In a somewhat unsurprising twist, by the time Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji arrived, the demonic cultivator they’d been sent to investigate was already dead.
The man was lying face down in the doorway to the modest shack he’d lived in, arms outstretched as if he’d been grasping at the earth for purchase before his untimely demise caught him. In the dim light, Wei Wuxian could see that the nondescript brown robes he wore were riddled with unidentifiable stains. Deeper into the room there was a complicated spell array arced across the dirt. This was made up of not only unidentifiable stains, but also small bones, clearly from an animal of some sort. The room stank of something metallic.
“Well, this is grim,” Wei Wuxian said, and stepped gingerly over the man’s corpse to inspect the array.
After a more respectful silence, Lan Wangji followed. He could probably feel why Wei Wuxian was so comfortable entering—despite the gruesome sight around them, there was no lingering resentful energy or presence in the shack. The air was as still as if this were all simply a scene set up to reference while painting. Whatever had happened here had happened, and then it had gone. The backlash hadn’t even overturned the sparse wooden furniture.
The array was by far the most interesting part of the room, and it was...strange. The structure of it seemed complicated but altogether said nothing. Not unlike the lengthy speeches of a sect leader hosting a discussion conference, Wei Wuxian thought, and smiled to himself.
He tilted his head to the side in order to look at the array from a different angle.
At this closer distance, he could tell that the brown substance was definitely dried blood. That was as he’d expected, at least. Still, there was no way of knowing whether it was from the animal, or from the demonic cultivator. Within the array he could pick out some individual symbols he recognized, but none of them joined together in any cohesive way, and more often than not, a yellowed bone was making up a stroke or two.
Strange. Very, very strange.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “I have no idea what this was supposed to do. Come here, come look. What kinds of bones are these?”
Lan Wangji strode over from where he’d been inspecting the dead man’s body. After a moment, he said, “Dog bones.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart couldn’t help jolting, like a cat springing for a higher tree branch. “...Ah. Well, they’re what’s throwing me off the most. What do you think of this array?”
“Further study may be necessary,” Lan Wangji said, which was his way of saying he had no fucking clue. Wei Wuxian sighed and drew a little notebook out of his qiankun pouch.
Normally, sketching out the array would be a job he’d happily hand over to a junior disciple. Lan Sizhui had been set to come along with them, but he’d been held up at the Cloud Recesses, sitting out a punishment after getting into another argument with his elders. The Gusu Lan sect was witnessing a rebellious side of him that they’d never seen before. Personally, Wei Wuxian thought it was long overdue, and from Lan Wangji’s silence on the matter, he felt the same.
It would be difficult, Wei Wuxian thought, to knowingly stay with a group who had participated in the killing of your family. But Lan Sizhui had decided to do so, and he had decided that he was duty-bound to leave them better than when they’d found him.
The Lan sect no longer taught their disciples that the Wens at the Burial Mounds had been evil criminals, violent dissenters against the righteous paths the other sects tread, and had been put down in the name of justice. That change was due to Lan Wangji’s careful efforts. However, there was still a distinct lack of responsibility in their teachings that Wei Wuxian thought was very unprincipled, although of course he didn’t have much room to talk. History lessons focused more on the other sects involved in the siege. Exact numbers for the army of Jiang cultivators, the style of fighting that the Nie sect had utilized at the battle, how the Jin sect had spared no expense in its own attack. Oh, and we Lans were there, but let’s move on. Ugh.
Lan Sizhui believed that history should be taught with more accountability from the teachers. And thus, the arguments with the elders, and Lan Sizhui being so righteously good and wonderful that he couldn’t come help his poor old Senior Wei.
Well. Somehow, Wei Wuxian would just have to manage.
As Wei Wuxian sketched, and muttered scattered theories to himself as to what on earth the array was meant to do, Lan Wangji drifted about the shack, beginning the arduous process of going through the dead man’s belongings. The people who had requested aid would be expecting a full report, after all, and any clue as to what had happened could help soothe their worries that it would happen again. They’d known next to nothing about this man, after all—only that he had appeared, claimed this space as his own, and strange activity had followed.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, appearing at his shoulder.
Wei Wuxian barely heard him, focused on the task at hand. Four ominous strokes to sketch the oblong symbol at the top of the array. A thicker line where bones lay. At the slight touch to his arm, he obediently stepped to the side, only realizing after he had shifted that he’d been half-standing on a cloth bag of some sort. Lan Wangji collected the bag; Wei Wuxian continued his note-taking.
By the time Wei Wuxian had finished specifying which lines in his drawing were bones and which were blood, Lan Wangji had finished amassing a small pile of the dead man’s belongings.
Wei Wuxian folded the little notebook shut. “Well! Let’s see what clues our friend left for us, shall we, Lan Zhan?”
The pile took only a moment to sift through. Some extra clothes, a set of old wooden chopsticks and dishes, a nearly empty money pouch, the cloth bag, and a battered book that Lan Wangji had found inside it. That was all the demonic cultivator had left behind.
Lan Wangji reached for the book and delicately turned to the first page.
“What is it?” Wei Wuxian asked. “Poetry? Proverbs? Pornography?”
“A journal,” Lan Wangji said, decisively ignoring that last one, and handed the book over.
Wei Wuxian flipped through a few pages. The script was written in an unsteady hand—the writer clearly hadn’t benefitted (or suffered from, if one were to be honest) a strict teacher. “Do you think it’s his?”
Lan Wangji cast a considering glance at the dead man on the floor. “It is likely.”
“Why don’t we ask?” Wei Wuxian suggested.
Nodding, Lan Wangji settled on the floor with his guqin, drawing in a breath and then strumming the opening phrase of Inquiry. He plucked a few notes, presumably asking something of the dead man’s spirit. Stillness hung in the air like the untouched surface of a deep lake.
“What’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian frowned at the unmoving strings.
“He is not here,” Lan Wangji said.
“Like...not here in this room? Or not here?”
