The old woman went down the mountain. After so many years of not doing exactly that, it came as a surprise to just about everyone—including the old woman herself. Yet, she had woken that very morning with a peculiar sense of urgency, which had drawn her to the footpath that vanished down, down, down, into the mists below.
“I may be gone for some time,” she told her senior-most apprentice. The apprentice in question, who looked like he could be even older than she, though in truth he was many decades younger, blinked. Some time could be anything between a month and a decade, he thought. Regardless, after so many years, there was a trust there. So, he bowed, wished her luck on her journey, and went to tell the others.
And the old woman went down the mountain.
The world had changed again, the old woman thought, standing at the foot of the hill with a very thick walking stick and wearing what might be called, on a generous day, clothes that were several hundred years out of date. Once, a little gold, a little silver, would have been enough to get her by and by. Now she needed—she wrinkled her nose—some kind of plastic and documents and who knew what else.
A blue car, rust crinkling at the edges, rumbled by, spitting out dark clouds of exhaust. The old woman thought it rather looked like resentful energy, though not as much as coal smoke had. In its wake, the old woman coughed. The car grumbled to a screeching halt and then slowly puttered backwards to where she stood at the foot of the mountain. A man rolled down the window to reveal a dark, wrinkled face and a shock of white hair and beard.
“Need a lift, Grandmother?” he asked.
“Yes please, Grandfather,” she returned, and got in.
The man’s name was Huang Sun, and he had a lot to say on their journey about his son, his daughter-in-law, and his granddaughter, who he was on his way to collect from the academy in Yiling.
“She received a scholarship,” Huang Sun confided, wearing an ear-splitting grin. “She was first in her class in our village school, so they gave her a scholarship to attend the technical school in Yiling.”
The old woman nodded dutifully and congratulated him. “You’re driving all the way to Yiling?”
Huang Sun beamed. “She’ll join us for the New Year,” he said. That answered some of her questions, the old woman thought, but certainly not all of them, so slowly and carefully, she drew him into conversation regarding the state of the world and what she might need to navigate it.
As humanity and electricity and the mundane rose in prominence, cultivation had certainly become much less commonplace, so Huang Sun would likely never know what, exactly, made him so keen to talk that day, to show this strange old woman his papers, the money in his wallet, his cell phone. All he knew was that her presence left him feeling warm and pliable. She seemed kind, curious, respectful. She stole nothing, only looked and pursed her lips and tapped her walking stick thoughtfully.
He dropped her off at an innocuous street corner in Yiling’s city center, and was all the way back home, granddaughter in tow, before he realized she had never given him her name.
The old woman, who now had a much better sense of what obstacles she might encounter, tucked her talismans away, straightened her posture, and set off again.
She didn’t know where she was going, nor what need had brought her down the mountainside that morning, but she figured that, with all things, it would reveal itself in time. She bought dumplings on the next street, the contents of the little bag at her waist mysteriously having altered their appearance to something a bit more recognizable to the vender, and wandered up and down the streets, walking stick at her side, as the sun lowered in the sky and the electric signs buzzed to life.
She found him, of all places, nose to the glass of a sweets store, fingers pressing smudges all along the lower ledge. Spotting her quarry, this reason she’d been drawn down the mountainside, into the chaos and pollution of the mundane Yiling of Now, the old woman let out a sigh of deep exasperation.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s you again.”
The little boy, who did not look old enough to walk around on his own, let alone patronize a sweets shop, turned and gave her a sunny, sunny smile.
“Well, A-Ying,” said the old woman, reaching out her hand. The little boy took it instantly, and she felt a trickle of despair down her back. He was so trusting! As usual. “It seems like neither of us has been given a choice this time around, hmm?”
The old woman had learned enough about the ways of the world already that she knew it would be rather unwise to just walk off with the child, not unless she was going to abscond with him to her mountain and, she had a sinking feeling, this boy was meant to stay here, in the Now. At least for the next little while. So instead, she took A-Ying’s hand and held it until his keeper, a woman in a yellow polo shirt that matched little A-Ying’s and said ‘Yiling Orphanage’ on it, came bounding up to them, face flushed with panic.
“Wei Ying!” she scolded, crouching down to rub a smudge of dirt off his face. A-Ying tolerated it, but rolled his eyes in the direction of the old woman in a way that made her swallow a chuckle. “How many times have we told you not to wander off, hmm?”
While A-Ying scuffed his foot, the woman in the yellow shirt turned to the old woman and said. “I’m so sorry. So, so, sorry. Thank you for taking care of him.”
The old woman reassured her that it was no trouble at all. In fact, the boy reminded her strongly—and here the old woman felt for that familiar warmth inside, let it spread towards her companion—of her own grandson.
“Oh,” said the woman in the yellow shirt, still flustered, but feeling perhaps a little that if this old woman and this little boy were to pair together, then something in the world might be set right. “Well, if you want to visit us, we’re here.” And she produced a business card and handed it over.
“My thanks,” said the old woman. She looked down at A-Ying, who tilted his head at her, narrowing his eyes. There was no way for him to recognize her, she knew. Not yet so young. Maybe never. But there was still something about that gaze that made her wonder. “I think I will.”
She found the Jiangs by accident. Well, it wasn’t really an accident, she knew. Reincarnation was a mysterious thing (partly why she refused to even bother with it), but like any current, like swept up like, jumbled them together like so many broken seashells reset back into the sand. Those who had been so tightly bound in their past lives would surely meet again on the next turn of the wheel. Though, she did wonder at the logic of having such unhappy people meet to make each other unhappy all over again.
Regardless, when A-Ying showed up after school, dragging two new faces behind him and informing her that he now had a brother and a sister, in the way that children do, before they really, truly understand what it means to declare such a thing, the old woman didn’t even bother to argue. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and went to prepare tea for when the children’s mother inevitably arrived.
The Jiangs were wealthy enough to get away with two children, and the old woman could see from the state of their shoes, their clothes, their backpacks, that no expense had been spared in their raising. It became abundantly clear when their mother, who the old woman suspected may have put tracking on her daughter’s shiny iPhone, knocked on the door.
When Mrs. Yu entered, the old woman couldn’t help the small smile that twitched at the corner of her mouth. It was a peculiar place to walk into, she supposed, if one were expecting a standard house. But the old woman, who had never done anything standard in her life and certainly wasn’t about to start now, had opted for something a little more…interesting.
What had once been a modest farmhouse in desperate need of refurbishment and under threat of complete removal and replacement by yet another very tall and square luxury apartment building, had been replaced with something that looked a little like a farmhouse in the front and, in the back, where there was a courtyard and a wide open space, a little more like something used as a set piece in a budget martial arts film. Mrs. Yu, who did not approve of budget anything, curled her lip, though she did accept the tea that the old woman handed her.
“Ah, Mrs. Yu,” said the old woman, “It seems my grandson is very eager to show off our new school. My apologies for the inconvenience.”
“School?” said Mrs. Yu, more out of politeness than anything.
While the old woman was not exactly thrilled at the idea of dropping A-Ying back into the politics that had killed him the first time around, the flash of gold on Mrs. Yu’s wrist reminded her that the Jiangs did have one thing she did not, which was money. Well, money, and also influence.
“Yes, my cultivation school,” said the old woman. “Very traditional.”
“…traditional,” said Mrs. Yu.
“A strong source of discipline.”
“Hm,” said Mrs. Yu, as she watched her son flail about with a stick, nearly poking out her daughter’s eye, while the mysterious six-year old ruffian who had somehow kidnapped both her children, danced around them, laughing.
“A-Ying,” the old woman suddenly called. “Enough.”
And to Mrs. Yu’s absolute astonishment, the wild little boy ground to an immediate halt, plucked the stick out of Jiang Cheng’s grasp, and replaced it with his own hand instead. “Sorry, Grandmother,” he said, with a downright gentlemanly little bow.
“Perhaps the pond,” the old woman suggested. A-Ying beamed at her, showing two missing teeth.
“Come on,” he said to A-Cheng “Let’s go look at the fish!”
Mrs. Yu blinked. She took another sip of her tea, then turned to face the old woman, who was serenely humming something under her breath, her own tea cooling on the table. “Tell me more,” she said.
Sometimes Grandmother made him do handstands, and sometimes she made him meditate, and sometimes she made him balance on one of those slack lines he was pretty sure she had stolen from some students at the local university. Sometimes Wei Wuxian had to count his breaths and his heartbeats, sometimes jump from tree to rooftop to tree, which he was pretty sure was illegal, and sometimes she made him copy poetry or old medicine texts written in traditional characters (the only reason he had better marks than Jiang Cheng in history), then recite them.
But after the lessons, when he was washed and fed and curled up, ready to sleep, sometimes she’d tell him stories. Most of them involved cultivation. Some of them did not. But by far his favorite of them all, was the tale of the Waiting God.
“Many thousands of years ago,” said Grandmother, “there were two famous cultivators.”
“What were their names?” Wei Wuxian demanded.
“It’s not important,” Grandmother told him, like she always did. “The first cultivator was the peerless second son of a renown sect.”
“Not important. The second cultivator—”
“Do you want to hear this story or not?”
Wei Wuxian slumped down into his pillows. “Fine,” he muttered. He was not pouting, but only because he was too old and mature to pout.
“The second cultivator was somewhat…” she hesitated, a slight twist to her lips, a glimmer in her eye, “non-traditional.”
“Well,” said Grandmother, “after a great war, which he was instrumental in winning, he abandoned the way of the sword and left his sect. Though it is sure his reasons were good ones, his choices led to his own downfall, and he was killed.”
Wei Wuxian always found this part of the story the least satisfying. Why did the second cultivator leave his sect? Why had he abandoned the way of the sword? How did he die? But he knew better by now than to interrupt, so all he did was recite, “Righteous choices do not always guarantee a good outcome.”
“Exactly,” said Grandmother, pleased. She smoothed back his hair. “The first cultivator was so bereft at this loss that he mourned for thirteen years.”
“Hmm,” said Wei Wuxian. He pursed his lips. He hadn’t even been alive for that long. If Jiang Cheng died, would he mourn for thirteen years? Wei Wuxian thought maybe he could, but still. It was hard to imagine. “Because he missed his friend so much?”
“Because he missed his friend so much,” Grandmother agreed. Her mouth twitched. “He missed his friend so much, that he might have mourned forever. But in the thirteenth year, his friend was returned to him in a new body.”
This part was also kind of confusing. “Reincarnated?”
“No,” Grandmother said. “His soul was returned in a new body. It’s different.”
Wei Wuxian always thought this answer was highly suspect, but he held his peace. “And then?”
“And then,” Grandmother said, “the first cultivator and the second cultivator together cleared the second cultivator’s name.”
This part, Wei Wuxian liked. Though it did also suffer from an incredible lack of detail. “And then?”
“And then,” Grandmother said, “they married.”
“They married,” Wei Wuxian repeated, just to make sure. “And they were both boys.”
“They married,” Grandmother confirmed, “and they were both boys.”
“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian nodded. He liked to make sure of that. Grandmother never changed her answer, no matter how many times he asked. “And they lived happily,” he prodded.
“Yes,” Grandmother agreed. “For a time.” She paused. If only that had been the end of the story. “But, one day. Many years of happiness later, the first cultivator fell ill.”
“I thought cultivators didn’t get sick.” Wei Wuxian always found this part troublesome as well. “I thought you said the first cultivator was the best.”
“It was a curse,” said Grandmother.
Well, that was okay then, thought Wei Wuxian. Grandmother did say that anyone could be affected by a curse.
“The second cultivator did everything he could. But day by day, he could see his love grow weaker. His hair turned white. His skin turned cold. His eyes turned sightless.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed.
“Finally, desperate, the second cultivator, a prodigious inventor, created an array to hold the first cultivator in eternal stasis, outside time. He hid his love deep within the mountains, protected by traps of his own devising, and went to search out a cure for the curse.”
“And did he find it?”
Grandmother looked at him, something soft in her eyes. “Not yet,” she said. “Ever faithful, the first cultivator waits for his love’s return. I think he’d wait until the end of the world, if necessary.”
Wei Wuxian let out a breath. The story was sad, but there was something about the idea of the cursed cultivator, someone filled with so much trust and faith for one person, that made him feel warm inside. What must it be like, for someone to love you like that?
“And,” Wei Wuxian said, having memorized the next part, “even though no one’s been able to get in and see him, because of all the traps, the story got so popular that people all over began to leave offerings at a shrine in the mountains, asking for patience and fortitude and—and faith.” He smiled up at his grandmother. “And every time people pray to the Waiting God, it powers the array around him, keeping him strong and alive, until his—his boyfriend comes back.”
“Husband,” said Grandmother.
“Yeah,” said Wei Wuxian, cheeks flushing for some reason. “Until his husband comes back.” He frowned. “It’s not really fair.”
“What’s not fair?”
“Well,” said Wei Wuxian, brushing his nose in thought, “the Waiting God had to wait all those years when he thought his boyfriend was dead forever, and then even though his boyfriend came back, now he has to wait all over again.” He shrugged. “It just doesn’t seem very fair.”
“Life isn’t very fair,” Grandmother agreed. She clucked him under the chin. “But have a little faith, hmm? Just like the Waiting God.” She got to her feet, groaning. “Oh, child. Running after you has been hell on my knees.”
“Do you know where the shrine is?” Wei Wuxian twisted to look at her. She flapped her hand.
“Oh, north of here, I’ve heard. And to the east. Near the sea. Now.” She waggled a finger at him. “No more questions. Go to sleep, A-Ying.”
“Can we go sometime?” Wei Wuxian asked, just before the door slid shut. She gave him a pointed look, and he untwisted to lay flat.
“Perhaps,” she said, and then closed the door completely, leaving him in the near darkness, save for the glow in the dark stars he and Jiang Cheng had stuck to the ceiling in a very short-lived burst of astronomical enthusiasm two years ago. He thought about the Waiting God, stuck inside a cave just like this. He wondered if the Waiting God missed the stars.
Wei Wuxian knew he had two names, and he knew that was unusual. He knew he had his birth name, which was the one his parents had given him, and he knew he had his new name, the one his grandmother had given him, the one they called him at school.
(Ironically, Grandmother never called him this).
What Wei Wuxian didn’t know, right up until he was ten years old, was that cultivation, golden cores, and fighting ghosts, was a bunch of crackpot, old-fashioned nonsense. Or at least, so said the kids at school.
“Hmph,” said Grandmother, rolling her eyes. She shoved a plate of watermelon at him. “Spoken like an idiot who’s never developed one.”
Wei Wuxian considered this. “He sounded pretty sure.” He took a bite, the sweet juice running down his chin.
“Idiots usually do,” returned his grandmother, sounding very sure herself. She swiped at his chin with a napkin. Wei Wuxian squawked in protest, then narrowed his eyes at her. He was too old for this. “Enough,” she said. “Meditation after you eat.”
“But I have homework…”
“Better eat quickly then.”
He scowled at her, mouth full of watermelon. “You don’t make Jiang Cheng or A-Jie meditate so much.”
“You’re right,” Grandmother said, to his utter surprise. And then, “I will suggest it to Mrs. Yu.”
Wei Wuxian made a face. If Grandmother talked to Mrs. Yu, and Mrs. Yu made Jiang Cheng suddenly spend his already scarce free afternoons meditating, he knew Jiang Cheng would somehow come around to blame him. He didn’t know why Mrs. Yu always listened to what Grandmother suggested. He knew even less why Mrs. Yu liked to compare the two of them. Of course his sword forms were better. He’d been living with the instructor since he was three!
Besides, he complained to Jiang Yanli, later the next day, it wasn’t like it was something that actually mattered. Maybe Mrs. Yu should take a look at his English scores and compare them to Jiang Cheng’s. Then she’d be happy.
Jiang Yanli who, despite being a teenaged girl was, as far as Wei Wuxian was concerned, the only person to ever, ever give him any iota of sympathy, patted his head and offered him one of the cakes pilfered from the Jiangs’ most recent fancy dinner parties.
Jiang Yanli was a superhero, Wei Wuxian decided, taking a bite into the cake. Strawberry jelly burst over his tongue. The only woman he would ever love.
But Wei Wuxian didn’t want the kids at school to think his grandmother was a crackpot, even though half their parents attended Grandmother’s highly questionable new-age meditation and exercise classes. So maybe he stopped talking so much about things like golden cores and fighting ghosts. Maybe he stopped asking for old stories, and begged to join the soccer team instead of doing meditation or sword forms with a dull blade that was, nevertheless, very heavy.
(This petition was denied).
Maybe he wanted to be known as that kid who was good at video games, or basketball, or computers. Wei Wuxian could be loud, he discovered, and he could be fun. And if he was loud enough and fun enough, there was no space left for anyone to ask why he lived with his grandmother, who lived in a refurbished farmhouse surrounded on all sides by new high rise luxury condominiums, wore clothes that made her look like an extra in a wuxia drama, and made her livelihood as, of all things, a cultivation teacher.
But it was hard to really forget, or plead childish ignorance, when half your classmates’ moms came to your house three times a week. The unfortunate thing about the classes was that they happened whether Wei Wuxian wanted them to or not. Grandmother said that these classes paid the bills, so every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening, when she lit cheap incense and prepared to drone on about feeling and the body to a crowd of bored and over-keen middle aged women, he made his escape.
“You don’t actually live here,” Jiang Cheng groused, as he hauled a reluctant shiba-inu off his pillow and out of his room. Wei Wuxian kept his back flattened to the wall. Jiang Cheng snorted as he shut the door firmly in the whining dog’s face and Wei Wuxian’s shoulders relaxed.
“I’m moving in,” he said, collapsing on Jiang Cheng’s bed and grasping for the video game controller. Rolling his eyes, Jiang Cheng sat next to him. “My whole house stinks.”
“Your face stinks.”
Jiang Cheng smacked him with the unopened bag of potato chips. “That doesn’t even make sense!”
“You don’t make sense,” Wei Wuxian muttered, sitting up anyway. He dropped the controller in favor of the chips, popped open the bag, and shoved a handful into his mouth.
“Gross,” said Jiang Cheng, who was a girl. “Chew with your mouth closed.” Wei Wuxian made sure to chew with his mouth extra wide and open. “Ugh,” Jiang Cheng muttered, and started up the game. “Are we going to play or not?”
Two weeks after Wei Wuxian’s thirteenth birthday, Grandmother sat him down and said, “Now, A-Ying, I have made the arrangements.”
“The what?” said Wei Wuxian. Even sitting, he was taller than her now. “Is this about the classes? Grandmother, I told you I’m not going to teach—”
“No, A-Ying,” she said. “I must take a trip.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “Where are you going? Why?”
“Seclusion,” she said. “To the mountains.”
“That’s uh…” he frowned. “You could stand to be a little more specific.” She raised her eyebrows at him. He settled. “When you will you back?”
“Hmm,” said Grandmother. “It might be quite some time.”
“What, like a couple months, or—?”
“I have discussed with Mrs. Yu.” She tapped his wrist. Her fingers were calloused. They were cold. “You will stay with the Jiang family. The finances have been arranged.”
“But—” the floor felt like it was tilting. There was a sudden, hollow gap, just below his breastbone, ice dripping into the cavern of his chest. “I don’t understand.” His voice rose. “Why?”
“Oh, A-Ying.” She pressed her hand to his cheek. “Everything has its time,” she said.
“When will I see you again?” the question slipped out before he could stop it.
She didn’t answer right away, just looked at him. Her lips pursed, eyes assessing. “Hmm,” she said. She smiled. “We’ll see.”
“What—” he sputtered. What kind of answer was that? But she was already moving on, drawing him into an embrace. He breathed in the smell of her; dust and sweat and that cheap incense he loved to hate.
“Be righteous,” she said. “Be clever. Practice your meditation.” He rolled his eyes. She thumped him on the side of his head. “I mean it, A-Ying. Don’t slack.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. Like Mrs. Yu would ever let anyone slack. “When are you—” his voice hitched. “When are you leaving?”
“You—tomorrow? But what about the house? The school? What about—”
“A-Ying,” she murmured. “These things are material things. They don’t matter.”
“That’s not fair, Grandmother. How can you—you can’t just leave.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed back the rest of his words. He counted his breaths. He counted his heartbeats. He counted hers. “Can I call you?” he said, but he already knew the answer, even before she shook her head. “Can I send you letters?”
“It’s seclusion, A-Ying.”
Breaking away from her hold, Wei Wuxian made a sound of frustration. “No one does that anymore!”
Her eyes, when they met his, were dark, sympathetic, implacable. “I do.”
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help it; he burst into tears.
“Oh,” she said, sounding almost startled. “Oh, you silly boy. What’s this?”
“Don’t—” he choked out, fisting his fingers into her ridiculous, old-fashioned excuse for a shirt. The fabric was soft, like it had been washed an infinite amount of times. “Don’t—don’t leave me—don’t leave me alone.”
“Oh, silly boy, silly boy,” Grandmother crooned. She wiped his cheeks with the corner of her sleeve, then pressed her palm against his sternum. There was a warmth to her hand, matching the warmth spinning inside his own lower dantian. “It’s all right here, hmm? Everything I’ve taught you is here. You won’t be alone. You’ll never be alone.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No,” she said, “it’s not.” She pulled him into another hug. “But everything changes, A-Ying. All we can do is hope to weather the current.”
“I don’t like it,” he muttered into her side. She laughed.
“Sorry, A-Ying. The world turns no matter if we like it or not.” She smoothed back his hair. It was getting long again, almost long enough to gather into a short ponytail in the back. “Wait for me, hmm?” She allowed herself a small secret smile. “Like the Waiting God.” She felt him hesitate, then nod against her. Good boy.
The next morning, Wei Wuxian made his way to the kitchen, hoping to see her off before the sun rose, but she was already gone.
The Jiangs showed up an hour later, Jiang Fengmian driving the new SUV, Jiang Yanli in the front seat. Wei Wuxian had half entertained fantasies of staying in the house, no matter what kind of arrangements Grandmother had made, but the sight of Jiang Yanli, arms outstretched, broke him easily. Under her sympathetic eye, he packed all his worldly possessions into two suitcases, while Jiang Fengmian puttered around doing things like shutting off the water, calling in the internet to be canceled, and making sure all the doors and windows were locked and sealed.
“She wants you to keep the house,” Jiang Fengmian told him on the ten-minute ride over to the Jiangs’ estate. Wei Wuxian stared at his knees. “We’ll have someone come by to check it over once a month.”
“You can have the room next to Jiang Cheng’s.” Jiang Yanli nudged him conspiratorially. “The one with the window, and the little reading nook.” Wei Wuxian nodded, but couldn’t make himself speak. He remained quiet as they pulled up outside the family home, Jiang Cheng pacing outside.
“Hey,” said Jiang Cheng, as they went around back to grab the suitcases. “I got a new video game. Want to play?” When Wei Wuxian just shrugged him off, he shook his shoulder, scowling. “Hey!”
“Jiang Cheng,” Jiang Yanli chided. “Let him get settled in first.” Jiang Cheng’s frown deepened, but he stepped back. Wordless, Wei Wuxian lifted both suitcases.
“Give me that,” said Jiang Cheng, snatching one of them before Wei Wuxian could even open his mouth to protest. He blinked as Jiang Cheng stalked past them, into the house, then again as Jiang Yanli linked arms with him.
“Come on,” she said.
Wei Wuxian always thought that the Jiangs’ summer home in Yunmeng looked like something out of a fairy tale. The late June humidity shimmered over of the water, making the restored Tang-style buildings of Lotus Pier waver in the distance. He ducked beneath the surface, then opened his eyes, watching the outlines of the swaying lotus blossoms wave gently above him.
He could stay here forever, he thought, if breathing wasn’t an issue. The water pressed all around him, just cool enough to be pleasant, like a refreshing bath. It was nothing like…it was nothing like…
Freezing, ice-cold, dragged him under, thrashing, flash of light, flash of white, sound—
Wei Wuxian emerged, gasping, coughing, tears running from his eyes, water running from his nose. On the dock a few meters away, Jiang Cheng tore his eyes away from his phone to stare at him. “What happened to you?” he demanded, pushing up his sunglasses.
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian managed, still coughing. He swam over to the dock, pulling himself up with shaky arms, and sprawled next to Jiang Cheng. His lungs still hurt a little. Even through the heat of the early summer sun beating down on his chest, he shivered.
“Fine, drown then.” He swore as Wei Wuxian reached out to dip a hand into the water and splash him. “Wei Wuxian! Don’t get my phone wet!”
“Jiang Cheng.” He splashed him again, rolling away as Jiang Cheng tried to punch him in the shoulder. “Come on, put it away. Come on.”
“Shut up. Stop!”
Wei Wuxian splashed him again, then rolled all the way off the dock. “Make me!” The return to the water was a brief shock of cold, but nothing like the vision that had overtaken him a moment ago. Wei Wuxian ignored it, kicking back lazily on his back, feet pointed directly towards the dock. He was fine like this. This was good.
“You’re so annoying—” That time, a wave of water caught Jiang Cheng straight in the face. He sputtered. “That’s it!” he snapped, before shoving his phone to the side and launching himself into the water after his tormenter.
Snorting, Wei Wuxian kicked his way towards the center of the lake, where there was an anchored, floating dock. With Jiang Cheng in hot pursuit, he picked up the pace into a full-on backstroke, stopping only when his hand hit wood.
Wei Wuxian quickly ducked under the water as Jiang Cheng barreled toward him, then dragged on his foster brother’s leg. He could hear Jiang Cheng shout above him, then saw bubbles as Jiang Cheng followed him down to chase him under the dock. Wei Wuxian popped up on the other side, grinning triumphantly. He yelped as a familiar hand wrapped around his ankle and yanked him back under.
They wrestled for a while, dunking each other around the edges of the floating dock, splashing and shouting. For a brief moment, Wei Wuxian thought he had the upper hand. He grabbed the ladder, pushing Jiang Cheng away from the dock, trying to pull himself up—
Cold, cold all over his body. A hand in his, a hand slipping from his, muck covering his face, his eyes, his mouth. His lungs burned, his core burned, he couldn’t breathe—
Wei Wuxian tipped over to his side and retched. He felt sun-warm, smooth wood beneath his fingers. Woozily, he opened his eyes, Jiang Cheng’s frowning face swimming in front of him. He coughed again, then rested his flushed cheek against the solid of the dock.
“Hey, Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng snapped his fingers in his face again. Wei Wuxian willed himself to focus. He still felt dizzy.
“Ugh,” he groaned. “What?”
“What?” Jiang Cheng repeated. He looked—paler than usual. “What? What do you mean, ‘what’? What the hell was that?”
“I dunno,” he muttered. “Sorry.” He was on the dock. Jiang Cheng must’ve dragged him up onto the dock. The water beneath was clear, calm, warm, nothing like the muck in his…vision? Hallucination? Dream? He shuddered.
“You just—” Jiang Cheng said. “You had some kind of, like, seizure or something. What the hell!”
“What?” Wei Wuxian objected. “No, I didn’t.” He patted himself. “See? I’m fine.”
Jiang Cheng bit his lip. “Just—just stay here. I’m going to get a boat.” And he dove off the dock.
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian protested, struggling upright. His chest hurt. His arms felt like overcooked noodles. Still, this was ridiculous. He was perfectly capable of swimming back on his own. Jiang Cheng, already growing more distant, didn’t seem to hear him. Wei Wuxian flopped back down. The sun was high overhead. He shaded his eyes with his hand, tried to remember to breathe deeply and evenly.
When Jiang Cheng came back less than twenty minutes later, paddling one of the canoes that had been tied up at the main dock, he wasn’t alone.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian groaned, as the canoe pulled alongside the floating dock and Jiang Yanli leapt nimbly out of it to kneel next to him. “You didn’t—I said I was fine.”
“You aren’t fine.” Jiang Cheng remained in the canoe, but pointed the paddle at him. “You had some weird kind of fit! I had to pull you out of the water!”
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian told Jiang Yanli, catching her hand as she tried to look at his head. “Really—”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said, “that’s exactly what you said when you fell off the roof and broke your arm.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Okay, I was eight and I ended up being fine though—”
“A-Cheng, help me get him in the boat.”
“Idiot,” Jiang Cheng sniffed, as he grabbed onto the side of the dock, anchoring the canoe so that his siblings could slide into it. “No, you sit in the middle. Let A-Jie sit in the front.”
“I can help paddle a boat, A-Cheng.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng said, as he pushed away from the dock. “You’ll probably have another seizure and drop the stupid paddle.”
When they reached the main dock, Jiang Cheng, against Wei Wuxian’s protests, helped drag him out of the boat. Wei Wuxian hit his limit though, when the pair tried to get him to lean on them for the walk back up to the compound. “It’s fine!” he said, batting them away. His legs still felt a bit weak, and his chest hurt when he breathed too deeply, but it was fine. “I can walk! I can walk!”
“Yeah,” said Jiang Cheng. “You can walk right to the doctor.”
Wei Wuxian did not, in fact, end up walking right to the doctor. Instead, Mrs. Yu took him in the SUV and he had to suffer the indignities of being poked and prodded and having a light shined in first one eye and then the other, all with his foster mother and foster siblings present and accounted for to provide running commentary. Wei Wuxian grit his teeth. He was sixteen! Hadn’t these people ever heard of doctor-patient confidentiality?
“And you’ve never had an incident like this before?” asked Dr. Yang, listening to his lungs again. “Exhale.”
“No,” said Wei Wuxian. He exhaled.
“Yes,” said Jiang Cheng at the exact same time. Wei Wuxian glared. His brother was a dirty traitor.
“Jiang Cheng,” he said warningly, while Jiang Yanli put her hands to her mouth and Mrs. Yu’s eyes narrowed even further. Wei Wuxian could already hear the forthcoming lecture about dishonoring all of his grandmother’s hard work in raising him. He turned to the doctor, who had already put the stethoscope away in favor of typing something on the little laptop. “They’re not seizures. Sometimes, just like—I’ll get a headache or something and then, like, some, I don’t know, déjà vu or like something…” he looked over to see his entire family staring at him with varying degrees of aggravation and horror. “Oh my god,” he said. “It’s fine! It’s not—”
“I’m going to recommend Mr. Wei to a neurologist,” said Dr. Yang, scribbling a name on a sticky note and handing it to Mrs. Yu, whose lips thinned even further. “He doesn’t have a concussion and his lungs are fine, but they’ll probably want to do some more tests.” Wei Wuxian dropped his head into his hands. “In the meantime, Mr. Wei.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Stay out of the water.”
“Right,” Wei Wuxian muttered. Mrs. Yu shot him a look. Wei Wuxian straightened. “Yes, Doctor,” he said. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“Hm,” said Dr. Yang. She looked at Mrs. Yu. “I’d contact the neurologist as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Yu, with a glint in her eye that told Wei Wuxian he was going to find himself packed off to some neurologist’s office within the day. “Thank you, Doctor.”
In the car driving back to Lotus Pier, Jiang Yanli still looked like she was about to cry. “A-Xian, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this.” Wei Wuxian winced.
“Sorry, Jiejie,” he said. “I promise, it’s really not a big deal.”
“Sure,” said Jiang Cheng. “Because drowning’s not a big deal.”
“I can’t believe you told them,” Wei Wuxian hissed at him. “What about brother-brother confidentiality, huh?”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said sadly. She peered at him. “Do you get headaches? Does your head hurt now?”
“Maybe you have a brain tumor,” Jiang Cheng put in.
“I do not have a brain tumor.”
“That will be for the neurologist to decide,” said Mrs. Yu dangerously from the driver’s seat.
As soon as they pulled back up to the main house, Mrs. Yu was already on the phone, indicating with nothing more than a sharp glare that Wei Wuxian was to be escorted inside and he was to stay there. This, Wei Wuxian thought bitterly, as his sibling brought him to his room and then promptly abandoned him when Mrs. Yu shouted them back to the front hall, was patently unfair. His phone buzzed. Wei Wuxian glanced at it.
15:17: Mom says 2 practice ur grandmas meditation stuff
15:18: also dont leave the house
15:18: or go outside
With a groan, Wei Wuxian threw the phone across the room and slumped back down in bed, arms crossed. He could’ve stayed that way forever, if not for the knock on his door less than a minute later.
“I brought some water for you,” Jiang Yanli said, sliding the door open with her foot. She came over to the bed and sat on it next to him, handing the mug over.
Wei Wuxian frowned, but mumbled his thanks and drank. The water did feel good going down his throat, warming his chest. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“A-Xian,” said Jiang Yanli, “your health is important.” He pouted. “How long has this been going on?”
“It’s not…” he trailed off, trying to keep his frustration from boiling over onto Jiang Yanli. But they weren’t listening. “It’s just like,” he said. “Weird dreams sometimes. Weird moments. I don’t have a brain tumor,” he finished loudly, just to clear that one up and regretting ever telling Jiang Cheng about the dreams. “It’s just—you know when you’re doing something and it reminds you of something else and then it’s like, the memory of that other thing?”
“Um,” said Jiang Yanli delicately. “Maybe?”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, huffing out a breath. “It’s just. It’s like that.”
“Hmm.” It was noncommittal, but she smiled at him. Wei Wuxian wanted to maintain his pout, but couldn’t help the way his lips twitched up to match hers. She said, “Well, maybe it’s nothing. But better to be absolutely sure, right? Just to be safe?” She patted his shoulder as she stood up. “Then I won’t worry.”
“A-Jie,” Wei Wuxian began, aggravated, because that was a completely unfair move. “There’s no need to worry now. Like I said, I am fine—”
“Mom said you have an appointment with a neurologist tomorrow afternoon,” Jiang Cheng said, popping his head through the doorway.
“What?” Wei Wuxian yelped. “How did she do that so fast?”
“Some cousin.” Jiang Cheng kicked a heap of clothes out of the way as he came into the room. “I don’t know. It’s Mom. What did you expect?” He reached for the mug that Wei Wuxian had placed on the bedside table, and drained it of the remaining water.
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian smacked his arm. “That was mine!”
“I was thirsty.”
“How dare you steal water from the infirm.”
