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Never in Vain

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It was said that in the night when the music from the back hills of Gusu began, the notes from the guqin could make even spirits weep.

 

Though the distance between where the now-disgraced Hanguang-Jun was in seclusion and the central courts of the Cloud Recesses was great, the muted melody stilled everyone in their task, and they listened to the cultivated notes.

 

Tonight he is seeking.

 

Tonight he is angry.

 

Tonight he is mourning.

 

The music held sway over the disciples of the Cloud Recesses, and even the youngest began to learn that grief was best conveyed through the music of a guqin.

 

There were more reports of ghosts than before, but these ghosts weren’t vengeful; they were sorrowful. They were drawn to the isolated house surrounded by gentians and lingered in the shadows to listen to the songs that seemed to echo their own emptiness, their own loss, their own desperation.

 

Where is he?’

 

‘We don’t know.’

 

‘You have to know something.’

 

‘We don’t, we promise.’

 

‘Anything.’

 

‘We’re sorry.’

 

And so the songs became the common thread between Lan Wangji, the spirits that surrounded him, and the man who once commanded them.

 

A year passed like this, and slowly, spiritual wounds began to heal. Skin knit itself back together in a way that would never truly be whole again. The same songs rang through the same hills, although now they took on a quality that made them almost unbearable to listen to: resignation.

 

Do you know where he is?’

 

‘We do not.’

 

‘You’re sure.’

 

‘We’re sure.’

 

On the darkest nights, when there was no music, a body that had spent the past year fighting to remain alive now had to fight against a mind that wished it hadn’t. Acceptance was worse than uncertainty; uncertainty allowed for the possibility of hope.

 

When he had hope, he thought maybe Wei Wuxian’s spirit was too smart to let itself be lured by the cultivators trying to summon it. Perhaps he could find a fragment—just a fragment—and work with it to bring it peace. Or maybe he’d just keep it.

 

He had no claim on it, but he sometimes didn’t care. Despite standing and bleeding by Wei Wuxian until the very end, the intentions he’d harbored all his life, the confession that came far, far, far too late, he knew that Wei Wuxian had died with nothing but hate in his heart. That hate extended to Lan Wangji.

 

There were nights he couldn’t even bring himself to play Inquiry or the song of his own composition. On those nights, he definitely couldn’t pretend to be the noble Hanguang-Jun who had made every right choice, followed every rule, and still ended up with scars from the discipline whip of his own sect, in seclusion, in mourning, alone.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

During one of his brother’s visits, Lan Xichen had sighed and looked out the window.

 

“Knowing what you know now, would you have kept him here, like father did to mother if given the chance?”

 

Lan Wangji raised his eyes from the table where they’d rested nearly the whole visit and glared daggers at his brother.

 

It was a cruel question to ask because they both knew the answer.

 

Yes, I’d keep him if I found him.

 

The visit ended shortly after that.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

There was no way to notice time passing beyond the cues nature gave him: the gentians bloomed in spring, the rain came mid-summer, new moons grew to full moons, and disappeared again.

 

It was another indistinguishable night, and his fingers followed their well-worn path across the guqin while the spirits listened and lingered in his periphery.

 

Do you know where he is?’

 

‘No, we don’t.’

 

The same answer as always.

 

‘But we have a suggestion.’

 

The change in script caused Lan Wangji to cut the song off mid-chord, disrupting his connection to the spirits. They wavered briefly before he hastily plucked out a succession of notes.

 

A suggestion?’

 

‘Yes’

 

‘Of what nature?’

 

At this question, the spirits floating abstractly in the air began to congeal to form a physical presence. Lan Wangji watched wide-eyed (for him) as the manifestation of someone he’d only known through legend and art took shape in front of him.

 

Robes, simpler in nature than his own full regalia but still recognizable by the cloud pattern of Gusu. Eyes, schooled but kind, focused on Lan Wangji before softening with a sad smile.

 

“Wangji, your music is making the immortals inconsolable.”

 

Lan An.

 

Lan Wangji quickly shifted to his knees to kowtow in what was one of his less graceful moments. Lan An accepted the gesture as his due before sitting at the table, robes floating in the air as if they were suspended in water.

