Time stopped, stuttered, and started again. Between one breath and the next, Wei Wuxian disappeared.
His mouth, which had likely been open to say, “Lan Zhan, don’t worry! It’ll be fine!”, and his hands, which were rubbing at the curse mark, vanished instantly. The forest was eerily silent except for the rustle and swish of his robes collapsing inward all at once.
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji rushed forward to catch the robes before they could hit the ground; despite his strength, he handled them gently, as if they might still open to reveal his husband. They didn’t. He rubbed a thumb subconsciously against the rough texture of the fabric and looked around.
Once, in the library of the Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had read reports on a number of transformation curses, which his mind immediately pinpointed as the most likely reason for Wei Wuxian’s disappearance. There were few other alternatives he would entertain. It was too early to panic, too early to succumb to fear, and neither would help him help Wei Wuxian. His long white robes were dizzyingly bright under the shade of twilight as he searched through the clearing, but there were no living creatures in his vicinity. The resentment had long driven everything, including the bugs, out of the area. Perhaps, then, the curse had to do with teleportation. A cold wind swept through.
Wei Wuxian could be anywhere, then. And if not teleportation—then what? A curse could sometimes kill, but rarely instantly. Never without leaving a corpse behind. It gave him some semblance of hope: Wei Ying must be alive.
It was easier to think about Wei Ying, alive somewhere, however far he may be, than have to consider anything else.
The sun was nearly set, but he searched the forest until the sky was ink-dark and the stars had swung up to meet the moon. Every time he ducked under a branch, he looked skyward, as if expecting Wei Wuxian to fall out of the sky. As if Wei Wuxian would have been sitting up in a tree all this time, just to shout, “Lan Zhan! I’m here! Surprise!” and then tip off toward the ground.
Having thoroughly combed through the trees, he set back toward the village and walked immediately to their room, Wei Wuxian’s robes and flute tucked carefully under his arm. He opened the door slowly, peering inside, betraying a little nervousness and a little hope. Both faded into despondency when the room was revealed to be empty. So Wei Wuxian was not here, either. A shallow crease was slowly etching itself between his eyebrows.
Lan Wangji put the robes down, folding them neatly, letting his hands linger on the cloth. A cultivator of his level did not need to sleep or eat, so he resolved to continue his search; there were no other cultivators with them, or nearby, and Lan Wangji was not yet ready to alert anyone that Wei Wuxian had… gone. He did not believe Wei Wuxian wasn’t coming back. As he turned to leave the room, he paused, and then returned to tuck Wei Wuxian’s robes into a qiankun pouch to take with him. Just in case. What if Wei Wuxian needed them when found?
As he scoured the town, which was thankfully small, just two main streets running parallel to each other before circling to meet in the middle, he recalled all that he knew about the malevolent spirit. A decade ago, there had been an accident in the river that ran along the east border of the town. A man and his wife were travelling along the shore when she fell in and was swept away by the swift, summer-swollen currents. Fearful for his own life, the man, who similarly could not swim, did not jump in to save his wife, instead letting her drown. Wracked by regrets, he stumbled into town and grieved for a week, wishing more than anything he could go back in time and jump in after her. If not to save her, then to perish with her.
After the week had passed, he went into the forest and ended his own life without telling anyone.
With no proper burial and considering the strength of his emotions at the time of death, his spirit returned corrupted by resentment. Strong, but nowhere near the strongest Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had defeated before.
Lan Wangji waited until the sun was once again peeking over the horizon before walking every inch of the riverbank, flying to check overhead. Wei Wuxian was an excellent swimmer, and the river, while full and fast, was not deep enough to present a real challenge to someone raised in the water. Lan Wangji was sure Wei Wuxian could not have drowned, even with an unknown curse mark. Even with Mo Xuanyu’s slender body.
For three more sunrises, he remained in the town, speaking with the villagers and flying over the area multiple times. And every evening, he returned to the room, fingers always resting on the door handle for just the briefest moment of pause, hoping beyond all hope that the room would not be empty. It always was. He consoled himself with the thought that as long as they were here in this world, Wei Wuxian would always come back to him. And Lan Wangji would always go to him.
It was on the fourth morning that he received word from Sizhui, asking when he and Wei Wuxian would be returning, having been expecting them earlier in the week. Lan Wangji realized he could choose to stay, to fruitlessly search for Wei Wuxian alone, or return to Cloud Recesses and seek more information. He returned to Cloud Recesses. They had not brought Lil Apple on this journey, so Lan Wangji flew back on Bichen as fast as he could and immediately made his home in the Library Pavilion, poring over various texts on curses. He read them impassionately, annoyance heavy in the tightening of his jaw. If Wei Wuxian wasn’t here yet, then he was waiting for Lan Wangji to go to him, and—they had already lost so much time between them. Lan Wangji was not willing to lose any more.
The literature agreed with his prior thoughts: transformation was most likely. Teleportation occasionally, but only to a location important to the spirits’ lives. The spirit in question had lived in that village his entire life, and Lan Wangji had already searched it thoroughly. The books were not helping, and Lan Wangji’s countenance grew darker and more concerned day by day. There was a sensation that time was running out, that the longer he took to figure things out, the longer Wei Wuxian would be suffering. He was willing to wait for Wei Wuxian forever, if that was what it took, but he couldn’t stand the thought that his husband might be in pain—yet he had no choice other than to uselessly flip through pages of texts.