Jiang Cheng held it out of his reach, but sat down on the edge of the bed as well. He shoved Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “You said you were fine.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said decisively. “I’m clearly dying. And you just had to come in here—”
“Jiejie, make him stop—”
“Like a thief—”
“Fine! Maybe I’ll go swimming!” Jiang Cheng got up and pivoted to march out the door. Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue out at his retreating back. Jiang Yanli rolled her eyes. Less than a minute later, Jiang Cheng returned, lugging his gaming set. “I bet I could bring the TV in here.” Wei Wuxian immediately perked up.
“Oh, yeah there’s a plug right there.” He rolled off the bed and slid over to the other side of the room. “We could put it against the wall.”
“I’m going to go ask Mom about the details,” Jiang Yanli said with a sigh, as Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng bickered over the placement of the TV.
That night, Wei Wuxian went to sleep with the vague hope that his appointment the next day was going to turn out to be some massive misunderstanding. Unfortunately, morning dawned, breakfast was served, and still he had to waste his vacation by driving into the city to sit in a waiting room and fill out paperwork under Mrs. Yu’s watchful eye.
“You seem tired,” Dr. Wong said, during the intake interview. “Are you sleeping well?”
“Just,” said Wei Wuxian, who had dreamt that night of falling, falling, falling into some black smoke, but never hitting the ground, and woken up sweating and breathing hard at 3 am. “Just had a long day yesterday.”
“Hmm.” Dr. Wong pushed his glasses back up onto his nose. The doctor was a good head shorter than him, and Wei Wuxian felt like a ridiculous and over-sized kid, sitting on the exam table and swinging his legs back and forth. “The rest of you seems healthy enough. I’ve ordered some blood tests and an EEG. We’ll see what we can find.”
When first the EEG, and then a week later, the blood tests, came back completely normal, Wei Wuxian did his best not to gloat. At least, not in front of Mrs. Yu or Uncle Fengmian. He gloated plenty in front of Jiang Cheng, who told him that not having a brain tumor was nothing to be proud of and that if he wanted some real brain damage, Jiang Cheng was more than happy to give him some.
“Fuck off,” said Wei Wuxian, dancing away. He skidded to a stop in front of Mrs. Yu, who gave him a very unimpressed once-over, eyes lingering on the coffee stain at the bottom of his shirt from breakfast. Wei Wuxian tugged on his shirt hem and righted his posture.
“We have a follow-up appointment tomorrow morning at eight am.” Mrs. Yu raised one sharp eyebrow. “We’ll leave here at seven.”
“Um,” said Wei Wuxian, wincing. “Seven? Really?”
“Seven,” Mrs. Yu said firmly. “Don’t oversleep.” She turned on her heel and swept out of the room, the set of her shoulders looking remarkably like Jiang Cheng from behind. Wei Wuxian sighed.
“You’re going to oversleep,” Jiang Cheng predicted, sneaking up to prod at his side. Wei Wuxian slapped his hand away absently.
“I’m not,” he said.
“Will too,” Jiang Cheng said, and jabbed him again.
True to his word, Wei Wuxian did not oversleep and miss his appointment, but only because Jiang Yanli shook him awake at 6:47, telling him that Mrs. Yu said she was leaving in fifteen minutes, whether Wei Wuxian was in the car or not. He shuffled to the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth, wiping away sleep and the memory of some weird song ringing in his ears, soaring above trees and rooftops.
He found himself humming it through the ride over, until Mrs. Yu resolutely ordered Siri to play Na-Ying’s Conquer, forcing Wei Wuxian to reach for his headphones. But even the familiar and distracting synth of the K-pop wasn’t enough to keep him from drumming his fingers on his thighs to a rhythm that, for all his earlier humming, he couldn’t quite recall.
Back at the neurologist’s, Wei Wuxian gnawed on his lower lip and tried to keep from shifting around in the plastic chair too much as Dr. Wong went over his results. “As we said during the test, usually on an EEG we’d be able to see some kind of abnormality, even if you’re not actively having a seizure.”
Wei Wuxian almost opened his mouth to remind everyone in the room that he was not, in fact, having seizures, but thought better of it when he caught Mrs. Yu’s eye. He slunk back down in his seat.
“Yours didn’t show anything like that,” Dr. Wong continued, “and your blood tests results were also within the range of normal.” He stroked his beard. “It is possible,” he said, looking directly at Wei Wuxian, who met his gaze with only a little bit of sullenness, “for someone to have a seizure one day and never have one again. Potentially due to some perfect storm of dehydration, illness, or some other factors. Sometimes we don’t even really know why.”
Wei Wuxian leaned forward. “And you think that’s what happened to me?” he asked, forgetting for a moment that the whole seizure thing was being vastly overblown.
“It’s possible.” He still didn’t look entirely convinced however, the lines in his forehead becoming more pronounced as he reviewed Wei Wuxian’s chart and results. He said to Mrs. Yu. “But your son mentioned this had happened before.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Yu. “Jiang Cheng wouldn’t lie about this.” Unlike, the rest of her silence seemed to say, someone else we both know. Wei Wuxian scowled.
“They’re not—” he said. “They’re just. It’s just. Dreams. Weird—weird dreams.” They both looked at him. Wei Wuxian flushed. “Not those kinds of dreams!” he said loudly, and sunk down in his seat even further, cheeks flaming.
The worse part was, Wei Wuxian thought, was that wasn’t even true. Sometimes the dreams were innocent, like the one with the stupid song that was still stuck in his head, but other times…he swallowed, faint memory of a hand brushing his cheek, his thighs, lips on his. Wei Ying.
They were normal dreams to have, Wei Wuxian thought furiously. He was sixteen and healthy! They were normal and Mrs. Yu and Dr. Wong did not, under any circumstances, need any details about them!
“Hm,” said Dr. Wong, the faint twitch between his brows indicating that he did not quite believe him. “Well, in any case.” He pushed up his glasses. “There is still a risk of another seizure. For now, I recommend monitoring and a follow-up appointment in a few months.” He gave Wei Wuxian a stern look. “If you experience another one, come back. Don’t keep it a secret. It could very well be something serious.”
Mrs. Yu got to her feet, adjusting the strap of her Gucci purse over her shoulder. “We’ll do that,” she said, in the kind of tone that brooked no argument. Wei Wuxian pressed his lips together, but nodded. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“No trouble at all,” said Dr. Wong, while Wei Wuxian did his best to slink between them and out of the room.
That night, Wei Wuxian woke sweating all over and with a wordless cry on his lips. He sat up, pajamas soaked, and hunched forward to run a shaky hand through his hair. He shuddered as he remembered the feeling of an intractable hunger gnawing at his insides. Cold, cold, cold. It was a sensation incongruous to the heavy humidity of the summer night. Wei Wuxian took a deep breath. He’d never been hungry, he reminded himself. Grandmother fed him. The Jiangs fed him. They had presumably fed him at the orphanage, though he couldn’t remember it. He assumed his parents before then had fed him too.
It’s fine, he told himself, laying back down again, trying to ignore the discomfort of the sheets soaked with sweat. He kicked them off. You’re fine.
Even so. He lay there in the dark, unable to sleep, until the waiting became unbearable and he sat up again. “So stupid,” he muttered, as he got out of bed. He changed his damp shirt for the one he’d worn the day before, and swapped out his boxers for the swim trunks he hadn’t been allowed to wear all week, before tiptoeing his way out of his room, down the hallway, and into the night.
The lakes were different under the stars, Wei Wuxian thought. Calmer, softer, the lotus blooms rising above the water like supplicants to the sky. He sat cross-legged on the dock, slapping away the mosquito droning near his ear, and closed his eyes, inhaling deep.
It had been a long time, longer than he wanted to admit, since he’d last practiced what his grandmother had taught him. Mrs. Yu was always harping on about it, about the shame, the ungratefulness it brought to her memory if he didn’t practice. Wei Wuxian exhaled. That wasn’t fair, he thought. First of all, Grandmother wasn’t dead. Probably. Second, she hadn’t left Mrs. Yu, had she? He was the one she’d left behind, who hadn’t received even a single visit, a letter, a phone call—Wei Wuxian swallowed hard, consciously made himself unclench his jaw, relax his fingers where his nails had scraped against the insides of his palms. He blew a short blast of air out of the corner of his mouth. The lake was calm. He straightened. Inhale. He was calm. Exhale.
He was out of practice. Some ways away on the lake, he heard the croak of a frog. The buzzing mosquito was back again. An owl. There was a warmth just below his belly. Wei Wuxian focused on it, tried to visualize it. It thrummed like a hummingbird beating its wings.
He shifted, his back twinging, then resettled. Tried to imagine the warmth trickling out of his center through his veins, down his legs and up his chest, into his arms, curling up his spinal cord and into the base of his skull. He breathed.
I’m fine, he thought. Finefinefinefinefine. The warmth surged, set out heat like a shockwave. Wei Wuxian sucked in his breath, felt a tingling in his fingers, in his chest, in his throat. Mind empty, mind empty, mind…
That damn song! Still going round and round his head. He tried to push it out, but the more he thought about it, the stronger it seemed, until it almost felt like he could actually hear it outside, playing softly on the wind.
Was that a flute? It could’ve been a flute. It sounded like a duet. It sounded like…it sounded like…
He exhaled. Grandmother said to focus on the center. In all things, his center. He was Wei Ying. He was Wei Wuxian. He was here, here, here. Present. His heart beat. He told it to slow. His leg cramped. He directed warmth down a line from his belly button to his hip to his calf. The pain eased. He breathed. He breathed. He breathed.
Footsteps behind him. Wei Wuxian opened his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Couldn’t sleep.” Wei Wuxian unfolded his limbs and turned to look at Jiang Cheng, his brother’s face pale in the moonlight. At fifteen, his baby fat was still melting, but the corners of his cheekbones were sharp in the shadow of the moon. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to go swimming.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Jiang Cheng muttered, sitting down next to him and picking at the splintering wood.
“Aw, A-Cheng, I thought you loved me,” Wei Wuxian said, just to be contrary.
“Fuck off.” Jiang Cheng tipped his head back to look at the night sky. The lack of light pollution out in rural Lotus Pier made the stars seem extra luminous. “Are they going to make you do more tests?”
Wei Wuxian hummed noncommittally. “I don’t think so, no,” he said, tapping his nose. “Just monitoring, for now.” He could tell Jiang Cheng was watching him, he turned and gave him a smile. “Seriously,” he said. “The doctor said sometimes it can just happen once for whatever weird reason and then—” he shrugged. “Never again.”
“But,” Wei Wuxian said, patting Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, “I was lucky you were there, huh? Otherwise it could’ve been bad.”
“I guess,” said Jiang Cheng. “I mean.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said firmly, and dragged his brother around the neck to trap him against Wei Wuxian’s side. Jiang Cheng made a muffled complaint, pushing at Wei Wuxian’s arms. “There, there,” Wei Wuxian said soothingly, squeezing harder as Jiang Cheng flailed, “let me thank you, A-Cheng.”
“Gedofrg!” said Jiang Cheng, before he finally managed to wrench away from Wei Wuxian’s hold. He glared. Wei Wuxian beamed at him.
“Best brother,” he said proudly, reaching out again. Jiang Cheng dodged by scooting backward, out of Wei Wuxian’s grasp.
“I’m just going to let you drown next time.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “That’s fair.” He leaned back all the way so that he was lying on the dock. After another moment and a very deep sigh, Jiang Cheng copied him. In the space left by their silence, the nighttime noise of the lake came alive all around them.
“I wouldn’t let you drown,” Jiang Cheng said quietly, after several minutes of watching faint cloud shadows drift over the moon and the stars. Into the darkness, Wei Wuxian’s lips curled up.
“I know, Didi,” he said. “Thank you.”
Barely a minute later, Wei Wuxian sat up so rapidly that all of the frogs silenced themselves and Jiang Cheng’s neck ached from sympathetic whiplash. “A-Cheng,” he said breathlessly, sliding over to peer down into Jiang Cheng’s face. He patted him on the cheek. “I think I’m going to have to learn how to play the flute.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him, cross eyed, before swatting Wei Wuxian’s hand away and slowly sitting up himself. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
“I don’t think so, no.” Wei Wuxian nodded firmly to himself. “No. No, it’s not. What do you think? Do you think I could? Do you think your mom will let me—”
“Do whatever you want,” Jiang Cheng said, rolling his eyes. He got to his feet. “I’m going to bed.”
Caiyi City was a bustling metropolis, as famous for its Old Town canals as it was for its festivals. Wei Wuxian, however, was much more focused on Caiyi’s cultural heritage than in the shops hawking cheaply made banners and t-shirts with cloud motifs and the outline of the Caiyi cityscape. Specifically, he was very interested in Caiyi’s culinary history. Or, to be rather more exact—
“Bullshit,” Jiang Cheng declared, crossing his arms and nodding towards the two jars Wei Wuxian was dangling in front of him. “There’s just no way that brewery is two thousand years old.”
“Ah, come on.” Wei Wuxian slung a companionable arm around his shoulders. “Even if it’s not two thousand years old—but actually, it totally is. I totally believe them—this, right here?” he shook the jars. “This is the famous Emperor’s Smile! It’s gotta be amazing.”
“Get off me,” Jiang Cheng said, though he made no move to actually cause that to happen. “It’s just hype.”
“Hype?” Wei Wuxian gasped, clutching at his chest. “Hype?” He prodded Jiang Cheng in the chest with an insistent finger. “Take that back.”
“Come on.” Jiang Cheng started walking, dragging the still-attached Wei Wuxian along with him. “What was the address again?”
Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Of course you forgot.”
“Uh huh.” Wei Wuxian was already popping open the corks on one of the white jars. He sniffed the inside. Jiang Cheng had a bad feeling that his headache was about to get worse. “Hmm.”
“Wei Wuxian,” he said, very tiredly. “There’s a no drinking in public sign right there.” He pointed. “It’s—literally it’s right there. Can’t you read?”
“Just a sip,” said Wei Wuxian, right before downing half the jar. He swallowed, blinked, and smacked his lips, his eyes widening. “Oh, that’s good. That’s actually really good. Here.” He held out the jar. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, but took it anyway. He sipped.
“It’s okay.” It was actually more than okay. It was mellow going down, not too sweet. He could never let his brother know this. It would only encourage him. “Can we go now?”
“Tastes like something from a dream,” Wei Wuxian mused, taking another swig. He stuck the cork back on and fumbled in the pocket of his jacket. “Here.” He swiped the screen of his phone, then handed it over. “The address.” Jiang Cheng snatched it from his hand.
“We’re not too far.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the other side of the street. “That way.” He stalked off with purpose, leaving a flailing Wei Wuxian behind him, with the wine halfway to his mouth.
“You can give me my phone back,” Wei Wuxian said, when he caught up.
“How about not,” said Jiang Cheng, as he wove through another throng of tourists and their giant, flashing cameras. Wei Wuxian, who was investigating the contents of the white jar again, was not so nimble. Jiang Cheng huffed out a breath, then reached over to snag Wei Wuxian’s elbow.
“You’re a terrible brother,” Wei Wuxian informed him, as Jiang Cheng towed him along. “Jiang Cheng.”
“What?” Wei Wuxian stumbled as Jiang Cheng let go of his sleeve. He looked up at the gold and green awning above them, French lettering scrawled in cursive across the top, and the small red carpet at the doorway. “Oh,” he said. “Huaisang didn’t say it was fancy.” He plucked at his jeans. “Are we underdressed? Do you think they’ll let us in?”
“They will,” said Jiang Cheng, with the confidence of a spoiled scion of the Jiang family. He straightened his shoulders and tried to summon something of Mrs. Yu’s etiquette lessons. “Here.” He passed Wei Wuxian’s phone back. “Next time, I’m in charge of the directions.”
“Okay, okay,” Wei Wuxian laughed, his eyes crinkling. “Come on.” He brushed invisible dust off his front. “I’m starving.”
It was the sort of place where the meals were pricey but not pretentious enough that they came only in very small portions. Wei Wuxian plunged gleefully into his coq au vin, while Jiang Cheng dubiously looked over the map that Nie Huaisang had given him.
“It says you need a permit to go here.”
“I have the permit,” Nie Huaisang said, for what was at least the third time. “I told you—it’s already taken care of.”
Jiang Cheng’s frown only deepened in response. “Not for nothing, Huaisang,” Wei Wuxian drawled, raising his hand, “but last time you said that, we almost got arrested.”
“But we didn’t,” Nie Huaisang countered. “Anyway, this is different.”
“You bribed the park protections officers.”
“This time,” Nie Huaisang stressed, “I have made sure to get the permit approval well ahead of the trip. Anyway.” He pulled out a deceptively pocket-sized bird guide out of his bottomless bag and thumbed it open. “Here’s what we’re looking for.”
“Anything in particular?” Wei Wuxian drew the book towards himself. Nie Huaisang shook his head.
“Just a general survey. See what we can see. And hear. Well,” he amended, with a look at Jiang Cheng, “You and I will.”
“I thought you said you were going to get undergraduates for this.” Jiang Cheng’s upper lip curled back in annoyance. This, despite that fact that he had clearly willingly shown up to this meal knowing exactly what he was in for.
Nie Huaisang shrugged. “I can’t pay them.”
“Yes, you can.”
“Fine.” Nie Huaisang fanned himself with his hand. “The ornithology lab can’t afford to pay them. We didn’t get enough grant money this year.” He smiled as Jiang Cheng gave him an exasperated look. “What? There’s not exactly money in birds.”
“You could’ve just minored, like me,” Wei Wuxian reminded him. He polished off the last of his meal and dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Major for money, minor for pleasure.”
“Don’t say that, you sound like my brother.”
“Wei Wuxian, you don’t even make any money.”
“But I could, is the point.” He darted in with his fork to steal a bite of Jiang Cheng’s crepe. Jiang Chang yanked his plate away.
“Just let me—” stab, stab. “Come on!”
“We take this road,” Nie Huaisang said, pointing at a black line that wound away from the main highway towards the mountains. “The boundary of the park is here, and we can go a little further until we hit the trailhead.”
“Yeah, okay, fine,” Jiang Cheng said, clearly distracted as he lifted his plate all the way off the table and hunched over to shovel the remainders of his lunch into his mouth, his plate practically in his lap. Across the table, Wei Wuxian made a very disconsolate whine.
“This is how he treats me,” he said, propping himself up on his elbows and resting his chin in his hands. “My own brother.”
He was resoundingly ignored. Nie Huaisang rallied the rest of his map.
“I want to take this trail to the lake,” he said, tracing a faint brown line all the way to a sizeable blue oval. “I think we’ll see a lot there.”
“You’re the bird-man,” Wei Wuxian agreed easily. “How far is it?”
“Up a mountain,” Jiang Cheng huffed. Nie Huaisang gave him a reproachful look.
“It’s for the birds.”
Jiang Cheng shook his head, but said, “Fine.” Hearing this, Wei Wuxian’s mouth cracked into a wide grin and he smacked the table.
“Okay, what time tomorrow? Eight? Nine?”
“You’re joking,” Wei Wuxian said with a horrified gasp. He clutched at Jiang Cheng’s arm. “You can’t be serious.”
Nie Huaisang popped the final bite of his steak into his mouth. “See you tomorrow morning, Wuxian-ge.” He waved a waitress over for the check, smoothly fishing out his credit card. “Don’t forget to bring water.”
“You can just sleep all night in the car,” Jiang Cheng said, only halfway joking. Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrowed in thought.
“Don’t tempt me. I’ll do it.”
“Sure.” They made their way into the daylight, squinting at the bright sun of the afternoon. The restaurant was outside the historical district, but Wei Wuxian could still hear the calls of hawkers and the bustle of the city’s main canals.
“Six am,” Nie Huaisang said, fixing Wei Wuxian with the no-nonsense look he usually only reserved for sneaking up on unsuspecting avians. Wei Wuxian sighed, and gave a flourishing little bow.
“Whatever you say, bird-master.”
“That’s right,” Nie Huaisang agreed, the edges of a smirk twisting the corner of his lips. “Gentlemen.” He hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, nodding to Jiang Cheng.
“I hate him,” Wei Wuxian decided, as they watched Nie Huaisang saunter off. “What kind of monster wakes up at six to go climb a mountain looking for birds?”
“This was your idea,” Jiang Cheng reminded him. He pitched his voice higher and fluttered his eyelashes. “You said, ‘oh, Huaisang, you’re having trouble finding someone to help you with your fieldwork that has nothing to do with me? Oh, I can do it! I took that bird elective with you! Bring me, Huaisang!’”
“I just wanted to go hiking!” Wei Wuxian wailed. “Also, that’s not at all what I sound like.” His lower lip extended. “He was desperate! He asked me for help.”
“And you just had to be helpful,” Jiang Cheng said, as they turned another corner towards their hotel. “And you had to bring me into it.” He huffed. “Like Huaisang said, I’m useless. I don’t know anything about birds.” They strode into the foyer, Jiang Cheng patting his pockets for the key card to their room.
“Of course I did,” Wei Wuxian asserted. “Otherwise, who’s going to help me stop Huaisang from falling off a cliff? Besides,” he bumped Jiang Cheng, hip to hip, “you like it. You get to do fun science instead of boring business.”
“It’s not boring,” Jiang Cheng said, but not refuting the other part. “Anyway,” he added, “this is the last time. Each time we go on one of these trips with him, something goes wrong. I mean it.”
“Third time’s the charm then, hm?” Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, as they walked through the hotel lobby. The man at the desk gave them a respectful nod as they passed. Wei Wuxian threw his arm over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”
Wei Wuxian was a great deal less enthusiastic the following morning when, bleary eyed, he stumbled after a resolute Jiang Cheng downstairs and flopped into Nie Huaisang’s field suburban while Jiang Cheng threw their gear into the back.
“You paid for this?” Jiang Cheng scoffed, as the suburban sputtered and clanged its way back onto the road, setting a course for the mountains. He wrinkled his nose, brushing crumbs and dirt off the seat onto the floor. Beside him, Wei Wuxian had already lapsed back into unconsciousness, head flopped against the window, snoring gently.
“Of course not,” said Nie Huaisang. “Department van.” He gestured at the credit card thrown haphazardly onto the ashtray, wiggling his eyebrows. “Department gas credit card.”
“You should’ve just brought your own,” Jiang Cheng muttered. “This looks like it’s going to fall apart.”
“And,” Nie Huaisang said smoothly, switching lanes, “if it breaks down? Department problem.”
“No,” Jian Cheng grumped, “it’s gonna be our problem.”
“Well,” said Nie Huaisang. “It’s certainly not my problem.”
Jiang Cheng squinted at him. “Is that why you really invited us?”
“Haha,” said Nie Huaisang, very focused on the road. “Anyway, after we stop, we’re going to have to hike a couple hours until we get to the lake where most of the birds are going to be.”
“Uh huh,” said Jiang Cheng, who could already think of several ways he’d rather be spending his Saturday morning. In his sleep next to them, Wei Wuxian snorted extra loudly. Jiang Cheng gave him a despairing look. Oblivious, Wei Wuxian snored on. “This place is really in the middle of nowhere, huh?” he said, watching out the window as the outer edges of the Caiyi suburbs turned into fewer and fewer houses the more they wound up the foothills of the mountains. Nie Huaisang shrugged.
“Don’t ask me. I’m just following the birds.”
Jiang Cheng sighed.
They drove in silence for the next hour, Jiang Cheng sipping burnt hotel coffee out of a travel mug, while Nie Huaisang hummed something smooth and quiet under his breath. Out the window, the houses had disappeared entirely, to be replaced with the lush greenery of late spring. It wasn’t raining, but the clouds hung low, ensconcing the tops of the mountains in grey mist.
“Hey,” said Wei Wuxian, startling them both. Jiang Cheng hadn’t even realized his brother was awake. “What’s that?”
Jiang Cheng leaned over him to look more closely out the window as they passed the first possible exit off the road since they’d seen the last house, more than half an hour ago. “There’s a sign, but it’s faded. I can’t read it.”
“Get your elbow out of my stomach,” Wei Wuxian complained, squirming. “Also, I have to pee. Can we stop?”
“Don’t be such a baby,” Jiang Cheng said, even though he himself had been starting to feel the effects of all that coffee before Wei Wuxian had even woken up.
“Oh, that’s like, some road to an old monastery or something. I don’t know. It’s on the map.” Nie Huaisang waved his hand. “Can you hold it? We’re only like, fifteen minutes away.”
“Yeah, sure, if A-Cheng stops sitting on my bladder,” said Wei Wuxian, turning away from the window to shove Jiang Cheng off of him. Jiang Cheng considered his options, then thumped Wei Wuxian in the side. “I’ll pee on you,” Wei Wuxian warned.
“Gross,” said Jiang Cheng, but he did move away.
The road became noticeably worse after that. It was unpaved and filled with ruts, bumps, and large holes that Nie Huaisang was forced to maneuver around.
“You could drive faster,” said Jiang Cheng, with every new jostle kind of wishing they’d stopped by that fork in the road a few minutes ago.
“Do you know how to change a tire?” Nie Huaisang asked, wheels spinning up dirt and mud as they circled yet another pothole.
“Of course,” said Jiang Cheng, who had watched at least one Youtube video on the topic.
“No, you don’t,” Wei Wuxian said. He leaned over a sputtering Jiang Cheng to squeeze Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. “Come on, we’ve gotta stop.”
“Two minutes,” Nie Huaisang said.
“Huaisang,” Wei Wuxian said, burying his face in his hands. “Come on! Have a heart.”
“Two minutes! I promise!” Nie Huaisang insisted.
After what felt like the longest two minutes in Jiang Cheng’s life, Nie Huaisang slowed the suburban and parked it along the side of the road, a hair’s breadth away from the ditch running between the mountain and the gravel. Before Nie Huaisang had even turned off the engine, Wei Wuxian was leaping out of the car and vanishing behind a tree. Jiang Cheng was able to hold onto his dignity long enough for Nie Huaisang to pull the parking brake, before he, too, got out and went to find his own tree.
They reconvened a short while later at the back of the suburban, where Nie Huaisang had busied himself with both a backpack and an enormous pair of binoculars. Jiang Cheng took both his and Wei Wuxian’s backpacks out of the back as well, then glanced around to hand Wei Wuxian’s off, only to find himself alone.
“Hey, Wei Wuxian!” he shouted. Next to him, a small flock of birds took off in alarm.
“Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang sighed, from the other side of the vehicle. Jiang Cheng frowned.
“Over here.” Wei Wuxian’s voice came from a little further away, in the direction of the front of the driver’s seat. Jiang Cheng walked around to find his brother squinting into the trees. He walked up to him.
“Your bag,” he said, dropping it on the ground.
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian gave him a quick look and a disarming smile. “Thanks.” He reached down and pulled out a water bottle, unscrewing the cap to take a long gulp. “Look what I found.”
“What’s that?” Jiang Cheng said, curious despite himself. He moved closer to Wei Wuxian, and only then did he see it. Hidden within the trees, just off the path that Jiang Cheng guessed served as the trail up to Nie Huaisang’s mountain lake, was a small, stone and wood shrine. As Wei Wuxian stepped closer to it, Jiang Cheng saw that it came up to about his brother’s chest height, with simply carved wooden doors open on either side to reveal an alcove. The roof tiles slanted over the whole thing in such a way that the little treasures inside the alcove—and there were some offerings, Jiang Cheng could see now—were well protected from the elements, even with the inside exposed. It might have been painted at one time, though it was weathered gray wood now. Inside, Jiang Cheng could spot some burned down incense sticks, as well as a few other odds and ends: folded paper; a little grated box for coins; an hourglass. There was a large, bronze circle hanging on the back wall, about the size of a dinner plate.
“Someone left their watch here.” Wei Wuxian picked it up. The metal links on the wristband were broken but Jiang Cheng could see the seconds hand moving.
“Put that back,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian made a face at him, but did gently lay the watch back on the alcove shelf.
“There you are.” Startled, they both looked behind to see Nie Huaisang, backpack and binoculars at the ready, pushing towards them through the trees. His eyes fell on the shrine. “Oh.”
“Oh?” Wei Wuxian nodded towards it. “Do you know what this is for?” Nie Huaisang shrugged.
They all looked back at it. Now that Jiang Cheng was paying attention, he noticed that, despite the incense and the coin box indicating that at least somebody visited on some kind of regular basis, there was no indication, in writing or otherwise, who or what the shrine was for.
“It’s probably related to that monastery place back up the road,” Nie Huaisang said finally, after another moment.
“You think so?” Wei Wuxian tilted his head. “You’d think there’d be a sign or something.”
Nie Huaisang made a helpless shrug. “I don’t know. Does it really matter? Come on, are you ready to go?”
“Just curious,” Wei Wuxian said, giving him a disarming smile. He bowed to the shrine. “No incense, sorry.”
“Here,” Jiang Cheng muttered. He fished in his pocket and held out a few coins to Wei Wuxian, who nodded his thanks and slipped them into the box.
“You guys are weird,” Nie Huaisang said, as Jiang Cheng also made a bow to the shrine and then, hoisting his backpack onto his shoulder, moved back to rejoin Nie Huaisang on the trail.
“My grandmother had a thing for shrines,” Wei Wuxian said lightly, stepping over some downed branches to stand next to them. He picked up the bag that Jiang Cheng had dropped on the ground for him. “She always said it’s better to pay your respects.”
“Really?” Nie Huaisang said, with a little grin, like he thought Wei Wuxian was joking. Wei Wuxian blinked at him, his expression remaining serene.
“Sure.” A very small smirk twitched at the corner of his mouth. “Something about…don’t want to piss off any ghosts.”
Nie Huaisang stared at him for a beat too long, then shook his head, smiling. “You two,” he said, untangling the straps on his binoculars to pull them over his head. “Quit messing with me.”
“Haha.” Wei Wuxian wiggled his eyebrows. “Would I do that?” He hoisted his bag over his shoulder. “Lead the way, Bird Master.” And he indicated the trail in front of them with a florid bow.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Nie Huaisang returned, with his own even lower and more ridiculous bow. Rolling his eyes, Jiang Cheng stumped past the both of them to take the lead.
Under the pain of some kind of torture, Jiang Cheng might have been willing to admit that the hike was pleasant. Invigorating. They followed the trail as it wound switchbacks up the mountain, clambering around mossy boulders, under low hanging branches, and slipping in muddy puddles only recently melted from snow. Two hours into the hike, the trail began to braid its way around a riotous and burbling stream, sometimes smoothly parallel, sometimes necessitating hopping from slick rock to slick rock. Wei Wuxian made his way across the stream like he was strolling along the sidewalk, while Nie Huaisang displayed a surprising level of balance for someone whose PE history could be best summed up in the words ‘I have a doctor’s note.’
Or maybe not so surprising, Jiang Cheng thought, watching as Nie Huaisang pulled out a bright yellow waterproof notebook and scribbled something down, then hushed them all as he tried to record something on his cell phone that, of the three of them, only he’d heard.
They reached the lake before lunch, though petty things like mealtimes hadn’t stopped Wei Wuxian from already obliterating his selection of protein bars and more than half of the roasted mixed nuts. Jiang Cheng sat on a boulder by the water, while Nie Huaisang ditched his bag and waded out into the reeds like the total nerd he was.
Lake was kind of a misnomer, thought Jiang Cheng, with all the snobbishness of someone who’d spent a majority portion of his formative years in Yunmeng. It was a bit too big to be called a pond, he could admit. He figured it would maybe take twenty minutes to walk the whole perimeter. It was nestled between two rising peaks, the edges spotted with reeds and rocks. The water looked very clear and very cold. The stream that had run alongside their trail traced its origins to a little spot just beyond where the trail ended at the lake, in the shadow of the mountainside.
“I’m going to see if Huaisang wants me to do anything,” Wei Wuxian said. The sun had peeked out from behind the clouds and, still warm from the hike and away from the shade of the trees, Wei Wuxian had peeled off his outermost layer. Jiang Cheng waved him away.
“Sure.” Jiang Cheng stretched out on his boulder. Smooth and white, with little speckles of grey, it was actually pretty comfortable. “Do whatever.”
“Yep,” Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, and whistled his way towards the edge of the lake, probably scaring the shit out of Nie Huaisang’s precious birds as he went.
Jiang Cheng tilted his head back to rest against the solid rock, starting to warm even from the rays of the pitiful, half-hidden sun. This wasn’t too bad, he thought. It was almost relaxing.
He managed to pass a little more than twenty minutes like this, even dozing off for a brief stretch, before noticing just how quiet the world around him really was.
Jiang Cheng sat up, eyes narrowing. He couldn’t see either of his companions, but when he walked down to the water’s edge, he spotted Nie Huaisang easily enough, crouched in the mud and the reeds, writing something in his little notebook.
“I told him to circle the lake,” Nie Huaisang said, indicating towards the closer mountain peak, where the boundary of the lake lapped against the rocks. He pulled up his binoculars. “I just saw him go around that way.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Jiang Cheng. He looked in the direction Nie Huaisang had pointed and then, with a sigh, began to walk across the rocks to make sure that his idiot brother hadn’t slipped into the lake and bashed his head open, or decided that now was really the time for skinny dipping and was courting hypothermia. or whatever.
Jiang Cheng allowed his imagination to work himself into enough of a state that by the time he actually stumbled across his brother, barely ten minutes later, he was almost surprised to find him whole and healthy.
The reason that he hadn’t been able to see him, it turned out, was because Wei Wuxian’s head and shoulders were, at that precise moment, just about even with Jiang Cheng’s knees.
“Look, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said proudly, tilting his head back to beam at Jiang Cheng, arms outspread. “I found a cave!”
“Looks like it found you,” Jiang Cheng said, noticing the smear of fresh mud across Wei Wuxian’s hands, chest, and knees, like maybe Wei Wuxian had tripped a little and fallen into this hole that also turned out to be the entrance to a cave oh no. Jiang Cheng suddenly had a very, very bad feeling about all this.
“Semantics,” Wei Wuxian dismissed. He clicked on his flashlight. Why did he even have a flashlight? Jiang Cheng thought, despairing. “It looks like it goes down pretty far.”
“Where did you get that?”
“What, this?” Wei Wuxian shined it in his face.
“Oh, sorry.” He clicked it off, then gave Jiang Cheng a look like he was the stupid one here, which—incorrect. Jiang Cheng had fallen into exactly zero holes that turned out to be caves today. He was doing much better, comparatively. “Safety first!” Wei Wuxian said. “Of course I brought one. Didn’t you?”