 

“Rise.”

 

Lan Wangji did as he was bid, perfect Lan posture coming to him out of instinct. In between him and his sect’s originator lay the guqin.

 

“I’ve watched over this sect since time immemorial. We’ve never had someone who’s played the guqin like you. I wish you hadn’t had to go through what was necessary to make you such a player.”

 

As he spoke, the ethereal fingers of Lan An stroked over the instrument, drawing no sound. Lan Wangji sat silent as well.

 

“You’ve no doubt noticed that your music stirs the spirits in the area. The ghosts are drawn to you.”

 

Lan Wangji looked at Lan An, nodding minutely when he didn’t continue to speak. Lan An held his gaze.

 

“This is something you have in common with him, is it not?”

 

Lan Wangji couldn’t help his sharp intake of breath. Breaking eye contact, he directed the fierce energy within him toward the clenched fists on his knees.

 

“Had.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

Had in common.”

 

And to this, Lan An said nothing.

 

In a less grief-addled state, Lan Wangji would have taken the opportunity to ask Lan An about his philosophy directly. He would ask if he agreed with the additional rules or if the complicated decisions he’d made concerning Wei Wuxian were the correct ones. But the simple fact was that he was heartbroken, and not even the presence of his progenitor could change that.

 

Lan An sighed.

 

“No one loves like the children of Gusu. I suppose I have only myself to thank for that. Or to blame.”

 

He paused.

 

“Very few of my descendants have ever loved like you. And no one has done so who’d had the spiritual fortitude to send their song to the heavens. Which is why I am here.”

 

Lan Wangji brought his eyes back to Lan An.

 

“The immortals have made a request of the gods on your behalf.”

 

Lan Wangji frowned slightly. Could that be done? What could they ask the gods for on behalf of a mortal cultivator?

 

Unless...

 

“Some immortals take it upon themselves to interfere in the affairs of man, even though it rarely ends well, especially for the people it most concerns. You, in this case.”

 

Lan Wangji waits for Lan An to continue.

 

“As you are my descendant, it was only appropriate that I come to you with information and an offer, both of which need to be carefully considered. Listen well.”

 

Lan An lifted his hand, spiritual energy trailing turquoise from his fingers, forming smoke-like whisps in the air.

 

“Wei Wuxian’s spirit will never be able to be called forth by Gusu Lan techniques. His soul no longer belongs to this world: it shattered completely at his death.”

 

Involuntary tears formed along Lan Wangji’s lashes and spilled over almost immediately. He’d suspected as much but to have it confirmed was as painful as a second death.

 

But Lan An continued.

 

“Since it was shattered, it will not enter the reincarnation cycle. Due to the nature of his death and cultivation, his spirit could hold no earthly attachment and so didn’t linger in your world. Instead, it was ushered to another plane. We call it the Silent Realm.”

 

Tears still falling freely, Lan Wangji furrowed his brow, trying to remember ever being taught about something called a Silent Realm. He was confident he hadn’t.

 

“The Silent Realm is a holding space for spiritual remnants that can be neither here nor there. They can neither return nor move on. They can neither exist nor disappear.

 

“There is one who holds dominion there, keeping watch over the spiritual fragments, keeping them enclosed. It is they who the immortals have made a request of. You must understand that despite being a ruler of such a place, this deity knows love and is sympathetic toward those who know it, too, which is why the plea was successful. That is the information, now here is the offer.

 

“If you so choose, I will convey to you how to reach the Silent Realm. You may request an audience with its ruler and ask of them to bring back Wei Wuxian.”

 

Here, Lan An paused to evaluate Lan Wangji’s face. Lan Wangji, impassive as always, inhaled slowly, then spoke.

 

“Yes.”

 

Lan An furrowed his brow.

 

“I told you that this should be carefully considered.”

 

“It has been.”

 

“Wangji...”

 

Know thyself, and say only what you mean.”

 

Lan Wangji had never been so blunt to anyone in his sect, not even while being whipped, not even when they attacked the man he loved. And now he dared to speak this way to Lan An?

 

Lan An rose, shimmering opaquely and regarded Lan Wangji.

 

“I won’t accept your answer today. I’ll return tomorrow.”