The shine of a wire in the dim lighting of a temple, once upon a time. Pressed red and thin against a neck, the life force of someone he loved. The threat of death never listened to Lan Wangji; people he loved were always leaving without his permission. Over three decades ago, while he was still dangling his feet over the deck of the Jingshi, his mother had gone without a whisper of goodbye. Back in the temple, he had sealed his spiritual power without hesitation. If I have a choice, I want you to be alive. At least, for once, a choice.
After shelving the last of the texts, Lan Wangji finally attended a lunch with his uncle and brother, who were jointly running the sect. It had been a week of fruitless research, to the point Lan Wangji could hardly bring himself to sleep due to his self-frustration. The nights were cold and lonely; for once he did not sleep on his back but curled on his side, facing the edge of the bed, unwilling to look at the empty space Wei Wuxian usually filled. How had he lived like this for thirteen years? It didn’t feel like living but merely passing time, the crevice between one moment and the next, the abyss.
His family attempted to inquire about the state of the investigation, but Lan Wangji remained tight-lipped. Uncle, who was critical of his unintended fast, piled food high in his bowl. There was a rule being broken, perhaps multiple. But neither of them spoke of it. Xichen said nothing at all, pained to see him like this for Wei Wuxian once more.
Lan Wangji observed Lan Sizhui’s class of younger disciples in the afternoon, breathing slowly through his nose and taking note of the way sunlight fell in patches across the ground. His eyes flitted to Sizhui’s ribbon, the light fluttering of it in the breeze. Here, now, watching Sizhui, was the only peace Lan Wangji had felt in the last 14 days. Left arm held across his back, he approached after the lesson concluded.
“Sizhui,” he said. He had not been able to hide what had happened, and so there was a jitter to Sizhui’s step.
“Hanguang-jun,” said Sizhui, attempting a wobbly smile. But when he met Lan Wangji’s eyes, his own eyes began to water just slightly. “Sorry, I—don’t know why I’m. Um. Are there any updates?”
“I am returning to the site of the curse. I will find the spirit of the resentful ghost’s wife and learn more about his life, to see if it will yield more results.”
Sizhui visibly deflated at the ambiguous news, but nevertheless nodded resolutely. “Can I come?”
“You have duties here,” Lan Wangji reminded him gently. There was a beat of silence. “…I will send a letter if assistance is needed.”
The words satisfied Sizhui. Lan Wangji did not say anything more, but reached out and smoothed down the creases on the shoulders of Sizhui’s robes. The sun was aggressively pushing through the ever-present wisp of clouds, washing Sizhui’s face in a veneer of gold; he was very handsome and now twenty years old, but his eyes were still wide with fear. His generation had grown up in peacetime. They were more innocent, Lan Wangji thought, but no less strong.
Soon, Lan Wangji was on Bichen back to the village where it had all started, making the descent down the mountain.
The same inn was glad to have him return. Hanguang-jun, their wealthiest patron by far. He was even given directions to the same room, which was, of course, their largest one. Even the great Hanguang-jun, however, could not help a little sigh when he yet again opened that familiar wooden door to an empty room. This time, it truly was bare. Cleaned and ready, without even a trace of habitation.
Lan Wangji retrieved Wei Wuxian’s possessions from the qiankun pouch in which he had kept them all this time. For a little while, he paced back and forth, arranging the loose papers and brushes on the low table and the surrounding floor until the room looked like Wei Wuxian had been thoroughly living in it.
There, he thought, when I find him, it will all be ready.
At this point, it was clear that Wei Wuxian was being delayed or was somehow stuck on his way back to Lan Wangji. One could only hope it was not something painful. Many in the cultivation world would not agree, but Lan Wangji knew that Wei Wuxian had experienced more than enough pain in his two lifetimes. Mo Xuanyu’s body was only nearing thirty, but Wei Wuxian had crow’s feet from laughing and crying, soft lines drawn across his forehead from raising his eyebrows, and eyes that were starting to dig into his face under the soft pads of his eyelids. It meant he had aged through love and hurt, two sides of the same coin. It meant he was alive. Lan Wangji loved Wei Wuxian’s face.
The riverbank squelched with mud as he approached, dotted with smooth pebbles and the silt patterns of the most recent flooding. It was hardly windy, and the currents moved with a facade of laziness, dulled by the evening fog. Lan Wangji peered deeply into the murky depths, unconcerned with the dragging hem of his robes, now stained with mud. For a moment, he did not move. Then, with great care, he bound his sleeves and tucked the qiankun pouch with Wei Ying’s robes and flute more securely behind him so it would not be dirtied.
When he dipped his hands into the water, the coldness shocked him. It was only early fall, but the river flowed down from the mountain, and the glacier water was stunningly frigid. Lan Wangji’s only tell was the way his jaw clenched lightly; he pulled his hands out after a moment and wiped them on a cloth he had brought for the purpose.
The water was indeed flowing much faster than the eye could detect. If someone fell in, they would be carried downstream in an instant.