He—he probably had, Jiang Cheng realized. This actually did not make him feel better.
Wei Wuxian crouched to peer into the entrance. “Want to have a look inside?”
It was exactly what Jiang Cheng knew he would say and exactly what Jiang Cheng wished he wouldn’t. “No,” he said flatly.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said, “see you later.” And with a flutter of his fingers, before Jiang Cheng could even sputter a reply, Wei Wuxian turned and clambered into the darkness.
“Fuck!” Jiang Cheng fumbled with his backpack, opening up the smallest pocket, yes—there was his first aid kit, the tiny, folded emergency blanket thing and—fuck, a flashlight. “Damn it,” he muttered, as he clicked it on and jumped down to the hole Wei Wuxian had been standing in. It was bigger than he’d thought. He shined the light into the cave entrance. Like the hole, it was also larger than he had expected, but he still had to duck his head. Jiang Cheng had expected it to be made of mud, but instead, it looked like the same kind of rock that made up the side of the mountain only steps away. “Fuck,” he said, one more time, and followed his brother inside.
If Jiang Cheng had been hoping that the cave was really something small and modest, ending in some kind of impenetrable rock as soon as he got all the way inside, so that he could safely haul his brother out, he was sadly disappointed. Rather than narrowing, the cave widened out considerably, so that by the time he caught up to Wei Wuxian, they were able to stand completely upright and shoulder to shoulder in the near darkness, without touching the walls.
“It kind of goes up,” Wei Wuxian noted. He pointed his flashlight further in. He had expressed zero surprise when Jiang Cheng had joined him and now, Jiang Cheng was resigned to see, had focused his everything—as was his wont—on exploring this cave. “Kind of right into the mountainside, huh?”
“Shocking,” Jiang Cheng said. “A cave leading into a mountainside.”
“Maybe it’s got buried treasure.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “Seriously? What are you? Five?”
“Oh, I know!” Wei Wuxian lowered his voice. “Maybe it’s haunted!”
Jiang Cheng gave him a look. A look that Wei Wuxian obviously could not see, given the limited lighting, but it did make Jiang Cheng feel better. “Sure,” he said. “Whatever.” He waved his flashlight around. Everything the beam of light hit looked just like normal cave: kind of muddy, kind of slimy, some weird knobs. “Just looks like a cave to me.” He tilted an eyebrow at Wei Wuxian. “Can we go now?”
“I just want to see where this goes,” Wei Wuxian said, pointing his own flashlight straight ahead, where the passage disappeared into the gloom. “I think I can hear water. Maybe there’s, like, a stream or something.”
“Didn’t you come up here to help Nie Huaisang look for birds?” Jiang Cheng sniped, even as he followed Wei Wuxian further inside.
Jiang Cheng had heard before that it was difficult to keep track of time inside a cave, but he hasn’t thought that the saying applied when you’d only been inside for less than ten minutes. Nevertheless, he wasn’t sure if it had been another ten, fifteen, or twenty, before Wei Wuxian came to an abrupt halt.
“Whoa,” he said. “Look.”
To Jiang Cheng’s surprise, he found that he could, in fact, look. The space widened in front of them into something less like a passageway and more like a decently sized cavern, with high sloping walls leading up to small gaps in the ceiling where tiny squares of light pushed their way through cracks in the rock to disperse into the gloom below. The stream that Wei Wuxian had mentioned was audible enough now. It snaked around the edges of the walls, into the center of the room, where there was a modest pool. In the middle of the pool, there grew a small island, barely two meters across. And on that island…Jiang Cheng squinted. Certain his eyes were playing tricks on him, he rubbed them.
Wei Wuxian stepped on something. It crunched. They both looked down. “Uh,” said Wei Wuxian, his voice going up a notable octave.
“Fuck,” said Jiang Cheng, reflexively.
The skeleton that Wei Wuxian had stepped on of course said nothing, but the grin of its skull and the glower of its empty sockets was unnerving enough anyway.
“I was,” Wei Wuxian said weakly, seeming unable to move, “I was joking about the haunted thing earlier, you know?” He looked down. “Sorry, Mr. Skeleton,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make fun of you.”
“Don’t talk to it!” Jiang Cheng hissed.
“I don’t want to offend it!” Wei Wuxian crouched down, not touching yet, but looking like he was heading that way.
“It’s a skeleton! It’s already dead—” Jiang Cheng was abruptly reminded of what he had been trying to see—or thought he had been seeing—on the island. “Look, look!” He pulled at Wei Wuxian, who rose reluctantly, holding something long and dark in his hand.
“Hey,” he said. “Dead guy flute.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng snapped. “There is someone on that island.”
“What?” said Wei Wuxian, craning his neck towards the middle of the cave. “No way.” And then, like the absolute idiot that Jiang Cheng had always known him to be, he absently lifted the dead-guy, probably haunted, flute to his mouth, and blew.
Several things happened at once:
The faint light filtering above from around the top of the cave suddenly solidified into white beams, slamming down around the island in the center. On the island itself, they could see through the bright glow a figure lying flat on its back as if in state, hands linked over its chest. At its head there was a large, traditional-looking guqin. All around them, the note from the flute grew louder and shriller, even as Wei Wuxian tore his mouth away, staring at the black lacquer in shock. On the island, the strings of the guqin twanged, plucked by nothing.
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng hollered, as the ground beneath them began to shake. A sluggish red glow pulsed at the edges of the white circle. “What did you do?”
“I don’t know!” Wei Wuxian yelped back.
“Well, make it stop!”
“I don’t know how!”
Wei Wuxian blew another note.
Everything stilled. The light around the island remained, glowing softly, the person laying there still as stone.
“Uh,” said Wei Wuxian, staring at the flute in his hand. He turned to Jiang Cheng. “…magic dead-guy flute?”
“Unbelievable.” Jiang Cheng let out a huff. “Wait, why are you—what?”
“The dead guy doesn’t need the magic flute,” Wei Wuxian reasoned, as he tucked it into his belt and Jiang Cheng stared at him, askance. He jerked his chin in the direction of the island. “Let’s see about this other guy.”
“He looks dead too,” Jiang Cheng muttered. They took a few cautious steps forward. The wall of light shimmered. “That’s fucking weird.”
“Maybe he killed the skeleton dude and then died here. Murder-suicide.”
“Maybe he’s just some random hobo.”
“Great,” said Jiang Cheng. Their feet splashed in the lake. Wei Wuxian looked down, mouth twisting, then with a shrug, carried on forward. Jiang Cheng’s nostrils flared, but he followed.
It wasn’t actually all that deep, barely up to their knees. Jiang Cheng still grimaced as he felt the wetness seep through his hiking boots, into his socks. It was another moment before they could get a clear look at the guy. When they did, they both stopped.
The man lying prone on the island was slender and very pale. His face, high cheekbones, and straight nose looked like they could have been carved from jade. He was wearing honest to god hanfu, mostly white, with blue embroidery and sash. There was a white ribbon with a metal embossment of some kind tied around his forehead. Behind his head sat the guqin, strings still trembling. At his side, there was a sword in a white scabbard. His waist-length white hair splayed over his shoulders and across the rock of the island. His eyes were shut, elegant hands with long-boned fingers laced together and crossed over his chest.
His chest, which was very slowly rising and falling.
“Why is there a sword?” Jiang Cheng said dumbly, because out of everything, that seemed like the easiest thing to focus on right then. He looked over at Wei Wuxian, who was being uncharacteristically quiet. “Wei Wuxian! Focus!”
“Huh,” Wei Wuxian said finally. He was staring at the guy’s face, lips parted. “He’s kind of…” he tilted his head. “Hot?”
“Don’t you dare,” said Jiang Cheng, “try and sleep with the random hobo we found sleeping in a haunted fucking cave.”
“I wasn’t!” Wei Wuxian protested, wounded. “I was just saying.”
“Hm,” said Jiang Cheng, because he was not actually stupid. “Sure.”
“But like…” Wei Wuxian slid another step forward. “Do you—do you think he’s okay? Do we—do we leave him here? Do we get someone for help?” He was at the island now. “Should I wake him…ow!” he splashed back in shock, staring at his hand, then at the light in front of him, then at his hand again.
“What? Are you okay? What happened?” Jiang Cheng’s voice echoed off the walls of the cave. He grabbed Wei Wuxian’s hand, waving the flashlight over his palm. “Looks fine,” he said, the tension in his shoulders loosening by a millimeter.
“It shocked me,” Wei Wuxian said, looking at the wall of light in something akin to betrayal. He took his hand back from Jiang Cheng, who frowned at him.
Wei Wuxian passed his hand in front of the wall of light. Not touching, but close. “Like an electric fence,” he said. “But, uh…” He touched it again and immediately snatched his hand away, wincing. “Ow.”
Jiang Cheng gave him a look of utter disbelief. “Why would you touch it again?”
“Just checking,” Wei Wuxian muttered, shaking out his hand. “Ow.”
“Stop touching it!”
“Well, how else are we going to get to him?”
“Get to him? Why would we want to get to him? He probably murdered that guy.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. And, oh no. Now his voice had gone to its reasonable octave, like it did whenever Wei Wuxian was about to say something both very logical and also insane. “Whatever’s going on here—” he waved. “Look, that guy’s clearly sick or something. He hasn’t even heard or reacted to us or anything. We can’t just leave him here.”
“I think we can,” Jiang Cheng said. “He seems like he’s doing fine. And were you planning to carry him down the mountain? Huh?” Wei Wuxian gave him the look. Jiang Cheng released an explosive breath. “Fine,” he snapped. “But we can’t even get to him. There’s this—whatever—in the way.”
“Looks like a forcefield,” Wei Wuxian mused, taking a step back. He cocked his head. “I don’t know…there’s something about this…” He scratched his nose.
“Maybe the dead guy knows,” Jiang Cheng said acidly, because force field? Really? The problem was that Jiang Cheng honestly couldn’t think of a better description for the barrier in front of him, and that made everything somehow worse. Wei Wuxian gave him a quick smile.
“Oh!” he said. “Jiang Cheng, you’re a genius.” He splashed back across the pool over to where the skeleton still lay prone on the ground. Jiang Cheng stared after him, confused, then resigned, as Wei Wuxian got down on his hands and knees and began to peer around the bones.
“What are you doing?” he sighed, as he made his way over. His socks squelched in his boots.
“The dead guy had the magic flute.” Wei Wuxian was carefully adjusting the skeleton’s frame, looking at the ground below, the rock wall behind. “Maybe he left some other clues.”
“Wei Wuxian, this guy’s been here long enough to completely decompose, and his clothes are all rotted away, too. He’s probably got nothing to do with Coma-Guy over there.”
“Actually, there are some scraps.” Wei Wuxian shined his flashlight below the skeleton. There was something that looked like pieces of dark fabric, any color indistinguishable. And—
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian let out a short, startled noise. Jiang Cheng was immediately next to him, hand squeezing into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
Wordless, Wei Wuxian nodded. Jiang Cheng looked down. “Another sword?” he said in disbelief. This sword was dark, where the one next to Coma-Hobo was light, which maybe explained how they’d missed it the first time around. It was slim and long, its hilt a lighter bronze, matching the shade of the snake-like design that twisted up the scabbard.
“Still think they’re not related?”
“Swords,” Jiang Cheng said. “What?”
Wei Wuxian pursed his lips. “Cultivators,” he said, with a quiet certainty. “They were cultivators.”
“Huh?” Jiang Cheng turned to him, askance.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “I know,” he said, “you think my grandmother was crazy.”
“I think you’re crazy,” Jiang Cheng said automatically, before his brain could connected with his mouth. He closed his eyes. “I mean…” he trailed off as Wei Wuxian snorted.
“I know.” He picked up the sword, smoothing his fingers over the pommel. “But there was some stuff that she…” He swallowed and then, with a deep inhale, slowly pulled the sword out of its scabbard. It came smooth and gleaming, as if the blade had been tended to only days before, and not an untold number of years. For a moment, his expression seemed to glaze over. There was a hitch in his breath. Then Wei Wuxian shook his head, as if clearing it. “They were cultivators,” he said again. “This?” he held out the sword, pointed it towards the island in the center of the cave, the unmoving figure on the stone, the wall of light. “That?” He nodded, sliding the sword back into its sheath. “Cultivation.” He handed the sword over to Jiang Cheng.
“Uh.” He tugged at the hilt. The sword didn’t budge. “Hey.” He pulled harder. “Why—?”
“Huh.” Wei Wuxian turned a speculative eye on it. He grabbed it back and easily drew the sword from its sheath. “Weird.” He shrugged. “Maybe it’s because I’ve got a stronger golden core than you.”
“Oh, come on!” Jiang Cheng scoffed. He felt offended for some reason he couldn’t quite explain, starting with the fact that golden cores were a fucking metaphor and not an actual real thing. “Everyone knows that that’s—”
“Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian had dropped to his knees, staring intently at the wall behind the skeleton’s skull. “Look.”
Against his will, Jiang Cheng looked. On the wall, parts of it as legible as something printed onto clean paper, though some was also scuffed and scratched, was writing. “What the hell?”
“How long do you think this would’ve taken?” Wei Wuxian marveled, reaching out to press his fingers against the characters. “But I mean, who writes like that anymore?”
Jiang Cheng grimaced. He could hold his own with traditional characters, but this looked like something more suited to someone who at least dabbled in classical studies.
Someone. Like the guy kneeling next to him, who Jiang Cheng knew very well dabbled in all kinds of things that were related to neither computer science nor electrical engineering—his actual, ostensible fields of expertise.
“What’s it say?”
“Uh…” Wei Wuxian squinted. “Can you shine your flashlight a little more at an angle? Yeah. Like that. Uh…hm.” He cocked his head. “Something…Zhan,” he said. “The first character’s faded. I think the other one is Zhan. Um…When you wake, I will be gone.” He huffed. “Wow, depressing.”
“No, there’s some more. Um.” He leaned in further. “You were a patient man for thirteen years. What we’ve had together is a gift.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“How should I know?” Wei Wuxian turned back to the wall. “No thanks, no sorry between us, I know. But I beg you forgive this—” He stopped. After a few moments of silence, Jiang Cheng clicked the flashlight off and on in irritation.
“Is that it?” he demanded. Wei Wuxian didn’t answer. Jiang Cheng frowned. “Wei Wuxian,” he said, and rapped his brother on the head with the flashlight. “Did you hear me? Was that it?”
“N—no,” Wei Wuxian said finally. Something about his voice sounded off. Jiang Cheng glanced at the characters carved into the wall, but the angle he was standing at, combined with the poor light, made them all but impossible for him to read.
“What’s the problem then? Why’d you stop?”
“No, it’s just…it’s weird.”
“Well—it can’t be that weird,” Jiang Cheng asserted, with a lot of confidence for a guy who was standing in a haunted cave with a skeleton and a maybe-cultivator or maybe-hobo cosplaying as Sleeping Beauty, while his brother read some kind of goodbye note carved into the wall in antiquated Chinese. He heard Wei Wuxian take a deep breath.
“It says: but I beg you forgive this humble Wei Ying for making you wait once again. At least this time, be assured that my heart is always yours. In this life, and the next.”
Jiang Cheng blinked into the resounding silence following the final sentence. “That’s a weird coincidence,” he said finally. Wei Wuxian burst out laughing. There was something high and untethered to the sound of it.
“No shit!” he said. He turned to look at the skeleton beside them. “Kind of freaky to share a birth name with you,” he told it. “No offense.”
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “Come on, we don’t know this guy is this—this Wei Ying. Maybe the other Wei Ying killed this guy and then left the note.”
“Do you really think so?” When Jiang Cheng couldn’t answer, Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Yeah.”
“Is it the same characters and everything?” Jiang Cheng crouched down with him to get a better look.
“Same and everything,” Wei Wuxian confirmed, pointing.
“Hey, what’s all of this stuff?” Jiang Cheng tapped the rock beneath the carved characters, where there were more characters, though not in any order he found recognizable.
“Oh, it’s, uh…” Wei Wuxian clicked his tongue. “I think it’s music notation. Or something.”
“Music…notation,” Jiang Cheng repeated slowly. “And can you read it?”
“…yes?” Wei Wuxian said, though he sounded far from certain. “I mean, I think so.”
Jiang Cheng could not believe he was about to suggest this. He should never have followed Wei Wuxian into this godforsaken cave. He should still be sleeping on that rock by the lake. “Well,” he said, gaze traveling to the flute tucked into Wei Wuxian’s belt. “I’m just saying: someone left music notes and that freaky magic flute or whatever, so…”
Wei Wuxian surged to his feet. “You’re a genius,” he said. “My genius brother.” He clapped Jiang Cheng on the shoulder, before pulling his phone out of his pocket to snap a few pictures of the writing on the wall.
“What are you doing?”
“Easier to play this way. Can you hold this?” He pressed the phone into Jiang Cheng’s hand without waiting for an answer. “Thanks.”
With Jiang Cheng holding out the phone, the screen opened to the picture, Wei Wuxian tugged the flute out of his belt. He blew a cautious note. Jiang Cheng braced himself for some new calamity, but nothing happened. “Huh.”
Wei Wuxian looked thoughtful. “I think if I…” he muttered. He blew the exact same note again. Or at least, Jiang Cheng couldn’t tell any difference. But whatever he did, the wall of light certainly reacted. It grew brighter, shimmering like an invisible wave was passing through it. On the island came the very faint twang of a guqin string, plucked by something invisible.
Jiang Cheng glanced quickly between his brother and the island. “What,” he said. “What did you…?”
“Uh.” Wei Wuxian ducked his head, polishing the mouthpiece with his sleeve. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said, very evenly. He didn’t think he needed to say anything else. The rest was self-evident.
“I just…” his gaze flickered to Jiang Cheng, then away. He mumbled something.
“Could you maybe say that like a normal person?”
“I used spiritual energy,” Wei Wuxian said, this time too loudly. When Jiang Cheng just stared at him, he continued quickly, “I know, I know. But I swear: Grandmother was yeah, maybe a little crazy, but she wasn’t completely full of shit, okay? And that’s—the second time I played the flute, I used spiritual energy. There. You don’t believe me, right?”
“No!” Jiang Cheng snapped. Then, “I mean, yes. I do believe you. But I also don’t believe you.” He scrubbed his hair in frustration. “I don’t know. This is crazy. Just—” he made a quick, abortive gesture towards the island. “Just do whatever you have to do so we can get out of this stupid cave.” When Jiang Cheng looked up, it was to see Wei Wuxian looking at him, eyes soft.
“A-Cheng,” he said. “That’s…”
“Just play the stupid flute.”
Wei Wuxian chuckled. “Okay, okay.” He brought it back up to his mouth. “Can you hold the phone up a little higher? No, lower.”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng grit out.
“Haha, sorry. Yeah, like that’s good. Okay.” He took a deep breath. “I’m going to practice it without the, um, the spiritual stuff first. Just to make sure I get the tune right.”
Jiang Cheng was no musical connoisseur, despite the forcible piano and violin lessons of his youth, but even he could tell that the melody itself wasn’t that complicated. It was almost sweet at the beginning, then sped up, nudge by little nudge, until the ending, loud and abrupt like the sudden lurch you feel when a train stops, or a window held closed all winter is finally pried open with a pop.
“Okay,” said Wei Wuxian, after a third run-through. “For real this time.”
And he began to play.
Almost immediately, there was a noticeable difference, a hum in the air. The wall of light did its shimmer, shimmer, the strings on the guqin beginning to pluck again of their own accord. Jiang Cheng fervently wished he had never come on this stupid trip. As the sound from the flute wound through the cave, the muffled notes from the guqin met them and harmonized, playing a different, but complimentary melody. The volume rose, higher and higher. Jiang Cheng clenched his fingers around the phone as Wei Wuxian played on, the ground beginning to tremble. And then at the final measure a feeling, a sound like breaking glass, and the wall of light around the island shattered into sparkling nothingness.
Silence. Nothing but their heavy breathing. Wei Wuxian lowered the flute. “Come on,” he said.
The walk back across the pool to the island was oddly solemn. When they reached it, Wei Wuxian hesitated, then stepped onto the rock, Jiang Cheng at his heels. He knelt down at the man’s side.
“He’s breathing.” Wei Wuxian sat back on his heels. “But he’s not waking up.”
“What do you want to do?” Jiang Cheng asked, with a feeling that he already knew exactly what Wei Wuxian was going to do. Wei Wuxian shook his head. Very carefully, he reached beneath the guy’s—the cultivator’s, fuck, fine—form, and gathered him up, bridal style.
“We can’t leave him here,” he said. “We’ve got to get him a doctor or something. Maybe they’ll know what’s wrong with him.”
Jiang Cheng could think of plenty things wrong with both him and Wei Wuxian, but in a decent showing of maturity and personal growth, he decided to wait to air these very valid grievances. Instead, he reached down and grabbed the sword, tucking it into his belt to join the one they’d found by the skeleton. And then, after a brief moment of indecision, he carefully picked up the guqin.
“What are you doing?” Wei Wuxian asked. Jiang Cheng shrugged uncomfortably.
“Cultivators have this thing with their swords and whatever, right? Dude would probably be pissed to find out he had to climb a mountain to get his stuff back once he wakes up.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s a good idea.” And why did he have to sound so surprised? Jiang Cheng scowled at him.
“You going to carry him like that down to the car?”
Wei Wuxian looked down at the form in his arms. The guy was pretty tall; it was a good thing that Wei Wuxian was also pretty tall. But he had to be heavy. “Out of the cave,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have to think of a better way for the rest of it.
“Whatever.” Jiang Cheng shifted the weight of the guqin strap on his shoulder and shined his flashlight in the direction of the passageway leading out of the cavern. “Let’s just get out of here.”
Whatever Nie Huaisang was expecting when his erstwhile field assistants finally reappeared, it was not for them to be lugging two swords, an instrument, and what looked like an honest-to-god body between them.
“I just want to say,” he said, as the pair dragged themselves in front of where he’d been sitting and finishing up his lunch, “shit like this only happens when you guys come with me. I’ve been on plenty of field trips where nothing weird happens at all. This is definitely all your guys’ fault.”
“Shut up,” said Jiang Cheng tiredly, setting down the guqin. Wei Wuxian shoed him away to gently lay down…
“Is that a body?” Nie Huaisang squeaked, scrambling away from the rock.
“He’s not dead,” Wei Wuxian said crossly. “He’s just, like, knocked out. Sleeping. Whatever.”
“Did you get into a fight and knock him out? Wei Wuxian, I’ve told you to stop taking these LARPers so seriously, they’re just vibing, man—”
“He was like this when we found him,” Jiang Cheng growled.
“Found him where? The local nerd convention?”
Wei Wuxian was adjusting the sleeping guy’s arms, straightening out his clothes and hair. “In a cave.”
Nie Huaisang stared at them. “Very funny, haha,” he said, trailing off as neither of them laughed. “No. Really?”
“Really.” Jiang Cheng slapped the swords onto the rock next to the cultivator. Nie Huaisang gave them a wary look.
“You know what?” he said. “Never mind. I don’t want to know. What now?”
In the end, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng emptied out the contents of their hiking backpacks into Nie Huaisang’s, who complained bitterly about the added weight. Then they lashed the backpacks, equipped with all sorts of useful straps, onto the two swords, to make a sort of makeshift litter. When they lifted the cultivator onto it, his feet dragged, but at least his head, chest, and hips were off the ground. Throughout the process, the cultivator made no noise outside of shallow, quiet breathing. He did not open his eyes.
“This is freaky,” Nie Huaisang said, as Jiang cheng and Wei Wuxian began to half-carry, half-drag the litter between them down the trail. “What if this guy dies while we’re trying to get to the car?”
“He’d better not,” Jiang Cheng grunted. “Not after all this work we’ve put in trying to save his stupid life.”
“He’s still breathing,” Wei Wuxian said, twisting around to check. Despite all the jostling, the guy’s eyelids didn’t even flutter. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.
“You said that five minutes ago.”
“A lot can change in five minutes!”
“Why,” Nie Huaisang panted, “do I have to carry this fucking instrument?” He wobbled dangerously. “If I fall and break my legs and die, it’s definitely all your fault.”
“Better not,” Wei Wuxian advised. “We’re already dragging this guy.”
“Stop whining,” Jiang Cheng said, “or I’ll break them myself.”
“I don’t know why I invited you,” Nie Huaisang muttered.
The slog down the mountain was long, longer even than their hike up, though they were going downhill, and filled with frequent breaks to stop and shake feeling back into their fingers from dragging the makeshift litter. When they passed the nameless shrine, just after the head of the trail, Wei Wuxian’s expression went strangely thoughtful, but then they were at the vehicle, and Jiang Cheng forgot to ask.
Nie Huaisang let out a triumphant groan and fished in his pocket for the keys. “I hate you guys,” he said, as he dropped his backpack distastefully on the ground, next to the guqin. That, at least, he set down carefully. He opened the back door. “I took the back bench out. Can you guys just…?”
“Got it,” Jiang Cheng grunted. He and Wei Wuxian lowered the litter and their unconscious cultivator to the ground. While Wei Wuxian carefully scooped him up to lay him down inside the back between the field gear, Jiang Cheng squatted to begin untangling the swords from the backpacks.
“One of us should ride in back with him,” Wei Wuxian said. He was busy fashioning a pillow out of his own sweatshirt. From his presence already in the back of the suburban, it was pretty clear who he meant by one of us. That was fine with Jiang Cheng, who had zero desire to be jostled around the back of Nie Huaisang’s crappy, over-sized field vehicle, while Nie Huaisang deliberately drove them into potholes.
Which reminded him. “I’m going to take a leak,” he said, finger raised. “And then we are going to leave.”
“Sure, sure.” Wei Wuxian waved him off. Jiang Cheng wasn’t even sure he’d heard him. He shook his head.
Jiang Cheng didn’t mean to head off in the direction he did. He really just picked one at random. The fact that it was close to the shrine was coincidence. But once he was there, the faint whiff of smoke compelled him to take a closer look.
When he got to the shrine, the outside looked the same. A little run-down, but certainly not on fire, which was good. Jiang Cheng had been having an unusual enough day already; a forgotten shrine spontaneously bursting into flame on a damp spring afternoon, would have been taking things a little too far, in his opinion.
But as he peered closer, he frowned. The source of the smoke, rather than being some new incense, seemed to be coming from the large bronze circle hanging in the back. Before he could tell himself not to, he swiped his finger across the metal. It came away covered in soot.
“Jiang Cheng.” He heard footsteps behind him. Jiang Cheng turned around.
“I thought you were nursing the cultivator.”
“Huaisang’s threatening to leave in two minutes. I thought A-Jie might be sad if we left you behind in the woods. Even if it’s your natural habitat and I think you’d be happier here, with your own kind.”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “Look at this.” He pointed as Wei Wuxian drew closer. When his brother saw the blackened metal, his breath caught.
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng said, feelingly. “Weird.”
Wei Wuxian had that look on his face again. Jiang Cheng felt a trickle of trepidation. “I wonder…” Wei Wuxian said softly, and touched the metal. As soon as he made contact, Wei Wuxian inhaled sharply. Between his fingers and the metal plate, a golden spark snapped. Jiang Cheng grabbed his wrist and yanked him away.
“You’ve got to stop just touching things!” he growled, heart pounding. “What are you, five?”
“Xianxian is three,” Wei Wuxian replied promptly, impish smile on his face. It faded as he looked down to rub his fingers, wincing. “Ow.”
“Idiot,” Jiang Cheng said. He kept his hand around Wei Wuxian’s wrist, in case he felt the urge to touch the stupid circle again. “Come on.”
By the time they got to the vehicle, the daylight was fading fast. Nie Huaisang honked at them impatiently. “Your boy’s still asleep,” he told Wei Wuxian, who nodded and climbed into the back. Jiang Cheng took his place on the front bench.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said fervently, and pressed on the gas.
The road was worse than Jiang Cheng remembered. It felt like Nie Huaisang was ramming deliberately into every pothole.
“Could you learn to drive?” Jiang Cheng said, as they hit yet another pothole and he was bounced to the side. His stomach was starting to gurgle unpleasantly. He caught a glimpse through the rear-view mirror of Wei Wuxian bracing himself against the wall of the suburban with one hand, and protecting the unconscious cultivator’s head with the other.
“It’s kind of hard to see, you know!” Nie Huaisang’s voice was tight, his knuckles white as he gripped the steering while. “We’re almost out of the bad part.” Jiang Cheng made a low, irritated noise in his throat. The next bump they went over, there was a very noticeable pop. The suburban swerved to the side. Nie Huaisang swore.
They stopped. For a moment, the only sound to be heard was their breathing, harsh in the silence of the car.
“Guys?” Wei Wuxian said tentatively from the back.
Nie Huaisang turned slowly to Jiang Cheng, a cringing expression on his face. “Jiang Cheng…”
“Don’t tell me.” Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ve got a flat.”
Nie Huaisang nodded.
“Do you…have a spare?”
Jiang Cheng looked at him.
“In the back.”
Muttering, Jiang Cheng got out of the vehicle, slamming the door behind him. He stalked over to the back doors and threw them open.
“Under the panel thing,” Nie Huaisang called from the front.
“What’s going on?” Wei Wuxian asked, as Jiang Cheng shoved the backpacks and the guqin out of the way to pry up the panel.
“Someone,” Jiang Cheng said acidly, “didn’t look where they were going.”
“Hey,” Nie Huaisang defended. “It’s a shitty road, okay? I was doing my best.”
“We have a flat tire,” Jiang Cheng told Wei Wuxian, ignoring Nie Huaisang. Wei Wuxian winced.
“Can you, you know…actually change a tire?” he said, in a lowered undertone. Jiang Cheng appreciated this show of solidarity. He scowled down at the storage compartment that had been hidden under the panel.
“I think so.” He reached out, then frowned. There was the spare. There was the special wrench thing. But where was…? “Nie Huaisang,” he said sharply. “Where’s the jack?”
“Oh.” A pause. “It’s not there?”
Jiang Cheng slowly counted to five inside his head. “No,” he said, when he was sure he could speak without screaming. “It’s not.”
“Oh. Hmm.” Another moment of silence. “Do we need it?”
Jiang Cheng sputtered. “Do we—yes!”
“Well…” Nie Huaisang said. “I don’t know. I don’t know where else it could be. Are you sure we need it?”
“I’m going to strangle him,” Jiang Cheng declared. Wei Wuxian put a calming hand on his arm.
“Maybe we should just call for a tow.” He looked towards the front. “Huaisang? Can you call someone?”
“Oh, yeah.” Nie Huaisang got out his phone. “The university has the service.” He pressed some buttons, then put his phone down. “Um.”
“Um,” Jiang Cheng echoed dangerously. “What um?”
“No service!” Nie Huaisang announced. He only sounded a little sheepish.
“Now can I kill him?” Jiang Cheng hissed.
“Wait,” Wei Wuxian said, in surprisingly passable imitation of Jiang Yanli. He took out his phone. “No service on mine either,” he said. He put it back in his pocket. “Huaisang, do you have that map?”
“Uh.” There was the sound of rustling, then Nie Huaisang was passing back the folded square of paper. “Here.”
“Thanks.” Wei Wuxian unfolded it, resting a large portion on the sleeping cultivator’s chest. The cultivator didn’t make any indication of minding. Jiang Cheng kind of envied their mystery man at this point. At least he didn’t have to be awake while dealing with this shit.
“Here.” Jiang Cheng handed him a flashlight. Wei Wuxian nodded his thanks.
“Okay, so we’re here-ish…” he pursed his lips. “And the closest sign of civilization is…oh.” He looked up. “That monastery place. The fork in the road right before the road got really bad.”
“How far is the monastery up the road?”
“Doesn’t look too far.” Wei Wuxian cocked his head. “If we drive carefully, we should be able to make it there even with the flat. They should at least have a phone or something so we can call someone. Maybe they have a monastery doctor, too.” He tapped the unconscious cultivator’s shoulder lightly with his finger. “They could take a look at this guy.”
“A monastery doctor,” Jiang Cheng said, his tone doubtful.
“I don’t know.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “I’ve never been to a monastery. I don’t know what they have.”
“Clearly,” Jiang Cheng sighed, as he slid out of the back and went around to the front of the suburban. “New plan,” he said, as he buckled himself in. “We’re going to the monastery.”
“What, seriously?” Nie Huaisang said, even as he turned the key on the ignition.
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng said tartly. “Maybe they’ll have a jack.”
“You don’t need to be so mean,” Nie Huaisang sniffed, as he slowly maneuvered them down the road in the gathering darkness. “How was I supposed to know there wasn’t one in there? I’ve never had to use it.”
Jiang Cheng did not even bother to dignify that with an answer.
The split in the road with the sign for the monastery was actually only a few minutes’ drive. Nie Huaisang maneuvered them carefully as he could. When they passed the sign, the road began to climb steeply upwards, with several switchbacks leading up the mountain, similar to the trail they had taken that day. In fact, as the road got narrower and narrower, Jiang Cheng was starting to wonder if it even was a road, or just some dirt path masquerading as one. And then they were at the top.
Well, maybe not at the top, but the road certainly ended. There wasn’t anything resembling a parking lot, so Nie Huaisang maneuvered the vehicle as close to the side of the road that was not falling off the edge of the mountain, and pulled the parking brake. Together, he and Jiang Cheng leaned forward to study the entrance to the monastery through the window.
There was a small set of stars leading to a stand-alone gate, and then a long staircase beyond. To the side, there was a long wall of rock carved with what was probably writing, though it was too dark and too far away for Jiang Cheng to read any of it. There did not appear to be anyone at the gate, nor a doorbell, nor any way to announce their presence.
“What’s this place called again?” Nie Huaisang asked, squinting at the gate. There were swirled carvings etched into it. They looked like waves, or wisps of smoke.
“Uh.” Jiang Cheng squinted at the map. “Cloud Recesses.”
“Guys?” Wei Wuxian piped up. “Are we getting out or not?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jiang Cheng unbuckled his seatbelt and opened his door. “I guess we can just…walk right in?”
“Hey, wait for me.” Wei Wuxian was scrambling out the back. “This guy’s kind of heavy, you know.”