“He is not here,” Lan Wangji repeated, and then put his guqin away.
Well, shit. What had this man done, to banish his own soul? “I guess we’d better hope the answers are in here,” Wei Wuxian said, patting the journal under his arm. He tried not to think about how disquieting the silence in the room had become.
They took care of the body and then began the short journey back to town.
“If only you had a smoother gait,” Wei Wuxian mourned as Lil’ Apple plodded along, led on her rein by Lan Wangji. The donkey, of course, didn’t respond, because she was a rude and terrible travel companion. “It’s so difficult to read while you’re moving, especially with this horrible handwriting! Won’t you think of my poor eyes trying to focus?”
Lil’ Apple leaned forward to nose at Lan Wangji’s robes, searching for her namesake, which resulted in nothing but jostling Wei Wuxian on her back even more. He pouted as Lan Wangji pet at Lil’ Apple’s ears.
Complaining accomplished and cruelly unrewarded, Wei Wuxian returned to the journal.
Part of the reason the book was so difficult to read was that the writer was clearly aware of his limited space. He’d squeezed characters into every available margin, pressing them together like hard-packed earth at the bottom of a river. Wei Wuxian had to squint to see the writing closely enough to read, and then struggle to decipher the poor penmanship.
And when he did...well.
He’d been expecting a dark confessional. What he was reading was an account of the writer’s journeys around the mountains and waters of the areas surrounding Gusu. Pleasant prose about the sun on the back of your neck, cool silt under your feet, and so on. Nothing else matters at the top of a mountain; I felt like I could grab hold of a cloud and continue climbing, one line said. It was a thorough, benign documentation of everything the writer enjoyed about the world.
Perhaps the demonic cultivator wasn’t the writer of this volume after all?
Maybe he was just...really into nature, and kept books written about it as he carried out his dark deeds?
“Curious,” Wei Wuxian said aloud. Lan Wangji glanced back at him, then away; it was the third time he’d done so as they’d been walking along.
Every once in a while the writer would forget his space constraint and include a drawing, mostly of flowers or landscapes. There were a few drawings all of the same small black dog, which sent shivers down Wei Wuxian’s spine for more than one reason, because a couple pages later the writer confirmed that the dog was his, and named Little Petal. To name your dog something so loving and cute-sounding, only to kill it and use its bones in some failed ritual? Jiang Cheng would resurrect this man and kill him again if he knew.
Petal keeps me company, the dead man wrote. She would follow me across any river in the world. And I would take her with me.
Throughout the journal were a few stories of the two of them, Little Petal and the writer, spending time at various rivers and lakes, searching for a day’s work together at the market, sharing food in the evenings. Wei Wuxian kept waiting for a mention of family, or friends, but none ever appeared. Rather, after a time, the meandering stories came to an abrupt halt. There were a few pages torn from the binding. And then the demonic cultivator began to document his desperate search for any teachings of the dark arts. Anything that Wei Wuxian had left behind.
So this was indeed the same man they’d found dead in his own doorway.
It was instinctive, for Wei Wuxian to feel a stab of something like regret and then look to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji was already in the middle of his fifth glance-and-glance-away.
“Hm? What is it?” Wei Wuxian finally asked.
Lan Wangji seemed to debate with himself, and then said carefully, “It is quiet.”
He was right. Normally on journeys such as this, Wei Wuxian was either rattling off his thoughts on anything that came to mind, or playing a cheerful tune on Chenqing. Wei Wuxian grinned. Now who was he, to deny his husband the sound of his voice? He relayed what he had read so far, and then began to read aloud.
The writer’s search continued. But there was a simple problem: the few texts on his practices that Wei Wuxian had left behind were kept and guarded by major cultivation sects. How could a common person hope to gain access to that knowledge? Unfortunately, many others had asked the same question. It seemed that the writer had been scammed into buying several ‘manuals’ from traveling salespeople, some of whom claimed to have personally studied with Wei Wuxian, all of whom promised methods of reviving the dead. Methods that would work better with a strong emotional connection to the deceased, the writer had been assured.
“Such people take advantage of others’ grief for their own gain,” Lan Wangji said, a little crease in his brow.
Wei Wuxian reached out to tug at the ends of Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon. “Very true, but luckily our friend had some sense after he actually read through the manuals. They’re all clearly bullshit, once you look closer. He saved his money after that. And now we know why he was dabbling in the darks arts in the first place!”
“But not who he was hoping to revive.”
Having had enough of struggling to read against Lil’ Apple’s uneven gait, and far more interested in his husband’s thoughts, Wei Wuxian put the journal away and leaned forward over the saddle.
“We must read further.”
Psh. No fun! Throwing out wild guesses was a key aspect to enjoying any mystery. “A lover, maybe?” Wei Wuxian mused, idly kicking his feet. Lan Wangji frowned. “Yes, you’re right, that seems unlikely. It’s clear that his only companion was his dog. Lan Zhan, our friend was truly unfortunate, wasn’t he? The only thing worse than being alone in the world is being alone with a dog.”
Lan Wangji inclined his head, conceding to Wei Wuxian’s wealth of knowledge on the matter.
“Hmm...if not a lover, then maybe an enemy that he secretly wanted to be a lover,” Wei Wuxian said, delighted by the drama, and Lan Wangji sighed.
They continued in this way until reaching town. Neither of them felt right leaving, not when they weren’t sure what had happened with the demonic cultivator yet, so Lan Wangji set off to secure them a room at the local inn, as well as a place for Lil’ Apple. Better that Lan Wangji do it—the town, called Taichuan, was a good ways south of the Cloud Recesses, but the dialect was similar enough to the one spoken in Caiyi that he got along much better than Wei Wuxian did.
