What does %E9%AD%94%E9%81%93%E7%A5%96%E5%B8%88 mean

Chapter Text

Nights always came early in Gusu.

Wei Wuxian was lying in bed, counting hours that passed. Day had already given way to dreary dusk. It brought a drizzle with it, and a chilly wind that spoke of autumn looming on the horizon. He felt its chill, and the burning of the golden core in his chest did nothing to shield him against it.

His first core had never felt so turbulent, so foreign as this one did. It fluttered and thrashed against his sternum like a second heart, restless and inconsolable. Spiritual energy fluctuated with it like a wave; it left him nauseous and hoping that if he closed his eyes, the sensation would pass. It did not, so he took Suibian and Chenqing into his arms and curled around them. After a while, the pain from the wounds on his torso settled to a dull throbbing. After a while, the raging storm of his thoughts turned into a mellow buzz he could almost ignore.

After a while, he nearly convinced himself that the predicament he had found himself in was not troubling.

Sixteen years. Out of them, thirteen spent dead.

Did he have any right at all to call this body his? The features he wore now were unknown to him, softer and nearly boyish. He was slim now where he used to be broad, and weaker than acceptable. There was no scar in the middle of his chest, that constant reminder of the day on which Wen Qing had cut into him at his own request, and no Wen brand beneath his clavicle. No sign of the multitude of smaller scars remained. The bump in his right ankle was no more and those badly healed bones were intact again.

He listened to his breathing and the sound of his heartbeat, and they were wrong.

Sixteen years. Thirteen years. Dead.

He had died and did not remember it. He had gone to the afterlife and did not remember that either. How should he feel? Should the awareness of it sit like a stone in his mind and heart? Was it supposed to be a scar on his very soul, a tear between the worlds he would carry within up till the day death claimed him again?

Elbows-deep he had surrounded himself with the dead, but could not tell what it was like to be one of them.

Sixteen years. Thirteen years. A body that felt like a cage. A body in which he was an intruder. Blood under his fingernails was gone, but not that on his hands; never that. Shijie’s blood, Jin Zixuan’s, Wen Qing’s—

(...what I’m supposed to do now?)

—and countless others’. Blood in which he could bathe, overflowing even the pool in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. Blood that stained, blood that called, blood that seeped under his skin to stay and—

(Thirteen years. Dead. The shadow in his hand, eating into his soul. I will. It tore him to pieces and put back as it saw fit and it hurt and hurt and hurt and shijie lay on the ground in—)

—someone had taken their own life to give him back his own and—

(But he had never lost it.)

—now he breathed and thought and lived again at the cost of another life and what even was another life when he had taken so many and everyone who has ever loved you he stood with his back against a tree and—

(He was not dead, he could not have died, he lived and lived and it was wrong and everyone who has ever loved you and only then I will—)

—claws and blood and a hand around his throat fires burning they were coming from all sides swords out and talismans ablaze and he was late too late too late I will kill everyone who has ever loved you and A-Yuan’s hands reaching out for him when he turned his back to him to loved you and only then I—

—a hand clasped like chains around his arm, unshakable. He shot upwards despite the outburst of pain in his abdomen. Suibian was heavy in his arms, inviting and familiar, but it was Chenqing he thrust in front of him. “Get away from me!” he yelled even though there was no resentful energy in range he could draw upon to use. Defenceless he was, like a newborn babe or a senile man hunched under the weight of the years.

“Wei Ying!”

He opened his eyes and it was Lan Wangji who was sitting on the bed. Not the colourful mob that had long turned red by the time they came for him, neither the suffocating yoke of regrets that plagued his sleep and waking thoughts alike. Just Lan Wangji; white, unblemished, perfect.

He was looking intently at Wei Wuxian with a furrowed brow and a fistful of robes in a clenched hand. The other was on the bed next to Wei Wuxian.

“Lan Zhan.” He took a deep breath; the wounds flared to life but the pain was bearable. Perhaps he simply got accustomed to it. Heavens only knew he could hardly remember the last time nothing hurt.

“Nightmares again?”

Again? Was he still having them then, after all those years? “I... yes.” What did he dream about, this future him he had become? “Did I hurt you?”

Lan Wangji only shook his head wordlessly.

“All right, good. Good.” He made an attempt to uncurl his fingers from around Chenqing. They cracked, stiff and aching. He would have liked nothing else than put them in a bowl of hot water and grab some of Wen Qing’s ointment she had prepared—

But Wen Qing was dead and there was no more ointment and no more shouting he had grown so accustomed to. Reading between the lines became easier over time, and he learnt to recognise affection that lay hidden underneath. He had almost made her smile one day; just barely, but it was a success much greater than learning how to fly on a sword.

“What’s that smell?”

