and handicapped as it would be through Inquiry. Even if he hadn’t, he still thought it would be alright.
He fantasizes about it, while he’s healing and nourishing his golden core, trying to regain enough strength to play without threatening his life. Wei Ying is gone. Lan Zhan has countless years empty of Wei Ying waiting for him, but he thought that maybe he could have this. He would raise and love their son. He would do his duty as the Second Jade of Lan. He would help as many people as he could, as Wei Ying had always tried to do, and then at the end of the day he would be able to take out his guqin and be selfish.
It’s a simple dream. One he took as an inevitability. He would play, Wei Ying? He’d get and affirmative response, and he’s ask, What is your name? Not because he didn’t know the answer, but because he wanted to hear it.
The cords would pluck out, Wei Ying.
Are you at peace? The answer to this one isn’t something he knows for sure, but he hopes.
Wei Ying would say, Yes, and that would it, the end of the answers he’d be able to compel with Inquiry.
Lan Zhan would pack his guqin away until the next night and hold the single note of Yes close to his heart. He’d live off it, the same way he once lived off on monthly visits to see his mother, and it wouldn’t be enough, it wouldn’t be what he wanted, but it would be his, it would be something to hold onto.
Except he plays, every night, and there is no answer. He should stop, perhaps. But he won’t.
He didn’t offer Wei Ying an open hand for him to hold onto until it was too late. He won’t be the one to close his hand this time, even if Wei Wuxian never takes it, is never able to take it.
Mianmian cries for a long time when she hears of the events of Nightless City, when she hears that her best friend and his wife are dead and that Wei Wuxian has been killed by his own brother’s hand.
She cries because she knows that it’s wrong, that even if all the events are true the rumors and stories around them aren’t. Wei Wuxian would never kill Jin Zixuan, would slit his own throat before harming Jiang Yanli, and Jiang Cheng, no matter his rage, would not raise his blade against his brother in a killing blow.
The picture doesn’t fit right. She knows there are pieces missing.
It’s something like in that day in the Jin hall, where everyone had talked and talked and said not a single true thing, placing all the blame on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and none of it on their own, refusing to see reason or sense. Mianmian knew Wei Wuxian. He’d been flighty and loud and charming. He’d been brave and kind with the type of unshakable moral center that the Nie and Lan talked about having but have never managed to live by half as well as Wei Wuxian had.
So she cries, because she thinks that maybe leaving the sect was a mistake, that if she’d been there maybe she could have put a stop to it, but she knows that isn’t true. No matter her rank, Jin Zixuan had been the only one to ever listen to her, and even he was powerless against his father. Her being there probably wouldn’t have made any difference at all, but she wasn’t there, so she’ll never know.
Mianmian is polishing her blade in the room of another inn, trying not to let her thoughts wander, because she never likes the direction they take, when she feels something yank on her hair.
She raises her blade and curves it behind her, because she knows she’s alone, but it passes through the air, not even a hint of the tingling sensation that happens when a cultivation blade comes in contact with a ghoul or spirit. She doesn’t sense anything, but she knows what she felt. “Who’s there?”
Another yank on her hair and then the feeling of a blow to her chest, but it’s nothing painful, more pressure than actual sensation.
She lays her hand across it, rubbing her chest, and a terrible combination of hope and disbelief seeps into her. “Wei Wuxian?” It’s the same place where he took a Wen brand meant for her.
This time it’s a tug on her robes, not even enough to move them out of place. It’s playful.
“Wei Wuxian,” she says, but hesitates. She doesn’t understand, and she wants to believe it’s him, to be able to talk to him one last time, but there are many kinds of spirits that pretend to be something they’re not. “How do I know it’s you?”
A pause, and then an erratic tapping sensation on her shoulder, as if he’s drumming his fingers as he thinks, and that nearly convinces her all on its own. It stops and then her bag moves of its own accord, paper and ink taken out of it.
She’s intrigued. It’s rare for ghosts to retain enough of a grasp of language to be able to write, although of course Wei Wuxian would be one of them.
The brush moves across the page confidently if messily. Mianmian sits and reads the words as they’re written and slowly her disbelief bleeds to rage before settling on determination.
She can’t undo any of the terrible events that she wasn’t there to witness. Jin Zixuan, Jiang Yanli, and Wei Wuxian are dead and there’s nothing she can do about that.
But this is something she can do, so she will.
“Maybe you should stop.”
He takes a deep breath, giving himself a second to settle back more firmly into his body, to feel the ache along his chest and the way his heart beats too fast and sweat pricks along the back of his neck, then he lets it out. “No, it’s fine. It’s helping.”
“Who?” Xiao Xingchen asks, his voice not quite angry but his posture stiff and uncomfortable. “You’re gone longer each time. What if one time you don’t find your way back?”
Wei Wuxian does not sigh and does force his face into something approaching a smile. “I will. It really is helping, you know I’m right. It’s just my luck I’m stuck like this when Jiang Cheng walked away a couple hours later like nothing had happened.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Xiao Xingchen says severely, some of his admirable control beginning to slip, “had been mostly healthy, while you were mostly dead, and his body had been accustomed to holding a golden core at least somewhat as strong as yours, and Jiang Cheng had Wen Qing, the brightest medical mind of several generations, and all you and Teacher have is me and I–”
Wei Wuxian ignores the way his body nearly locks up in pain and pushes himself up enough to grab Xiao Xinchen’s wrist, feeling the way his pulse is beating too quickly, and says, “Hey, sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean – you’re doing great, it’s okay.” If he makes Xiao Xingchen cry then Song Lan will kill him which will really ruin a lot of people’s hard work.