Lan Wangji had also visited this area before, having the benefit of thirteen years of travel over Wei Wuxian. Taichuan was a city growing with each steady pulse of its heart. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had passed by multiple building sites on their way in, new houses and shops and restaurants. The marketplace teemed with merchants and customers to match them. A result of newly discovered precious metals in the mountain nearby, apparently. Wei Wuxian only hoped someone was considering that the supply wouldn’t last forever. Privately, Wei Wuxian suspected that the booming business was the reason he and Lan Wangji had been called to investigate so quickly. No need to tarnish a city’s promising reputation with rumors of a demonic cultivator, after all.
Out of anyone in town, the inn was seeing the real fruit of all this labor.
The room Lan Wangj rented for them was easily twice as large as the shack they’d been in earlier in the day. Its opulent luxury painted a very golden picture of the current owner’s financial status. A huge bed in the center of the room, a spacious sitting area, gorgeous landscape paintings on every wall—Wei Wuxian only hoped that Lan Wangji hadn’t emptied his money pouch directly into the innkeeper’s.
Sprawled on his back across the floor that night, Wei Wuxian returned to the journal, a flickering candle serving as his assistant. He was vaguely aware of Lan Wangji getting ready for bed somewhere in the room, but he had discovered something intriguing: the writer had left off tearing out pages, perhaps realizing it was a waste of paper, and had instead started to black out certain passages with large swaths of dark ink.
“My theory,” Wei Wuxian told Lan Wangji, or rather the general direction of wherever he was in the room, “is that what he’s crossing out are his failed attempts, or methods he’s debunked, or maybe sources he’s given up on. What a shame! You should always keep a record of your failed attempts.”
“It is wise,” Lan Wangji agreed.
Wei Wuxian finally glanced up to see where he was. Lan Wangji stood next to the bed, having just removed his forehead ribbon and finished slipping into the robe he’d taken to wearing to sleep. It was a thin piece for the summer heat, a blue so pale it could be mistaken for white in the dark, light material not quite see-through but close to it, like mist over a cold ocean. Wei Wuxian took a few seconds to curse himself for missing the first part of the process and then another few to fully appreciate the result.
Lan Wangji patiently allowed himself to be admired, and then said, “You should sleep.”
“Just a moment, just a moment,” Wei Wuxian said, distracted again after being reminded of the journal. He wanted to figure out once and for all what the ink blocks were covering before he slept.
As they both probably expected, he lost track of time. Time was lost in the whisper of pages under his hands. Time existed most pressingly in the lines offered to him by this capsule of a stranger’s life. It was interesting, to Wei Wuxian, that one could document so much of one’s day-to-day. He himself had only ever kept records of his research, after all. Mathematics and messy observations.
The Lan sect’s structured bedtime came and went, but Lan Wangji hadn’t succumbed to sleep; he was sitting up in bed, watching Wei Wuxian lick his thumb and forefinger to turn another page. Some part of Wei Wuxian registered that he was waiting for Wei Wuxian to join him, but—a few more pages. A few more pages, before he let the night end.
It was too ideal of an evening, holding both a mystery in his hands and Lan Wangji’s undivided attention.
“I should’ve kept a journal,” Wei Wuxian mused, unashamedly stalling. “Documented my descent into degeneracy, and all that. I could’ve left it hidden under a rock, or something, until some lucky fellow found it. It would’ve caused so much of a stir, maybe it would’ve ended up in the forbidden Lan library, eh, Lan Zhan?” When Lan Wangji didn’t respond, Wei Wuxian rolled over onto his stomach and added, “Or maybe...underneath the second young master’s floorboards?”
Lan Wangji gave him a Look. So, under the floorboards with the contraband alcohol, definitely.
“Come to bed,” his husband finally said.
“How cold!” Wei Wuxian whined. “You won’t even tempt me with sweet words? With your body? Just ‘come to bed’, as if all the romance has already played out between us?”
Lan Wangji considered this. He tilted his shoulder downwards. His opaque robe slid with the movement, revealing the smooth, bare skin underneath. The mist parting.
He looked at Wei Wuxian and raised one elegant brow.
Wei Wuxian burst out laughing. Fine, fine, the candle had almost burned out anyway; he would concede victory to Lan Wangji. He blew out the flame, closed the journal, and tossed it to the side.
“You’re so good at playing,” he told Lan Wangji, slipping into bed and pressing a quick kiss to Lan Wangji’s exposed shoulder. Lan Wangji shuffled over to allow him more room, and then drew the blankets carefully up over Wei Wuxian as he got settled. “I wouldn’t have thought that, when we first met. I thought, now here’s a sorry fellow! I have to teach him how to have fun.”
“You did teach me,” Lan Wangji said.
“No, no, my Lan Zhan has been mischievous since he was young,” Wei Wuxian insisted. “Making me copy rules for no reason at all, ignoring me and playing hard to get, then turning around and chasing me with his sword every night!” Wei Wuxian paused, and then cast a considering glance down between them. “Ah, but my husband still favors that last game, doesn’t he?”
In one decisive movement, Lan Wangji flicked his robe back over to cover his shoulder.
Wei Wuxian immediately began to backtrack. “Wait, Lan Zhan, I’ll stop, don’t do that, this husband will be good, I promise,” he said, and then closed his eyes. “See, I’m sleeping, I’m being very quiet. You can put the robe back down. Or even take it off if you want, that’s fine too.”
“Very quiet?” Lan Wangji muttered, but he sounded more fond than annoyed, and he pulled Wei Wuxian to his chest and kissed his hair, so Wei Wuxian was perfectly right in being contrary and had in fact gotten everything he’d wanted.
The problem, after all of this, was that Lan Wangji fell asleep first.
Wei Wuxian could only lie awake and try not to fidget for so long. Lan Wangji cared a lot about odd things like ‘Wei Ying getting enough rest’ and ‘Wei Ying keeping to a sufficient sleep schedule’, so Wei Wuxian very generously crept out of bed and set up reading again in a corner, blocking the light from the renewed candle so that Lan Wangji wouldn’t wake up and would therefore never have to know.
