Winter settles in the Cloud Recesses like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, a gentle, inevitable descent into shorter days and colder nights. Wei Wuxian stands on the threshold of the Jingshi and lets the first snowflakes of the season drift softly into the palm of his hand, watching as each one dissolves into an icy dewdrop. Barely a month has passed since the sun hung high and hot in the sky over a grassy cliff on the outskirts of Gusu, but now the frost creeps along the ground and curls up into a chilly mist, and Wei Wuxian breathes in deeply, savouring the sharpness of a fresh winter wind in his lungs.
Behind him, Wei Wuxian hears the gentle clink of porcelain, and he turns to find Lan Wangji arranging the table for their evening ritual.
Barely a month. That is all it’s taken for them to develop something dangerously close to a routine with each other.
The day of his arrival, Wei Wuxian had been escorted to the Jingshi after a perfunctory reception in the main hall. Lan Qiren had stiffly acknowledged him before Lan Wangji could sweep him away, exhausted as he was, and the greater part of the afternoon had been spent passed out on Lan Wangji’s bed. By the time he’d awoken, Lan Wangji’s private study had been converted into a second bedroom, a privacy screen had been rearranged around a full, heated bathtub, and all of Wei Wuxian’s worldly possessions had been stored in a finely crafted wooden chest.
Wei Wuxian takes his seat across from Lan Wangji, folding his knees in comfortably and accepting the delicate cup full of Emperor’s Smile that Lan Wangji passes him across the table. It’s easy. It’s been almost too easy to fall into synch with each other; to stride, not stumble, into this shared space together, side by side and peaceful. The days are full. They see very little of each other in daylight, but the evenings are theirs to share, ensconced together in the Jingshi over tea and warm wine.
“You spent the day in the library again?” Lan Wangji asks, although it’s not really a question. Wei Wuxian’s notes are spread across a side table, and two new books have joined the pile from yesterday.
“Yep,” Wei Wuxian nods before swallowing a mouthful of wine. “I think I’m making progress on that case in Hedong. It’s not so much the Tiger Seal they were looking to emulate, but an ancient amulet from west of Meishan. At least according to some of your more obscure texts. The similarities are uncanny.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji hums, taking a sip of his tea. “A relief, perhaps, that they were not true imitators?”
“Somewhat, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, fiddling with the wine jar. “Much as I’m flattered that everyone seems eager to replicate my mistakes, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only source of inspiration anymore. Turns out evil didn’t originate with the Yiling Patriarch after all. Who knew?”
“Indeed,” Lan Wangji says, voice low but amused. “Will this require a return trip to Hedong?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “All they really managed to do was disturb about half the denizens of a graveyard, but the corpses weren’t exactly fierce when they woke up. More like drunk and disoriented. So, a nuisance, but not difficult to suppress again.” He gestures at the broken scraps of metal on top of his notes. “Without what’s left of their little experiment, there’s no risk of a repeat. And the leader of the operation was arrested, in any case.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji hums again, sounding satisfied, his gaze drifting past Wei Wuxian into the snow-covered night outside.
Wei Wuxian watches him carefully. He takes in the relaxed lines of his face, the lack of tension in his shoulders, the soft way his elegant fingers are curled around his teacup. Lan Wangji’s eyes are far away, but his expression is serene, and Wei Wuxian smiles fondly, suffused by sudden warmth. It must have been a good day for the Chief Cultivator.
It’s a moment before Lan Wangji directs his gaze back toward Wei Wuxian, his gold-flecked stare softening ever so slightly.
“I see that your robes arrived today. Have you had a chance to try them on?”
Wei Wuxian smiles even as he shakes his head, a ready flush rising to his cheeks. “I have not. Really, Lan Zhan, it’s too much.” He gestures to the packages stacked neatly beside the doorway to the study, the topmost of which has already been unfolded to reveal an exquisitely made fur-lined cloak. “I don’t need such fine things. I can’t be trusted to keep them fine. I’m a disaster, remember?”
“You said yourself that you do not have appropriate winter attire,” Lan Wangji says, his eyes flicking down momentarily as he refills his teacup. “It only makes sense to see you properly outfitted.”
“A careless quip about the state of my one tattered robe should not be your cue to order a whole new wardrobe from the finest tailor in Gusu,” Wei Wuxian scolds, but his tone remains light. He knows it’s no use arguing with Lan Zhan at this point, but he feels the need to protest just on principle.
Lan Wangji raises his eyes to pin Wei Wuxian with the soft, liquid look that is going to be Wei Wuxian’s undoing. It’s a look that Lan Wangji has been using a lot lately, and it makes something warm within Wei Wuxian’s stomach do a backflip.
“It would not do to have you pass the winter without them,” Lan Wangji says quietly.
Wei Wuxian has to look away, feeling a new flush, this time rising all over his body.
They haven’t discussed this. Wei Wuxian has never asked, and Lan Wangji has never offered. Wei Wuxian can’t help but wonder at how his flippant remark about his threadbare robes meaning he should fly south for the winter had brought about this latest gift. A silent entreaty, like so many others. Yet another way to say, yes, you are welcome here.
Everything else is ease and comfort, but this one thing is delicate and fragile. This tenuous space between them, filled to bursting with words unspoken, echoing with impossible possibilities. What would it take to breach that gap?
Wei Wuxian doesn’t dare to find out.
“Well,” he says at last, quickly tossing back the rest of his wine before continuing. “Far be it from me to say no to the Chief Cultivator. If His Excellency insists I be warm this winter, then so be it. Is that what you wish, Hanguang-jun?”
“It is,” Lan Wangji says simply.
“All right then,” Wei Wuxian grins. “I’ll be the warmest man on the mountain in that thing. I’ll fit right in with your fat little bunnies.”
“It is not made of rabbit fur,” Lan Wangji says, looking scandalized.
Wei Wuxian erupts in laughter, his grin spreading wider across his face. “No? What is it, then? Sable? Mink?”
Wei Wuxian abruptly stops laughing.
Lan Wangji nods.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian stares at him. “What the Hell. Where did you get it?”
“Night hunting,” Lan Wangji states.
“That’s. I mean. When did you kill a Jiuweihu?” Wei Wuxian demands.
Lan Wangji drops his gaze. “I obtained it some years back,” he says vaguely.
“Right,” Wei Wuxian says, the beginning of a smile creeping back into his voice. “Trust Hanguang-jun to just casually slay a Jiuweihu and make a cloak out of it one day. No big deal, right?”
Lan Wangji looks up to meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes again, his expression earnest. “It needed to be done. And I did not want the skin to go to waste.”
“Just saving it for a rainy day?” Wei Wuxian quips.
“Or a snowy one,” Lan Wangji replies smoothly, and Wei Wuxian laughs again.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says at last. “Thank you. I’ll take good care of it, and it’ll take good care of me. I can brave any storm, now.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “You can.”
Wei Wuxian just smiles at him, wine-warm and content, and Lan Wangji’s face softens, comfortable and relaxed once more. He refills Wei Wuxian’s wine cup, and Wei Wuxian drinks happily. It’s several minutes before he speaks again.
“Do you have plans to continue your research next week?” Lan Wangji wants to know.
“Not firm plans, no,” Wei Wuxian says. “There are a few things I want to look up about a spirit I encountered in Kuizhou, but that’s it, I guess.”
“Would you prefer a night hunt?” Lan Wangji asks.
Wei Wuxian cocks his head to the side in interest. “Are you offering?”
Lan Wangji nods. “There is a case that’s come to my attention in Weihaiwei. They have specifically asked for my intervention.”
“Sounds serious,” Wei Wuxian says. “Weihaiwei. That’s in Lanling Jin territory, isn’t it?”
Lan Wangji nods again. “Correct. As far north as Laoling, to the east, on the edge of the Bohai Sea.”
“Does Jin Ling know? Is he involved at all?”
“He is aware, although he has not been to there to investigate personally. He has been preoccupied with sect duties,” Lan Wangji says, reaching into his sleeve to draw forth the missive. He offers it across the table to Wei Wuxian. “He signed the request himself.”
Wei Wuxian unfolds the letter and peruses its contents.
“Wow,” he exclaims. “Ten suicides in six months?”
“Four last month. Two in the last week,” Lan Wangji confirms.
“Seems excessive,” Wei Wuxian says. “I mean, I know watchtower duty is not exactly exciting, but it’s also not soul-crushing, generally speaking. Why would a bunch of sentinels suddenly be flinging themselves off the watchtower?”
“Indeed,” agrees Lan Wangji. “It hardly seems natural. An exorbitant amount of blood appears to have been spilled at the tower on the nights when the deaths occur, but the bodies themselves are intact. It is the fall that kills them.”
“Every time?” Wei Wuxian frowns.
Lan Wangji nods. “The two bodies that could be recovered from the ocean have had only minor scratches on them, if at all. Anything else, and it is not clear whether or not the injuries were sustained after impact with the water.”
“So, the tower overlooks the ocean,” Wei Wuxian says.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji confirms. “I am told the drop off the cliff face is quite steep on the north side of the tower.”
“So not an easily survivable fall,” Wei Wuxian muses. “Not likely they are jumping to get away from something, then, if there’s no chance of making it out alive. Unless death would be kinder?”
“A death at sea is hardly kinder,” Lan Wangji points out, and Wei Wuxian has to agree, shuddering at the thought of a body torn to pieces by rough waters and hungry sea creatures.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “Sounds like it definitely bears investigating. When do you want to leave?”
“The day after tomorrow, preferably.”
“And are you flying?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“No,” Lan Wangji replies. “I will accompany you on foot.”
“Won’t that take too long?” Wei Wuxian wonders. “This case sounds pretty urgent.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Lan Jingyi will be flying on ahead with a small group to do the preliminary investigations. He has instructions to make sure that the tower is no longer manned until further notice in order to avoid any more untimely deaths.”
“Aw, Jingyi’s first big boy job in a while,” Wei Wuxian grins. “I guess it’s lucky for him that he’s finished his latest round of punishments. And that Sizhui is away with Wen Ning right now,” he adds.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji agrees, the slightest upturn of his lips hinting at the edges of a smile. “Quite.”
“You really don’t mind coming with me and Little Apple?” Wei Wuxian asks. “That journey takes the better part of a week, if not more.”
“I do not mind,” Lan Wangji says. “I look forward to it.”
Wei Wuxian grins, feeling heat blossoming inside his chest like a sunrise.
“Shall we pass by Koi Tower and say hi to Jin Ling?”
“If you wish,” Lan Wangji replies.
“I do, I think,” Wei Wuxian admits. “Would be nice to see his face again after so long. And at least this time, I’m going to show up draped in finery. What do you think, Lan Zhan? I can’t possibly disgrace him—or you—wearing a cloak like that.”
“You could never disgrace me,” Lan Wangji says gently, that soft, affectionate look back on his face.
Wei Wuxian grins, warmed to the tips of his toes.
“I’ll remind you of that later. The next time I’m three jars deep and feeling especially shameless, you’ll have to remember those words, Lan Er-gege.”
“Of course,” Lan Wangji says simply.
Wei Wuxian smiles some more, overwhelmed by fondness.
“You must be getting tired,” he offers sweetly. “It’s almost nine. Shall I retire and leave you in peace?”
Lan Wangji nods fractionally, but he makes no move to rise and go to his room where he will begin the process of removing his elaborate headpiece and shedding the many layers of His Excellency. Wei Wuxian likes him best in these moments, where Lan Wangji is open and soft, where it is just the two of them, and Lan Wangji is just Lan Zhan again. In the morning, Lan Wangji will rise before dawn and transform once more, drape himself in the trappings of his office before Wei Wuxian so much as opens his eyes, and it will be many hours before they are together again, seated across from each other at this table.
“What is it?” Wei Wuxian asks. He leans forward, meaning to tug playfully at Lan Wangji’s sleeve, but suddenly he changes his mind, switching directions to flick at the end of Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon where it hangs over his shoulder.
Lan Wangji’s eyes go deep and dark, a hint of something old and molten flickering in their depths, and Wei Wuxian stills, fingertips hovering just a breath away from Lan Wangji’s heart. In the taut, unblinking moment that follows, Wei Wuxian swears he can feel each snowflake outside hit the ground with the force of his own thundering heartbeat.
Lan Wangji blinks, slow and deliberate, before exhaling a long, quiet sigh.
“Do not stay up too late,” he says gently before dropping his gaze and rising to his feet.
Wei Wuxian stares up at him, throat dry and heart swollen.
“Goodnight, Wei Ying.”
“Goodnight,” Wei Wuxian manages, and then Lan Wangji is turning away, leaving Wei Wuxian to stare at his back until he disappears inside his room.
Wei Wuxian lowers his eyes and glares at the floor. He counts slowly to ten before he trusts himself to get up without stumbling. He makes his way into the study and sits on the edge of his bed, willing himself to calm down.
They haven’t discussed this.
Wei Wuxian refuses to discuss this.
No matter how he plays at the edges of this chasm, he cannot take that leap. Whatever this is, in this liminal territory, it is far too precious to risk.
And so, he gathers up his notes, tarries in the margins of today’s journal entry, and rearranges the strokes on his latest talisman experiment until the candle burns itself out. Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, and he breathes through the shadows in his heart.
Jin Ling’s face is drawn and sour when he greets them in the great hall of Koi Tower. It’s early evening, and Wei Wuxian knows that Jin Ling has likely had a long day of sect duties. Wei Wuxian can’t help but notice how small Jin Ling looks up on that dais in that big, golden chair. He’s even younger than when Jiang Cheng had been forced to take up the mantle of Sect Leader, and he looks tired.
Despite Lan Wangji’s assurances that Jin Ling need not stand on ceremony, Jin Ling had been determined to give them a formal reception as befitting Lan Wangji’s station, and it’s an hour of tea and niceties before they all retire to a smaller, more intimate room for dinner.
“Well, this is cozy,” Wei Wuxian quips, looking around the room. It’s just as gold and ostentatious as the great hall, but on a much smaller scale. The table has been set with an impressive spread of dishes. It’s heavy on the vegetarian selection, no doubt in deference to Lan Wangji’s presence, but there is enough meat that Wei Wuxian is satisfied he’ll have more than enough to enjoy.
“It’s where I always eat,” Jin Ling shrugs. “Although I’ll have you know I sent Fairy away especially for you.”
“Ah, yes, thank you kindly,” Wei Wuxian says with no small amount of sincerity. “I appreciate that.”
“You’re just lucky I knew you were coming,” Jin Ling says loftily. “When we heard that His Excellency would be arriving on foot, I suspected, but we didn’t get confirmation it was you travelling with him until you were already on the road.”
“Nothing much makes it out of the Cloud Recesses, does it?” Wei Wuxian says with a smile and a sideways glance at Lan Wangji.
“Gossip is forbidden,” Lan Wangji says smoothly. “But your presence needn’t have remained a secret,” he says, his voice tinged with a touch of regret. “That was never my intention.”
“It’s fine,” Wei Wuxian waves away his concern. “I don’t think my presence needs to be advertised.”
Jing Ling snorts. “It will be, though. You think you can travel with His Excellency and not be noticed? The world is not going to ignore the return of the Yiling Patriarch.”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian winces. “Sorry about that, Lan Zhan.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Lan Wangji says firmly. “I asked you to accompany me.”
“And thank you for coming at all,” Jin Ling interjects. “It’s getting serious up there. I’d go myself, but there’s so much to handle locally right now. I would have asked Jiu Jiu to do it, but he’s too busy with the next discussion conference.”
“The next discussion conference is in Yunmeng?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“It is,” Jin Ling confirms. “And there’s a lot riding on it. It’s not until the spring, but you can imagine how long and difficult it is to organize something so huge and important.”
“How come it’s not in Gusu?” Wei Wuxian wants to know.
“The last conference was in Gusu,” Lan Wangji replies. “Shortly after you left. It was smaller and less formal than usual, due to the unfortunate circumstances that brought about my appointment. It was agreed that the next discussion conference should be hosted by a sect to which the Chief Cultivator did not belong.”
“Does that make people more comfortable?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Just so,” Lan Wangji nods. “The great families do not want power so concentrated in one place. They fear that one clan might become too dominant again. Any appearance of Gusu Lan superiority is to be avoided.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “You’d think Gusu Lan’s reputation would be enough to keep people from thinking they’d be looking to consolidate power behind you.”
“People are greedy and small-minded,” Jin Ling says with a scowl. “And public opinion shifts with the wind. You ought to know that better than anyone.”
“Oh, trust me, I know,” Wei Wuxian says. “But opinion hasn’t shifted much on me.”
“You just got back,” Jin Ling points out. “You’ve had what? A year? Your reputation must have recovered a little after… all that.”
“You tell me,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “What are the great families saying about the Yiling Patriarch these days?”
“Nothing, really,” Jin Ling shrugs. “You know how fickle the cultivation world can be. No doubt they’ll start talking about you again soon, though.”
Especially now that he’s travelling with the Chief Cultivator, Wei Wuxian thinks darkly.
“Well,” he says. “Give my regards to Jiang Cheng, then, and I promise to steer clear of Yunmeng in the spring.”
“What for?” Jin Ling demands. “Give them to him yourself. What, you think you can just re-enter the cultivation world and not show up?”
“Um, yes?” Wei Wuxian tries. “I’m not likely to be welcome there.”
“You would be welcome,” Lan Wangji says immediately, brow furrowed.
“I doubt that, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says ruefully. “Besides, who says I want to re-enter anything? Maybe this is just a temporary guest appearance,” he quips.
Something sharp flashes across Lan Wangji’s eyes. It’s so quick that Wei Wuxian almost doesn’t catch it, but he sees it in the moment Lan Wangji’s eyelids tremble, ever so slightly, before his expression shutters completely.
“Well, then I’m glad you’re going to make yourself useful in my territory while you’re here,” Jin Ling says. “I have enough trouble maintaining those watchtowers without one of them being plagued by a string of deaths.”
“The watchtowers are still unpopular?” Wei Wuxian asks, glad for the change of subject. “I know there was plenty of controversy when Jin Guangyao had them built.”
“Yes, and we all know how that conflict ended,” Jin Ling says with obvious distaste. “Of course there’s lasting resentment. The locals in some outposts are still hostile to their existence.”
“Why not abandon them?” Wei Wuxian probes. “Wasn’t their original purpose to better help the common people in more remote areas? If the local population doesn’t like them, I don’t see how that’s helping anyone.”
“Popular consensus among the great families is that they’ve proved too useful to be taken down,” Jin Ling replies. “The network of communication they’ve established between outposts has been invaluable. The biggest point of contention now is who is supposed to be stationed in them.”
“That sounds like it should be a simple answer,” Wei Wuxian says. “If it’s in your territory, you should be responsible for manning it.”
“That’s the problem, actually,” Lan Wangji offers. “Some of the great families argue that areas without a prominent sect presence should have sentinels from the main four clans, but several of the smaller sects have been asking to be a part of the network. They feel the local population would be better represented this way, but the four main clans claim the people will not be sufficiently protected under the watch of these lesser cultivators.”
“And then you have the four main clans griping about who gets sent where, or whether or not each clan should be equally represented in numbers, or should it be a meritocracy with skill competitions to win each outpost. It just goes on and on,” Jin Ling says with the tone of someone who is tired of arguing about this issue. “And since we Jin currently have most of the outposts, it’s my job to hold on to them, according to all my advisors. Even Jiu Jiu says it will only show weakness if I give them up now.”
“I would not call it a weakness,” Lan Wangji says.
Jin Ling fixes him with a pointed look, and Wei Wuxian is struck by how determined Jin Ling looks, how he doesn’t flinch under Lan Wangji’s gaze.
“With all due respect, Hanguang-jun, I don’t believe many people share that opinion.”
“Maybe so, but it may prove wise to relinquish control in certain territories,” Lan Wangji explains.
Jin Ling’s face grows sour again, disbelief evident in the set of his brow.
“I’m not giving them up to the other three clans,” Jin Ling says, voice stubborn. “I know what they’re all thinking. They think I’m going to be like my uncle, or my grandfather, but that’s not what this is about! I have to be strong in my own territory. I have to be!”
“Trusting a tower to a lesser clan’s cultivator would only strengthen their relationship with Lanling Jin,” Lan Wangji says patiently. “How would it be a weakness to firm up alliances within your own territory?”
“You say that like it’s easy to just hand over control without looking weak,” Jin Ling almost snaps. “Lanling Jin is already so diminished in the last year, I refuse to let anything else fall apart under my watch!”
“Hey now,” Wei Wuxian soothes, placing a piece of poached pork onto Jin Ling’s rice. “No one thinks Lanling Jin is falling apart because you’re the sect leader.”
“Of course they do,” Jin Ling grumbles. “Why wouldn’t they? I get it all the time. That I’m still just a kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Even Jiu Jiu—” he cuts himself off abruptly. “Anyways. I’m not giving up any towers,” he says, sounding mulish.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian agrees, grabbing a few pieces of pork for himself. “That’s enough business talk, anyway. Tell me about your most recent night hunts. Anything fun lately?”
Jin Ling dutifully relates his latest monster hunting escapades while Lan Wangji falls into his habitual silence at the onset of the meal. Wei Wuxian keeps sneaking glances at him between bites, watching him carefully. He’s not entirely sure what he’s looking for. Lan Wangji’s face and posture remain immaculately neutral, but Wei Wuxian can’t shake the thought that he seems sad, somehow.
After dinner, there is more tea for Lan Wangji, and wine for Wei Wuxian. He manages to finish two bottles before Jin Ling decides to turn in for the night and has the servants escort the two of them to their rooms. Wei Wuxian watches Lan Wangji’s door close behind him, and he hesitates on the threshold of his own room. It only takes an extra second to make up his mind, and soon he is knocking on Lan Wangji’s door.
“Hi,” he says, as the door slides open to reveal Lan Wangji. “Are you going straight to bed, or can I come in?”
Silently, Lan Wangji steps aside and gestures Wei Wuxian in. Wei Wuxian slips inside and surveys the surroundings. Gaudy and gold and excess everywhere, but comfortable enough, in an over-luxurious sort of way. Wei Wuxian assumes these rooms are designed to impress important guests more than to actually make them feel comfortable.
He seats himself at the low table near the centre of the room upon which someone has lit an incense burner, then turns to find Lan Wangji regarding him solemnly from the doorway. He pats the space beside him invitingly and raises his eyebrows with a smile.
“Won’t you join me, Hanguang-jun?”
Silently, Lan Wangji crosses the room and takes a seat opposite Wei Wuxian as opposed to beside him. His eyes are downcast as he arranges the folds of his sleeves, and Wei Wuxian studies him intently.
“Thank you for what you did back there,” Wei Wuxian begins.
“Did I do something?” Lan Wangji asks, voice earnest.
“The way you talk to Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian clarifies. “You speak to him like an equal. I get the feeling he isn’t used to that.”
“Perhaps not,” Lan Wangji agrees. “He certainly feels he is not afforded the sort of respect that his position deserves. I do not wish to add to his resentment.”
Wei Wuxian smiles fondly. “Of course you don’t. You’re so good, Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Wangji makes a noncommittal noise at the back of his throat, eyes downcast once more.
“Is everything all right?” Wei Wuxian asks, just a touch tentative. “You seem… pensive.”
Lan Wangji raises his eyes again, looking slightly apologetic.
“I am fine,” he assures Wei Wuxian. He pauses thoughtfully before continuing. “I was merely preoccupied with thoughts of the next discussion conference.”
“Already?” Wei Wuxian asks, incredulous. “But you don’t even have to organize it. That’s Jiang Cheng’s problem. Surely you don’t have to worry about it that much?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head minutely. “I am not worried about its execution.”
“What, then? Afraid you’ll just be bombarded with unreasonable requests and futile attempts at bribery?”
“Would you really not be comfortable there?” Lan Wangji asks quietly.
The question takes Wei Wuxian by surprise, and he finds himself blinking silently back at Lan Wangji’s steady, piercing stare.
“I’ve never been one for formal conferences,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. “Much less one where I’d have little reason to be there. I’m not likely to rate an invitation, since no sect could possibly claim me,” he points out.
“You feel you would be out of place?”
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “It’s not unheard of for a rogue cultivator to attend a conference, but I’m not certain one as notorious as the Yiling Patriarch would really be welcome.”
“You would be welcome,” Lan Wangji insists. “I would welcome you.”
Wei Wuxian smiles brightly. “The Chief Cultivator would give me an endorsement?”
“I would have you there as my guest,” Lan Wangji says, voice soft.
Wei Wuxian swallows past the sudden lump in his throat, smile wavering.
“Lan Zhan,” he gets out after a moment. “I think you should be careful about that.”
“Why?” Lan Wangji asks, brow furrowed.
Wei Wuxian sighs, dropping his gaze to his right hand resting on Chenqing where it protrudes from his belt.
“Because,” he says quietly. “My reputation isn’t as benign as Jin Ling seems to think it is. Maybe they’ve forgotten about me in the cultivation world for now, but once it gets out that I’m back, who knows what people will say.”
“I would not care what anyone says,” Lan Wangji says, suddenly fierce. “You are my friend, and you would be my guest.”
“But is that wise?” Wei Wuxian persists. “If the great families are worried about consolidation of power, how would it look to have me suddenly popping up by your side? The Yiling Patriarch, returned to the cultivation world, only to immediately have the Chief Cultivator’s ear? Lan Zhan, you must see how that might look to ignorant, fearful people.”
“I do not care,” Lan Wangji insists. “The ignorant and fearful will not sway me, and rational people can be worked on. The Tiger Seal has been destroyed. What power could you possibly wield over me?”
“Ah, but that’s just it, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says ruefully. “The rumours of my powers defy rational imaginations. People are bound to object to whatever they’d see as my influence. Even the incorruptible Hanguang-jun might fall victim to my evil persuasions in their minds.”
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji says. “Idle speculations from idle minds will not win out. Wei Ying. You were exonerated after Jin Guangyao was revealed. It was all anyone talked about for months after you had gone.”
“In some circles, maybe, but not everywhere, and not all my crimes have been forgiven. Out there, in the remote towns and villages, I’m still the boogeyman used to scare children, and my coming is said to herald disaster.”
“Superstitious nonsense needn’t dictate the opinion of anyone at the cultivation conference. Where do they still say such things?” Lan Wangji asks with a frown.
“Here and there,” Wei Wuxian waves vaguely. “There were plenty of times I had to use a fake name or avoid the towns altogether if someone recognized me. I’ve spent weeks under an open sky because there was no inn that would take me.”
Lan Wangji’s frown deepens. “You did not tell me about that.”
“Didn’t seem important,” Wei Wuxian shrugs.
Over the past year, he has written Lan Wangji only sporadically and sparingly. It had seemed obvious and inevitable to him that he could be reviled in any given place, so it hadn’t seemed worth mentioning. And, if he’s being honest, he simply hadn’t wanted Lan Wangji to worry about him. In most cases, he’d been able to maintain some level of anonymity, and when it had been necessary to reveal himself, he could only hope that whatever good deed he’d performed to earn his dinner that day would be enough to take the edge off the stories about him.
Lan Wangji looks at him now with an echo of sadness. It’s a little too close to regret, and Wei Wuxian shifts uncomfortably.