“I am not,” he says quietly, but his pulse has slowed.
“You really are,” Wei Wuxian says warmly, “look, we’re both recovering, we’re doing great, you’ve been great!”
“Teacher will recover,” he agrees, and his lips briefly press together into a flat line, because there’s only so much recovering she can do, really. They both don’t look at the unconscious woman in the bed next to his. Healing meditations are effective, but disconcerting, especially when someone’s been in one for months. “You may not.”
There is a reason, after all, that Wei Wuxian has been letting people believe his consciousnesses projection is his ghost. There’s still a pretty good chance he won’t make it, that it won’t take, and he’ll die anyway. There’s no reason to make anyone mourn him a second time.
Lan Zhan’s pain almost breaks him. Wei Wuxian longs to pull him close, to tell Lan Zhan everything, to do something that will lift his cloud of grief. But if this is what him dying has done to Lan Zhan, how much worse will it be for him to die again, to give Lan Zhan hope only to snatch it away? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to find out.
Besides. This second chance doesn’t belong to him and he’s probably not going to be able to keep it.
He swallows, steels himself, then says, “You can still put it back. She’ll heal faster, and it’s fine, I don’t mind.”
“You’ll die,” Xiao Xingchen says, his voice catching at the end.
“I’ll probably die anyway,” he points out. “Come on, I’m just me, and she’s – she’s who she is, and I am who I am, and I don’t – you should put it back. This isn’t a fair trade and you know it, you know the world is a better place with her in it, and at this rate I’m going to die anyway.”
Fuck, those are definitely tears in Xiao Xingchen’s eyes. He really hadn’t wanted that. “Should she have asked you first? Like you asked Jiang Cheng before you did it?”
“That’s different,” he argues. “He’s my brother, and the future sect leader, he needed it. I don’t need it.”
Xiao Xingchen shakes his head, running his arm over his eyes to wipe the tears off his face. “Stop it. No. Just, just lie down, please.” He grabs Wei Wuxian’s shoulder to help ease him back down, but jerks his hand back, eyes wide. His mouth settles into a grim line and he presses the back his hand to his forehead. “Your fever is spiking again.”
He’s not surprised. But now Xiao Xingchen is worried and he looks suspiciously close to crying some more, which he hates, he feels terrible whenever it happens. “It’s fine, it’s not that bad.”
“So you’re at death’s door already when you want me to kill you and perfectly fine when I’m worried about you?” he asks. His voice is gentle but it sounds tired, sounds as exhausted as he must be feeling after months of having to look after both of them.
“I’m probably not going to survive this,” he says quietly, honestly. “You should put it back before it’s too late.”
Xiao Xingchen leans down to press his forehead to Wei Wuxian’s, his lips trembling. “Nephew,” he says, “please stop asking me to hurt you. I won’t. Teacher made her decision, and I made my decision, and you really didn’t have anything to do with it. You don’t need to feel guilty, just as you do not want your brother to feel guilty. Don’t waste this gift. Don’t rush towards death when there is so much for you to live for.”
“They threw a banquet when they thought I died,” he says, an ache in his throat that he wishes he could blame on anything else. “They toasted to it, sang about it. They celebrated it.”
“Not everyone,” he says, there are people he loves who still love him. But trading his life for anyone else’s seems wrong. This life doesn’t belong to him, he shouldn’t have it. “Please. You have so much left to offer the world. She wouldn’t have done it if she didn’t believe that.”
That thought hurts, more than falling, more than anything, but he has no defense against it, so he just hums and says, “Okay, Uncle.”
Xiao Xingchen sighs, then straightens. “Thank you. I’ll go get you something for the fever.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t say that there isn’t a point, that there’s nothing to do but to wait and see if his body eats itself alive.
He was a strong cultivator, the strongest of their generation except perhaps Lan Zhan. His golden core had been more powerful than most people’s, actually, and he’d tried not to be too arrogant about that. It's what had saved his life, it's what had turned disfiguring or deadly treatment under Madame Yu’s whip to something he was able to walk away from, something he’d already half recovered from a week later. He’d thought he understood what it meant to have a powerful golden core.
But Baoshan Sanren has been cultivating her golden core for seven hundred years. It sits in his chest now, but it’s too much, his body isn’t prepared to handle it, especially as he’d received it, broken and barely holding on to life after falling from the cliff. It’s burning him up, tearing his body apart from the inside.
It’s a race now, to see if his new golden core is able to heal him faster than it’s killing him.
Wen Ning is going to be the death of his sister and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
Jiejie is even thinner than she’d been in the burial mounds, pale and desperate and angry. They makes her experiment on him, trying to find ways to control him.
She’s refused, at first, and had only relented when he’d begged her to do it, when he’d pleaded and come as close as he could to crying. She digs pin into his head and he hates it and she hates it but it means they’re keeping her alive for a little while longer, it means he gets more time with his sister in this dark and lonely cell. But eventually she’ll figure it out, find out how to make him docile and blank and easy to control, and then they’ll kill her, and Wen Ning won’t be able to do anything about it because his free will be gone and then – he doesn’t know what comes after. Something terrible, he supposes.
He tries not to dwell on the pain, on the parts of his life that feel like what he remembers a bruise feeling like, but it’s too much, he’s lost too much. Their people are dead. A-Yuan is dead. Young Master Wei is dead. Soon, his sister will be dead too, and he’ll be completely alone. He hopes whatever his sister does manages to take away his awareness along with his free will. He doesn’t want to have to exist in a world like that.