From hearsay, Lan Wangji had concluded that this was the area where the woman was taken by the river, but now he doubted that this would be the best place to play Inquiry. Her spirit would likely be further downstream. He moved another half a li down and then found a drier patch of stalky grass to sit on and pull out the qin.
His long elegant fingers danced over the notes of Inquiry, powerful spiritual energy radiating from him and his spiritual tool. As soon as he finished the last notes, however, urging the spirits to come to him, a discordant twanging began ringing out into the clearing.
Lan Wangji moved to silence the guqin and wrestle back control, but the fast, babbling notes began to form a distinctive rhythm.
lanzhanlanzhanlanzhan lanzhan lanzhanlanzhan lan zh zhan l zhan
Lan Wangji stilled.
His breath was punched out of his body viciously, lips parted, fingers suddenly lax. The twanging of the guqin went on uninterrupted, getting more annoyed by the second.
lan ZHAN. LAN ZHAN LAN ZHAN
The notes were shakier now but the spirit was playing something new, as if learning a language for the first time.
Hello? I waited so long for you to figure it out! Are you really going to ignore your Wei Ying?
That seemed to bring back a bit of the color in Lan Wangji’s cheeks, and he rested his fingers on the strings for a moment before inquiring, Wei Ying? When the spirit confirmed, he did nothing for a moment except close his eyes and breathe, heart and mind suffused with regret. Regret, a knot in his stomach, blood in the back of his throat. He wished he could return in time to push Wei Wuxian out of the way of the curse. His shoulders broke inward, an avalanche. Were they truly doomed to spend more time apart? Doomed to come together, only to be torn from one other’s sides once more? Wei Wuxian—dead. Again. How could something—so—enormous, so world-shattering, happen in less than a second? Was it fair? How could it be fair?
Hey, Lan Zhan, are you still there?
Without hesitation, Lan Wangji replied, Yes. Then, does it hurt? Then, did it hurt?
No, Lan Zhan, I’m feeling as good as ever, sounded out the guqin. Actually, much better than the first time. I don’t think I was even a coherent spirit the first time around. Just endless night…never mind.
Even in distress, Lan Wangji played the guqin surely, firmly, so that Wei Wuxian would not be able to tell his fear. The bone-deep terror that Lan Wangji might have to be alone again, with no one who knew him as deeply or as perfectly as Wei Wuxian. People were always leaving. Lan Wangji was always powerless to stop them.
Three years ago, the two of them had traveled to a small fishing town on the border of Yunmeng. Their motto was to protect the weak, to go wherever the chaos was. And there was certainly chaos here. The docks were salt-scuffed and bustling with fishermen dressed in worn robes of dark blue and gray, tossing fish up and out of boats. They weren’t afraid of the two well-dressed cultivators, knocking Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji out of the way in order to drag their boats onto shore.
“Why are they beaching the boats?” wondered Wei Wuxian. He tapped the shoulder of a young boy who was hanging around, clearly escaping some sort of hard work, and repeated the question.
“A storm is coming,” said the boy immediately, eager to look busy. “The boats will be smashed against the dock if we just tie them.”
Lan Wangji looked out at the horizon. There were no storm clouds in sight. In fact, the sun was just beginning to descend, refracting peacefully on a glassy ocean.
“Ugh,” said the boy, who was beginning to remind Lan Wangji of Lan Jingyi. “You’re not from around here, are you?” He glanced at their clothes and their hairpieces and then flapped his hands. “Never mind. This is the ocean, not a glassy lake. When the water’s this peaceful, it means the spirit’s coming. There’ll be a storm, you’ll see.”
Turns out, the boy was right. There was a storm, and there was a spirit. The fight was vicious and unique: Lan Wangji found himself knocked out by a piece of wood debris from a boat that had gotten caught in the storm part of the way in, and it was Wei Wuxian who had finished off the spirit and dragged Lan Wangji’s heavy, water-logged body to shore.
“We’re a good team,” said Wei Wuxian after, having given Lan Wangji intense mouth-to-mouth breathing assistance despite the fact that Lan Wangji had been breathing fine on his own, even unconscious. “You should’ve seen that ghost after I was done with him. No one hurts my husband and gets away with it.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, feeling uncomfortably heavy and salt-encrusted. He was not supposed to be the one getting saved. The air smelled of fresh ocean breeze and the muck of seaweed, but he tasted only blood and medicine. He remembered waking up just like this a long time ago, his back a net of pain, eyes wet with some unknown sorrow. No one was by his side then, but only because those that would care for him were instead at Luanzang Hill. He woke, and Wei Wuxian was dead.
Here, Wei Wuxian was living and breathing in front of him. Lan Wangji traced the laugh lines with his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Shhhh. Don’t feel so sorry for yourself, Lan-er-gongzi.” Wei Wuxian leaned up and kissed him, then stuck a drying talisman on his clothes. “Let’s talk to the village head and see if we can get a free room. And then a bath.”