 

“It will be the same tomorrow. Why not take me at my word today?”

 

“While I trust the strength of your conviction, regardless, I will come tomorrow.”

 

At this, Lan Wangji openly scowled.

 

“You would keep me from him for longer than necessary?”

 

“I would keep you from yourself.”

 

Lan Wangji fell silent.

 

Lan An sighed in a way that was almost unbefitting of a Lan. He walked around the table and placed his hand—incorporeal as it was—on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

 

“As I’ve said, when men and gods intermingle, it rarely ends well for the man. I know you want to see him again, but I need you to consider that this could hurt you worse than it did the first time. You don’t know what you’ll see. You don’t know who you’ll come back as. This needs careful consideration. Real consideration. And as your sect founder, I demand it of you now.”

 

With that, he straightened and gave Lan Wangji one last paternal regard.

 

“Tomorrow, Wangji.”

 

His spiritual form dissolved, leaving Lan Wangji the sharpest fragment of hope to hurt himself with.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

The next day, he woke up at five and began meditating.  

 

He meditated for eight hours straight.

 

The distinction between sleep and wakefulness blurred at the edges. Dreams and their daytime counterparts competed. He set himself the task of giving Lan An’s proposal the consideration it deserved, the consideration he’d demanded. But he’d known his answer after one breath, and eight hours of sleep and eight hours of meditation had only fortified his desperate conviction that if there was a chance—any chance—there was only one option.

 

At mid-afternoon, he opened his eyes. He went to the door of the Jingshi and brought in the tray of food that’d been sitting there since high noon.

 

He ate everything. If he was to take on a challenge in the spiritual world, it was in his best interest to be physically primed. After his late meal, he prepared writing materials, taking down Lan An's information about the Silent Realm and about musical cultivation’s power to reach the realm of immortals. It would be a valuable addition to the library someday if he were to return. It would explain what happened to him to his brother if he did not.

 

He stepped outside and began running through the Lan martial forms, exercising his golden core. It was the first time he’d done so since he left for the Nightless City over a year ago. He continued until the first signs of twilight. Bichen offered a grounding sense of comfort. Despite his absolute assurance in the course of action he would take, he was afraid.

 

This could hurt you worse than it did the first time.’

 

This was the only thing Lan An had said that made him fear what was ahead of him. He’d barely survived—was still in the process of surviving—the first time. And if?

 

What if?

 

If not?

 

With a final exhale, he sheathed Bichen.

 

Do not deliberate on hypotheticals. Make decisions with conviction.

 

He knew his path. That was all that mattered.

 

He stepped back into Jingshi, bathed, lit a stick of incense, and placed his guqin on the low table.

 

Just as he had the night before, and every night before that, he began to play. He poured everything within him into the song, and its spiritual intent resonated throughout the peaks of Gusu.

 

Tonight he is determined.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

There wasn’t much that seemed different about this particular evening on the surface: the same song played from the back hills to the same spirits. But to those who knew how to feel, there was an undeniable change. The audience of ghosts grew larger. The song reached further, higher, deeper. It was heard from the foothills to the heavens, and a meteor shower began in the middle of Lan Wangji’s playing. The story of how Hanguang-Jun could make even the stars cry would be told by the bedsides of Gusu Lan children for innumerable years to come.

 

At the same hour as the night before, the spiritual form of Lan An manifested inside the Jingshi. Lan Wangji continued playing until the song reached its conclusion. His message was as clear as the notes he played:

 

You made me wait. I make you wait.

 

At the fade of the last note, he finally looked up at Lan An with an impassive face but eyes that glinted with challenge.

 

Lan An stared back, letting silence reign.

 

Finally, he sighed.

 

“You need not say a word. I have heard you. I have come. I know your answer.”

 

At this, Lan Wangji softened toward something more neutral.

 

“I’m not foolish enough to ask if you’re sure, but I want to know you understand that while the immortals sympathize with your plight, this is for their entertainment.”

 

Lan Wangji nodded. He didn’t care who knew, whose eyes would follow him into the spiritual world. He only knew that he had to try for all the times he hadn’t tried hard enough, soon enough.