It’s better if he’s not Wen Ning, if instead he’s just a thing to be used.
Song Lan returns to the mountain to find things much the same as he left it. Baoshan Sanren in a coma, Wei Wuxian on the edge of dying, and Xiao Xingchen holding onto his composure by his fingertips.
It’s been over six months since Baoshan Sanren scooped Wei Wuxian up from the bottom of a cliff and called Xiao Xingchen back to her mountain, breaking her own vow twice over. It’s been more than six months since she calmly talked Xiao Xingchen through cutting open her chest and taking out her golden core to give it to Wei Wuxian.
“Xiao Xingchen,” he says, watching as his friend’s face lights up in delight and relief before it crumples.
He’s not crying but it seems more through stubbornness than a lack of desire. “He was gone for a whole day this time, nearly. I thought he wasn’t coming back. He just keeps saying it’s helping him.”
Wei Wuxian truly doesn’t understand how his carelessness with himself is a cruelty to all those who care for him. Song Lan’s surety that he neither intends nor wants to hurt them is all that’s keeping him from going into that room and attempting to knock some sense into him. “It is helping him.”
Projection his consciousness so far away, with no conduit like a paperman, and then channeling spiritual energy through it so he can affect the things around him is – laughable, almost, in its impossibility. Song Lan hadn’t thought something like that could be done, even theoretically, so of course Wei Wuxian had figured out a way to do it a week after waking up.
It requires massive amounts of spiritual energy. The more he does it, the more he uses, and when his spiritual energy takes a far enough dip his body is able to heal properly without tearing itself apart. It gives his body time to adjust to his new golden core. Song Lan is sure that if Wei Wuxian hadn’t figured out a way to expel such large amounts of spiritual energy, Baoshan Sanren’s core would have killed him within the month.
“He’s getting better,” Song Lan says, because he is. Sometimes he even manages to walk for more than a couple minutes at a time, sometimes he can sit upright and eat and talk with them before the fever or aches pull him under again. “He’s adjusting.”
“It’s not enough,” Xiao Xingchen says quietly. “I’m not enough. It’s just delaying the inevitable. He’s right, it is killing him, and I don’t know how to stop it, and I’m going to end up losing both of them.”
Baoshan Sanren isn’t going to die from the golden core transfer, they think. But she will die, now. She’s no longer immortal, she can no longer extend her lifespan through cultivation. She’d stopped aging in her thirties, so she may be able to eke out another fifty or sixty years. If she’s lucky.
Xiao Xingchen had been taken up to the mountain after Wei Wuxian’s mother had left, and so little binds them together, really, but it doesn’t seem to matter to either of them. Xiao Xingchen cares for Wei Wuxian as if he really were family, and his distant, theoretical affection had become a solid, practical thing these past six months.
“Don’t count him out yet,” he says gently. “Maybe he’ll surprise you. I hear he’s good at that.”
His friend laughs, watery but sincere, and he hopes fiercely that Wei Wuxian manages to pull off another miracle. He doesn’t want to have to help Xiao Xingchen bury someone he considers family.
Mianmian still has friends in the Jin sect, but even with help it takes months to find a way to get herself inside, to get into the bowels of Koi Tower without getting caught. It helps having a ghost for a lookout. Wei Wuxian isn’t with her often, but he’s here now, and she never gets quite used to the way his presence is completely undetectable to her. She should be able to sense a ghost as powerful as he is, but she can’t, never knows he’s there until he’s nudging her shoulder or yanking on her hair.
She has to fight her way through several guards, but she’s always been the best, always right behind Jin Zixuan, and she fights like she never did as a Jin, desperate and dirty and uncaring of everything but her victory, of everything but moving forward.
It helps that all the guards are people she’d hated, arrogant and cruel, and now knowing what they’d done, what they’re currently doing, she can’t even bring herself to feel a pang of regret.
The door is sealed shut and she scowls and resists the urge to kick it like a child. She doesn’t know how to get through this. If she tries to slice through wards this strong the blowback will probably kill her.
Bright red spiritual energy flares in front of her, a complicated talisman drawing itself in the air before it’s pushed forward. The wards fold in on themselves, crumpling and dissipating, and Mianmian is reminded of Cloud Recesses, of Wei Wuxian at fifteen casually breaking through the wards there as if they hadn’t been cast by the strongest of the Lan elders.
Ghosts can’t manipulate spiritual energy, not like that. She feels a trickle of unease along her spine but she doesn’t have time to worry about that now. She pushes the door open, finds Wen Ning and Wen Qing just like Wei Wuxian told her she would. They’re filthy and confused and scared.
She goes into a deep bow, ignoring their shock, and says, “My name is Luo Qingyang. I’m here to help you. Please come with me, I’m going to take you somewhere you’ll be safe.”
She’s followed Wei Wuxian this far, whatever he is now. She’ll finish what she started.
Wei Wuxian has been dead for a year and Wangji is almost completely healed from his punishment, outstripping even Uncle’s generous expectations.
Lan Xichen knows why, but says nothing. It’s been a year and no one else has discovered that Wei Wuxian’s ghost is lingering in Cloud Recesses, has discovered the music that still plays in the middle of the night.
A-Yuan is beginning classes. He ends every day by spending a couple hours in the Jingshi, which shouldn’t be allowed, but keeping a son away from his father in seclusion is too much for him to stand. Uncle backs him up, which means the elders grumble less than they would have otherwise.
It’s strange, to watch them together. Not bad. Just different.