Lan Wangji pointed subtly at the tray lying on the writing table. “Supper. Congee, tea, and pain remedy.” He got up to bring it over and set it atop Wei Wuxian’s legs. Congee was still warm and – much to Wei Wuxian’s surprise – as red as it would have been had he prepared it himself. “Physician Liu will come tomorrow. It’s safe for you to go to the cold springs tonight.”

He was probably wolfing down his supper like a savage, but hunger turned that particular worry irrelevant. Any food they managed to grow at the Burial Mounds tasted bitter, like ashes and something old, nearly intangible. With no money to spare, he had given up on buying food in Yiling, and just—

Only after a moment did it come back to him. Years lay between him and the Burial Mounds now, years that were nothing but a phantom he could not grasp.

Suddenly, his supper no longer tasted as good as it did moments ago.

Still, he cleaned the bowl and drained the cups under the watchful eye of Lan Wangji. The intensity of his gaze was unnerving. Wei Wuxian felt it worm its way under his skin and cut him to pieces from within. He had no secrets left to unearth, no grand stories or glorious endings. Instead, there was ash under his skin and fear in his veins, and he had carried them for so long they no longer felt heavy. The Burial Mounds lodged themselves in his heart, immovable. A long time ago, the sun itself had come down from the sky and burnt him into a husk. He took what he could find in a place where everything only ever got lost and rebuilt himself with it.

So if he was doomed to carry the ash and the dead in him, at the very least he would do it proudly. Still, it was hardly something worth looking at.

He was hardly something worth looking at, especially if it was Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji had never looked at him twice, after all, and when he had, it was always with scorn and displeasure. One could withstand only so much displeasure before it got unbearable.

And unbearable it had got, a long time ago; back in those days of shadows and grief and the kind of life they were never supposed to get used to.

“Lan Zhan?” A hum was all got in response but it was all right. He had long known that Lan Wangji communicated in monosyllables and unreadable looks. “What are we?”

Lan Wangji folded his hands in his lap. If not for the frown, he would have been a mirror image of his teenage self, that silent boy bathed in innocent grace and ethereal timelessness. “Cultivation partners,” he said without a moment of hesitation. Wei Wuxian sucked in a breath. “Lawfully wedded husbands.”

He heard those words but they made no sense. It was impossibility summed up in five words. It was a thing that would never come to pass described in two short sentences. It was too bizarre a scenario to even happen in a dream.

The sun was more likely to rise in the west than Lan Wangji was to marry him.

Wei Wuxian could only blink. Speechless he was, and empty of ire.

“Wei Ying.” Perhaps it truly was worry in Lan Wangji’s light eyes, but Wei Wuxian had never been able to read him well. If things were different now, if Lan Wangji finally made sense in this life they were seemingly going through together, Wei Wuxian was now stripped off all knowledge. “I know this may—”

“You don’t know shit,” he snapped. “Does this mean I’m in your clan’s registry now? As who?”

“Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, the Yiling Patriarch,” Lan Wangji said. He did not flinch or scowl. His face reflected nothing and Wei Wuxian wanted to scream. “Husband of Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji, Hanguang-Jun.”

“If you Lans weren’t unable to tell jokes, I’d say you’re making fun of me.” His laugh was a dry sound that scraped his throat and left a bitter taste in his mouth. Hopes of companionship and intimacy had been haunting his dreams for longer than he dared to admit, but he had never expected them to come to fruition. Not like this. Not with Lan Wangji. “So what, are you trying to tell me that you care for me? That you—” He could barely even acknowledge the word he needed, let alone say it out loud. “That you love me?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said as if admitting that was the easiest thing in the world, as if it did not uproot Wei Wuxian’s existence and scatter it all around him.

“Since when?”

That gave Lan Wangji pause. His brow furrowed slightly and his eyes lost some of that terrifying focus. Wei Wuxian knew that look. He had seen it often enough in the past, directed at a book or a particularly complicated piece of research. Numerous were the occasions he had taken advantage of this minuscule slip of attention, and startling Lan Wangji at times like that had always given delightful results.

How stupid he had been. How naive.

“Sometime after the archery competition and before the cave of Xuanwu. After the burning of the Cloud Recesses.” Lan Wangji’s eyes became pensive, distant, as if he was looking over the veil of time at the past long gone. Wei Wuxian did not dare to say a word. He did not think he could speak at all, with the heart in his throat and a mind full of buzzing thoughts. “I remember hoping you wouldn’t have to stand against them alone.”

“I...” He rubbed his face. It saved him from the necessity of looking at Lan Wangji. “You hated me. All those years, ever since we met. You hated me.”


“Everyone knew.” The memory of it still hurt. Nie Huaisang had looked at him with pity, Jiang Cheng’s voice had been full of scoff – and yet Wei Wuxian had always laughed at them and held on to hope. Eventually, time brought an end even to that. “Everyone saw.”

