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I came into this world/bringing only paper, rope, a shadow

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The qinpu is a tiny, innocuous thing, tucked between two books about the use of musical cultivation in medicine. Lan Wangji had been warned that the music section of the cultivation archives here is highly disorganised, but even so, the untitled collection is unusually far away from every other score he's found so far. It's an old one, too, the paper frayed with age; possibly even an original copy, although those are usually kept behind glass. And, as he carefully reads through each piece, it seems to have little to do with medicine.

In fact, it seems to have little to do with cultivation at all. There's nothing to indicate what any of the pieces might be intended for, other than simply to be played, even though Lan Wangji knows that it has to be at the very least cultivation-adjacent in order to end up here. As disorganised as the archives are, it's unlikely that there's been a mistake of quite that magnitude. A strange mystery, this collection has turned out to be. Perhaps they share the same composer, and that's why they've been grouped together like this. The handwriting on each certainly seems to be similar enough.

He might have to play through them, to find out exactly what their purpose is. Which isn't a hardship. Lan Wangji likes discovering new music, likes puzzling through it until he creates a sound that seems right, likes studying it until he knows why it works the way it does. This qinpu should prove to be interesting, as well as relevant to his research, if he can estimate its time period. From just a quick inspection, he can tell the pieces are older than the majority of the qinpu he's been able to find in here, although the archives don't seem to have many. So far, his ventures into the musical cultivation section have been a little disappointing.

Not today, though. A small paragraph on the back cover of the qinpu declares that these pieces were excavated from the Cloud Recesses, one of the most important archaeological sites for evidence of musical cultivation. So this is definitely a significant find. A quick scan of the other shelves reveals nothing much of interest, so Lan Wangji takes the qinpu with him to the exit and signs it out. He'll likely have to borrow one of the practice rooms, since Luo Qingyang has objected to him waking her up by playing his guqin too early in the morning. (Since Luo Qingyang has been an exemplary and accommodating roommate for several years now, Lan Wangji tries his best to return the favour.)

The practice rooms are relatively nearby, and due to the early hour most are empty. Lan Wangji books one of them for two hours. He's not going to be studying the qinpu extensively right now, so two hours will be plenty of time to get himself partially acquainted with at least some of the pieces within it. Hopefully. He settles himself on the floor, summons his guqin, and lays it out on the table in front of him. Carefully looks through the qinpu and chooses a piece at random. Or - not quite. There's something about this one that seems familiar, almost, as if he's seen it somewhere before. His mind itches. Fumbles with tiny strings of memory. Lan Wangji lifts his hands, clears his thoughts, and plays.

It's as if someone else has grabbed hold of his fingers, as if a ghost has wrapped itself up in his skin and is only now inching out of him, the music stamped across every part of it. He knows this piece. Knows it intimately, like someone wrote it into his bones, etched it onto his fingertips with painstaking care. An echo of a memory lingers, and Lan Wangji is reaching for it, desperate for something to hold onto, something to drag him back to the ground, and then he's turning the page and his vision swims and - 

Everything stops. Silence rings in his ears. He doesn't know it, after all. It just has some similarities to a piece he's played before. Of course he doesn't know it, he's never seen this collection before, and telling himself otherwise is foolish. (There is a dream, and there is the truth. Lan Wangji has to remember the difference. Has to remind himself there is one.)

Despite the eerie feeling the piece gives him, the feeling he can't fully let go of, the sense that he has played it somehow, has known it longer than he's been alive, he continues to play, continues to test it with spiritual energy. There seems to be no effect, or not an immediately obvious one, so for the moment Lan Wangji tentatively labels it as an aesthetic piece. One not intended for cultivation. He has to force himself to move on, instead of spending the entire two hours dwelling over music that isn't particularly relevant to his research, as much as he wants to explore it.