 

Without further preamble, Lan An reached out and placed his thumb in the center of Lan Wangji’s forehead. His other hand took a spiritual hold of his golden core.

 

The world went white.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

When he came to, he was already walking. He was in a vast expanse with no forward, no behind, just white. Lan An was beside him.

 

“I don’t have long to stay with you. This is a journey you must make on your own. While I grant you my protection in this realm, I cannot follow you. It’s not a place for immortals. It’s not a place for mortals, frankly, but every rule has its exception.” With that, he paused, drew talismanically in the air, and a thin blue thread appeared on Lan Wangji’s wrist. It was the same kind that Wei Wuxian had conjured so many years ago when they were young, before the fall, before everything. Lan Wangji looked at Lan An, who smiled and patted his shoulder, his hand now a physical weight.

 

“Allow this old immortal his dramatic ironies, won’t you?” He raised his arm, pointing into the void of white where the thread led.

 

“Follow it. Do not stray.”

 

And with one last nod to Lan Wangji, he vanished.

 

Lan Wangji didn’t start walking right away. First, he felt for his body, for his core. He quickly determined that he was more figment than flesh, and he had no register on his own spiritual energy. He would not be able to defend himself. He didn’t know what he’d have to defend himself against, but not even having the option gave him pause.

 

Do not deliberate on hypotheticals.

 

Lan Wangji squared his shoulders and began following the thread into the white expanse.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

He’d been walking forever. Lan Wangji was not one to indulge in hyperbole but forever was the most honest word.

 

He didn’t feel a presence. He couldn’t hear a noise or recognize a spiritual emanation. The only word that echoed within him was “alone.”

 

Had he been tricked? Was he trapped?

 

Lan An wouldn’t lie, but what if it was a malicious spirit, come to take advantage of his vulnerability? He had trusted so instantly—so desperate for a solution to his unending loneliness. And now look where that’d got him: he was more alone than ever.

 

There was only this string on his wrist.

 

He couldn’t even tell if he was walking anymore. What did movement mean if it brought him no closer, no further?

 

He closed his eyes, wished for an end, a change, a sign of any kind.

 

He wished, not for the first time, for Wei Ying.

 

Steeling himself against the endless expanse of that dismal domain, he opened his eyes reluctantly, and froze.

 

The white expanse was gone. There had been no threshold, no feeling of change, no shift in the atmosphere to indicate that he had...finally arrived? Is this where he had been heading this whole time? He stood in the center of a dramatic court: columns of ebony and jade, black marble floors crackled with white fault lines. He lifted his wrist; the string was gone.  

 

Lan Wangji took a tentative step forward, his footstep echoing unnaturally, the sound rippling through the air in a physical way. After so much nothing, the presence of anything was shocking. Sound, color, material objects, a finite sense of space. Lan Wangji reacclimatized to being a physical being and moved through the central area.

 

“Your arrival was foretold.”

 

The voice manifested first within Lan Wangji’s head and then in the space around him.

 

“You have a hope, one that the immortals think I can deliver on.”

 

This voice was far from human, but it didn’t sound malicious. Just omnipresent. Lan Wangji looked around, trying to identify its source, but in the end, the voice came to him. Coalescing from shadows, a figure came to stand beside Lan Wangji. In a genderless, peerless way, this presence was beautiful. They held power and antiquity in their black gaze. With those eyes turned on him, Lan Wangji found himself in the usual position of not knowing what to say.

 

“You have one chance to make a request of a god. I suggest you use it wisely.”

 

Lan Wangji opened his mouth to formulate a plea, but no sound came. Panicked, he looked at the god. They raised an eyebrow.

 

“Make your request in the way you know how.” Their voice was taunting while his own was absent. But Lan Wangji was familiar with begging from spirits. He understood the conditions, and in what he considered admirable grace given the circumstances, he folded himself into a lotus position and made the gesture to summon his guqin. It appeared.

 

He didn’t know how to infuse spiritual intent in this realm, but he hoped that the depth of his wish would be enough to convey what he wanted of this deity. Putting fingers to strings, he began to play the song that came as naturally to him as breathing.

 

Wangxian. 