Jiang Cheng was opening his mouth, but Nie Huaisang beat him to it. “Wei Wuxian,” he said. “Maybe you should wait here while we go check it out first.”
Jiang Cheng blinked at the suggestion. It was surprisingly logical. Even so, Wei Wuxian’s mouth hardened in a stubborn line. “No, I can do it,” he insisted. “He’s not that heavy.”
“No, he’s right.” Jiang Cheng jerked his head towards the gate. “We don’t know if the people here are even going to help us. It would be stupid to carry that guy all the way in there if they won’t.” Wei Wuxian still looked stubborn, but his shoulders slumped.
“They’re supposed to be monks, though,” he said, though he sounded far from certain. “That sounds helpful.”
It was Nie Huaisang who stepped in again. “Maybe,” he said. “But if we show up carrying what looks like a dead guy, they’ll probably get the wrong idea before we even get a chance to explain.”
Wei Wuxian absorbed this, still looking mulishly up at the gate, then sighed. “Yeah, okay. Fine.” He pointed a finger at them. “But you’d better come back quick. I mean it. Don’t leave me here with this guy all night.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Jiang Cheng, and started up the stairs.
Ironically, they were barely through the gate, less than halfway up the stairs, when they were stopped.
“No admittance to Cloud Recesses after dark,” said a voice from the gloom. There was a pause. “Unless you’re delivering something. You don’t have pizza, do you?”
Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang exchanged glances. “Uh, no,” Jiang Cheng ventured. The voice made a clearly irritable huff.
“Well, then, sorry. Visiting hours are over. Come back on Tuesday.”
“It’s a medical emergency,” Jiang Cheng said loudly. There was rustling, and then someone stepped out from further up the path. Jiang Cheng squinted. It was a little hard to tell in the dark, but this person didn’t look like any monk he’d ever met. For one, he had long hair. For another, he seemed to be wearing some kind of relaxed fit white pants and shirt.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Listen, there’s a sign right in front that says ‘no solicitors’, okay? Go home.”
“We’re not—” Jiang Cheng began hotly, but Nie Huaisang shushed him.
“Let me handle this.” He slid closer to Jiang Cheng, voice low. “I’ve got the permits.” Jiang Cheng’s jaw clenched, but he nodded. Nie Huaisang took another few steps up the staircase. “We’re so sorry to bother you,” he said, and Jiang Cheng blinked as he recognized Nie Huaisang’s Professional Student voice. Jiang Cheng sighed. The last time he’d heard that particular tone out of Nie Huaisang’s mouth, he’d been sure they were about to be arrested for trespassing without a permit. Figured.
“Hmph,” said the man in white. Jiang Cheng wished absurdly that they had brought pizza. Maybe then this guy wouldn’t be such a jerk. In front of him, Nie Huaisang had clasped his hands together earnestly.
“My name is Nie Huaisang. I’m a PhD student in ornithology out of Gusu University.” From what seemed like the actual void, he produced a business card and held it aloft between two fingers. “My field assistants and I were quantifying bird population as part of an environmental study of these mountains. However, when we were working, we found someone in need of medical assistance. We planned to bring him to the hospital, but,” he sighed, “unfortunately, our vehicle is having trouble.” He pointed down the stairs, where the car was still visible, parked crookedly right where the road ended. Jiang Cheng was a little concerned they weren’t even going to be able to turn the thing around when the time came. “Our cell phones aren’t working either. Do you have a landline we can use?”
The man reached down and plucked the business card out of Nie Huaisang’s hand. He squinted at it, though how he could see anything in the dark was beyond Jiang Cheng. He looked at Nie Huaisang, then at Jiang Cheng.
“Gusu University,” he said. Nie Huaisang inclined his head. The guy inhaled slowly, rubbing his temples. “What kind of medical emergency?”
In answer, Nie Huaisang turned to Jiang Cheng, who found himself tripping over his tongue to explain what they’d found, while also leaving out about 90% of what they’d found. But the guy seemed to get the gist.
“Fine,” he said. “We’ve got a phone you can use. And a doctor.” He added, almost reluctantly. “If he looks bad enough, they might be able to call in a helicopter to take him to Caiyi.”
At those words, Jiang Cheng felt a wave of relief sweep over him. They were almost free of this mess. “My brother and I can carry him up,” he said. “Just give us a moment.”
“I’ll go with you.” The guy came forward. Now that Jiang Cheng could see his face properly, he didn’t even look that old. Maybe the same age as Nie Huaisang’s brother—early thirties or thereabout. “I want to see this guy before I let you bring him in. No offense,” he added, as Jiang Cheng bristled. “You wouldn’t believe the kind of weirdos who show up here at night sometimes. I just have to be cautious.”
“Fair,” Nie Huaisang agreed. “I’ll wait here while you guys go down and get Wei Wuxian and the other guy.”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng muttered. He started down the stairs. As soon as he stepped foot onto the path, Wei Wuxian was coming around the side of the vehicle.
“Did you find someone?”
Jiang Cheng gestured with his thumb behind him where the guy was standing. “This is, uh…”
“Lan Liang,” the guy said, stepping forward. “Can I see the man you found? We have a doctor up there, if it looks really bad.”
“I mean,” Wei Wuxian said blankly, “he’s literally been unconscious this whole time. I assume that’s bad.”
“Just show him,” Jiang Cheng sighed.
Wei Wuxian shrugged and gestured them around to the rear doors, which were still open. “We put him in the back,” he said. “Tried to protect his head and stuff with the drive.” He clicked on the flashlight and shined it onto the cultivator’s face. Next to him, Jiang Cheng felt Lan Liang go very still.
“What,” Lan Liang said quietly, but still very distinct, “the fuck.”
Jiang Cheng crossed his arms. Lan Liang quickly looked at them both, then stole another glance at the cultivator’s prone form.
“You found him like this?”
Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng exchanged looks. Wei Wuxian nodded. “Yeah.” Lan Liang swallowed.
“With all this…stuff?” he was looking at the swords now. He startled obviously when he spotted the guqin.
“Okay,” said Lan Liang, “I’m just going to…” he made a vague gesture in the direction of the stairs. “I need to get someone else.” And he took off running.
Wei Wuxian might have spent ten formative years of his youth in a very weird house, but never in his life had he felt so much like he was walking through a movie set than during their walk through Cloud Recesses. It wasn’t a monastery, he’d realized, because none of these guys were any kind of monk that he recognized, but the architecture seemed familiar, like the grand estates and compounds in historical dramas or over-priced living history museums.
“This is weird.” He said this to Nie Huaisang, who hummed at him.
“I don’t care.” Nie Huaisang’s mouth was full of rice and pickled vegetables. Outside their guest accommodations, the heavy rain beat on the roof in a staccato rhythm. “This room is amazing—look at it!” He swept his arm out. Wei Wuxian pouted a little. The room was amazing: wide, partitioned into three sections, with four beds and a communal space, an en-suite toilet, and a little kitchenette. The beds and appliances were modern, but the room itself, a separated little building, really, matched the rest of the old-timey aesthetics of Cloud Recesses. Inside, they’d been treated to the tray of food that Nie Huaisang was currently inhaling, towels, and even what Lan Liang had said were guest robes. “When the tow truck said they couldn’t make it out on the roads in the storm, they could’ve made us wait in the car,” he added. “Don’t complain so much.”
Seeing that Nie Huaisang was a lost cause, Wei Wuxian turned to Jiang Cheng, who at least he could rely on as a naturally more suspicious creature. “Jiang Cheng,” he started.
“Don’t care.” Jiang Cheng was squinting at the plate of vegetables.
“Hey,” Jiang Cheng said, pointing his spoon at him. Wei Wuxian didn’t know why he bothered; the soup was blander than anything Wei Wuxian had willingly eaten since he was eight. “They’re going to let us borrow a jack and probably help change the tire. When the storm lets up, they’ll med-evac the cul—the guy, out of here. We did our job. I, for one, would like to forget this day ever happened.” He stuck the spoon in his mouth, then made a face. “Did they make it like this on purpose?” he muttered
“Does that mean you’ll come with me on my next field trip?”
Jiang Cheng barely lifted his head from where he was busy pouring the bowl of soup down the drain. “No.”
“I don’t think they’re monks,” Wei Wuxian pressed. He chewed on a pickled carrot. At least pickles had flavour.
“Does it matter?” Jiang Cheng sighed.
“Of course!” Wei Wuxian lifted his chin. “They could be some weird cult for all we know! We can’t leave this guy with some weird cult! What if they, I don’t know, do something to him?”
“Like what?” Jiang Cheng said, deeply skeptical. The look on his face turned to one of appreciation when he donned the borrowed robe. It did look very soft, Wei Wuxian had to admit.
“You did find him in a cave,” Nie Huaisang pointed out.
Wei Wuxian gripped his hair and made a sound of frustration. “I’m telling you,” he insisted. “It’s weird.”
“And I’m telling you,” Jiang Cheng retorted, now testing one of the beds. “You’re being paranoid. Go to sleep. Lan Liang said he’d find us a jack in the morning.” He resolutely ignored the indignant sputter that Wei Wuxian made, turning over and fluffing his pillow.
“Ah,” Nie Huaisang sighed. “It’d be nice to have some wine or something to wash this down.”
“Don’t be—” Jiang Cheng started, but Wei Wuxian jumped to his feet.
“You’re right, you’re so right, Huaisang! I’ll go ask for some!” And in less than three seconds, he was out the door, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang staring after him, mouths open.
“He knows there’s like, a massive storm out there, right?” Nie Huaisang ventured. Jiang Cheng just shook his head, fluffed the pillow again, and closed his eyes.
“If he’s not back in the morning,” he said, eyes still closed, “we can kill him together.”
“Ha.” Nie Huaisang let loose a weak smile. “But actually…”
“You’re welcome,” Jiang Cheng said, and pulled the covers over his head.
It was not, precisely, that Wei Wuxian forgot there was a storm, nor that it was bad enough to make driving up a mountain, or trying to get a medical evacuation helicopter in, a dangerous prospect. It was just, the storm had not exactly factored into his calculations up until that point. His goal had not been to snoop, Wei Wuxian would maintain. Snooping was rude, especially when you were a guest in someone else’s…cult compound?
It was rather unclear.
But Wei Wuxian didn’t think he could be faulted for wanting to take a look around. He also didn’t think he could be faulted for wanting to take a peek at a guy he’d spent the better part of his day carrying down a mountain. Besides, no one had explicitly said that they couldn’t explore. And if Wei Wuxian knew anything, it was that it was always better to ask for forgiveness, than permission.
He’d meant to make his way to the infirmary, where Lan Liang and his army of, well, people who all seemed to share his last name (which, if Wei Wuxian might’ve been so bold, was kind of suspicious for a hidden mountain compound), had dropped off the cultivator with someone who claimed to be a medical professional. But with the pitch darkness and the sleeting, freezing rain, the howling winds, he must have gotten turned around, because the door he managed to shove his way through, led him somewhere that was definitely not an infirmary. By the cracked screen of his phone, he found a light switch.
Books. Ceiling to floor, books. As far as the eye could see, shelves wrapping around the rotund of the building, filled with books and books and books. There were paintings on the walls. Scrolls of calligraphy. Wei Wuxian couldn’t help a small gasp of surprise. He took a step forward, then stopped as the water from his clothes and his shoes and his drenched hair dripped down to pool into a small puddle at his feet. He danced in place for a moment, debating, neck craning to see if he could catch any of the titles.
There was the creak and small snick of a door opening and closing. A pause, then footsteps. Before Wei Wuxian could make a decision on whether or not to make a break for it, the footsteps stilled and a new voice said,
“I thought I heard someone.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said, as an older woman stepped into view from behind the shadows of the stacks. He rubbed the back of his neck, then shoved his hands into his pockets, as if to prove he had only just been looking. “Hello, ma’am.”
The woman (some form of Mrs. Lan, Wei Wuxian would bet), flicked up one eyebrow. “Lost?” she queried, shifting the books in her arms. Wei Wuxian’s gaze was immediately drawn to them. Some of them looked very old. Hand bound, even. When he realized she’d caught him looking, he immediately flashed his Cheshire grin at her.
“Research,” she returned primly. “One of our unexpected guests, I presume?”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Wei Wuxian agreed. He gave a little bow. The corners of the woman’s mouth softened by about a millimeter.
“You and your friends did a good thing to help that man,” she said. The books were starting to fall. She shifted again. “We could do no less.”
“Let me help you.” Wei Wuxian took a step forward, reaching out his hand to stop the unstable mound of books from cascading onto the floor. By the looks of some of them, they’d turn to dust right at impact, like so many meteorites.
“No, no, that’s quite all right.” She waved him off, gesturing with her chin to a spot further inside the building. “I’m just headed for one of those tables.”
“Well…if you’re sure…” He let his hands drop, though he did try to sneak another glance at the books in her arms. When she noticed him looking again, her mouth quirked reluctantly.
“The library closes at nine,” she said. It was gentler than he would have expected.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said. He wasn’t wearing a watch, but from the tone of her voice, he could deduce that it was probably later than nine. “Sorry.” He half-turned away. “I’ll just…”
“We open again at seven-thirty.” He looked over his shoulder. She straightened her glasses. “You are welcome to come back then to look around, if you wish.”
“Seriously?” Wei Wuxian blurted out. She blinked at him.
“It’s a library,” she said. “Of course.” She sighed, looking down at the pile in her arms. “In the meantime,” she said.
“Big project?” Wei Wuxian asked. He could sympathize. Her lips pressed together.
“Time sensitive,” she admitted. She frowned. “Are you able to find your way back to the guestrooms?”
“Ah…” Wei Wuxian wrinkled his nose, then smiled, sheepish. “I think so? Actually, I was trying to find—”
“Straight ahead,” she said. “Then a left turn, then a right.”
“Okay, thank you. But I—”
“Everything in Cloud Recesses closes at nine.”
It was a bland statement, but Wei Wuxian knew a prevarication when he heard one. He was a bit of a self-made expert on them. His eyes flickered to the doors, then back to her. “Okay,” he agreed. “Thanks for the directions.”
She inclined her head and, though she hadn’t seemed entirely hostile, Wei Wuxian swore he could feel her gaze boring into his back as he left the building, as if she wanted to make sure that not only did he leave, but that he headed in the exact direction that she had sent him.
It would have been an untruth to say that Wei Wuxian did not wander just a little more before he found his way back to a snoring Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang. But whether it was some combination of the darkness, the impossible rain and wind, or just the twisting, illogical paths of this godforsaken compound, Wei Wuxian was unable to find the infirmary. In the end, he slid open the doors to their room feeling a deep, almost sullen weariness. He stripped off his clothes, and plodded into the shower. His skin felt cold, clammy. It reminded him of the chill of the cave, the enveloping darkness of it.
How long had that cultivator been in there? Days? Weeks? Wei Wuxian was no expert, but from dusty memories of his grandmother’s stories, he knew there were types of meditation that cultivators could practice, to sink so deep into the mind and core that the needs of the body were almost entirely eased. But who knew how much of that was fact and how much fiction? Wei Wuxian had certainly never practiced such a thing.
Not for the first time, Wei Wuxian wished his grandmother had at least left him with a fucking phone number. If anyone would have known, it would’ve been her.
It was an old hurt. Scarred and puckered over. He wished he could speak to her; then again, what did he even have to say? With a sigh, Wei Wuxian shut off the water. He toweled his hair dry and donned the remaining guest robe. It was as soft as it had looked. Wearing this, Wei Wuxian didn’t even think he could blame Jiang Cheng for going to sleep so early. He shuffled over the one of the empty beds and got in. His brother’s snores and snuffles were familiar, comforting. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes.
Water. Water in his nose, mouth, eyes, ears. Pressure on him, around him—it hurt, it burned. He felt sparks licking up his body, dancing along the flesh of his arms, his legs, leaving lightning flowers along the breadth of his skin. He would contain it. He would contain it!
Wei Ying looked up. He was there. Not smiling, but his eyes were soft. Wei Ying’s throat tightened. He looked down at the marks on the man’s arms. He looked at the rest of him: back perfectly straight, face gray, but still so calm. A placid lake.
“I can fix it,” Wei Ying said. His hands trembled. “Husband.”
The cultivator reached out a hand. Calloused from sword work, from the gardening that Wei Ying foisted on him, year after year behind the jingshi. Wei Ying leaned forward to meet it, felt the tears escape the corners of his eyes.
“I trust you,” the man said. “Please don’t cry, my Wei Ying.”
And the water swallowed them.
Wei Ying sat up in bed, gasping, heart racing. “Lan Zhan,” he croaked out. He scrubbed his face, trying to calm his breathing. When he could think straight again, he let out a long, slow breath.
Too many Lans, he decided abruptly. Wei Wuxian angrily kicked his covers off. His stupid brain was just making up names out of whole cloth, now.
It had been months, years even, since he’d had one of these dreams. The ones where he felt like, if he pressed just right against the fabric of reality, he’d tumble wholesale into the dream and never find his way out again. The kind that tended follow him back to the real world with strange echoes of people he’d never met but would, and memories of conversations that never happened. Wei Wuxian cast a guilty glance in the direction of his backpack, where he was supposed to be carrying his medication and the little card in his wallet in case he convulsed on the street or something.
It had been a rough day, he told himself, stretching back again onto the bed, and staring blankly up at the darkness in above. A rough day with a creepy cave and a weird message and that’s—brains were weird. He knew brains were weird. It wasn’t so insane, to have a dream about the guy they’d found. Especially if his friend, or whatever, shared Wei Wuxian’s name.
He fell back into a fitful sleep, humming quietly to himself a song that he could not name.
In the morning, they were treated to a selection of tea, coffee, congee, and miniature croissants.
“Do you think they’re going to make us pay for this?” Nie Huaisang wondered. He prodded one of the croissants.
“Just don’t ask,” Wei Wuxian advised, and shoved two into his mouth at once. He chased them down with a gulp of extra-hot coffee, his second cup of the morning. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“Why are you drinking so much coffee? Didn’t you sleep?”
“I like coffee,” Wei Wuxian said breezily.
“This is not coffee,” Nie Huaisang said sadly, looking down at his cup. “This is coffee-flavoured water.” He swirled it.
“Whatever, it’s caffeinated.” Wei Wuxian reached for the pot.
“Oh, so you didn’t sleep.” Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows drew together, accusing. He also moved the coffee pot out of Wei Wuxian’s reach. “What were you doing, snooping around all night?”
“I slept fine.” Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “You’re so annoying. Give me my coffee back.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng replied. He poured the rest of it into his own cup. Wei Wuxian stuck his lower lip out.
“You’re the worst brother.”
“That’s fine,” Jiang Cheng said peaceably, and took a delicate sip. Wei Wuxian made a face at him, then lunged over and grabbed the coffee pot. Jiang Cheng wrinkled his nose pointedly as Wei Wuxian poured the dredges into his own cup. Wei Wuxian flicked a croissant at him.
There was a knock at the door. With the two brothers still engaged in some sort of mental battle of wills over the empty coffeepot and whether or not it was socially acceptable to drink the swill at the bottom of it, it was Nie Huaisang who got to his feet and tripped his way over to the door. “Lan Liang,” he said, as he opened it. “Morning.”
“Good morning.” When Nie Huaisang gestured, Lan Liang stepped inside. “Did all of you sleep well?”
Wei Wuxian tore his gaze away from Jiang Cheng, who immediately took the opportunity to grab Wei Wuxian’s cup and dump it into the sink. Ignoring him, Wei Wuxian said, “It was great! This place is so nice, thanks for having us! Hey, how’s that guy doing? He’s still alive, right? When’s the helicopter coming? Can we watch?”
“Uh,” said Lan Liang, looking utterly unprepared for such a barrage. He held up the thick piece of metal in his hand. “I haven’t been by the infirmary this morning, but I did find a jack?”
Jiang Cheng turned around from the sink, looking appreciative. “Thank you,” he said, going over to Lan Liang. He took the jack from him, examining it. “We’ll try to be out of your way as soon as we can.”
Lan Liang shrugged. “It wasn’t any trouble. Tourist season doesn’t really start for another couple weeks. No one was using the guest houses anyway.” He nodded to them. “If you get your stuff, we can do it now.” Jiang Cheng looked hesitant, then with a curt nod, handed the jack back to Lan Liang as the others began to gather the belongings strewn around the room.
“Tourist season?” Nie Huaisang asked, as they made their way along the wooden paths back towards the entrance. Cloud Recesses was even more impressive in the daylight. Here and there, people wearing the same loose, pale clothes as Lan Liang walked past. None of them seemed to be in any particular hurry.
“Oh, sure. They’ll come up here for their meditation retreats and whatever. They really like the whole,” he gestured, “old-school cultivator ambiance, you know?”
Wei Wuxian tripped over his own feet. Only Jiang Cheng’s quick reflexes prevented him from planting face-first into the ground. “The what?” he said, stupidly, when he had regained his balance. Lan Liang gave him a strange look.
“You know,” he said, “Cloud Recesses used to be like, the seat of one of the main cultivation sects. The seat of the Lan clan?” He pointed at the buildings around them. “People come here for the architecture, too. Ninety percent of these are on the historical building registry.”
“I,” said Wei Wuxian, “I did not. What?”
“Oh!” said Nie Huaisang, with a dawning expression of recognition that Wei Wuxian very much did not share. Judging from the sour look on Jiang Cheng’s face, neither did he. “I’ve heard of you guys. The student societies at G.U sometimes send emails about retreats up here.” He laughed. “But I never joined, because I always figured I’d have the time later. Funny!”
“We mostly get people from out of town,” Lan Liang agreed. He cracked a smile. “Locals are too busy to come to tourist attractions.”
“Do you,” Wei Wuxian’s mouth said without his permission, “are there still…?”
Lan Liang sighed. “Cultivators?” he asked. He shrugged. “Some people still practice, but it’s not open to the public, except for special occasions. Demos and stuff. More like keeping the tradition alive than for anything else.”
“Are you a cultivator?” Wei Wuxian asked, right before Jiang Cheng shot him a warning look. Lan Liang blinked in surprise, then laughed.
“They put us all in baby classes when we’re really little,” he said, “but I never had much talent for it. Most stick with it long enough to get the ribbon and then they drop out.” They stopped in front of the gate, the abandoned suburban visible down the steps “It is kind of cool, I guess,” he admitted. “To be a part of your family culture and tradition like that. The rules are a drag though.” They started down.
“Rules?” It was the first thing Jiang Cheng had said since they’d left the guesthouse. In response, Lan Liang pointed.
“Carved right into the rock.” He shook his head. “Over four thousand of them.”
“Seriously?” Wei Wuxian said, in disbelief. He looked towards where Lan Liang was pointing, and recognized the pillars of carved rock they had been unable to interpret in the darkness of the previous night. “What for?”
“Everything,” Lan Liang said. He let out a breath. “Literally. Everything. Lan cultivators used to have to memorize them, but no one does that anymore. Obviously.”
“Memorize four thousand rules?” Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian was pleased to note, sounded about as horrified as he felt. “Who would ever do that? How? Why?”
“If I knew,” Lan Liang said dryly, “then I’d probably be less of a disappointment to my ancestors. Here we are.” They stopped in front of the car. In the morning light, the flat tire looked even more pathetic. It was the passenger’s side front tire, and caused the whole structure to lean to the right, as if performing an awkward bow. “You good with this or would you like a hand?”
“Hand, please,” Nie Huaisang said brightly. He rubbed the back of his neck, while Jiang Cheng scowled. “What? I don’t know how to change a tire.”
“Sure.” Lan Liang shrugged. “No problem.”
It wasn’t exactly quick work. The jack had to be wrestled beneath the muddy exterior of the car, and the nuts holding the tire in place had clearly not been touched since the tire was probably put on several decades ago. But eventually, the spare was in place. It looked rather skinny and pitiful next to the other three tires, but Lan Liang seemed sure it would at least get them back to town.
They had carried their bags with them, so after the combined efforts of Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Liang had managed to turn the vehicle around without knocking it off the edge of the cliff, the departure was quick.
“Thank you so much for putting up with us.” Nie Huaisang seemed to have appointed himself the unofficial spokesperson. Jiang Cheng muttered something that could also have been a thank you. Wei Wuxian saluted.
“That guy’s getting picked up, right?” he asked. It didn’t quite sit right with him, that he hadn’t had a chance to see the cultivator one more time before they left, but he didn’t know if there was any point to bringing it up now.
“I assume so. My unc—the doctor said they’d called the hospital, asked for an emergency transport.”
“Yeah, okay,” Wei Wuxian said. He frowned, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I hope he’s okay. He’s still the same as he was yesterday, right? No change?”
“Just get in the car,” Jiang Cheng groused. Wei Wuxian’s lips stretched into a rueful smile.
“Guess I’d better go.”
“I hadn’t heard anything else,” Lan Liang said, and he sounded like he was being truthful. As Wei Wuxian climbed into the back, Lan Liang lifted his hand to wave goodbye. His sleeve slipped down his forearm, revealing a length of white ribbon wrapped around his wrist.
“Let’s go,” said Jiang Cheng. Nie Huaisang turned the key in the ignition, and the van rumbled to life.
They had only made it about two minutes down the road however, when Wei Wuxian sat bolt upright, eyes widening in realization. “Stop the car!” he yelped. Nie Huaisang complied with alarm, the breaks screeching, the van sliding a little bit on the still-slippery gravel road.
“What the fuck?” Jiang Cheng shouted, turning around in his seat to glower at Wei Wuxian, but Wei Wuxian was already frantically unbuckling his seatbelt, grabbing the strap of his backpack.
“Let me out,” he said. “Let me out, let me out—”
“The door’s unlocked, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
Wei Wuxian finally wrenched open the sliding door. “I’ve got to go back. We have to go back.”
“Uh,” said Nie Huaisang. “What? Wuxian-ge…”
“The ribbon,” Wei Wuxian panted, as he tumbled out of the car. He yanked the strap of his backpack and swung it over his shoulder. Nie Huaisang stared at him like he’d grown a second head. “The ribbon,” he repeated impatiently, looking back and forth between them. “The ribbon that—cultivator-man was wearing a white ribbon on his forehead! Lan Liang had almost the exact same kind of ribbon wrapped around his wrist! Lan Liang talked about ribbons! He said they had something to do with Lan cultivation it’s just—would you stop looking at me like that? I’m being serious!”
“Cultivator-man?” Nie Huaisang repeated, faintly. “What?”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed. “So, what are you trying to say?”
Wei Wuxian’s breath left him in a rush. “They know him,” he said. “Or they know something about him. Or they know who he is—what if they’re the ones who put him in that cave? What if we just put him in danger again by bringing him here? We have to—”
“What?” Jiang Cheng said sharply. “Storm the castle?”
Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose. “For once in your life,” he said, “could you just think for a moment? If you’re so suspicious of them, how do you know they won’t do something to you, too? To all of us?”
“That’s not…” Wei Wuxian swallowed. “That’s not very fair,” he said quietly. Their eyes met. It was Jiang Cheng who looked away first.
“Fine,” he said, voice tight. “You’re going to do this no matter what I say, at least don’t be stupid about it.” He shifted to look at Nie Huaisang, who had been watching their back and forth with an expression of clear trepidation on his face. “Huaisang,” he said. “On a scale of one to ten, how willing are you to call the cops or whatever?”
“Uh…” Nie Huaisang’s eyes darted from Jiang Cheng to Wei Wuxian, then back in the direction of Cloud Recesses.
“Never mind,” Jiang Cheng growled. He pointed a finger at Wei Wuxian. “I’m going into town to get the car and make some phone calls when there’s service. Do not do anything stupid before I get back, you hear me?”
The tension in Wei Wuxian’s shoulders leached away. “Loud and clear,” he promised. Jiang Cheng’s nostrils flared.
“Right,” he muttered. “Okay, let’s go.”
“Are you sure—?” Nie Huaisang said, as Jiang Cheng tapped the dashboard impatiently. When Jiang Cheng gave him a look, Nie Huaisang waved his hands defensively.
“Okay, okay. I was just checking.” He leaned out the window at Wei Wuxian. “Don’t get murdered or something, ah, Wuxian-ge?”
“Definitely not,” Wei Wuxian returned solemnly, and waved as Nie Huaisang gunned the ignition and the van rumbled off, splashing through puddles and collecting more mud as it went. Then he hitched his bag more securely over his shoulder, and turned back towards the Cloud Recesses.
He didn’t have a plan, not really, so just about the best thing he could do when he caught up to Lan Liang at the top of the stairs was, while panting heavily from the run and then the climb, point an accusatory finger at him and say, “Who is he?”
“What?” said Lan Liang, entirely baffled. “Uh, Mr. Wei? Did you forget something, or…?”
“The cultivator!” Wei Wuxian said sharply, and Lan Liang stilled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The ribbon wrapped around your wrist tells me otherwise.”
“What, this?” Lan Liang held it out. “Are you serious?”
Ugh, was he that out of shape that climbing a few stairs could make his chest hurt like this?
Wei Wuxian rallied. He could worry about upping his gym visits later. “The cultivator. Who is he?”
“What are you talking about? Why are you saying he’s a cultivator?”
“Because,” Wei Wuxian pressed, “the cultivator was wearing a white ribbon with a cloud pattern tied around his forehead. The same cloud pattern as that.” He indicated the ribbon on Lan Liang’s wrist. “And you’re telling me you don’t know him? He’s got nothing to do with you guys?”
“Look,” said Lan Liang. “I get it. You helped saved this guy’s life, you’re invested, it’s fair. But the med evac—”
Wei Wuxian snorted. He still felt out of breath, his heartbeat heavy. “If there was a medical evacuation coming to pick him up, they would’ve been here by now.” He took a step closer. Lan Liang swallowed. “You guys didn’t call anyone. He’s still here, isn’t he?”
“Take me to him.”
Lan Liang sputtered. “I can’t just—you—”
Blood pounded in Wei Wuxian’s ears. The world around him went hazy, like the vision of Cloud Recesses in front of him was overlaid with a different version. He blinked rapidly. He and Lan Liang were alone, but he thought he could hear soft voices. There were rabbits at his feet—he pitched sideways, trying to swallow down a sudden nausea, trying to keep his focus on Lan Liang, who didn’t even look like Lan Liang anymore, while darkness crowded at the corner of his eyes. “Take,” he gasped. “Please…”
Everything went black.
He came to in a narrow bed in a room he didn’t recognize. Wood paneling, paper doors, a few chairs in the corner. He was alone. There was something long and heavy next to him. Wei Wuxian glanced at it. It was a sword. The dark sword, to be exact. The one they’d found in the cave next to the skeleton. He blinked.
“It seems to like you,” said a strangely familiar voice. The woman he’d met in the library the night before, walked into the room. Her black hair was pinned in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. Her cheekbones were sharp, her nose upturned. She was dressed in the same billowy uniform as Lan Liang. Wei Wuxian struggled to sit upright. He was wearing the same clothes he’d put on that morning. Out the window, the sun was high in the sky.
“What’s going on?” he rasped. His throat hurt. His chest hurt. She gave him a cool, measuring look.
“How are you feeling?”
Wei Wuxian took stock. His limbs felt weak and his head throbbed. Nothing too unusual based off the previous episodes he’d had. Although, having two episodes in less than twenty-four hours was starting to freak him out a little. “I’m, uh,” he said, and rubbed his temples. “I’m fine. Sorry. This,” he gave a vague wave, “happens sometimes. To me. I have medication,” he added. He did not add that he hadn’t exactly been taking it on a regular basis. He cracked a small smile. “Sorry if I freaked you guys out. I’ll be fine.”
“Hmm.” She was giving him a very scrutinizing look. He tried to match it, but lasted only a few seconds before his gaze dropped.
“Could you tell me what happened?”
“First you yelled at my poor nephew,” she said blandly. “Then you fainted. Then my very kind and conscientious nephew dragged you up here and put you to bed. The doctor examined you to make sure you weren’t going to die. Now, here we are.”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian had the grace to flush. “Sorry about that.”
“Hm.” She sat in the chair next to the bed. Wei Wuxian wondered if he should feel threatened by this.
“My name is Lan Xiaohui.” She nodded to the sword. “Could you do me a favor and draw that blade, please?”
“What?” Wei Wuxian said blankly. He had been anticipating many possible follow-up questions. This particular one had not been any of them.
“Just a little bit.”
“Uh…” he gave her a wary look. She blinked back at him, eyes calm behind the wired rims of her glasses. She reminded him of somebody, he thought, but he couldn’t recall who. There was the faintest touch of gold to the otherwise brown of her irises. What the hell, he thought, and gave the hilt a tug.
Just like the day before in the cave, the sword came easily, the blade as well-oiled and shiny as if it had been tended to only days before. Lan Xiaohui sat back.
“Interesting,” she murmured.
“What?” Wei Wuxian looked down at the sword in his hand. He pushed it back into the scabbard. “What about it?”
“Give it to me.”
He was oddly reluctant to hand it over. But when he did so, he watched as she grasped the hilt and tugged.
The sword didn’t budge.
“I’m a cultivator,” Wei Wuxian said, a bit apologetically. It did feel embarrassing to say it like that to some woman he’d barely met, who worked in what was apparently a cultivation tourism hotspot. “I think that’s why…”
“So am I,” she interrupted. She handed the blade back to him. Wei Wuxian gaped at her.
“Mr. Wei,” she said, leaning forward. “This is the ancestral seat of the Lan Sect. Inasmuch as anyone may be called a cultivator these days, we are. But,” and here she gave him a rather severe look over the rims of her glasses, “that sword seems to unseal itself only for you.”
“Uh…” said Wei Wuxian, mind whirring. So there were other cultivators here? Wei Wuxian didn’t think he’d ever met one outside his own grandmother. For something to do, he looked down at the sword. It looked pretty innocuous. “I don’t know,” he said. He pulled the hilt again. The sword unsheathed. “We just…found it in the cave. With the other stuff.”
“Yes, so you said.” She raised an eyebrow and leaned back, crossing her ankles, hands folded neatly in her lap. “Was there maybe anything else about that cave that you might have neglected to mention?”