They managed to secure a room, but not for free. The inn owner looked hungrily at Lan Wangji’s money pouch and then noticed Wei Wuxian. After many side-eyes and unsubtle glares, the man finally placed them in a small, barren room with one bed. Lan Wangji had been bristling the entire time, looking less than dignified with salt crusting on his face and clothes and hair stiff, but Wei Wuxian had kept a hand on his sleeve, tugging him back.
“C’mon Lan Zhan,” he wheedled, now alone in their room with bath water on the way. “It’s fine, why are you still upset? Is it about the innkeeper? He’s just a little guy, I forgot his name already. Who cares?”
“Hm,” said Lan Wangji, which Wei Wuxian took to mean he was still offended. He wasn’t, not really. He was more upset with himself.
Wei Wuxian lifted the first layer of his outer robe and burrowed in under it, using the momentum of it to snuggle Lan Wangji into the wall.
“Wei Ying,” said Lan Wangji, horrified. His clothes were dirty, wrinkled, and tasted of salt. He pushed a pouting Wei Wuxian away and began to strip off the layers. Once naked, he once again drew Wei Wuxian into his arms, letting the comfortable and familiar weight soothe some of his stresses.
When the bath was delivered, Lan Wangji stood behind a privacy screen while Wei Wuxian maneuvered the water and the tub, dumping in a number of fragrances for good measure.
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian said softly, leaning his head on the edge of the tub while Lan Wangji bathed. He was close enough that a few strands of hair were dipping into the steaming water. The lanterns lit his face in a soft glow, gentling the swooping arch of his nose. “I’m going to babble a little bit, okay? Well, just like normal. I’m just going to say it once: you are not responsible for all of my suffering. You are not responsible for any of my suffering.”
Lan Wangji opened his mouth to reply—he had a lot to say. He wanted to be responsible. If Wei Wuxian was hurt, then he wanted to carry the burden. He didn’t need to, of course, but wasn’t love about the wanting? And they both understood his desire to be the only one hurting Wei Wuxian, the only one capable of pinning him down, forcing him to submit. The weight of it was an anchor.
“No,” said Wei Wuxian, lifting his head and pressing a finger to Lan Wangji’s lips. “Shhhh, be good.”
Lan Wangji rolled his eyes, very subtly, which made Wei Wuxian flush.
“Tsk, Lan-er, don’t be so cheeky! You’ll make me forget what I’m saying. I just mean that the love is enough. The path we walk is long, and there is a lot we have to carry. No matter what, let’s keep moving forward.”
In the dim light there was a moment of silence, but a comfortable one, before Lan Wangji let go of his hair where he was washing it and said, “As long as you walk by my side, no path is long enough.”
Wei Wuxian’s ensuing squawking and loud sighs were enough to draw a gentle smile to his face. He considered Wei Wuxian’s words. Was there a way to move forward without letting go?
The answer to that question, he realized, was yes. Wei Wuxian was dead again. It was an immutable fact. But the path forward was to act quickly—there had to be a way to bring Wei Wuxian back. He would never let Wei Wuxian go again.
He played quickly, tell me what happened.
A man of action! I like that. There was no real way to convey tone through the twanging of the strings, but somehow Wei Wuxian was good at it. Despite his tumultuous emotions, Lan Wangji managed to feel amused. Good news and bad news: it was the curse. Surprise! Just joking Lan-er-gege, haha, you probably figured it out already! Anyway, I’ve had a long time to think about it while you were gallivanting around and reading books. I think I’ve pretty much figured it out, but I’ll need your help to investigate a few more things.
Lan Wangji was filled with a sense of calm the more Wei Wuxian talked. It was—easier this way to deal with the fact that Wei Wuxian was gone, because at least Lan Wangji still had him here. He had been so focused in searching for an answer that he had shut out the grief of Wei Wuxian’s loss, however temporary, and he now had time to remember just how much he missed the incessant chatter and quick wit; it was funny how easily the body became accustomed to company. And Wei Wuxian’s assured confidence was settling.
Where is your body? How could there be no corpse—whatever the curse did?
Okay, so we know that the spirit—sorry, forgot his name—was terribly broken up about his wife’s death. Fair. He wished more than anything he could go back in time and save her life, or jump in after her. I’ll bet that the curse is meant to send someone back in time, but no spirit is powerful enough for time travel, so it just brings the past version of someone to the present. Sort of like de-aging someone. And, well, ten years ago for me was…
Wei Wuxian did not need to finish the sentence. Lan Wangji knew. And he was flooded, oddly, with a strong sense of relief. The curse was not meant to kill or harm or maim. It could be broken. It would be broken. There was no corpse because it was only an alteration of state, not a permanent change. And Wei Wuxian’s soul was intact this time around.
Perhaps if we give his wife a proper burial…began Lan Wangji, before Wei Wuxian took over the strings.
Exactly! We lay her to rest or otherwise fulfill her wishes, and I think I’ll be back to normal. Don’t worry, Lan Zhan! You can’t get rid of me.
Ridiculous, he played back, and he imagined Wei Wuxian smiling. He was feeling much better now, well enough to joke.
Later in the day, when the sun was setting, Lan Wangji kept his guqin by his side as he walked down the banks of the river, alternately talking to Wei Wuxian and calling for the spirit of the man’s wife. A li later, and still there was no spirit to be found.