There was perhaps a small twinge of guilt. Like a splinter he forgot as soon as he wasn’t thinking about it. And it took very little time to stop thinking about it, as he read and read and read.
The writer began telling his meandering stories again, but edged with melancholy, as if he were only trying to remind himself of what he’d once enjoyed. The river is still there. I still like the taste of sweet things, no matter what time of day. Thunder still leaves me breathless. He sketched out a daisy patch, the lines dull and lifeless. A few pages later, he wrote, Happiness is difficult. When I smile, loneliness is ready with an arrow pointed to my heart.
On a trip to the marketplace he described another encounter with a traveling salesman:
It was as if grief was a gleaming thread sewn into my robes, and only he could see it. He walked towards me, with his charms and potions and booklets, and I didn’t back away from him. I know these people lie. But what could I do? I have to try. There are mountains that Little Petal never got to see, and she always loved the sound of forest birds singing.
Wei Wuxian blinked. He held the writing closer to the candle and read the last sentence again.
There are mountains that Little Petal never got to see.
Wei Wuxian gasped.
He grabbed the candle and flung himself over to the bed, where Lan Wangji was sleeping peacefully on his back.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said urgently, smacking at Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Lan Wangji startled awake, making an undignified sound that Wei Wuxian had never heard from him before. Almost like a snort, or maybe a snuffle? Anyway, it was hilarious and adorable and Wei Wuxian needed to—no. No, he needed to not get distracted. “Lan Zhan, look at this!”
Lan Wangji blinked, very slowly, almost like he was drunk. He let his head tilt downwards to look at the words Wei Wuxian was gesturing to.
“He was trying to resurrect his dog,” Wei Wuxian told him. “Can you believe it? I think he was trying to figure out if he could do what I did with Wen Ning, only he didn’t have the whole body, and—Lan Zhan, it was his dog!”
Just how the dog had died in the first place was a mystery—probably held in those first few ripped out pages, along with the dead man’s reaction to her death. An event that their new friend hadn’t wanted to remember? Honestly speaking, Wei Wuxian had thought that the news would be very shocking. But Lan Wangji’s eyes were slipping closed again, almost as if he couldn’t help it, and Wei Wuxian realized—oh. He had been asleep. He had been asleep, and he’d thought that Wei Wuxian had been beside him, also asleep.
Lan Wangji let out a long, deep sigh. “It makes sense,” he mumbled, or would have, if Hanguang-jun did anything as inelegant as mumbling. “He was alone in the world, except for his dog.” He paused, and then said in an unreadable tone of voice, “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian meekly went to put the journal and candle away and then crept back towards the bed.
As he came nearer, Lan Wangji reached out to snag him by the waist and pulled him in, rolling them until he had Wei Wuxian completely underneath him. Wei Wuxian thought for a moment that Lan Wangji was going to—well, maybe kiss him, to start, but Lan Wangji only sagged until his weight pinned Wei Wuxian utterly to the bed, ensuring he couldn’t get up again. It was like having a felled tree collapse on top of him, if felled trees could be extremely sexy and warm. He could barely breathe. It was the most settled he’d felt all night.
Tentatively, Wei Wuxian asked, “Are you angry?”
It was a moment before Lan Wangji responded. He sighed again, warm breath against Wei Wuxian’s hair, and said, “I’m sad.”
Oh. Oh, no. Sad was worse than angry. Lan Wangji was merciless.
“I’ll sleep for a week,” Wei Wuxian promised, desperate. “I’ll snore, really loudly, so you know I’m actually sleeping. Or—no, that will make it sound like I’m faking. I’ll make an appropriate amount of noise, for a sleeping person, for a week.”
Lan Wangji settled his chin on top of Wei Wuxian’s head. “What will I do for a week, while you sleep?”
“Hmmm,” Wei Wuxian said. “I think you should do something special, something out of the ordinary...ah! I just thought of the perfect thing. A wine tour! Emperor’s Smile is of course the best out there, but there are other kinds of wine in the world, you know? You should travel around, trying a new kind of wine each night, really let loose. But you should bring Sizhui with you, so he can supervise.” He considered the image that inspired, and then admitted, “Actually, I don’t know if I could stay in bed, knowing you were off being drunk somewhere without me.”
“Begin with sleeping through one night,” Lan Wangji advised. “Practice, before you try for an entire week.”
Lan Wangji had this way of poking fun at Wei Wuxian that also felt like he was handing Wei Wuxian a platter of lovingly peeled fruit. Indulgence offered freely. “Hanguang-jun is as wise as they say! As wise as an old dragon,” Wei Wuxian told him, and then yawned.
‘The bearer of light’. Sleep found him easier in the dark, with someone like that beside him.
They stayed in bed until late the next morning. Eventually, the sun beaming through the windows became too harsh to ignore, and over breakfast they discussed again what Wei Wuxian had learned. Wei Wuxian felt comfortable now concluding that this was a one-off tragedy, so they could probably report back to the authorities a second time and leave, if they wanted. But Wei Wuxian wasn’t satisfied with only knowing why. He wanted to know how. Part of his morning was spent examining his sketch of the strange spell array, reviewing the lines over and over, until Lan Wangji announced he was going out into town for some fresh air.
Wei Wuxian happily accepted the invitation for what it was.
At the height of the day, the activity in Taichuan’s marketplace was as syrupy slow as the clinging heat, the summer sun pushing most people indoors unless they were forced to be outside. Lan Wangji must have been sweltering in his approximately fifty layers of clothing. Still, he drifted about the market with Wei Wuxian, content to let Wei Wuxian drag him over to examine every stall.
“Noble cultivators!” one of the merchants called out to them. “Seeking out anything in particular? Look no further for wares of a quality to match two such fine young men!”
The shamelessness of her words drew both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji over. To Wei Wuxian’s delight, the merchant was selling pottery—various kinds of dishes, as well as a small assortment of teapots. Wei Wuxian grinned and looked to Lan Wangji expectantly.