“Ah…” Wei Wuxian shot her a weak, guilty smile. “Well…”
She heaved a sigh. “Mr. Wei,” she said. “I’m going to be honest with you. We don’t know who that man is. But he is wearing our ancestral crest. The presence of the sword and the guqin suggest his cultivation is somehow linked with the Lan family. If we are to help him, we need to know what else you found.”
Wei Wuxian hesitated. “You guys didn’t put him there? You really don’t know him?”
He gnawed on his lower lip. “What’s wrong with him?” When she hesitated, he said quickly, “Take me to see him. After that, I’ll tell you everything we found. I swear. I just want to make sure he’s still…” he couldn’t finish it. Still what? Still alive? Still sleeping? Still looking so ethereal and otherworldly even while completely unconscious?
Lan Xiaohui stood up from the chair. “Come with me.”
She led him out of the room and down a small hallway that opened up into something resembling a lobby, with a receiving desk. There was no one actually behind the desk, but he spotted a landline telephone and a computer screen. There were three chairs, a stack of old magazines on the end table, and a plate-sized, rocky fountain on the floor, which had no water flowing through it. He immediately recognized it as the same place that they had taken the cultivator the previous evening. “Is this the infirmary?” he asked.
“It is.” Lan Xiaohui gestured him past the lobby, into a different hallway.
“It’s bigger than I thought.”
“Some tourists can be incident prone,” she said. “Given our remote location, some form of medical facilities was deemed necessary in case of emergency.”
“Huh,” said Wei Wuxian. If there were real cultivators here, real like his grandmother had been, he suspected that summer tourists weren’t the only ones needing medical attention.
“In here.” Lan Xiaohui halted in front of an innocuous looking door. When Wei Wuxian’s eyes fell on it, he had to consciously remind himself to breathe. As he stood there trying to gather himself, Wei Wuxian suddenly felt a deep frustration. Why was he so affected by this? They’d found this guy, this stranger, only yesterday! They’d never even spoken. Wei Wuxian didn’t even know his name—!
But, wait. That wasn’t quite right, was it?
Wei Wuxian took in a deep breath. “He’s here?”
“Inside,” Lan Xiaohui confirmed, and opened the door.
It was obvious that the cultivator had been washed and then re-dressed in something similar to what all the Lans seemed to wear. His face was exactly as jade-cut as Wei Wuxian remembered. He was under the covers on his back, the slow rise and fall of his chest the only thing distinguishing him as alive. He was incredibly pale, his skin ashen even compared to the white ribbon still tied around his forehead. He almost looked worse than he had when they’d found him. Wei Wuxian swallowed. He moved closer to the bed, his hand hovering above the cultivator’s, waiting for Lan Xiaohui to stop him, but she said nothing.
The cultivator’s hand was cool but not cold. Wei Wuxian slipped his finger under the cultivator’s wrist, felt the faint fluttering of his pulse. The sensation eased something inside him. He glanced back at Lan Xiaohui.
“You never called the hospital.” When she shook her head, Wei Wuxian’s shoulders sagged. If they hadn’t called the hospital, then they obviously thought that whatever was wrong with the cultivator wasn’t something that modern doctors were equipped to deal with. Wei Wuxian didn’t know how he felt about that. He knew his first instinct should’ve been to be alarmed, or appalled. But…he knew his grandmother had done some things, things he’d seen himself, things that most people would’ve said were impossible. She had taught him to do many of these things, too. And yesterday, what they’d seen in the cave…
“He is getting worse,” Lan Xiaohui said. “But a hospital will not help him.”
Wei Wuxian shut his eyes for a moment. “What’s wrong with him?”
In response, Lan Xiaohui came over to the bed. She gestured Wei Wuxian away from the edge, and reluctantly he let his hand drop away from the cultivator’s. She pulled back the sheets and reached for the hem of the cultivator’s shirt.
“What—what are you doing?” he stammered.
“Showing you what’s wrong.” And she pulled up the cultivator’s shirt to reveal his stomach and chest. When he saw the cultivator’s bare skin, Wei Wuxian couldn’t help sucking in a breath. All along the cultivator’s chest and sides, disappearing up his shoulders, probably on his arms, too, were strange, branching lines. They looked like little ferns unfurling, stretching out to brush the cultivator’s collarbone, twining close to his heart.
“What,” he said. He wanted to touch one, see if it felt raised, warmer than the skin, but refrained. “What is that?”
“Arborescent erythema,” said a new voice in the doorway. Wei Wuxian turned.
“Dr. Lan,” he said, recognizing the man he’d met very briefly the night before. Lan Bowen nodded. He came into the room, brushing back graying hair with a long-fingered hand. The rest of him was narrow, too, and only a little shorter than Wei Wuxian himself.
“Wei Wuxian, was it?” Lan Bowen stopped at the bed and looked down at the cultivator. “How are you feeling?”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian rubbed the back of his neck. “Don’t worry about me, Dr. Lan. It just happens to me sometimes. It’s really no big deal.”
“Hmph,” said Lan Bowen. “I trust you have a doctor who’s actively treating this?”
“Uh,” said Wei Wuxian, who had been ignoring Mrs. Yu’s increasingly irate emails on the subject. Lan Bowen shook his head.
“The brain is not to be treated lightly.”
“I have a doctor, I have a doctor,” Wei Wuxian said hastily. “But, Dr. Lan, what were you saying about those marks?”
He was gifted with one last, dubious frown, before Lan Bowen mercifully dropped the subject. “Arborescent erythema,” he said. “At least, that’s what they look like.”
“Treelike markings.” Dr. Lan indicated the marks. “Thought to be caused when the capillaries under the skin rupture due to some kind of electrical discharge.” He pulled the cultivator’s shirt down. “They’re also known as ‘lightening flowers.’” He turned to Wei Wuxian, crossing his arms. “You didn’t happen to see this man get struck by lightening, did you?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head.
“Didn’t think so.” Lan Bowen pivoted back to the cultivator and pushed up his sleeve to his elbow. The marks were there, too. “What’s interesting however, is arborescent erythema do tend to fade within a few days or weeks.” He pointed towards a thick black line across the cultivator’s forearm. It looked like it had been drawn in with a sharpie. Lan Bowen said, “I drew that line last night where the marks ended.”
Wei Wuxian looked at it. “They’re past that now,” he observed.
“Yes.” Lan Bowen tapped the cultivator’s wrist. “They are.”
“So…” Wei Wuxian looked from Lan Bowen to Lan Xiaohui, then back again. “What are you saying?”
The doctor hesitated.
“Tell him,” said Lan Xiaohui. Lan Bowen turned to look at her, forehead furrowed.
“Director, are you sure?” When she nodded, he said, “We think it’s a curse.” He paused, as if waiting for Wei Wuxian to laugh. When he didn’t, Lan Bowen squinted at him. “You’re unusually open-minded.”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian said. He cast a glance at Lan Xiaohui, whose expression remained bland. “I might have some experience in…cultivation?”
Yep. Definitely still felt weird to say it. Lan Bowen seemed to think so too, if the way his eyebrows shot up was any indication. He held out his hand.
“Do you mind if I—?”
“Go ahead,” said Wei Wuxian, hoping that whatever the doctor was about to do wasn’t going to hurt. Lan Bowen placed two fingers on the pulse point of Wei Wuxian’s wrist. His frown deepened. He moved his hand to hover in front of Wei Wuxian’s shirt. Sensing what he wanted, Wei Wuxian grasped the hem and lifted it.
When the doctor’s hand contacted Wei Wuxian’s lower dantian, there was a little shock, like static electricity. He felt it echo, reverberating up his arms and down his legs. He turned his head into his shoulder and sneezed. Lan Bowen moved away.
“Very interesting,” he said, eyes roaming Wei Wuxian’s face. “Where did you say you were from again?”
“Well…” Wei Wuxian trailed off. “I was born in Yiling, I guess.”
“Yiling,” Lan Bowen repeated. He looked at Lan Xiaohui. “Director, I can’t think of any ancestral sect seats in Yiling. Can you?”
Lan Xiaohui pursed her lips. “The Jiang were close,” she said, “but further south. But in Yiling proper, well. There was just the one.” She quirked an eyebrow. Lan Bowen snorted.
“I think we can rule out the Yiling Patriarch.”
“My fam—my adopted family’s name is Jiang,” Wei Wuxian put in, interested.
“Yes, that other young man was named Jiang, wasn’t he?” Lan Xiaohui mused. “I didn’t think there were any Jiang cultivators remaining. Did they train you?”
“No.” Wei Wuxian gnawed on his lower lip. Did it matter if he told them? It wasn’t like grandmother was around to get defensive about it. Besides, he realized. If these Lan were cultivators, maybe they knew other cultivators. Maybe they knew his grandmother? “My grandmother taught me,” he said. A reluctant smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. “She used to run a little school out of our house in Yiling.”
“Interesting.” Lan Xiaohui took off her glasses to give the lenses a rub. She put them back on again, focusing with renewed interest on Wei Wuxian. “Was her surname also Wei?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Mostly people just called her 'Grandmother,'” he said. “But I guess. Probably.” The two Lans exchanged glances. “What?”
“We’d be interested to speak with her as well,” Lan Xiaohui said. Wei Wuxian’s smile slid of his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He looked away, down at his feet. “The Jiang family took me in when I was thirteen.”
“Ah.” Lan Xiaohui’s expression was immediately regretful. “I see. My apologies.”
“No, it’s okay. It, uh.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “It was a long time ago.” He straightened. “So, what about this curse?”
Lan Bowen took up the thread. “We don’t know,” he said simply. “But whatever it is, it’s spreading.”
“Perhaps,” Lan Xiaohui said, giving Wei Wuxian an assessing look, “now would be a good time to give us more detail about how you found him. Short of going to this cave ourselves, any additional information that you have, could be useful.”
When Lan Bowen’s gaze lighted on him with renewed interest as well, Wei Wuxian let out a breath. “Yeah,” he said. He reached for one of the chairs behind him along the wall, and sank into it. “I can do that.”
It was a long accounting, made longer for the frequent pauses for questions. When he got to the part about the message, Wei Wuxian pulled out his phone and passed it over, showing them the pictures.
“And you could read this?” Lan Xiaohui queried, zooming in on the screen to stare at the message carved blurrily into the rock. “Did your grandmother teach you that as well?” Wei Wuxian lifted his shoulder uncomfortably.
“She made me read a lot of old stuff as a kid,” he offered. He thought for a moment. “In between the handstands.”
“I always hated the handstands,” Lan Bowen muttered. Lan Xiaohui shot him a look, which he ignored. “Lan Zhan,” Lan Bowen said slowly. “At least, I would guess.” He glanced up at Wei Wuxian. “How did you know he was a Lan? The name is scratched out.
“The ribbon,” Wei Wuxian said. “So it is Lan Zhan.” As soon as the name passed his lips, he felt a start of recognition. He shook it away.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.” Lan Bowen tapped his finger to his cheek thoughtfully. “Sounds familiar, somehow.”
Each time he said the name sent an odd, uncomfortable twinge through Wei Wuxian. Like the name almost ought not to be spoken. Wei Wuxian added quickly, feeling a little defensive, “The whole Wei Ying thing threw me off, too.”
“Wei Ying thing?” Lan Bowen tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian smiled. “It’s not that weird. It’s not than uncommon of a name, right?”
Lan Bowen still looked confused. “I don’t understand. Your name is Wei Wuxian.”
“Yep,” Wei Wuxian agreed. “But actually, ‘Ying’ was my birthname. I got renamed when I got adopted.”
The both stared at him.
“Interesting,” said Lan Xiaohui eventually. “Very interesting.” She handed the phone back to Wei Wuxian. “I might need a copy of those photos.”
“Sure,” said Wei Wuxian. “If we can get any service. Do you have a wifi password?”
Lan Bowen opened his mouth, but Lan Xiaohui said, “Later.” Lan Bowen closed it. Lan Xiaohui said, “Tell us the rest.” Wei Wuxian made a face; they were going to get to the even weirder part, and the less remembered about that the better, but Lan Xiaohui seemed determined.
By the time he finished, Lan Xiaohui was rubbing her temples, and Lan Bowen was shaking his head in disbelief.
“You just,” he said, “picked up some random dead man’s spiritual instrument, and then played it and you’re still here? And it worked?”
“I didn’t know it was a spiritual instrument!” Wei Wuxian protested, his cheeks going hot. “I thought it was just a…magic…flute?” He smiled weakly. In retrospect, it had maybe been a little bit stupid. But hey! He was still here, wasn’t he?
“I’d think the barrier of light around the sleeping cultivator might have been a clue!” Lan Bowen exclaimed. “Do you have any idea how dangerous something like that could have been? You could have been incinerated!”
Wei Wuxian blinked in alarm. “Wait, really?” Was that right? That didn’t sound right.
Lan Xiaohui let out a long slow breath and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “Like that sword, the flute seems to have picked you. We can barely touch it; its spiritual energy is incredibly particular.” She glared at him, like this was somehow Wei Wuxian’s fault.
“Wait, what now about the sword?” Lan Bowen said, glancing back and forth between them. “The sword likes you too? What?”
“Well, I didn’t tell it to do that,” Wei Wuxian said, not wanting to admit how disconcerting he was finding this new piece of information. Why’d he have to get stuck with the dead guy flute? “I didn’t tell it to do anything.”
“You told it to break the wall of light,” Lan Xiaohui pointed out. Wei Wuxian considered this.
“Maybe,” he allowed finally. At the thought of it, his eyes moved to the cultivator still unconscious on the bed. “Not that it did him any good, did it?”
“We’ll see.” Lan Xiaohui got to her feet, smoothing wrinkles on her loose, white slacks. “We have a possible name now, at least. I’ll look through the records, see if we can’t identify him.”
“I swear ‘Lan Zhan’ sounds familiar,” Lan Bowen muttered. He stood as well and moved back over to look at the cultivator. They hadn’t been quiet, but he’d made no sign of registering their conversation at all.
“It’s weird you don’t recognize him,” Wei Wuxian said. He’d been thinking about it. The guy could barely pass for thirty, if even that. “He doesn’t look any older than me.”
“No,” Lan Xiaohui said, turning her gaze on him thoughtfully. “He doesn’t.” She pushed her chair back to the wall. “Well,” she said. “Back to the library I go.”
“Let me help you.” Wei Wuxian scrambled out of his chair to follow her. “I have a degree! I’m good at research!” She hesitated, then waved him ahead of her, out the room.
“You’re in this already,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to waste another pair of eyes.”
As soon as they got to the library, another problem became apparent. It was a long, black problem with a red tassel, and it was lying innocently across the large table upon which Lan Xiaohui had also placed stacks of what looked like increasingly older and older books. Wei Wuxian bit his lip. There was something about that flute. Something that called to him. There was a faint, distracting ringing in his ears.
“These are Lan sect genealogies,” Lan Xiaohui said. “All the names of anyone ever born or married into the Lan family. We have more in the restricted section, but we’ll start with these; those are so old you need gloves to handle them.”
“Uh huh.” Wei Wuxian was very much trying not to look at the flute. He kind of wanted to touch it. He was familiar enough with this sort of impulse to know that it was probably a bad idea.
“Members of the Lan family who live in Caiyi and other cities still send record of births, marriages, and deaths. Like you said: he looks about your age, so we’ll start there. Maybe one of the branch families, twenty to thirty years ago.” She tapped her cheek, beginning to shuffle some of the books over to Wei Wuxian. “What’s concerning—or perhaps not—is I don’t recall any missing persons being reported within the past several years. The last one was a young girl who’d run away from home to be with some boy her family didn’t approve of.” Her mouth quirked. “I doubt that’s the case here.”
“Probably not,” Wei Wuxian agreed, his hand inching towards the flute as if of its own accord. He stopped it just in time, swallowing hard. The closer he got to the flute, the louder the ringing in his ears seemed to get. “I’ll start with these,” he said brightly, pasting a smile on his face. He grabbed for a stack blindly, and flipped open the very first book. “Lan Zhan,” he muttered. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. Let’s see, let’s see.”
“Yes,” Lan Xiaohui agreed, and Wei Wuxian was concentrating so much on not looking at the flute that he missed the way her eyes narrowed as her gaze moved from him, determinedly sitting very still, to the very same instrument. “Let’s see.”
Three hours later, Wei Wuxian was beginning to get frustrated. “Have you guys ever considered digitizing these?” he asked, tossing away a records book only to be confronted with several more unread stacks of them.
“Are you offering?” Lan Xiaohui turned another page. Wei Wuxian huffed.
“I’m just saying,” he muttered. He slid a glance over to the flute, then looked quickly away. He startled as his stomach growled. At the noise, Lan Xiaohui raised her head.
“That time already?” she said, and checked her watch.
“It’s fine,” said Wei Wuxian, just as his stomach growled again.
“Clearly,” Lan Xiaohui returned dryly. She closed the book. “Let’s go.”
She took him to the communal kitchen, where Wei Wuxian cajoled someone into telling him where the hot sauce was, and proceeded to drench his entire meal in it. He kind of wanted a beer, it was turning out to be that sort of day, but Lan Xiaohui firmly shut down that line of thinking.
“No alcohol at all?” Wei Wuxian repeated, aghast. “Seriously?”
“None,” she said, and led him back into the library.
The flute was still there on the table, ready to drive him insane via its very presence, but Wei Wuxian was determined to ignore it. The sword was kind of cool. He didn’t mind that the sword seemed to like him, but there was something about that flute…He glanced down at the genealogies. Lots of Lans, and not a single Lan Zhan among them. He stifled a groan, and snuck another look at the flute. No touching the creepy dead guy flute, he told himself. Lan Xiaohui was right there.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Lan Xiaohui closed her own book gently. “I need to double-check something with the doctor.” She leveled a look at him. “Will you be all right here?”
“Definitely,” Wei Wuxian lied, smiling and nodding to try and cover up his immediate panic, and also trying to ignore the ever-present buzzing in his ears. His eyes slid sideways towards the flute. ‘Would you shut up?’ he mentally shouted at it.
It might have been his imagination, but he could’ve sworn that the buzzing eased off a little, and also gained a rather sulky undertone.
Definitely his imagination.
“All right,” she said, and left him alone with a pile of genealogy records and a flute that he was seriously starting to think might be kind of evil.
Don’t touch it, don’t touch it, don’t touch it, he chanted to himself. Don’tdon’tdon’tdon’t—
It was as smooth as he remembered. Black lacquered, some kind of metal inlaid on the inside, which was interesting. As soon as he picked it up, the buzzing, rather than quieting, grew louder, more clamouring. Missedyoumissedyoumissedyou, it whispered. Oursoursoursoursours! It was too loud. It was too loud! Black wisps twirled around it, brushing his fingers where he gripped it. Too loud, too loud! He needed to quiet it, he needed something calming, soothing, a lullaby.
Wei Wuxian placed the dizi to his lips and began to play.
It wasn’t any of the Classical songs he’d learned when Mrs. Yu had, somewhat baffled, acquiesced to the flute lessons. No Mozart or Debussy or Reinecke. It wasn’t even any of the traditional tunes for the Chinese dizi, which he’d picked up a few years later on a whim, to Jiang Yanli’s delight. It was a song that followed him through his dreams, whispered at him when he closed his eyes, had been a part of his memories here and there, snatches hummed off key, as long as he could remember.
Slowly, slowly, Wei Wuxian lost himself in the music. Slowly, slowly, the buzzing in his ears, the screaming of the flute, quieted. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and blew into the mouthpiece and he heard not flute, but guqin. He heard a deep, familiar voice, calling his name. Wei Ying Wi Ying Wei Ying. With each syllable, the pluck of a guqin string, echoing, reverberating. His eyes burned, his throat tightened. He knew that voice, he knew that voice!
The song stopped. Wei Wuxian slowly opened his eyes and craned his neck to meet Lan Xiaohui’s steady gaze. Her mouth was a thin line. “Wei Wuxian,” she said. Quiet. Warning. Wei Wuxian rose, still holding the flute at his side. It felt like they’d never been apart.
“We’re looking in the wrong place,” he said. And knew it was true.
Lan Xiaohui’s eyes never left his face. “Show me.”
Clumsy, like he was half in a dream, Wei Wuxian led her through the library. Everywhere he looked was overlaid with a vision of a different library. The same library. No matter. Wei Wuxian knew where to go. He walked unerringly towards the hidden doorway, down the secret staircase, where the oldest of the Lan records were kept. He paced over the titles by year, emperor by emperor, by dynasty by dynasty. Back, back, back. Then, finally, only a few generations past the founding: “This one.”
Lan Xiaohui took it without question. She began to open it, mindful of the delicate pages, wincing at what the head record keepers were going to do to her when they realized she’d touched any of these without the proper precaution. Then, she stopped and handed it to Wei Wuxian.
He took it with a surety that, more than anything else, erased any lingering doubt she might have had. “Here,” he said, flipping through the pages. He stopped at one in particular, tapped the page, and handed it back. Lan Xiaohui started to read.
“Lan Zhan,” she said. “Courtesy name: Lan Wangji. Title: Hanguang-Jun.” She raised her head. “You’re saying that’s him? Lan Wangji? Hanguang-Jun?”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian smiled, his expression oddly vacant, relieved. The flute dropped from limp fingers. Lan Xiaohui startled as it hit the ground. “Yes, that’s the one,” he said, and collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Wei Wuxian was starting to get really tired of waking up from dead faints in suspiciously well-appointed rooms that didn’t belong to him. This time was worse than the last time though, because this time, Jiang Cheng was looming over him. Jiang Cheng did not look pleased.
“Do you have any idea,” his brother hissed, “the kind of absolute bullshit I’ve been through today for you?”
At the sound of his voice, Wei Wuxian winced and grabbed his head. “Not so loud, Didi,” he said. “My head is killing me.”
“And whose fault is that?” Jiang Cheng snapped. He waved a mostly full, orange pill bottle in front of Wei Wuxian’s face. “Did you think I never went into the bathroom cabinet? Huh?”
“Ah, A-Cheng.” Wei Wuxian eased himself back. He covered his face with his hands. “I think I’m going insane.”
“You’d think this was an outcome that could’ve been avoided!” Jiang Cheng bellowed, shaking the pill bottle again. Wei Wuxian groaned.
“Dr. Lan,” he said, spotting a familiar wiry figure in the doorway. “Could you please explain bedside manner to my brother? I don’t think he knows.”
“If your brother is upset with you for not taking your medication,” Lan Bowen said, coming into the room to stand by Wei Wuxian’s bed. “I believe he is in the right, here.” His cool, doctor’s hands rested at Wei Wuxian’s pulse point, moved up his face to look at his eyes. He pulled up Wei Wuxian’s shirt and lightly touched Wei Wuxian’s lower belly, fingers warming right above Wei Wuxian’s golden core. For the sake of fraternal peace, Wei Wuxian allowed this indignity.
“I’ve been fine for years without the medication though,” he argued. “Besides, they’re just—”
“Do not,” Jiang Cheng said dangerously, “say ‘dreams.’”
“The brain is a mysterious thing.” Lan Bowen put away his stethoscope. “Perhaps what you have been experiencing are dreams, to some extent, but they are not normal dreams. Through my examination, I have detected a strong element of spiritual energy. If not for your golden core, they could have caused some permanent damage—especially to a young, developing brain such as yours.” He crossed his arms, looking stern. “You should have been taking your medication, Wei Wuxian.”
“They’re what now?” said Wei Wuxian, blankly.
“Spiritual energy?” Jiang Cheng scoffed. Lan Bowen sighed.
“A seizure caused by spiritual energy is still a seizure,” he said. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
“Thank you,” said Jiang Cheng, still glaring at Wei Wuxian, apparently now ready to ignore the whole spiritual energy thing if it meant that a doctor officially agreed with him over Wei Wuxian.
“I’m very confused,” Wei Wuxian said. “Are the s—seizures making me go insane? Is that what’s happening? What’s with the spiritual energy? What are you talking about—” he was starting to hyperventilate. His head still throbbed. He thought he could hear a faint echo of a warm voice. Strong arms wrapped around him. They were there. They were not.
“I was in the library,” he said. “I’d been there before.” He turned to Jiang Cheng. “Please tell me we’ve visited here before.” Jiang Cheng looked very confused.
“What are you talking about?”
But Wei Wuxian pushed on. “I think the evil flute wants to be my friend. It knew my name. That’s fucked up, man. That’s fucked up.” He sucked in a breath. It was hard. It was harder than it should’ve been. “Jiang Cheng—” he choked out.
“Damn it,” Jiang Cheng said, and then he was there, sitting on the bed. Grumbling, but solid. He guided Wei Wuxian toward him. “Breathe,” he said firmly, like he had when they were sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one. Wei Wuxian clutched his arm, inhaled his familiar, comforting smell, his head still spinning. Jiang Cheng turned his head to glower at Lan Bowen.
“What do you know about this?” he demanded. In his hold, Wei Wuxian was beginning to shake and shudder, his pupils blown wide, staring at nothing.
Lan Bowen knelt down. “He’s having another episode,” he said. “Whatever catalyzed this, we have to get it under control.” He reached out a hand to Wei Wuxian’s temple, a faint, blue glow around his fingertips.
“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng growled while, in his arms, Wei Wuxian’s shivers intensified. His grip on Jiang Cheng’s arm grew painful. “What is that?”
“Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions,” Lan Bowen murmured. He lightly touched Wei Wuxian’s temple, closing his own eyes. “Let’s see.”
It could barely have been more than a few minutes, but to Jiang Cheng, in the quiet of a room broken only by Wei Wuxian’s strange mutters and whimpers, it felt like a lifetime. He didn’t know what this doctor seemed to think he was doing. He knew even less about how to help his brother. It had been bad before, Jiang Cheng knew, even when Wei Wuxian pretended it was nothing, Just a headache, Didi, I'm fine. But this was something new. Longer. Worse. This was all giving him horrible memories of the day before, of things that should not have been possible, and further back, to a near drowning, the moment he realized he could die. He could leave me.
And then there was a break in the air, like a window shutting. Wei Wuxian coughed, sputtering, eyes teary, but lucid.
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng said, as Lan Bowen slowly rocked back, stumbling, looking tired and gray but also, a little bit pleased with himself. Down on the bed, Wei Wuxian took a deep breath.
“What’s happening?” he whispered. He was looking down at his hands, the flute present yet absent from his side. For a moment, his vision wavered. His hands were covered in blood. “What’s happening to me?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said again, louder this time. Finally, Wei Wuxian looked at him, as if realizing for the first time that he was right there.
“Don’t do that again!” Jiang Cheng said, swallowing. “You hear me?”
“I’m sorry, A-Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. He could see Jiang Cheng was afraid. He didn’t know what he’d done to cause it, nor how to make it better. He settled for resting his head lightly against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, wrapping his arm around Jiang Cheng’s back. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, you idiot,” Jiang Cheng said, exhaling. He wasn't going to yell. Stress was bad for the brain. He could wait. “Just don’t do it!”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian agreed. His voice sounded a little slurred. He took a deep, steadying breath. “Do you mind if I sleep? I think I might sleep.”
“Director Lan has a theory,” Lan Bowen said. He sat wearily down in a chair between the wall and the bed. “I have one too, now.” He shook his head. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Tell me,” Wei Wuxian said tiredly. He slumped even more against Jiang Cheng, who scowled but also tightened his grip around Wei Wuxian's shoulders. “What’s your theory, Doc? Was it because I picked up the stupid flute yesterday?” His eyes fell to his side. “Oh,” he said. “Where is it?”
“It,’ Wei Wuxian emphasized.
“Oh. You mean, the flute? The dizi?”
“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian’s fingers itched. They felt empty.
“Director Lan has it.”
“Oh.” He was not disappointed. He was not.
“Based on what happened in the library, we thought it might be catalyzing your seizures.”
“Is it catalyzing them?” Tired, he was so tired. He felt like he could sleep for a week. Lan Bowen pressed his lips together, shaking his head.
“I’m not sure. But it does have something to do with you.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “And I think, something to do with that cursed cultivator, too.”
“Oh,” said Wei Wuxian. He closed his eyes, yawning. “Okay. That makes sense.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng said, strangled, as Wei Wuxian’s head drooped fully onto his shoulder. “Cursed cultivator? How does that make sense? What about this makes any sense?”
“Because,” Wei Wuxian murmured, sleepily, “he knows my name, too.”
“What? He’s awake? Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng looked helplessly between his rapidly nodding off brother, and Lan Bowen. “Dr. Lan!”
“Let him sleep,” Lan Bowen advised. He crouched down, helping to guide Wei Wuxian flat again. His hand hovered for a moment over Wei Wuxian’s abdomen before he pulled the sheets up. “His golden core is helping him heal. Sleep is the most important thing for him now.”
Jiang Cheng dropped his head into his hands. “I don’t understand.” He scrubbed his face. “Spiritual energy? Golden core? Golden core?” Lan Bowen’s eyebrows went up in surprise.
“You didn’t know? I thought you two trained together.”
“Well—we—I mean…” Jiang Cheng shook his head. “We were just kids! It wasn’t supposed to be real! It was supposed to be a metaphor! Or something!” He groaned. “I don’t know. His grandma was cool, I guess, but she was also weird, Dr. Lan. So weird. Then she had to go somewhere, and she never came back!” He fixed Lan Bowen with a defensive look. “Kids made fun of him in school for talking about it. I don’t know why you have to bring all this up now.”
“Hmm,” said Lan Bowen. He tilted his head at Jiang Cheng in consideration. “May I?”
“What?” said Jiang Cheng blankly, but Lan Bowen was already moving, pressing a palm against Jiang Cheng’s lower abdomen, while Jiang Cheng squawked in affront. Lan Bowen took his hand away. “What was that for?”
“You have one, too,” Lan Bowen told him. The corners of his lips twitched up. “Smaller,” he added. “Not entirely developed as his, but it’s there. How old were you when you stopped training?”
“Uh,” said Jiang Cheng. He felt for his stomach self-consciously. “Twelve? I guess?” He shot a quick glance at Wei Wuxian. “But we stopped at the same time! Why’s his stronger?” He blinked, remembering that he wasn’t supposed to believe in things like golden cores and real cultivation anymore, then crossed his arms.
“He must have continued.” He rubbed his beard. “Tell me about these seizures he has.”
Jiang Cheng eyed him suspiciously. “Doesn’t that break some kind of doctor-patient confidentiality?”
“You’d rather I didn’t know?”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. His gaze darted to Wei Wuxian’s face, smoothed out in sleep. He tucked the sheet more firmly around his brother’s shoulders. “He said they started as just dreams,” he said. “We were maybe fifteen. Sixteen.”
Lan Bowen leaned forward. “What kinds of dreams?”
He’d carved it out of bamboo that should never have grown. He had inlaid it with metal that should never have been cast. He’d died and been brought back, and lived and lived and lived. What was a little sea monster against the peerless Hanguang-Jun? Against the fearsome Yiling Laozu?
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan chastised. His ears were red. “Stop that.”
“What? I’m not allowed to sing your praises? I don’t remember that on our wedding vows.”
“Shameless,” Lan Zhan told him. It was a practiced response. Lan Zhan rested a hand against Wei Ying’s back. “Focus,” he said.
“Yes, yes, Husband.” Wei Ying settled. He sat cross legged on the floor of the room, and drew out a map. Lan Zhan knelt next to him. “We’ve gotten reports here, here, here, and here,” he said, tapping each spot on the map. “All of them the same: lightening dancing on water.”
“Did they witness the creature?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Two rogue cultivators have investigated already. The fishermen say neither of them have returned.” Lan Zhan’s lips thinned.
Wei Ying sighed, his expression becoming more serious. “I do think it’s a yao of some kind,” he said. “There are legends of giant sea serpents, or eels in the eastern islands. Other than that…” he shrugged. “No idea.”
“We should investigate first, then,” Lan Zhan said. “It may not be necessary to kill it.”
“We’ll have to add it to Chen’er’s little book,” Wei Ying said, chuckling when Lan Zhan nodded.
“You’ll paint it.”
“Of course! Sizhui’s a sweet boy, but he definitely inherited your art skills—no offense.”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan rested his chin on top of Wei Ying’s head. “That sweet boy is five and thirty, and married, with a boy of his own,” he reminded Wei Ying, who groaned, flinging his arm back to cover his eyes.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, don’t remind me! I’ll cry!”
Lan Zhan gathered him up and placed a chaste kiss on Wei Ying’s lips. Wei Ying immediately and greedily deepened it. “He is still sweet,” he conceded, when they parted. Wei Ying laughed.
“Of course he is,” he said, and kissed Lan Zhan again. “He’s yours.”
“No,” Lan Zhan corrected. “Ours.”
“Only when he—Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying gasped in mock outrage as Lan Zhan lifted him up and pressed him against the wall. “We have a case to solve! A monster to hunt!”
“It can wait,” Lan Zhan said, and his mouth covered Wei Ying’s.
(Asleep, Wei Wuxian shifted, cheeks flushing).
And then he was crying. They were on a boat, on a waved tossed sea, and Wei Ying was crying. “Lan Zhan,” he said. “Lan Zhan!”
He brought him back silent, still, barely breathing. The curse mark spreading and spreading, unfurling where the spiritual lightening had struck him. “What did it do?” they asked, over and over and over again. And all Wei Ying could tell them, helpless, was,
“It returned what we gave. Like a mirror. Like a mirror.”
Lan Sizhui came to see them, what Wei Ying couldn’t fix. Lan Zhan was supposed to be sleeping, his core suppressed to stop the spread of the curse, to give Wei Wuxian more time to fix this, more time! But he’d brought along Chen’er, who didn’t understand, and who Lan Zhan loved, and so Wei Ying woke him, reluctant.
“Husband,” he said softly, caressing Lan Zhan’s cheek. “You have visitors.”
And he didn’t cry when Lan Zhan touched Lan Sizhui’s face and smiled so gentle, so gentle at Chen’er, who didn’t understand. And he didn’t cry when the rest of Lan Zhan’s beautiful hair turned white as frost, as the color drained from his eyes with his sight, as the tendrils of the lightening flowers circled towards his heart. And he didn’t cry when Lan Xichen said he would wait, promised he would be there when Lan Zhan got better, and Lan Zhan told him not to.