“No.” Lan Wangji was like a mountain, immovable in his conviction. “I never hated you.”

“Well, you’ve done a shit job at showing it, then.” Did he truly dare to claim he loved Wei Wuxian? He had looked down upon him, brushed him off, refused even the tiniest offer of help, but it still took a sword pointed at him for Wei Wuxian to finally take the hint.

Lan Wangji heaved a sigh and closed his eyes. His face reflected nothing. “I know,” he said after a moment. With hesitation so unusual for him, he took Wei Wuxian’s hand and brought it to his lips. The kiss was gentle, but his breath was scorching hot. “It’s easier now.” He flipped Wei Wuxian’s hand over and pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist. This time his lips lingered. Only after a shuddering exhale did he let go. “I’m learning. We both are.”

“I don’t...” Wei Wuxian bit his tongue before he could finish the sentence. What was he even about to say? ‘I don’t remember any of that’? Or maybe just, ‘I don’t love you’? Thoughts in his head ran in circles like startled animals. Incredulity bordering on mortification set his face aflame and did not help in the slightest. “I can’t even...”

“It is all right.” Lan Wangji kissed his forehead and pulled him gently up to his feet. “The cold springs will help.”

Wei Wuxian could stand upright but that was the end of it. His legs still shook beneath him. “I don’t think I can walk that far.” Curse those injuries, curse his weakness; he was tired and furious at them in equal measure. “Maybe I should wait until I get better.”

“No need.” Lan Wangji wrapped that black robe around him and picked him up as if he weighed nothing. The outburst of pain was brief and nearly negligible considering Wei Wuxian’s earlier carelessness. Panic always made him act first and think much, much later. He had forced that habit down and buried it deep within his heart the moment he brought the Wens to the Burial Mounds. It would have done them no good if he acted like an irresponsible child – and after all, he had not saved them only to doom them later because of his own recklessness.

But doom them he had, had he not? He had lost his wits on that one occasion he should have kept them about him, and it brought pain and death upon everyone. The whisper of destruction in his palm became a thunderstorm that swept everything on its path and he let it.

However, that was then. Now, the Cloud Recesses were quiet around them and only the stream murmured constantly nearby. The drizzle had already died down. Lan Wangji said nothing as he walked, and Wei Wuxian was glad for that. For once, no words came to his mind to fill in the silence.

If memories were what made a person, then what did that mean for him? He knew not what led him to the place he despised. He knew not what made the man incapable of feelings shower him with adoring touches. His life was ripped from his hands and a resurgence of the past was what he was given in exchange. And in that past, a phantom writhed at his feet and whispered sweet nothings directly into his heart until he could not take it anymore.

He had created death and then laughed in its face as he destroyed it. Now they told him he had died that day and even though he could not remember the moment itself, it was a price he had been expecting to pay.

“We should keep the bandages dry.”

They were at the spring already. Wei Wuxian did not even notice when they arrived, but he let himself be put down without a fuss. Every sound was muted as if the world itself became distant. He did not mind the stillness – maybe his turbulent golden core would finally quieten down as well.

“This place hasn’t changed at all.” He let Lan Wangji take off his robe and unwrap the bandages. It was harmless enough an action to spare him embarrassment. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend it was Wen Qing. “How none of you Lans come here after sunset is beyond me.”

“We do, so no one else comes.” Lan Wangji folded the robe with ease and placed it on a rock nearby. The bandages soon followed suit. “Privacy.”

“Privacy? Why would—oh.” Blood rushed to Wei Wuxian’s face again and the chilly air suddenly became stifling hot. The thought itself made his insides church, let alone the implications of it. “Fuck, Lan Zhan. Isn’t that against your rules?”

Lan Wangji took off his own robes and extended a hand for Wei Wuxian to take. “Extenuating circumstances.”

He left that without any further comment as he walked into the blissfully cool water. So long as he did not dwell on the matter, he could pretend it was irrelevant. Too much lay on his mind, too many unspoken questions were there, begging for attention. He ignored them all for now, and his heart settled somewhat. Time would come for him to unravel the threads of this life; thinking about it now was going to bring him nothing but frustration and that was the last thing he needed.

He watched Lan Wangji instead, this statue of a man at his side, holding his hand with one-sided familiarity. A Wen Sect brand was on his chest, and a tangled mass of protruding scars covered the entirety of his back. In their teenage years, he had had none of that, and later Wei Wuxian had not had the opportunity to see him undressed. The war left its imprint on everyone – on some even more so than the others. He would know; he bore a fair share of them himself.

Or he had, as he reminded himself once again. The feeling of wrongness came back with full force and lodged itself in his brain like a nail. He supposed that this was how having his life snatched from his fingers felt like, this emptiness in a place where memories used to be. His heartbeat echoed within in, just as empty.