“Come on, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian wheedles. “It’s no big deal, really. What’s an extra night or two under the stars? It was quite romantic, you know.”
“Was it?” Lan Wangji intones softly.
“Sure!” Wei Wuxian enthuses. “I admit, sometimes Little Apple would spoil the mood a bit by being loud or obnoxious, but overall, it was quite the classic adventure of finding oneself in nature.”
Lan Wangji studies him for a few long moments, and Wei Wuxian can feel his heart rate pick up in the silence, heavy and loud in his ears.
“Do you wish to leave the cultivation world again in the spring?” Lan Wangji’s soft, measured voice is laced with something Wei Wuxian can’t identify.
“I mean, if I never really come back, does it even count as another departure?” Wei Wuxian deflects.
He’s being avoidant and he knows it. This conversation is veering dangerously close to all those things they never discuss.
Coming and going.
Staying or leaving.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to look at any of that right now. He wonders if Lan Wangji is going to make him.
But Lan Wangji only sighs, lowering his eyes again and shuttering his expression. He sits in silence, the smoke from the incense burner rising serenely around him. Wei Wuxian watches him again, acutely aware of the small space between them. He could reach across the table and touch him like he was wont to do in the Jingshi, but something about the subtle sag of Lan Wangji’s shoulders, the minute quivering of his lowered lashes makes him seem farther away. Fragile, and not to be touched.
“It’s getting late,” Wei Wuxian offers into the silence. “I should go and let you get some rest.”
Lan Wangji blinks slowly and raises his eyes to meet Wei Wuxian’s.
“Yes,” he says, voice low. “Perhaps that would be best.”
“Don’t get up!” Wei Wuxian says as Lan Wangji prepares to rise. “I can show myself out,” he assures him, springing up and turning toward the door. “And I promise to be up at a decent hour tomorrow. I’ll see you at breakfast?” he asks.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “Goodnight, Wei Ying.”
“Goodnight, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian calls over his shoulder as he reaches the threshold. He slides the door open and makes his way out into the hallway, feeling Lan Wangji’s eyes on his back the whole way.
He flops onto the bed in his own room and lets out a long, heavy sigh, his mood abruptly melancholy and reflective.
He hasn’t given much thought to the future in the last year. He’s been living each day one at a time, without a roadmap or a plan, and it suits him, somewhat, to be so untethered. But there’s another part of him, the part that had led him back to Gusu in the first place, that yearns to belong somewhere again.
He’ll never go back to Lotus Pier. He knows that he can’t. No matter how often he pictures it in his dreams, he knows that life is gone for him. He tries to visualize showing up at the conference, but all he can imagine is the furious, disgusted look on Jiang Cheng’s face.
But if he were to show up with Lan Wangji…
Wei Wuxian turns onto his stomach and buries his face into a pillow with a groan.
No. Even as the idea of walking into his old home side by side with Lan Wangji stokes something giddy and wistful inside of him, he knows it would be impossible. He can’t allow Lan Wangji to risk his reputation like that. He can’t risk ruining the conference for Jiang Cheng by causing a scene. He’ll have to make himself scarce in the spring, just like he’d promised.
But the last thing he sees in his mind’s eye before he falls asleep is that flash across Lan Wangji’s eyes at dinner, that momentary flicker of something deep and sharp, and as he loses consciousness, the thought comes to him unbidden: It looks a lot like grief.
The following days are a happy blur for Wei Wuxian. They travel at a rapid pace, Little Apple content for once to heed all commands, provided it is Lan Wangji holding the reins. Wei Wuxian laments the donkey’s lack of loyalty; Lan Wangji just smiles minutely and makes sure to provide an extra apple at the end of each day. The evenings are spent in one small, quiet inn after another, unwinding together, sometimes with music, until nine o’clock arrives and they part by saying goodnight.
Wei Wuxian is happier than he has been in months.
The air gets colder the farther north they go, and by the time Wei Wuxian can smell the ocean, there’s a smattering of snow lining their path into the city of Rongcheng. But the closer they get to the water, the milder it becomes, warmer than the inland towns they’ve passed, and the snow gives way to a light, glistening frost. The wind, however, only picks up in strength, and Wei Wuxian pulls his cloak a little tighter around his shoulders.
They finally rendezvous with Lan Jingyi and the other juniors at the inn where they have been staying. Lan Jingyi greets them with his usual exuberance, but there’s an edge to his voice and shadows under his eyes.
“It’s bad,” Lan Jingyi says, cutting straight to the point. “We’ve done a sweep of the tower, but we left it exactly the way it has been since the last supposed suicide. We thought you should see it.”
Lan Wangji nods his approval. “You don’t believe these were suicides, then?”
Lan Jingyi shakes his head. “I really don’t. The whole tower is crawling with Yin energy. Makes me wonder how the Jin cultivators manning the tower were able to put up with it.”
“Well, some of them clearly didn’t,” Wei Wuxian says wryly. “Or else we wouldn’t be here.”
“Shall we go now?” Lan Wangji asks.
“Don’t see why not,” Wei Wuxian replies. “There’s still some time before dinner.”
“You may lose your appetite a bit after the visit,” Lan Jingyi warns. “But considering it’s you, you’ll probably be okay.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him. “What’s a little bit of blood, right?”
“Well,” Lan Jingyi says, glancing between the two of them. “You’ll see.”
As it turns out, it’s not just a little bit of blood.
It’s an awful lot of blood, and it streaks down the sides of the watchtower in wide stripes where it’s dried a dark, sickly brown, hardly leaving a brick untouched. Wei Wuxian sees it as they approach, and he lets out a low whistle at the sight of it.
“That’s definitely the content of more than one body,” Wei Wuxian declares. “You’d have to drain at least half a dozen people dry to get that kind of coverage.”
Lan Jingyi grimaces at that thought. “I don’t want to know how you know that.”
“It’s just a rough estimate,” Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Is this how it’s always looked after somebody jumped?”
“Yes, according to the locals. They think it’s cursed, and there’s no small amount of rumours flying around about it.”
“Is anything of interest being said?” asks Lan Wangji.
“Not much,” Lan Jingyi admits. “Just your standard superstitious fishermen who think the construction of the tower was an ill-fated endeavour to begin with. They think it’s angered a god, or something.”
As they draw closer, Wei Wuxian takes in the landscape, marvelling at how well situated the watchtower is. It’s built on a rocky outcropping with the sea to the north, and there is barely enough room for two people walking side by side to circle the base of the tower on that side. The cliff side curves inward and drops away dramatically into the ocean. Wei Wuxian estimates the fall to the roiling waves below is about three times the height of Koi Tower. A fall from that height is almost guaranteed to be fatal.
“Interesting that all of them fell off the north side,” Wei Wuxian muses. “There’s a good chance they would have survived with a broken bone or two if they’d jumped off the opposite wall, or even the other two adjacents.”
“Which is why one assumes they must have jumped on purpose,” Lan Wangji says. “It seems like a certain demise. Why else jump, if only death is promised?”
“What if they were pushed?” Wei Wuxian offers. “Are we sure there was only one sentinel in the tower on the nights when people died?”
“The few witnesses we have are adamant that there was only one sentinel at a time,” Lan Jingyi replies. “Some say there was screaming before each fall. Others insist there was never a sound. It’s been frustrating trying to talk to people about this.”
“Maybe you’re just not charming enough,” Wei Wuxian chirps, and Lan Jingyi huffs in indignation.
“I’m perfectly cordial and easy to talk to, thank you very much!” Lan Jingyi crosses his arms and sticks his chin out. “But the people here are so frightened and superstitious. It doesn’t take much to spook them with all these people dying. Some of the locals even seem to think that the Jin cultivators deserve it.”
“Why is that?” Lan Wangji inquires.
“Nobody in Rongcheng wanted the watchtower built in the first place. Apparently, there were protests about it, and the site was hotly debated. The seaside quarry was said to have damaged local habitats, and the fishermen all worried that construction would interrupt the busiest part of their season.”
“Did it?” Wei Wuxian wonders. “I have heard that this port is one of the busiest in the country. Surely it can’t have slowed them down that much.”
“That’s just it,” Lan Jingyi says darkly. “The Jins didn’t want any interruption of the most profitable industry in this region, either, so they left the fishermen alone and sourced their labour from elsewhere.”
“Sourced their labour?” Wei Wuxian says, one eyebrow raised in question.
“Conscription,” Lan Wangji concludes, and Lan Jingyi nods to confirm it.
“They went inland,” he says. “Raided several small, rural towns for able-bodied men to conscript and brought them to Rongcheng, sometimes unwillingly. Sentiment against the watchtower is strongest on the farms in this area. They don’t feel the protection it provides is equal to the sacrifice of their crops for the last few seasons. Some of them are still trying to recover.”
“When was this watchtower completed?” Lan Wangji wants to know.
“Just last year,” Lan Jingyi replies. “It was one of the last ones to go up.”
“Shall we have a look inside?” Wei Wuxian asks, and Lan Wangji nods at Lan Jingyi to unlock the door.
The lower levels are unexceptional; the storehouse is well stocked with dry goods, and the empty remnants of a chicken coop and a sheep’s pen tell the story of food and fuel production.
“The animals have all been removed for now, since there is no sentinel to look after them,” Lan Jingyi explains. “The Jin soldiers tried to get a local kid to do it, but they’re all too afraid of the watchtower and they won’t even go inside.”
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian hums, the skin on his arms tingling as he runs his fingertips along the wall. There’s something off about this place, he thinks, something eerie and uncomfortable, like a spider crawling up your neck when you’re half asleep. “A little bit of fear is probably healthy in this case.”
The air inside the tower is stale, and Wei Wuxian makes his way up the stairs to the second level where the sleeping quarters are located. Again, there is nothing out of the ordinary here, but Wei Wuxian feels unsettled. The beds are all made, and it’s relatively clean, only a little dust having had time to settle in the last two weeks. Wei Wuxian proceeds up the last flight of stairs, and the icy cold wind that greets him at the top is like a punch to his lungs.
The view from the top is vast and spectacular, the sightlines clear and uncluttered all the way to the next towers on either side. Wei Wuxian can just make them out if he squints, tiny specks on the horizon, and he imagines them lit up at night as a comforting pinprick of hope in the dark. The wind whips and lashes around him, and Wei Wuxian is thankful for his heavy cloak, a solid buffer against the chilly onslaught.
He doesn’t turn when he feels Lan Wangji behind him, he only smiles when Lan Wangji steps forward to stand beside him at the northern battlement. Together, they look down into the long, long drop to the ocean. Wei Wuxian experiences a sudden bout of vertigo, the forgotten queasiness of the last time he’d been perched on the edge of a precipice.
The waves crash roughly against the side of the cliff, the roar of the sea rising and falling with the tide. It’s a soothing sound, and Wei Wuxian thinks it would be peaceful up here, if not for the disturbing fact that the tower walls are streaked with blood, and so far, ten men have died. It’s like there is a charge in the air, the kiss of recent lightning, and it prickles at the base of Wei Wuxian’s skull, shivering up into his scalp.
Wei Wuxain leans heavily against the wall, reaching out over the edge as far as he can go with his body. It’s not much, with the height of the wall in between the battlements coming up to his chest. A person with intent and a good run-up could jump this, he reasons, but accidentally falling seems highly unlikely.
“What do you think?” Lan Wangji asks, voice almost carried away by the wind.
“I think,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, “that we’re looking at more than just ten deaths.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, but he waits for Wei Wuxian to continue.
“How many people do you suppose died while building this tower?” Wei Wuxian asks, tone somber.
“Several, perhaps,” Lan Wangji hazards. “More, if they continued construction throughout the winter months.”
“And how many of them do you think weren’t here by choice?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, eyes hooded and face grave. Wei Wuxian turns away from the sea to face him, taking in the sharp lines of his profile, lingering on the curve of his lips. Lan Wangji’s hair billows out and whips around behind him in the relentless wind, and Wei Wuxian is struck, not for the first time, by his excruciating beauty. It catches him as it always does, with a sudden clenching of his heart, a familiar pang, and Wei Wuxian is lost for a moment, all thoughts of death and blood swept far out to sea.
“They keep a record of deaths on projects such as this,” Lan Wangji is saying. “So that the family of any conscripted worker who passes away may be compensated accordingly. Perhaps we should inquire who might have access to such records.”
Wei Wuxian shakes himself out of his stupor and forces out a reply.
“Might be a good place to start.”
“You think the tower is haunted by the souls of the people who died to build it,” Lan Wangji states, turning to face Wei Wuxian at last. His eyes are soft gold, reflecting the light of the oncoming sunset.
“That’s my first guest, yes,” says Wei Wuxian, holding Lan Wangji’s liquid gaze.
“And your second?”
Wei Wuxian sighs. “That their deaths may not have been accidental.”
Lan Wangji regards him silently.
“Jingyi was right,” Wei Wuxian continues. “The whole watchtower is crawling with Yin energy. It’s obviously the focal point for someone’s powerful resentment. That much I’m sure of. But I think we are probably dealing with multiple someones.”
Lan Wangji nods, still silent, but thoughtful. “Would Inquiry help?” he offers at last.
“Possibly,” Wei Wuxian says. “But not tonight. Let’s pull up that death list and see if we can’t just identify them from there. And maybe we can find out who was in charge of overseeing the construction.”
“I wonder if the foreman would be forthcoming with many details,” Lan Wangji frowns. “He may not be a reliable witness.”
“Probably not,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “But if so, that just indicates some level of responsibility on his part. I’d be curious to see what we could get out of him.”
Lan Jingyi emerges from inside the tower and beckons them back inside.
“Come on,” he says. “The sun is about to set, and it’s no use just hanging out here when it gets dark. Let’s go back to the inn for dinner and we can pick it all up in the morning.”
“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you Jingyi?” Wei Wuxian teases.
“Of course not!” Lan Jingyi huffs. “I’m just hungry,” he insists.
“Well, all right, then,” Wei Wuxian drawls. “I could do with some food, in any case. Shall we?”
Lan Wangji nods and follows Lan Jingyi back down the stairs, but Wei Wuxian lingers for a moment, turning back toward the sea. The wind picks up its assault, and his cloak flares as his hair lashes back and forth across his face. Over the howling wind and the crashing waves, Wei Wuxian thinks he hears a faint, keening voice, sorrowful and shrill, ricocheting off the corners of the tower.
He takes one last look over the edge, watching the seafoam rise and swell, before turning on his heel and heading back toward the entrance. The wind whistles around him as he disappears into the stairwell, and the echoes of his retreating footsteps gradually fall away, whispering into silence.
They make their way back down and head for the inn, Wei Wuxian twirling Chenqing in front of him. He takes a detour to visit the stables and see how Little Apple is getting along, and by the time he makes it inside, dinner has just been served for their party. It’s a somber, silent meal, surrounded by so many Lan disciples, and Wei Wuxian takes his time, savouring the hot fish soup and picking at the selection of seaweed heavy side dishes.
He takes his second jar of wine back to his room and leaves it on a side table before going out again in search of Lan Wangji. Their rooms aren’t far apart, and Lan Wangji opens the door to the light rapping of Wei Wuxian’s knuckles. There’s a small balcony attached to the room, and together, they walk out into the cold, dry night. They stand there, shoulder to shoulder, and Wei Wuxian lets the sound and the smell of the ocean wash over him.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, voice quiet. “Have you ever gone swimming in the sea?”
“A few times,” Lan Wangji replies. “When I was younger.”
“I never have,” Wei Wuxian says. “It was always the lakes of Yunmeng for me. The first time I saw the ocean, it was so vast and endless. I was sure if walked into it, I’d never walk out again. Does it ever give you that feeling?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, eyes trained forward into the night. “Sometimes.”
“It’s just so immense,” Wei Wuxian continues. “It’s peaceful but unsettling, somehow.”
“I find it comforting,” Lan Wangji says. “I have always felt calmer by the ocean.”
“Still,” Wei Wuxian insists. “It’s a little intimidating. And the thought of those bodies, tossed around and deteriorating. How will those souls ever find peace?”
“There are certain customs that allow for water burials,” Lan Wangji points out. “But they are mostly considered taboo these days.”
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian hums. “I remember all the cleansing ceremonies we used to have to do on the lakes, just to ease the passing of all the fishermen who drowned each year. There were always some, and we certainly didn’t want our own waterborne abyss.”
“Certainly not,” Lan Wangji agrees.
They stand in silence for a few minutes, lulled by the sound of the waves. When Wei Wuxian speaks next, his voice is quiet.
“Thank you for asking me to come along,” he murmurs. “I know I said I might not want to re-enter the cultivation world, but I don’t regret coming back.”
Coming back to you, Wei Wuxian thinks.
Lan Wangji turns to look at him, that soft affection settling over his features, but he still looks a little sad.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says again. “For trusting me with this case.”
Lan Wangji regards him levelly. “I would trust no one else but you,” he says simply.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian protests. “You can’t just say things like that with a straight face. My heart can’t take it.”
Lan Wangji’s expression relaxes further, the hint of a smile dancing on his lips, and Wei Wuxian feels that familiar pang as a flush rises in his face.
“How would you like to proceed tomorrow?” Lan Wangji asks, and Wei Wuxian is flooded with relief at the change of subject.
“We’ll start with the death record,” Wei Wuxian says. “Work our way up from there. Maybe we can have Jingyi look for the foreman, find out if he’s still stationed around here. And if all of that yields nothing, would you be willing to try Inquiry? I’m hesitant to have you do it right away since the resentment is so strong. I wouldn’t want you summoning up something dreadful if we don’t need to.”
Lan Wangji nods. “Of course I am willing to play inquiry, but if you think it wise to wait, I will.”
“I just think there’s no use summoning them until we’re ready to exorcise them. And who knows? They may be too angry to bother talking. A spirit may not be able to lie to you, but they don’t have to answer you, either.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes flick away momentarily. “No,” he says, his voice gone quiet. “They do not.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian tries, feeling the sudden shift in mood acutely. “What is it? Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” Lan Wangji says again, gently this time. “You said nothing wrong, Wei Ying. I am merely tired.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly conscious of the time. “It’s almost nine o’clock, isn’t it? Gosh, I’m a nuisance! I’ll get out of your hair, then. You know, so you can actually take it down,” he babbles.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, voice softly firm. “You are never a nuisance.”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him.
“Not to me,” Lan Wangji says quietly.
Wei Wuxian feels the flush rising in his face again.
“Okay,” he manages, swallowing thickly. “I’ll be going now.”
“Good night, Wei Ying.”
“Good night, Lan Zhan.”
Back in his room, Wei Wuxian takes several long swigs from the wine jar and yanks out his hair ribbon. A bath has been drawn for him, and he gratefully lets his clothes fall to the floor before slipping into the wooden tub. He lets his head fall back against the edge and closes his eyes, willing his thoughts to slow down and unravel.
Wei Wuxian knows that Lan Wangji holds him in high regard. Too high, Wei Wuxian thinks, for Lan Wangji’s own good. In his first life, in his younger years, Wei Wuxian would have done anything for Lan Wangji’s approval. Now, here in his second life, Wei Wuxian appears to have his undivided attention. It’s exhilarating, certainly, but it shakes him to his core. This calmer, older Lan Wangji can undo him with just a look, can take him apart with his soft-eyed gaze. This Lan Wangji never says ‘No’ to him.
And so, Wei Wuxian never asks.
He washes quickly and dries himself off before slipping on an inner robe and climbing into bed. When the sound of the ocean finally lulls him into sleep, Wei Wuxian dreams of falling. He watches as Lan Wangji gets farther and farther away from him, stranded at the top of the tower with his arm outstretched over the abyss. He falls and falls, Lan Wangji’s face disappearing into the distance as the darkness rises up to meet him, and Wei Wuxian jerks awake, deep into the night, sweaty and cold.
He splashes some water on his face and tries to go back to sleep, but he can’t stop shivering. As he tosses and turns, his eye catches on something gleaming in the dark. It’s the fur on his new cloak reflecting the moonlight, sleek and smooth. Wei Wuxian gets up and retrieves it, bringing it back to the bed and lying down beneath it. His shivering subsides quickly after that, and the next time he falls asleep, it’s to the memory of a nameless song, and the familiar smell of sandalwood.
A quick trip to the magistrate’s office produces a copy of the death records almost immediately; apparently, nothing is more important than a request from the Chief Cultivator himself, and so they bypass the usual wait times and leave with the copy in hand. Wei Wuxian holds the list in one hand and a small, folded map in the other, and he peruses the list of names as they walk briskly down the street.
“Only three deaths after all,” Wei Wuxian muses. “All bought and paid for, too, by the looks of it. Nice to see the Jins following through with that part, at least,” he says dryly.
“Mn,” says Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian has never heard a single syllable infused with so much disdain.
“Let’s see,” Wei Wuxian says, glancing at the map. “It should be right over—Ah! There it is,” he says, and he makes a sharp left, Lan Wangji following gracefully behind him.
The graveyard is covered in a layer of frost, much like the rest of the city, and the rows of stone grave markers glisten under the cloudy sky. Wei Wuxian weaves his way between the graves, making his way toward the far corner that the magistrate had indicated as the section where all non-local citizens and criminals are buried.
In the newest row of graves, three relatively clean tombstones bear the names of the three dead conscripts, cleanly engraved above the usual genealogical information. Wei Wuxian squints at them, twirling Chenqing thoughtfully.
“Think they’re really down there?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“It seems likely,” Lan Wangji replies with a small frown. “But it would therefore be unusual if their spirits were haunting the tower.”
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian hums. “The magistrate insists they were all buried with the proper funeral rites, and this graveyard looks well maintained. I don’t sense much resentment at all, to be honest.”
“Nor do I,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Shall I play Inquiry?”
“Please,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m curious to know for sure.”
Lan Wangji summons his qin and seats himself in front of the gravestones, and a moment later, the first notes of Inquiry ring out through the air. Wei Wuxian wonders just how many spirits might answer the call in a graveyard, but he trusts in Lan Wangji’s abilities. He is no doubt asking for each of them by name.
After playing several chords, Lan Wangji pauses, folding his hands in his lap to await an answer. It comes in the form of three identical notes, plucked in quick succession. Lan Wangji remains impassive, face like carved jade as he strums out another series of chords. Again, three identical notes sing in answer, and Lan Wangji looks up to where Wei Wuxian stands with a question on his face.
“They are all here,” Lan Wangji confirms. “All three of them have answered me.”
“And do they ever wander?” Wei Wuxian wants to know. “Or are they at peace?”
A more complicated series of notes answer Lan Wangji this time, and he waits until the last of them has faded before he speaks.
“Each of them has tried to find a way back to their family shrines, but they return to where their bodies rest. They sleep well in the graves provided to them.”
“Sounds lonely,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, brow furrowed in thought. “So they’re not our culprits, then?”
“It would appear not,” Lan Wangji says. “What do you propose we do next?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “We have to be missing something. There has to be something else. Someone else.”
Just as Lan Wangji is about to reply, a messenger butterfly appears to hover in front of his face. Lan Wangji extends his hand to accept the message, and Lan Jingyi’s slanted script unfurls before his eyes.
“Jingyi has located the foreman,” Lan Wangji says. “He’s waiting for us at the inn. He says to hurry. The foreman is not pleased to be there.”
“Okay, let’s get moving,” Wei Wuxian says, then he snaps his fingers as inspiration strikes. “And tell Jingyi to pull a full conscription list from the magistrate’s office. I want it on hand when we go to question him.”
“All right,” Lan Wangji says, drawing up the message and sending it fluttering away with a flick of his wrist.
Together they stride out of the graveyard and wind their way back onto the busy street, the voices of the dead falling silent in their wake.
The foreman is an angry looking man of middle age, the first hints of grey beginning to show in the hair of his beard. He has small, deep-set eyes under a heavy pair of eyebrows, one of which is bisected by a vicious looking scar, and he is scowling with the air of someone who rarely does anything else. To be fair, Wei Wuxian had left him to stew in a room by himself for over an hour as he’d reviewed the conscription list with Lan Wangji and Lan Jingyi.
“Xiao Tan,” Wei Wuxian begins. “You were the foreman on the watchtower in Rongcheng?”
“Overseer,” Xiao Tan snaps. “I’m a soldier, not a construction worker.”
“Fine, Overseer, then,” Wei Wuxian says, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “Any idea why your sentinels are all jumping off the top of it these days?”
“How should I know?” Xiao Tan says, voice gruff. “It’s not my job to man it. I just had to ensure it got built.”
“Pressure was really on for that, wasn’t it?” Wei Wuxian asks, holding the man’s angry stare.
“Of course it was,” Xiao Tan snaps again. “Everyone knows those towers were the pet project of the last Chief Cultivator.” His eyes flick to Lan Wangji, standing impassively to one side. “And he was not a man you said ‘No’ to.”
“Is that why you conscripted from all the nearby farms? Because they couldn’t say ‘No’, either?”
“Look,” says Xiao Tan. “You either conscript the local populace or you bring in a slew of hardened criminals to do the work. And these precious little fishermen and their precious little wives were not in favour of having convicts roaming the streets of their idyllic little seaside. Conscription is not illegal. Don’t hold me responsible for a long tradition of labour. Take it up with the Jins.”
“I just might,” Wei Wuxian says. He wonders what Jin Ling might think of the practice. “But,” he continues, “speaking of illegal, tell me about the 12 people listed here,” he says, indicating a dozen names with scratch marks beside them making them stand out from the original conscription list.
“What’s to tell?” Xiao Tan scoffs. “Deserters, all of them. If they’re ever caught, it’s the lash for them.”
“So why haven’t they been caught?” Wei Wuxian presses. “It’s been over a year since they went missing. Surely you must have tracked them back to their families by now.”
“I have bigger things to worry about than a bunch of honourless men who deserted their duty. And of course we checked back with their families. The cowards abandoned them, too. For all I know they ended up dead in the mountains somewhere. Would serve them all right,” Xiao Tan spits.
“Funny,” says Wei Wuxian. “The local population is saying the same thing about the Jin cultivators who have died. That it serves them right. This was a very unpopular project, wasn’t it?”
“So what if it was?” Xiao Tan fires back. “Just look at it now! The towers are the envy of the cultivation world, and the Jins hold most of them. Who cares if a couple of naysayers ran away in the night? That tower is a beacon of hope.”
“It’s covered in blood,” Lan Wangji deadpans.
“Yeah, not very hopeful,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “I’m willing to bet that even a watchtower enthusiast like yourself wouldn’t want to spend the night up there right now.”
Xiao Tan averts his eyes. “I was passed over for a sentinel position.”
“Why’s that? So unpopular as an Overseer that the locals wouldn’t trust you as a guardian?” Wei Wuxian hazards.
Xiao Tan grinds his teeth. “Something like that,” he growls. “You don’t make friends on a job like mine.”
“How about enemies?”
Xiao Tan smiles thinly. “Of those, I have plenty. Find me a man without any, and I’ll show you an insignificant man.”
“Hanguang-jun doesn’t have any enemies,” Lan Jingyi pipes up indignantly. “And he’s the most significant man in the world.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Lan Wangji admonishes him gently.
“And you shouldn’t be,” Xiao Tan scoffs. “Even the illustrious Hanguang-jun has his detractors. You’ll have even more when the word gets out that you’ve taken up with the Yiling Patriarch again.”