A-Yuan sits in Wangji’s lap and rests his head against his chest as he talks about his day, too high pitched and too quickly, his voice at odds against the way he lies bonelessly in Wangji’s arms. He always redoes A-Yuan’s hair before he leaves, not because it really needs it, but so he has a reason to take off and retie his forehead ribbon, reinforcing their relationship. Lan Xichen is their only audience, and has never questioned it even if he’d wanted to, but it’s not for him. It’s for everyone who’s manners will lapse and who will ask A-Yuan why he wears the cloud ribbon of the main family, it’s so he can say, Hanguang Jun gave it to me, he ties it for me every day, and they will know.
“Diedie,” he says, playing with the edges of Wangji’s hair, and Lan Xichen can’t help but stare at him in shock, “can we play outside soon?”
Wangji blinks one, then twice, and his lips curl up at the edges in the first true, easy smile that Lan Xichen has seen in a year. “Soon,” he says, which isn’t the answer that A-Yuan wants, but he only pouts for a few moments before getting distracted by attempting to braid a section of Wangji’s hair together.
A-Yuan has never called him Diedie before. Wangji has never instructed A-Yuan to call him anything, and Lan Xichen knows that no one else would, still confused about the son that appeared just as Lan Zhan left, and even if they had, or if Uncle had gotten sentimental, then they would have instructed him to call Wangji Father, stiff and formal, just like he and his brother addressed their father.
He can think of only one person who would have done this.
On the way back to the children’s dormitories, Lan Xichen walks with his nephew’s hand in his and tries to figure out how to ask this question correctly and gives up. “A-Yuan, can you tell me about your imaginary friend?”
“No,” he says cheerfully.
He frowns. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about him,” he says, then presses his fingers to his lips. “It’s a secret! He’s an imaginary secret!”
It’s an explanation that would work on anyone but him, on anyone who believes that A-Yuan really does just have an imaginary friend.
A-Yuan’s never brough him up to Wangji, he realizes. Never discussed him at all, with anyone, which is strange for a child as cheerful and exuberant as A-Yuan.
“What does he look like?” he asks. Lan Xichen has never seen anything of Wei Wuxian except for the rippling of his red spiritual energy.
A-Yuan comes to a stop and Lan Xichen has to pause too to prevent dragging him along behind him. “Zewe Jun,” he says, his low, as close to reproach as he can get. He thinks he might copying Uncle, actually. “I said no.”
He could push, could demand. But if there’s anyone completely blameless in all this, it’s A-Yuan. “I understand,” he says gently. “I apologize.”
He nods, satisfied, and continues walking.
That night Lan Xichen presses his fingers to his guqin and plays Inquiry, calling out for Wei Wuxian.
He doesn’t get answer, but when he walks to the Jingshi, he hears Healing playing, even now, even when Wangji only experiences lingering soreness from the thirty three lashes that almost killed him.
Wei Wuxian is still here and, it seems, has nothing to say to him. Lan Xichen has no way to force him.
He wonders if he should banish him, or try to, if this has gone on too long and gone too far. The problem with that is that even if he had some way to get rid of whatever type of spirit Wei Wuxian has become, it’s gone on too long, gone too far.
If he was going to get rid of Wei Wuxian, he should have done it a year ago, the first time he heard him play Healing. But he didn’t.
So he won’t.
Xiao Xingchen is not expecting to be woken in the middle of the night by Wei Wuxian. It’s never happened before, and is all the more frightening because of it, because Wei Wuxian tries so hard to never ask for anything or need anything, so to have him here, now, shaking him awake, makes his heart jump to his throat.
“What’s wrong?” he rasps, reaching for Wei Wuxian’s wrist. “Are you coughing up more blood? Has your fever spiked again?”
Wei Wuxian hasn’t gotten worse in the months they’ve been on the mountain.
He hasn’t gotten better, either. For all that the core is connected to him more firmly than ever, his body is still struggling to keep functioning. Some days Xiao Xingchen thinks he’s being punished by being forced to endure witnessing the slowest, saddest death.
“Everything’s fine,” Wei Wuxian mutters, which means nothing, but his pulse is steady under his fingertips. “We have visitors at the base of the mountain. Can you go get them?”
“Visitors,” he repeats numbly. “What are you talking about?”
His hands are warm on his arm, and part of that is probably his constant fever, but Wei Wuxian’s voice is steady and sincere when he says, “You’ve done such a good job taking care of me, even when you didn’t have to. I know you worry. But you don’t have to worry anymore. They’re going to help.”
At the base of the mountain is a former Jin disciple, a fierce corpse, and Wen Qing.
Wen Qing, who is alive. Wen Qing, who is the brightest medical mind of their age, who will be able to help Teacher, who might be able to save Wei Wuxian.
He bows to her and says, “Please. I need your help.”
There’s a moment of stunned silence, then she says, “I think that’s our line, actually.”
He doesn’t explain, there’s no point to it, and they’re silent as they climb to the top of the mountain and it’s nearly dawn by the time they step into the temple. Song Lan is there, supporting Wei Wuxian as he stands at the entrance, face lit up in an eager smile.
All three of them freeze. “Wei Wuxian?” the Jin disciple whispers, eyes wide.
He tries to bow and stumbles, Song Lan’s hand on his elbow all that keeps him from pitching forward, but his smile is still bright when he looks at her. “Thank you, Mianmian. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
That breaks whatever spell they’re under and Wen Qing buries her face in her hands and sinks to the floor while Mianmian heads straight for Wei Wuxian, yelling at him and pulling him into a hug, and the fierce corpse that Xiao Xingchen thinks might be Wen Ning stands there with his hand outstretched and trembling.