“What happened?” he asked. Lan Wangji hummed under his breath, so he took it as encouragement. “During all those years I—” missed, whispered his stubborn mind, “don’t remember. What happened?”

“Meditate,” Lan Wangji chided him. He moved to stand behind Wei Wuxian; water lapped around them in small waves. “Cultivate. It will help you heal.”

His proximity made Wei Wuxian’s skin crawl. He had had enough of looking over his shoulder to last him a lifetime. “Yeah, yeah, I will.” The wounds were not nearly as bad as his golden core, but it was neither time nor the opportunity to speak about that particular problem. “Tell me while I do?”

And tell him Lan Wangji did, in words that were few but thus counted all the more. He spoke of grief that passed and hope that did not. He spoke of a hunt for answers that uncovered decade-old truths and ruined relationships that were even older. He spoke of happy days and glorious nights, and of a long journey of learning each other and picking apart layer after layer until no questions remained.

Wei Wuxian wished he could remember it all. Lan Wangji’s story ended in peace and contentment; after everything he had gone through, it would be a blessing to experience them. And now it was gone, having left only emptiness behind, and that brought fury to life in Wei Wuxian’s heart. At himself or the world, he did not know, but it was there, growing.

It smelled of blood.

“So the junior who came to see me earlier,” he said, trying to keep his mind from dwelling on what was lost. He attempted to piece Lan Wangji’s story together instead, those threads of events and knowledge he was no longer privy to. It was too good to believe in, that one particular part, but what if. What if. “Are you telling me that was A-Yuan? Little Wen Yuan I buried in the ground between radishes?”

“Lan Yuan, yes.” Lan Wangji’s voice was quiet behind him, like a gentle murmur of a faraway waterfall. Everything about the Cloud Recesses was quiet and only he, Wei Wuxian, was not. “Lan Sizhui. I found him after the—after. Adopted him. Raised him. He’s ours, now.”

‘Father,’ the boy had called him, and Wei WuXian had taken that word and broken him with it. Disgust spread like poison in his heart.

“I have to apologise, I didn’t... I didn’t treat him well.”

A hand on his shoulder, warm and strong and yet so gentle. Wei Wuxian’s breath hitched as indecision nearly tore him in two. Should he shrug it off? Or should he put his own hand on top of Lan Wangji’s as if nothing changed?

In the end, Lan Wangji decided for him and moved further away. “Sizhui will understand. Now cultivate. Your wounds will heal faster with spiritual energy.”

Normal cultivation was like a limb Wei Wuxian had lost but always felt despite its absence. It had taken him many days to stop trying to reach for something that was no longer there – days that could have cost his life had he dallied any longer. He used to dream about flying on Suibian, about the warmth and weight of the golden core in his body, and those dreams always left him shaken in the morning.

And if he shed a tear after waking up, there was no one beside him to know.

Now that it was within his reach again, he held back, reluctant. The power was there, at his fingertips, and all he had to do was reach out and seize what he had once willingly given up. A second chance at life granted him by a nameless man – it was already more than he could have hoped for.

So he closed his eyes and let his mind wander inward. The golden core was right there, waiting; much weaker than his old – his first, his original, his greatest treasure given away without a second thought. Still, it mattered not; it was more than he had had up till now—more than he had before his death.

It still felt surreal. It still felt wrong.

He pushed that thought aside lest it distracted him. The core lay waiting, so he seized it like he used to all those years ago. It felt like holding a sun in his palm, only the sun was in his heart; it shone in his veins and warmed his mind, and he wanted to weave a cloak out of it and hide in its shadow. He would disappear from the world and the world, in turn, would forget about him, and in time he would emerge to face a world changed. A fresh start and a quiet home, and a place to rest would all be there; and he would sit down and breathe without the burden of the past.

For the first time in years, that nostalgic musing was not a weakness that could kill him, but an indulgence he was more than welcome to enjoy. So he did, and his heart felt lighter.

The golden core was solid and steady in his mind’s hand. An exhale – and he let it settle, warm and steady. It was calm for a change, had been ever since he woke up. Then an inhale – and he pulled spiritual energy into his meridians. Just a small wisp of it, no more than a junior disciple barely out of their crib would. The flow was steady and seamlessly joined what was already coursing through his body. For a moment, he felt blissfully light-headed, doused with contentment and awash with warmth. For a moment, he could not care less that this was but a fraction of energy he had had at his disposal before the Sunshot Campaign. For a moment, everything was perfect.

Then the core jolted suddenly and it felt as if Wen Qing was cutting him open all over again.

He swayed on his feet, breathless. Lan Wangji was by his side within a blink of an eye, before Wei Wuxian uttered so much as a groan of pain.

“Wei Ying?” His arms were warm around Wei Wuxian’s waist. “What is the matter?”