How far had she been taken downstream before she passed?
By the time the sun had already set for an hour, Lan Wangji was convinced by his husband to return to the inn and rest. There was less urgency now that they had a plan sketched out. Even if Lan Wangji wanted Wei Wuxian to return to him as soon as possible, it would be better to conserve strength in case the woman had gathered lots of resentment after death.
In the inn, Lan Wangji removed his outer robes and settled by the low table. Now that he had a better grasp on the situation, he prepared a letter to Sizhui to let him know that assistance would not be needed, and that he would be returning with Wei Wuxian in tow, happy, healthy, and alive. There was no alternative.
He wanted to continue talking to Wei Wuxian until bedtime. He didn’t like that Wei Wuxian had been chattering alone to him these past few days, and he had been ignorant the entire time. Ever since Guanyin Temple, he had known to himself he would never look away from Wei Wuxian again if he could help it. Sometimes circumstances stood in the way, and it always left him upset.
Lan Zhan must really want my attention, said Wei Wuxian. You haven’t been able to part with your guqin all day! Haha, were you lonely? Did you miss me? I missed you!
Missed you, Lan Wangji played back.
So shameless! But how did you miss me, Lan Zhan? Did you think about me all day? I was pretty bored. I couldn’t follow you into the Cloud Recesses and that was the most boring of all! Before then I could amuse myself pretending that we were teenagers and you were just ignoring me like you used to.
I would not ignore Wei Ying.
But you used to.
How could he explain that as a teenager he had been doing everything but ignoring Wei Wuxian? Anything else was possible. Anything but forcing himself to stop noticing Wei Wuxian. All he did back then was notice: the twitching of Wei Wuxian's fingers as he spun his brush, the three moles tucked into the soft shadowed planes of his face, the curve of his— Now, he wanted to see Wei Wuxian so badly his chest felt hot and achy, hearth caught in a strong breeze. This was the most difficult nighthunt he had ever been on.
Are you tired, Lan Zhan? Wei Wuxian asked. You can go to sleep, it’s fine. Don’t worry about me.
Spirits didn’t sleep, Lan Wangji realized. They were stronger and more awake at night. All those nights he had laid in bed alone, Wei Wuxian had only been able to hover and hum to himself.
I won’t sleep, played Lan Wangji. His core could easily handle a few more days without sleep. His body would be worse for it afterward, but it was nothing. Physically, he could do anything. He would not be the one to leave.
Lan Zhan! Go to bed!
Lan Wangji was very good at ignoring Wei Wuxian’s aimless pleading by now, and he stalwartly refused to remove his ribbon or middle robes. The strings of the guqin twanged incessantly with Wei Wuxian’s babbling, but it only made Lan Wangji fonder as he waited it out. It was a fine thing to know that even now, even like this, he was capable of working Wei Wuxian into a whiny mess.
You really won’t go, er-gege?
Fine, said Wei Wuxian, abruptly switching tracks, deciding to give up on the act. I was going to talk to you about this in the morning, but where do you want to go tomorrow? Keep walking along the river? I know there’s a village farther down, maybe another two li down. The girls at the teahouse were talking about heading there for a summer outing when we got here. Maybe someone there would have been the ones to find her body.
Clever, Lan Wangji praised. He knew the blush of Wei Wuxian’s cheeks well enough to picture it even though he couldn’t see.
Sneaky, gege, praising me when I can’t stop you. I can’t believe no one else knows how devious you are.
I think Sect Leader Yao may have a clue.
You think you’re so funny, hm?
Lan Wangji smiled slightly, even with no one there to trace his lips and squawk loudly and bury their face in his neck. He played, simply, I love you.
LAN ZHAN!!!! How dare you do that when I’m not even there! I can’t hold you or kiss you!
When we finish the case, Lan Wangji promised. You can do whatever to me, and I will do what I want to you.
The room seemed, for a moment, to get colder, like a certain spirit was losing grasp on his emotions.
Okay, er-gege, said Wei Wuxian. Whatever you want.
The next morning, they set out again to the river, traipsing downstream toward the village Wei Wuxian had pointed out. Inquiry did not produce anything interesting in those two li. A dusty sign read Sancun, grooves that made up the characters cut deeply into rotting wood. However, as they headed down the road and into the town proper, the road and buildings gradually became more and more sturdy and well-kept.
I think it’s teahouse time! said Wei Wuxian with an absurd amount of glee. The townspeople were all staring quite openly at Lan Wangji, the imposing cultivator in white with a ridiculously tall guan, playing the qin in bursts while walking down the path.
Lan Wangji sighed deeply. Before he could even say anything back, Wei Wuxian played, You have to! I want to see it!
When it came down to it, Lan Wangji could not truly deny Wei Wuxian much outside of their games, so he headed to the only teahouse in town, clearly labeled and with a small gaggle of patrons sitting outside, sipping tea and sweating furiously. If Wei Wuxian were here, there would be small beads of sweat trickling down his neck. Lan Wangji would want to lick them. He would hold himself back. But Wei Wuxian was not here, and there were no such fantasies for him to enjoy.
Like bunnies seeing larger creatures approach, the heads of the townspeople swiveled one by one to watch Lan Wangji, then just as quickly turned back, pretending to mind their own business.