“Are these the only teapots offered today?” Lan Wangji asked.
Lan Wangji was a sentimental man, with the heart of a collector; in Wei Wuxian’s absence, he’d hoarded his memories and the few items he could find that Wei Wuxian had left behind. Now that Wei Wuxian had returned, he’d taken to collecting memories of the places they visited, and teapots. Not just any teapots—only teapots that were so badly made or so badly damaged that they were otherwise impossible to sell. Most merchants or potters only put out their best work, but some could be gently nudged.
Some were daring enough to try and spin a story.
This pot was chipped by the great sword Bichen in the Sunshot Campaign, they’d say, not noticing that Wei Wuxian was shaking with laughter behind Lan Wangji. The flower on this teapot only looks lopsided because it was painted by the current leader of the Nie sect, while he was still an inexperienced young man, nevermind that Wei Wuxian had watched Nie Huaisang paint fans before, and the image on the teapot was clearly not his work. To date, Wei Wuxian’s favorite teapot was from a potter who had thick-facedly told them that a dented pot was the early work of a future master, all while her poor apprentice (definitely the ‘future master’) stood blushing scarlet behind her.
Wei Wuxian could’ve never predicted such a frivolous hobby from Lan Wangji of all people, but in a way, he understood. Their lives felt open now in a way they never had before. They were free to pick up and discard activities as they wished. In the past, Lan Wangji had collected items to represent his memories and put them to practical use, as if justifying their places in his life; now, he was trying out collecting things to represent happier times, letting them take up superfluous space in his heart and his home.
Wei Wuxian could see the moment the merchant realized that Lan Wangji wouldn’t buy any of her good teapots, and made the decision that she had nothing to lose. “Well,” she said demurely, “I wouldn’t usually bring this piece out, but you seem like a collector, are you not, young master?” When Lan Wangji nodded, she continued, “Now, this teapot may look a little rough, but its origins may shock you…”
Before she could spin too much silk, Wei Wuxian slipped his hand into Lan Wangji’s, stealing his attention for a moment.
“I’m going to look for something for Sizhui,” he said. The gods above probably knew that kid needed cheering up. Lan Wangji squeezed his hand and nodded. When he returned his attention to the merchant, she lunged eagerly back into her tale.
Lan Wangji was a model customer. He always listened very closely to a sales pitch, and always purchased the faulty teapot at full asking price, in a way that left most merchants feeling both victorious and oddly chastised. Grinning as he walked away, Wei Wuxian silently wished this particular merchant luck.
He bought a few snacks for himself and wandered aimlessly, stopping only at stalls where the owner was already speaking with someone else, avoiding being drawn into conversation. At the third stall he passed, the sun glinted bright off of a delicate silver hairpiece, curving along the edges of tiny lotus flowers.
Wei Wuxian’s steps slowed without conscious thought.
Thoughts of Jiang Yanli tended to sneak up on him, a cliff’s edge he always forgot to watch for. The silver hairpiece was the exact kind of gift he’d have bought for her. She’d have laughed as he gleefully pushed it into her hands, and worn it often, because she always used the things he and Jiang Cheng got for her. Seeing anything that reminded him of Jiang Yanli made Wei Wuxian ache with missing her, a deep-rooted loneliness that would bloom periodically in his heart forever. He always tried to combat the feeling by thinking of her as she was in life: gentle, strong, loving her family and Wei Wuxian so much she pulled herself to pieces brokering peace between them all. But try as he might, Wei Wuxian could not forget the expression on her face at the very end. The blood. How she’d looked so gentle even as everything had fallen apart. He wished desperately that he had anything of hers to remember her by, in her happier days, instead of the resilient shock of that last memory.
But Jiang Yanli, and everything she had left behind, belonged at Lotus Pier, where Wei Wuxian did not.
His instinct, faced with this sudden emotion, was to turn away. To seek out Lan Wangji. To find a distraction, any distraction. But although Wei Wuxian didn’t like feeling melancholy, he was getting better at recognizing that melancholy was a way he felt sometimes. That any reasonable person would expect him to feel sometimes.
He left only when the stall’s owner noticed him standing there. As he turned, he stumbled right into Lan Wangji.
“Oh, excuse me, kind sir,” Wei Wuxian said, the relief of having Lan Wangji close again filling him with giddy warmth. “I apologize, I was looking for my husband, and not watching where I was stepping! You must forgive this humble one.”
Lan Wangji steadied him with a hand around his upper arm, a tender expression in his eyes. “You are forgiven.”
In the face of Lan Wangji’s earnest affection, Wei Wuxian easily abandoned his game. He asked instead, “Did her tale live up to your expectations?”
Lan Wangji fell into step beside him as they began to amble around the market once more. A cloud had drifted over the sun, casting the town in a refreshingly cool shadow. “Yes. The pot will be delivered to Cloud Recesses by next week.”
“The jingshi is going to be full of teapots someday, you know,” Wei Wuxian teased. “We’ll have to build another room onto it, once we run out of shelf space.”
“I will oversee the construction myself,” Lan Wangji said, and Wei Wuxian’s bright, unrestrained laughter rose up towards the clouds.
After finding a suitable gift for Sizhui, the rest of the day was spent in similar blissful aimlessness, until evening came and they returned to the opulent room at the inn. As the sun set, Wei Wuxian settled into bed beside Lan Wangji, journal in hand.
“For closer supervision tonight,” he explained, snuggling close into Lan Wangji’s side.
Lan Wangji, occupied with reading his own volume of poetry, merely put his arm around Wei Wuxian and continued reading. It was the picture of all of Wei Wuxian’s domestic dreams. He kept leaning over to press kisses to Lan Wangji’s shoulder through that maddeningly sheer blue robe, overwhelmed by how content he was. Warmth, soft as silken rabbit fur, filled his very being.
They read together in silence until Wei Wuxian, lost in the endless meandering stories the demonic cultivator had put to paper, still thinking about objects and memories and his shijie, broke.