Over the next two hours, he avoids the strange familiar-but-not-quite piece and instead plays through some of the others, although like the first, none of them seem to have much of an effect. Maybe they're not a cultivation collection at all, and Lan Wangji has put too much faith in whoever organised the musical cultivation archives. But surely that would have been noticed? There must be some reason this qinpu was in those archives, instead of somewhere else. The alternative is that he's wasting his time, and he should put the qinpu back where he found it and look for something more useful. His hands tighten on the guqin strings. The sound distorts. Lan Wangji will keep it for now, test the others at another time. If even one of them turns out to be cultivation related, that's enough. If he can't find any that seem to be, he'll put it back. Eventually.

Decision made, Lan Wangji packs away his guqin and opens the door to leave. A man is standing on the other side of the door, fist raised to knock, other hand curled around a dizi. They blink at each other. Lan Wangji nods his head in greeting, and waits for the man to get out of the way. He doesn't. Instead, the man's gaze slides down to the qinpu Lan Wangji is holding, and his eyes light up.

"Oh!" he says, and his voice drips with sunlight. "I've been looking for that."

How, exactly, does Lan Wangji respond to a statement like that, he wonders. He's not about to offer it up. "It was in the musical cultivation archives."

The man beams at him. "Let me know when you're done with it?"

He nods. Considers asking what a man who apparently plays the dizi wants with a qinpu, then abandons the thought. Perhaps the man is also a guqin player. It's not really Lan Wangji's business. But still, he's curious - the man must know something about the qinpu, to have been looking for it, but there's no title, and the pieces, while connected, aren't ones Lan Wangji has found mentioned anywhere else. What does the man know?

The question is on the tip of his tongue when the man shifts to the side, and the moment moves on. Lan Wangji steps past the man, and puts all thoughts of him aside, the regret momentary, the curiosity fading. It doesn't matter.

-

your dreams are strange, that night. a boy laughs, and the sound pierces you, like a sword to the stomach. his name is a shard of glass in your mouth, and you spit it out, angry, bleeding. he is angry. bleeding. the name he shouts is not yours. no longer yours. the words are pulled from you anyway, torn from your tongue and spilled onto the earth. if you close your eyes, you can almost see the shape of him, sitting beside you, standing in front of you, angry. bleeding. your hands yearn to touch him, and you swallow the feeling. it tastes like ash, like jade, like iron. like the two of you are burning. drowning. an oak tree grows in your lungs, and the only thing on your lips is his name, a cold thing. dead thing. the only sound that could bring you to life. it is dark, and he is there, and yet he disappears when you reach for him. a childhood spent chasing after a ghost you only remember when the sun goes to sleep. the moon is bright, above you; two swords cross, bathed in moonlight, and the earth keeps turning. the world will not stop for you. time will not wait for you to catch it, will only run relentlessly, further and further, until you no longer curse it. in the dark, a boy smiles. your eyes open. in the dark, a boy whispers your name like he's forgotten how to say anything else. in the dark, a boy is laughing, and your heart knows him, even as you do not.

-

Lan Wangji wakes up with damp cheeks and an aching pain in his back. For a moment he lies there, unmoving, a tightness in his chest fading the further away his dream becomes. It's hard to remember the details. Melancholy clings to him, stubborn even as he begins the day with yoga and meditation. It continues to follow him, a dark cloud that tracks him through his first class, and then the second. A cloying loneliness creeps behind him as he opens a music room door and steps inside; his guqin feels heavier in his hands. Weighted with an invisible force. Playing it feels a little like wading through sludge.

He makes good progress with the qinpu, though. A few of the pieces seem to be variations on Cleansing, which he can easily test the effects of on his next night hunt, and at least one is a transcription of what he's pretty sure is a rather unusual Inquiry conversation. Why the composer chose to transcribe it like this, instead of simply writing it out, is unclear, but more research is never much of a problem for Lan Wangji. He hasn't seen something like this before, and it's possible that there may not be any others like it. Apart from (possibly) a separate piece in the qinpu, which seems to use the same structure. Although that could just be coincidence, since Lan Wangji hasn't been able to translate it into something that makes sense, yet.

(There might be evidence, here, for an entirely different type of Inquiry. Unlikely, but not impossible. An interesting avenue to explore, anyway. He'll have to investigate other sources, to see if there's any mention of an alternate Inquiry. From memory, there's nothing that springs to mind, but he has some ideas for where to look.) 