 

With this song of longing, he made his request:

 

If you give me permission to tell you the truth, I have not come here to explore power or avoid life. I am here in search of the one I love, cut off in the years of his youth when he took the world’s venom inside himself. I hoped to be able to bear the loss, and confess that I have tried, but love was too strong. I wonder if you know this ache—I divine that you do. I am told you are united in love. In the name of your Realm of infinite Silence, I, Lan Wangji, implore you: reverse the conditions of Wei Wuxian’s demise. As you are the guardian of death and broken souls, we are all destined for you. We are all bound for you, and you hold the longest reign of all. Wei Wuxian owes you his death, as do I. But until he’s lived a whole life—one he deserves—I beg you to let me enjoy him. If this is an impossible request, then I will never return to the world I know, and you can find joy in the bitterness of both our deaths.

 

The last note lingered in the air around them, taking up all the space in the court. When Lan Wangji finally opened his eyes, the deity wasn’t alone. Another god stood beside them, one of light: the yang to their yin. And from his seat before them, he could physically feel the love between them; it had become a tangible thing after enduring for millennia.

 

“Child of Gusu, Lan Wangji: your talents serve you well, and your intentions are pure. We have heard your plea and empathize with your devotion.” The light being spoke with a tone that sounded like spring.

 

“The circumstances of Wei Wuxian’s death were unnatural. We can help you halfway. The rest you must do yourself.” The dark deity gestured, and pieces of shattered glass manifested between them.

 

“This is the soul of the one you love. It is devastated.” Lan Wangji felt all strength leave him. The spirit that had been so vibrant didn’t even have an essence to it now.

 

“I am the only one in existence who can strategize a repair for a soul like this. But like I said, there is a role you must play.

 

“I will set these pieces in motion toward reconstruction, but you must lead them out of this realm. And there is a condition you cannot betray: you must not look at this process. You must face ahead and not try to see if progress is being made. What you want demands an act of faith.”

 

Steadfast. Unwavering. Dedicated. These were all words that had been used to describe Lan Wangji, and he needed to live up to them now more than ever.

 

“Do not underestimate what this will demand of you. You think because you are devoted, you can accomplish this with ease. If you want to obtain your heart’s desire, it will ask everything of you."

 

I am prepared to give everything.

 

"Mark your words." The dark god gestured over the shattered remains of Wei Wuxian's soul, and they began to animate.

 

"Turn, and don't look back." Lan Wangji did as instructed, and between one blink and the next, he was back in the bright, white void.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

The gods had provided no instructions for how to leave. Lan Wangji didn't have Lan An's guiding string at his wrist this time either, so without any other plan, he began walking.

 

He didn't get tired in this realm, therefore needed no rest or sleep, but he felt himself walk the length of days, weeks, forever.

 

Forever as an act of faith.

 

His footsteps created no sound, so when the first tinkling noise came from behind him, he barely resisted the impulse to spin around and protect himself. His body was already in motion when he arrested the momentum and waited to see if he heard the noise again.

 

It was the sound of glass pieces brushing against each other.

 

Wei Ying...

 

Did that mean Wei Wuxian's soul was truly reforming, as the deity had promised? He slowly turned back to face forward and began walking again, keeping his eyes fixed firmly away from the brilliant sound of Wei Wuxian returning to him.

 

Another small eternity passed, but this one was more bearable because of the promise of Wei Wuxian's soul piecing itself back together. He could hear it behind him distinctly, the delicate clinking of glass slotting into place. It gave him the hope he needed to keep going.

 

Speed didn't matter since he didn't know which direction he was headed, but nonetheless, Lan Wangji hastened. He knew that he had succeeded in this realm, retrieved what he came for. It was only a matter of time before the soul was whole again--time he was willing to give. His only rule was to not look, and he'd had a lifetime of practice following the rules.

 

Gradually, the expanse in front of him began to acquire definition. A horizon formed, barely more than a fuzzy line, but after a complete lack of physical distinction, it was clear as day to Lan Wangji. He felt desperate to break into a sprint, to take them both out of this forsaken place. But he could still hear the incomplete soul repairing itself. It hadn't finished.