“I wish there was someone to give this to,” he said. “If this man had loved ones, an account such as this could be their treasured possession. But to me, it’s...it’s just a story of a stranger’s life.” He would’ve given anything for something written by Jiang Yanli’s hand, by Wen Qing’s, by his parents’, by any of the people he’d lost. That line of thought led him to another, and it spilled from him too quick and honest: “Lan Zhan, would it have helped, if you’d had something like this from me? If I really had written a journal?”
Lan Wangji talked very little of how he’d spent the years Wei Wuxian had been dead. In the past, Wei Wuxian had asked a few questions; he knew that Lan Wangji had been lonely and regretful, but that he’d had small things to hold onto, as well. His brother, Lan Sizhui, his work with the Lan juniors, his ability to move freely throughout the world to help where he was needed. The few of Wei Wuxian’s possessions he’d been able to keep. Was Lan Wangji wishing, as Wei Wuxian was, that Wei Wuxian could’ve left him something more?
“You would have been gone no matter what,” Lan Wangji said, readily enough that it was clear he’d already given the subject some thought. “I am blessed that you are here now, to tell me your thoughts in person, and that you are willing to offer me such treasures.”
His words were measured, resolute, romantic. Overwhelming in how steady they were, in the best way.
They were so, so achingly like him.
Wei Wuxian leaned forward to kiss him, and Lan Wangji met him easily, attuned to his whims after so many years of marriage. Of being together. Wei Wuxian pulled back only to shuffle both of their books to the end of the bed. He crawled into Lan Wangji’s lap, taking Lan Wangji’s hands in each of his and fixing them on his waist, wanting to be held. Lan Wangji didn’t scold him for his neediness. Just tugged him closer, kissed him harder, as always.
I’ll tell you anything you want to know, Wei Wuxian thought, as Lan Wangji gently shifted their position so that he could press Wei Wuxian to the bed. Anything.
There was a restless itch in him that wanted to be held more, even more, always more, even though Lan Wangji already had him so thoroughly pinned down. He broke off their kiss with a gasp of breath, laughing when Lan Wangji immediately started biting at his neck. What a predictable man, he was.
The sound of his gratification seemed to spur Lan Wangji on harder, which stretched Wei Wuxian’s laughter out like sweet spun sugar, until Wei Wuxian leaned up to murmur playfully in Lan Wangji’s ear, “Lan Zhan, you can do whatever you want to me...if—”
—you can catch me, the plan had been to say, as he slipped out from under Lan Wangji to lead him on a chase around the room, after which he would of course capture Wei Wuxian and ravage him senseless. But Lan Wangji’s grip tightened on his hips before he could do more than wriggle up the bed. He dragged Wei Wuxian bodily back under him as if Wei Wuxian weighed no more than one of the bed’s downy pillows.
Dumbfounded, all Wei Wuxian could do was stare.
What...what right did Lan Wangji have, to have so much upper body strength, and be so hot, and ruin all of Wei Wuxian’s plans like this??
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian complained, “Lan Zhan ah, don’t you want to catch me?”
Lan Wangji leaned down and kissed him, so long and deep that Wei Wuxian felt dizzy with it, Lan Wangji’s firm hands on his waist, his mouth hot and insistent against Wei Wuxian’s, the all-encompassing heat of him pressing Wei Wuxian down, down. After a moment, Lan Wangji drew back and swept his eyes over Wei Wuxian, rumpled and breathless against the equally disheveled bedding.
“I just did,” Lan Wangji said.
It took Wei Wuxian’s mind a second to catch up. “Haha,” he said. “Wow. Yes, this humble one has been well and truly caught, hasn’t he?”
Lan Wangji kissed him again.
After he had finished trying to further wrest Wei Wuxian’s vocabulary from him (he would never be successful, but Wei Wuxian greatly enjoyed the effort), they laid down on their sides, facing each other, waiting for their heartbeats to slow again. Wei Wuxian let his eyes rove over Lan Wangji’s fine features in the dark. Lan Wangji was watching him, steadily, in turn.
“I like you,” Wei Wuxian told him, because it could always stand repeating. He loved that this, too, was a treasure he could offer Lan Wangji, and trust that it would be well taken care of. “Lan Zhan, it’s really embarrassing, how much I like you.”
Lan Wangji smiled his heart-stopping smile, and brushed his mouth against Wei Wuxian’s, a gentle clinging press of lips that lasted no more than a moment.
Then he hesitated.
“What?” asked Wei Wuxian. “What is it?”
A note of silence, before: “I kept one of your old essays.”
Lan Wangji’s mouth was pinched slightly, like he was trying not to smile again. “No,” Wei Wuxian gasped, delighted to be handed a secret he hadn’t uncovered yet. “Where is it? Why haven’t I found it? Which one?”
“It was one you didn’t finish,” said Lan Wangji. “Instead of writing a proper conclusion, you drew my uncle tripping over a rock.”
Wei Wuxian had no memory of this essay, or the drawing, but that sounded like him. So Lan Wangji did have some of his writing. A half-assed essay, but—he’d had something.
“I’m glad,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning. “I want to see it, when we get home?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed.
Wei Wuxian scooted closer and draped himself over Lan Wangji’s chest, cozy and warm and cocooned in darkness. Ahh. There was nothing else like this, not in this life or any other. He dozed against Lan Wangji until he was just at the cusp of sleep, balancing on that knife’s edge.
“Would it have helped you?” Lan Wangji asked.
Wei Wuxian, having not expected them to continue conversation for the night, didn’t even try to follow where the question had come from. “Hm?”
“Would writing a journal have helped you?” Lan Wangji elaborated. “Before.”
Would it’ve helped him?
Somehow, Wei Wuxian hadn’t considered that.