As he's leaving the practice rooms, mind buzzing with this new discovery, he runs into the man again. This time, in addition to the dizi, he's carrying an absurd number of talismans, and his hands are stained with ink. Lan Wangji is intrigued. This man is as much a mystery as the qinpu is. He looks up, meets Lan Wangji's gaze, and a smile blossoms on his lips. Today he seems a little more shy, though. Not quite as vibrant. Frayed around the edges perhaps, like Lan Wangji could tug a loose thread and slowly unravel him, bit by bit. His back twinges, and he does his best to hide the flinch. The man doesn't appear to notice.

"Are you done with that qinpu yet?" He asks, and his voice is light. Teasing.

"No," Lan Wangji says. It's perfectly true. And he can borrow an item for up to a month, so he doesn't have to relinquish it any time soon. Curiosity still hovers over his fingertips, and his tongue is asking before his brain can catch up: "What do you need it for?"

The man shrugs. "It might be connected to the Yiling Patriarch," he answers, casually, as if he hasn't just shocked Lan Wangji to the core.

The elusive Yiling Patriarch, supposed inventor of demonic cultivation, is somehow connected to a qinpu which was excavated from the Cloud Recesses. How does the man know that? There's no mention of the Yiling Patriarch in it at all, at least not one immediately obvious. And none of the pieces relate to cultivating resentful energy, which is, as far as Lan Wangji is aware, what the Yiling Patriarch used musical cultivation for. Surely, the man is joking, or misinformed, or thinks the qinpu is something else. Surely. But Lan Wangji, admittedly, doesn't know much about demonic cultivation. He's never studied it in detail, only knows as much as anyone who learned about cultivation history in high school would know, so there may be something he's missing.

"Did the Yiling Patriarch play the guqin?" He wonders aloud, and the man shakes his head.

"Nope!" But his head tilts to one side, a little, contemplating. "No one knows, really. So maybe he did."

"If he didn't," Lan Wangji asks, because this is entering a territory that strikes him as somewhat strange and for some reason the question eats at him, "How do you know he's connected to this?"

The man puts a finger to his lips. "It's a secret," he says, in an exaggerated whisper. How childish. (And yet, somehow, Lan Wangji finds himself wanting to know more. Feels the urge to grab the man by his shoulders and shake him until the nonsense spills out and the truth is exposed. It's a strange thought. Uncomfortable. The man is infuriating.)

He's still missing something, still grasping at strings of tangled memory. Did the Yiling Patriarch ever go to the Cloud Recesses? It's probably impossible to know. The Lan sect did offer cultivation classes, there's several mentions of them from various prominent cultivators throughout history, but without knowing which sect the Yiling Patriarch was part of it'd be difficult to find out whether he attended any. From what Lan Wangji remembers, the Yiling Patriarch's name is still a mystery. Several historians have been trying to track it down, to unveil the man behind the title, but so far their efforts have been largely fruitless, at least on that front. And without a name, discovering what the Yiling Patriarch was doing before he earned the title is an insurmountable task. But this might be an area to investigate, if the man is right; it's not a connection Lan Wangji would have found on his own, after all.

"How should I contact you?" He asks, before he can think better of it. For some reason this man makes him impulsive. Strange.

"I can give you my number!"

And the man is pulling his phone out of his back pocket, looking up expectantly at Lan Wangji. The thought of social interaction makes his skin crawl, but the man has been interesting, and Lan Wangji maybe wants to get to know him a little better, so he obediently takes out his phone and creates a new contact.

"Your name," Lan Wangji prompts, when the man rattles off his number and falls silent. He needs some way of identifying the man other than 'qinpu stranger' which is undoubtedly what he'd end up calling him. There are several people here who Lan Wangji still considers strangers, simply because they never gave him a name and too much time has passed for him to ask any of them now.

"Wei Wuxian," the man says. "It's nice to meet you!"

The name echoes inside Lan Wangji's mind. A bell tolls between his ribs. There is something clawing at the walls of his throat, begging to be dragged out of him. Glass shards on his tongue, bleeding, angry. It is as though he knows the name already, as if he has almost caught up to the ghost, to the thing that haunts him, night after night. But not quite. The name feels wrong, when he tastes the shape of it. Coated in rust.