Mianmian helps him walk over to the Wens, where he takes Wen Ning’s outstretched hand and drops his other hand casually onto Wen Qing’s head where she’s still curled on her knees. “Sorry it took so long,” he says, the pain and regret in his voice at odds with his smile. “Even after I found out you were still alive, you were hard to find.”
He doesn’t realize that he’s trembling too until Song Lan steps over to him, smiling, and says, “I told you he’d surprise us.”
Xiao Xingchen laughs, feeling lighter than he has in over a year, since Teacher found him asked for his help in cracking her open.
Wen Qing had thought their sacrifice had been for nothing. They’d given up their lives for their family, for Wei Wuxian, and in a cruel twist they’d been only ones to come out alive. It hadn’t felt like a reprieve, but a punishment, the guilt hanging heavy around her neck. But now Wei Wuxian is here, not as a ghost, having saved them again which threatens to make her have to hide her face away for a second time.
She doesn’t have long to linger over the maelstrom of emotions in her chest, thankfully. She has work to do.
Wei Wuxian is dying. She’s not going to let him, not when she’s just gotten him back.
“It’s not lined up correctly,” she mutters after examining Wei Wuxian. “It’s like a heart, you need to connect all the veins and everything in exactly the right place otherwise it’ll kill you. Nice work on trying to exhaust the core, thought. It was an extremely stupid and effective idea. Your specialty.”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes and she has to resist the urge to do something terrible, like hug him.
Xiao Xingchan bows his head. “I tried to follow Teacher’s directions but I–”
“You did well,” she says, cutting him off. “They’re both alive and have stayed that way. That’s more than many qualified medical cultivators could have done.”
“Can you fix it?” Luo Qingyang asks anxiously.
She opens her mouth to answer, but Wei Wuxian beats her to it. “Of course she can,” he says. “Wen Qing can do anything.”
“Shut up,” she says, jabbing him in the side just to make him laugh as he tries to twist away from her. “I can fix it,” she says with more confidence than she feels.
Wei Wuxian keeps saving her, again and again and again. She has to be able to save him too. He’d say there’s no debt between them and maybe there isn’t, maybe they’ve come too far together for that, but it doesn’t matter. She refuses to do less for him than he’s done for her.
It’s both easier and harder than the last time she’d held a golden core in her hands. Easier, because she already knows all his meridian points, already knows how to connect the edges of a golden core to the rest of a body so the energy flows through it correctly and evenly. Harder, because if holding Wei Wuxian’s core was like holding an inferno between palms, then Baoshan Sanren’s is like holding the sun itself, blinding her and biting at her skin even as she keeps her hands steady through the pain, even as she has to feel her way around meridians she cannot see.
But she knows she’s succeeded when she starts to sew the wound shut and it heals on its own, all she has to do is hold the incision together and wait for it to heal over.
His fever is gone and the tension of constant pain has eased out his face. He clasps her hands in his, ignoring how they’re slippery with his blood, and says, “Thank you.”
“I’ve had my hands in your chest twice now and there better not be a third,” she snaps, but lets him continue to hold her hands, so she feels as if the effect is a bit wasted.
Healing Baoshan Sanren is easy by comparison. She doesn’t know if she put herself into deep medical meditation because she knew exactly what was wrong with her or if she just knew that something was wrong and figured that it would put her in a stasis until it could be stopped. It doesn’t matter, because Wen Qing is here now, and she can fix it. Her golden core hadn’t been taken out of her carefully enough, leading to large wounds along her spirit that were draining her of energy. They were healing, but slowly, so slowly that even over a year later they were obvious. Wei Wuxian channels his spiritual energy into her so that Wen Qing can use it to repair the tears, pulling and sewing the places together until there’s nothing more to be done, until her spirit is as balanced as it can be without a golden core.
She’s barely finished, stepping away, when Baoshan Sanren opens her eyes. She pushes herself upright, her eyes sweeping over all of them before settling on Wei Wuxian.
“Good,” she says. “Have you figured out how to prove your innocence yet?”
“I’m not innocent,” Wei Wuxian starts, but Wen Qing raises a hand to silence him. Shockingly, it works.
“I have,” she says, looking to A-Ning who gives her a serious nod. All that time with Jin Guangyao, Su She, and Xue Yang experimenting on A-Ning and forcing her to help meant she knew exactly who was responsible for things going as disastrously wrong as they had.
Baoshan Sanren’s mouth curves into a small, vicious smile and she repeats, “Good.”
Lan Qiren is exhausted by this cultivation conference and it’s barely begun. The Jin haven’t become any more tolerable with Jin Guangyao as their sect leader, no matter what Xichen seems to think, and it’s not like any of the other clans are any better. Sect Leader Jiang is especially exhausting with his ire that Jin Ling is seated with his nurse next to the Jin sect leader rather than with him, as if seating the Jin sect heir with his maternal uncle would be appropriate in the current setting.
It’s the opening banquet, everyone talking and drinking and Lan Qiren is debating how many rules of rudeness it would break if he just slipped back to his rooms and let Xichen handle this. It’s not like anything important happens at the opening banquet anyway.
Because the universe lives to make a fool of him, it’s at that moment that the doors to the Jin hall fling themselves open to reveal Baoshan Sanren, her infamous pure white clothing and silver embroidery declaring her identity even though none of them recognize her face.
Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan stand at her back, and if anyone was considering doubting her identity, it’s pointless now, with her known pupil there to verify it. Behind them stands Luo Qingyang and a man in all black with a mask covering his face.