Goosebumps rose on his skin as the water suddenly got even colder. “Nothing,” he said out of habit. The core shuddered again – his spiritual energy surged as well a breath later. His veins were full of fire while his lungs collapsed around his heart – and for one, terrifying moment Wei Wuxian was certain he would burst open right where he stood.

“Wei Ying!” Lan WangJi turned him around. He was taller than he had been in the past. “Talk to me.”

“I don’t think cultivating so soon after Qi deviation was a good idea.” Only now did he realise he gritted his teeth. Opening his mouth to speak was painful, and drawing a breath felt akin to swallowing flames. “That’s it for today.”

Lan Wangji’s arms tightened around him. It did nothing to ease his breathing. At any other day and any other time, in circumstances that would be his choice, it would please Wei Wuxian to have that effect on someone, to have someone who cared for him.

Now, all he wanted to do was escape.

“Lan Zhan, I’ll be fine.” He could tell himself that his voice was clipped, more bark than civil tone. “Your doctor said so, didn’t she? I just need to rest.” Tentatively, he put his hand on Lan Wangji’s arm. Muscles under his skin were tense, stone-like. “Please. I want to go to bed and sleep. I probably should’ve just waited a few more days before actually doing anything.”

Lan Wangji closed his eyes for a moment. Eventually, he nodded wordlessly, and Wei Wuxian considered that a success he would have never achieved in the past. The satisfaction he felt at that was warm; it spread through him and filled him with contentment, soft and fragile. It was such a nice change, to be free of Lan Wangji’s ever-present hostility.

He let himself be led out of the springs and up the stone steps. Lan Wangji draped the black robe meticulously around him and only now Wei Wuxian could appreciate the softness of the fabric. He did not mind the assistance. Even though his golden core was less than agreeable, the pain of his wounds subsided greatly. Whatever magic the Lans had cast upon their springs ages ago, it still worked perfectly. Wei Wuxian decided to go and burn a handful of incense sticks in the Ancestral Hall the moment he felt well enough to walk on his own. Having married into the clan, surely he was allowed to enter the Hall whenever he wanted, was he not?

Married. To Lan Wangji, of all people. He still had a hard time wrapping his head around it.

Lan Wangji scooped him up without a preamble. Not even Wen Chao had rendered him speechless and yet here he was, Wei Wuxian, with a silver tongue and mind swift like a viper and just as deadly, left without a single word. And what could he even say in a situation such as this? What did anyone say to a person who cared for them, who loved them, all the while they remembered nothing of it?

Wei Wuxian glanced at the line of Lan Wangji’s jaw and could not even tell how he felt about him. Too many times had he heard, ‘He must hate you now,’ to not start believing it himself.

The house was quiet and dimly lit when they got back. Lan Wangji put him down on the bed, hands lingering and eyes averted. They spoke more than he ever could.

“I don’t remember... whatever this is between us,” Wei Wuxian blurted out before he could change his mind. Lan WangJi backed away as if burnt—and maybe he was. After all, words sometimes cut deeper than any knife. “But you... I don’t want you to behave like a stranger in your own home. I’m not going to have sex with you right now—”

Lan Wangji blanched and it would have been amusing if only the circumstances had been different. “You’re injured!”

“—but you can touch me,” Wei Wuxian finished, hoping he sounded braver than he felt. Whatever experience he—they—had, he forgot it all and that left him with nothing but his imagination to draw from. That, in turn, gave him absolutely nothing. “You don’t have to treat me as if I’m about to break. I’m not. I’m injured, not made of golden foil.”

After a moment of silence, Lan Wangji sat down next to him. Another, even longer while had to pass before he took Wei Wuxian’s hand. It was trembling slightly; Wei Wuxian squeezed it gently, trying to convey reassurance while pretending he did not need it himself.

“I...” Lan Wangji’s voice was quiet, uncertain. It had always been like that and so when he spoke, the wind itself stopped blowing and the mountains stooped down to listen. Now Wei Wuxian could hardly discern his words, even though he was sitting right next to him. “I do not...”

Wei Wuxian lay down slowly, mindful of his wounds and the nauseating fluctuations of spiritual energy. He tugged at Lan Wangji’s hand even though his heart was beating like mad. Whatever Lan Wangji wanted now, was more than Wei Wuxian could possibly handle.

But it did not change the fact that he had a husband to comfort, and that husband was little more than a stranger to him.

“Come,” he said, tugging again at Lan Wangji’s hand. His voice was suffused with bravado so false that even he cringed at it. “Don’t be like that.”

An eternity passed before Lan Wangji lay down next to him, stiff as a board. Wei Wuxian waited in silence; at the very least, he could offer that small comfort. What would the future him do? Would he tease until Lan Wangji break? Would he laugh and talk until no one remembered what silence even was? Would he take Lan Wangji’s face in his hands and kiss it all over?