I will have to put Wangji away, he said regretfully to Wei Wuxian. If he hoped to get any information, it would not be wise to hold a powerful spiritual weapon in front of him. With a flourish, the qin vanished.
“Hello,” said the woman who ran the teahouse warily, face lined with age. Her eyes flickered down Lan Wangji’s body then flashed back up. Her wary look was gone in an instant, but she still held herself away just slightly. “Welcome to Sancun Chaguan. What can I do for you?”
“A cup of tea,” said Lan Wangji. He could imagine Wei Wuxian twirling a piece of hair, leaning closer to the woman, but he didn’t dare try. He thought about what else Wei Wuxian might do in the situation. “I would be honored if you would join me.”
The woman’s eyebrow rose nearly to the ceiling. “Join Hanguang-jun for a cup of tea?” She seemed about to say something, but thought better of it, sucking her bottom lip lightly. “No, it would be my honor.”
It was a little awkward for Lan Wangji, hearing his title, but it was not like he was doing anything to hide it.
“Xiao Ming!” she called, and a serving girl hurried out of the back room. “Steep two cups of our finest tea. Quickly.” Xiao Ming took one look at Lan Wangji and didn’t seem to need any nagging or prodding; she nearly tripped over her robes while escaping back to the room she’d come from.
They headed over to a table in the corner, just slightly more discreet than the others.
“What do you want?” she said, in a tone that was a little shy of distrust.
“What is your name?” asked Lan Wangji in return, watching steadily as the woman cocked her head.
“My surname is Li, Hanguang-jun,” she replied with a hint of laughter in her voice.
They sat in silence for a few moments. “We are looking for someone,” he began, deciding to cut straight to business since the proprietor didn’t seem interested in small talk either. “From the town upstream. We believe she may have passed away around a decade ago after falling into the river.”
“My husband and I,” said Lan Wangji, and refused to say anything more.
“So you want to know if we’ve found any corpses by the river in the last ten years?”
“Yes,” he said, and he gratefully accepted a steaming cup of tea from Xiao Ming, who had come back with a wooden tray, two full cups, and a ceramic teapot.
There was a strange look on the woman’s face. She was sucking her bottom lip again, popping it in and out of her mouth. “I’m afraid I moved here only eight or nine years ago.”
“Do you know anyone who has been here long?”
“The village head is Chen-zhuren. You could talk to him.”
He inclined his head and took the advice. Along the way to the building Li-laoban had pointed out, Lan Wangji summoned his guqin to speak to Wei Wuxian.
Lan Zhan, said Wei Wuxian immediately. Why did you leave? You should have stayed and talked. Have you heard of anyone conducting an investigation who just left after two questions?
Lan Wangji was planning to return to the teahouse eventually, but he wanted to speak with the village head first. He smiled slightly as Wei Wuxian chastised him though; he’d let Wei Wuxian have his fun.
Lan Zhan, said Wei Wuxian again. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. You’re going to go back later, right? You should go back.
Okay, said Lan Wangji. Do you think she is lying?
After a brief silence, in which Lan Wangji thought Wei Wuxian may have wandered off, he replied, No. I don’t think so. But I think she’s hiding something.
Chen-zhuren was of no help. He did not recall seeing any corpses by the river, and there were no other villages for many li. If Inquiry had revealed nothing, and the villagers too did not recall a body, then it was likely she had died farther downstream. It would be near impossible to estimate where her spirit could be.
By the time they returned to the teahouse, it was closed although the sun was still bright in the sky. The proprietors likely lived in the second story above the business, but Lan Wangji was not so impatient he would go knocking for Li-laoban after business hours in her private home.
Sigh, said Wei Wuxian when they retreated to the inn. It really sucks not being able to tell you that I’m sighing. You just have to take my word for it.
I believe you, replied Lan Wangji. It was difficult to reply with one hand as he navigated the doors of the inn, since Wei Wuxian talked so fast he had to play the strings especially well to keep up. Even in this form, Wei Wuxian was still adept in picking up new skills; he really wanted to talk to Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji let him chatter on.
The next morning, they returned once again to the teahouse. Li-laoban did not seem happy to see Lan Wangji, but she couldn’t turn away customers.
There were substantially more people having morning tea than yesterday, so Lan Wangji did not ask her to join them. Instead, he sipped on his own tea and watched as people came in and out. Business slowed mid-morning, near lunchtime, as the shop prepared to close for a break. He would have to catch Li-laoban now, or he would never get ahold of her.
He made to approach the small table she was counting coins at, but before he could properly stand, there was a commotion by the stairs.
“Mama!” a small girl cried, tumbling down the last few steps of the stairs that presumably led upwards to Li-laoban’s living quarters.
Li-laoban looked up and her face broke into a wide grin, transforming the weariness of her wrinkles into something joyful.
“Gongzhu,” she said, picking up the child, “Why did you come down? I’m still serving customers.”
A second woman hurried down the steps and took the child from Li-laoban. “Sorry, I couldn’t stop her!” To the child, she scolded, “If you run off again, I’ll give you an extra large serving of rice.”