‘Before’ meant before his death. Wei Wuxian did not like thinking too much about his past life. The past had already happened; there was no changing it. His story had been told, over and over again, taken from his hands and reshaped to the teller’s fancy. Maybe the act of writing his own tale would’ve soothed Wei Wuxian’s soul. Maybe it would’ve sent him further into despair, into that clawing emptiness he remembered still, knowing that his version of events would be drowned out by all the others. Maybe nothing would have changed at all.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Lan Wangji had probably had it right. You would have been gone no matter what.
Wei Wuxian liked thinking about his life now much better, the life where he was married to Lan Wangji, and they traveled around night hunting and doing whatever else they wanted. Taking the juniors on little field trips, poking around market streets and alleyways, reading the journal of a dead man not to pass judgement, but simply to understand. If Wei Wuxian were ever to leave behind more than just research notes, he’d want to talk about those simpler aspects of life. How standing barefoot in the soil had always made him feel grounded, like he was a part of something with no expectations for him. What it was like to travel the world with someone he trusted with his entire being. The memory of Jiang Yanli’s gentle scolding from his childhood, barely scolding at all.
Memories of Wei Wuxian’s life that no one but him would’ve found worth talking about. Parts of himself that he owned completely, and could give to whoever he wanted.
“Hmm...I don’t know if a journal would’ve helped anything back then,” Wei Wuxian said. He snuggled deeper into Lan Wangji’s warm chest. “But doing one now might be nice, don’t you think? Well, less like a journal, more like...ahh, I’m too tired, what’s the word...a memoir? Yes, that. We could both work on it, and leave something of ourselves for Sizhui, you know, since we won’t be around forever. And...and if he wanted, I could tell some good stories about his family when he was young.”
Thinking about the Wens would hurt, but Wei Wuxian could do it, for Lan Sizhui’s sake. Lan Sizhui would be able to hold all their happier memories in his hands, Wei Wuxian’s and Lan Wangji’s told in their own words, the Wens’ by someone who knew and loved them fiercely. Mundane stories that wouldn’t fit into any history class curriculum. The more Wei Wuxian considered the possibility, the more he thought it was a sound idea.
“I think he would like that,” Lan Wangji said.
“Then, let’s think more on it tomorrow,” Wei Wuxian mumbled, and closed his eyes. “Lan Zhan, why isn’t your arm around me? Don’t be so stingy.”
Lan Wangji put an arm around him. He kissed the side of Wei Wuxian’s head, and said, “Yes. Tomorrow.”
The next morning Wei Wuxian woke up alone, which was not unusual but slightly disappointing.
Lan Wangji had probably anticipated that Wei Wuxian would sleep longer and gone to get breakfast. In his absence, Wei Wuxian put himself to work. He was determined. He was going to finish reading this journal, and hopefully figure out how the demonic cultivator had created his bizarre spell array. And then he and Lan Wangji were going to go home, and give Lan Sizhui the silly clay donkey figure they’d bought him, and then see about finding some spare paper.
They were going to make sure Lan Sizhui had stories. Stories of Lan Wangji, stories of Wei Wuxian, stories about Wen Ning and Wen Qing and Lan Sizhui’s grandmother, stories of every part of his family. More stories than he knew what to do with.
Wei Wuxian set up reading at a low table in the corner of their room. There wasn’t a lot of the journal left, just a last section where it was clear that something had changed for the demonic cultivator. I found something incredible, something I only dreamed to find, the man wrote. His day-to-day recordings took on a more optimistic note. He began to write as if he were speaking directly to Little Petal, telling his dog that they’d be exploring the world together again soon. He’d found a new place for them to live, a place where finding work was easy. Everything would be fine, and they would start a new travelogue, and everything in this journal would become simply a memory.
What had changed? What had the dead man found?
The sun rose higher, painting shadows in moving patterns across the walls and floors. Wei Wuxian was still reading when Lan Wangji returned, quietly closing the door behind him, a tray of breakfast held aloft. Wei Wuxian grinned up at him as he approached and put the tray down on the table.
“Best husband,” Wei Wuxian announced, shoving the journal away for the moment.
They ate together, sitting side by side, Wei Wuxian chattering away about the memoir they were going to give to Sizhui. Lan Wangji took Wei Wuxian’s hand in his, radiating that quiet happiness that Wei Wuxian had come to love so much. So he liked the idea too. What a wonderful thing, to be on the same page as the person he loved.
Afterwards, Lan Wangji cleared their dishes and then returned to his side. Wei Wuxian read on.
And finally, finally, the writer began to describe the process of creating the spell array.
His descriptions were feverish, hurried. He drew out the symbols that Wei Wuxian had seen in the array over and over again, practicing until he had them memorized. The bones, he explained, were meant to frame the design and target Little Petal. But simple bones being enough to resurrect an entire entity was pure speculation. No such instance had ever been recorded, had it, unless a lot had changed after Wei Wuxian died? The dead man’s logic was scattered and difficult to follow; he was utterly convinced of his plan. Clearly, whatever he’d found had shaken his sensibility and driven him desperate with hope. There was just no conceivable way this array would have functioned. Wei Wuxian could’ve known that right then even if he hadn’t witnessed its aftermath. It was no surprise that the array had backfired the way it did, and pulled the dead man’s soul away instead of bringing Little Petal back.
With a sinking feeling, Wei Wuxian flipped rapidly through the next few pages of the journal. Most of these pages were all black ink, dark blocks of erasure.
So much had apparently gone wrong even before the man’s death. So many failed attempts or bad memories that the cultivator had wanted to wipe from existence. And still, still he had gone through with his half-baked plan.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, “Lan Zhan, if I could go back in time and shake our dear friend here by the shoulders, then I—”
He cut himself off.
The next pages in the book were blank.
“Oh,” said Wei Wuxian blankly. “I...I guess that’s it.”
Right. That was how quickly a life could end. As fast as turning a page.
Lan Wangji leaned his shoulder harder against Wei Wuxian’s. Wei Wuxian leaned into him in turn, and took a deep breath. Right, moving on, moving on, next page. Best to explore everything they’d been given.