Eventually, finally, Lan Wangji gripped his hand tightly. He pressed his face into Wei Wuxian’s arm and Wei Wuxian had enough self-restraint left not to comment on the dampness he felt on his skin.

“You almost died.” He had never heard Lan Wangji so shaken, so broken. His voice was that of a man from whom life had ripped everything he held dear. “I cannot lose you again.”

“I’m not that easy to kill, Lan Zhan.” He always resorted to humour when words failed him, but never stopped to think twice about it. Now Lan Wangji went rigid next to him, his grip tightening even further. Any more of it and Wei Wuxian would have to start to worry about his hand. “Sorry, sorry, don’t mind me. I know...”

He shut his mouth. After all, he did not know.

For a long while, Lan Wangji’s shaky breathing and Wei Wuxian’s own thundering heartbeat were the only sounds he could hear. The silence that fell over the Cloud Recesses at night was that of a yawning grave.

“How did I get injured?” he asked the question that was nagging him mercilessly from the moment he had seen the wounds. They were extreme even for a cultivator – and this body seemed to be mediocre at cultivation at best. Chenqing remaining within a hand’s reach was enough of a clue to realise that he still relied on demonic cultivation even as a Lan in anything but name. “You didn’t tell me earlier.”

“A night hunt. You were supervising the juniors.” Amidst the shock and confusion, a sliver of warmth found its way to Wei Wuxian’s heart. Even after everything that had happened, they still let him take care of the kids. It was inconceivable—it was wonderful. “They were investigating rumours about a demonic beast. It came after you rather than them and...” Instead of speaking, Lan Wangji put a hand on Wei Wuxian’s abdomen. The wounds stung a bit but all discomfort evaporated when spiritual energy followed the touch like nights followed days. “You killed it but it was fast enough to hurt you. And then...”

“Then what?”

“Then you drew an array with your blood and activated it.”

He propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at Lan Wangji. “Why did I do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how do you know it happened? Were you there?”

Lan Wangji looked away from him. “I arrived after. Too late.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Sizhui’s report. He described everything.”

Something was not right, but Wei Wuxian did not know what or at which point. “What kind of array was that?”

“I don’t know.” Displeasure was written clearly on Lan Wangji’s face, but Wei Wuxian could not tell what it was directed at. Neither did he know how to ask. He never knew with Lan Wangji. “I only saw a circle of scorched ground with you bleeding out in the middle of it.”

Lan Wangji’s desperate grip on his hand tightened again, so Wei Wuxian lay back down. What was he supposed to do now? Intimacy had been an unknown before – and now that he finally found out what it was like to have someone to rely on, he forgot it all.

How much time did they spend on learning about each other? How many days did they devote to acquainting themselves with the shape of their bodies and the cadence of their voices in the throes of pleasure? What exactly happened to make him look at Lan Wangji and think, ‘I want to marry that man’?

Now Wei Wuxian was seeing only a person who had once almost become his friend.

Still, he snuggled against Lan Wangji’s side as much as his wounds allowed. Maybe if he kept doing that, his heart would remember what his mind did not. “I’ll figure it out later,” he mumbled, putting a considerable effort to make his voice sound more tired than he truly was. This was neither time nor place for him to unravel the tangled knot of his relationship with Lan Wangji. “Please don’t wake me up at some unholy hour in the morning.”

Lan Wangji said nothing. Instead, he brushed his lips against Wei Wuxian’s forehead in a kiss that was more a whisper than actual touch. Lying so close to him, Wei Wuxian smelled only sandalwood that permanently clung to his robes. He did not mind. Even though it lacked familiarity, anything was better than the smell of ash and decay that ruled at the Burial Mounds.

Curled against Lan Wangji’s side, he lay awake long into the night, thinking of nothing.

Liu Yingyue came back in the afternoon with Lan Wangji hot on her heels.

Wei Wuxian was in and out of it the entire morning. When he slept, he dreamt of unclear shapes and incessant whispers. Being awake brought him endless thoughts and the throbbing of the golden core in his chest. There was no escape from either, and exhaustion grew every time he woke up.

By the time they arrived, he wanted to scream.

“Master Wei.” Liu Yingyue dropped familiarity she had treated him with the day before. He did not mind that in the slightest. To him, they were strangers. “Hanguang-Jun told me you couldn’t cultivate yesterday.”

“I’ve... had some difficulties,” he admitted, too tired to think about flowery excuses and half-hearted lies. Whatever was affecting his golden core, he just wanted it to stop. There was already more than enough on his mind. “How much time has to pass after Qi deviation before it’s safe to use spiritual energy again?”

“It depends on the person and their cultivation.” She approached the bed and held out her hand. “May I?”