“Nooo,” moaned the girl, digging her face into the mystery woman’s neck. “No more rice, niangniang, I can’t eat all of it.”
“And the chickens will get you,” said Li-laoban. “If you leave even a single grain.”
“Nooooo,” said the child louder as the other woman hustled her upstairs.
Lan Wangji watched this all wistfully. The child was very well-loved. He knew that you did not have to be well-loved to still grow up and be a loving person, a good person, but for a moment he wished to be a child again, to have parents, to be loved in that very specific and unconditional way he had never known.
“Is she your wife?” he asked, startling Li-laoban, who did not notice that he had materialized by her side.
“Yes,” Li-laoban said, for a moment forgetting about her suspicion and wariness. “We were married five years ago, and had Jiajia a year after.”
“How did you two meet?” Lan Wangji asked. It was not relevant to the case, but isn’t this what Wei Wuxian would have done too? Cared about the lives of the people they were talking to? Engaged in conversation to recognize them as a real person and not just pawns in a cultivator’s nighthunt?
“She saved my life,” Li-laoban answered, going back to sifting through coins on her table. She looked up, eyes narrowing. “Why are you asking?”
“I am merely curious,” said Lan Wangji honestly. “My husband and I have often dreamed of staying in a town such as this and running a small business or farm. Perhaps with many children.”
“Well,” said Li-laoban, laughing wryly. Lan Wangji was proud he had wrung a laugh out of her at last. “We just have the one. But she’s a little rascal.”
“Where is your husband? Are you travelling alone?”
“I am on a nighthunt,” said Lan Wangji instinctively, then reprimanded himself when he saw her curl back away at the reminder. “My husband accompanied me, but he was unfortunately cursed and has become a spirit.” He avoided saying he died.
Her brows furrowed, and she looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be. It can be fixed,” he replied, settling into the chair opposite her so that he would not be looming over her shoulder.
“How do you know?” She worried her bottom lip again, turning it blood red. “What if it can’t be?”
“Sometimes…” Lan Wangji paused and considered his words carefully. He did not want to say things he didn’t mean. “It is not about knowing or about certainty. It is only about having faith.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied, shaking her head and chuckling. Her long hair, streaked through with gray, fell along the line of one strong shoulder. “That sounds like something only a cultivator could say.”
There was a beat of silence as Lan Wangji turned those words over in his head.
“The spirit we vanquished that set the curse,” said Lan Wangji, “was not a cultivator. He believed he could find a way to change fate. He failed, and became a resentful spirit. You are right—certainty, truth, faith—all of these words would have been useless to him. There was only fear.” He thought about Li-laoban’s words a little longer. He had wanted to make his own cause noble, and it was easy now to say that he had waited for Wei Wuxian and held faith. But that wasn’t true. Those years were uglier than romance, just the dizzying fear of being alone, the hurt of waking up and then only wanting, more than anything, to go back to sleep for a long time. Waiting, waiting, when had he started to use that word? It was nothing more than thirteen years of mourning.
“Can you—can you tell me more about the case?” said Li-laoban, sitting up suddenly. “What spirit have you vanquished?”
“He was married to the woman whose soul we are searching for,” Lan Wangji replied. “When she died, he regretted not trying hard enough to save her, and eventually killed himself.”
Li-laoban was holding a shaking hand to her mouth, strong fingers half curled. “And he placed a curse on your husband?”
“Yes,” said Lan Wangji. “On Wei Ying.” The name still felt good and sweet in his mouth.
“Hanguang-jun,” she said, pushing away the coins and messing up the piles she had been working so carefully on. “The man—was his name”—she paused, lowering her head, then looked up again fiercely—“was he named Zhang?”
“Yes,” he said again.
“That—he—he was,” she said helplessly, then dropped her face in her hands. “Hanguang-jun, I’m sorry, the woman you are looking for is me.”
The woman had never died; her corpse was imaginary. The real woman had washed up alive, on the shore half a li down from Sancun. One hand gripping fistfuls of tall, stalky grass, the other on her heart to feel the badump badump of circulation, she had clung to shore and eventually passed out with just one foot in the water. Her shoe washed away. Nothing else.
It was her future wife who had found her sprawled on the river bank close to death, and nursed her back to health, one bowl of rice porridge at a time. Steaming cups of ginger tea. Hand dusted with remnants of brown sugar, grainy to the touch.
They never found her other shoe, but her rescuer bought her new ones, slipped them on her feet to check for size.
“I have a husband,” Li-laoban had explained after a week of being awake, when they both knew what was happening, when the air between them was sticky with desire.
“Do you want him?” her rescuer had asked, without judgment. “Do you want to go back?”
Little did Li-laoban know, her former husband was already dead. But she did not go back. She was scared that if she showed her face in her old village again, they would force her to stay. Her husband loved her, but he was never exceptionally kind to her, and she only liked him a little bit, enough to settle with him.
This, this, whatever it was, was not settling. It didn’t feel easy, but at the same time, nothing had ever felt easier. She could close her eyes and let it happen, but at the same time, she didn’t even want to blink for fear of missing something. The sweet, arduous journey of falling in love.