Lan Wangji levels a cold, piercing stare at Xiao Tan, and Xiao Tan flinches a little. “Jingyi,” Lan Wangji says. “Tell this man what you know.”
Xiao Tan glances between them, the first signs of nervousness creeping into his body language.
“I know that we’re right about your popularity,” Lan Jingyi states. “You made a lot of enemies in town, and all of them were far too willing to tell me about it.”
“So what?” Xiao Tan bites out. “I don’t care what a bunch of fishermen have to say about me.”
“Maybe you should,” Lan Jingyi retorts. “Because they told me all about the worker’s strike, and how you almost lost control of the watchtower.”
Xiao Tan goes red in the face, but his eyes don’t look angry. There’s a hint of apprehension in them, and Wei Wuxian leans in expectantly.
“There was a man,” Lan Jingyi continues. “An honourable man among the conscripts. A simple farmer named Chen Hao. I couldn’t find anyone who’d say a bad word about him. It turns out he led a small rebellion against you. He drummed up support among the labourers and stopped construction. He turned the city against you so that you and your men couldn’t even get service in a teahouse.”
“I remember,” Xiao Tan grits out. “But after stirring up all that trouble, he and his group ran away. Big-talking cowards always do, in the end.”
“So these twelve people,” Wei Wuxian says, tapping the conscription list. “All of them were a part of this worker’s strike?”
“Cowards,” Xiao Tan repeats. “Good riddance that they all got rid of themselves. Saved me the trouble of disciplining them.”
“Did it?” Wei Wuxian asks, eyebrows raised. “And what sort of discipline would you have enacted on them?”
“Lashes, same as any Overseer with disobedient workers would do,” Xiao Tan retorts. “They all ran away that night in order to escape their fate the next day. Work got back to normal after that, and good thing, too. Winter was coming, and it’s hard enough to get a project like that finished, let alone in winter.”
“You finished construction by spring last year?” Lan Wangji asks.
“Yes,” Xiao Tan says. “The first sentinel was in place by the end of winter.”
“And when did the first one go flying off the top?” Wei Wuxian wonders.
“How should I know?” Xiao Tan says, irritated once more. “Like I said. Manning the tower was not my responsibility.”
“It’s been six months of so-called suicides,” Lan Jingyi offers. “So it really didn’t take long for people to start dying.”
“None of which has anything to do with me,” Xiao Tan avers, leaning back and crossing his arms. “So if you’re done interrogating me, I have to get back to my duties.”
“Which are?” Wei Wuxian is curious.
“I oversee the quarry,” Xiao Tan says gruffly. “There’s plenty of good rock left to mine even though the tower is finished. We bring it to the port and ship it to other sites throughout Lanling that have need of it.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says. “If we have any more questions, we know where to find you, then.”
Xiao Tan just glowers at him. “Can I go now?”
“Don’t see why not,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “Thanks for your help.”
“My pleasure,” Xiao Tan seethes. He rises to his feet and gives Lan Wangji a cursory salute. “Your Excellency.”
Lan Wangji merely nods at him, and Xiao Tan flees the room.
“What do you think?” Wei Wuxian drops the question into the ensuing silence. “He seemed pretty hostile considering we never actually accused him of anything.”
“Indeed,” agrees Lan Wangji. “He seemed particularly wary at the mention of Chen Hao.”
“You noticed that too, huh?” Wei Wuxian muses. “I’m curious about that labour strike. I feel like it would take more than twelve people to make a difference. It’s everyone or no one for that kind of thing.”
“The people I talked to said everyone stopped working,” Lan Jingyi supplies. “Chen Hao was the ringleader, and the other eleven were the most vocal. But after they disappeared, no one dared resist anymore, and work resumed as per usual.”
“It is odd, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian insists. “That the prospect of a whipping was enough to scare away a bunch of men who already had the upper hand? Unless of course they called in more soldiers and promised to whip the entire workforce. I could see how that might deter support for Chen Hao.”
“Do we know what the workers were demanding?” Lan Wangji asks.
“Pretty simple stuff, actually,” Lan Jingyi replies. “Just better working hours with more time for rest. They were being pushed night and day to the brink of exhaustion, sometimes skipping meals. They weren’t even arguing about the pitiful wage that got sent to their families. They just wanted to be treated better.”
“Like human beings, you mean,” Wei Wuxian says dryly. “Imagine that.”
Lan Jingyi opens his mouth to reply, but at that moment, there is a knock at the door, and he turns to answer it, instead.
“Excuse me,” says the Lan disciple on the other side of the door. “But there is a young lady here who insists she must speak with Hanguang-jun.”
“Oh?” Wei Wuxian perks up. “Who could that be?”
“She says she knows something, but she says she will only speak it aloud to Hanguang-jun. Shall I show her in, or shall I have her submit an official missive?”
“Please,” says Lan Wangji. “Show her in. I will speak with her.”
The Lan disciple nods and disappears from view. A few minutes later he returns with a young woman in tow. By Wei Wuxian’s estimate, she is barely a teenager, and her eyes dart nervously around the room as she enters, widening as they land on Lan Wangji.
“Y-Your Excellency,” she stammers. “H-Hanguang-jun. Please allow this humble servant to speak to you.”
“I’d be honoured,” Lan Wangji says, gesturing to the table where Wei Wuxian is already seated. “Please, won’t you sit with us?”
The girl nervously wrings her hands in front of her, but she nods jerkily and comes to sit across from Wei Wuxian as Lan Wangji drifts to settle on Wei Wuxian’s left side.
“What have you to tell me?” Lan Wangji asks gently.
The girl swallows, fisting her hands in the fabric covering her knees in order to keep from fidgeting, her eyes steadfastly on the table between them. Lan Wangji waits patiently.
“It’s all right,” Wei Wuxian offers, and her eyes rise up to meet his. “Take your time. Whatever you have to tell us must be serious,” he says. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be so nervous.”
She nods shyly, and her wide eyes flick back and forth between them.
“What is your name?” Lan Wangji prompts.
“Jing,” she says at last, her voice high and timid.
“A-Jing,” Wei Wuxian says. “Won’t you tell us what is so important? Is it about the watchtower?”
She nods again, this time looking fearful.
“T-That man,” she manages. “The man who just left. Can you promise me protection from him?”
“Of course,” Lan Wangji replies. “Why is protection necessary?”
“Because he’s evil!” she cries, voice cracking. “He’s evil, and this is all his fault. But it’s my word against his, and who is going to believe a poor servant girl? I couldn’t say anything to anyone else, but if you, Hanguang-jun, if you will hear me out?”
“I will,” he promises. “What do you accuse him of?”
“He killed them!” Jing blurts out. “Chen Hao and the others. He killed them all.”
Wei Wuxian blinks in surprise at her bluntness. “So they weren’t deserters?”
Jing shakes her head. “They never would have run away. They were all too good for that. Especially Chen Hao. He was so kind. He was kind to me.”
“Where did you meet him?” Lan Wangji asks.
“They used to come and eat every day at the restaurant of the family I serve. They were always starving and worn out, but they could only afford the cheapest meals. Cabbage soups and the like. I used to sneak them pieces of fish when I could. It wasn’t stealing!” she adds quickly. “The family was okay with it, as long as it was the bits from the previous day.”
Wei Wuxian smiles at her. “That was very sweet of you. I’m sure they appreciated it.”
“They did,” Jing says, her voice laced with remembered fondness. “Chen Hao always thanked me and told me I was a good girl. He said that if I ever wanted to visit the countryside, I’d be welcome on his farm. He owned a fruit orchard full of plum trees. It sounded so lovely.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile widens. “You liked him, didn’t you?”
“It’s not like that!” Jing stammers. “He had a wife. It’s just that he was always so kind and optimistic. He spoke so much about the rights that people should have, about the way this society could be improved. He was so inspiring.”
“How did he die?” Lan Wangji asks gently.
Her eyes grow dark and watery, her lips turning down into a frown. “One night after the workday was finished, they didn’t come to the restaurant. The Mistress expressed disappointment that they wouldn’t be coming since she’d made sure to prepare extra soup. I offered to take it to them so that it wouldn’t go to waste, and Mistress said I could.”
She pauses to take a deep breath before continuing.
“I took two buckets down to the work camp, but Chen Hao’s tent was empty, and the camp was too quiet. It had just gotten dark. So I left the soup beside his tent and went looking for him. Something just didn’t feel right. The day before, he’d told me that the Overseer had agreed to a meeting with him about the labour strike, but the Overseer’s office was empty, too. But from up on the hill, I noticed a small group of torchlights coming from the quarry.”
“Was there usually work at the quarry after dark?” Wei Wuxian asks.
Jing shakes her head. “No, which is why it was strange. So I made my way to the quarry. I know it wasn’t smart, but something just felt so wrong,” she says, her voice quavering as her eyes mist over. “I had to see if Chen Hao was okay.”
“He wasn’t, was he?” Lan Wangji asks quietly.
Jing shakes her head again, her tears beginning to fall. “It wasn’t a meeting. It was an ambush. The Overseer had brought at least twenty soldiers, and they murdered all twelve of them, right there on the beach. There was blood everywhere,” she sobs.
“A-Jing,” Wei Wuxian breathes, his voice laced with sympathy. “You poor girl. What a nightmare to see such a thing. But you were all right? You escaped unnoticed?”
“Not entirely,” she says, swiping at her eyes. “I made a noise when I turned to leave, and they all came after me. I managed to avoid them by disappearing among the rocks on the cliffside. The tide was rising, and they didn’t want to brave that area in the dark. I almost got washed away. I stayed there half the night, and I was sick for days afterward.”
“Thank goodness you were not caught,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian nods his agreement. “You never came forward about the killings because you were too afraid.”
Jing’s face crumples, fresh tears leaving tracks down her cheeks. “Who am I but a lowly servant? Who would listen to me over a soldier from the Jin sect? And if I spoke out, they’d know it had been me that night. What if they’d come to kill me?”
“I do not blame you for not reporting this,” Lan Wangji reassures her. “And I thank you for coming forward now and entrusting this knowledge to me.”
“That bastard Xiao Tan,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. “I knew I didn’t like him. Dishonourable scumbag, killing his own workers out of hand and dumping them into the sea.”
“No,” Jing says, voice sudden and sharp. “That’s not it. That’s not what they did.”
“What do you mean?” Lan Wangji asks.
“The bodies,” Jing gets out. “They didn’t throw the bodies into the sea. They wanted them to be a warning to the other workers. They wanted them to be terrified they could be next.”
“But then, where are the bodies?” Lan Jingyi asks.
Wei Wuxian hears it, the moment that Lan Wangji inhales sharply with realization beside him, the instant when it all clicks into place.
The uneasiness. The resentment.
The eerie, half-imagined cry.
“The tower,” Lan Wangji breathes.
“They’re inside the walls of the tower.”
It takes the better part of two weeks to excavate the watchtower.
Lan Wangji sends a message to Jin Ling, and Jin Ling sends back twenty of his most trusted soldiers to handle the work. Fifteen of them begin the task of digging into the walls from the inside, brick by bloody brick, while the last five round up the Overseer and his men.
It’s morbid work, but slowly, body after body is revealed, lining the stairs to the top of the tower where the last corpse is exhumed from the northern wall. The stones fall away into the sea as the final remains are dug out, leaving a precarious gap in the wall that stretches three battlements wide.
Wei Wuxian stands at the top of the tower, watching grimly as the Jin soldiers work to carefully transfer the last stiff, rotting corpse into the wooden coffin emblazoned with auspicious cheng yu that will be used for its reburial. It’s a delicate process, tying to keep the corpses all in one piece. Their families have all been notified, and several relatives have shown up to claim remains. The faces on most of the corpses are still distinguishable, even distorted and ravaged by death, and one by one, they are identified by their grieving family members.
The last of them to be unearthed at the top of the tower is Chen Hao.
Word had been sent to his wife, but the messenger returned with the note still unopened. The house had been deserted, he’d said, with no evidence it had been lived in for some time. In the absence of a family member to claim him, Chen Hao will have to be buried in the Rongcheng graveyard. A lonely end for a heroic man, Wei Wuxian thinks. The wind whips around him, a miniature hurricane, and Wei Wuxian is certain he hears that baleful cry one more time as the lid of the coffin is slotted into place.
He catches a whiff of sandalwood, and he turns to find Lan Wangji emerging from the stairwell and heading toward him. Wei Wuxian smiles softly as Lan Wangji comes to stand beside him, white cloak billowing in the wind.
“What do you think, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Will they sleep soundly tonight?”
“That is the hope,” Lan Wangji replies. “I will play Cleansing once the soldiers finish up here.”
“Imagine having to brick your fellow workers into a wall. I wonder how many of the surviving conscripts were ready to take that nightmarish knowledge to their own graves,” Wei Wuxian says bitterly.
“If they wanted to survive, they didn’t have much of a choice,” Lan Wangji points out. “Many of them would have had families they were supporting.”
“I guess so,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “I see the outside of the tower has been scrubbed, too.”
Lan Wangji nods. “The blood is gone. With the bodies removed, it should remain clean.”
“This tower was literally bleeding with resentment,” Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I wonder if anyone would be eager to take up a sentinel position here again.”
“The Jin cultivators are not as superstitious as the people of Rongcheng,” Lan Wangji says. “I doubt it will be hard to find a volunteer, considering how coveted these outposts are.”
“That’s true, I guess. And I suppose they’ll be looking to get it manned again as soon as possible?”
“Just so,” says Lan Wangji. “The main structure of the tower is sound. The soldiers seek to man the tower and light the beacon tonight.”
“That fast?” Wei Wuxian blinks in surprise. “I guess they really are eager to maintain their network.”
“With the bodies removed, the cultivators have no lasting fear of this place. They will all find their ways home, and Chen Hao will be buried before sunset. They needn’t worry about further altercations.”
“I guess not,” Wei Wuxian says. “How is A-Jing doing?”
“She is well, although she remains nervous,” Lan Wangji replies. “I suspect she will feel unsettled until the case against Xiao Tan is closed and his punishment is decided.”
“Will she have to stand witness?” Wei Wuxian wants to know.
“Possibly,” Lan Wangji muses. “Although we have the confession of several of the other soldiers, so her testimony may not be needed. I have recommended that her involvement is not necessary. I would rather she not be subjected to the trauma of having to recite from memory once more.”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian smiles, his insides warming as he looks on Lan Wangji with affection. “You’re so kind, Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Wangji turns to look at him, his eyes soft.
“I’m serious,” Wei Wuxian continues. “And it’s a mark of how much the common people love you that she would come to you in the first place. She trusted you to see justice done when she trusted no one else. That’s no small thing, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji merely regards him silently, his gold-flecked eyes warm and thoughtful.
“It’s a good thing you took this case,” Wei Wuxian smiles. “If it had been someone else, she may never have come forward.”
“Perhaps not,” Lan Wangji answers at last.
The wind picks up in that moment, lashing against them in great, swelling gusts, sending Wei Wuxian’s cloak askew where he’s fastened it only loosely around his neck. Lan Wangji reaches out to catch it by the collar, and Wei Wuxian suddenly finds Lan Wangji very close as he adjusts the cloak around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. They’re so close, Wei Wuxian can feel Lan Wangji’s breath on his face. His own breath catches in his throat.
“Hanguang-jun,” one of the Jin soldiers calls. “We’ve finished with the bodies. All twelve of them have been completely removed.”
Lan Wangji’s hands linger a moment longer before they fall away and he turns to address the soldier. Wei Wuxian can finally start breathing again.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says. “Is the grave prepared?”
“Yes, Your Excellency. The monks are ready to begin the funeral procession and will oversee the burial to ensure that there’s no restless ghost left to wander back.”
Lan Wangji nods. “Thank you,” he says again. “I will cleanse the tower now, and you shall have control of it again by nightfall.”
The soldier bows deeply, then he turns to make his way down the tower.
“Do you mind if I stay?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Of course not,” Lan Wangji replies softly, eyes warm and gentle.
Lan Wangji summons his qin and seats himself near the centre of the roof, just at the bottom of the stairs to the beacon. He closes his eyes for a moment, breathing in deeply before letting his hands settle over the strings. Wei Wuxian takes the chance to admire him openly in his perfect, pristine stillness, and then Lan Wangji’s eyes open, and he begins to play.
The first few chords of Cleansing slice through the whistling of the wind, echoing between the corners of the tower. It’s a slow, soothing melody, and it swoops low before soaring high, each note seeming to vibrate through every rock in the watchtower.
As the song progresses, Wei Wuxian runs his fingers along the wall and comes to stand at the open edge in the gap left behind by the excavation. He braces his hand against the inside of the wall and dares to look down into the ocean, watching the waves as they swirl and crash into the side of the cliff. The wind is a roar in his ears, and the notes of Cleansing grow faint beneath the rising sound of the water, and Wei Wuxian sways ever so slightly, his hand gripping tightly to the jagged rock of the ruined wall.
Suddenly, Wei Wuxian is jerked backward, an arm around his waist, his back colliding with a solid chest as he’s lifted bodily off the ground and carried away from the gap. He flails for a moment, feet scrabbling for purchase, but then another arm is thrown across his chest, pinning his arms in place and knocking the breath out of him just as his feet find the ground again.
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji’s voice is pure agony. “What were you doing?”
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian gasps, struggling to catch his breath. “What--?”
“What were you thinking?” Lan Wangji demands.
“Lan Zhan, wait,” Wei Wuxian tries, attempting to turn in the circle of Lan Wangji’s arms, but Lan Wangji’s hold only tightens around him. “Lan Zhan, please. I wasn’t—I wasn’t going to jump, Lan Zhan!”
There’s a hitch in Lan Wangji’s breath before suddenly he’s spinning Wei Wuxian around, grasping him almost painfully by his upper arms, and Wei Wuxian’s hands come up to land against Lan Wangji’s chest.
“What were you thinking?” Lan Wangji repeats, eyes wide and terrified. “Wei Ying. You could have fallen.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Wei Wuxian insists. He’s immediately remorseful, ashamed to have put such a look on Lan Wangji’s face. “Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Lan Wangji lets out a long, shaky breath, his eyes still anguished.
“Wei Ying,” he breathes, voice pleading. “I am begging you to be more careful.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian whispers, his hands stroking up to rest on Lan Wangji’s shoulders, and he gives what he hopes is a comforting squeeze. “I will. I promise.”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes and lets out another long, trembling sigh before he releases Wei Wuxian and steps back. When he opens his eyes again, his gaze is calm, his expression shuttered, but something about him still looks impossibly sad, and Wei Wuxian feels an acute pang of guilt.
“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says. “Let’s get down from here. Jingyi and the others will be waiting on us for dinner.”
Lan Wangji simply nods, turning away and heading quickly over to where he’d abandoned his qin. He vanishes the instrument and heads briskly for the stairwell without a word.
Wei Wuxian falls into step after him, heart clenching painfully in his chest.
Behind them, the wind whistles and roars.
That night, Wei Wuxian goes to bed with a head and a heart both heavy with wine. He falls asleep listening to the sound of Lan Wangji playing his nameless song next door, the wistful notes carrying him into unconsciousness.
But once again, he dreams of falling, this time watching as the water rushes up to meet him, and he thinks he hears screaming, a piteous wail piercing through the wind roaring in his ears, and Wei Wuxian wakes with a shout, the sound of footsteps racing past his door.
He gets shakily to his feet and heads to the door, throwing it open to reveal Lan Jingyi and the other juniors crowded around Lan Wangji’s door, Lan Jingyi’s fist raised to knock.
“What’s going on?” Wei Wuxian croaks out, voice rough.
Lan Wangji opens his door, somehow looking perfect even after being roused suddenly in the middle of the night. “What is it?”
“It’s the tower!” Lan Jingyi cries. “There’s been another death at the tower!”
“I don’t get it,” Lan Jingyi says, hurrying to keep up with Wei Wuxian’s rapid pace. “All the bodies were removed, and the tower was cleansed. What did we miss?”
“Only one way to find out,” Wei Wuxian replies, taking long strides next to Lan Wangji, who remains silent. He’s said nothing since Lan Jingyi’s grim announcement, his brow set in a solemn line.
“At least we know for sure someone screamed this time,” Lan Jingyi offers. “The Jin soldiers in the camp below heard it loud and clear.”
“Right,” Wei Wuxian says. “Not an accident, not a suicide.”
“Can we be sure it wasn’t an accident?” Lan Jingyi asks hopefully. “There is that big gap in the wall now.”
“Doubtful,” Lan Wangji says at last, his voice clipped. “We’ve been careless.”
“How?” Lan Jingyi asks, incredulous. “You even played Cleansing! The tower was clean.”
“It is clearly not,” Lan Wangji says sharply, and Lan Jingyi falls silent.
Wei Wuxian sneaks a glance at Lan Wangji as they move rapidly through the night, noting the tension in his shoulders. He remembers the feeling of Lan Wangji’s arms wrapped around him like a vise, the minute trembling of his hands where he’d gripped Wei Wuxian’s arms. Had Wei Wuxian inadvertently interrupted the cleansing? It seems unlikely that Lan Wangji wouldn’t have simply resumed playing if that had been the case, but they’d left immediately after. Perhaps Lan Wangji had been more shaken up than Wei Wuxian had initially believed.
When they reach the base of the tower, the Jin soldiers are all awake and bearing torches, surrounding the entrance and looking nervous. Lan Wangji doesn’t wait for a report; he simply takes one of the torches and strides into the watchtower. Wei Wuxian and Lan Jingyi follow suit, grabbing a torch apiece before ducking in through the doorway.
Lan Wangji slows his pace somewhat, his footsteps becoming cautious as he ascends the stairs. Wei Wuxian follows closely behind, taking note of the extra chill in the air, and the faint, lingering smell of the rotting corpses so recently removed. The hairs on the back of his neck prickle and begin to stand up. There is resentment here, thick and powerful, and it only gets stronger the higher they climb.
Finally, they emerge at the top of the tower, and the wind greets them with a howl, an icy winter gale swept up from the surface of the ocean. It’s dark but for the light of their torches, the beacon gone out and the moon hidden behind thick, black clouds. The sound of the ocean is a distant roar, but it’s almost as if something is hissing between the rocks of the tower, whispering through the holes left behind by the bodies.
“Jingyi,” Lan Wangji says suddenly. “Light the beacon.”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Lan Jingyi replies, and he quickly mounts the narrow stairwell to where the fire pit lies smouldering at the top of the platform. He holds his torch against the embers, and gradually, they start to glow until the fire sparks and roars to life, casting a golden glow over the top of the tower.
For a moment, nothing happens. The wind slows, and the flames rise high, the only sounds the crackling of the fire and the distant crashing of the waves.
But then, the clouds break, and the moonlight slices silver across the tower, bright as a glinting dagger in the darkness, and just at the knife’s tip, there stands a ghastly, spindly figure.
She coalesces from the shadows, a whispering hiss of black smoke and bitter ash made corporeal in the moonlight, eyes huge and glassy and fathomless. Long black hair falls across her gaunt, twisted face in thick, heavy swathes, as if weighed down by water. Her hands are hooked, bloody claws that hang listlessly at her sides, and she sways almost imperceptibly without solid feet to hold her down.
Wei Wuxian’s hand flies to Chenqing, every nerve in his body on fire. She’s seething with resentment, and Wei Wuxian feels it wash over him in thick, sickening waves. On the other side of the beacon, Lan Wangji draws Bichen, and the ghost’s head seems to loll toward him at the motion, but then she tilts her face up, her milky eyes landing on Lan Jingyi, struck motionless next to the blazing fire, his feet frozen on the top steps.
Her eyes grow dark, smoke swirling within them, and slowly, she opens her black, gaping mouth. Rancid seawater rushes forth, and with it, a cry as piercing as an arrow ricochets off the walls, and the foundations seem to shake with it, the whole tower vibrating with resentment. The wind roars back to life, swirling around her, picking up the lank strands of her hair and lashing them across her face. The cry increases in volume like an oncoming tidal wave, as if the ocean itself was roaring through her, and then, like a lightning bolt, she strikes.
Lan Jingyi screams as the ghost crashes onto the platform, her claws just missing his face as he jerks hastily backward. She crashes into the beacon, swiping at Lan Jingyi with a snarl, sending flaming wood and embers flying off the platform. His foot catches on a step, and he goes tumbling down the stairs, rolling to a stop where Lan Wangji has moved to intercept him. The ghost launches herself toward them only to be slashed away by Bichen, the icy-blue blade glancing off her claws.
She recovers quickly, rebounding off the far wall and streaking back toward Lan Wangji, lashing out and clawing at him with preternatural speed. He parries each strike, giving Lan Jingyi time to dart out from behind him, but as Lan Jingyi goes to strike, she draws back from Lan Wangji and swings her arm up in a vicious arc, catching Lan Jingyi square in the chest and sending him flying into the east wall. His head hits the stone with a sickening crack, and he falls to the ground where he remains deathly still.
The ghost turns and resumes her assault on Lan Wangji, her bloody claws hard as steel. Her shrieks cut through the buffer of the wind like a knife through silk, shredding the silence of the night. Lan Wangji uses the force of her next blow to vault himself backward, flipping neatly to a safer distance, drawing her further away from Lan Jingyi’s prone body. She crouches low, hissing and snarling, but just as she is about to leap forward, the sharp, shrill notes of Chenqing pierce the air.
The ghost howls, clapping her hands over her ears and throwing her head back in pain. Wei Wuxian steps forth from the shadows, stalking toward her, putting all the spiritual energy he has behind the vicious, high-pitched notes. The ghost falls back against the onslaught, fighting for control, but Chenqing calls to her, wills her to be docile, and her eyes start to glaze over again as she hunches toward the ground.
But just as Wei Wuxian draws close, just before he can deliver the next salvo of chords, the ghost lashes out, scooping the fallen embers from the beacon off the floor and hurling them into Wei Wuxian’s face. He manages to get an arm up just in time, but Chenqing falls silent, and the spell is broken.
Distantly, he hears Lan Wangji’s cry as the ghost takes a massive swing at him, and he manages to dodge the bulk of the blow, parrying the strike with Chenqing. Bichen goes flying past his shoulder, deflecting the ghost’s next strike away from Wei Wuxian before spinning away to embed itself in the far wall. She claws at him again, driving him backward, and he continues to dodge.
He’s quick, but in the end, the ghost is quicker, and her next swipe hits him in the chest, sending him soaring across the tower. He hits the ground with a heavy thud, his foot catching awkwardly, and he feels a lancing pain shoot through his right ankle. He rolls with the impact before popping back up to one knee. He comes to a halt not a second too soon; he’s landed right in front of the wide, gaping hole in the wall. He makes to dart away, but his ankle gives out, and he gasps as his hands hit the floor to brace his fall.
He sees the moment the ghost launches herself toward him, sees the black holes of her eyes boring down on him, her claws outstretched and bloody. It’s like time has slowed to a crawl, suspended in the second before her hands meet his throat, carrying him over the edge and down to a watery death.
But the impact never comes.
Not to his throat.
Instead, it comes from the side, hands barrelling into him and sending him flying along the wall, his back slamming into the rock at the corner of the tower.
And he watches in slow motion as the ghost collides with Lan Wangji. Time seems to stop, and they are frozen just for a heartbeat, teetering on the edge of the precipice before they disappear beyond its edge.