Tucked in between the third-and-second to last pages, Wei Wuxian was rewarded with something unexpected: a slip of paper, folded in half. Maybe one of the ripped out parts of the journal from earlier?
Wei Wuxian unfolded the paper, and just—stopped. Froze. Like the breath had been snatched right from his lungs.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said quietly, and took one of Wei Wuxian’s hands in his.
On the slip of paper was half of an array. Most of it was blurred by water damage. And below all of that, jumbled notes in what was undeniably Wei Wuxian’s handwriting.
“I don’t remember this,” Wei Wuxian said, and then again, because saying it out loud hadn't made the horrified feeling brewing in his gut go away, “I don’t remember writing this.” Looking at the notes, the realization of when he must have scrawled them crept up on him. The lines were all frantic, edges of the characters sharp as if he’d been using a knife instead of a brush. The notes jumped from sentence to sentence even in the middle of phrases. It would’ve been hard for anyone to understand, especially a grieving man who’d stumbled across it by accident, but Wei Wuxian knew himself. He could see where his faulty, frenetic thoughts had been headed.
Lan Wangji gently rubbed his thumb over the back of Wei Wuxian’s hand.
“I was trying to figure out how to bring my shijie back,” Wei Wuxian told him, and then had to clear his throat before continuing, “They would never have let me near her body, so I...I must’ve been figuring out how I could do it even without a body there. From what I can tell I was trying to decide how to make, you know, a brand new body for her, and then what I might use for the array.”
The notes must’ve seemed like a blessing from the gods to a man so desperate to bring back his only companion, and who only had some of her bones. The notes were overall incomprehensible, but the man had been desperate enough to try. The array that Wei Wuxian had thoughtlessly made, damaged as it was on the paper, could also be thoughtlessly filled in. And to a man who thought that all faulty research should be crossed out...
“He didn’t even consider that it wouldn’t work,” Wei Wuxian realized. “He thought...since I wrote it down, it must work. He thought it would work.”
Wei Wuxian had done harm in the world before. But it was different, knowing he had caused harm to someone who’d had nothing to do with Wei Wuxian or cultivation sects or any of it. Just a lonely man who somehow loved his dog enough to spend the last years of his life trying to bring her back, and who must’ve known Wei Wuxian’s reputation for reviving the dead.
Wei Wuxian needed to—not fix it, it was too late for that. But do something.
“Lan Zhan, hear me out,” Wei Wuxian said. He folded the paper again and sat up straighter. “Let’s put this journal in the library. The disciples could use a break from stuffy essays sometimes, to read something messy, right? Let them broaden their horizons. Some of these passages are very poetic, in my opinion, maybe kind of clumsy, but...”
He trailed off as Lan Wangji interlaced their fingers more tightly together. “I will see to it,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian hadn’t realized he was fighting with no one until Lan Wangji had taken the sword from his hands. He relaxed into Lan Wangji’s side, grateful that at least the demonic cultivator and his Little Petal would be remembered. They’d never found out the man’s name, as he hadn’t written it, in the journal he had never intended for anyone’s eyes but his own. But he would be remembered as more than a temporary nuisance for a rich town who had then died alone. An unfortunate man, yes, but one who held a deep love for the world around him. It felt like that was all Wei Wuxian could do for him, now. And if Lan Wangji said it would be done, then it would be.
Guilt would follow him the rest of his life, stoked to life by all the wrongs in his past, as natural and persisting as the wind in his hair and the sun in his eyes. But Lan Wangji was here, carrying the weight of the world with him. Wei Wuxian smoothed out the folded paper.
“Here,” he said, offering it to Lan Wangji. “I want you to have this.”
Lan Wangji took it from him with a solemn elegance that would have made Wei Wuxian smile, at any other moment. He kept the paper in one hand and put his arms around Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian hadn’t bothered to put up his hair for the day yet; when Lan Wangji began to gently stroke it, his fingers carded through the strands uninterrupted.
“Ahh, you’re too good, you know that?” Wei Wuxian said, and hugged him back, feeling warm, and content, and utterly cared for. Really, all this over a small amount of upset—imagine if Lan Wangji ever saw him cry!
Wei Wuxian couldn’t have said how long they sat embracing. Probably long enough to be embarrassed about, if anyone else besides them had been in the room. Eventually Lan Wangji drew back and retrieved his qiankun pouch, storing the paper safely inside and drawing out...a book? Neatly bound, with a green cover.
“Here,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian accepted the book when Lan Wangji held it out, frowning in confusion. It wasn’t until he saw that the pages were entirely blank that he understood. “Oh! For Sizhui.”
Lan Wangji nodded.
“You really think he’ll like it? He won’t think his elders are just foisting their life stories onto him when he didn’t ask?”
“He will appreciate learning more about his family,” Lan Wangji said.
As always, Lan Wangji was probably right. Wei Wuxian brushed his fingers over the cover of the book. “What do you think we should write about first? Ah—wait, wait, let’s talk about it on the way back, we should start packing up for now. Oh, and remind me to write to Wen Ning later! He’ll want to help for sure. Besides, he’s the quiet observer type, he probably has all kinds of stories about things at the Burial Mounds that I never even knew about. Remind me right when we get home, alright?”
“As soon as we arrive,” Lan Wangji promised.
Lan Wangji was looking at him so tenderly, Wei Wuxian knew he was about to say something sweetly earnest, something like Wei Wuxian being ‘good’, or ‘the most beautiful person I know’. Wei Wuxian usually braced himself for things like this, or mentally prepared a joke to say afterward, even if he knew he’d just end up flustered as soon as Lan Wangji really did speak. But today he didn’t want to push Lan Wangji’s words further away from him, or try to make them more bearable by distancing himself. He wanted another memory that was only his. To steal the stars that were Lan Wangji’s words from the sky and hoard them away.
He sat, and waited, and let Lan Wangji tell him that he loved him.
Then, together, they packed their things, and began the journey back home.