 

An impatience unlike any he'd known in his life rose within him. The temptation to turn and look at the soul and see how much was left to heal was overpowering. The faint sounds of its process gave nothing away. How long did it take to reconstruct a soul as shattered as Wei Wuxian's? Was it possible his physical body in the real world would die before it was completed?

 

Lan Wangji was scared by his own panic. Faithlessness was at his fingertips, and he forced himself to remember what the deity had said: "Do not underestimate what this will demand of you."

 

He still couldn't speak, but he mouthed the words time after time, like a mantra, until he felt the edges of himself a little more concretely.

 

He decided not to tempt himself with haste. He stopped walking entirely and sat in a meditative pose. He would wait until the soul gave him an indication that it was finished. Until then, he'd preserve his spiritual cognition in case it was taking a toll on his body.

 

He played Wangxian in his head, reviewed every word he could remember from the deities and Lan An, trying to pry any additional information that would help. Eventually, he started reliving all his sweetest memories of Wei Wuxian, the ones he kept hidden in his heart.

 

The first day with the bunnies, both of them sat and watched the animals scurry back and forth across the Library Pavillion in the closest thing they'd come to camaraderie in those days.

 

Lunch in Yiling with young A-Yuan had delivered the life-altering realization that Lan Wangji wanted to be a father with Wei Wuxian. He had never considered the option before that day, too convinced by his own father that it was only another path to hurt. But Wei Wuxian had made it seem beautiful, as he did with everything.

 

The flower he kept pressed between pages, a gift that was intended as a taunt. MianMian's herbal pouch, an incongruous pink against so much white and blue, reminded him of their cooperation, bravery, and achievement.

 

These scenes flashed behind his eyes and kept him grounded in purpose, in why he was willing to wait: he loved Wei Wuxian.

 

A high, clear, crystalline note sounded from within, without, everywhere in space, ripping Lan Wangji out of his meditation.

 

"Lan Zhan, you unbelievable man."

 

Lan Wangji's eyes went wide.

 

That voice. His voice.

 

"Hanguang-Jun is truly the best, coming to find and fix this unworthy one."

 

"Wei Ying..." Lan Wangji tried but once again was reminded he couldn't speak in this realm. He could only mouth the precious name, feel the shape of it on his lips.

 

It took every fiber of self-control to keep from turning around. When Lan Wangji felt a hand squeeze his shoulder, he became overwhelmed, slumping to supporting himself with both his hands on the ground.

 

“Lan Zhan, I can't believe someone like you would do that for someone like me."

 

Anything. Always. Forever. Lan Wangji raised a shaking hand to place it over the one on his shoulder and shuddered to confirm its existence.

 

"What a fool I was all those years. You were always there. How can you seek me after I wasted your time, hurt you, and misunderstood you like that?"

 

Lan Wangji hadn't noticed his own tears until they fell on the one hand left holding him up. Behind him, he felt a body. The real, familiar body he'd stood beside and then behind his whole life. Wei Wuxian wrapped his arms around his waist and rested his cheek on Lan Wangji's shoulder.

 

It was torture not to look. It was bliss to feel.

 

"Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan... You really are the best of your generation. You have repaired my soul and made it whole again in this lost place. I have witnessed your love, and it is incredible."

 

Lan Wangji leaned back and let the soul he'd rescued support his weight as he kept his eyes shut. Wei Wuxian's arms tightened, held them together.

 

"You have succeeded, Lan Zhan. I am so proud. I am so grateful." He took a deep, steadying breath before pressing his lips to Lan Wangji's temple and whispering, "But I have to make you hate me one more time: you cannot bring me back yet.”

 

Lan Wangji froze. It’s a trick, it’s a trick… 

 

Wei Wuxian kissed his hairline with something like determination.

 

"Lan Zhan, when your soul is nowhere, it is everywhere. Now that you've put me together, I can be of use. I know of plots, secrets, plans, ones that will tear the cultivation world apart, and ones that can put it back together. Terrible things are happening, about to happen, and we have to stop them."

 

Lan Wangji grabbed his head and grit his teeth. He would have groaned if he could. He folded into himself, shaking his head, eyes still closed through it all. He refused to look, to lose.

 

He felt Wei Wuxian move from behind to in front of him, pushing his shoulders back so he'd sit up.