White noise between his ears.
Everything has gone numb.
He registers no pain in his ankle as he stumbles toward the gap, throwing himself onto his stomach, his chest hanging over the edge.
He sees him then, a shining white speck getting farther and farther away, like a falling star swallowed by the night. It’s only an instant, and then he is gone.
The only white that remains is seafoam in the moonlight.
Every able-bodied fisherman is on the water that night.
Every torch is lit, every extra boat manned, and the coastline is scoured by the citizens of Rongcheng for any sign of the Chief Cultivator.
Jing is a streak of faded grey ahead of him in the dark. She flits from rock to rock, nimble as a mountain goat. She has promised Wei Wuxian that she knows the shoreline like the back of her hand, and she was quick to volunteer to be his guide.
Wei Wuxian pushes ahead, heedless of the pain in his ankle, scampering among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, eyes straining in the darkness. His robes are soaked through around his feet, the oncoming waves crashing mercilessly against his legs as he navigates the treacherous black crags gleaming wetly in the moonlight. He slips on a patch of seaweed and goes plunging in up to his waist, and his breath momentarily stalls as the icy water licks up the sides of his torso.
Jing disappears around a corner, and Wei Wuxian tries to keep up.
Blind determination spurs him on, the agonizing tendrils of despair threatening to pull him under as surely as the tide. He’s teetering on the edge, but he can’t let himself feel that endless maw of hopeless anguish or he may never breathe again. He forges ahead, stubborn and tenacious, until he’s lost all feeling in his extremities.
There’s still no sign of him.
Wei Wuxian stops for a moment, bracing himself against the rock face and heaving a great, quivering breath into his frozen lungs.
He would know, he tells himself.
He would know if Lan Wangji was gone.
Briefly, traitorously, his mind conjures up the image of Lan Wangji, tossed about at sea until nothing of him remains, ripped apart by the currents and carried away into the abyss, never to find peace. His heart seizes painfully in his chest, and Wei Wuxian retches, a mouth full of bile falling into the sea. He wills himself to calm down, to breathe through the lacerating pain in his heart, and he swipes viciously at his eyes, which are stinging with sea spray.
It’s then that he hears it.
Jing’s silvery voice, high and shrill over the endless wind, beckoning him to come quickly.
Hope flares in his chest, and he dashes forward as quickly as his frigid legs will allow. Just a step around the corner, and then, he sees him.
Lan Wangji, broken and twisted among the rocks, halfway still in the water. He’s lying on his front, his face turned away from where Wei Wuxian stands, and his arms are splayed out in front of him, one of them at a painfully unnatural angle. Jing is struggling toward him, wading through the deeper pools that lead to where he is trapped, and Wei Wuxian propels himself forward again, desperate to reach him.
By the time he arrives at Lan Wangji’s side, Jing is struggling to turn him over, and Wei Wuxian takes control, heaving him bodily the rest of the way out of the water and laying him on his back.
The sight of him is devastating, and Wei Wuxian has to bite back a cry. Lan Wangji’s beautiful face is a bruised, pallid grey, claw marks line his neck, and there are puncture wounds on what is clearly a dislocated shoulder. Wei Wuxian raises a quivering hand to Lan Wangji’s mouth, pressing the back of his fingers to his cold, purple lips.
He’s not breathing.
Wei Wuxian can feel the dread rising in him like the edges of the tide lapping around them. It licks up into his throat, and all at once he can’t breathe, the cold and the pain and the horror of it all rushing upon him.
Suddenly, his hand is slapped away and he’s shoved back. Jing leans forward and grasps Lan Wangji’s face, and then her mouth is on his lips, and she is breathing into him, one long breath at a time before pulling back and heaving her weight onto his chest, her small hands pressing over his sternum. Wei Wuxian sits numbly as she repeats the process, reminded of somber summer days by the lake, of almost drownings and miraculous recoveries, and hope sparks once more, faint but determined.
He grasps Lan Wangji’s hand and squeezes, gripping tightly enough to bruise as Jing continues her ministrations.
“Breathe,” he pleads. “Lan Zhan, breathe!”
As if on cue, Lan Wangji coughs, his entire body seizing as he expels the water from his lungs. He gasps wretchedly, blood coming up with the dregs of the sea, and Wei Wuxian holds his head to the side, letting it flow out and away. Beside him, Jing is crying in relief, her sobs heaving in time with the waves, and at last, Wei Wuxian lets himself feel. It hits him like an earthquake, his whole body trembling, and he buries his face in Lan Wangji’s neck, choking out great, gulping breaths as his tears start to flow, hot against his frozen skin.
“Lan Zhan,” he sobs. “Lan Zhan…”
It’s a broken, waterlogged mantra, but it soothes him back into his own body, and Wei Wuxian quickly comes back to himself, knowing they are not out of danger yet.
“A-Jing,” he gets out. “Run and get the others. I can’t carry him back like this,” he gestures at his ankle. “Tell them to bring the doctor, or have a doctor ready at the inn. We have to get him out of here. We have to get him warmed up, quickly!”
“Yes!” she cries, springing to her feet. “I’ll be back as soon as I can!”
She slides back into the pool and swims back the way she came, emerging on the other side to slip between the rocks, vanishing from Wei Wuxian’s sight once more.
Wei Wuxian cradles Lan Wangji’s head in his lap and listens for the sound of his raspy breathing, one hand stroking back the hair plastered to his face. His skin is ice cold, still ashen, but Wei Wuxian concentrates on the rise and fall of his chest, hoping with all of his fractured heart that whoever shows up will be able to transfer the spiritual energy Wei Wuxian wishes he still had.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers. “Just hold on.”
Icy water laps up around them, and Wei Wuxian curls his body forward protectively.
“Please, just hold on.”
The route over the rocks is a treacherous hike without the burden of a body, and with one, the going is slow. Wei Wuxian hovers, slinking along the rocks and watching Lan Wangji like a hawk, every now and again reaching out to steady him on the makeshift stretcher. The fishermen have strung a net taught between two poles, and Lan Wangji lies cradled in the nest of rope. It’s almost an hour before they make it back to the inn, but the doctor is ready and waiting for them when they arrive.
Wei Wuxian is shuffled aside as they place Lan Wangji on a bed, Jing clutching Wei Wuxian’s sleeve where it hangs sodden at his side. He watches numbly as people mill about, the doctor barking orders, demanding that anyone not on his staff clear out. As the fishermen file out of the room, Wei Wuxian steps forward to get a better look at Lan Wangji’s face.
He’s still deathly pale, his usual jade-like skin waxy with a sickly pallor. Wei Wuxian clings desperately to the sight of his chest as it rises and falls, the sound of his struggling breath. Wei Wuxian is just starting to regain sensation in his fingertips, and he reaches out, needing to touch, needing to know that Lan Wangji is here, and real, and solid.
“Get back!” the doctor snaps. “I need you out of here. Now.”
“Please,” Wei Wuxian begs. “Let me stay.”
“What good would that do?” the doctor says gruffly. “Out, now! You look like death yourself, you know. Get out of those wet clothes and find something hot to drink before you catch a cold.”
Wei Wuxian is about to protest, but he feels Jing tugging on his sleeve.
“Master Wei,” she pleads. “You’re freezing. The doctors need to work.”
“I don’t want to leave him,” Wei Wuxian says, voice unsteady. “I can’t.”
“You can, and you will. He’s not going anywhere. I’ll let you know as soon as you can come back in. Now go take care of yourself.”
Wei Wuxian swallows down a mouth full of bile, every fibre of his being screaming out to stay, but he forces himself to relent, even as his eyes well up. He’s just about to turn and leave when one of the doctor’s assistants reaches a cloth and a hand toward Lan Wangji’s head.
“Wait!” Wei Wuxian shouts, startling the assistants and the doctor alike. “Don’t!” he insists, voice breaking. “Don’t touch his forehead ribbon!”
“What in the bloody—” the doctor begins, but Wei Wuxian steps forward, heedless of his protests, and falls to his knees beside Lan Wangji’s bed.
Gently, he removes Lan Wangji’s headband, his fingers lingering briefly beside Lan Wangji’s temple as he pulls it free from the hair there. Before he even knows what he’s doing, he’s leaning forward and pressing their foreheads together.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers, voice hoarse. “I’ll keep it safe for you, I promise.”
Hands on his shoulders are easing him away, not rough, but insistent.
“All right,” the doctor says, voice kinder this time. “Out with you now. I’ll call you as soon as we’re done here.”
Wei Wuxian rises shakily to his feet and makes for the door, absently aware of Jing following at his heels.
“Senior Wei,” a voice calls, and Wei Wuxian turns to find one of the juniors making his way briskly toward him. He thinks his name is Lan Siyu.
“Senior Wei,” Lan Siyu says again. “You wanted to be kept apprised of how Lan Jingyi is doing.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him a moment, the words not entirely registering.
“He’s awake now,” Lan Siyu tries, sounding a little hesitant. “Are you all right, Senior Wei?”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says, finding his voice at last. “Yes, thank you. Where is he?”
“I can take you there, if you’d like,” offers Lan Siyu.
“Please,” Wei Wuxian says, and he falls into a limping step beside Lan Siyu, Jing trailing just behind him.
They find Lan Jingyi lying in bed, face pale and head bandaged, and he struggles to sit up when they enter.
“Don’t get up,” Wei Wuxian rushes to tell him, and Jingyi drops back toward the bed.
“Senior Wei,” Lan Jingyi rasps. “Where is Hanguang-jun? They told me he’s missing?”
“He’s not,” Wei Wuxian says, voice remarkably steady. “Not anymore.”
Lan Jingyi’s eyes drift to Wei Wuxian’s closed fist, to the ribbon that’s clenched there.
“Is he all right?” Lan Jingyi asks.
Wei Wuxian swallows, not trusting himself to answer immediately, his grip tightening around the ribbon.
“He’ll be fine,” he manages at last. “I’m sure of it.”
Lan Jingyi closes his eyes, tears gathering at the edges.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I was nothing but a hindrance. And now, Hanguang-jun…”
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian admonishes him. “None of that. Don’t you dare go disparaging yourself. Hanguang-jun wouldn’t hear of it. And it wasn’t your fault.”
If anyone is to blame, it’s him, Wei Wuxian thinks.
“Senior Wei,” Lan Jingyi breathes, his eyes fluttering open again. “He’s going to be all right.”
“Of course he is,” Wei Wuxian says, speaking past the lump in his throat. “He’s Hanguang-jun. Of course he’ll be all right.”
Lan Jingyi nods and closes his eyes again, and Lan Siyu adjusts his covers.
“He should sleep,” Lan Siyu says to Wei Wuxian. “Senior Wei, is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, Siyu. No, that’s fine,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, suddenly tired. He can feel the cloud insignia digging into his palm, and he’s just starting to realize how cold he still is.
From behind him, Jing tugs on his sleeve again.
“Master Wei,” she tries. “You should come and get warm. The Doctor said you needed to change out of your clothes.”
Wei Wuxian nods mechanically, and he lets her lead him out of the room, ushering him back up the stairs, his steps faltering only a little until they reach his own door. He waits until he hears her footsteps disappear down the hallway before moving to strip off his soaking wet robes. He notes that his fur cloak has been returned to his room; he’d shed it at the foot of the tower before dashing off in search of Lan Wangji, thinking it would have weighed him down. The juniors must have brought it back for him.
He makes quick work of his outfit change, slipping into a deep navy outer robe over top of his usual brilliant red. He stops to wring out his hair and re-do his ponytail with slightly shaking hands. He doesn’t hesitate before tying Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon around his wrist. He pauses before leaving, then turns to scoop up his cloak, throwing it over his shoulder and heading back downstairs.
Jing is waiting for him at the bottom of the stairwell, changed into a robe that is obviously too big for her. She must have borrowed it from one of the servants at the inn. She takes his sleeve again, almost like she is afraid he’s going to get lost, and she leads him into the common area outside the room where Lan Wangji is being treated. She tugs him down onto a floor cushion in front of a small table set with a teapot, then darts away to retrieve a simple copper hand stove which she passes into his hands. Wei Wuxian regards her in wonder as she pours the tea and passes the cup along the table toward him, her spindly fingers a little clumsy.
“Why are you doing this?” Wei Wuxian asks. “You’re not my servant, A-Jing. You needn’t take care of me.”
She looks up at him from behind the wet, tangled hair that’s escaped from the bundle atop her head.
“I want to help,” she says simply, voice shaking just a little. “You helped me, and now you’re—” she chokes up, but presses on. “His Excellency was kind to me. I don’t know how else to repay his kindness.”
Wei Wuxian can feel himself tearing up, all the adrenaline running out of him, exhaustion and sorrow taking its place.
“Oh, A-Jing,” he breathes. “You saved his life. The debt is mine. If you hadn’t… If you hadn’t found him, I don’t know what I…”
He can feel the tears start to fall at last, and he doesn’t even spare a moment to feel ashamed of them. He’s grateful, so grateful, for this tiny, quivering girl in front of him. She’d held his universe in her hands and breathed the very life back into him.
“Nothing I can do will ever repay you,” he whispers, putting aside the hand stove and turning to drop his head to the floor in a deep, humble bow. “Thank you, A-Jing. Thank you so much.”
He feels more than sees the way she wrings her hands, her choked little sobs escaping between her breaths.
“P-Please,” she begs. “D-Don’t be like this. I don’t deserve it, I’m just a lowly servant, and I—”
“You are my saviour,” Wei Wuxian insists, rising up so that his teary eyes meet hers. “I’m nothing but the son of a servant myself. Please. Accept my gratitude. I owe you my life.”
Jing’s lip trembles, but she nods minutely, eyes wide and wet.
Gently, Wei Wuxian retrieves his cloak from where it’s fallen to the floor behind him, wrapping the shivering girl into its soft, warm folds. She sniffles a little, but the shaking subsides. He offers her the hand stove, and she receives it gently. He reaches for the cup of tea, swallowing the hot liquid in one long sip, and then he sits back against his cushion with a sigh.
Together, they wait.
It’s just past dawn when the doctor comes out, looking tired and grim. Wei Wuxian is folded over the table, his head pillowed on his arms, and Jing has fallen asleep next to him on the floor, swathed in Wei Wuxian’s cloak. Wei Wuxian pushes himself upright at the doctor’s approach, wincing as his spine cracks in protest.
“We’ve done all we can, for now,” the doctor says gravely. “He’s not out of danger yet, but his breathing is stable, his lungs clear of fluid. He’s in remarkably good shape for someone who fell from such a height. A couple of cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder. The surface wounds are inconsequential for someone with cultivation as high as his, but this fever,” the doctor says, voice severe. “I’m afraid it’s very serious.”
“How serious?” Wei Wuxian asks, a chill running up his neck.
“Extremely serious,” the doctor replies. “His body has absorbed far too much external Wind. His Yang energy is out of balance, and his defensive Qi is low. The head and the surface of the body are most at risk in such a case. He spent too long in frigid waters. I’ve given him ginseng and astragalus root to raise his body temperature, but I’m not sure it was enough, or fast enough.”
“What can I do?” Wei Wuxian pleads, feeling helpless. “Tell me how to be useful to him.”
“Keep an eye on him,” the doctor says, his tone taking on a gentler note. “Right now, his temperature is on the rise, and he’s sweating profusely. But remember that Wind is ever flowing and changing, so it will not have a fixed effect. Its attacks can change abruptly, and symptoms will come and go. Keep him covered. A cool cloth to the forehead can be soothing.”
“When will he wake up?” Wei Wuxian asks, although he’s dreading the answer.
The doctor’s face turns sympathetic, and Wei Wuxian feels his heart constrict like the tightening of a noose.
“I can’t say,” the doctor says, voice low. “In truth, he may not wake up, Young Master Wei. But do not lose hope,” he adds, seeing the anguish on Wei Wuxian’s face. “His Excellency is stronger than most. He can still pull through.”
Wei Wuxian nods numbly, dread settling like an anchor in his stomach.
“Now,” says the doctor, a briskness back in his voice. “Let’s see about that ankle, shall we?”
Wei Wuxian endures a cursory examination of his ankle, and the doctor declares it to be a minor sprain, although it was somewhat aggravated by the exertion of the previous night. He prescribes frequent, intermittent application of ice, and he gives Wei Wuxian a jar of lightly scented, medicinal oil for massaging and relaxing the tendons.
The inn has arranged for the doctor to take a room so that he won’t be far from his patient. He leaves Wei Wuxian with strict instructions to wake him if anything drastic changes. Wei Wuxian thanks him, then he ducks into the sickroom where the last of the doctor’s assistants are finishing the cleanup. There are rags covered with blood being gathered up and stashed away, and Wei Wuxian wonders just how much stale, stagnant blood Lan Wangji had been made to expel.
Wei Wuxian waits until the last assistant has left the room before he makes his way over to the bed. He takes in the sight of a motionless Lan Wangji with the covers drawn up to his chest —still pale, still ashen—and he chokes back the sob that threatens to escape him.
He drops to his knees beside the bed, hands fluttering forward to grasp at the sheets, scrunching them up and then smoothing the fabric over the outline of Lan Wangji’s arm. He slides his fingers underneath the blankets and finds Lan Wangji’s hand. The skin is smooth and cool to the touch, despite Lan Wangji’s building fever, and Wei Wuxian draws it out, clasping those long, elegant fingers tightly between his own hands.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian breathes into the silence. “I’m here, Lan Zhan. I stayed up all night just to see your face. Do you know how worried I’ve been?”
Lan Wangji’s chest rises and falls, a comforting movement from an otherwise unmoving form.
“A-Jing was the one who found you,” Wei Wuxian continues. “She saved your life, Lan Zhan. She was amazing. She did everything I couldn’t, everything I wish I—” he chokes, suffocated by his own uselessness.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry. You’re here because of me. This is all my fault. I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan.”
His vision blurs, but the tears won’t fall. He refuses to let them fall.
“You never say ‘No’ to me, Lan Zhan. In my second life, you’ve never denied me. You always do whatever I say.”
He brings Lan Wangji’s hand up to his face. Presses the palm against his cheek.
“So please,” he whispers. “Please…”
He lets his head fall to the surface of the bed, Lan Wangji’s fingers still cradling his face.
“Please come back to me.”
The following days blur together, and Wei Wuxian quickly forgets to count them. He writes a letter to Lan Qiren and another to Jin Ling. He moves a bedroll into Lan Wangji’s sickroom and takes up residence there. He takes all his meals at Lan Wangji’s bedside, and he holds Lan Wangji’s head as the doctor forces medicine and broth down his throat. He monitors Lan Wangji’s fever, mopping his forehead and watching helplessly whenever Lan Wangji thrashes about weakly in his sleep. He only leaves to bathe and relieve himself when the doctor’s assistants are busy changing the linens and grooming the patient.
He sits at Lan Wangji’s bedside and strokes his hand, heartsore at how vulnerable Lan Wangji looks without his formal headpiece and his forehead ribbon, which remains tied around Wei Wuxian’s wrist. Often, he talks to him. Other times, he can’t bear to speak anymore. Whenever he feels particularly hopeless, he holds Lan Wangji’s hand between his own like he’s praying and recites the Lan sect rules, whispering between their clasped fingers.
“See how well I’ve remembered them, Lan Zhan?” he murmurs against Lan Wangji’s hand. “Just for you, Lan Zhan. Only for you. If you wake up, I’ll follow every one of them. If you wake up, I’ll never ask you for anything ever again.”
Lan Wangji remains silent, still but for the steady rhythm of his breathing.
“Lan Zhan. If you’d just wake up, I’ll…”
He doesn’t always finish that thought.
He doesn’t sleep well. He stays up late, as is his habit, and when he finally does give in to sleep, it’s fitful, plagued by more nightmares of Lan Wangji falling, Lan Wangji drowning, Lan Wangji carried away by the relentless waves. Lan Wangji, devoured by a ghost who screams like the ocean. He wakes in a cold sweat more often than not, hair plastered to his neck. Some nights, he sits up and resumes his silent vigil, and sometimes, he’ll lay his head down next to Lan Wangji’s shoulder, watching the rise and fall of his chest before drifting off to sleep again.
Jing visits later in the evenings, well after the restaurant has closed up for the night. She comes bearing hot soups and salted fish, fresh stewed seaweed, and sautéed clams. Wei Wuxian sips at the briny broth and blinks away the prickling in his eyes, the memory of pork and lotus root soup never too far away.
It’s sometime during the following week when Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning arrive, straight from the Cloud Recesses.
“We came as soon as we heard,” Lan Sizhui says, eyes flitting behind Wei Wuxian to land on Lan Wangji.
“We heard a rumour that something happened to Hanguang-jun just as Lan Qiren summoned A-Yuan back to the Cloud Recesses,” Wen Ning says. “When he confirmed it, we headed straight here.”
“Thank you for coming,” Wei Wuxian says, truly grateful and thoroughly exhausted.
“Here,” Lan Sizhui says, producing a small, fragrant package of herbs. “From the head doctor of the Lan Sect. Perhaps the doctor here can use them.”
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says again, accepting the parcel and placing it carefully aside.
“How’s Jingyi?” Lan Sizhui asks. “I know he was injured as well. Is he all right?”
Wei Wuxian nods. “He’s pretty much recovered now. He’s on guard duty at the watchtower.”
“And how is it?” Wen Ning asks. “At the tower, I mean.”
“About the same as we left it,” Wei Wuxian replies.
In truth, Wei Wuxian has been too preoccupied caring for Lan Wangji to give much attention to the case at the watchtower, but it’s always at the back of his mind. Aside from the occasional appearance in his dreams, the ghost can be heard howling and crying at night, her lonesome wailing echoing out over the water.
“We’ve set up a barrier ward for now, and Jingyi has been patrolling the perimeter at the base of the tower with the others in order to maintain its integrity. So far, she doesn’t seem interested in leaving the tower, but it can’t hurt to be extra careful. Especially now,” Wei Wuxian adds ruefully.
“You know this isn’t your fault,” Lan Sizhui says, voice quiet. “Don’t you, Senior Wei?”
Wei Wuxian sighs deeply, his shoulders sagging as exhaustion catches up to him.
“He fell protecting me,” Wei Wuxian says, voice flat.
“Then I’m sure he doesn’t regret it,” Lan Sizhui says softly.
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, his heart aching, and he almost sways as the anguish washes over him all over again.
“Come on, A-Yuan,” Wen Ning prompts. “Let’s go drop off our stuff and get settled first.”
“Yes,” Lan Sizhui says. “Senior Wei, if you don’t mind, I’d like to come back and play for Hanguang-jun. Would that be all right?”
“Of course it would be,” Wei Wuxian smiles, relief rising to take the place of grief. “I’m glad you’re here, Sizhui.”
Lan Sizhui returns the smile, then he ducks a quick bow and retreats from the room with Wen Ning in tow.
Wei Wuxian sits back down by the bed and takes Lan Wangji’s hand.
“Lan Zhan,” he says softly. “Sizhui is here. Wen Ning, too. You’ll wake up now, won’t you? You have to see Sizhui.”
He strokes his thumb across the back of Lan Wangji’s hand where the skin is soft, unlike the callused tips of his fingers.
“If you won’t wake up for me, please wake up for him,” Wei Wuxian tries, voice thick. “He needs you.”
Even as he says it, even as it’s true, Wei Wuxian feels a pang of nausea, a twist of guilt. Because even now, even when no one can hear him, he’s not being completely honest. Not with Lan Wangji, and not with himself.
“Please,” Wei Wuxian breathes. “I need you, too.”
Sorrow rises in his throat, threatening to choke him with the force of his admission.
“I can’t do this without you,” he whispers.
A moment later, the door clicks open and Lan Sizhui re-enters, Wen Ning following close on his heels and bearing two bowls of noodles.
“You should eat something,” Wen Ning says, placing a bowl in front of Wei Wuxian before handing the other one to Lan Sizhui. “The innkeeper says you skipped breakfast.”
“Thank you, Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian smiles weakly.
They eat in silence, Wei Wuxian content not to talk for once, and after they’ve finished, Lan Sizhui takes out his qin and prepares to play. His music is not as flawless as Lan Wangji’s, but he plays beautifully, and soon, Wei Wuxian’s feels his head begin to droop, his eyelids growing heavy.
“Sleep,” Wen Ning encourages him, a gentle hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
Wei Wuxian lets his head fall forward to pillow on his arms, and he drifts off to sleep, lulled by the soothing sound of Lan Sizhui’s qin.
He snaps awake, startled and disoriented, his hand flying to Chenqing.
“Sect Leader Jiang, please,” Lan Sizhui is saying. “Senior Wei needs his rest.”
“The Hell he does,” Jiang Cheng growls. “It’s barely past sundown. He can damn well wake up and greet me.”
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian rasps, voice rough with sleep. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “Why is that tower still not secure? There’s something up there powerful enough to vanquish Hanguang-jun, and you still haven’t dealt with it?”
“Don’t say it like that!” Wei Wuxian says defensively, coming fully awake. “Lan Zhan wasn’t vanquished, he—” Wei Wuxian cuts himself off. Swallows thickly. “He’s going to be fine.”
“Is he?” Jiang Cheng says, one eyebrow raised in appraisal. “Well. He looks better than you do, in any case.”
“Why are you here?” Wei Wuxian asks flatly. He is not in the mood for this.
“I’m here on behalf of Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng replies, voice cool and sharp. “Do you have any idea what kind of pressure he’s under right now? The Chief Cultivator was felled in his territory by some demon in a tower that he’s supposed to have control of. A tower that’s part of a powerful network that his detractors say he isn’t strong enough to hold. Is it really any wonder that I’m here?”
“Well, have at it then,” Wei Wuxian says bitterly. “If you want to play hero, she’s all yours.”
“You’d know all about playing hero, wouldn’t you?” Jiang Cheng sneers. “You think glory is what I want out of this? This is about standing behind Jin Ling. Wei Wuxian! Are you really telling me you won’t stand there with me?”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him, genuinely taken aback. “I didn’t realize that’s what you were aiming for, here.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng barks. “You think you can just resurface in the cultivation world and not make a difference? Whatever this thing is, it’s powerful. The least you can do is help me fight it for the sake of your nephew.”
“Well, when you put it that way,” Wei Wuxian says dryly.
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng bites out. “You’re helping me kill this thing.”
“If you say so,” Wei Wuxian concedes. “But I’m not going anywhere until Lan Zhan wakes up.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“Don’t say that!” Wei Wuxian snaps. “Don’t even suggest it.”
“I’ve heard the rumours,” Jiang Cheng presses on. “They say his Qi is damaged, possibly beyond repair. How long has he been asleep now? You have to consider the possibility that he might not—”
“No!” Wei Wuxian spits. “I won’t. I can’t. Jiang Cheng. Don’t ask me to.”
Jiang Cheng glowers at him, a muscle in his jaw working.
“Look,” Jiang Cheng tries again. “For all we know, the longer this drags on, the stronger that thing is going to get. I would rather take it on now than give it a chance to absorb even more resentment. So what if he wakes up while you’re off fighting the thing that did this to him? Kill it for him, for fuck’s sake!”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, stubborn to a fault. “I have to be here.”