And he didn’t cry when he gathered up his husband’s body, still and barely breathing, and took him into the mountains. And he didn’t cry when he drew the array, when he set Wangji to resonate with Chenqing, when he tied the power of it to his own life force, to his own soul. And he didn’t cry when he carved words into the rock. A last goodbye. A promise.
The curse needed a new focus, and Lan Zhan needed time. Wei Ying would give it to them.
And he didn’t cry. And he didn’t cry. And he didn’t cry.
Wei Wuxian slowly opened his eyes. “Oh,” he said. It was like tumblers clicking into place. Like a window smashed and then reassembled, the cracks glued together. He stayed very still for a moment, mind turning names and events and people over and over again, until he felt he had started to make some sense of a jumble he wasn’t even sure if he was supposed to have.
Someone made a polite coughing noise. Wei Wuxian turned his head to see Lan Xiaohui watching him. Next to him on the bed, Suibian and Chenqing lay quiet, nestled side by side.
Lan Xiaohui said, “Do you know who you are?”
Wei Wuxian let out a breath and eased himself upright. He brushed light fingers across his flute, caressed the hilt of his sword. Of course she’d figured it out, too. Or guessed. Lans really were so clever, sometimes. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “Your name,” she said. “Both names. The sword. The flute. The fact that you found a hidden, cursed Lan legend deep in the mountainside.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “At a certain point, one starts to find this level of coincidence to be excessive.”
He laughed, then felt like crying. He scrubbed at his eyes. He had played basketball at the Yiling Academy; he had been homeless on the streets. He had a golden core. He lost one. He died and lived and died again. “I can’t believe this. This is ridiculous.”
He drew a shuddering breath. “My brother was here,” he said. “Does he know?”
“I don’t believe so, no.” She pulled out an old, delicate-looking book. Wei Wuxian recognized it vaguely as the genealogy he’d led them to when half out of his mind on Chenqing’s lingering resentful energy. She handed it to him. Wei Wuxian looked at it.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmured. And of course, there was his own name, too. There was…he traced the characters for Lan Sizhui. “A-Yuan,” he whispered. He turned the page. His eyes burned. “Chen’er.”
“I’m sorry.” Lan Xiaohui’s head was bowed. “I imagine this must be difficult for you to accept.”
The lump in his throat grew stronger. “It is,” he said, “and it isn’t.” He kept his eyes trained on the book, on the names of his family, of people long dead and buried. “Somehow, I feel like I’ve always known. A little bit.” He snorted. “Grandmother always said that reincarnation was more bullshit pain and trouble than it was worth.” His lips twitched. “I think I understand what she meant, now.”
“The legend of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian is still very well known,” she said. “We did not forget him.”
“That’s good,” Wei Wuxian whispered. He closed the book. “That’s good.”
“What will you do now?”
Wei Wuxian exhaled through his nose. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lan Xiaohui.” He turned to meet her gaze. “Have you ever heard the legend of the Waiting God?” She frowned, shaking her head. He said, “Then take me to Lan Zhan, and I will tell it to you. And once you hear it, perhaps you can tell me: what should I do?”
When he laid eyes on Lan Zhan for the first time since the dam of his memories had truly broken free, Wei Wuxian had to consciously remind himself to breathe.
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” he said, kneeling down. He gathered Lan Zhan’s hands in his, pressed his forehead to Lan Zhan’s side. “I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?” His grip on Lan Zhan’s slack hands tightened. “Can you forgive this Wei Ying, for getting us into this mess?”
“You told him? Lan Bowen said in an undertone to Lan Xiaohui.
“He figured it out himself.”
“You were right, Doctor Lan.” Wei Wuxian raised his head to look at him, though he kept his hands firmly wrapped around Lan Zhan’s. Lan Bowen blinked in surprise. There was something different to him now, from the boy he’d seen only hours ago. There was a knowing there, a grief, a weight that had not been present before.
“I was?” he said wonderingly.
“Yes.” Wei Wuxian made himself more comfortable on the floor, still holding Lan Zhan’s hand. “Chenqing and Suibian both make quite a lot of noise.” He quirked a smile. “Hard to ignore the two of them, when they’re hammering together at your brain.”
“Oh.” Lan Bowen said. He swallowed, exchanging cautious looks with Lan Xiaohui. “So, can you tell us…?”
“You don’t have to look so freaked out,” Wei Wuxian interrupted, “it’s not like I’m going to raise an army of the undead in the Cloud Recesses.”
“Ah,” Lan Bowen paled. “The thought hadn’t crossed my mind, actually, but now that you mention it—”
“Yeah, sorry. Don’t worry. I think it’s even carved onto your wall somewhere, hm? ‘Wei Wuxian is not allowed to raise the dead in Cloud Recesses.’ I can’t quite remember; there were a lot of rules, and a surprising number that mentioned me specifically. Probably added more after I died. The last time, I mean. Not the first time.”
“Um,” Lan Bowen managed. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Wei Wuxian watched him patiently, a slight glint in his eyes. “I’m sorry. This is just—you’ll need to give me a moment.”
Wei Wuxian snorted, shaking his head. “Believe me, it’s weirder for me than it must be for you. I don’t think reincarnation’s normally supposed to work like this. I kind of feel like I’m two people, still.” He frowned. “Three people. Fuck. I die a lot. That’s not very encouraging. There’s a lot of blank space.” He sighed.
“So,” Lan Bowen said slowly, reaching into his pocket. He withdrew a pen and a little notebook, which he flipped open. “Do you know what happened? Why you ended up like this?”
“Ha! Self-inflicted stupidity, probably!” When neither of the Lans cracked a smile, Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes and elaborated. “I think I did something. With my life force. When I made the array to protect Lan Zhan, I think it must’ve kept some—some part of me. My memories, my spirit, here on earth.” He cast a wry look at the flute tucked into his belt, the sword he’d dropped on the table next to its fairer twin. “Some things aren’t meant to be separated. So, when I was eventually reborn…” he trailed off, gestured to his head and made a twirling motion. “Like a magnet. Or something. No consideration for how random bolts of incoming spiritual power would affect my poor developing brain, of course. So rude. I think. Wait, are you writing this down?”
“Maybe,” said Lan Bowen, scribbling frantically. “Did you just come up with that?”
“I had some theories about what would happen before I cast the damn thing.” Wei Wuxian said defensively. Then his gaze went to Lan Zhan’s sleeping face. “I guess not all of them were right.”
Scratch, scratch, scratch went the pen. “What do you mean?” Wei Wuxian glared at him. Lan Bowen relented, putting the pen back in his pocket. “I just,” he said. “He’s my patient. I would like to know what might be done.”
“And he’s my husband,” Wei Wuxian retorted, then looked incredibly startled. “I think. Oh, that’s weird. Does it still count if one of you’ve died? Again?”
“Unclear,” Lan Xiaohui interjected. “Please continue.”
“Lans,” Wei Wuxian lamented. “A thousand years and you’re all still like this. It’s incredible, really.”
“We’ll take that as a compliment,” Lan Xiaohui said, before Lan Bowen could open his mouth.
“Ah.” A sudden frisson of pain passed over Wei Wuxian’s face. He looked down at his lap, at the pale hand still held between his own. “A-Yuan used to say it just like that.” His throat worked. “Sorry,” he said, after another moment. “I’ll get used to this.” He squeezed Lan Zhan’s unmoving hand, and then got to his feet, gently placing Lan Zhan’s hand back on his chest. “Can I have some of that paper?”
Wordless, Lan Bowen passed over the notebook and pen. Wei Wuxian began to sketch.
“The yao we fought looked like this,” he said, drawing something lithe and sinuous. “It was much longer than the boat. There was this…reddish-black oil that oozed off its scales, too.” He tapped the pen on the paper. “Lan Zhan wondered if it could be reasoned with. Some yao are intelligent, you know. Others, like the Tortoise of Slaughter,” he scrunched up his nose, “not so much.”
“Did you really kill the Tortoise of Slaughter?” Lan Bowen interrupted, then immediately looked shamefaced. Wei Wuxian smirked.
“Out of all my exploits, I think that one is the least objectionable. Yes. We did.” He turned the paper over, pointedly ignoring the way Lan Bowen’s eyes went wide. Lan Xiaohui’s expression remained unchanging. Wei Wuxian continued sketching. “Unfortunately, when we got there, the damn thing was already attacking a fishing boat, so we had to act fast.” He stopped drawing, and nodded towards Lan Zhan. “Lan Zhan was—is—was? One of the most powerful cultivators of our generation. So believe me when I say that a single strike of spiritual energy from him was quite enough to at least damage any yao.”
“It didn’t?” said Lan Xiaohui. “Did something happen?”
“Lan Zhan went straight in with Chord Assassination,” Wei Wuxian said. He had his eyes closed, as if he was reimagining the scene. “But as soon as it hit, it…I don’t know how to describe it. It absorbed?” He barked out a sudden laugh. “Rubber!” he said. “Like rubber! Or no, that’s not quite right because rubber would neutralize, wouldn’t it? Hmm…” He rubbed his finger across his nose.
“It didn’t neutralize it?” Lan Bowen said. “I thought you said the yao wasn’t injured by the spiritual energy.”
“It didn’t neutralize it,” Wei Wuxian said, “it absorbed it. And then,” he gestured, “it sent it back. All that pure, concentrated, spiritual energy? The bastard sent it right back at Lan Zhan.”
“Lightening,” Lan Xiaohui said suddenly, nodding in understanding. “And the more powerful the attack…”
“The more powerful the retribution. Yes.” Wei Wuxian’s voice tightened. “I said Lan Zhan was powerful, didn’t I? The only thing powerful enough to neutralize my Lan Zhan was, well.” He nodded towards the figure on the bed. “Lan Zhan.”
“So that was the source of the curse,” Lan Xiaohui’s frown deepened. “How did you defeat the yao, in the end?”
“I didn’t.” Wei Wuxian let loose a self-deprecating smile. “With Lan Zhan like that, I couldn’t…” He sighed. “I fled back to Cloud Recesses like a coward with my tail between my legs.” He shook his head. “It was Sect Leader Jiang,” he said. “With Zidian. Like countering like. Unfortunately, killing the yao did fuck-all for the curse on Lan Zhan.”
Lan Xiaohui’s lips twisted. “This Sect Leader Jiang,” she said, and her tone was wry. “His given name didn’t happen to be Cheng, did it?”
Wei Wuxian waggled a finger at her. “Your grasp of ancient cultivation history is very strong, Director Lan.” She sighed.
“Does he know?”
“What? No!” Wei Wuxian immediately looked alarmed. “And don’t tell him. I don’t need him to hate me all over again. Things are bad enough as it is.”
“He deserves to know.”
“He can figure it out himself, just like I did.”
“He’s going to figure it out eventually.”
“This is very interesting,” Lan Bowen interrupted, “but if we could get back to the actual nature of the curse on Hanguang-Jun?” He paused, then said to Lan Xiaohui, “By the way, if I’m the reincarnation of some famous cultivator please, please never tell me.”
“You’re not,” she said flatly.
“Ouch,” said Wei Wuxian.
“The curse,” Lan Bowen said, impatiently. Wei Wuxian grimaced.
“The theory the physicians eventually came up with,” he said, “was that the curse worked the same as the yao. The more energy Lan Zhan—or any of us—put into fighting it, the stronger it grew.” His jaw clenched. “We tried everything.” He thumped his fist on the table. “All the variations of Clarity, of Rest. I think Lan Xichen made up new ones on the spot. Acupuncture, tonics, leeches. Nothing worked. He just—” he had to stop, breathing out through his nose. “He just got worse and worse. The only thing we could do, in the end, was try to seal his core, to slow the spread. God.” He slid down to the floor, covering his face. “It’s been more than a thousand years,” he mumbled into his hands. He looked up, a wet sheen to his eyes. “But to me? Now? Everything feels so fresh. I must have died feeling like this.”
“You died saving his life,” Lan Xiaohui pointed out. Wei Wuxian snorted.
“It was locked on to Lan Zhan,” he said. “I thought if I gave it something, something stronger to focus on, it might switch targets. So that, you know, rather than fighting it, we’d just sort of redirect it. Then the curse could drain away from Lan Zhan and he could wake up.”
“And that’s what you did?”
“That’s what I tried.” He began to sketch again. “This is what I did.” He showed them the picture of the array. Lan Bowen squinted.
“I have no idea what that’s supposed to do,” he admitted, after another moment. “Director?”
“Hmm.” Lan Xiaohui’s brow furrowed. “Me neither,” she said finally. “I’ve never seen it.”
Wei Wuxian made a noise of frustration. “What I meant to do,” he said, jabbing the paper for emphasis, “was give the curse something else to focus on. My cultivation wasn’t strong enough and the curse didn’t…it didn’t like resentful energy. Wasn’t attracted to it. And we couldn’t risk combining cultivation energy with another person, because then the curse would just turn on them. Though there were, of course, many offers to help Hanguang-Jun.” Wei Wuxian snorted. “He refused them all. Typical Lan Zhan. So, I thought my own life energy might work.” He ignored the way Lan Xiaohui’s lips thinned and Lan Bowen frowned deeply. They hadn’t been there. They had no right to judge him. “Anyway,” he said. “What I actually did, was accidentally lock Lan Zhan and the curse together in some sort of eternal stasis fueled by my own life force!” He shook his head. “What an idiot.”
“Uh,” said Lan Bowen. “How did that even happen?”
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian said, “Array inventions are an inexact science, okay? I only had one shot. Also, not to nitpick or anything, but I didn’t expect for worshippers to start showing up and recharging the damn thing.”
“I’m just saying—”
“I think it was the curse absorbing and then returning my energy like an eternal, stupid, energy ping-pong ball.”
“You know, I bet someone would pay a lot of money for that.”
“Is Lan Jingyi in your direct line of ancestry, Dr. Lan?” Wei Wuxian demanded. “Really?” He tossed the notebook and pen away, glancing back at Lan Zhan. “Besides,” he said, voice bitter. “What I did in the cave broke the feedback loop. As you saw, the curse marches on.”
Silence followed his words.
“By all accounts, Hanguang-Jun loved Wei Wuxian with all of his being,” Lan Xiaohui said into the quiet. “I doubt he would have been pleased to wake only to discover you dead.”
Wei Wuxian glared at her from his spot on the floor. “Well, he didn’t get a vote. And he won’t this time, either. I’ll use the same array if I have to.”
“And lock him in stasis again? Sacrifice yourself?” Lan Xiaohui’s voice was sharp. When Wei Wuxian bristled, she said, “Times are different now, Wei Wuxian. For you, for him. For the Lan Sect.” Her tone softened. “Over one thousand years of progress since the last time you tried to heal him. I think there is a chance we will find something.”
“There was a great deal of development on curses around the turn of the seventeenth century,” Lan Bowen put it. “Very comprehensive. I’ll start there.”
Wei Wuxian stared at them both for a few seconds, before the ghost of a reluctant smile eased onto his face. “Fine,” he said, and got to his feet, brushing himself off. “But if we find nothing…” he let himself trail off, the meaning clear.
“We will find something,” Lan Xiaohui said. Wei Wuxian sighed.
“I should find my brother.”
“I sent him off with Lan Liang to eat and rest.” Lan Bowen tapped his watch. “It’s quite late in the evening, you know. We’ve put him up in the guest house you shared last night.” Wei Wuxian nodded, moved as if to step outside, then hesitated.
“I don’t want to leave him alone,” he admitted. “I know he’s—” his voice cracked, “—he’s okay for now. But I just…” he looked helplessly at them. Lan Bowen bowed his head slightly.
“I can stay here,” he said, “Until you come back.” He turned to Lan Xiaohui. “Director Lan can bring me what I need from the library.”
“Thank you,” said Wei Wuxian. And, though it was a different time, a different place, he placed his hands together, arms extended out in a circle, and bowed. “Thank you.”
“Oh no, none of that,” Lan Bowen said, flustered. Wei Wuxian laughed, and this time it sounded honest.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I just think Lan Zhan would appreciate the gesture. He’d be so embarrassed if I were remiss in my thanks on his behalf.” He straightened his shoulders. “I’d better find Jiang Cheng before he tries to find me,” he said. He cast one more look at the sleeping cultivator on the bed. “But I’ll be back,” he said, more to Lan Zhan than anyone else. “I promise.”
He tracked Jiang Cheng down to the rooms they’d stayed in the night before. When he opened the door, his brother looked both relieved and irate to see him.
“What are you doing out of bed?” he said, placing his book on a side table and standing up from the armchair he’d been sitting in. He was over to the doorway in two strides, pulling Wei Wuxian inside. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I…woke up?” Wei Wuxian tried. He immediately winced. Too on the nose for the situation, that one. “Jiang Cheng,” he started, while Jiang Cheng shoved a bowl of uneaten congee at him and pushed him down to sit at the table. “I’ve—there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Simple foods,” Jiang Cheng said. “Start with the that.”
“There is literally no flavor to this,” Wei Wuxian observed, but ate it anyway, the whole time Jiang Cheng watching him like a hawk. Maybe it was a good thing it was so plain, he thought. Despite not eating since lunchtime, his appetite was low. “Hey, Jiang Cheng,” he said, setting the bowl aside, “if I told you I was a reincarnated cultivator and that the guy in the other room was my thousand year old husband from another life, would you believe me?”
Jiang Cheng snorted, “You want me to believe someone actually married you in a past life? Please.” He refilled Wei Wuxian’s bowl. Wei Wuxian looked at it, then at Jiang Cheng. He pushed the bowl away.
“But actually,” he said. Jiang Cheng pursed his lips.
“I don’t care if you’re not hungry—oh.” He frowned. “Are you—you’re serious?” The lines in his forehead deepened. “Wei Wuxian, tell me you’re not serious.”
“I am very serious,” Wei Wuxian’s mouth said, while the rest of him wished to take it all back. What was the harm in keeping Jiang Cheng in the dark, anyway? It wasn’t like he’d ever figure it out on his own.
The thought gave Wei Wuxian a sudden, very uncomfortable flash of déjà vu. He pushed it aside. Jiang Cheng said,
“I’m calling Jiejie.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket.
“You don’t have service.”
“I have wifi internet calling—” Wei Ying lunged for it and, with the element of surprise, managed to snatch the phone away. Jiang Cheng made an affronted noise.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. “Just—listen to me.”
“Forgive me for not wanting to hear you say crazy things!” Jiang Cheng retorted, trying to grab his phone, but Wei Wuxian held it out of his reach.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy. I think it’s crazy. But it’s true.”
“How do you know?” Jiang Cheng demanded. He sat down again. “How do you know it’s not just in your head—not just this place, or that weird doctor—I knew he was weird,” he muttered, and touched his abdomen self-consciously.
“The sword,” Wei Wuxian said. “My name. Both names. The flute. The—I shouldn’t have been able to break that thing in the cave, Jiang Cheng. We shouldn’t have even been able to find the cave! Or Lan Zhan! I just—” He took in a deep breath, then exhaled. “It’s too many coincidences,” he said. “Too many tangible things that shouldn’t—fuck.” He scrubbed at his face. “I remember him,” he said, voice breaking. “I remember you.” Oh no. He hadn’t meant to mention that one. “And I remember—there were so many bad things that happened, but there were good things, too, and I remember them, and I don’t—I don’t want to—it sucks, A-Cheng. It sucks, but it’s…” he shrugged. “It’s true. I’m sorry.”
Jiang Cheng was staring at him. “You actually believe this.” Wei Wuxian’s shoulders caved.
“I knew you wouldn’t,” he said. “I just—I promised I’d be honest with you. So.” He stood up, placing Jiang Cheng’s phone back on the table. “Here.” Jiang Cheng snatched it up, then frowned when Wei Wuxian made to move away from the table.
“Where are you going?”
“I was going to stay with Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “I have to make sure he’s not…” he couldn’t finish it. “Someone needs to watch him.”
“Lan who? That cultivator? Wei Wuxian, what do you mean? You’ve never even talked to him and now you need to, what, watch over him? Are you serious?” Jiang Cheng’s tone was abrasive, loud, of course it was. But underneath the volume was an undercurrent of something else. “You’ve had a seizure and fainted twice in the past twelve hours and you think it’s a good idea to be responsible for someone else? Think of yourself!” When Wei Wuxian took another step, Jiang Cheng growled, “Wei Wuxian!” His voice cracked.
He was afraid, Wei Wuxian realized. Jiang Cheng was afraid. He took a breath. “Jiang Cheng,” he said. “Look at me.” When his brother did so, glowering, reluctant, but there, he leaned over the table, placed a hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and squeezed. “I need you to trust me,” he said. “Please.”
Jiang Cheng clenched his eyes shut. “Promise me you’ll visit the doctor when we get back home.” Wei Wuxian’s lips twisted, hesitating, then he nodded.
“I promise,” he said. The corners of his mouth curled up in a half-smile. “You can make the appointment.”
Jiang Cheng’s breath hissed out between his teeth. “Okay,” he said, giving a sharp nod. “Okay.” He crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair to give Wei Wuxian an imperious look. “I’ll follow your lead here,” he said. “But when we get back home, remember. You promised.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said. His little smile softened. “Thanks, A-Cheng.”
“And you have to talk to Jiejie, too.”
“What? Aiya, Jiang Cheng! I don’t want to worry her!”
“Oh, so you’ll worry me, but not her?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“Jiejie should never have to be worried, ever,” Wei Wuxian said haughtily. He lifted his chin, “I’m going now,” he said. “Remember, you said you trusted me.”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Jiang Cheng scowled, as Wei Wuxian marched out the room. As soon as he was out of sight however, the scowl fell from Jiang Cheng’s face and he dropped his head into his hands.
Great. Less than two days and his brother was already halfway inducted into a cult. His mother was going to kill them. Jiang Cheng looked at the leftover bowl of congee that Wei Wuxian had left on the table. He glanced over to the counter, where he’d placed the red bean buns he’d grabbed if Wei Wuxian’s appetite proved up to it. He turned to eye the book he’d left on the side table, then the very comfortable bed he’d been planning to sleep in.
“Damn it,” he muttered. He stood and shoved the chair he’d been sitting in back underneath the table. He stretched his hand out to grab the bag with the red bean buns, then snatched his jacket from the coat hook on his way out the door.
It took him longer than he would have liked to find his brother, plus the total stranger that his brother seemed to want to call Jiang Cheng’s brother-in-law, but who Jiang Cheng was starting think of privately as a royal pain in his ass. The Lans were no help at all; Cloud Recesses seemed completely deserted. He checked his watch and rolled his eyes when he saw it was after ten pm.
In the end, it was the lightly haunting flute music that drew him to the correct building.
He halted next to the slightly ajar window that the music seemed to be coming from, and peered inside. He recognized his brother from behind, sitting in a chair at the unconscious cultivator’s bedside. There was a pile of old-looking books stacked on a table in the corner, and an empty mug, but no one else in the room. A second, empty cot had been lined up against the wall.
Typical, Jiang Cheng thought. Wei Wuxian had a whole bed to sleep in, but all he wanted to do was play music on a haunted flute for his make-believe boyfriend. Jiang Cheng listened for another moment, and then realized to his horror that he actually recognized the song. Wei Wuxian was playing that song, the one he hummed when he thought no one was listening, or for boredom, or for comfort.
The song stopped. He watched as Wei Wuxian put the flute down and gently grabbed the guy’s hand.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he heard his brother say, the sound carrying clearly through the open window. “I wish I could play Clarity for you. Or Rest.” He chuckled. “Wouldn’t be as good as yours, of course, but it’s the thought that counts, right?”
Naturally, the unconscious Lan Zhan didn’t answer, but Jiang Cheng still had to supress a full body shudder. Was that really his brother? That…mushy persona?
A sigh. “I miss you.”
The back of Jiang Cheng’s neck burned. Nope, he thought. No, no, no. Clearly, Wei Wuxian could not actually be trusted. Jiang Cheng was going to have to save him from himself.
“Wei Wuxian!” he snapped. He could see Wei Wuxian start, then look around in confusion.
“Over here.” Jiang Cheng waved to him through the window.
“What are you doing here?” Wei Wuxian gently placed the cultivator’s—Lan Zhan’s, Jiang Cheng reminded himself—hand back on the bed, and came over to the window. “Are you spying on me?”
“No!” Jiang Cheng said, maybe a little too quickly. Wei Wuxian peered at him.
“Are you sure?”
“Just tell me where the door to this stupid building is,” Jiang Cheng said impatiently. Wei Wuxian smirked.
“You could climb in through the window.” He received a aggrieved look in response. Wei Wuxian laughed. “That way,” he said, pointing. “Just keep going around and you’ll find the main door.”
“I’d better,” Jiang Cheng grumbled, as he left the window in search of a legitimate door, Wei Wuxian’s chuckles following him.
He found the door and then the hallway and followed the sound of the stupid flute to the correct room. When he got there, Wei Wuxian jerked his head to indicate Jiang Cheng should come inside, but otherwise didn’t stop playing. Jiang Cheng came in and sat on the cot, away from Wei Wuxian and the man on the bed.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine himself at home, listening to Wei Wuxian practice after school as teenagers. Of course, the dizi resonated differently than the metal concert flute that Wei Wuxian had first learned on, but it was similar enough to sustain the illusion for a little while.
Jiang Cheng frowned. Listening to the melody, the melody that he’d heard his brother sing, hum, play, over and over at home, at school, in the car, and now he played it for this man, this stranger he said he knew—that he had known, a small part of Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but wonder.
The song ended. Jiang Cheng opened his eyes. Across the room, Wei Wuxian was lowering the flute to his lap. He stretched back in his chair, then hunched over, rubbing his eyes. His attention never wavered from the man lying on the bed in front of him.
“You should sleep,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian didn’t even turn around. He shook his head.
“I’m not tired.”
“Shut up.” Jiang Cheng stood up from the cot. “Just take a nap. I can, uh.” He gestured vaguely to the cultivator on the bed. “I’ll wake you up if anything changes.”
But Wei Wuxian still hesitated. “Jiang Cheng…you should sleep. You did all that driving.”
“Ha!” Jiang Cheng snorted, suddenly remembering all the trouble he’d had to go through just to get back to Cloud Recesses in the first place. He’d meant to yell at Wei Wuxian about it, but finding his brother unconscious on arrival had stymied those plans. He shook his finger at Wei Wuxian. “I almost forgot to tell you. You idiot!” His brother blinked, looking confused.
“Are you just being generally descriptive, or…?”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “No,” he said, as he grabbed Wei Wuxian by the arm and hauled him up. He began to pull him over to the cot. “I took so long coming back because someone left the overhead light on in the car. I had to call fucking Nie Huaisang back to get a jump.”
“Oooh,” Wei Wuxian said. He smiled. Guiltily. “That’s, uh…oof.” Jiang Cheng pushed him down onto the bed. “Weird,” Wei Wuxian finished.
“The battery,” Jiang Cheng informed him, while shoving him flat, “was completely drained. Give me your fucking shoes.”
“Uh, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian tried, attempting to rise from his newly prone position. “I’m really fine, okay. I’m not that tired—sorry about the car though, my bad—”
“No,” said Jiang Cheng, pushing him back down. Wei Wuxian looked surprised, then amused, then annoyed.
“You can’t just—”
“Ten minutes,” Jiang Cheng said. “If you’re still awake in ten minutes, we can switch.”
“Fine,” Wei Wuxian huffed. He crossed his arms, pouting. Jiang Cheng nodded sharply, then flipped off the light. “Hey!” Wei Wuxian protested. “That’s cheating.”
“If you’re not tired,” Jiang Cheng said, not at all smugly, “then you won’t fall asleep.”
He was asleep in three.
The thing about the Burial Mounds, was that they weren’t empty. Oh, sure, they were empty of humans, of most animals, save a few hardy rodents and the insects, but they weren’t empty. The dead took up quite a lot of space, after all. And so did their things, those abandoned things that cracked and crumbled in their absence. Full of mold and rust and ready to fall apart. But sometimes, like Wei Wuxian himself, a little bit of life could be found in the here and the there.
Wei Wuxian’s background knowledge on metalworking was closer to theoretical than practical. If he’d had to turn a sword into an amulet through purely mundane means, it was unlikely he would ever have left the Burial Mounds at all, let alone forged the seal that would bring him both victory and eventual downfall.
He didn’t have the power on his own, but he did have the pathways, smooth-run and ready through his veins. He borrowed the power from the unwilling dead. It was easy, really: invite them in, trap them to stay.
The forge was helpful for the physical aspects; melting down Yin Iron with nothing but borrowed resentful energy and determination would have been beyond even Wei Wuxian, but once it was melted, it was fluid and easy to redirect. He invited more spirits into his enticing living soul, baiting them to see if they could be the ones to take him, be the ones to have him. He directed them all into the pool of liquid metal, adding more and more potency to the Yin Iron’s already strong reservoir of resentful energy.
When the amulet cooled, it was the perfect size for putting in one’s pocket. It was as dark as his own golden core had been light. Holding it hurt; letting go was worse.
He would never be defenseless again.
Wei Wuxian slowly sat up. The room was silent and still dark, but the grey of the early morning seeped underneath the curtains that Jiang Cheng must have pulled shut. He could see Jiang Cheng slumped over in the chair by the bed that Wei Wuxian had been sitting in earlier. The angle of his neck looked incredibly uncomfortable. Wei Wuxian got out of the cot and walked over to him.
“Jiang Cheng,” he murmured, shaking his shoulder. Jiang Cheng gave him a bleary look.
“What time’sit?” he slurred. Wei Wuxian’s lips twitched.
“Come on,” he said, pulling his brother to his wobbly feet. He guided him over to the cot and pressed him down. “Go to sleep.”
Jiang Cheng furrowed his brow. “Only if you don’t do anything stupid while ‘m sleeping,” he muttered, and then, without waiting for an answer, rolled over onto his side, his breathing evening out. Wei Wuxian snorted softly, and drew the covers around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders.
He went over to Lan Zhan next. Lan Zhan looked the same as he had the past few days: pale, still, only the slow rise and fall of his chest to indicate he was even alive. Wei Wuxian touched his cheek. It was soft. Cool. He pulled the sheets back to Lan Zhan’s waist and lifted his shirt to reveal Lan Zhan’s stomach and chest. Bile rose when he saw the growth of the lightening flowers ever nearer to Lan Zhan’s heart. He swallowed, throat tightening.
They were running out of time.
He tugged Lan Zhan’s shirt back down and pulled the covers up so that they reached to Lan Zhan’s chin. He spent what was probably quite a bit longer than necessary smoothing invisible winkles out of the cloth around Lan Zhan’s collarbone and shoulders. He pressed the back of his hand to Lan Zhan’s cheek, then gathered up Lan Zhan’s cool hand in his.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He squeezed Lan Zhan’s hand. “I was too selfish to let you go, and now look what happened.” He swallowed. “I don’t know if I can fix this, Lan Zhan. I’m so sorry.”
Of course, Lan Zhan didn’t answer. Wei Wuxian kissed his palm, then gently placed Lan Zhan’s hands back at his sides. He stood, still staring at that beautiful, beloved face.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “Promise.”
Despite what certain, rude, members of his family might say, Wei Wuxian did have a modicum of self-preservation. This was why, before leaving the room, he made sure to scrawl a note to Jiang Cheng on the scrap paper that Lan Bowen had left on the table next to his dirty coffee mug. Lan Bowen, who’d gone home with a stack of books larger even than the ones he’d left in Lan Zhan’s room, might have been monopolizing the vast majority of reference about curses and curse breaking and curse removal, but that was fine.
Wei Wuxian had a different idea.
Sometimes, a nightmare was just a nightmare. Wei Wuxian knew that well enough. But other times, even a nightmare could be useful. When he got to the library, he pursed his lips, realizing that it was still too early even for the Lan library to be open. He was just considering the merits of breaking in and whether or not that would get him tossed out of Cloud Recess, when a familiar face came around the corner of the walkway, its owner immediately grinding to a halt upon seeing him.
“Uh,” said Lan Liang, looking like he wanted to be literally anywhere else. “Hello, Wei Wuxian.”
“Lan Liang!” Wei Wuxian said, a grin slipping onto his face easy as anything. “Hello, what a surprise, you Lans still get up at five, eh? Amazing. Want to let me in?”
“Not really,” said Lan Liang. Wei Wuxian pouted at him.
“Come on. I need to do some research.”
“The library opens at seven-thirty.” Lan Liang looked at his watch. “You can’t wait an hour?”
“I have special permission,” Wei Wuxian assured him. He did not add that this special permission had been granted more than one thousand years ago by someone who was most likely dead by now. Lan Liang still looked doubtful. Wei Wuxian decided it was time to go for the big guns. So to speak.
“Listen,” he said. “I understand you doubt my commitment to respecting your family’s ways. But I promise, if you let me into the library now, I’ll follow all the rules.”
“Sure.” Wei Wuxian held up his hand. “One: no killing within the borders of Cloud Recesses. Two: no dueling in Cloud Recesses. Three: no lascivious or lustful thoughts—hm.” He blinked, then shook it off. “Four, five, six: no shouting, no sneaking out at night, and no running in Cloud Recesses. Seven: no teasing—ah. Hmm. Uh, eight is—”
“Okay, okay,” Lan Liang interrupted, looking even more confused. He took a set of keys out of his pocket. “Why do you even know those? Ugh.” He shuddered. “You’re giving me flashbacks.”
“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you,” Wei Wuxian assured him, as Lan Liang unlocked the doors. “Thanks, nephew!” he saluted him, then glided inside and shut the doors firmly on Lan Liang’s stupefied face.
As soon as he was alone however, the smile vanished. Wei Wuxian tilted his head back and let out a long slow breath, then set his shoulders.
“Okay,” he said, looking at the long shelves of books. “Okay.”
The first time Jiang Cheng wandered into the library looking for Wei Wuxian, he searched for a fruitless thirty-seven minutes before stalking back out again, empty-handed. The second time, on Lan Liang’s insistence that yes, his weird brother had gone in there, by the way, did the seizure give him brain damage, Jiang Cheng only found him because Wei Wuxian forgot to close the secret door.
Jiang Cheng descended the spiral staircase to find Wei Wuxian in the eye of a hurricane of chaos. Books everywhere, old paper, some wires, and a laptop? Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, shut it, took a steadying gulp of air, then said, in what he thought was a very calm and rational tone of voice, “How did you even get down here?”