Wei Wuxian smiled at her, and there was nothing pleasant about that smile. “You’re the doctor.”

Lan Wangji was standing right next to him, watching Liu Yingyue without a word. His face was impassive save for a nigh imperceptible furrow. He had left in the morning before Wei Wuxian even woke up, and came back a few hours later with a tray of food. ‘Acting Sect Leader,’ someone had called him the day before. Wei Wuxian could see it – the harried look in his eyes and the need to be everywhere at once that bled out of him and soured the air itself. He remembered it well – uncle Jiang had acted the same way many, many years ago when the Lotus Pier still stood and the ground was not coated with blood.

It was an incredibly bad look on Lan Wangji.

“Your golden core is completely out of sync with your meridians,” Liu Yingyue said after a while. She was still holding his wrist. Wei Wuxian felt his pulse throb against her fingers. “It wasn’t like this before your injury.”

“Qi deviation?” Lan Wangji asked before Wei Wuxian could. His voice was steady, but his hands were balled into fists. Had he been doing that in the past as well? Wei Wuxian could not recall it no matter how hard he tried.

“No, it would have escalated by now.” She probed further, and he felt tendrils of her spiritual energy mingle with his. It was a weak, dull sensation; as if someone cut off his hands and told him to touch something. “Use your spiritual energy, master Wei.”

“On what?”

“Anything.” She was looking at him but he doubted she was actually seeing him. He felt bare under her scrutiny, taken apart piece by piece. “Just a little bit.”

And thus he poked her hand, putting as much force in it as a toddler would. At first, he felt nothing; then another wave of energy rippled through him like a wave, bringing nausea back in the full force.

“You don’t have it under control,” Liu Yingyue said, still watching him avidly. “It’s as if your body responds to you will with delay.”

How marvellously useless her words were. Annoyance rose within him and Wei Wuxian did nothing to control it. “What does it mean? How do I fix it?”

“You tell me, master Wei,” she shot back. “It’s your body. You should’ve noticed warning signs earlier.”

“But it’s not my body, isn’t it? Not really. Some desperate idiot sacrificed himself to summon me.” He looked at Lan Wangji. “At least that’s what you told me yesterday.”

Liu Yingyue gripped his hand tighter. “Tell me about the body offering ritual,” she demanded. Her spiritual energy expanded in his meridians; being cut open from within would probably hurt less. “It’s your invention, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It’s...” He sucked in a breath when a more insistent nudge left him breathless and blind for a moment. Whatever she was doing, he was more than tempted to tell her to stop. “The caster sacrifices his soul and pays in his body to summon a ghost of their choice.”

“And? What about the summoned soul?”

“It gets bound to—shit—the body as if it were born with it.” He wheezed in a breath when Liu Yingyue tugged at something in his mind and pulled, and it felt like his mind shattered in two. “Will you stop?!”

“Can it be undone?” She was still holding his hand but at least the incessant probing stopped. “The binding created by the ritual.”

“No.” When did he even invent that ritual? It had to have been one of those days that were nothing but a blur of urgency and whispers in his memory. “There are two arrays involved in this. The one outside is the summoning circle, but the one on the body is what binds the ghost to it.”

“So if the soul was banished from the body, the binding would activate again and pull the soul back?”

“In theory, yes.” He gave her a mirthless smile. “Physician Liu, are you planning on learning demonic cultivation? I don’t even know if I’m taking students right now.”

“No students,” Lan Wangji said quietly. He had not moved in a while and resembled a rope with only one last thread still intact. Any careless move, any stronger gust of wind, and it would snap. Wei Wuxian did not want to be the one to make that happen. “You do not teach demonic cultivation.”

“Good.” He still remembered the cold on that first day he had touched it, and the slimy movement of resentful energy under his skin. It crawled and crawled until there was nothing else left inside him. “I don’t trust anyone with it.”

“Physician Liu,” Lan Wangji said, “why the questions about the body offering ritual?”

She finally let go of Wei Wuxian’s hand. He still felt the echo of her spiritual energy in his meridians. It resembled a tiny speck lost amidst the vast nothingness, just as far out of his reach as his own was. Perhaps this body should have never developed the golden core. If nausea and discomfort were the price to pay, he would rather live without it.

“Master Wei’s soul used to be frayed. Weak.” She looked at Wei Wuxian and he could read nothing from her face. “This one isn’t.”

Lan Wangji turned to face Wei Wuxian faster than he had ever moved before. Wei Wuxian did not even glance at him, focused as he was on Liu Yingyue. “What are you talking about?”

“Hanguang-Jun,” she said even though she held Wei Wuxian’s eyes steady and without flinching, “is there something you know your husband didn’t remember? Something only he would know?”

Lan Wangji swallowed – in the silence of the house, the sound of it was louder than a thunderclap. “The three months at the Burial Mounds. He only ever remembered coming out of them.”