Jiang Cheng runs a hand over his face in frustration, and he’s about to retort when suddenly he goes still, struck by a sudden thought. He looks at Wei Wuxian with wide, understanding eyes, and Wei Wuxian feels the unspoken dread rising in his throat.
“You’re afraid he’s only going to wake up once, aren’t you?”
“Shut up!” Wei Wuxian cries, voice cracking.
“Just once, before he—”
“I said shut up!” Wei Wuxian shouts, his fist clenching around Chenqing. “Don’t you dare say it! I won’t let you say it!”
“Senior Wei,” Lan Sizhui breathes. “Please calm down.”
“I won’t!” Wei Wuxian snaps, but the anger is already fading. “I won’t,” he chokes out, his eyes prickling. “Lan Zhan…”
Wei Wuxian freezes as the room falls silent.
Slowly, he turns around, finally daring to hope.
Lan Wangji stares back at him, eyes hooded.
It’s barely a heartbeat before Wei Wuxian is falling to his knees beside the bed, hands shaking, his heart in his throat.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps out. “Lan Zhan!”
“Wei Ying.” It’s barely a whisper.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian breathes, finding Lan Wangji’s hand and squeezing. “I’m here. I’m right here.”
“I’ll get the doctor,” Wen Ning volunteers, darting out the door.
“Hanguang-jun!” Lan Sizhui settles eagerly beside Wei Wuxian.
“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji manages. “What…”
“Shh, it’s okay,” Wei Wuxian soothes. He reaches out to smooth an errant lock of hair out of Lan Wangji’s eyes, his fingers coming away hot where they graze against Lan Wangji’s forehead.
“Let me through,” the doctor’s brisk voice cuts through the room, and Wei Wuxian finds himself jostled to the side, but he doesn’t let go of Lan Wangji’s hand.
“Your Excellency,” the doctor greets him. “I’m glad to see you awake.”
Lan Wangji just blinks slowly at him.
“All right, everyone out,” the doctor huffs, leveling a pointed glare at Wei Wuxian. “You too, Master Wei.”
Reluctantly, Wei Wuxian releases Lan Wangji’s hand and stands up, walking backwards a few steps, unwilling to break eye contact. Lan Wangji’s gaze follows him to the door, and Wei Wuxian tries to smile for him before the doctor’s assistant rushes past him and the door closes in his face.
Beside him, Jiang Cheng clears his throat.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, then?” Jiang Cheng says, voice stiff.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “Tomorrow.”
Jiang Cheng gives a short, clipped nod before turning and stalking off down the hall.
“Would you like to come with us to the dining hall?” Lan Sizhui asks. “You didn’t have dinner.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I’ll wait here,” he says.
Wen Ning nods as Lan Sizhui smiles.
“We’ll say goodnight, then,” Lan Sizhui says. “See you in the morning, Senior Wei.”
It’s about half an hour before the doctor and his assistant emerge, the doctor looking more solemn than Wei Wuxian would like.
“How is he?” Wei Wuxian wants to know.
“His fever has spiked again, but on the whole, I’d say he’s doing much better. It’s a good sign that he’s awake, but we need to be cautious,” the doctor advises. “Keep an eye on him. If the fever breaks by tomorrow, he’ll be out of danger.”
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says, and he means it with his whole heart.
The doctor nods curtly. “Call me if anything changes.”
Wei Wuxian is already headed back into the sickroom.
Lan Wangji’s eyes are closed when Wei Wuxian enters, but his eyelids flicker open as Wei Wuxian comes to sit at his bedside again.
“Hi,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “How are you doing?”
“Tired,” Lan Wangji says, voice gravelly with disuse.
Wei Wuxian laughs, a nervous, relieved sort of sound.
“You’ve been asleep for so long, Er-gege. How can you still be tired?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, blinking slowly.
“You really scared me,” Wei Wuxian whispers.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says again, his eyes fluttering shut for a moment before opening again. He reaches out a hand, and Wei Wuxian catches his breath as Lan Wangjji’s fingertips skate over his cheek.
“You’re safe,” Lan Wangji rasps. “Wei Ying. You’re safe.”
“Of course I am, silly,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice cracking through his suddenly watery smile. “I had Hanguang-jun to protect me.”
Lan Wangji just stares at him, his golden eyes glassy, his hand falling back to rest at his side.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian breathes. “Look at you, all worn out. You have to take better care of yourself, Hanguang-jun.” He sweeps another strand of hair away from Lan Wangji’s face.
Lan Wangji follows the movement with his eyes, his gaze coming to rest on the ribbon tied securely around Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
“Ah!” Wei Wuxian says, immediately embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. I was just holding on to it for you. I didn’t… I didn’t want it to get dirty.”
Lan Wangji blinks at him again, something unreadable in his stare.
“I didn’t want anyone else to touch it,” Wei Wuxian admits. “I’m sorry.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head slowly, then he closes his eyes again, as if the motion causes him pain.
“Shh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian soothes. “Don’t move if it hurts. Just lie still, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji complies, his eyes still shut, and his breathing gradually starts to slow down, even and deep.
Silently, Wei Wuxian unties the forehead ribbon, folding it carefully and placing it into Lan Wangji’s open palm. Gently, he folds Lan Wangji’s fingers around the cloud insignia, running the pad of his thumb across Lan Wangji’s knuckles as Lan Wangji sleeps.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry. Why did you do it? Why would you do such a thing?” he laments.
To his surprise, Lan Wangji opens his eyes and turns his head to fix Wei Wuxian with that piercing, liquid stare.
“Don’t you know?” Lan Wangji says, voice low but steady.
Wei Wuxian swallows, eyes wet and mouth dry.
“How can you not know?” Lan Wangji whispers.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chokes. “Lan Zhan, you…”
“Wei Ying. You are my life.”
“Lan Zhan, no…”
“You are my heart.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian gasps. “Lan Zhan, please…”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes burn, his heart a gaping wound.
“My Wei Ying...”
He screws his eyes shut against the sting of tears, willing them not fall, and he feels Lan Wangji’s hand go slack in his grip. When he opens his eyes again, Lan Wangji has fallen silent. His eyes are closed and his breathing is long and even, deep in sleep.
Wei Wuxian lets his head fall to the surface of the bed. He takes long, shuddering breaths and wills himself to calm down. His heart is throbbing behind his ribcage, a metronome of agony.
Slowly, painfully, Wei Wuxian sits up and releases Lan Wangji’s hand. He reaches into the basin on the side table and wrings out the soft, cold cloth, and the trickling sound of the water helps to ground him. He brings the cloth to Lan Wangji’s face and wipes gently, dabbing away any remnants of sweat before wringing it out once more and placing it across Lan Wangji’s forehead.
Outside the window, the ocean roars. The ghost cries into the night, and Wei Wuxian settles in, waiting for the fever to break.
Lan Wangji’s fever breaks just before dawn.
Wei Wuxian mops the sweat from his brow and resists the temptation to drop a kiss onto Lan Wangji’s forehead in relief. By mid-morning, he’s awake again and sitting upright. He still looks tired, unnaturally pale and far too thin, but his eyes are clear and focused, and with his forehead ribbon back in place, he seems very much himself. There’s no trace of the glassy, hazy look from the previous night, and Wei Wuxian is so grateful he thinks he might collapse under the weight of it.
“The external Wind has been purged,” the doctor is saying. “It may take some time for your spiritual energy to fully replenish itself, and you may be vulnerable to attacks of Chill and Wet, leading to a blockage of your meridians. In the meantime, I’m prescribing a variety of herbal teas and tinctures to help stabilize your Yang energy and stave off any invasion of the Six Excesses.”
“How much longer must I stay in bed?” Lan Wangji wants to know.
“As long as you have the energy for it, I don’t see why you can’t start moving around a little,” the doctor says. “But I would avoid any strenuous activity for at least another few days. Give yourself some time to rebuild your spiritual energy. Even a cultivator such as yourself must be cautious after an attack like this.”
“I will be careful,” Lan Wangji says.
“Good,” the doctor says, looking satisfied. “If you need me for anything urgent, you can come to fetch me from the clinic, but otherwise, I’ll be back in a few days to check up on you.”
Lan Wangji nods. “Thank you, doctor.”
The doctor returns the nod before he departs, the door clicking shut behind him.
Lan Wangji sighs and drops his gaze to his hands, brow minutely furrowed.
“Are you all right?” Wei Wuxian immediately asks. He’s been hovering incessantly since Lan Wangji woke up, and he knows it, but he cannot tear himself away. “You’re not too cold? Are you hungry?”
“I am fine, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji assures him, but he winces as he shifts slightly.
“Does it hurt?” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “Lan Zhan, are you in pain?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “The pain is quite minimal.”
Wei Wuxian lets out a puff of laughter. “Trust you to break two ribs and call the pain minimal. No big deal, right?”
“I have been bedridden for the better part of two weeks,” Lan Wangji points out. “They are well on their way to healing.”
“Only because your golden core is so strong,” Wei Wuxian quips. “It would take us mere mortals six weeks or more to get to where you are. But you’re sure that you’re all right? You don’t need anything?”
Lan Wangji gives him a long look.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asks, lips curving upward. “Is there something on my face?”
Lan Wangji studies him a moment longer before replying.
“I am sorry to have worried you, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile falters.
“You should be,” Wei Wuxian says at last, trying to keep his tone light.
He wants to say something glib, something clever. But one look at Lan Wangji’s serious, solemn face silences any attempt at levity.
“The doctor tells me that you have not left my side,” Lan Wangji says quietly.
Wei Wuxian averts his gaze, feeling a familiar flush rising in his cheeks.
“Someone had to keep an eye on you,” he says, trying to sound casual.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says simply, golden eyes piercing.
“Don’t thank me,” Wei Wuxian protests, flushing harder. “You need to thank A-Jing. She saved your life, you know. She brought you back when I couldn’t,” he says, voice cracking ever so slightly. “She was amazing. A true hero.”
“I will gladly thank her if she comes again,” Lan Wangji says earnestly.
“I’m sure she will,” Wei Wuxian assures him. “She stops by almost every night to check on you. She’s probably the only reason I eat dinner,” he adds flippantly.
“Then I shall thank her for that as well,” Lan Wangji says. “Wei Ying. You haven’t been taking care of yourself.”
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian waves away his concern. “I had bigger things to worry about than a few missed meals.”
“The doctor says you were injured,” Lan Wangji presses.
“It was just a little ankle sprain, Lan Zhan. Nothing to worry about, I promise--it’s healed already! The doctor gave me oil for massage, but I never used it. That’s how much it didn’t even hurt,” Wei Wuxian insists.
“You look exhausted,” Lan Wangji says. “You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?”
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “It hasn’t been so bad, really. But don’t worry, I’ll move back into my own room tonight and get out of your hair so that I don’t keep you awake.”
“Wei Ying, that’s not what I—”
“And anyway,” Wei Wuxian continues, cutting him off. “You should be focused on getting better, not worrying about my regularly irregular sleep cycle. Really, Lan Zhan, I’m fine.”
Lan Wangji gives him another long, searching look.
“I am truly sorry to have distressed you, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian swallows heavily and struggles to reply past the sudden lump in his throat.
“You don’t need to apologize, Lan Zhan,” he manages at last. “I’m fine now. I’ll sleep well tonight, because you’re fine now, too. So please just…” he swallows again. “Get better,” he finishes lamely.
“I will,” Lan Wangji promises, soft and solemn.
“Good,” Wei Wuxian says. “Just… Good.” He fidgets with the edge of his sleeve before standing up. “I’d better go find Jiang Cheng. I promised I’d give him some time today.”
“So Jiang Wanyin is here,” Lan Wangji says. “I was not sure I had not dreamed that.”
Wei Wuxian smiles. “You don’t remember seeing him when you woke up?”
“It is hazy,” Lan Wangji replies, shaking his head a little. “Yesterday is all somewhat hazy.”
“Understandable,” Wei Wuxian says, heart constricting with longing but also relief. If Lan Wangji doesn’t remember the previous night, it’s probably for the best, he thinks.
“He wishes to discuss the tower?” Lan Wangji asks.
Wei Wuxian nods. “He wants to get the situation wrapped up as soon as possible. He’s worried about Jin Ling and the perception of lost control in his territory.”
“Have there been any further confrontations?” Lan Wangji wants to know.
“Two,” Wei Wuxian confirms. “The first time, Lan Siyu and the others approached the top of the tower to see if they could get a better read on what kind of a spirit she is. It wasn’t very successful. She’s a Fierce Ghost at the very least, and at most, she could be as strong as Severe.” Wei Wuxian grimaces. “The second time, several of the Jin cultivators attempted to take her on. Two of them didn’t survive it. They were thrown off the tower, too.”
“No idea who she is, then,” Lan Wangji muses.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “Lan Siyu tried Evocation, but he and the others weren’t strong enough to hold her, so Inquiry was out of the question.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji hums. “It would help to know where she came from. If mere force has been ineffective, it may prove useful to know what ties her here.”
“She’s definitely powerful,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “I doubt it will be possible to grant her dying wish, though. She’s too full of resentment for it to be anything but violent.”
“Indeed,” Lan Wangji concurs, his face thoughtful. “Do you think there is any chance of releasing her? Or is destruction inevitable?”
“Hard to say,” Wei Wuxian replies. “She’s so fierce that standard exorcism methods may not be enough. She’s definitely too strong to simply be repressed. The only thing we know for sure is that she seems to be tied to the tower. She hasn’t appeared anywhere else, and it’s like she is lying in wait for anyone who shows up there. If only we knew her purpose,” Wei Wuxian muses. “We might have some advantage then.”
There’s a knock at the door, and Lan Sizhui enters the room bearing a tray.
“Hanguang-jun, Senior Wei,” Lan Sizhui greets them. “I’ve brought you some lunch, Hanguang-jun. It’s just a light soup, since you haven’t had solid food in a while, but it’s full of medicinal herbs.”
Wei Wuxian huffs a laugh. “It’ll taste just like home, then.”
Lan Sizhui smiles as he places the tray on the bedside table.
“The doctor says to take this with it,” he says, proffering a vial containing a bright green liquid.
“Well,” says Wei Wuxian. “I’d better go find Jiang Cheng before he comes knocking this door down.”
He makes to leave, but suddenly, Lan Wangji reaches out to catch his wrist, and Wei Wuxian freezes, a shiver running through him at the contact.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, his tone imploring. “I would ask that you not return to the watchtower,” he says. “Please. Wait for me to recover so that I may accompany you.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice soft, touched by Lan Wangji’s concern. “I don’t know that Jiang Cheng is willing to wait that long, and I can’t let him go up there alone.”
“I should be well enough in a day or two,” Lan Wangji says stubbornly. “Won’t you wait for me?”
“We’ve put off confronting her long enough, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Jiang Cheng and I will be fine, I promise.”
“Please,” Lan Wangji says again, tone plaintive. “Don’t go where I cannot protect you.”
Wei Wuxian feels his heart constrict with a sharp, agonizing pang.
“I promise not to do anything reckless,” Wei Wuxian says, hoping that Lan Wangji will accept the compromise. “I’ll take Wen Ning with me. He’ll make sure that I stay safe.”
Lan Wangji’s gaze remains worried.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian tries. “I’ll come back safely. I promise you.”
Lan Wangji sighs, releasing Wei Wuxian’s wrist at last.
“Mark your words,” he says softly.
Wei Wuxian smiles, soft and genuine.
“I will,” he promises.
They wait until dusk falls that evening to make their way to the base of the tower, torches lit and swords at the ready.
“Are you sure you’re prepared for this?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Are you?” Jiang Cheng retorts. “You’re the one who got your ass kicked last time.”
“I mean it,” Wei Wuxian insists. “She’s not your average ghost. It’s not going to be easy to take her out.”
“I wouldn’t be here if it were easy,” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Just try not to fall off the side, all right? That goes for all of you,” he adds, levelling a pointed stare at Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi. “The last thing I need is to have your Hanguang-jun at my throat because you fell on my watch.”
“No one is falling off the tower this time,” Wei Wuxian declares, annoyed that Jiang Cheng seems to have declared himself in charge. “That does seem to be her favourite method of killing people, though, so everyone be extra careful not to linger by the gap in the north wall.”
“What’s the plan?” Lan Jingyi asks. “Or do we even have a plan?”
“The plan is to kill it,” Jiang Cheng says flatly. “So whatever techniques you have to help kill a ghost, I suggest you use them.”
“Shouldn’t we do some more reconnaissance first?” Lan Sizhui asks. “Hanguang-jun thinks we should find out more about her.”
“We’re not here to make friends with it,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “Besides, you’ve had plenty of time to investigate, and what has it gotten you? Two more dead cultivators and slew of injuries? No, it’s time to eliminate this thing.”
“Those two dead cultivators died trying to destroy her,” Wei Wuxian points out. “Sizhui has a point. If we knew more about her—”
“You’d what?” Jiang Cheng cuts him off. “You want to get her name and then ask her to leave nicely?”
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “It’d be worth a try, to be honest.”
“Look,” Jiang Cheng says, his patience clearly wearing thin. “I don’t care who she was. The fact is, she’s a monster now, and she needs to be eliminated. I’ll know all there is to know about her as soon as I try my weapons against her. Now are you coming, or not?”
“Of course we’re coming!” Lan Jingyi snaps. “You’re going to need our help. Don’t take her lightly, Sect Leader Jiang.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Jiang Cheng says coolly. “Just try and keep up.”
And with that, he pushes open the door to the tower and sweeps inside.
Wei Wuxian quickly follows him, Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning close behind with Lan Jingyi bringing up the rear. Jiang Cheng doesn’t take his time, striding quickly up the stairs past the gaps in the wall and the smell of decay, and soon, he is stepping out onto the roof of the watchtower, Sandu unsheathed and Zidian sparking at his knuckles, waiting to be released.
The wind is as strong as ever, great gusts lashing their robes about their legs and their hair about their faces. It’s a clear, cold night, the moon high and bright in the cloudless sky.
“Shall we light the beacon?” Lan Jingyi asks. “That’s what seemed to summon her last time.”
“Then by all means,” Jiang Cheng says, grabbing Lan Jingyi’s torch and striding toward the platform.
“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says, and Jiang Cheng pauses to look over his shoulder, annoyance clear on his face. “Can’t she be summoned directly?”
“Evocation couldn’t hold her,” Lan Sizhui reminds him. “Are you thinking that Chenqing could?”
“Worth a try,” Wei Wuxian says, and he twirls the demon flute up to his mouth.
The wind roars, but Chenqing’s piercing notes fly high into the night, weaving together an eerie entreaty. Black smoke crawls along the surface of the tower, curling up from between the bricks to lick at Wei Wuxian’s feet. The air seems to grow colder, thick and heavy, and soon, the seething black smoke begins to coalesce atop the platform.
There she stands, ragged, spidery and gruesome, clawed hands swaying lightly by her sides. Her head lolls to the side, her fathomless, glassy eyes coming to land on Wei Wuxian where he plays his mournful, beckoning tune. The song shackles her in place, heavy black tendrils of smoke weighing her down as surely as if they were real chains. Slowly, she opens her mouth, releasing a rush of putrid water, and her harrowing cry splits the night.
Wei Wuxian tries his best not to wince at the sound, concentrating on keeping his notes steady. The ghost flexes her claws, straining against her bonds while rolling her head back and wailing. Out of the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian sees Zidian flare to life, and he is distantly aware of qin notes rising to join his song. Lan Sizhui must be helping to secure her, he thinks.
All of a sudden, the ghost snaps her head forward, her eyes gone inky black and bottomless. With a cry even more shrill and piercing than before, she wrenches her arms free, scattering the tendrils that held her like ashes, and she strikes, launching herself off the platform and streaking toward Wei Wuxian like an arrow.
Zidian flashes brilliant violet across her path at the same time the notes of Lan Sizhui’s qin intercept her, and the small explosion of energy knocks Wei Wuxian to the ground and sends her flying off in the opposite direction, hissing like a startled serpent. Jiang Cheng flies to the offensive, lashing out with Zidian even as he makes to engage her with Sandu, but his attacks are easily parried, and she sends him reeling with a powerful sweep of her claws.
Jiang Cheng is suddenly on the defensive as she pursues him, howling and striking as she drives him into a corner. He makes to stab at her, but she catches Sandu between her claws and rips it from his hand, tossing it away as carelessly as if it were a toothpick. He lashes upward with Zidian, striking her in the face solidly enough to send her hissing backward, and Jiang Cheng dives to the side, ducking and rolling underneath her outstretched claws.
Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi attack together, hoping to drive her back into the same corner where she’d just held Jiang Cheng, but she shoots high above them, unfettered by gravity, and then dives back in a whirl of smoke and rancid, screaming water, sending them both fleeing in opposite directions. Lan Sizhui teeters dangerously close to the gap in the wall, and Wei Wuxian lets out a desperate cry of warning as the ghost turns in his direction.
But she never gets her chance to throw Lan Sizhui down to the ocean; Wen Ning comes barrelling into her from the side, roaring his deathly battle cry and crashing them into the far wall hard enough to crack the bricks. She’s not down for long, however, spinning out of his grip in a cloud of ashy smoke and hurtling upward before swooping back down to clash with Zidian again as Jiang Cheng whips it up to meet her.
“This is bad,” Lan Jingyi says, voice nearly swallowed by the wind. “Senior Wei, what do we do? She’s so powerful, it’s like she’s gotten stronger! We’re like mosquitoes against her,” he wails.
Wei Wuxian tightens his grip on Chenqing and reaches for his talismans. He bites his fingers and drips the blood onto the paper before sending them flying out into the night.
Just then, the ghost lands a powerful blow to Jiang Cheng’s chest, and he goes sailing into the south wall, crashing and rolling to where Wei Wuxian is crouched. He struggles to his hands and knees and coughs up a mouthful of blood.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng spits. “You weren’t kidding.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t reply, but he helps Jiang Cheng to his feet, his face grim as he watches Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi mount another fruitless assault. Wen Ning intervenes, his powerful strikes the only thing seemingly equal to her attacks.
“What now?” Jiang Cheng asks. “Do we retreat?”
“Not yet,” Wei Wuxian says, voice low. “There’s one more thing I need to try.”
“What’s that?” Jiang Cheng asks.
Wei Wuxian smiles, bitter and wry.
“I’m going to ask nicely.”
“Wen Ning!” Wei Wuxian yells. “Whatever you do, hold on to her!”
And then he snaps his fingers.
The talismans flare to life, the four points of contact bursting into searing red flame, and a barrier springs up around Wen Ning and the ghost, flickering and sparking with pinpricks of fire, coiling ropes of flame dancing up from the floor to wrap around her claws and encircle her fog-like body. Wen Ning clings to her, pinning her back against his chest even as her hair flares and snakes up around his neck, tightening like a python.
Wei Wuxian dashes forward, sprinting across the tower toward them as the ghost screams and writhes.
He knows he doesn’t have much time.
He takes the last few steps and launches himself through the barrier, his hands closing around the ghost’s face. He sees it in the moment before he feels the familiar tug on his consciousness, the moment the smoky, fathomless black gives way to two startled pupils. And then, he gives in to the pull, and Wei Wuxian dives deep.
The smell of plum blossoms.
A warm spring breeze on her face.
She ties the last knot and pulls it tight, using her teeth for that final bit of tension, then she snips off the excess with her crossing knives. The crimson silk cord had cost her an extra copper coin, but the result is worth it, she thinks.
It’s handsome work, the knots even and symmetrical, a perfect red circle in her palm.
As long as it keeps us connected, she thinks.
As long as it brings him back again.
The rice on the stove has started to bubble over, and she takes it off the heat, leaving it to one side as she goes to chop the cabbage and slice the scallions. There’s beef today instead of pork, a great extravagance, but she can’t bring herself to care about the extra expense. If this is to be their last meal together for the year, she wants it to be a memorable one.
She heats the wok until the oil is sizzling then tosses in the garlic and the ginger. Soon, the house is suffused with the smell of cooking, the comforting hiss of the oil and smoke as the fresh ingredients are seared to perfection. She tumbles it all onto one large platter and sets it in the middle of the table.
He comes through the door then, all smiles and cheer, his arms laden with more wood for the stove. He deposits his burden by the hearth, then comes to greet her with a kiss. He is sweaty and dusty and he smells of sunshine and dirt.
She has never loved him more.
She eats in silence as he regales her with the tales of his day. The trees are all so healthy, he says. And he’s enlisted the aid of the neighbouring children, the ones not old enough to be conscripted, to help out with the harvest this summer. She needn’t worry, he says. The crops will yield enough to support her through the winter. She need only do well at the markets. She’s clever and thrifty; he has the most brilliant wife, he boasts. Beautiful and educated and better than a farmer—even a merchant one like him—ever had any right to hope for.
After dinner, in the fading light of day, she slips the red string bracelet onto his wrist and whispers in his ear.
It will bring luck and offer protection, she promises him.
“I love you,” she vows. “Come back to me.”
He kisses her then, and all her tears are swallowed by his goodness.
He writes her twice a month.
His pitiful salary doesn’t leave much room for the messenger fees. After the soldiers deduct for his room and board, he has just enough money left to feed himself for the month, but he scrapes by on the cheapest meals possible in order to make sure she gets her letters, plus a small stipend.
Yeqiao, he writes.
The soldiers are harsh, but the people of Rongcheng are kind and generous.
I’ve made a small friend here. You would like her very much.
Perhaps, if we are lucky, we will have a daughter like her, one day.
She smooths out the creases in the letter and traces his rough calligraphy with her fingertip. Outside, the plum trees are heavy with fruit, and the boys from the neighbouring farms are hard at work amongst the branches.
The harvest will be plentiful, she writes him back.
Please don’t worry about me.
Do not send any more money home.
Please keep the extra and eat some meat.
The summer drags on, long and hot, but soon the days grow cooler, heralding the onset of fall.
Yeqiao, he writes.
The Overseer is a cruel man. Large in stature, but small in mind.
The work days grow longer even as the sun sets earlier. We have very little rest. Someone was whipped again today. I fear that sickness will find us as the weather grows colder.
I’ve raised my objections to our treatment and been threatened with the whip as well, but do not worry. I have come to no harm.
Ah, my Yeqiao, I can hear you now, telling me to stay out of trouble. But if not me, who will speak for us?
She writes him back.
I know you must always do what is right, but please be careful.
What would I do if anything should happen to you? I would cry more tears than the ocean could hold.
Won’t you be careful, for my sake?
Yeqiao, he writes.
For your sake, I would do anything.
Fall creeps along, and winter draws closer, the air growing sharp and crisp.
She folds the last of his winter robes into the bundle and ties it tight. He left in summer, and the robes he took with him will not see him through the winter. She has mended some old items and sewn him some new. The fabric is a little rough, but it’s heavy and warm.
It will take her a few days to get to Rongcheng, but the trip will be worth it. She will get to see her husband again. The visit will have to be brief if she wants to get back before the weather turns, but she is determined to make it. She cannot stand the thought of him working through the bitter winter months without proper clothing.
She hitches a ride with a wine merchant who kindly lets her sit in the back of his oxcart with his wares. She huddles between the crates of wine and pulls her cloak more tightly around her body, thankful that she won’t have to walk the whole way.
Soon, she thinks.
Soon, she will get to see her husband again.