“Slept with the guy in charge,” Wei Wuxian said absently, not looking up. He turned a page of his book. It looked…surprisingly modern. Hardback, with a plastic protective cover. “Don’t worry, though,” he added, as Jiang Cheng let out an audible choking noise, “I married him, too.”
Jiang Cheng threw his hands in the air. “I hate you,” he said, and stormed his way up the stairs and back outside.
He returned twenty minutes later with a plate of steamed buns. He nearly dropped them when he reached the stairs only to hear flute music. Following the music to its inevitable source, Jiang Cheng said, sourly, “They let you play the haunted flute in the library?”
This time, Wei Wuxian managed a quick quirk of his lips. He lowered the flute. “There’s actually a rule against it,” he said, grabbing one of the steamed buns. “Don’t tell Lan Liang.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Jiang Cheng sniped. He sat down on the floor nearby. “What is all this, anyway?” It looked like the time when Wei Wuxian was fifteen and decided he wanted to be a computer scientist—starting with disassembling their shared computer all over his bedroom. He’d put it back together eventually, but Jiang Cheng maintained that it had never been the same after that.
“Oh, uh.” Wei Wuxian shrugged, carefully casual. “Just experimenting, I guess. I had kind of an idea.”
“Curses?” Jiang Cheng said, curling his lip. He didn’t believe in curses. On the other hand, he didn’t not believe in curses. And it had been a weird couple of days. He wasn’t going to think about it.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, looking a little shifty. “Sort of. Actually,” he said, brightening a little, “you’re the one who gave me the idea. Or some of it.”
“I did?” Jiang Cheng thought back, but couldn’t remember any brilliant thoughts he’d had involving curses. This was not reassuring. “Okay.”
“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian grabbed the wire and began to connect it to—a circuit board? Was that a circuit board? What the hell? “Anyway, it’s somewhere to start.” For the briefest of moments, his cheerful mask slipped, and there was an expression that Jiang Cheng had never, in all their years together, seen his brother wear. It was hollow and grit and hurt. Then Jiang Cheng blinked, and it was gone. Wei Wuxian’s face was blank and pleasant as he manhandled his wires and began messing around with a pack of AA batteries. Jiang Cheng’s stomach clenched.
“Wei Wuxian,” he said quietly. “What’s going to happen if…if there’s no, you know. Helping him?”
Wei Wuxian’s hands tightened around the pack of batteries, he looked up at Jiang Cheng. “Don’t worry,” he said. He was smiling. It didn’t reach his eyes. “Everything’s going to be fine. It’ll all work out.”
“You—” Jiang Cheng started, but couldn’t finish. His chest hurt. Wei Wuxian said,
“I’m sorry, Jiang Cheng. I’ve really got to concentrate right now. I’m sure you’re bored. Do you mind closing that secret door on your way back up?”
Unable to speak lest the tightness in his throat give him away, Jiang Cheng swiped the empty bun plate off the floor and tucked it under his arm. Wordless, he turned and climbed his way out of the room, shutting the door just like Wei Wuxian had asked. It felt ominously like shutting the door to a tomb.
He didn’t head straight back to the guest rooms, nor to the infirmary to hang out with the unconscious guy who’d somehow managed to twist up his brother so much he’d make faces like that just at the thought of his death. Jiang Cheng knew Wei Wuxian tended to take failure rather personally, but this was excessive, even for him.
Instead, Jiang Cheng wandered for a while up and down the twisting paths of Cloud Recesses, thinking, fuming, wondering. It was really a beautiful place. Oddly intuitive, too, for all that the paths between the buildings and the trees seemed to have little order to them, other than to be aesthetically pleasing. His feet guided him as if on instinct, until he’d found his way to a traditional style house with the words “Frost Room” inscribed across the entryway. There was a veritable bamboo grove growing between artistically placed stones along the home’s perimeter.
It felt oddly familiar.
Jiang Cheng went up to the door and before he could tell himself to stop being crazy, knocked. A few moments, while Jiang Cheng fought a mental battle between staying and running away, and then the sound of light footsteps and the door slid open.
“Mr. Jiang,” Lan Xiaohui said. She looked a little surprised, but more resigned than anything, and that gave Jiang Cheng the impetus to say,
“If Wei Wuxian can’t help that cultivator, what is he planning to do?”
Her nostrils flared. “It won’t come to that. We won’t allow it.”
“You don’t know my brother,” Jiang Cheng said flatly. She surveyed him with a curious look.
“And you do?”
He shrugged, uncomfortable. “He said some weird things, yesterday.” He paused, waiting for her to speak. She didn’t. He continued, “About memories and—knowing that cultivator. That Lan Zhan. And being…” he couldn’t finish.
“Do you believe him?” It was soft, gentle. It was infuriating.
“No,” he bit out. “It’s absurd.”
She nodded knowingly, like she had expected that. “But do you trust him?”
The question hung in the air between them, weighted silence among the creak of the bamboo.
“Yes,” he said, pulling the word reluctantly from behind his teeth. Lan Xiaohui inclined her head.
“Come with me,” she said, beckoning him inside. “There is something I want to show you.” And she turned and vanished into the interior of the house. Jiang Cheng stood at the threshold, hesitant. He couldn’t see inside. It was dark, especially compared to the bright of the mid-morning. Then, setting his jaw, he took a steadying breath, and followed her in.
Lan Zhan would never know it, but the invention designed to save his life made its debut in the early hours of the evening. Two Lans, Wei Wuxian, and a curious but reluctant Jiang Cheng gathered in the now cramped infirmary room. For his part, Lan Bowen looked exhausted.
“I’m sorry,” he said, throwing down a pile of books that should probably have never been removed from the special permissions section of the library in the first place, let alone tossed haplessly onto a desk. He scrubbed his face with his hands. “All these curse-breaking techniques require spiritual energy. But I know the more we give it, the stronger it gets.” He pressed his lips together. “I’ll keep looking.”
“That’s okay,” said Wei Wuxian. He didn’t even look that surprised, let alone upset. “It was the same when I was first looking, too. This thing—” he sighed, jaw clenching. “It doesn’t act like a normal curse. It can’t be beaten or broken like we’d break a normal curse. We can’t give it what it wants, because what it wants is to eat Lan Zhan.”
“You have something in mind,” Lan Xiaohui guessed. The book cart that Wei Wuxian had apparently liberated from the library and dragged behind himself into Lan Zhan’s infirmary room, might have also been a clue.
“Well,” said Wei Wuxian, though he didn’t sound too happy about it. “I had an idea. Jiang Cheng sort of gave it to me. Plus some—” he stumbled, “—some memories. That I had.”
The two Lans looked at Jiang Cheng, who held up his hands as if to say: Yeah, I have no idea what he’s talking about, either. Wei Wuxian wheeled the book cart closer to Lan Zhan and parked it right by his bedside. Jiang Cheng peeked inside.
“What’s that?” he said, frowning. It was large, black, rectangular box. There were also some wires sticking out that Wei Wuxian must have added to it, but Jiang Cheng thought he could see some suspiciously familiar writing on the side.
“Car battery,” Wei Wuxian answered. He continued fiddling with the wires.
“Car battery?” Lan Bowen wondered. “Why do you have a car battery? Where did you get it?”
“A car,” Wei Wuxian said, very definitely not looking at Jiang Cheng.
It took Jiang Cheng a moment, then he scowled. “Wei Wuxian!” he snapped. “How are we supposed to get home now?”
“I’ll give it back when we’re done!” Wei Wuxian gave him a winsome smile. Jiang Cheng crossed his arms.
“Oh, sure, after you’ve experimented on it? Do I look stupid?”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, but Lan Xiaohui held up her hand. “Enough,” she said. She turned to Wei Wuxian. “Tell us what this is supposed to do.”
“It’s just a test.” Wei Wuxian moved to the table and grabbed one of the two swords. The silvery one. “Hopefully it—” Wei Wuxian muttered. He pulled the hilt. There was a moment, and then the sword slid out smoothly. Wei Wuxian let out a breath. “Thank you,” he told it. Jiang Cheng exchanged glances with Lan Bowen.
“Were you guys able to do that?” He got a helpless shrug in response. Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose.
It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t mean anything.
“I tried to fight it with resentful energy, before.” Wei Wuxian carefully began to wrap a wire around the point of the sword. “But it didn’t absorb it. I guess it was because it was already resentful energy, you know?”
“No,” said Jiang Cheng, who did not. He was ignored.
“Sometimes, when you can’t fight a curse, I’ve had some luck in transferring it. Problem is, Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy is so strong, this curse doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere else. So then, when I…” Wei Wuxian trailed off. “The life energy,” he said. “But in the end, even that wasn’t enough. Not to completely draw the curse out of Lan Zhan. And then, when I broke the seal on it, well.” He gestured to Lan Zhan. “The curse went right back to what it had been doing.”
“You’re saying it’s attracted to spiritual energy,” Lan Xiaohui said, brow furrowing.
“Not quite,” said Wei Wuxian. He placed several red slips of paper with writing all along the battery. If Jiang Cheng tilted his head, he could read the characters, but the words they made up seemed nonsensical. “I think it wants to eat it.”
“It wants to eat spiritual energy?” Lan Bowen repeated, eyes widening. He looked quickly at Lan Zhan. “So—”
“Lan Zhan’s golden core is very strong.” The Wei Wuxian’s expression turned soft as he regarded the man on the bed. “A furnace. Delicious,” he added, “for a curse from a creature that absorbed spiritual energy.”
Lan Xiaohui regarded him. “So, what do you plan to do?” In response, Wei Wuxian slapped the battery.
“I’m going to give it something else to eat,” Wei Wuxian said, and pulled out his flute.
They stared at him. “What,” said Lan Bowen, eventually.
“It’s actually not that different than what I tried before,” Wei Wuxian said. He blew a few experimental notes. Lan Bowen and Lan Xiaohui both tensed. Noticing this, Wei Wuxian stopped and coughed into his sleeve. “Before, I tried to draw it out of Lan Zhan, but it didn’t have anywhere to go, plus what I was giving it wasn’t quite enough. Now…” He rested a hand on the battery. “A miracle of the modern age,” he said. “Bait. And storage.”
“But you can’t store spiritual energy like that,” Lan Bowen protested. “That doesn’t even make sense!”
Wei Wuxian scoffed. “Of course you can. How did you people think I made the Stygian Tiger Seal?”
“The what?” Jiang Cheng sighed, while Lan Bowen’s face went panicked and Lan Xiaohui’s, for some unfathomable reason, lit up in interest. “Wei Wuxian,” he said, tiredly, to head off the topic of whatever this amulet-thing was. He’d been a reluctant audience to most of his brother’s inventions over the past fifteen years, and he didn’t remember anything like that. He filed this knowledge away along with the rest of the things he was avoiding thinking about, like the new and heavy weight in his pocket, curtesy of Lan Xiaohui. “Are you seriously telling me that you want to bait and then trap a curse into a car battery?”
“Um,” said Wei Wuxian. “Yes?”
“And then you want to put that thing back in my car?”
“I mean, we don’t have to, but I don’t see the problem…”
Jiang Cheng gave him a very long look, which Wei Wuxian returned with one full of innocence and also obstinacy. It was familiar. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes, but Wei Wuxian just blinked. Finally, Jiang Cheng tossed his hands in the air. “You know what? You know what? Fine! This might as well happen. Let’s see this.” He sat down in one of the chairs by the wall, fuming.
“Now, hold on,” Lan Bowen tried to interject, but Wei Wuxian was already moving.
“Just one thing,” he murmured, and he placed the hilt of the sword in the unconscious cultivator’s limp hand. He pointed at the flimsy, red papers he’d stuck onto the battery and, to Jiang Cheng’s utter confusion, the letters there began to glow. Then Wei Wuxian began to play.
It was not like the song he had played before. That one had been full of sweetness and yearning. This was stronger, tantalizing, long and drawn. Cajoling. Sweeping. Luring. And there was something else to it, too. Something that made the hairs on Jiang Cheng’s arms and the back of his neck stand on end. There was power in this song. It filled the room, stifling the air. Jiang Cheng snuck a glance over to Lan Xiaohui and Lan Bowen. They were both riveted in place. Jiang Cheng couldn’t tell if the expressions on their faces were fear, awe, or some mixture of both.
He looked back at Wei Wuxian. His brother’s attention was focused entirely on the prone cultivator. The volume of the flute increased. Before Jiang Cheng’s disbelieving gaze, the strange marks on cultivator’s skin began to wriggle. Not just that, they began to snake. The red papers stuck to the battery fluttered. A single black line crept down the cultivator’s arm, twined around his index finger and then, like blood dripping from a wound, began to stain the hilt of the sword.
“What the…?” Jiang Cheng breathed.
The black stain on the sword grew larger, it spread from the hilt towards the tip. Wei Wuxian’s fingers flew across the flute, the melody spiraling higher and higher and then—
It stopped. Wei Wuxian continued to play but, like it had encountered some barrier, the creeping black stain stopped. It paused.
It retreated all the way back to the hilt, into the cultivator’s skin, inscribed there like a tattoo. And there it stayed.
Wei Wuxian lowered the flute from his mouth. The room was silent. Jiang Cheng dared to look at his brother’s face. His mouth was pressed tightly together, his skin taut and bloodless. It might have just been a trick of the light, but his eyes looked red.
Then, without a word, he carefully tucked the flute into his belt, turned around, and left the room.
Jiang Cheng exhaled. He felt for the lump in his pocket. He looked at the doorway, in the direction Wei Wuxian had vanished.
“It didn’t work,” Lan Bowen was muttering, shaking his head. “I thought it was working, and then…” he sighed.
“It’s a work in progress,” Lan Xiaohui said. “Invention is difficult. He just needs more time.”
“He’s not going to have more time.” Lan Bowen pulled up the cultivator’s sleeve. The lightening flowers were nearly to his wrist. “Another day, at most. And then—”
Jiang Cheng stood up. “It was a solid theory,” he muttered. He stuck his hand in his pocket. Lan Bowen turned to look at him. “He didn’t have the right tools.” He pulled the thing out of the pocket. He wouldn’t have picked it out of a lineup, but the weight of it felt good in his hand. Warm. Comforting. “The wire was a bad conductor. It wasn’t enough.” He met Lan Xiaohui’s gaze. Her eyes widened in realization and she inclined her head. He turned to go.
“Wait,” said Lan Bowen. “Where are you going?”
“To find my brother.”
But Lan Bowen shook his head. “Maybe give him some space,” he suggested gently. “He’s…he’s very invested, in all this. He might need some time.” Jiang Cheng snorted.
“Give him space and he’ll only do something stupid with it,” he said. He carefully placed the thing back into his pocket. “Stay here,” he added, and walked out of the room.
He checked the guest house first, and then the library, even down the hidden staircase from before, but no Wei Wuxian to be found. Jiang Cheng stood still in the middle of the secret room, still messy with his brother’s papers and books strewn about. Cloud Recesses was a big place. He absently put his hand into his pocket and felt for the metal there. Where would he go?
He left the library and headed on the dim paths in the direction of Lan Xiaohui’s house. But when he got to the bamboo grove, he continued past it, up the narrow stone steps carved into the mountainside, until he reached another gate. There was no explicit sign saying not to enter, so Jiang Cheng walked right in.
The house was in the same style as the one Lan Xiaohui lived in, only instead of bamboo, there were large-leafed bushes planted all along the front. If the house was as old as the architecture suggested, then it was yet another one of those historical registry buildings Lan Liang had been so happy to tell them about. The Jiang Cheng of a few days ago might have been impressed by how well the buildings were cared for, or maybe refurbished. The Jiang Cheng of today had a sneaking suspicion there was a little more to their sturdiness than that.
There was a balcony overlooking a little pond filled with lotus plants, though of course no flowers bloomed so early in the season. Jiang Cheng was surprised that they’d even managed to grow here, so high in the cold of the mountains. The house was dark, save for one electric light that had clearly been stuck to the outside roof relatively recently. His brother sat on the edge of the porch, legs dangling into the darkness above the little pond, leaning back on his hands, staring up at the night sky.
“Breaking into people’s houses now?” Jiang Cheng asked. He stepped onto the porch. His feet carried him over to Wei Wuxian’s side. He sat. Wei Wuxian didn’t look at him.
“It’s mine,” he said tonelessly. “Ours. Was. Is.” He exhaled. “I want to go home,” he whispered, and there was something tremulous in his voice. Jiang Cheng didn’t think he was talking about their apartment in Yiling, or his parents’ house.
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng said. Now, Wei Wuxian looked at him.
“Oh, now you’re going to humor me?” he asked, laughing. It was not a happy noise. Jiang Cheng pursed his lips.
“It’s been an interesting day.”
“Sure has,” Wei Wuxian agreed, in the exact same tone one would use to describe a death in the family. He took in a deep, shaky breath. “A-Cheng,” he said, “I fucked it up. It didn’t work. Just like the last time. And I—” he stopped. He looked away, rubbing his eyes. “It didn’t work.”
Jiang Cheng hummed. He wasn’t used to this, being the older brother, for once. Not like this. “What’s next?”
“Probably something stupid,” Wei Wuxian admitted, and choked out another laugh. Jiang Cheng’s nostrils flared.
“Before you do something stupid.” He stopped. “More stupid,” he amended. “Try this.” And he reached into his pocket, drew out the thing, that warm, familiar thing. He grabbed Wei Wuxian’s hand and dropped it into his brother’s empty palm. “It’ll work as a better conductor than the wire. Maybe.”
“Huh?” said Wei Wuxian. He twisted his upper body so that he was facing the direction of the light cast by the new electric fixing, and looked at his hand. When he saw what Jiang Cheng had given him, his breath caught in his throat. “Where did you get this?”
Jiang Cheng’s fingers tightened on the legs of his pants. “Lan Xiaohui had it. She gave it to me this afternoon.”
“But how did a Lan get it?” Wei Wuxian said wonderingly. He slipped it on, then off. He looked up, eyes roaming over Jiang Cheng’s face. There was something like fear there, something like hope. “Do you—?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head. “Not like you,” he said. “Not—not solid, like you. Or less…” He touched the thing in Wei Wuxian’s hand. It sparked purple. “We were brothers,” he said, quiet. “It remembers me.” He glanced up. Wei Wuxian’s mouth was open, like he wanted to say something but then, after a moment, he closed it. A small smile touched the corners of his mouth. His fingers curled over the thing Jiang Cheng had given him.
“We were,” he said. “We are.” His grip tightened. He hesitated then said, eyes darting away, “I might need your help.”
“Well, yeah,” said Jiang Cheng, as he got to his feet and grabbed Wei Wuxian’s arm to pull him up as well. “A-Jie would kill me if you electrocuted yourself.”
When they returned to Lan Zhan’s infirmary room, Lan Xiaohui was there, but Lan Bowen was not.
“He went to get snacks,” Lan Xiaohui said. She stifled a yawn. “And coffee.”
“Are we waiting for him?” Jiang Cheng asked, turning to Wei Wuxian, who shrugged.
“I have to put new talismans on the battery anyway,” he decided. He put his hands on his hips, lips pursed as he surveyed the charred papers hanging limply from the battery. “More, too.” Jiang Cheng grimaced.
“We don’t need this, right?” He pointed at Lan Zhan’s sword.
“No—wait!” Wei Wuxian grabbed his arm. “It might bite you. Let me do it.”
“It might bite me?” Jiang Cheng said, kind of offended. “What did I ever do to it? It’s a sword!”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian’s expression grew pained. “Just let me do it.”
“Okay, fine,” Jiang Cheng grumbled, as he stepped back. He watched as Wei Wuxian carefully disentangled the wire from the sword’s tip, then grabbed the hilt and slid it back into its white sheath, before laying it on the bed next to Lan Zhan.
“It’ll be reassuring,” Wei Wuxian said. His face was turned away. “For when he wakes up.” He moved as if to step away from the bed, then stopped, his hand hovering over Lan Zhan’s face. He gentle brushed a few stray, white hairs away from Lan Zhan’s forehead. Jiang Cheng pretended not to notice the way his hand trembled.
“Director, I got you the—oh.” Lan Bowen stilled just inside the doorway, clutching a small cloth bag in one hand, and two steaming travel mugs in the other. “You’re back,” he said. He glanced down at the mugs apologetically. “If I’d known you were going to be back, I’d have gotten you some tea, too.”
Wei Wuxian smiled a little half-smile at him. “Don’t worry about us, Dr. Lan,” he said. “Jiang Cheng and I have something to do first.”
“Oh, uh.” Lan Bowen’s eyes darted over to Lan Xiaohui but, seeing as she seemed relatively unperturbed, if a little intent, he let his shoulders relax. “Okay,” he said.
“I’ll take mine,” Lan Xiaohui said, as he crossed the room to join her. When he looked at her questioningly, she said, “They’re going to try again.”
“They are?” Lan Bowen said, voice low. She nodded. He took a deep breath, then straightened. “Okay,” he said, passing the tea and then a packet of chocolate wafer cookies over to her. “This should be interesting.”
Over by the bed, Wei Wuxian was busy scrawling onto talisman papers and sticking them on every square of blank space on the battery. “We’ve really got to make it enticing, I think,” he said. “More than even Lan Zhan’s core.” He stuck another one on.
“You can’t put ghosts in there or whatever?”
Wei Wuxian looked up in surprise, then shook his head. “It’s not attracted to resentful energy, remember?” He started on another talisman. It was difficult to tell where it would even fit. “Clean spiritual energy only.” Jiang Cheng squinted.
“Are you telling me that car batteries run on spiritual energy?” he said slowly. Wei Wuxian shrugged, then held up his talisman.
“We’re going to fake it,” he said. When Jiang Cheng just stared at him, uncomprehending, Wei Wuxian let out breath.
“Resentful energy is just spiritual energy with resentment in it,” he said slowly. Jiang Cheng looked doubtful, but he still nodded. “Spiritual energy is just regular energy with spirit in it.” Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re really bad at explaining this.”
“Shut up,” said Wei Wuxian, without any bite. “The point is, regular energy is like, the purest of the bunch, right? This curse likes spiritual energy. With these?” He shook the talisman. “the battery seems like spiritual energy. Even though it’s mostly not. You follow?”
Jiang Cheng wrinkled his nose. “Whatever,” he said, crossing his arms. “As long as it works.”
“It’ll work,” Wei Wuxian said. He let out a slow breath, resting his weight for a moment on the battery in the book cart. He repeated, “It’ll work.” Jiang Cheng didn't know who he was trying harder to convince. The battery was completely covered with red talisman papers at this point. Jiang Cheng folded his arms.
“What do you need me to do?”
Wei Wuxian took the thing Jiang Cheng had given him, out of his pocket. He handed it over to Jiang Cheng, who nearly dropped it. “Can you turn it on?”
“Turn it on,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “Right. And how do I do that?” Wei Wuxian lifted one shoulder.
“It was never mine,” he said. “It doesn’t recognize me like it recognizes you.”
Jiang Cheng wanted to disagree with this, but there was really no arguing with the warm weight of familiarity in his hand. “Okay.” He looked at the thing. He put slipped it onto his wrist and ring finger. Do something, he told it, mentally.
Jiang Cheng huffed. “Uh, Wei Wuxian—”
“Do you remember,” Wei Wuxian interrupted, coming around to him, “when we were kids and my grandmother had that crazy ropes course?”
“The one where the rope was basically just string and if I said my mom was coming over, she’d immediately undo the whole thing? That ropes course?”
“Yep, exactly. Such a good memory!”
“I don’t think that was legal.”
“Probably not. Oh well.” Wei Wuxian’s lips twitched upwards in a fond little smile, like he was remembering too. “You hated it.”
“It was challenging,” Jiang Cheng said, begrudgingly. If he remembered correctly, it had been more than challenging. It had been impossible. How was he supposed to have balanced on a tiny piece of string?
“But you got it,” Wei Wuxian said. “Eventually. You were able to do it.”
“Hm.” Jiang Cheng frowned. He could remember it pretty clearly, actually. He’d— “She told me to focus here,” he said slowly, hand settling on his lower abdomen. “And not worry about my feet.”
You aren’t balancing on the string, A-Cheng. You’re balancing on the whole world. The string is just one of the little things connecting you.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Wei Wuxian made an encouraging nod. “You’ve done it before. It’s just practice. Like riding a bike, hm?”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng muttered, and closed his eyes. His center, his center, his center. He breathed out slowly. He felt a warmth in his abdomen. He clenched his fist.
From his ring finger, Zidian sparked to life.
“Holy shit!” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng quickly opened his eyes, staring at the sparkling purple lightening emanating from his ring finger.
“What,” he said shakily. “What.”
“No, that’s great, that’s awesome. Make it into a rope—can you make it into a rope? You used to.”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng grit out. It was hard to keep the damn thing steady.
“Oh no, wait.” Wei Wuxian gnawed on his lower lip. “Right now, your spiritual energy is charging it. If you let go…no, don’t let go! Hmm. Actually, I change my mind. Where did I—oh. Sorry, Lan Zhan.” He reached across the bed to grab the white sword and drew it again out of its scabbard. He laid the bare blade on the bed next to Lan Zhan and again curled Lan Zhan’s fingers over it. “Okay,” he said. “Hopefully that will give us a little more buffer.” He looked at Jiang Cheng. “We’re going to have to be really careful with this. I don’t want you to get cursed.”
“No shit,” Jiang Cheng retorted. He was starting to sweat. The purple lightening was playing around his fingertips. It didn’t hurt, but it tingled oddly.
“Come over here.” Wei Wuxian guided him to stand next to the battery. “See the battery terminals?” He pointed at the little bits of metal sticking up off the battery.
“Okay. When I start to play, this thing’s going to light up like a big, delicious, spiritual energy buffet. You follow me?”
“Just—just tell me what I need to do.”
“Okay, okay.” Wei Wuxian gave him a reassuring smile. “Listen carefully. When I start to play, I want you to make Zidian into a rope, and make one end of it wrap around Bichen.”
“Lan Zhan’s sword.” He touched the tip of the blade with the edge of his finger to indicate.
“And then,” Wei Wuxian said, “you need to take Zidian off your finger and slide it onto the battery terminal, okay?”
“But you have to wait,” Wei Wuxian cautioned, “until you’re sure the spiritual energy I’m directing from the battery is connecting to Zidian, so that the whip connecting the ring to Bichen, doesn’t disappear, okay?”
Jiang Cheng was suddenly starting to have many doubts about this. “Are you sure this is going to work?”
“Only one way to find out,” Wei Wuxian told him. “Ready?” he asked. And then, without bothering to wait for Jiang Cheng’s response, he lifted the flute to his mouth and began to play.
Jiang Cheng immediately swore when the music from the flute made the hair on his arms stand on end. Clenching his jaw so hard that it ached, he tried to tell the little sparkles spitting out of the ring to grow longer, to form a whip or a rope, like Wei Wuxian had said. On some sort of instinct, he flicked his fingers and nearly leapt back in surprise when an actual whip sprung fully-formed from Zidian. Regaining his equilibrium, he directed it gingerly towards the sword and then, taking a deep breath, visualized it wrapping around the tip.
He gasped when his whip and the sword made contact, a strange shiver of foreign energy running up his forearm. It would seem that, even quiescent, the sword was still a potent spiritual tool. Barely a moment after Zidian made contact, the black, ink-like ooze dripped off Lan Zhan’s skin to sink onto the sword. More followed, crawling towards the link with Zidian. He stared as it advanced, entranced.
“Jiang Cheng!” Lan Xiaohui said sharply. He startled; he had nearly forgotten she and Lan Bowen were still in the room. “Don’t let it touch you.”
Right, right. A shudder went through him as it encroached further. He fumbled with Zidian, trying to get it off his wrist and finger, without letting the spiritual connection drop.
“Careful,” Lan Xiaohui said. Jiang Cheng swallowed, nodding. He edged his hand towards the battery terminal, one eye on the approaching curse. It was halfway across the length of the sword already. At his side, Wei Wuxian continued to play, the ink on the flapping talisman papers glowing red-hot. Jiang Cheng touched Zidian’s ring to the battery terminal. He jolted as the ring made contact with the metal, another bolt of strange energy zinging through his hand. It stung a little, but he kept his hold on the ring. Very carefully, he slid the ring onto the battery terminal. The curse was almost to the tip of Zidian’s whip.
“I’m going to let go,” he said hoarsely. Wei Wuxian swung around to look at him. Their eyes caught and held. Wei Wuxian nodded. And Jiang Cheng, with only moments to spare before the curse reached Zidian, let his fingers fall away.
For a moment, he was afraid it hadn’t worked. The light coming from Zidian dimmed. The slithering curse slowed. Then Wei Wuxian blew a particularly sharp note. The letters glowing on the talismans blazed even more brightly. Zidian’s structure held solid, and the curse began to move towards the battery.
As Jiang Cheng watched, more and more of the curse oozed across the sword to Zidian. It was still moving, Bichen and Zidian now both covered in a dark muck. It reached the battery, slithered around the terminal as if exploring, trying to find a way in. Jiang Cheng held his breath.
It sank inside.
“It’s working,” Jiang Cheng said, heart beating faster. He looked at Wei Wuxian, at his brother with his sweaty face, fingers flying across the flute, his eyes red and dangerous. “Keep going, keep going!”
Wei Wuxian dipped his head, eyes lighting up with something approaching hope. Near the wall, Lan Xiaohui and Lan Bowen stood from their chairs. Wei Wuxian played on. He played on until first the white glare of Bichen’s hilt and then the blade shone cleanly, without the cloying muck of the curse to block it. He played until Zidian’s purple fire burned pure and untarnished, starting from the tip of the whip all the way to the ring. The last of the blackness sank into the battery terminal. As Wei Wuxian let out his final note, Jiang Cheng leaned over and knocked the sword hilt out of Lan Zhan’s limp fingers. Wei Wuxian lowered the flute, staring at the battery. He looked frozen.
“Dr. Lan.” Jiang Cheng’s throat felt dry. “Can you—” he couldn’t finish. He moved dazedly out of the way as Lan Bowen hurried over to the bed. He placed his fingers on Lan Zhan’s pulse point at his wrist, then his neck.
“His heart’s still beating,” he said. Jiang Cheng nodded. Wei Wuxian slowly pivoted to look at them. His eyes were still red. Lan Bowen pushed up Lan Zhan’s sleeves. Nothing. He drew back the covers and quickly pushed up his shirt as well. “It’s gone,” he croaked. Jiang Cheng looked too: Lan Zhan’s skin was pale and unblemished, save for silver nicks, and some kind of burn mark over his breastbone. Jiang Cheng closed his eyes, breathing out, then turned to meet Wei Wuxian’s pleading gaze.
“It’s gone,” he said. “It worked. It’s gone.”
The flute fell from limp fingers to clatter onto the floor. As Jiang Cheng watched, Wei Wuxian slowly sunk down to his knees, as if he no longer had the strength to support himself. He covered his face with his hands and let out a sob.
And as Jiang Cheng dropped to the floor to fold his brother into what was, perhaps, an unnecessarily tight embrace, on the bed, Lan Zhan finally opened his eyes.
“He asked me what happened to my hair,” Wei Wuxian said kind of numbly, still staring at Lan Zhan—no. Jiang Cheng had to call him Lan Wangji now. Wei Wuxian insisted. Jiang Cheng didn’t get what the hell the difference was. Whatever.
“It’s weird that he speaks the same dialect as your grandma.” Jiang Cheng sat down next to him. He handed Wei Wuxian another steamed bun. The off-hours Lan kitchen seemed to have an endless supply of them.
“Is it?” Wei Wuxian sighed. Still holding Lan Wangji’s hand, he squeezed his fingers. With his free hand, he lifted the pork bun to his mouth
“How long did Lan Bowen say he’d sleep?”
“He didn’t.” Wei Wuxian’s lips twisted. “I mean, I get it. The curse was literally trying to eat all his spiritual energy. It makes sense. I just…”
Jiang Cheng took a bite of his own food. “You want to talk to him.” Wei Wuxian slowly shook his head, turning to look at Jiang Cheng.
“How am I going to explain?” he whispered. “How can I tell him—?” He let out a groan, scrubbing his face with his hands. “What am I even going to say?”
“Whatever,” said Jiang Cheng easily. Wei Wuxian gave him a hurt look. He rolled his eyes. “You’ll say whatever. You always have something to say. You’ll figure it out.”
“I don’t think you understand.” Wei Wuxian ran his fingers through his hair. “Everyone he knew—his whole life! It’s—they’re gone now, Jiang Cheng! And he’s here! And it’s my fault!”
“Maybe,” agreed Jiang Cheng. He finished off his steamed bun and went for a second. “Or maybe, without you, he’d be dead. He should be grateful.”
“He might prefer it,” Wei Wuxian said darkly, now glowering at the wall. Jiang Cheng gave him an annoyed look.
“Shut up,” he said. “He has you. He can adapt to everything else.” He stood from his seat, briefly clasping Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. He resolutely ignored the pathetically grateful look Wei Wuxian turned on him. He turned to go.
He sighed. “Yeah?”
“What if…” Wei Wuxian was twisting his fingers.
“Spit it out.”
“What if he hates me?”
Jiang Cheng blinked at him. A dozen different responses ran through his head. His memories of his past life were certainly beyond fuzzy, but the conversation with Lan Xiaohui had at least gone a little way into illuminating some gaps. Lan Wangji? Hate? Wei Wuxian? It didn’t compute. “He won’t.”
“But what if he does?”
Jiang Cheng grimaced. “Then I’ll break his legs,” he said flatly. “Did you want coffee or not?”
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian got a stupid look on his face. Jiang Cheng decided he didn’t want to know what it meant. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
“Idiot,” Jiang Cheng muttered, and left. Wei Wuxian returned to looking at Lan Zhan’s face. It was a natural sleep, different than the deathly stillness of before. There was a little color in his cheeks now, he breathed more easily. Wei Wuxian leaned forward as Lan Zhan’s eyelids fluttered.
“Lan Zhan?” he whispered, clutching at Lan Zhan’s hand. “Lan Zhan, can you hear me?” His throat tightened as the fingers intwined with his tentatively squeezed back. Wei Wuxian’s heart beat faster. “Lan Zhan?”