 

“Lan Zhan… I must attempt the impossible one last time and ask you to trust me. I know what you want, what you went through to come here, and it breaks me to deny you. I am undeserving of your love. But I have seen what is to come, and we both have roles to play when the time is right."

 

Wei Wuxian's hand cradled Lan Wangji's tear-streaked cheek.

 

"There is a someday for us, Lan Zhan, I promise you that.”

 

No, Wei Ying, you can’t ask this of me, Lan Wangji wept, eyes clenched painfully shut.

 

Realer than anything, Lan Wangji felt the hand against his cheek, the thumb that wiped tears away from under his eyes.

 

“I have no right to, but I must ask you to wait for me. I swear on everything I ever was that you will find me again.”  

 

No, Wei Ying, no, no.

 

"We don't have much time. Your body is weak, too weak."

 

Wei Wuxian held his head in both hands, pressed his forehead against Lan Wangji's.

 

"Lan Zhan, I love you. Inquire for me when you return. Lan Zhan, look at me. Look at me now.”

 

Never able to deny him anything, Lan Wangji sobbed and cracked open his eyes.

 

Wei Wuxian…There he was.

 

And then, he wasn’t.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

When Lan Wangji came to, it was to the sound of his brother’s voice. The vice grip on his shoulder shaking him awake barely registered. Lan Wangji blinked against tear-weary eyes and looked around. He was back in the Jingshi. It could have all been a dream.

 

“Wangji, Didi, Didi, can you hear me? Didi, answer me.”

 

Lan Wangji’s eyes finally focused on his brother’s distraught face.

 

Lan An was right… this hurts worse.

 

He fell back into unconsciousness.

 

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

A month had passed, apparently. Lan Wangji had been kept alive thanks to the sheer strength of his golden core, now wholly depleted. He regained consciousness one painful, unwanted piece at a time.

 

You had him, and you gave him up.

 

He could feel his brother’s calm, cool spiritual energy keeping him tethered.

 

That’s twice you’ve lost the same man. Did you ever even love him if you let him go so easily after so much work?

 

The sounds of the birds in the magnolia trees told him spring had arrived.

 

You fail every time. It was a trick, and you believed it. Now you have nothing.

 

Lan Wangji opened his eyes, and it felt like an act of torture.

 

“Wangji… can you hear me?” Lan Xichen asked quietly, like he was afraid his voice would send Lan Wangji back into a catatonic state.

 

Lan Wangji didn’t answer him, but he did look him in the eye.

 

“Wangji, are you back with me now?” Lan Xichen took his hand and squeezed, a gesture of affection he hadn’t felt since Xichen sat by his bedside after the whipping.

 

Weakly, Lan Wangji squeezed back. Lan Xichen sighed in relief and did not let go.

 

“When you are ready… would you tell me what happened? I saw your notes about Lan An and the Silent Realm, but… it seemed too fantastic.”

 

Lan Wangji was not invested in whether or not his brother believed where he had gone. He spoke with a dry throat and said the only thing that felt important.

 

“What I have learned is that I am not our father.”

 

Lan Xichen frowned at this non-sequitur, but then his face smoothed, and he lovingly looked at his little brother.

 

“You were always going to be the better man, Wangji. I always knew you would be.”

 

With nothing left to say for the moment, Lan Wangji closed his eyes and wept himself silently to sleep under his brother’s care.

 

 ━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━ 

 

It was another month before he was well enough—willing enough—to take up his guqin again. He brought it before him and then stared at it for hours. He was asking too much of seven strings and paulownia wood. Lan Wangji knew that as soon as he began to play, he would ask for proof, reassurance, retribution, and hope. Always hope. Hope had become his villain, one he knew he couldn’t live without.

 

Hands shaking, he finally began to pluck and strum.

 

Do you know where he is?’

 

He braced himself for one final disappointment.

 

‘Yes, we do.’

 

Lan Wangji startled, and his breathing edged toward manic.

 

‘And we have a suggestion.’

 

Lan Xichen heard the guqin from the Hanshi and smiled.

 

Tonight he is hopeful.

━━━━ ⋆⋅⋅⋆ ━━━━  

 

The next day, Lan Wangji departed for Qinghe.