(in the dark, a boy is laughing)

A memory tangible enough for Lan Wangji to reach out and touch, until he blinks and the world slides back into focus, and the memory disintegrates. Fades to dust. It's unnerving, the way Wei Wuxian makes him feel. His stomach tangles, twists over itself.

He can't voice any of that. Can't ask why the man's name is a step to the left of familiar. Instead, he offers his own.

"Lan Wangji."

Class starts soon. Lan Wangji excuses himself and walks briskly away, shoving his confusion into a box to be examined at a later time, when he has nothing else to focus on. He's been feeling off-kilter all day, and he can't be distracted even more than he already has been. Perhaps he should try meditation again before going to sleep. It might help settle him, might clear the cobwebs in his brain. The name Wei Wuxian means nothing to him. The man with his bright smile and strange talismans and too much insight about an unknowable topic isn't fascinating at all. Isn't important in the slightest.

At least lying to himself is familiar, even if it's a habit he's been trying to break. Luo Qingyang has told him countless times that he represses things too much. She's not wrong, really, but forcing himself to not feel anything has been a source of comfort all his life, and it can be hard to stop. But he can worry about whatever this is later, when he doesn't have anything else to do. Can quietly wonder about how Wei Wuxian makes him feel when he's in the comfort of his own home. Although he won't quite be safe, there. Luo Qingyang, the moment he mentions anything that could even slightly resemble having a crush, will be delighted to tease him. Lan Wangji has done the same to her in the past, though, so it's not undeserved, however embarrassing the inevitable conversation will be.

(He's right, in the end; when Luo Qingyang comes home to find him sitting on the sofa, phone in hand, trying to compose a text message that doesn't sound horrifically creepy, she laughs and laughs and laughs. And proceeds to pluck the phone from his grasp, sending a message on his behalf.

"You'd stay up all night worrying about it," she reasons, when he glares at her. "I'm doing you a favour!"

Wei Wuxian's response is quick, and he doesn't seem to have been scared away, so Lan Wangji will let her live. For now.)

-

you dream of the boy again, that night. he is a ghost that hides in your footprints, a memory that tangles itself up beneath your shoes until you trip over it, until the remembering chokes you. the moon is bright, above you; it sings with a voice that sounds like your mother. grief tastes like snow. ice. your knees are cold, tired, aching, and still you wait to hear your name again, like a thing to be treasured. there is a boy who is trespassing and his skin is silver in the moonlight. there is a boy who is not trespassing but still breaking the rules. there is a boy who has no care for rules and his laughter makes you dizzy. there is a boy and you meet him sword to sword, because violence is the language you know how to speak best, there is a boy, and he says your name like he's melting sugar on his tongue, and he refuses to leave you alone, and perhaps you have finally made a friend. alone. lonely. are you afraid to lose him? he is a river and you are caught up in the depths of him, the water rushing through your bones, carving his name onto every part of you so even if only his bed is left you will still remember him, still hold the shape of him in your heart. you kneel, eyes closed, and the pain means you are still living, still wandering lost in a river bed, searching for water. grief smells like rain. regret is a heavy thing that burns your fingers, and still you grasp it tightly. cannot pry your hands away from it. it isn't worth the trying. nothing is worth the trying. there is a boy, and you wish he would haunt you. wish you could turn your head and see his outline, feel the weight of him pressed against you, shoulder to shoulder. sword to sword. there is a boy and you've almost forgotten his face, can no longer trace its lines in your sleep. would a ghost be enough for you? your hands could not help but reach for him. perhaps he is somewhere kinder. perhaps you will join him. some nights you stand underneath the moon and wait for a voice that never speaks; some nights grief looks like the sky at dusk, a blushing sun almost meeting a shining moon and yet always out of time. some nights grief only looks like a boy you can barely recall.