“What do you mean he’s gone?” she says again, voice desperate.
“You heard me the first time,” the Overseer barks. “He’s gone. Deserted. A whole dozen of them ran off last week. Now get out of my way. I have work to do.”
“There must be some mistake,” she begs. “He would never have run off.”
He would never leave without telling her, she thinks.
“Well, he did. Your husband is a dishonourable man, and if I ever see him again, I’ll whip the flesh right off his back. Now get out of here.” He gives her an unsubtle once-over. “I don’t need a woman lingering around the building site and distracting everyone.”
“I said get lost!” the Overseer roars, brandishing his whip.
She stumbles away from him, making her way back toward the street. She stands just outside the rapid flow of people moving back and forth across the town, and she stares at the sky.
Something is wrong.
She knows it as surely as she can feel the wind on her face and taste the salt in the air.
Suddenly, someone catches her wrist and yanks her off the side of the road. Startled, she makes to scream, but the man she is suddenly facing places a finger to his lips, begging for her silence. His clothes are covered in mud and dust from the bricks at the tower site, and his eyes are huge and haunted.
“Young Mistress,” he says, voice low and hurried. “You must not linger here. Your poor husband is dead, killed as a warning to the rest of us. You must not stay. Go home, where it is safe.”
“What?” she gasps, his words piercing her heart as surely as an arrow. “That can’t be true! I won’t believe it, he—”
“You must,” the man insists, checking nervously over his shoulder. “Your husband spoke of you often. He would not have you remain where you could be in danger. The deaths have all been covered up, and no one dares speak out lest they meet the same fate. Please, Young Mistress. You must return home.”
“Where is his body?” she demands, grabbing the man by both his sleeves. “I won’t believe it until I see his body!”
The man shakes his head, his eyes huge and sad.
“They’ve all been buried in the walls of the tower. We’ve been closing the walls in around them for days,” he shudders. “Your husband was the last of them.”
“If he is dead, then I will take him home!” she cries, desperate tears springing to her eyes at last. “Won’t they give him back to me?”
The man shakes his head again, this time vigorously.
“They won’t admit to the deaths. They say only that your husband and the others deserted.”
“I’ll expose them!” she swears, voice rising. “I’ll scream this whole tower down if I have to! Why won’t you speak up with me? You’ve seen it! Come forward and speak it!”
“I dare not, Young Mistress! My own family is at risk,” he pleads with her. “What would my children do without me? I am sorry, so sorry, but you must understand. I have to make it out of this alive.” He checks nervously over his shoulder again, back toward the tower. “I’m telling you only so that you will not stay and waste your time. What if you draw the Overseer’s attention? He won’t hesitate to silence you. Please, I am begging you, save yourself and go home!”
And with that, he pulls free of her grip and flees back toward the worksite.
She sinks to her knees, heedless of the cold frosty ground, her heart stalled and stuttering in her chest. The bundle with her husband’s new winter clothes lies heavily where it’s strapped to her back.
It’s like something at the very core of her has shattered. She’s never felt pain like this.
No, she thinks.
And she cries, and cries, and cries.
Night falls, bleak and cold and barely moonlit.
The inside of the tower is darker than the night itself, and she makes her way up the stairs on her hands and knees, feeling out each step with her fingertips as she climbs. It’s an age before she makes it to the top, where she is greeted with a blast of wind, all icy mist and sea salt.
There’s a lone torch still burning up here, and her eyes must adjust to its glow. The top of the tower is still incomplete, the low outline of a battlement wall beginning to take shape at its edges. On the north side facing the sea, there is one section that’s been built up higher than the others so far, and she moves towards it, trembling with each step.
The mud is still wet between the bricks, the foundations heavy but not yet set. She scrapes at the lines between the stones with her fingertips, her hand coming away smeared in dirt. She scans the floor for any forgotten tools, any implement she could use, and her eyes come to settle on a pickaxe leaning against a load of bricks. She takes it up with shaking hands.
Her first strike glances off the edge of the wall, utterly useless, but she grits her teeth and bites back her tears, attacking again with raw determination. She grips the pickaxe and drives the point into the soft mud between the bricks, then uses the leverage of her body weight to pry the first brick loose. It falls to the surface of the tower with a small clatter, echoing loudly in the dark.
Again and again, she strikes and pries, heaves and pulls, until gradually, the wall begins to crumble around the shape of a man. She drops the pickaxe and begins to claw with her hands, tearing at the caked-on mud, raking her nails through the muck until her fingers finally meet fabric.
It’s a piece of cloth she knows all too well. Even by the faint torchlight, she can see it: the patch she’d sewn over the hole on his shoulder before he’d left. She brushes back more of the mud with trembling fingers, tracing the line of a shoulder down toward a neck, her vision blurring as she does so.
Suddenly, a shadow falls across her, but before she can even startle, she is grasped by the back of her cloak and dragged backward, away from the wall and the body of her husband. She is tossed unceremoniously to the floor, her muddy palms scraping against the stones.
“I thought I told you to get lost,” the Overseer sneers, drawing his sword. “Meddlesome woman. You were warned.”
“Please!” she cries, scrambling to her knees. “I only want his body! I won’t tell anyone, I swear it! Just, please. Please let me take him home!”
“You think I’m going to let you walk through town with a corpse on your back?” The Overseer scoffs. “As if people wouldn’t ask questions.”
“I’ll leave tonight, while it’s still dark,” she pleads. “No one will see me, I promise you. Please, please allow me this. I’ll do anything!”
He glowers at her from underneath his thick brows, eyes raking over her form.
“Anything, you say?”
She feels her blood run cold.
“All right, then,” he advances a step, his massive form looming over her. “I’ll take your body in payment. A body for a body,” he leers. “A fair arrangement.”
She scrambles backward and clambers to her feet, revulsion striking in her gut like lightning.
“No!” she spits. “I will not submit to that!”
“That is my price,” the Overseer snarls. “You’ll submit to me, or you will die here.”
“Bastard!” she shrieks. “Miserable, dishonourable bastard! Son of a whore! You’ll suffer for this, I swear it!”
He grins at her, the line of his teeth glinting in the torchlight.
“And what could a woman like you do to a man like me?”
“Kill me and I’ll haunt you!” she hisses. “I’ll come back as a vengeful ghost and plague you until you’re dead! You’ll never sleep again! I’ll curse you! I’ll curse this whole tower!”
The Overseer huffs a derisive laugh.
“In that case, I will take you before you die, willing or not,” he says, eyes cruel. “Might as well make the haunting worth it.”
He advances on her then, and she darts backward to the wall, heaving up the pickaxe and swinging up in a vicious arc as she turns back around to face him. The motion catches him completely off guard, and the point of the pickaxe grazes his face, tearing a bloody strip right through his left eyebrow. He roars in anger and strikes out with his sword, knocking the pickaxe from her hand and slicing into her shoulder before he stumbles back a few steps.
Red-hot pain lances through her, and she feels the blood running down her arm. She stares at this monster, his massive body between her and the door to safety, backlit by the torchlight, his face streaked with blood and twisted with anger. It’s nothing in comparison to the icy cold rage that has settled over her heart, the despair that courses through her veins, and she sees her life stretched out before her, empty and desolate and ruined at the hands of this man. She sees herself, twisted and broken beneath him, a fate worse than death.
Time seems to slow as he advances on her again, each lumbering step he takes echoed by her thundering heartbeat. Rage curls hot and deadly in her gut, licking up her throat like flames.
No, she thinks.
And so she turns away from one fate and embraces another.
Damn this world, she thinks. Damn this weak, pathetic life she’s been given. But she will not waste it. She will not die alone. She’ll take them all with her, one by one, until the tower itself should crumble into the sea.
She opens her arms and closes her eyes, feeling the rush of the wind as she falls, the hint of sea spray, and when the ocean rises to meet her, she is ready.
The crash of the waves.
The howling of the wind.
The smell of dirt and decay.
Slowly, Wei Wuxian opens his eyes.
“Fucking finally,” Jiang Cheng exclaims, voice rough from yelling.
The sky is a black expanse above him, pinpricks of stars scattered throughout. He thinks his head is in someone’s lap.
“Back on solid ground, that’s where,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Master Wei,” he hears Wen Ning say, and then he is leaning into Wei Wuxian’s field of vision, his legs shifting slightly under Wei Wuxian’s head. “Are you all right? You’re not hurt anywhere?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian rasps. “I don’t think so.”
He struggles to sit up, and the world swims a little, even with Wen Ning supporting him by the shoulders. He’s on the ground outside the tower, and all he can hear is the roar of the ocean beneath the cliff. The ghost’s cries are nowhere to be heard.
“That was a fucking ridiculous stunt you just pulled, you asshole,” Jiang Cheng scolds. “You could have died!”
“We all could have died with the way things were going,” Wei Wuxian points out, wincing a little as he sits up fully.
“I would have been fine,” Wen Ning offers helpfully, and Wei Wuxian pats his hand where it’s still resting on his shoulder.
“What happened?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“She went rigid as soon as you touched her, and both of you were shaking so hard, we weren’t sure if Wen Ning and the flame talisman could hold you,” Lan Sizhui says. “Then suddenly, she screamed.” He shudders at the memory. “She’s never sounded that desolate before. Then she was just gone. She disappeared in a cloud of black mist. It happened really fast.”
“You collapsed,” Wen Ning says. “We got you out of the tower as quickly as possible. You weren’t breathing properly.”
“Plus, we didn’t exactly want to wait around for that thing to come back,” Jiang Cheng grumbles.
Suddenly, Wei Wuxian realizes they’re missing someone.
“Wait, where’s Jingyi?” he asks, alarmed.
“Relax,” Jiang Cheng says. “We sent him on ahead, back to the inn. See if that doctor is still around for when we get back. Seriously, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I’d figure out what she’s doing here,” Wei Wuxian retorts. “And I did. Also, I don’t need a doctor,” he adds indignantly.
“Says you,” Jiang Cheng snorts. “Why should I trust your opinion on your own well-being? It’s clearly as warped as your sense of self-preservation!”
“All right,” Lan Sizhui interjects, his tone placating. “Let’s get back to the inn. It’s late, and I don’t think anyone is going back up there tonight. Let’s regroup and address all of this tomorrow.”
Wei Wuxian can feel himself grinning.
“Sizhui, my favourite child. You have the best ideas, you know that?”
Lan Sizhui offers him a small smile in return.
“Come on, Senior Wei. Let’s get you back.”
It’s a quick enough walk back to the inn, but Wei Wuxian feels heavy, weighed down by his whirling thoughts and his jangled emotions. Pulling out of Empathy can be a little violent. His heart feels leaden and sluggish and bruised, and his throat is constricted as though he might cry. But this isn’t his sorrow, he tells himself. These aren’t his tears.
He takes a deep breath of the cold night air and exhales it with his head thrown back, eyes on the moon. Judging by its place in the sky, it is well past ten. The bath will have been drawn in his room at least an hour ago, but perhaps it will still be hot enough to be soothing. He’ll feel better after a bath, he reasons, and maybe he’ll order a jar of wine to blunt the edges of what he’s seen tonight.
Jiang Cheng whirls on him just outside the entrance.
“You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?” Jiang Cheng growls. “Tonight, I won’t kill you, and tomorrow, you’ll tell me everything. Got it?”
Wei Wuxian grins at him, knowing it will simply piss him off more.
“Of course,” he says lightly. “Sleep tight, Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng inhales sharply through his nose, but instead of responding, he turns on his heel and stalks off down the hall. Wei Wuxian sighs and mounts the stairs, slipping inside his own room, glad to find the candles already lit, and he places Chenqing on the bedside table next to the oil he never used. He runs his fingers over the jar and considers using it in the bath to ease the bruises from where he’d hit the ground.
Just then, there is a commotion outside his door, and it bursts open to reveal Lan Wangji. He’s fully dressed, save for any adornment in his hair, but his forehead ribbon is securely in place, and his face is absolutely livid.
“Senior Wei,” Lan Jingyi stammers, hovering just behind Lan Wangji in the doorway. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm him, but Hanguang-jun—”
“Silence,” Lan Wangji nearly snaps over his shoulder, and Lan Jingyi falls quiet, face pale and eyes wide. “Jingyi. Leave us.”
Lan Jingyi bows hastily and backs out the door, shutting it as quietly as possible behind him.
Lan Wangji glares at him, eyes aflame with fury, and Wei Wuxian swallows before attempting to speak.
“Lan Zhan,” he tries. “Why are you out of bed so late? What’s—?”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji cuts him off, voice as sharp as a knife. “You know perfectly well why I am here.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian holds his hands up in a placating manner, but Lan Wangji’s eyes flash even angrier at the gesture. “I can explain.”
“Explain?” Lan Wangji says, incredulous and enraged. “Explain what? That you attempted Empathy on a Fierce Ghost? That you explicitly said you would not do anything reckless, and then threw yourself directly into harm’s way?”
“It wasn’t an attempt,” Wei Wuxian protests. “Lan Zhan, it worked!”
It’s the wrong thing to say.
“Shameless!” Lan Wangji hisses, hands clenching into fists. “Wei Ying. You promised me.”
Wei Wuxian flinches at that, feeling the first pang of guilt.
“You could have been subsumed by her consciousness,” Lan Wangji presses on. “Wei Ying. You could have died.”
“But I didn’t,” Wei Wuxian objects. “Lan Zhan, weren’t you the one who wanted to know more about her? This way we—”
“Do you really think I wanted to find out like this?” Lan Wangji cuts him off again. “At risk to your life? What do you take me for?”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian tries again, attempting to soothe him. “You’re not well right now. You still need rest. You—”
“Do not patronize me,” Lan Wangji says, voice dangerously low. He takes a step forward, radiating fury, and Wei Wuxian inadvertently takes a step back. “Wei Ying. I promise you will find me much recovered.”
Wei Wuxian swallows, the hair on the back of his neck prickling at Lan Wangji’s tone of voice. He’s never seen Lan Wangji this angry, and it stokes something heavy and hot in his gut, twisting with the guilt from earlier. But there’s something else bubbling at the edge of his consciousness, something fighting with the obvious need to apologize, and it sticks in his throat, impeding all the things he knows he should say.
“You’re really going to scold me for getting exactly what we needed?” Wei Wuxian gets out. It’s still the wrong thing to say, and Lan Wangji’s eyes flare again, but Wei Wuxian holds his ground. “You’re really going to get mad at me for that?”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji says, voice finally rising. “Do you really value your life so little? You throw yourself into unnecessary danger without a second thought, and you ask me if I would be angry at you? Wei Ying. After everything that’s happened? After everything I’ve said?”
“You were delirious,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly bitter. “You couldn’t have meant that.”
“Do not presume to tell me what I meant!” Lan Wangji snaps, golden eyes ablaze. “I know what I said. Wei Ying. Every word I’ve said to you. I meant it with my whole heart.”
“Don’t,” Wei Wuxian says, throat suddenly constricted. “Lan Zhan, stop.”
“Can you not see that everything I’ve done—”
“Who asked you to?” Wei Wuxian explodes at last, all of the emotions he’s been sitting on for days finally overflowing in an agonizing rush. “Who asked you to throw yourself off a tower for me?” he cries. “You shouldn’t have done that! You should have just—”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji says, anguished and furious. “I could not let you fall again,” he says, his voice almost pleading. “I would not survive it.”
It’s like a knife to Wei Wuxian’s heart.
“Then what about me?” Wei Wuxian says, tears springing hot into the corners of his eyes. “Did you think I would have been happy? You think I want to live in this world without you? Because of you? You think I could stand it?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji gasps. His voice is pure pain. “Do not say that. You deserve your second chance.”
“I don’t want it!” Wei Wuxian hurls at him. “Do you hear me? I don’t want it without you! How dare you? How dare you…”
His fury gives way to his tears, agony streaming down his face in hot, salty tracks. He can feel it draining away, lost in that liminal space between them that he’s been too terrified to cross. Without the rage, there’s nothing left but naked grief.
Something in him cracks. He thinks it might be his heart.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji whispers, his eyes huge and longing.
“Don’t you dare leave me here by myself,” Wei Wuxian sobs, the dam broken. “Lan Zhan, I need you. I want you. I can’t be without you. There’s no second chance for me if I can’t have you. So please. Please…”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, voice an earnest entreaty. “You have me. I swear it.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, desolate. “Do you even understand what I’m asking you for?”
“Do you not understand what I would give you?” Lan Wangji counters softly. “What I will always give you?”
Wei Wuxian takes long shuddering breaths, heart open and bleeding.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes. “Ask me.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him through his tears, flooded with excruciating want.
“Let me stay with you,” he says.
“Be with me,” he pleads.
“Say you’re mine,” he begs.
“I am yours, Wei Ying.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chokes out. “Lan Zhan, please—”
Lan Wangji is across the room in three quick strides, and Wei Wuxian finds himself caught in a fierce embrace, enveloped by warmth and sandalwood. Lan Wangji holds him so tightly that Wei Wuxian can hardly breathe, and he clings desperately to Lan Wangji’s waist as Lan Wangji crushes their bodies together. Wei Wuxian sobs, face buried in the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck, his whole body shaking with the force of his grief.
He’d almost lost this.
He’d almost lost the only place where he truly belongs.
He feels Lan Wangji’s hand holding the back of his head, feels his other arm tight around his shoulders. They sway slightly, Lan Wangji rocking them in time with Wei Wuxian’s heaving breaths, but Wei Wuxian’s tears show no sign of stopping, his heart still racing. It’s not unlike panic, this frenzy of emotion, and Wei Wuxian is just starting to feel lost to it when Lan Wangji abruptly fists his hand in Wei Wuxian’s hair and tugs.
Wei Wuxian’s head falls back with a startled gasp, and suddenly, they are kissing, Lan Wangji’s mouth hot against Wei Wuxian’s lips. It’s harsh, and messy, and Wei Wuxian groans into it, body arching more fully into Lan Wangji’s embrace as Lan Wangji licks into Wei Wuxian’s open mouth. The hand in Wei Wuxian’s hair tightens, angling Wei Wuxian’s head just so, holding him just where Lan Wangji wants him while Lan Wangji deepens the kiss, tongue sweeping past Wei Wuxian’s teeth.
Wei Wuxian runs his hands up Lan Wangji’s back and clings to the back of his shoulders. His legs feel weak and unsteady, and he presses himself more firmly against Lan Wangji, the only solid thing in his universe. Lan Wangji kisses him like he means to devour him, licking and nipping at Wei Wuxian’s lips, then plundering Wei Wuxian’s mouth with his tongue, driving deeper and deeper until Wei Wuxian moans helplessly.
Lan Wangji kisses a line across Wei Wuxian’s cheek, dragging his mouth to the juncture of his jaw and his neck, just below his ear, and he sinks his teeth in, eliciting a startled cry from Wei Wuxian. It quickly dissolves into a breathless moan as Lan Wangji swirls his tongue over the bite mark, soothing the sting of his teeth. He works his way down Wei Wuxian’s neck, nipping and licking as he goes, mouthing at the skin just above the collar of his robes. The hand that’s not tangled in Wei Wuxian’s hair comes up and yanks at the offending fabric, exposing the crook of Wei Wuxian’s neck, and Lan Wangji fastens his mouth there, bruising the skin with his teeth before sucking and laving the pain away.
Wei Wuxian’s whole body shudders at the sensation, every nerve alive and wanting. He’s still clinging, still unsteady, and every sweep of Lan Wangji’s tongue undoes him further. When Lan Wangji comes back to find his lips again, Wei Wuxian cannot stop the desperate whimper that escapes him, half sobbing into Lan Wangji’s mouth. Lan Wangji’s hand leaves Wei Wuxian’s collar, and he snakes his arm around Wei Wuxian’s waist, yanking so that Wei Wuxian’s back arches almost painfully. He wrenches Wei Wuxian’s head back again and plunders his mouth with a growl, and Wei Wuxian lets himself go weak, welcoming the assault with his eyes screwed shut.
He’s vaguely aware of moving backward, and then his calves hit the side of the bed. It’s just a moment of separation as Lan Wangji drops him down, and then he’s back, climbing on top of Wei Wuxian and pinning him against the bed, kissing him breathless. Wei Wuxian strains against him, his whole body shivering with this newfound want, thrilling at how easily Lan Wangji holds him down. At the back of his mind, he’s dimly aware that Lan Wangji is supposed to be injured.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian gasps out, voice rough and unsteady against Lan Wangji’s insistent mouth. “Lan Zhan, be careful, y-you’re—you’re still—”
“I told you,” Lan Wangji says, nipping at Wei Wuxian’s lower lip. “I am much recovered.” Another kiss, deep and wet. “Shall I show you how well recovered I am?”
Wei Wuxian shudders as Lan Wangji sucks his earlobe into his mouth. His breath is still coming too fast and uneven, every nerve in his body on fire. In his two lifetimes, he’s never been touched before, not like this, and now he’s burning up at every point of contact, completely starved for it.
Lan Wangji’s hands are moving between their bodies, and before Wei Wuxian can even register what’s happening, he’s been stripped of his belt, his outer robe thrown open, and his inner robe pushed aside. Lan Wangji tears at his undershirt, ripping the ties free to expose Wei Wuxian’s chest, and then Lan Wangji’s hands are on him, and Wei Wuxian’s breath stutters in his throat.
Lan Wangji rakes his hands up and down Wei Wuxian’s sides, nails digging in ever so slightly, and Wei Wuxian lets out a shuddering whine, his head thrown back against the bed. Lan Wangji grips his torso, holding him steady as Lan Wangji lowers his head to mouth at Wei Wuxian’s chest. He finds a nipple and latches on, tongue swirling, and Wei Wuxian arches up to meet him with a cry.
“Lan Zhan,” he pants out, one shaking hand flying to the back of Lan Wangji’s head. “Lan Zhan, please, I—”
Lan Wangji licks a stripe back up Wei Wuxian’s body to claim his mouth in another searing kiss, swallowing the rest of Wei Wuxian’s plea. Without breaking the kiss, Lan Wangji strokes his right hand up Wei Wuxian’s chest, splaying his fingers across Wei Wuxian’s collar bone, thumb pressing lightly into the base of Wei Wuxian’s throat. Wei Wuxian’s breath hitches, and he shivers from head to toe, letting out a muffled cry into Lan Wangji’s mouth. Lan Wangji draws back, breathing heavily, his lips wet and his eyes dark, staring at Wei Wuxian with unmasked desire.
Wei Wuxian stares back, feeling exposed and raw. He’s poised on the edge of something vast and dark and hungry, and he’s terrified that if he falls, he’ll never get up again.
Slowly, Lan Wangji slides his hand up the front of Wei Wuxian’s throat, just the ghost of a touch, and Wei Wuxian shudders violently, his eyelids fluttering shut as Lan Wangji’s hand sweeps behind his neck, thumb hooking on Wei Wuxian’s earlobe. His grip is strong and firm, holding Wei Wuxian’s head still as his body shakes, and he kisses Wei Wuxian again, slowly this time, coaxing his lips open and gradually deepening the kiss. He strokes Wei Wuxian’s tongue with his own, and the kiss grows heated again, wet and desperate.
Lan Wangji’s left hand drags down to Wei Wuxian’s hip, digging into the flesh above the top of Wei Wuxian’s trousers. Wei Wuxian groans a little at the contact, but when Lan Wangji brings his knee up between Wei Wuxian’s legs, Wei Wuxian lets out a sharp, breathy cry. Wei Wuxian writhes, trying uselessly to arch up against Lan Wangji as his eyes drift shut, his body seeking friction against Lan Wangji’s leg. Lan Wangji mercilessly presses his knee more firmly against Wei Wuxian’s arousal, keeping Wei Wuxian pinned at the hip.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian tries again, voice trembling as Lan Wangji attacks his neck again. “Lan Zhan, please, I need—I need—”
“Shh,” Lan Wangji soothes, surging back up to kiss him, firmly but carefully silencing him again. “I have you,” he whispers softly against Wei Wuxian’s lips.
Wei Wuxian lets out another shuddering breath, screwing his eyes shut against the sting of sudden tears. He doesn’t know what to do when Lan Wangji handles him gently.
Wei Wuxian gasps at the sudden rush of air as Lan Wangji moves swiftly down his body. He discards Wei Wuxian’s boots and socks, then he removes his trousers in one quick, smooth motion. Wei Wuxian lies startled, arms still tangled in his robes as Lan Wangji settles between his legs and takes Wei Wuxian in hand.
“L-Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian stammers. “What—?”
“Shh,” Lan Wangji says again, and then he descends to take Wei Wuxian’s cock into his mouth.
Wei Wuxian gasps, immediately subsumed by the sensation of Lan Wangji’s hot, wet mouth around him. Lan Wangji slides back up, and Wei Wuxian feels himself getting harder as Lan Wangji mouths at the tip, tongue licking at the slit before he slides his head back down, lips stretching, saliva escaping from the edge of his mouth, slicking his way as his head bobs up and down. Wei Wuxian can feel Lan Wangji’s tongue as it curls around him, pressing him up into the top of Lan Wangji’s mouth.
Lan Wangji hollows his cheeks and sucks, and Wei Wuxian cannot keep his eyes open, cannot keep his head from falling back against the bed, no matter how much he still wants to watch. Lan Wangji’s hand circles him at the base of his cock, twisting as Lan Wangji sucks. Wei Wuxian opens his eyes and looks back down just as Lan Wangji nearly draws off, and then he’s sliding back down, taking Wei Wuxian deep, his nose bumping against Wei Wuxian’s belly at the base of his cock, the tip of Wei Wuxian’s cock resting at the back of his throat.
Wei Wuxian moans desperately, falling back against the bed once more, hands fisting helplessly in the sheets and the tangled fabric of his dishevelled robes. It’s too much. It’s too much all at once, his senses overwhelmed, and he can feel himself getting close, his pleasure cresting, and he tries to warn Lan Wangji, tries to call out his name, but he can’t find his voice, his vision goes white, and then he is coming, hot and sudden down Lan Wangji’s throat.
Wei Wuxian shakes with it, a choked and strangled cry falling from his lips as he lies there, legs spread wide and obscene. His chest heaves as he comes down from the rush, his eyes coming back into focus, and dimly he registers the sight of Lan Wangji sitting up between his legs, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Lan Wangji’s eyes are still dark, molten gold, his pupils blown wide, and he looms back into Wei Wuxian’s space, face stark with hunger.
Wei Wuxian lets out another shaky breath as Lan Wangji hovers above him. He still feels raw, almost desolate, desperate for something he doesn’t understand. But Lan Wangji must know, because he leans forward slowly, capturing Wei Wuxian’s lips in a soft, probing kiss, and Wei Wuxian opens beneath him, tasting himself on Lan Wangji’s tongue, greedy for contact. He lies prone and boneless under Lan Wangji, letting the other man press him down into the mattress with the weight of his body. But eventually, Lan Wangji draws back, eyes searching, hovering once more, hands tense around Wei Wuxian’s hips.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian breathes like it’s the only thing he knows how to say. “Lan Zhan…”
Slowly, deliberately, Lan Wangji raises his hand to the back of his head and unties his forehead ribbon. He places it carefully on the table beside the bed. His hand doesn’t hesitate, scooping up the jar of oil that lies there instead, unstopping it with his thumb. Without breaking eye contact, he douses the fingers of his right hand, then slips them in between Wei Wuxian's still open thighs.