His eyes were still closed, but Lan Zhan’s lips parted. “Wei Ying?” he murmured.
“Here,” Wei Wuxian said. His vision blurred. “Here. I’m here.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan seemed content just to say his name. His voice was quiet, hoarse. His grip on Wei Wuxian’s hand grew limp again. “What…”
“Don’t try and talk. Here.” Wei Wuxian took a plastic mug with a straw stuck into the lid that Lan Bowen had given him. He slid his hand underneath Lan Zhan’s head to lift it, and pressed the straw near his mouth. “Drink.”
The straw hit Lan Zhan’s lips. Nothing happened. Then Lan Zhan slowly, painfully, cracked open his eyes. Wei Wuxian nearly started crying when he saw that their warm brown color had returned. Lan Zhan fuzzily focused on him.
“Wei Ying?” he said. The straw hit his lips again and he blinked down, cross-eyed, looking very confused.
“Oh,” said Wei Wuxian, realizing. “Oh! You have to—you know what? Never mind.” He put the mug and straw back on the table and grabbed his own water glass. This, he gave to Lan Zhan instead, who, after another moment, opened his mouth as Wei Wuxian pressed the rim of the glass to his lips. He only took a few sips, but it seemed enough to revive him further. He sighed. Wei Wuxian took the glass away. “Better?”
“Mm.” Now that his eyes were open, Lan Zhan’s gaze was darting around the room. There was no sign of recognition. He settled on Wei Wuxian and Wei Wuxian had to endure a very long moment as Lan Zhan’s focus dragged up and down his form, from his shoulder-length hair, tied back in a simple ponytail, to the sweatshirt and jeans, and clearly finding that none of it made sense. He also, Wei Wuxian realized belatedly, was wearing the wrong face.
Lan Zhan did seem to recognize him though, modern clothes, haircut, and strange surroundings aside. He didn’t seem afraid, or angry, but he did still seem very puzzled.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said, letting out a slight cough when Lan Zhan’s eyes finally returned to his face and settled into a familiar expression of explain. He rubbed the back of his neck and shifted as if to take his hand away, but stilled when Lan Zhan’s fingers tightened on his. He looked down at their entwined hands, then back at Lan Zhan.
“Do you remember the curse?” A brief hesitation, then Lan Zhan’s free hand came haltingly up to his own face, as if to indicate his formerly sightless eyes. They touched his hair, which was still white. Wei Wuxian swallowed, nodding. “I couldn’t fix it,” he said, voice cracking. He bowed his head. “I’m sorry.”
Silence. And then, “Did I die?” Lan Zhan’s voice was still quiet, hoarse, the language old yet familiar. All of it, familiar. It was a miracle he could even speak, Wei Wuxian thought.
“N—no,” he hedged. “But I might’ve. Um. A little.”
“Ah.” Lan Zhan took this surprisingly well. Wei Wuxian frowned at him. “New face,” he said, seeming to sense Wei Wuxian’s confusion. A little furrow appeared between his brows. “Old face,” he added. This, also, did not seem to satisfy him. He pursed his lips. “New-old face,” he settled on and tilted his face up to Wei Wuxian’s as if willing him to understand.
“I have my old face,” he said slowly. “Not…not Mo Xuanyu’s?” Lan Zhan nodded. Wei Wuxian felt a wave of relief sweep through him. “Oh, good,” he said. When Lan Zhan gave him a familiar, chastising look, Wei Wuxian actually managed a small laugh. “No, it’s just. Um.” He cleared his throat, glancing away. “I was afraid you wouldn’t recognize me. With the new, uh. You know.” He indicated himself.
When Wei Wuxian drew his hand down his form, Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow. Wei Wuxian took this to mean that yes, Lan Zhan did recognize him, but also please explain the rest, like why his clothes were positively indecent. Wei Wuxian took a deep breath. He rubbed the knuckles of Lan Zhan’s hand with his fingers.
“Lan Zhan,” he said. His voice broke. He coughed to clear it. “Lan Zhan,” he tried again. He glanced up. Lan Zhan was watching him, face implacable. Wei Wuxian looked away. “When I couldn’t fix it, I…I tried everything I could think of, you know? I don’t want to bore you with the details—not right now, maybe when you’re better—”
“Hmm,” Lan Zhan agreed, which sounded suspiciously like, you’d better. He shifted, looking down at the sheets covering him. He tried to sit up. Wei Wuxian leapt to help him. When he was finally upright, he said, still fingering the cotton sheets, “Wei Ying. Where is this?”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian let out an embarrassingly high-pitched chuckle. “We’re actually…in…well.” He gestured the room, the room with its electric lights and its new paint job and its plastic and metal furnishings. “Cloud Recesses.” He chanced a look at Lan Zhan.
There was a small furrow in Lan Zhan’s brow. He rubbed the sheet between his fingertips again, gauging the materials, then reached out his hand to touch the smoothly painted wall. He pulled his hand away, turning his gaze back to Wei Wuxian. “This is not a part of Cloud Recesses I am familiar with,” he said at last.
Oh. The corner of Wei Wuxian’s eyes stung. Lan Zhan believed in him. Believed in him enough that he accepted without question that this place, this strange room that he had never seen, full of items he could never have imagined the existence of, was somehow still his childhood home. Wei Wuxian sniffed. He placed his free hand gently on top of the one that Lan Zhan already held.
“I wanted to give you time,” he said. He bowed his head. “I’m sorry, I made you wait again.”
He could see the moment that Lan Zhan got it. “How much time?” His voice was quiet. When Wei Wuxian told him, his lips parted, but he seemed unable to speak. He closed his eyes. Opened them, looked at Wei Wuxian for confirmation and, when Wei Wuxian gave him a small, sad smile, said, “And in this time—”
But whatever he was about to say was drowned out by the sounds of footsteps coming into the room and Jiang Cheng saying, “Listen, I know you wanted sugar, but the Lans don’t have the sugar out, so you can quit whining and just deal…oh.” He stopped, still holding two cups of coffee, and stared. “Oh,” he said again. “I didn’t realize you were awake. He’s awake,” he told Wei Wuxian, needlessly. “Uh…”
Lan Zhan stared back, clearly trying to gauge this newcomer, with his sweatshirt and his jeans and his cropped, short hair. His eyes narrowed, then widened. “Jiang Wanyin?” he said slowly.
Jiang Cheng blinked. He turned to Wei Wuxian. “Who?”
“Yes,” said Wei Wuxian.
“What?” said Jiang Cheng. Then, “Why?” Then, “You know what? Take your coffee, I’ll come back later.” And he shoved one of the cups at Wei Wuxian, gave a stiff, awkward nod to Lan Zhan, who was watching him with an incredible amount of suspicion that Jiang Cheng did not think was even remotely justified, and then did an abrupt about-face and power-walked out of the room as quickly as his legs could carry him.
“Thanks for the coffee!” he heard Wei Wuxian shout after him. Jiang Cheng shook his head and walked faster.
Back in the room, Wei Wuxian took a sip, then made a face. “Bitter,” he said to Lan Zhan, who had tilted his head in curiosity.
“Coffee?” said Lan Zhan, the word sounding foreign on his tongue. The incongruence of it all, startled Wei Wuxian into a grin.
“Sure,” he said. “Lan Liang said they’ve only been stocking it for the past couple of years. He says some of the tourists can’t live without it.” He leaned in conspiratorially, “Between you and me though, Lan Zhan, I think that’s just his excuse.”
Lan Zhan considered this, then he extended his hand. Wei Wuxian made a surprised laugh.
“You want to try it?”
“Mm,” said Lan Zhan. So, with a shrug, Wei Wuxian carefully handed it over.
“It’s hot.” Lan Zhan took a delicate sip, then wrinkled his nose. “Too much?” he guessed, as he accepted it back. “I know. It takes getting used to. Jiejie doesn’t like it either.” He felt, rather than saw, Lan Zhan absorb this information.
“Jiang Yanli,” Lan Zhan said slowly. “She is here?”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian ducked his head. “She is,” he said. His voice had gone oddly hoarse. But no wonder; he hadn’t spoken to his sister since his memories had returned. He didn’t know…
“And Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Zhan said. He pursed his lips. “He did not recognize me.” He frowned. “Wei Ying,” he said, “If he does not, then how…?”
How do you?
“Aha,” Wei Wuxian said. He took another sip of the coffee, and placed it on the table. “Self inflicted problem, I think. When I died—” he noticed Lan Zhan’s expression grow pained. “Ah, sorry, Lan Zhan. You can be angry with me later, okay? Anyway, when I cast that thing that kind of—held—you? I think I put so much of me in it that in some ways, I kind of stuck around.” He grimaced. “The side effects of the memories coming back into the new body were kind of unpleasant, though. I don’t know if I would recommend it.”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan said. And then, looking down at his lap, “I have little recollection of my final—what were to be, my final days. But I sensed that you were there. That feeling has never vanished.” He looked up at Wei Wuxian. “It was a comfort,” he said, “that I was not waiting alone, during all these long years.” Then his eyes narrowed. “Wei Ying?”
“Never do that again.”
Wei Wuxian winced. “Well—”
He was mercifully interrupted. “I’m sorry,” Lan Bowen said, standing in the doorway. “Your brother said that L—Hanguang-Jun was awake. I’d like to examine him, if I may.”
“Awake and even talking,” Wei Wuxian said, leaping up from the chair. “He’s—oh, sorry.” He noticed Lan Zhan’s confused frown. He said to Lan Zhan, “He’s the doctor. He wants to examine you.”
Lan Zhan’s expression cleared, and he gave a short nod, sitting up straighter. Lan Bowen came the rest of the way into the room. “He doesn’t understand?” he said to Wei Wuxian.
“Language changes a lot, I guess,” Wei Wuxian said. “I can understand him just fine.”
“Not all of us have your particular background,” Lan Bowen said dryly. “You’ll have to translate for me.”
“Sure, sure,” Wei Wuxian sighed, and let the examination proceed.
Under Lan Bowen’s careful inspection, Lan Zhan allowed his shirt to be opened, his skin to be examined, the cold of the stethoscope to be pressed against his chest. He also allowed Lan Bowen to feel for the flow of his spiritual energy, the hum of his golden core. When it was over, Lan Bowen stepped back respectfully. “How is your fatigue?” he asked. Wei Wuxian translated. When Lan Zhan frowned, then responded in a short, clipped sentence, Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes.
“He says it’s not bad. Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian placed his hands on his hips. “Just because it’s ten thousand years in the future, doesn’t mean they got rid of the rule about lying.” Lan Zhan looked shifty for a moment, then said something else. Wei Wuxian sniffed, but said, “He says he’s not as tired as one would expect. He does think he could sleep more, soon. Aiya.” He shook his head. “Shouldn’t have given him the coffee.”
“You gave him coffee?” Lan Bowen looked disapproving. “I said water or herbal tea!”
“He wanted to try it,” Wei Wuxian defended. “It was only a sip.”
“Only a sip,” Lan Bowen muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. He let out a long and put-upon sigh. “Water,” he said flatly, “or herbal tea. Okay?” Wei Wuxian grumbled, but nodded. Lan Zhan looked between them curiously.
“He wants to ruin my fun,” Wei Wuxian explained.
“Ah,” Lan Zhan said, in understanding. “A responsible physician.” Wei Wuxian shot him a look of utter betrayal. “What is his diagnosis on my health?”
Wei Wuxian pouted, but turned and conveyed the message faithfully. Lan Bowen pursed his lips, tapping his foot in thought.
“You are surprisingly hale, for a man who’s been through what you have,” he answered finally. “Your physical self is in good shape. I would expect lingering fatigue and discomfort as your spiritual energy recovers. Something like how it feels like to get over a bad flu. If you adhere to the diet plan that I have specified,” he shot a look at a Wei Wuxian, who suddenly found the wall very interesting to examine, “I believe your recovery will go smoothly.” He paused for a moment, opened his mouth as if to speak more, then hesitated. Finally, in the face of Lan Zhan’s implacable stare, he said, “I am concerned that the trauma of your experience may also affect your recovery in other ways.”
“I don’t understand,” Lan Zhan said, when Wei Wuxian had translated. “He said my body would be healthy.”
Wei Wuxian grimaced. “I don’t think he’s talking about that kind of trauma.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I think he means your mind.”
Lan Zhan frowned. “That is not his place.”
“He’s a doctor. It kind of is.”
“It is not,” Lan Zhan repeated, more forcefully, “his place.” The knuckles of his hands, where they rested in his lap, grew white as he clenched them. Wei Wuxian sighed.
Lan Bowen asked, “What is it?”
“He says he’s fine.”
The very skeptical look on Lan Bowen’s face said it all. Lan Zhan said, “Is this one a direct descendent of Lan Jingyi? The resemblance is uncanny.” Wei Wuxian snorted.
“What?” Lan Bowen said, crossing his arms. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, nothing.” Wei Wuxian clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll keep an eye on him, promise.”
“Hmm,” said Lan Bowen, but he allowed Wei Wuxian to steer him out the door. When he was gone, Wei Wuxian turned back around, ready to chastise Lan Zhan for being such a predictably bad patient, only to see his eyes fluttering shut, and his head nodding off to the side.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian scolded, coming back over. “You should have said you were tired!”
“Don’t want to sleep anymore,” Lan Zhan mumbled, but he let Wei Wuxian help him lay back down. He lifted his hand and reached for Wei Wuxian, fingers brushing through his hair. Wei Wuxian caught the hand and pressed it to his cheek, then kissed the palm and laid it back onto the bed.
“Sleep, Lan-er-gege,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’ll be here.”
Lan Zhan closed his eyes.
The third day, Lan Xiaohui, so called ‘Director,’ came by with several books. When she put them down on his bedside table, Lan Zhan, who had yet to accustom himself to this new, modern style of dress, had to forcefully remind himself that the current equivalent of the Lan Sect Leader was not, in fact, visiting him in her nightclothes.
His own clothes had been washed and tended to, and he would have been wearing them now, if not for still being essentially confined to bed. Wei Ying had suggested that Lan Zhan try on what he called ‘jeans,’ but after Lan Zhan’s clear expression of disdain at the rough fabric, had laughed and put the clothes away. The glint in Wei Ying’s eye however, had Lan Zhan suspecting that the conversation was not yet over.
Wei Ying was gone when Lan Xiaohui came, so there was an awkwardness there, while each of them tried to gauge how much the other could really understand. She gave him a respectful bow, which Wei Ying had told him was no longer a custom, but Lan Zhan appreciated her effort to make him feel less unmoored in this strange, yet familiar world.
“Histories,” she said, pointing to one of the books. At least, that was what Lan Zhan thought she said. Family histories, maybe. “Politics.” Another one. “Cultivation.”
The words were almost the same. Almost, but not quite. A small bubble of frustration rose in his stomach. Lan Zhan pushed it down and reached for one of the books. He felt relieved when he saw the familiar characters; at least he would be able to read this. He looked up. “Thank you,” he said. She seemed to understand him. A slight smile grew on her face, and the way it made her eyes scrunch just the tiniest bit at the corners made his heart stutter in recognition. He knew that face, that smile, so serious and then so sweet.
Unable to speak, Lan Zhan watched as his many times great granddaughter gave him another polite bow, said something he did not catch, and then walked out the door. When she was gone, Lan Zhan allowed himself a moment to breathe, eyes shut, trying to bring himself back to the present.
He was not ungrateful, Lan Zhan thought, to have been given this unexpected second chance to live a full life at Wei Ying’s side. Even so, the missing little pieces of the world he once knew, the absence of the other souls who he had held close to his heart, did ache. He wondered if Wei Ying had felt like this, coming back the first time; he wondered if Wei Ying felt like this now.
Lan Zhan took a careful sip of the water by his bedside. The cup was glass. He was a little afraid to break it, but it seemed sturdy enough. The other material, that strange, oily, plastic, felt peculiar on his teeth. Wei Ying had said he would be back soon; that had been this afternoon. A few hours, he had said. Lan Zhan was not entirely sure how long an ‘hour’ was, by the current reckoning, but it felt like it had been about three shichen. Lan Zhan looked around his empty infirmary room one more time, then opened one of the books.
He had made the deliberate decision to stay away from the clan histories for now. It might make him a coward, but already knowing that his son, his grandson, his brother, and his uncle, had all re-entered the reincarnation cycle, was enough. He did not think he could bear the details quite yet. He settled instead on what seemed to be an overview of cultivation practices for the past five-hundred years. This did mean he was missing some seven-hundred years of context between his not-quite-death and when the book picked up, but he supposed he had to start somewhere.
Jiang Wanyin found him mid-way through, engrossed enough that it took him a moment to register the person lurking in his doorway.
“Keep reading in the dark like that, and Wei Wuxian’s going to have to take you to get some reading glasses.”
At his voice, Lan Zhan straightened. He surveyed Jiang Wanyin from his seat on the bed, and actively had to suppress the automatic feeling of irritation at seeing the familiar face. It wasn’t fair. This Jiang Wanyin had helped Wei Ying save Lan Zhan’s life. This one did not have Wei Ying’s golden core. He had not fought at the Nightless City, he had not expelled Wei Ying from the only home he’d ever known.
He had not. And he had.
What he did have, Lan Zhan was forcibly reminded, was an annoying habit of mixing the modern language with the language that Lan Zhan was more familiar with. Wei Ying had said his grandmother had taught them both the dialect. Lan Zhan found this peculiar, but Wei Ying had seemed sincere. Regardless, he did not know what reading glasses were. He settled for a very polite, “Wei Ying is not here,” and hoped that Jiang Wanyin would take this hint and go away.
“Obviously,” Jiang Wanyin said, very much not taking the hint. He actually came further into the room and had the gall to set down some kind of meal on a tray. Lan Zhan refused to feel grateful for this, though he was hungry, and the rice and soup were steaming. “He said to pass on the message that he’d be a little while longer.”
Something on Lan Zhan’s face must have given him away, because Jiang Wanyin blew air out of the corner of his mouth and turned to Lan Zhan with very pointed raised eyebrows.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten,” he said. “But sometimes, my brother is a total idiot.” Lan Zhan bristled. Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes. “He found you before his memories had even come back,” he said, and for a moment he sounded less like the spring-coiled, brash Jiang Wanyin of their shared youth that he resembled, and more like the one who’d raised his sister’s child, resuscitated a decimated sect, and gifted his brother a silver bell with a purple tassel as a wedding present. “Even then, he was obsessed.” Jiang Wanyin tapped his fingers on the table. “He didn’t even know who you were,” he said, “and all he could think about was you.”
Lan Zhan pressed his lips together, absorbing this. “Where is he now?”
Jiang Wanyin huffed, “Trying to make a box to hold that cursed battery I won’t let him put back in my car.”
Again with the dialect mixing. Lan Zhan did not let himself be affected by just how annoying it—and, by extension, Jiang Wanyin—was. “He is cultivating,” he said, trying to make sure he understood correctly.
“Cultivating, inventing, trying to make sure that stupid curse isn’t going anywhere—whatever.” Jiang Wanyin waved his hand. “He’ll be back soon. He didn’t want you to worry.” Lan Zhan blinked.
“And, Lan Wangji.” Jiang Wanyin’s voice turned steely. Lan Zhan met his eyes. “My brother has been very gentle with you,” he said. “Remember to be gentle with him.”
“Wei Ying is my husband,” Lan Zhan said, voice low, trying not to let his affront show. Jiang Wanyin’s nostrils flared.
“I know,” he snapped. “Better remind him before he does something stupid and fucks it up.”
And before Lan Zhan could even think of a way to respond to that, Jiang Wanyin had turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
After that unexpected exchange, Lan Zhan found himself unable to focus again on his book. He sat in his bed, staring at the flawlessly cream-painted wall, and trying to figure out what Jiang Wanyin had meant by that.
In the end, it was another half a shichen before Wei Ying returned. When he came inside the room, he flashed an apologetic smile at Lan Zhan, who had abandoned staring at the wall for the more familiar comfort of his guqin. He couldn’t hold it up with spiritual energy, but it mostly fit lengthwise across the bed. He saw Wei Ying’s gaze flit to the books that Lan Xiaohui had left, and a brief pain flashed across his face and then was gone. Lan Zhan’s eyes narrowed.
“Wei Ying,” he said, placing his hands on the strings to still them.
“Ah, sorry, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to leave you alone for so long. I just got—distracted.”
“I have been kept occupied,” Lan Zhan said, indicating the books. He carefully watched as Wei Ying nodded and avoided looking at them. “Wei Ying?”
“Hm? Oh, I see Jiang Cheng actually brought the food. Wow. Was it good? I think there’s actually been a little bit of improvement, don’t you?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan sighed. “Do you wish…” he didn’t know quite how to word this. He wanted to be careful. Wei Ying was watching him now, wariness clear on his face. “You were living a full life, before,” he said. “I am—my presence. It is a disruption of that.”
Wei Ying’s eyes went wide. His lips parted, but no sound came out. Lan Zhan’s stomach dropped.
“No!” Wei Ying said loudly, overriding him. He came over, hesitated, then crawled right up onto the bed with Lan Zhan, alarmingly close to kicking the guqin. “No, no, no, no, no! Lan Zhan!” He gathered up Lan Zhan’s hands, pressing them against his heart. “Never,” he said, and bowed his head. “I don’t regret getting my memories, back. I could never regret finding you, I just…” he swallowed.
“You just…?” Lan Zhan quietly. His heart thumped painfully when Wei Ying looked back up at him, so sincere and so, so, sad.
“I wanted to save you,” he whispered. “I wanted to bring you home. Instead, all I did was bring you here, to this strange place. And you never had a choice in any of it.” His hold on Lan Zhan’s hands tightened. “I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
Lan Zhan exhaled, the tension of the afternoon bleeding from every muscle. He freed one of his hands from Wei Ying’s grip, and used it to lift Wei Ying’s chin. Wei Ying reluctantly met his gaze. “No sorry,” he said, voice tender, “no thanks between us.” He leaned in and pressed his lips to Wei Ying’s. He could taste the salt from the tears now falling freely and silently down Wei Ying’s face. When they parted, Wei Ying’s eyes had fluttered shut. Lan Zhan brushed the tears off his cheeks. “You have brought me home. Anywhere I am with Wei Ying, I am home.”
Wei Ying opened his eyes and managed a tremulous smile. “Ah, Lan Zhan,” he said. “Oh, my Lan Zhan.” He brought his own hands up to the sides of Lan Zhan’s face, and drew him in for another kiss. This one deeper, more heated, but no less sweet. “My heart can’t take this, you know?”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan allowed the corner of his mouth to curl up very slightly as Wei Ying abandoned all pretense at propriety and careful, cautious distance, and climbed into his lap. Lan Zhan’s hands went on instinct to Wei Ying’s hips. It had been more than one thousand years; it had been no time at all.
“Oh, ‘mm’ he says? No denial? It’s like you’re doing this on purpose,” Wei Ying said, drawing back, mouth red with kisses but serious, eyes dancing. He shifted, Lan Zhan’s grip on his hips tightening.
“Wei Ying,” he murmured, and brought his arm up to snake around Wei Ying’s neck, bringing him closer, closer. “Do not tease.”
“I would never.” He ground his hips again.
In response, Wei Ying laughed. Lan Zhan drank the sound of it, let it fill the empty spaces in his heart, cold for so long in sleep. He smiled down at Lan Zhan.
“The world has changed, my Lan Zhan,” he said, bringing his hand to press against Lan Zhan’s cheek. “But I’m so glad you’re in it.”
“I thought I’d find you here.”
Lan Zhan turned around from where he had been regarding the quiet, clear water in front of him. “Did you?”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian hedged. “First, I went to the back hill.” He was concealing something behind his back. “Had to get something before we take off.”
“What’s that?” Lan Zhan stepped away from the edges of the Cold Pond. He wriggled his toes inside his new boots, still unused to their stiffness, and joined Wei Wuxian on the upper bank.
“Well, don’t be mad,” Wei Wuxian said, to which Lan Zhan just gave him a patient look that only slightly bordered on exasperation. He pulled out the thing he had been hiding, and presented it to Lan Zhan. “I know you said it wasn’t—wasn’t the right time to stay at the Cloud Recesses,” he said, the speed of his words giving away his nerves as Lan Zhan’s eyes widened and he bent to examine the cage and the two small rabbits within. “But Lan Liang said it was fine to take them and I thought that it might, well.” He shrugged. “I know you like them,” he finished lamely, scratching the back of his neck. “You can’t hide it from me anymore, Lan-er-gege.”
“I would never dream of hiding such a thing from Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, and lips quirked in the tiniest of smiles. Wei Wuxian scoffed.
“No lying in Cloud Recesses!” he cried. “Absolutely unacceptable behavior, Hanguang-Jun!”
Lan Zhan slanted his eyes at him. He took the cage. “Where will we keep them?”
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian smiled. “My grandmother’s house in Yiling that I mentioned to you? It has plenty of room, believe me.”
“Always,” said Lan Zhan, and gestured for him to lead the way back up the path while Wei Wuxian choked a little.
It was a peculiar feeling, walking by the Jingshi. It had been their home, and still was, in a way, as Lan Xiaohui reassured them, but Wei Wuxian knew that, even when—or if—they returned to Cloud Recesses, they could never come back to what they had once had there. It was better to look forward, Lan Zhan had said, eyes speculative, to see who they might meet, or meet again, in this new existence. Wei Wuxian of course agreed with this sentiment, but another part of him was just grateful that they were going to live somewhere that had decent cell service.
“We might have to get married again,” he mentioned casually in the car, nearly causing Jiang Cheng to swerve into traffic. “For legal reasons, you know.” Lan Zhan, who alternated between looking very blank and looking very startled at the existence of base things like skyscrapers, traffic jams, and electric billboards, managed to tear his gaze away from the window to give Wei Wuxian a very intense look. His eyes not leaving the road, Jiang Cheng bit out,
“Would you two mind?”
“What?” Wei Wuxian said innocently, even as his cheeks heated. “Just trying to cover all our bases.”
“Well, don’t involve me in that,” Jiang Cheng said, shuddering.
“Do you think Nie Huaisang would be our best man? He is kind of responsible for us finding Lan Zhan in the first place.”
“That asshole would probably be delighted—wait, why am I not the best man? I helped carry him down a mountain! Wei Wuxian!”
“Nie Huaisang?” Lan Zhan put in, sounding entirely too interested.
Jiang Cheng groaned in realization. “Don’t tell me,” he said, while Wei Wuxian’s somewhat guilty silence in the back informed him that Jiang Cheng was apparently the last person in the car to know about this. He shook his head. “Never mind,” he said, as he changed lanes to exit off towards Yiling. “I don’t want to know.”
The house was just about as Wei Wuxian remembered it: low and sprawling, with the courtyard and an empty koi pond in the back. Jiang Fengmian had ensured its upkeep, just as promised, and it looked, if not exactly lived in, then livable. There was a light on in the front, and another in the kitchen. When they parked, Wei Wuxian turned to Jiang Cheng.
“Did you tell your parents that we were coming here?”
“I mentioned it,” said Jiang Cheng. “Wanted to make sure the water and stuff had been turned back on. Plus, the key.”
“Oh,” said Wei Wuxian. He got out of the car and was soon joined by Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng. “Yeah, okay.”
The three of them walked towards the front door. When they got there, Jiang Cheng overturned a few empty flowerpots, hunting for a key that was supposed to have been left there earlier in the afternoon, while Wei Wuxian took a moment to admire Lan Zhan’s silhouette in fitted trousers and a long coat. Lan Zhan caught him looking, and Wei Wuxian grinned, unashamed. He was going to take Lan Zhan shopping, Wei Wuxian thought, giddily. He was going to spend all his money on him.
“Aha!” Jiang Cheng said triumphantly, as he finally found the key and jammed it into the lock. He turned the doorknob, and they stepped inside.
But as soon as they cleared the threshold, Wei Wuxian froze. He could hear the murmur of soft voices emanating from the kitchen. For a brief and very confusing second, he thought that they had been the victims of the least competent home robbery in existence. Then, as the second voice hit him, his mouth dropped open in shock and something approaching appal. Not saying a word to an equally startled Jiang Cheng, he kicked off his shoes and stormed past both Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan to skid into the kitchen, finger raised, saying loudly,
“Hello, A-Ying,” said the old woman, sitting at the table, drinking tea, her eyes twinkling. “Would you like some tea?”
“Tea?” Wei Wuxian screeched. Still in the entryway, Lan Zhan shot Jiang Cheng a very concerned look. Jiang Cheng, opting for efficiency over lengthy, confusing explanations, simply pushed him into the kitchen and then stumbled in after. “Tea?”
“Oh, A-Cheng,” the old woman said warmly as Jiang Cheng tripped over the threshold after Lan Zhan. She pursed her lips and eyed him. “You did grow up well.”
“Grandmother!” Wei Wuxian demanded, outraged.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, moving towards him to put a comforting hand on his back. He turned towards the strange old woman in the kitchen. “Who is this?”
But before Wei Wuxian, or Jiang Cheng, or even the old woman could answer, the second person sitting at the table, who up until that point had said nothing, sitting with his back to the door, turned around and stood.
“Wangji,” he said, voice warm and full of relief and something approaching tears. “Welcome back.”
Lan Zhan stared at the man. His face was full of lines, his hair more silver than black, but he carried himself with a familiar straightness, a confidence. His eyes…Lan Zhan’s throat caught.
“Xiongzhang?” he said. It was impossible. This was impossible. The man nodded. Lan Zhan squeezed his eyes shut, opened them, and the man was directly in front of him, then embracing him. Lan Zhan breathed him in, felt his older brother’s familiar current of power encircling him, meeting him.
“What,” said Wei Wuxian faintly. He stared at Lan Zhan and the impossibly still surviving Lan Xichen, then back to his grandmother, then back to the Twin Jades.
“No idea,” said Jiang Cheng, who was, at this point, regretting getting out of the car. He should’ve just dropped them off. He leaned against the counter and considered if any of them would notice him leaving.
“A-Ying,” said the old woman, “I’m glad you’ve been well.” She glanced at Lan Zhan. “Very well, it would seem,” she added.
“You said you were going into seclusion,” Wei Wuxian said numbly. He pointed at Lan Xichen. “How is that seclusion?”
“A-Ying,” she said firmly, “when I told you there were things that could not wait, you must believe me that there were things that could not wait.” He stared at her balefully. Her voice softened. “I am sorry for your hurt,” she said. “I stayed as long as I could.”
“Wei Wuxian.” Lan Xichen had let go of Lan Zhan, but still kept close to him. He bowed in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “The fault is partly mine. Please forgive this one.”
Wei Wuxian squinted at him. “I’m still mad at you,” he decided, pointing at the old woman. He then pointed to Lan Xichen, “But I can’t be mad at you, because that would upset Lan Zhan.” He rubbed his temples. “Now, if one of you would very kindly tell the rest of us what’s going on?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan said quietly. “An explanation.” He turned to his brother. “Xiongzhang, who is this woman to you?”
“Wangji.” Lan Xichen put his hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “After what Wei-gongzi had done, we knew you still lived, but neither how nor where, and Wei-gongzi could no longer tell us.” At the reminder, Lan Zhan’s expression clouded. Lan Xichen said, “When you returned to us, I did not want…” He squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “You had been alone, before. I could not bear to leave you alone again.” He took a deep breath. “So I sought someone out who could help me expand my cultivation so that I could be there, whenever you were able to return.”
“I was reluctant to take him on at first,” the old woman said casually, sitting again at the table, sipping her tea. Next to her, Wei Wuxian grudgingly accepted the cup that Jiang Cheng handed to him. “But he was very persistent.” She lifted her cup to Lan Xichen in an imitation of a toast. “Senior Apprentice.”
“Master,” Lan Xichen returned, with a short, humorous bow. Over at the table, Wei Wuxian slowly turned to stare at her.
“You knew,” he said. “You knew this whole time.” His voice rose. “You knew who I was!”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” He slammed the cup of tea down on the table. “Why did you leave me to—and the seizures and—”
“A-Ying,” she said, sliding his cup out of the way to prevent further damage. When he glared at her, her voice sharpened. “A-Ying,” she said again, and he looked at her sullenly. “I raised a boy with potential,” she said, “and I gave him all the tools I could. The memories and everything else, those things had to come in their own time. My interference would only have made everything more complicated.” She patted his hand. He frowned, but did not pull away.
“You could have visited,” he said. “You could have left a phone number.”
“I am here now,” she said. “It will have to be enough.”
“Will you stay?” Wei Wuxian said, but even as he spoke, he knew the answer.
“The wards on the mountain are strong and difficult to maintain for long without upkeep,” Lan Xichen said. “She will have to return soon.”
“And you?” Lan Zhan asked quietly. Lan Xichen shook his head.
“Once an apprentice comes down from the mountain,” he said, “down the mountain he must stay.” He nodded towards Wei Wuxian. “I should have expected Wei-gongzi would manage to reincarnate in record time just to make his way back to you. Of course I no longer worry you will be alone. All the same.” He smiled and drew back, as if drinking in the sight of Lan Zhan's face. “I have missed you, Wangji. It has been a very long time.”
Lan Zhan swallowed. “Wei Ying,” he said. Wei Wuxian waved him off.
“Yes, yes, of course he can stay. Your brother’s like, ten times less annoying than my brother—”
“—he’s totally welcome to stay here.” Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows drew together. “As long as he stops calling me Wei-gongzi,” he added. While Lan Xichen huffed out a small, agreeable laugh, Wei Wuxian turned to the immortal cultivator who had raised him. “You can stay too,” he muttered, “until you have to go back.”
“Thank you, A-Ying,” she said graciously. “This is my house.”
He sputtered. “You gave it to me!”
“In my Will,” she corrected. She indicated herself. “As you can see, I’m not dead yet.”
“That can be fixed,” he informed her. She snorted, then grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him into a hug. He felt the air leave his lungs and he let out an embarrassing “Oof,” as she squeezed him tight.
He had forgotten just how strong she was.
“I am very proud of you, A-Ying,” she murmured, “and of how far you have come.” Wei Wuxian stiffened, and then felt the tension leach away. He exhaled, turning his face into her shoulder.
“Thank you, Grandmother,” he said, and closed his eyes, the sound and scent and sense of home all around. “Thank you.”