They lived together as wife and wife for eight years. When Hanguang-jun came into her teahouse asking about a body, Li-laoban thought that her husband was still looking for her, and would take her back if they found out she was alive.
“I would not,” said Lan Wangji, “if you had explained.”
“You are a cultivator,” said Li-laoban, as if that explained everything. Perhaps it did. “Cultivators always want things to go back to normal. Normal is good, and safe, and proper. You would have asked me to go back, and I think I would have gone mad with rage.”
Lan Wangji thought, come back to Gusu with me. He thought about how someone had yanked Wei Wuxian’s soul into Mo Xuanyu’s body without consent. He thought about how, even after all this, he was nothing but sickeningly grateful that it had happened.
He wanted to say you know nothing about me, but maybe she knew too much about him. Nevertheless she deserved a response, so he hummed to let her know he had heard her and was thinking about it.
“So how can I help you remove the curse?” Li-laoban said, impatient now that there was no imminent threat of repatriation.
“I do not know,” said Lan Wangji slowly, drawing out his guqin. “I have an idea, but my husband and I will be able to figure it out together.”
“Ah,” said Li-laoban, staring with fascination at the rich smooth wood of the instrument. Her hand reached out tentatively. “Can I…?”
Wangji had been through much at Lan Wangji’s side—through the mud, the rain, the storms. Li-laoban’s gentle fingers on the divots where the strings curled and yanked against the wood were more than welcome.
“Beautiful,” she murmured.
After Li-laoban was finished, Lan Wangji played Inquiry and consulted with Wei Wuxian.
I told you, Lan-er-gege, was the first thing Wei Wuxian crowed.
Your intuition is good.
YOU’RE good, Lan Zhan. When you were talking to Li-laoban just now, I just kept thinking , I like you so much.
That settled a part of Lan Wangji’s heart he had not known was so turbulent, not until now. Mn.
Your ears….haha Lan Zhan, so shameless. Hide them or something, quick.
Li-laoban was sifting through coins again, clearly trying and failing to mind her own business, because her eyes flashed up every time the strings twanged on their own.
So, clearly, our original plan doesn’t work. But something in the same vein probably would.
Perhaps he would be at peace knowing that she is alive and happy. Lan Wangji thought that would probably have been enough for him.
Yeah, Lan Zhan. You know what to do?
Li-laoban was more than willing to help now, but customers were already filing back in and she had to start manning the front.
“Tomorrow, I’ll close the shop,” she said. “Meet me here in the morning.”
The next day, they traveled back to the first town, buildings now overly familiar to Lan Wangji. Li-laoban did not want to be recognized or spoken to by any of the residents, so he took her the long way to the graveyard where her former husband was buried.
The process was not difficult in the end. Lan Wangji watched with mounting anticipation as Li-laoban kneeled in front of the grave, excusing himself to let her talk in private.
And then, out of thin air, like a petal drifting to the ground, Wei Wuxian appeared.
The first thing Wei Wuxian did was kiss his husband. The second thing he did was hug his husband. Then he smiled, and smiled, and couldn’t stop smiling. Lan Wangji was pleased too, Wei Wuxian could tell, the way his lips curled up like smoke, eyes blinking slow and soft.
He kissed each eyelid.
Li-laoban was still kneeling at the grave, so he waited to meet her.
“Lan Zhan,” he said while waiting, because he could. “Did you miss me?” He liked asking questions he knew the answer to. In the world there were many mysteries, and he enjoyed solving them. But he was settled by making his home out of things that were good and right, like the way he loved Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji loved him back.
“Each day felt like many years,” Lan Wangji said. It was a very poetic way of saying yes, one that made Wei Wuxian squirm and blush and wriggle in place where he was attached like a limpet to Lan Wangji’s arm. The physicality was delicious, and he ran his fingers up and down the muscle of Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
They watched Li-laoban stand and wipe off the last of the dirt from the tombstone.
“She should not have had to return here,” Wei Wuxian remarked. “She came back to a place she did not want to go in order to bring me back. A cultivator she doesn’t even know.”
Lan Wangji’s chin jutted out slightly, and Wei Wuxian knew that to mean something along the lines of she didn’t have to, but I’m glad she did.
“You really suffered this time, Lan Zhan,” he said, even though he knew Lan Wangji would disagree. “Or maybe we all did.” Being a spirit had not been fun, although the worst of it had been when Lan Wangji was searching for him and he had no one to speak to. Didn’t it turn out okay, though?
“The path is long,” said Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian understood. As long as they were by each other’s side, every tomorrow was a blessing. No path would ever be long enough. Even one of suffering. They carried their own burdens, they leaned on each other when it got too heavy, and they held hands as they walked.
The tomorrows were like little stars in the sky, and he and Lan Wangji climbed and climbed and reached up and plucked them out of the clouds. It felt greedy, almost, in a way where he couldn’t believe how many tomorrows were still out there waiting for him. They were so bright. So bright.
Li-laoban would return to her life, and they would return to traveling, collecting stars.
“Lan Zhan!” said Wei Wuxian on the way back to the inn for one last night, laughing, running, feeling the ground thudding beneath his feet, feet that carried his beloved body.
Lan Wangji was already looking at him. “Wei Ying,” he replied.