-

A week passes. Two. Lan Wangji continues to tease out tiny amounts of information from the qinpu, progress slow but definitely there. Somehow, Wei Wuxian has decided that their exchanging of contact information has served as an invitation to constantly message him, about all manner of unrelated and frivolous things. What he's had for breakfast that morning. A weird thought that popped into his head while he was in the shower. An interesting rock he found and wanted to show Lan Wangji. Between it all, the two of them are searching for a way the Yiling Patriarch may be connected to the Lan Sect, although so far it's been rather fruitless. There is, as Lan Wangji has discovered, a great deal of debate over almost everything to do with the Yiling Patriarch. About the only thing anyone can agree on is that he was the first to somewhat successfully cultivate with resentful energy.

Wei Wuxian, however, seems unusually certain in a lot of his information, no matter how tenuous. The qinpu has something to do with the Yiling Patriarch, and despite the distinct lack of evidence Wei Wuxian is quite insistent that this is the case. He refuses to give an explanation, though, and Lan Wangji is reluctant to push it since he's found himself enjoying Wei Wuxian's company. He's confusing and sometimes infuriating, but there's a charm to him. It feels, almost, as if Lan Wangji is rediscovering him, instead of befriending him for the first time. Like the seeds of their friendship were sown a long time ago and are only now sprouting.

There are other strange little things that Wei Wuxian seems oddly sure of. Three weeks after their initial meeting, Lan Wangji reads the words think I found a connection and immediately calls Wei Wuxian, because this kind of important information is best discussed verbally.

"He studied at the Cloud Recesses," Wei Wuxian says, as soon as he picks up the phone. He sounds exhausted. Suspicious.

"Did you stay up all night?"

Wei Wuxian's offended gasp, while exaggerated, tells Lan Wangji that he definitely hasn't slept well, if at all. Does the qinpu really mean that much to him? Lan Wangji, once again, is missing something. Is chasing after ghosts.

"Would you rather talk later?" He asks, because even if he knows Wei Wuxian will say no he still vainly hopes that Wei Wuxian might, at some point, prioritise his health over his research. Unlikely, but the thought is there, all the same.

"Lan Wangji!" Wei Wuxian whines. "I found it, aren't you excited?"

"Ridiculous."

Of course Lan Wangji is intrigued. His chest is tight, his hands are shaking just a little, his heart has quickened its pace, but his interest is secondary to Wei Wuxian's appalling sleeping habits. He has to at least try to fix them, when he can. (He's already doing his best to make sure Wei Wuxian eats properly, by bringing extra food with him whenever they meet. Three weeks have been long enough to learn that when Wei Wuxian is desperately searching for answers he tends to neglect everything else, even his own needs.)

"I know you are! So I was looking at these cultivator diaries lying around in the archives, because they were there and I was so tired of reading all about the demonic guy's death, and I found one that mentions the cultivation classes they had at the Cloud Recesses and it doesn't go into detail or anything but it does talk about this one student -"

Lan Wangji is struggling to keep up with the onslaught of words. "Please slow down."

"Oops, sorry," Wei Wuxian says. He takes a deep breath, and then explains, slowly, what he's uncovered. It's nothing concrete. If Lan Wangji were looking into this on his own, he'd probably judge it as something not worth considering.

But this is Wei Wuxian, who is as brilliant as he is foolish, and Lan Wangji wants to trust him. Wants this to go somewhere.

A student attending one of the lectures at the Cloud Recesses had suggested demonic cultivation as a possible solution to a problem posed by Lan Qiren, the teacher. It's a comment made in passing, one that Lan Wangji wouldn't have thought twice about, especially given the rise in demonic cultivators after the Yiling Patriarch's death, but Wei Wuxian proposes that this is from an earlier time period than that. That this may be a clue as to who the Yiling Patriarch could have been.

A member of the Jiang sect; that's all they have to go on. But it's definitely something to work with. After all, there's much more surviving evidence from the Jiang sect than the Lan sect. It is, as Wei Wuxian points out, worth a try.

Unfortunately, the diary doesn't mention the student's name. Perhaps the author didn't know it. However, Wei Wuxian says there are some distinctive features of the student that seem to align with accounts of the Yiling Patriarch, such as the red ribbon tying his hair. In almost all surviving artwork, the Yiling Patriarch is depicted with a red ribbon in his hair. Later works likely took inspiration from the Mo Xuanyu diaries, who heard the story of the death of the Yiling Patriarch while studying at Jinlintai and wrote that the body was never found, with only a red ribbon left in its place.