Everything has stopped, people cut off mid breath by her very presence. He can’t help but think that all the stories Cangse Sanren had told him about her hadn’t done her justice.
“I felt Lan Yi die,” she starts out with an Xichen breathes in through his teeth beside him, which Lan Qiren thinks is admirable since suddenly he can’t breathe at all. “I felt my beloved pass on her mission to both her own decedent and, in a way, mine. Then years later I heard an interesting rumor. I heard that the Jiang sect leader had lost his golden core. I heard I had healed him.” She pauses, and Lan Qiren wants to know what Jiang Wanyin’s face looks like right now, but he can’t bring himself to turn away. He hadn’t heard these rumors, and he’s not the one living on top of a mountain. “This was interesting, because I hadn’t done any such thing, as it’s impossible to heal a crushed core. Yet he had a core once more, and then my descendent went missing and returned refusing to use his sword. It was easy for me to understand what had happened.” She pauses, and he thinks she knows what she means, but it can’t be. “It’s been a long time since someone successfully transferred their core to another. You must have had an excellent doctor, Sect Leader Jiang.”
No, that boy, giving up his golden core? Impossible, it must be, he wouldn’t have done such a thing.
“No,” Jiang Wanyin says and Lan Qiren feels relief course through him, but when he turns, the boy is crying, his hand pressed to his chest. “If he, but, why didn’t he tell me? He – that means when he fell, he couldn’t heal himself, and,” he stops to raise his hand and press it to his mouth, as if he’s going to be sick.
People said that Jiang Wanyin had had plunged his sword into his brother’s chest and thrown him off the cliff’s edge. Lan Qiren abruptly realizes that Jiang Wanyin himself has never said that.
“When I figured out what he’d done, I broke my vow to leave my mountain to look for him,” she continues solemnly. “I did not make it in time to save him from falling. I wish I had. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left that I can do for him. The least of what he’s owed is that you all acknowledge the truth of the events that lead to his destruction.”
Baoshan Sanren continues speaking, weaving a tale of manipulation and trickery that should be unbelievable except for all the ways it makes a little too much sense. Xichen face shifts to devastation while Nie Mingjue is grimly satisfied. Lan Qiren thinks it can’t be true. Hopes it can’t be true. Because if it was, they killed helpless refugees for nothing, they turned against Wei Wuxian for – not nothing, even in this version he’s not blameless, but if it’s true then he didn’t deserve what they did, what happened to him.
If it’s true, then maybe Wangji really had done the right thing by trying to protect him.
“Lady Baoshan,” Jin Guangyao says, his voice cajoling and pleading, “this is nonsense, think of what you’re saying. You have no proof, only rumor.”
She tilts her head to the side, something in her stance reminding him viscerally of Cangse Sanren before she’d gone in for the kill. “Oh, did you want proof?”
She snaps her fingers and Wen Qing walks in, her head held high, and then Wen Qionglin follows, restraining a struggling Xue Yang.
“Hello, Jin Guangyao,” Wen Qing says placidly, as if she’s not looking at a man that has supposedly spent over a year torturing her.
Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin should be dead, but they’re not, standing right in front of them. If Jin Guangyao lied about this, then what else did he lie about it? If this is true, then perhaps the rest of the outlandish tale is as well.
Baoshan Sanren reaches into her robes and pulls out something that’s impossible to ignore.
A piece of yin iron sits in her palm.
“Xue Yang had this on him,” she says idly. “Several things you thought were true are not. Feel free to interrogate him. He’ll tell you the truth, I assume, as he’s hardly the sort of type to have any loyalty.”
Several things happen very quickly.
Jin Guangyao yanks Jin Ling out of his seat, pulls a dagger from his sleeve, and holds it to the child’s throat. “Uncle?” the toddler asks, eyes wide, not even two years old.
Zidian sparks to life on Jiang Wanyin’s hand, the masked man in black passes out and Luo Qingyang barely manages to catch him before he hits the ground. There’s a shimmer of red spiritual energy around Jin Guangyao and the arm holding the dagger is wrenched so far backwards that they all hear a sickening snap as it folds at an unnatural angle. Jin Ling slips from his grip, but instead of falling, he’s floating in the air, in a strange position as if someone’s holding him on his hip.
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Wanyin and Xichen say at the exact same time, which someone better explain immediately.
Jiang and Nie disciples rush forward to subdue both Jin Guangyao and Su She. Jin Ling floats over to Jiang Wanyin, crying and reaching for him, and Jiang Wanyin takes him eagerly, holding him close and probably too tightly, but he doesn’t look away from the empty space in front of him. “Wei Wuxian?” he repeats.
Everyone turns, because it’s not coming from the space in front of Jiang Wanyin, but near the front. The man in black is standing upright again. He reaches behind him to undo the mask, letting it fall to the floor.
Wei Wuxian stands there, very much alive.
“I did not find him before the fall, but I did find him after,” Baoshan Sanren says blandly. “As it would have been impossible for him to survive his injuries without a golden core, I gave him one. My own. I name Wei Wuxian my heir. You will not harm him.” Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan each raise an eyebrow, as if her meaning and their position could be any clearer.
After the litany of shocks they’ve all been through, Lan Qiren would have thought he was incapable of any more, but clearly he’s mistaken. As he’s been mistaken about many things.
It’s a small consolation that Wei Wuxian looks as shocked ask the rest of them. “You – but – why?”