“What?” Wei Wuxian whipped around. Lan Wangji’s eyes were wide and his face – pale. He looked like a ghost. Wei Wuxian would now; he had seen more ghosts in his life than living people. “That’s not true. I remember it. Maybe not clearly, because some things are better left forgotten, but... I remember. I carved Chenqing with a knife older than the GusuLan Sect. It turned to dust in my hands when I was done with it. I used bones as splints for my ankle because I broke it after Wen Chao threw me off the mountain. Do you know that bones are actually more durable than metal down there? It must be because of resentful energy, there’s no other way.”

Memories came back to him one after another, unbidden. He had tried to forget those days more often than not and never really succeeded. They were ingrained in his mind too deeply to ever be rid of them.

“Did you know,” he said, slower this time, “that the Burial Mounds have a heart? There’s a hill where no ghost, no corpse or wandering spirit ever goes to. The hill is empty and silent, and in the middle of it, there’s a blackened patch of ground. When you approach it, you can hear singing. An off-tune, wordless murmur – a lullaby sung to themselves by a child who’s never heard one.” He had never dared tell anyone that story. Not when the Burial Mounds stretched around them, silent but always listening. “I had Chenqing with me when I found that place, so of course I played to test it out. I called – and the worst thing is that he answered. And he saw me.”

It had haunted his dreams for so long, that day he called upon someone he should have never invoke. He had pushed out that face from his memory, but images of red and silver still remained, just like the feeling of an overpowering, debilitating terror. People used to say he was fearless during the war, but the truth was he had seen what fear looked like and the Wens could not compare to it.

“What must happen to a child for them to become a nightmare?” he asked them both, Lan Wangji and Liu Yingyue, and silence was his answer. “There’s no way I forgot that. Him. Not even the Seal gave me that many nightmares.”

Lan Wangji was looking at him and oh, this time Wei Wuxian knew exactly what kind of feeling was shining in his eyes. After all, he knew fear better than anyone.

“What does it mean?” Lan Wangji asked; quietly, breathlessly. Words came out of his mouth clipped and hasty. No matter how great his self-control was, it was now slipping. Wei Wuxian saw it in the way his eyes darted from him to Liu Yingyue, and in the force with which he clenched his fists. “Physician Liu. What does it mean?”

“It means,” she said just as quietly and even slower. Wei Wuxian wanted to grab them both and shake them until they stopped playing whatever it was that was unfolding in front of him. “It means that this isn’t your husband’s soul.”

Lan Wangji staggered right where he stood. Wei Wuxian spared him a glance and then focused his attention back on Liu YingYue. He could not handle both of them at once and as of now, he preferred answers. “What do you mean by that?” he asked and his voice made Chenqing rattle on the table where it lay. Lan Wangji must have put it back there in the morning because Wei Wuxian definitely had not done it himself. “I know who I am. Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, son of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze, the former head disciple of the YunmengJiang Sect. The Yiling Patriarch, as you all kept calling me. Who else could I be?”

“I didn’t say you aren’t yourself, master Wei.” For the first time since he met her, Liu Yingyue sounded unsure. Wen Qing would have never allowed herself such weakness. “I’m just... What did you say was the last thing you remembered?”

Voices. Voices all around him and inside his head as he had taken the disaster of his own making into his hands and attempted to undo it. “I broke the Seal. And then I woke up here.”

“Then that’s who you are.” Even though her voice was steady, she could not control her expression – and that screamed of uncertainty. “You’re still Wei Wuxian, but a different one. A younger soul, so to speak. Not yet damaged.”

“How?” he croaked after a while. Numbness spread in his body, but his mind was light, almost carefree. “Is that why I don’t remember anything?”

“Why would you remember memories that aren’t yours?” Sadness crept into her voice and made it brittle, weak. Her face was no different. “As of how... It’s your ritual, master Wei. You tell me.”

He had never known relief could feel like that – so light, so bright. “It’s... Uhm.” He swallowed a laugh that threatened to spill from his lips. “It’s an equivalent exchange. A soul for a soul. So if I’m here, then...”

He glanced at Lan Wangji and wished he could avert his eyes. Grief was an old friend of his and he would recognise it anywhere – even if it was on Lan Wangji’s usually expressionless face.

But oh, was it reflecting so much right now.

“I’m sorry,” he said even though it was emptiness wrapped in two words. What else was he supposed to say? What could anyone say in a situation such as this?

And then Lan Wangji was gone, and the silence reigned once more.

High above the rooftops of the Cloud Recesses, between the trees and the mountains, across the distance unimaginable, the echo carried the notes of Inquiry well into the night. Wei Wuxian knew who they were supposed to reach, just like he knew no answer would ever come. After all, they were for him.

Him, who was already dead.