At the first stroke of fingertips past his entrance, Wei Wuxian flinches, his eyes fluttering closed on a stuttered gasp. It’s strange, invasive, and Wei Wuxian already feels exposed, naked and flayed to the bone. He throws his arms up to cover his face, wrists crossed over his eyes, and he tries not to sob, body taut and oversensitive.
Gently, firmly, he feels Lan Wangji take hold of his wrists, pinning them above Wei Wuxian’s head with his left hand, his right hand still working Wei Wuxian open.
It’s a question. A command. And Wei Wuxian opens his eyes, wide and pleading, to lock gazes with Lan Wangji. Those golden eyes hold him captive, and Wei Wuxian cannot look away, even as his own eyes water, even as his body trembles under Lan Wangji’s ministrations. His choked exhalations barely make it past his lips, everything coiled tight, ready to snap. His cock twitches again, already at half-mast, aching and overstimulated.
He doesn’t watch as Lan Wangji’s fingers leave his body. He doesn’t watch as Lan Wangji fumbles with his belt, shifting his robes aside to expose his own cock, slicking himself up with oil. Wei Wuxian only sees Lan Wangji’s face, his liquid eyes steady on Wei Wuxian’s own, his expression open and hungry, so that when Lan Wangji positions himself and slides home in one smooth motion, Wei Wuxian’s vision blurs, and the sensation takes him fully by surprise. He’s stretched to the limit, pierced to the core, as if he might splinter into pieces with the slightest movement.
He cries out then, unable to stop the ragged moan escaping from his throat. His arms strain uselessly against Lan Wangji’s iron grip, Lan Wangji’s other hand pinning his hips in place, forcing Wei Wuxian to adjust to his presence inside Wei Wuxian’s body. Wei Wuxian pants heavily, resisting the urge to whine, to squirm, to demand the movement he needs to shatter him. His cock twitches again, throbbing painfully.
Slowly, so slowly, Lan Wangji leans forward, bending Wei Wuxian in half until they are pressed chest to chest, Wei Wuxian’s knees splayed impossibly wide, one leg crooked over Lan Wangji’s elbow, the other falling uselessly to the side, foot resting tentatively against Lan Wangji’s back. Lan Wangji inches forward, seated to the hilt, and he grinds down roughly, hips moving in a deliberate, circular motion, driving himself deep, scraping against Wei Wuxian’s prostate.
Wei Wuxian lets out a desperate whimper, his vision sparking, and Lan Wangji grinds down again, hard and determined, and Wei Wuxian almost sobs again, hips rocking involuntarily upward, helpless against Lan Wangji’s onslaught. Lan Wangji repeats the motion, again and again, forcing Wei Wuxian to open up around him, to spasm with pleasure, each excruciating circle sending a searing line of fire up his spine. He feels himself grow hard again, dripping against his own stomach.
Soon, Wei Wuxian is keening, his voice unrecognizable to his own ears. Lan Wangji leans in further still, capturing Wei Wuxian lips with his mouth, suckling on Wei Wuxian’s bottom lip before claiming him completely, wet and filthy, driving into Wei Wuxian’s mouth with his tongue as surely as he circles his hips. Wei Wuxian is coming apart, mouth going slack, arms lying useless above his head even as Lan Wangji releases him, hand coming down to grip Wei Wuxian by the hair at the base of his skull.
Lan Wangji pulls his hips back, thrusting in quick and sharp, and Wei Wuxian spasms around him, a desperate wail leaving his lips. Lan Wangji pulls back again, then thrusts brutally forward, jerking Wei Wuxian’s head back as he does so, forcing Wei Wuxian’s back to arch, striking deep and true so that Wei Wuxian’s eyes roll back in his head. Lan Wangji sets up a punishing rhythm, his hips snapping forward with devastating strength, each thrust punctuated by Wei Wuxian’s strangled cry.
Lan Wangji buries his face in Wei Wuxian’s neck, sinking his teeth in and thrusting home with bruising force, Wei Wuxian’s body taut as a plucked qin string, their vicious song building to a crescendo until finally, finally, Wei Wuxian snaps, and he comes nearly untouched, the tip of his cock catching against Lan Wangji’s still clothed stomach.
Lan Wangji thrusts once, twice, three more times, fucking Wei Wuxian through his orgasm before he goes rigid, a solid line of strained muscle, and then he comes with a muffled groan, his head thrown back in ecstasy before he collapses on top of Wei Wuxian’s shuddering form, spent and boneless.
They lie like that, chests heaving together for an interminable number of minutes, the air growing cool around them as they come back into their bodies. Slowly, gently, Lan Wangji forces himself off of Wei Wuxian, bracing himself on unsteady forearms and peppering Wei Wuxian’s face with shaking kisses.
“Wei Ying,” he breathes, voice a breathless whisper. “My Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian heaves out a shuddering sob, his breath hitching on the exhale.
“Lan Zhan,” he manages. “Oh, Lan Zhan…”
Fresh tears are making their way down his face, hot and unhindered, and he blinks through the fog of them, desperate to see Lan Wangji’s face.
“I’m here,” Lan Wangji says, brushing away Wei Wuxian’s tears with his thumb. “I have you,” he promises. “I have you.”
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, and he lets the tears come, let’s Lan Wangji smother him with kisses, lets the world fall away like old scales, washed away like sand flowing back into the sea.
Carefully, Lan Wangji withdraws and unfolds Wei Wuxian’s body, Wei Wuxian’s spine unfurling with a groan. He falls to the side and pulls Wei Wuxian around to face him, cradling Wei Wuxian’s face in one hand. His golden eyes are large and soft, deep and dark with something not-so-secret anymore.
“Wei Ying,” he says again, voice impossibly gentle. “Are you all right?”
Wei Wuxian heaves out another shuddering sigh, letting the sorrow flow free, relief coursing through his veins in its wake.
“Yes,” he chokes out. “I think so. I’m okay. I’m okay now,” he says.
“Are you sure?” Lan Wangji whispers, stroking the side of Wei Wuxian’s face.
“No,” Wei Wuxian admits. “That was a lot. You’re a lot,” he says, although his tone is not accusatory.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, fingertips lingering at the corner of Wei Wuxian’s eye.
“I asked for it,” Wei Wuxian adds, attempting a watery smile.
“You did,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Do you regret it?” he asks quietly.
“No,” Wei Wuxian says without hesitation. “No, I don’t.”
“Good,” Lan Wangji says, drawing him in for a slow, soft kiss. “Come,” he says, sitting up and pulling Wei Wuxian along with him.
Wei Wuxian winces a little, still feeling a bit raw, but he lets Lan Wangji set him upright, and Lan Wangji pushes his robes the rest of the way off his arms, leaving him fully naked, perched atop the bed. He pulls Wei Wuxian to his feet and leads him toward the bath tub, ushering him in like a child, holding his hand until Wei Wuxian is fully submerged, sitting comfortably with his back against the side. The water isn’t hot anymore, but it’s warm enough to be pleasant, and Wei Wuxian finds himself relaxing, muscles uncoiling. There’s a satisfying ache at the heart of him, a soreness he welcomes with a flush.
He glances over his shoulder and freezes, transfixed at the sight of Lan Wangji disrobing. He carefully removes each layer, unravelling himself one robe at a time, folding each one carefully before setting it neatly aside. Wei Wuxian holds his breath as Lan Wangji strips down to his undershirt and trousers, and he exhales in a rush as Lan Wangji sheds those as well. Lan Wangji steps out of his trousers, his motions graceful, and Wei Wuxian drinks in the sight of him, completely naked and unselfconscious.
Broad shoulders taper down into narrow hips. He’s nothing but taut, sinewy muscle, a lithe and deadly silhouette. Wei Wuxian’s eyes trace the lines of his abdominal muscles, following the trail of dark, coarse hair down to his long, thick cock where it sways between his powerful thighs. Wei Wuxian stares, overwhelmed by the memory of how it had felt inside of him. He can scarcely believe it, remembering the way he’d been nearly split in two, overflowing with sensation, desperate to be filled. He feels his face flush as he stares, realizing he wants to do it again. Next time, he wants to watch, to see himself stretched around that impressive girth.
Lan Wangji makes his way to the tub, nudging Wei Wuxian forward until he can slip in behind him. He settles Wei Wuxian between his legs, pulling Wei Wuxian back to rest against his chest. He holds him there for a while, both of them breathing softly, then he kisses Wei Wuxian’s ear and reaches for the jar of honey locust water to wet the washcloth.
Gently, he washes Wei Wuxian’s neck, scrubbing softly, moving down the line of his spine. Once he has finished Wei Wuxian’s back and arms, he removes Wei Wuxian’s hair ribbon, letting it fall to the floor beside the tub, and he begins to work the honey locust through Wei Wuxian’s hair, massaging Wei Wuxian’s scalp until Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, lulled into a stupor by Lan Wangji’s skillful fingers.
Wei Wuxian sighs as Lan Wangji ladles the water over his head to rinse away the detergent. The motion is soothing, the sound of the water running down his body and back into the tub almost meditative. Silently, Lan Wangji puts the ladle aside and guides Wei Wuxian back against his chest again. He wraps his arms around Wei Wuxian’s torso and holds him close, pressing a firm kiss to Wei Wuxian’s temple. He finds Wei Wuxian’s hand under the water and interlaces their fingers together, bringing their joined hands to rest over Wei Wuxian’s heart.
It’s nice, Wei Wuxian thinks absently. Just to be held. Like he’s something special. Like he’s somewhere safe.
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed, bulldozed by a rush of feelings. Why is he still so sad?
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says softly. “What is it?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head.
“It’s nothing, it’s just,” he says, his voice thick. “I’m just… You’re just…”
Lan Wangji squeezes his hand in encouragement.
“Is this really okay?” he whispers. “Do you really want this?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replies immediately, his arm tightening around Wei Wuxian’s waist. “Wei Ying. I have wanted this for a very long time.”
“How long?” Wei Wuxian can’t resist asking.
“For as long as I’ve known you,” Lan Wangji says earnestly.
Wei Wuxian can’t help the watery laugh that bubbles up in response.
“Lan Zhan, really? You couldn’t stand me!”
“Could barely handle you, certainly,” Lan Wangji admits. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t want you.”
“You never said anything,” Wei Wuxian says.
“No,” Lan Wangji agrees. “I did not.”
The silence stretches out for a handful of heartbeats, Lan Wangji’s breath warm by his ear.
“Why did you never ask me to stay?” Wei Wuxian asks, voice quiet.
Lan Wangji hesitates for the first time, going completely still for a moment.
“Because you needed to leave,” he says at last.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “Not then,” he says. “After. When I came back. You never asked me to stay.”
“I did not want you to feel obligated,” Lan Wangji says carefully.
“I wouldn’t have,” Wei Wuxian says.
“Wouldn’t you?” Lan Wangji asks
“No,” Wei Wuxian insists. “I wouldn’t. I don’t. I would have felt…”
“I would have felt wanted,” Wei Wuxian finishes, suddenly choked up again.
“You were,” Lan Wangji breathes, his free hand coming up to turn Wei Wuxian’s face toward him. “You are. You are always wanted, Wei Ying. I will always want you.”
“Promise?” Wei Wuxian whispers.
“I promise,” Lan Wangji says, tipping Wei Wuxian’s head back and sealing his words with a kiss.
“Will you promise me one more thing?” Wei Wuxian breathes against his lips. “Will you promise never to throw yourself off another tower ever again?”
Lan Wangji’s small laugh is a puff of air across Wei Wuxian’s face, but when he speaks, his voice is serious.
“I cannot promise I will never protect you again,” he says. “But I promise I will not be careless with my life. Can you promise me the same?”
Wei Wuxian disentangles their fingers and turns around to face Lan Wangji fully. He raises three fingers to the sky and stares directly into Lan Wangji’s eyes.
“I promise not to be needlessly reckless ever again. I can’t promise I won’t be a chaotic disaster, but I’ll be your chaotic disaster. I’ll take care of myself, I swear it.”
Lan Wangji lets his hands come up to cradle Wei Wuxian’s face, his expression soft and open and affectionate.
“Mark your words,” he murmurs, then he closes the distance between them and kisses Wei Wuxian soundly, coaxing Wei Wuxian open and stroking into his mouth with his tongue.
Wei Wuxian smiles into the kiss, sliding his hands up Lan Wangji’s chest, past the brand mark over his heart, looping his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck and settling fully into his lap. They kiss like that, languid and unhurried, until Wei Wuxian starts to shiver, and he realizes how cold the water has become.
Lan Wangji nudges him up, and together they stand and step from the tub. Lan Wangji uses a single towel to dry them both off, first Wei Wuxian and then himself. Wei Wuxian fetches a couple of sleeping robes from his qiankun pouch, handing one to Lan Wangji, but Lan Wangji reaches out to take them both. Wordlessly, he unfolds the first one and drapes it around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, and Wei Wuxian allows himself to be dressed, feeling safe and soft and cared for. Lan Wangji slips quickly into the other robe and takes Wei Wuxian by the hand, leading him back toward the bed.
Lan Wangji inspects the cover and finds it acceptable, their robes having absorbed most of the evidence from their earlier endeavors. He pulls it back and ushers Wei Wuxian into bed, slipping in after him. They settle down facing each other, and Lan Wangji raises a hand to send a gust of spiritual energy toward the candles, snuffing out the flames and bathing the room in darkness.
Slowly, Wei Wuxian’s eyes adjust to the moonlight streaming in from the window, and he can make out the planes of Lan Wangji’s face, see the glint reflected in his eyes. He feels Lan Wangji’s hand come up to stroke his cheek, thumb brushing back and forth underneath Wei Wuxian’s eye.
“Can I really have this?” Wei Wuxian whispers.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replies, voice soft. “I would give you everything, Wei Ying.”
“Everything,” Wei Wuxian echoes. He scoots in closer, and Lan Wangji opens his arms, gathering Wei Wuxian to his chest and rolling onto his back.
Wei Wuxian settles his hand over Lan Wangji’s heart, right next to where he’s resting his head.
“I want this,” Wei Wuxian says, splaying his fingers and pressing his palm flat, feeling Lan Wangji’s heartbeat.
“You have it,” Lan Wangji says, laying his hand overtop of Wei Wuxian’s. “Wei Ying. I am yours.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers. “Thank you.”
Lan Wangji presses a kiss to the top of his head.
“Sleep,” he says, and Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, sinking into Lan Wangji’s warmth, giving in to the pull of oblivion.
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and he does not dream of falling.
“So let me get this straight,” Jiang Cheng says, scowl firmly in place. “You’re telling me that this ghost—”
“Yeqiao,” Wei Wuxian supplies.
“Whatever. She threw herself off the tower rather than die at the hands of the Overseer?” Jiang Cheng asks.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replies.
They are gathered in the common room, seated around a table, Wei Wuxian next to Lan Wangji. Across the table from them, Jiang Cheng glowers, and to their left sit Wen Ning and Lan Sizhui. To their right, Lan Jingyi.
“Then why the Hell can’t we just drag that bastard to the top of the tower and let her have him?” Jiang Cheng exclaims.
“Jiang Cheng, seriously?” Wei Wuxian says. “You know we can’t do that.”
“I honestly don’t see why not,” Jiang Cheng argues. “If that’s the grudge that’s keeping her here, why not let her have her revenge? Sounds like he deserves it. Justice would be done without the cost of a trial. Seems like a win to me,” he says.
Lan Wangji remains silent, face impassive, but Wei Wuxian can tell he’s annoyed.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui says, endlessly polite. “We must let the law handle the Overseer. It would be troublesome for Jin Ling if we were to establish a precedent of such arbitrary, retributive justice in one of his territories.”
Jiang Cheng looks like he wants to protest, but Lan Wangji speaks at last.
“There is no guarantee that the Overseer’s death alone would satisfy her,” he says smoothly. “Wei Ying says she swore to bring the tower down. She is clearly tied to it. Who is to say she will not persist to haunt it until it falls?”
Jiang Cheng scowls. “That’s out of the question. We’re not taking it down. It’s too valuable.”
“Not to mention, she’s strong enough that I doubt that would disperse her,” Wei Wuxian offers. “She is seething with resentment, and it has to go somewhere.”
“Then we have no choice but to destroy her,” Jiang Cheng says, face darkening.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “There has to be a way to release her,” he says. “She’s still in there.”
“How?” Jiang Cheng asks, incredulous. “She fell into the ocean months ago. There’s no way there’s a body left. Proper burial is out of the question, so it’s not like we have any hope of calming her spirit that way.”
“Still!” Wei Wuxian insists. “There must be some way to bring her back, to let her know Chen Hao is at peace now. I feel like if she knew that, she could move on.”
“Look,” Jiang Cheng says, starting to sound frustrated. “I know you feel sorry for her, but the simple fact is, she’s getting too strong to exorcise peacefully or simply repress her. We have to eliminate her. There’s no other way.”
“Just let me think on it, all right?” Wei Wuxian entreats him. “We’re not going back up there right away, anyhow. Lan Zhan still needs to recover fully.”
“And how long,” Jiang Cheng grits out, “will His Excellency need for that?”
“A day. Perhaps two,” Lan Wangji says, voice like ice. “You’ll forgive me, Sect Leader Jiang, for delaying you.”
Jiang Cheng glares daggers at him. “No need to apologize. We didn’t have a very good run at her last time,” he concedes bitterly. “It would help to have you along.”
Lan Wangji raises one perfect eyebrow at that phrasing, and Wei Wuxian grimaces, wishing that Jiang Cheng could stop being so unsubtle for once in his life.
“It would help to have Hanguang-jun in charge,” Lan Jingyi mutters, and Wei Wuxian has to bite back a laugh. Speaking of unsubtle…
“You mean like the first time?” Jiang Cheng plows on, heedless of how his words might sting. “As I recall, that didn’t go very well.”
“I would be happy to defer to Sect Leader Jiang’s plan,” Lan Wangji says, face still impassive. “That is, if he had one.”
Jiang Cheng flushes crimson, and Wei Wuxian quickly intervenes.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “I think we can all agree that so far, nothing has worked, and no one’s had any luck defeating our Yeqiao. Which means, it’s time to try something different. I am the king of different. I’ll come up with something, I promise.”
“Of course you will, Master Wei,” Wen Ning says, all encouragement. “I have faith in you.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him. “Thanks, Wen Ning.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he spits. “Break your brain on it. In the meantime, I’ll be down by the water, training to actually kill the damn thing. Come find me when you have your brilliant plan.”
And with that, Jiang Cheng gets up and storms out of the room.
Wei Wuxian sighs.
Some things just don’t change.
“A little practice might be a good idea, actually,” Lan Jingyi muses. “Sizhui, want to go spar?”
“We should invite the others,” Lan Sizhui nods as he rises. “And Wen Ning, you too, of course.”
“I’d love to,” Wen Ning enthuses.
“Hanguang-jun, Senior Wei,” Lan Sizhui bows. “We will see you tonight at dinner.”
Lan Wangji nods in return, and the three of them file out of the room.
Wei Wuxian lets himself sag against Lan Wangji, already lost in thoughts of Yeqiao. It’s true that he feels sorry for her. Terribly, horribly sorry. If there is any chance of liberating her, Wei Wuxian is determined to find it.
“What are you thinking?” Lan Wangji asks, voice soft the way it only is when it is just the two of them.
“I was thinking I’ve got an idea for an array that could actually hold her,” Wei Wuxian muses. “It’d have to be combined with Evocation, so that they overlap and complement each other, but I think it can be done. If we could actually bind her, that’s step one to a peaceful exorcism.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, his hand coming up to brush an errant strand of hair out of Wei Wuxian’s face.
Wei Wuxian is warmed by the gesture, exhilarated by the barest brush of Lan Wangji’s fingertips against his cheek. He smiles, eyes crinkling up at the corners, and he leans a little further into Lan Wangji’s side, resting his chin on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
He’s always taken liberties with Lan Wangji’s personal space, but never before has he been so aware of how welcome that is, and now Lan Wangji is returning the favour, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t be more thrilled.
Lan Wangji turns his head and meets Wei Wuxian with a kiss. It’s just a gentle press of lips, brief and soft, but it sends warmth spreading through Wei Wuxian’s chest, and he pushes back in for a moment, wanting more contact. Lan Wangji responds, nipping at Wei Wuxian’s bottom lip, and Wei Wuxian smiles before he pulls away and sits up.
“Do you need to rest?” Wei Wuxian asks. “I can make myself scarce.”
Lan Wangji nods, eyes flickering briefly back down to Wei Wuxian’s mouth. “I shall meditate for the afternoon. My spiritual energy is almost back to normal, and meditation will help. You are welcome to accompany me, if you wish.”
Wei Wuxian smiles again, this time a little crooked.
“Lan Zhan,” he drawls. “You know I’m no good at meditating, and as much as I wouldn’t mind staring at your beautiful face all afternoon, I’d hate to disturb you with my puttering.”
“You plan to putter, then?” Lan Wangji asks, voice tinged with amusement.
“A little,” Wei Wuxian says. “I want to take a walk first. I need some air and some movement to get my mind going.”
“All right,” Lan Wangji says. He stands and offers Wei Wuxian a hand up, and Wei Wuxian accepts.
Lan Wangji pulls him up and in, and they find each other’s lips again, kissing a little more thoroughly this time. When they finally pull apart, Lan Wangji’s eyes are liquid gold, soft and dark, radiating warmth.
“Be careful where you go,” Lan Wangji murmurs, and Wei Wuxian smiles sweetly, impossibly fond.
“Of course,” he says, voice bright. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Mn,” says Lan Wangji. “I’ll be waiting.”
An hour later, after having thoroughly explored the docks of Rongcheng, Wei Wuxian finds himself at the restaurant where Jing is a servant. He hasn’t had lunch yet, so Wei Wuxian ducks into the establishment and asks for a table, hoping to see her. Wei Wuxian had sent word when Lan Wangji had woken up, but Jing has been unable to visit since the previous week, business from the restaurant having kept her away. He knows Lan Wangji would like to thank her in person, and he means to encourage her to stop by the inn.
He sees her running bowls back to the kitchen, spindly arms weighed down by a stack at least half her height. He catches her eye when she comes back out, and her face brightens at the sight of him. She makes an apologetic little bow which Wei Wuxian interprets as her not being able to come over and greet him just yet, then she darts over to clean the table she’d just cleared, scrubbing it down with a cloth before a new group of guests are seated.
“Young Master,” the mistress of the restaurant greets him with a genuine smile. “Will you be having more of our house wine today?” she asks cheerfully.
“I will,” Wei Wuxian says. “And I will pay double if you allow Jing to serve it to me,” he smiles.
The mistress laughs, one hand lifting to cover her smile. “No need for that, Young Master. I’ll send her over in a minute. I’ll even let her take a small break. We’re all overjoyed that the Chief Cultivator has recovered so well.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian agrees, his heart clenching sweetly at the thought of Lan Wangji. “All thanks to Jing.”
“And we’ll never forget it!” the mistress says with a sly smile. “She’s quite the local celebrity now. It’s been good for business,” she adds with another laugh. “Soon I’ll have to fend off her suitors.”
“She has admirers, does she?” Wei Wuxian grins.
“Of course she does,” the mistress says proudly. “A pretty girl like that? It was bound to happen, now that she’s almost at that age. But I can’t afford to lose her, I’m afraid. She’ll just have to break a lot of hearts.”
“She’s indentured to you, then?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Indeed she is,” says the mistress. “She’s an orphan. Her mother was a servant to my husband before she got married. She left Jing with us when her husband ran off. We got word she’d died some months later while she was looking for him. Jing was only six.”
“She’s lucky,” Wei Wuxian says, and he means it. “She ended up with a good family. You are very kind.”
“I try to be,” the mistress says. “There’s enough unkindness in this world. But don’t think I’m not strict with her,” she adds. “She knows her manners and she minds the rules. I hope she’s been minding them around you and the Chief Cultivator!”
“She has, don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian assures her.
“Good. I’ll send her over, then.”
It’s another few minutes before Jing arrives at his table, bearing the wine on a tray.
“Master Wei,” she greets him, setting the tray on the table and dropping into a bow. “I’m so glad to see you!”
“Me too,” Wei Wuxian smiles, then gestures to the seat across from him. “I spoke to your mistress. She says you can take a break to sit with me for a while.”
“Yes,” Jing says, obediently taking a seat at the table and smoothing her robe over her knees. “How is Hanguang-jun?”
“Better every day,” Wei Wuxian says, his smile growing soft. “He’d like to see you and say thank you.”
“Oh, n-no, I don’t think I could handle that,” she stutters, blushing furiously. “I’m not good with thanks.”
“I noticed,” Wei Wuxian laughs, remembering how flustered she’d been when he’d bowed to her. “But he’s quite determined to show you his gratitude. You wouldn’t deny him that, would you?”
“I…” she swallows. “I-If Hanguang-jun wishes it.”
“He does,” Wei Wuxian says. “But I understand if you get busy. If you can’t stop by the inn, we’ll make sure to visit you here before we leave.”
“Oh, no!” she exclaims. “He can’t thank me in front of so many people!”
“Why not?” Wei Wuxian asks, amused.
“T-That’s just—I mean, I’d be so embarrassed, and I just—”
“All right,” Wei Wuxian laughs again. “We’ll figure something out. Won’t you pour me some wine, A-Jing?”
“Yes, of course!” she says, and she pushes back her sleeve as she reaches for the jar.
Wei Wuxian freezes, eyes on her wrist.
“A-Jing,” he says. “Where did you get that bracelet?”
Jing stops mid pour, her face flushing madly.
“I didn’t steal it!” she says quickly, hand flying to her wrist protectively. “I found it, and I… And I meant to give it back, but—”
Wei Wuxian stares at the red silk circle, doubled up around her tiny wrist so that it doesn’t fall off. The knotwork is excellent, even and precise. Wei Wuxian knows that he’s seen it before.
“Chen Hao,” he says, eyes snapping up to her face. “Did you get it from Chen Hao?”
“I found it outside his tent, the night that they killed him,” she says, eyes welling up with tears. “I meant to give it back. He wore it everywhere. His wife made it for him.”
Wei Wuxian looks back at her wrist, his mind racing.
“I’m sorry,” she says, voice quavering. “I shouldn’t have kept it, I’m sorry!”
“No,” Wei Wuxian shakes his head, raising his eyes to meet hers again. “A-Jing, you did exactly the right thing.”
“I did?” she asks dubiously.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian grins. “You did. But I’m going to have to ask you to let me have it, now.”
She slips it off her wrist and hands it over immediately.
“What will you do with it?” Jing wants to know.
“I’m going to give it back to the person who made it,” Wei Wuxian says.
“And it’s going to set her free.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Jiang Cheng grouses. “A bracelet. A fucking bracelet. This has to be one of your stupidest ideas yet. This had better fucking work, Wei Wuxian.”
“Well, if it doesn’t, you get first crack at trying to whip her head off,” Wei Wuxian quips.
Jiang Cheng glares at him.
“Is everything ready at the top of the tower?” Wen Ning asks.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replies. “I spent the whole day up there drawing that array.”
“Better be worth it,” Jiang Cheng growls.