Baoshan Sanren’s face softens minutely. She speaks loud enough that they can all hear her, but her words are directed at Wei Wuxian. “You have done what Lan Yi always wanted to do but could not. You have figured out how to harness resentful energy in ways I did not think was possible and become a master of it. You are so young, Wei Wuxian, and you have done so much in such a small amount of time. I want you to have more time.” Her smile turns wistful. “Lan Yi sealed herself in her cave and so I retreated to my mountain. It was enough, to share the earth with her, to know we lived under the same moon and breathed the same air. But now she’s gone and I’m not.”
Wei Wuxian reaches for her then hesitates. “That doesn’t mean-”
“It does,” she says, not unkindly. “I am very old and the woman I love is dead. A long life is nothing more than a curse to me now. I will live out the remainder of my days as a mortal woman and join A-Yi in whatever lies beyond this world. But as she left behind the Lan,” Baoshan Sanren glances at him and Xichen without really seeing them, “so I will leave behind you. The man who fulfilled my beloved’s dreams and the son of my precious student. You are a good legacy, Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Qiren supposes that what Wei Wuxian has suffered will have to serve as penance for his crimes, as it appears that Baoshan Sanren won’t allow them to take any further retribution.
Considering how the sect’s desire for justice had led to such a mess that Baoshan Sanren had needed to come down from her mountain to fix it, perhaps that’s a good thing.
Wei Wuxian ignores the chaos of the other sects to let Jiang Cheng yell at him, punch him in the shoulder, then hug him so tightly that he thinks he breaks a couple ribs. “You could at least say thank you for all the paperwork I’ve done for you,” he grumbles, but can’t stop himself from grinning.
“Shut up,” he says, “shut up, I thought I killed you, I thought – you should have told me – I think I hate you,” he finishes plaintively.
“That’s fair,” he says quietly, and thinks of their sister. He’d played right into Jin Guangyao’s hands and because of that Jiang Yanli is dead.
Jiang Cheng squeezes him again then hits him upside the head. “Stop that. Idiot.”
It’s enough to make him start grinning again and for his eyes to burn. “Not that I’m complaining,” he says hesitantly, “but I expected you to be … angrier.”
His brother is silent for a long moment, then he says, “You did do a lot of paperwork.”
“Jiang Cheng,” he groans. “I’m serious!”
“I am being serious,” he says, and sounds like he actually is. “You came back to Lotus Pier. That’s all I wanted, was you to come back, and now you’re really here, not just as a ghost that does my filing. I am angry. But you came home.” He shrugs, a little awkwardly, and says, “As long as you come home, we can figure out the rest.”
Now it’s Wei Wuxian’s turn to fling himself at his brother and hug him too tightly, but then he says, “Ah, about coming home, because I will, but first, I have to, um. Take care of some unfinished business.”
Wei Wuxian expects an argument, but all Jiang Cheng says is, “As long as you come back.” He frowns suddenly, “What about Chenqing? It lets me hold it. I thought that meant you had to be dead.”
He laughs and taps his brother’s chest. “You have my golden core. It would probably even let you play it, if you like.”
Jiang Cheng looks vaguely ill at the thought. “No thanks. Come grab it whenever you’re done with your unfinished business.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t say anything about Jiang Cheng holding his flute hostage to ensure he returns to Lotus Pier, because he’s that kind of loving brother.
The rest of the Jiang disciples descend on him after that, including Li Shuchun bodily throwing herself at him and not hitting him nearly as hard as he knows she’s capable of, and someone finally hands him his nephew.
Jin Ling seems wary of him, and he’d obviously been too young to understand the concept of secrets, so Wei Wuxian hadn’t show himself all the times he’d hovered by his crib. He starts humming the same song Jin Ling would whenever he’d wake up in the middle of the night, and that’s enough. Jin Ling’s face lights up with recognition and he wraps his arms around his neck, it’s such a good thing that he doesn’t care about any sect’s opinion about him because he’s definitely crying again.
A Jin disciple hesitantly hands him his Suibian, which he hadn’t even known that Jin Guangyao had, and being able feel the familiar, welcoming thrum under his hand after so long feels just like walking back to Lotus Pier.
Song Lan and Mianmian are guarding the Wens while Xiao Xingchen assists Baoshan Sanren with what could gently be called bossing all the other sects around.
It’s fantastic. But two very important people are missing from all this.
He considers just leaving, but there are couple of things that have to be cleared up first.
Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen are standing next to each other, which is quite convenient, although he thinks it might have something to do with Lan Xichen having some sort of crisis over Jin Guangyao, which he thinks he’ll be able to feel more sympathetic about later, when the man’s actions against him don’t feel so fresh. Surprisingly, it’s Lan Xichen who’s glaring at him but he had spent quite a long time running around Cloud Recesses while pretending to be a ghost, which has to break some sort of rule. Plus he’d broken his tea set. Lan Qiren is just resigned, which is a sight that he never thought he’d see.
“Lan Zhan’s punishment is over,” he says.
“Yes,” Lan Qiren says, more quickly than he’d expected. “I believe that’s for the best.”
“You let Wangji think you were dead,” Lan Xichen says tightly.
He almost points out that considering he’s spent every night since waking up after the events of the Nightless city with Lan Zhan’s grief he’s more than aware of it, but bites his tongue. This is anger born out of Lan Xichen’s love of Lan Zhan, so it’s not an anger he can begrudge. “Baoshan Sanren’s core was put in my incorrectly. It’s fixed now, but that’s recent. I was dying. If I didn’t have a very skilled doctor, I would be dead. Would you have him mourn me a second time?” He gives Lan Xichen a moment for his expression to go even stormier before adding, “If you thought having me and losing me again would be good for him, you would have told him I was there, but you didn’t.”