Wei Wuxian ignores him.
Behind him, Lan Wangji is addressing Lan Sizhui.
“You are prepared?” Lan Wangji asks.
“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui says, face determined. “It will be an honour to play with you.”
“And I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” Lan Jingyi says, but his eyes are serious, his grip on his sword firm.
“You’d better be,” Jiang Cheng says to him. “If anything goes wrong, it’s all on us, you understand?”
“Of course I understand,” Lan Jingyi bristles. “We’re the last line of defense,” he says, and Wen Ning nods his agreement.
Jiang Cheng grimaces, and Wei Wuxian bites back a laugh. He knows Jiang Cheng is less than thrilled about being relegated to backup, but such is the way of the plan.
It’s a good plan, he thinks.
This is going to work.
One by one, they file out the door, but Lan Wangji holds Wei Wuxian back just as they are about to leave, catching him by the elbow and giving a small tug to spin him around.
“Wei Ying,” he says, voice low. “Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me you’ll be safe.”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “Lan Zhan, do you trust me?”
“With my life,” Lan Wangji swears.
“Then trust me,” Wei Wuxian whispers, and then Lan Wangji is kissing him, wet and bruising, his hands tangled in Wei Wuxian’s hair.
Wei Wuxian gives himself over to the kiss, opening to Lan Wangji like a flower to the sun, his heart unfurling in his chest. He wraps his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist and arches up to meet him, letting Lan Wangji take what he needs.
When they finally break apart, Lan Wangji’s eyes are deep and dark, and he drags his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s swollen lower lip.
“I trust you,” he breathes, solemn as any vow. “Promise me you’ll come back to me.”
“I’ll always come back to you,” Wei Wuxian swears, bringing their foreheads together. “I promise.”
“Are you coming?” Jiang Cheng calls from beyond the door, voice clearly irritated.
Wei Wuxian huffs a laugh across Lan Wangji’s face.
“Coming,” Wei Wuxian calls, and together, they head out into the chilly, frosty air.
Night falls just as they approach the base of the tower. It’s a cold, clear night, and the moon hangs full and brilliant over the ocean. The wind is as fierce as ever, and it howls through the gaps in the tower walls as they mount the stairs. Once they’ve made it to the top, they take up their positions, Wen Ning and Wei Wuxian to the north. Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui take up their posts on the east and west sides of the array, and Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi fall back along the south wall.
Wei Wuxian stands with his feet just at the edge of the array, a talisman in hand, and he takes a long, deep breath, the icy wind somehow comforting in his lungs. He can feel the adrenaline starting to course through his veins, his heart rate picking up.
He locks eyes with Lan Wangji, and he gives a small nod. Lan Wangji stares at him a moment longer, golden gaze piercing, then he signals to Lan Sizhui, and the two of them raise their hands over their respective qins. They strike the strings in perfect unison, fingers dancing over the first chords of Evocation. The call rings out with a blaze of blue light, Evocation’s spiritual array glowing over top of Wei Wuxian’s work. Instantly, the second array is activated, brilliant red sparking beneath the blue, and the barrier is established, golden tendrils writhing up from the ground, flashing purple in the light from the dual arrays.
Almost immediately, the black mist begins to coalesce within the circle, and Yeqiao slowly emerges, eyes glassy and claws hooked, face twisting in a watery grimace as she struggles to move and finds herself restrained. He eyes begin to blacken, and she screams in outrage, rancid water collecting around her feet.
The dual arrays spark and sputter, but the barrier holds, and Wei Wuxian raises the talisman, its bloody script still wet, and sends it flying toward Yeqiao. It finds its target in the middle of her chest, flaring to life and driving her to her knees. She howls, roaring like the ocean in a storm, but the talisman holds, and she writhes in agony, glowing red veins making their way up her neck, spidering across her face.
The tune shifts, Lan Wangji’s fingers flying over the strings, plucking out a new melody as Lan Sizhui continues to hold Evocation. The song dips and soars, notes riding on the wind, and the resentful energy is battered back as Vanquish strikes, again and again, invisible chords as sharp as blades, lacerating the body of the ghost as if to flay her open and reveal the spirit beneath.
Wei Wuxian raises Chenqing to his lips, the red string bracelet a circle of crimson around his right wrist. Chenqing’s voice pierces the night, high and shrill, the first notes of a new song rising to join the rest. Wei Wuxian has never played this version before. He’s never sought to rouse any emotion but resentment in a spirit, but this time his call is different.
Listen, it says.
Yeqiao screams, her clawed fingers flying to her ears, attempting to block out the music, but Wei Wuxian plays on, the song building, getting louder, and the talisman welded to her chest reacts, the red veins seeming to expand and contract, tearing through the surface of her face. She is like a broken eggshell, lit from within, the cracks widening as the life inside struggles to burst free.
And all at once, she breaks.
Light flashes, pure as lightning inside the barrier, and the resentful energy explodes away from her body, a maelstrom of black smoke, swirling within the cage of the array. It thrashes and twists, violent as a tornado as it clashes with Vanquish, sliced into ribbons, strangled by the barrier.
And in the eye of the storm kneels Yeqiao, dazed and faded and not quite real. She looks just as she once was, a delicate young woman with deep, dark eyes, and Wei Wuxian’s heart seizes at the sight of her, the last notes of his command trilling into silence.
Steeling himself, he steps forward into the circle of the dual array, right hand extended. He holds out the bracelet, its perfect circle framing the delicate brushwork of the small, intricate symbol he’d painted on his palm. It’s the last piece of the puzzle, the last of his tricks, and he prays with all his heart that it works.
Wei Wuxian grits his teeth against the resentful energy swirling around them, closing his ears to its desperate hissing. Yeqiao’s eyes are wide and bottomless, her hair whipping around her desolate face, her mouth open in a silent plea. She stares at his outstretched hand, at the bracelet in his palm, and her eyes seem to focus for the first time as bloody tears begin to stream down her face.
“Yeqiao,” he says, voice nearly swallowed by the black, shrieking hurricane. “Chen Hao is at peace. He’s waiting for you, Yeqiao.”
The arrays flash and the barrier twists, rattled by the echoes of resentment, but Vanquish never falters, and Wei Wuxian pushes forward, kneeling in front of her, offering her the bracelet, begging her to reach out and take it.
She stares at him, unblinking through her bloody tears, eyes wide with anguish.
Wei Wuxian whistles then, a final entreaty, echoing the last three notes of his command.
She reaches out, fingers straining, and at last, she grasps Wei Wuxian’s hand, the bracelet trapped between their palms.
There’s a searing blast of light, and then Wei Wuxian’s world goes hot and white, his entire body consumed by fire. He’s floating, suspended as if in water, but he can’t move, and the pain is unbearable, every nerve in his body screaming in agony.
His vision sparks and flares, and then, there is nothing.
From beneath the surface of the ocean, Wei Wuxian can still see the moon, shifting and glimmering, distorted by the motion of the waves.
Everything is quiet, disturbed by neither breath nor heartbeat.
It’s peaceful. So deathly peaceful.
He blinks slowly through the water, his eyes unbothered by the salt. If he just lets them close now, he can finally sleep, deep and dreamless. His head feels heavy, his eyelids drooping.
It’s a raindrop hitting the surface of the water, breaking the silence like a silver bell, rippling out and away.
Come back to me
The moon wavers.
The sky beckons.
Wei Wuxian raises his head, eyes wide open, and reaches for the surface.
He comes awake slowly, awareness trickling back in as the light grows brighter behind his eyelids. He cracks his eyes open into the newborn sunlight, dawn breaking across the room.
He turns his head toward that beloved voice, rough and raw with hope and lack of sleep.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian tries, a breathy exhalation.
“I’m here,” Lan Wangji calls, his hand coming up to stroke the hair back from Wei Wuxian’s forehead. His fingers are gentle and cool, his touch soothing.
“Did it work?” Wei Wuxian asks weakly. “Yeqiao. Is she…?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says softly. “You did it. You released her from her resentment and bound her spirit to the bracelet instead.”
“Where is she now?” he asks.
“She has been sealed inside an urn, and the monks have held a vigil for her. She is to be buried beside her husband. The grave was prepared yesterday, and the funeral is today,” Lan Wangji replies.
“How long have I been asleep?” Wei Wuxian wants to know.
“Three days,” Lan Wangji says, voice soft. The hand on Wei Wuxian’s forehead moves to cup his face, Lan Wangji’s thumb tracing over the skin beneath Wei Wuxian’s eye.
Wei Wuxian sighs, his eyelids fluttering as he turns into the touch. He presses his lips into Lan Wangji’s palm, shaking just a little, suddenly bereft.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji soothes. “My Wei Ying.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, voice cracking. “Lan Zhan, won’t you hold me?”
Instantly, Wei Wuxian is scooped up as Lan Wangji slips behind him on the bed, and Wei Wuxian finds himself resettled in Lan Wangji’s lap, cradled against Lan Wangji’s chest. He circles his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck and holds on tight. He tucks his face into Lan Wangji’s neck, breathing in deeply, inhaling the smell of sandalwood kissed by seawater as Lan Wangji presses a rough kiss to his temple.
“I’m so sad,” Wei Wuxian laments, his heart steeped in sorrow. “Why am I still so sad?”
“Because you are kind,” Lan Wangji murmurs, stroking the back of Wei Wuxian’s head. “Of course you are sad for her. For them.”
“She loved him so much,” Wei Wuxian says. “She loved him more than her own life. She loved him after death, even as a Fierce Ghost.”
“She will rest, now, because of you, at Chen Hao’s side. You gave her that,” Lan Wangji says. “Wei Ying, you gave them both that.”
“I almost went to sleep,” Wei Wuxian shivers. “I almost went with her.”
“But you didn’t,” Lan Wangji says, his voice thick with affection and relief. “Wei Ying. You came back. Thank you,” he says, pressing another kiss to Wei Wuxian’s temple.
“I promised,” Wei Wuxian breathes into Lan Wangji’s neck. “I promised you.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji whispers. “You did.”
“I’ll always come back to you,” Wei Wuxian says, needing to say it again. “By your side is the only place I ever want to be. I’m sorry if I scared you. But I’m here now. Please, won’t you keep me?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji exhales, voice wet. “Yes, Wei Ying. Yes.”
Lan Wangji tilts Wei Wuxian’s head up and claims his mouth in a searing kiss, lips almost bruising as he angles Wei Wuxian’s head and deepens the kiss. Wei Wuxian gives himself up to it completely, tightening his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck and letting Lan Wangji stroke into his mouth with his tongue. Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji shift beneath him, and then Wei Wuxian is being rolled onto his back, pressed back into the pillows as Lan Wangji continues his assault on Wei Wuxian’s lips.
Lan Wangji kisses him fiercely, roughly, all the force of a tidal wave crashing to the shore, and Wei Wuxian lets it wash over him, lets himself be carried away by the undertow. He closes his eyes and buries his hands in Lan Wangji’s hair, wraps his legs around Lan Wangji’s waist, let’s Lan Wangji rock their bodies together with the rhythm of the tide.
“Touch me,” Wei Wuxian breathes against Lan Wangji’s lips. “Lan Zhan, please. I want to feel you.”
Lan Wangji kisses him soundly again, then he moves his hands to the ties on Wei Wuxian’s red sleep robe, long fingers swiftly unfastening the knot. Lan Wangji kisses a line from his neck down to his chest, kissing each new inch of skin that’s revealed as he pushes the robe open to Wei Wuxian’s waist. He throws it the rest of the way open then pauses at Wei Wuxian’s hipbone, licking a stripe along the crease leading toward his groin, and Wei Wuxian lets out a breathy moan.
Wei Wuxian tugs insistently at Lan Wangji’s belt until Lan Wangji relents and pulls back long enough to untie and discard it. Wei Wuxian fumbles with Lan Wangji’s plethora of layers, pushing them back one by one until he can snake a hand inside Lan Wangji’s undershirt, his fingertips meeting smooth, impossibly pale skin.
“Let me see you,” Wei Wuxian says, voice low and breathless.
Lan Wangji obliges him, sitting up and shrugging out of his heavy robes so that they pool around his waist. Wei Wuxian quickly follows him up, slipping the rest way out of his own robe as he does so, letting it fall to the bed behind him. He strokes his palms up Lan Wangji’s chest, reveling in the smoothness of his skin.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, leaning in to brush their lips together, hands snaking around Lan Wangji’s neck. “I want you so much.”
“You have me,” Lan Wangji breathes into his mouth. He pushes his robes to the side, off the bed and onto the floor. “I am yours, Wei Ying.”
“Please,” Wei Wuxian pleads, still breathless, maybe a little desperate. “Please show me. Lan Zhan, I need you. I want to feel you again.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji exhales, mouth working against Wei Wuxian’s jaw.
“Please,” Wei Wuxian begs him, voice breaking. “Show me. Come inside me. Please, Lan Zhan—”
Lan Wangji topples him backward, kissing him hard and wet. He blankets Wei Wuxian’s body with his own, pressing him firmly into the mattress. He grinds their hips together, and Wei Wuxian groans as their cocks brush up against each other, trapped between their bodies.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whines, legs falling open, hips canting upwards. “Lan Zhan, please, I need you, I—”
“Shh,” Lan Wangji soothes, nipping at Wei Wuxian’s ear and reaching over to the bedside table to retrieve what’s left of the oil. “Let me take care of you.”
He strokes Wei Wuxian with slick fingers before his hand drifts lower, and Wei Wuxian moans in relief when the first finger slips inside him. He’s hungry for it, hot and needy, and he keens into Lan Wangji’s mouth as Lan Wangji bends forward to kiss him while working him open.
Wei Wuxian reaches down and takes Lan Wangji’s cock in his hand, loving the feel of it against his palm, like hot silk as he strokes him up and down. Lan Wangji makes a pleased sound at the back of his throat and deepens their kiss, rutting slightly into Wei Wuxian’s hand.
Wei Wuxian cants his hips up again, pushing back against Lan Wangji’s fingers with a reedy little moan.
“Now,” he pleads, breathless and needy. “Lan Zhan, please.”
Lan Wangji slips his fingers out and grasps Wei Wuxian by the hips with both hands. Wei Wuxian brings his knees up and spreads himself wide, open and inviting, and he watches greedily as Lan Wangji enters him, deliciously slow. Wei Wuxian gasps as Lan Wangji presses farther inside, hands fisting in the sheets. He lets his head fall back to the bed and revels in the feeling of being stretched around Lan Wangji, his body pulsing around the invasion.
Lan Wangji rolls his hips forward, grinding them together and sending a line of liquid fire up Wei Wuxian’s spine. Wei Wuxian cries out, head tossed back as far as it can go, body arching helplessly off the bed. Lan Wangji looms over him, leaning in close, his hands sliding up Wei Wuxian’s body, running along the sides of Wei Wuxian’s neck to fist in his hair at the base of Wei Wuxian’s skull. He holds Wei Wuxian steady and attacks his neck with teeth and tongue, laving away the sting of each new love bite.
Lan Wangji drags his mouth up Wei Wuxian’s throat, kissing and nipping up the line of Wei Wuxian’s jaw until he finds Wei Wuxian’s lips again, sealing their mouths together in a deep, filthy kiss. He begins to rock his hips forward, slowly and methodically, pulling back just an inch or two each time before sliding smoothly back home. Wei Wuxian whimpers helplessly into his mouth, body taut but eager, accepting every thrust with a shudder.
Lan Wangji keeps the pace slow, almost languid, the steady roll and grind of his hips keeping Wei Wuxian deliciously on edge. He strokes at the heart of him, catching that spot inside of him on every other thrust, and Wei Wuxian clings to him, hands gripping Lan Wangji’s broad shoulders, running over the web of scar tissue lacerating his back.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps, digging his nails in. “Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji kisses him, sucking Wei Wuxian’s bottom lip into his mouth before kissing his chin, his cheek, his eyelids.
“Wei Ying,” he breathes across Wei Wuxian’s mouth. “I want you,” he says, kissing a line to Wei Wuxian’s ear. “Only you.” He closes his teeth on Wei Wuxian’s earlobe. “I will give you everything,” he whispers.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chokes out, heart constricting sweetly. “Lan Zhan, please. I want it.”
Lan Wangji kisses him again, delving deep, and Wei Wuxian lets him, giving himself up completely. He closes his eyes and inhales the smell of sandalwood and sweat, gets lost in the feeling of Lan Wangji buried deep inside of him, savouring the delicious ache with every drag of Lan Wangji’s cock.
“I want it,” Wei Wuxian says again, voice a breathless whisper. “I want it.”
Lan Wangji pulls back and thrusts in harder, eliciting a hoarse cry from Wei Wuxian. He slides his hands down Wei Wuxian’s torso and encircles Wei Wuxian’s waist with his arms, lifting him bodily off the bed so that only his shoulders remain in contact with the sheets. He angles Wei Wuxian’s hips up for better access and picks up his pace, driving into Wei Wuxian with bruising force.
Wei Wuxian keens, his insides coiling with desperate heat. He arches up into Lan Wangji’s embrace, his hands scrabbling to find purchase in Lan Wangji’s hair as Lan Wangji leans forward again, nipping and sucking at Wei Wuxian’s collarbones. Wei Wuxian arches his neck, the crown of his head pressing into the mattress, Lan Wangji’s impossibly strong arms still holding him around the waist, suspending him above the bed as Lan Wangji continues to thrust, faster and deeper, relentless.
The heat in his gut continues to build, pressure mounting almost painfully with every thrust, and Wei Wuxian nearly sobs with it, tears collecting at the corners of his eyes.
“I can’t,” he chokes out, voice breaking. “Lan Zhan, I can’t—”
“Come for me,” Lan Wangji rasps, plunging mercilessly deep. “Come like this.”
Wei Wuxian gives a strangled cry as he comes, hot white streaks across Lan Wangji’s stomach. Lan Wangji holds Wei Wuxian still as his body spasms, shaking violently with the force of his release, and then he is thrusting again, short and sharp and brutal. He comes inside Wei Wuxian with a shuddering gasp, and he finally lets Wei Wuxian’s body fall back to the bed. Lan Wangji follows him down, slipping out with a sigh. Wei Wuxian groans at the loss of him, body still throbbing with the after-effects of his orgasm.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian pants, chest heaving. “Lan Zhan.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji replies, moving up Wei Wuxian’s body to hold him. “I’m here.”
He gathers Wei Wuxian close, careless of the mess between them, and kisses him softly, deeply, his lips soothing, and Wei Wuxian feels his heart rate begin to slow, his pulse growing smooth and languid.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian breathes, his heart soaring. He’s forgotten how to say anything else.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji answers, kissing Wei Wuxian’s forehead. “My Wei Ying.”
They lie facing each other, breaths evening out and synchronizing, heartbeats aligned. Wei Wuxian can feel his eyelids growing heavy, his vision blurring as they flicker, trying not to close.
“Sleep,” Lan Wangji entreats him, voice low and gentle. “I’ll have a bath drawn for you. Sleep now, Wei Ying.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian whispers, warm and soft and sated. “Will you be here when I wake up?”
Lan Wangji kisses his forehead again.
They stand around the freshly turned soil, faces solemn as the wind whistles through the graveyard. The twin grave markers stand proudly upright, stark grey stone freshly carved with their names but no lineage. They are connected to each other alone, together at last.
Wei Wuxian says a silent prayer for them, wishing them peace in the afterlife. He hopes that they enter the cycle of reincarnation together, that they are born to be together again, and that they will live a less cruel fate.
Wei Wuxian marvels at his own fate. His own second chance. He looks up to find Lan Wangji watching him, eyes soft with warmth and affection, and he feels himself smiling, eyes crinkling up at the corners.
“Well,” Jiang Cheng says, breaking the silence. “That’s finally that.”
“Thank you for all of your help, Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui says, voice painfully sincere.
Jiang Cheng scoffs, perpetual scowl back in place.
“I didn’t do much in the end,” he huffs. “I’m just glad it’s all over. Jin Ling can finally rest easy about that damned watchtower. Reconstruction has already started. It ought to be done in less than a month, according to the new Overseer.”
“Any word on the old Overseer?” Lan Jingyi wants to know.
Jiang Cheng waves a hand toward a corner of the graveyard. “There’s a plot over there with his name on it, don’t worry. I made sure of that.”
“So he is facing the death penalty,” Wei Wuxian muses.
“Serves him right,” Jiang Cheng says dismissively. “Him and everyone who followed him.”
“They’re all being put to death?” Lan Jingyi asks in surprise.
“No,” Jiang Cheng says. “The rest are being sentenced to hard labour for life. They can start by fixing the bloody tower.”
“Seems fair,” Wei Wuxian says. “Are you going straight back to Lotus Pier now? Or will you stop over at Koi Tower?”
“Straight back,” Jiang Cheng replies. “I have to get back to the discussion conference business, among other things. I suppose you’re free to go wherever you please again?” Jiang Cheng asks, unable to keep the edge out of his voice.
“Not everywhere,” Wei Wuxian says lightly. “Don’t worry, Jiang Cheng. I know where I’m not welcome.”
“Who says you’re not welcome?” Jiang Cheng barks. “Next time you’re in Yunmeng, you’d bloody well better pay your respects. Understand me?”
Wei Wuxian blinks, genuinely taken aback. “All right,” he says stupidly.
Jiang Cheng gives him a curt nod.
“All right, then,” he echoes back. “I’ll be off.” He turns to give a stiff bow to Lan Wangji. “Your Excellency.”
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji says smoothly, returning the gesture. “Have a safe journey.”
Jiang Cheng nods once more, and then he is striding out of the graveyard, back toward the busy streets of Rongcheng.
“Sizhui, Jingyi,” Lan Wangji is saying. “You will head back to Gusu and deliver the report to the Grandmaster. Gather Lan Siyu and the others and prepare to leave this afternoon.”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui says. “Uncle Ning,” he says, turning to Wen Ning. “I’ll see you soon?”
“Yes,” Wen Ning says with a smile. “I’ll see you off, then catch up with you later.”
The three of them make their bows before departing, and Wei Wuxian watches them go before turning to the small figure that’s hanging back in front of the gravestones, waiting quietly.
“A-Jing,” Wei Wuxian smiles. “Thank you for coming to the funeral. I’m sure Chen Hao and Yeqiao appreciated it.”
She nods shyly, her eyes still a little wet.
“I’ll take care of them,” Jing promises. “I’ll clean their graves. I’ll make sure they aren’t forgotten.”
“You are very kind,” Lan Wangji says, his voice soft.
She shakes her head. “It’s only right. They had no children. And I have no parents. I’ll be happy to do it.”
Lan Wangji tilts his head, considering her. “What else would make you happy, Miss Jing?”
“I-I’m sorry?” she stutters.
“I owe you my life,” Lan Wangji says gently. “I will never forget that. I would like to thank you in any way that I can.”
“T-That’s not—I mean, that’s not necessary, I—”
“Please,” Lan Wangji entreats her. “Is there anything you’ve ever wanted that did not seem possible? Is there anything you wish for? I will grant it for you, if you will allow me.”
Jing blinks at Lan Wangji, flushing prettily, her eyes darting between him and Wei Wuxian.
“Um, I… That is, I might…” she tries.
“Go on,” Lan Wangji nods in encouragement.
“I want to learn to read,” she blurts out.
“To read?” Lan Wangji echoes.
“Yes,” Jing says, suddenly shy again. “People who can read. It’s like they have a whole different world they know. I’d like to have that, too.”
“A-Jing,” Wei Wuxian smiles, feeling such a fondness for the girl. “I think that’s a great wish. And luckily for you, totally doable. Right, Lan Zhan?”
“Indeed,” Lan Wangji replies. “I will speak to your mistress. You shall learn to read.”
“Thank you,” she says quietly, eyes brimming with tears. “Thank you so much!”
In the end, Lan Wangji purchases Jing’s independence. He pays the Mistress for her room and board for the next ten years, even though the Mistress swears she would never turn Jing out, money or no money.
“For a new servant, then,” Lan Wangji insists, pressing the silver into her palm. “I would that Jing has ample time for her studies.”
“Thank you,” the Mistress gushes, completely overwhelmed. “Thank you, Your Excellency!”
“See that you study hard,” Lan Wangji tells Jing. “I have contracted the best tutor in Rongcheng, and he will not tolerate a lazy student.”
“Yes!” Jing says, face flushed with happiness. “I promise, I will!”
“You will write to me,” Lan Wangji says. “I expect to receive regular updates on your progress.”
Jing nods vigorously, her eyes welling up again. “I will, Your Excellency. Thank you.”
“I owe you a debt that can never be repaid,” Lan Wangji intones solemnly. “Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian watches it all from his spot in the doorway, leaning casually against the doorframe, a soft smile on his lips.
“A-Jing,” he calls. “Be good, all right? And when you’re all grown up and an accomplished scholar, come to the Cloud Recesses. They have the best library in the cultivation world.”
Jing glances at Lan Wangji, her eyes wide.
“You will always be welcome in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji confirms.
“Hanguang-jun, Master Wei,” Jing bows. “Thank you so much!”
Lan Wangji bows back, causing her to splutter, and Wei Wuxian laughs and salutes her from the door.
“Until next time, A-Jing.”
Lan Wangji finds Wei Wuxian at the base of the tower, near the edge of the cliff, his eyes trained on the ocean. The wind is up as always, smelling of frost and sea salt.
Wei Wuxian turns to greet him with a smile.
“All settled up?” he asks.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji replies, coming to stop just a few feet away. “We should depart soon, lest it get too dark before the next inn.”
“So what if it does?” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully, feeling light and free. “I wouldn’t mind spending a night under the stars with you.”
Lan Wangji smiles softly, the barest curve of his lips.
“It is going to snow,” Lan Wangji points out. “I would not have you get cold.”
“You’d keep me warm,” Wei Wuxian quips, delighting at the hint of pink showing on the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears.
Lan Wangji reaches out and adjusts Wei Wuxian’s cloak around his shoulders, and Wei Wuxian watches him with adoring eyes, smile stretched wide.
“What is it?” Lan Wangji murmurs.
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m just happy.”
“Are you?” Lan Wangji asks softly, eyes liquid gold.
“Yes. How could I not be?” Wei Wuxian says, swaying into Lan Wangji’s touch.
“You are happy to be returning with me, then?” Lan Wangji prompts.
“Of course I am!” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “I told you,” Wei Wuxian says, voice dropping to a murmur. “By your side is the only place I ever want to be.”
“You won’t regret it?” Lan Wangji presses. “You will be happy to stay?”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian croons. “You know I’m free, right?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “You are always free, Wei Ying.”
“Only free people can give themselves,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping forward and wrapping his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck. “And I’m giving myself to you.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji says his name like a prayer, his voice trembling in awe.
“There’s just one thing,” Wei Wuxian says. “There’s just one thing I want you to do.”
“Anything,” Lan Wangji says. “Wei Ying. Ask me.”
“Love me,” Wei Wuxian whispers.
“Always,” Lan Wangji vows.
Wei Wuxian smiles, wind in his hair and love in his heart.
“Take me home, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji kisses him, a gentle promise.
“Yes, Wei Ying. Yes.”
There’s no space left between them.
The wind sweeps Wei Wuxian’s laughter out to sea.