That gives him pause, and some of the anger drains away. “A-Yuan?”
That hurts more, but he says, “Kids grow out of imaginary friends all the time. He’s already forgotten me once, what’s one more? But Lan Zhan would know. He’d remember.”
Lan Xichen nods in acknowledgement, which is probably all he’s going to get, but that’s all he needs.
Outside of Koi Tower, Wei Wuxian steps onto Suibian and flies to Gusu.
It’s a nice day, a chill on the breeze that’s easily overshadowed by the sun’s warmth, winter being firmly inched out by spring. The Jingshi’s doors are wide open while A-Yuan plays outside. He has a book in his lap, but he’s not really reading it. It’s a good day. He’ll have plenty more good days.
Lan Zhan runs his hand over the cover of one of his favorite books and tells himself that a life of simple pleasures is not a bad life.
“Baba!” A-Yuan screams.
He jerks, the book falling to the floor as he rises and hurries outside. He doesn’t sound hurt, but the strange form of address worries him. A-Yuan has never called him that before.
There’s someone hugging his son, a man in black, with his head bent and he summons Bichen to his hands without thinking. “Get away from him.”
But the man raises his head, smiling, and this isn’t a dream, isn’t a confusing moment between sleep and wakefulness, but somehow Wei Ying is here.
A-Yuan gasps and clasps his hands over his mouth before lowering them and whispering, “Sorry, Baba, I know it’s a secret.” He frowns pressing his hands against Wei Ying’s arm, his eyebrows pulling together in confusion. “You’re warm!” He glances uncertainly back at him, and he says, “Baba, I think Diedie can see you.”
“I think he can too,” he says, dropping a kiss on top of A-Yuan’s head. “It’s okay, I’m not a secret anymore.”
A-Yuan beams and leaves Wei Ying’s embrace to run over to him, grabbing his hand and tugging on it impatiently. “Diedie, come on, come here, Baba’s home!”
“Wei Ying?” he asks, faintly noticing the way his voice cracks in the middle.
A-Yuan stop tugging on him, frowning uncertainly. “Diedie?”
“It’s all right, A-Yuan,” Wei Ying says, stepping closer. He sounds like Wei Ying. He moves like Wei Ying. His hand covers Lan Zhan’s, carefully lowering Bichen, which he hadn’t realized he’d still been holding, and he feels like Wei Ying. “Put the sword away, maybe, Lan Zhan?”
He opens his hands, letting it drop, then twist his hand so his fingers are intertwined with Wei Ying’s.
“Don’t be sad,” A-Yuan whispers, tugging at his robe. “Diedie, don’t be sad, Baba’s really nice, you’ll like him.”
Wei Ying cups his face to run a calloused thumb over his cheek and he shudders at the contact. “You’re crying, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying,” he breathes, and wants to close his eyes, but terrified that if he does this will all disappear. “Wei Ying, what’s happening?”
“It’s a long story,” he says, then laughs, and he never thought he’d hear Wei Ying laugh again, but he’s here and he’s laughing and Lan Zhan is touching him. “You missed a really interesting cultivation conference. The short of it is Baoshan Sanren saved my life, but I was,” he glances down at his son, at their son, and amends what he was going to say to, “sick. For a long time, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back. So I waited, just in case I stayed sick and … had to leave again.”
“Are you sick now?” he asks, and it’s so hard to keep himself under control, to keep the happiness and hope and grief and fear from coming out all at once. Worry prickles along his skin, but Wei Ying looks healthy, healthier than he’d looked before the Sunshot Campaign, but he understands the things that Wei Ying isn’t saying.
He shakes his head. “No. I’m good, I’m,” he pauses, a rueful smile curling around his mouth. “I’m probably not going to have to worry all that much about being sick, actually”
“You never worried about being sick,” he says. Wei Ying laughs again. Lan Zhan wants to live in in Wei Ying’s laugh, wants to bottle it, wants to swallow it. “Where were you?”
“Here,” he says, rubbing his thumb along Lan Zhan’s bottom lip. “I mean, I was in the mountains trying not to,” another glance at A-Yuan, “stay sick, but I was here too.”
That doesn’t make any sense, but then Wei Ying hums the opening notes to Healing and Wei Ying ends up having to wrap an arm around his waist to keep him from sliding to the ground, but they end up there anyway, he and Wei Ying on their knees in front of each other while A-Yuan leans against Wei Ying’s shoulder and looks at him in concern.
“That was real?” he whispers.
Wei Ying reaches out and runs his hand through his hair, the motions familiar, feeling like it had always felt in his dreams. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. If I’d known I wasn’t going to stay sick, I wouldn’t have kept it a secret, it’s just that for so long I was sure that I was going to have to leave you again. But I was here, I was always here. I sat by you every night, Lan Zhan. I played for you and tried to take care you as well as I could.”
He shifts to try and hide his face in Wei Ying’s hand. He thinks the happiness in his chest might be winning out over the grief, he thinks Wei Ying’s skin against his own means he’s real.
“Are you going to kiss?” A-Yuans asks and he freezes. “Jingyi’s parents kiss.”
Wei Ying grins, something uncertain in his expression, “The kid makes a good point. Can I kiss you, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, but he does pull Wei Ying practically into his lap to tip his face up and kiss him, chaste and shuddering because their son is in front of them, but Wei Ying is alive, Wei Ying is here.
A life of moments just like these is a good life, and now it’s a life that he gets to have.