"I wanna see if this guy pops up anywhere else," Wei Wuxian says. "I know it's a bit out there but I thought, maybe…"

He's a lot less confident, now that he's actually explained what the evidence is. And Lan Wangji must be a fool, because he says,

"I understand."

In fact, Lan Wangji does understand, if only because whatever insanity has gripped Wei Wuxian seems to have sunk its claws into him as well. This is a lead. A step in the right direction, he can feel it.

"Wouldn't it be awesome to find out who he is? Like, for real."

"It would," Lan Wangji concedes. "We'll never know for sure."

A discouraging truth, but an important reminder. They can't be overconfident, because theories can be disproven at any moment, and that's the best they'll be able to do with the current evidence - present a theory regarding the Yiling Patriarch's identity, which many have done before.

 

The two of them meet up another week later to compare ideas - they have some places to start, and Wei Wuxian, madman that he is, has in fact already started searching.

"You concern me more every day I speak to you," Lan Wangji tells him, and he only laughs in response, bright and uncaring.

"I'm fine! Just get super focused sometimes."

Sometimes? From what Lan Wangji has noticed, it's closer to all the time. Still, he drops the subject, and they spend the rest of the afternoon discussing musical cultivation instead. It's pleasant, and interesting, and Lan Wangji blushes at a few of Wei Wuxian's more shameless comments. He's been getting bold, recently, and Lan Wangji may or may not be losing his mind. Luo Qingyang is kind enough not to laugh at him when he complains about it, but his brother definitely isn't, and has teased him mercilessly in every phone call since he first brought up his new friendship with Wei Wuxian.

The dreams haven't stopped, either. Lan Wangji is always reaching for someone, always chasing after sunlight, always waking with tears staining his cheeks. He's trying not to let it bother him. Lan Xichen has said he's probably just overworking himself. His uncle is sympathetic but has much the same opinion. The dreams can't be that weird.

Lan Wangji doesn't know how to explain. The restlessness in his gut that only eases when he's greeted with a familiar smile, a voice that treasures his name. (The name that feels like his but isn't). The emptiness that hollows him out like he's an empty shell belonging to somebody else. The feeling that maybe he is somebody else.

Meditation hasn't helped. Neither has any of the music he's tried to play for himself or the music he's asked Luo Qingyang to play for him. Normally he would tinker with a composition, but he's been busy lately and doesn't want to jeopardise his own health by experimenting without a clear mind. So there's not much he can really do about it.

"Have I been cursed?" He wonders aloud, while speaking with Wei Wuxian one day. Inexplicably, Wei Wuxian proceeds to thoroughly examine him and then declare him perfectly safe.

"Not cursed at all!" He says cheerfully. As if it's something to celebrate. (Not that Lan Wangji particularly wants to be cursed, but it would at least be something he could fix relatively easily.)

And then, one evening he plays one of the qinpu pieces for Wei Wuxian. It's the strange one, the one that feels like it cuts right into him and carves out pieces of his soul, the one that echoes inside of him, the one he wrote for a boy he couldn't help but love, the one -

Wait. His hands pause on the guqin strings. This isn't one of his compositions. It must be similar to something he's written before, and that's why he feels like he could play it in the dark. Like his fingers have bled with the effort of playing it again, again, again.

Wei Wuxian's eyes are closed. He sits leaning against the wall, and his hands are fists. One eye slides open when he registers that the music has stopped.

"You okay?" He asks, voice a gentle murmur.

Lan Wangji shrugs. Breathes in. Out. Plays on.

-

that night, you are running after a man you need to save. he is always slipping from your grasp, always looking past you or seeing something else in your place; the two of you have been on either side of a ravine, recently. it stretches wide between you, and you reach across to him, alight with the need to touch him, to ground him, to pull him from the darkness that surrounds him. he is harder to see, these days. has turned his back to you. and yet you have to save him, still, because even if there is no one else to care, there will always be you. a life without him tastes like rain. so you run, desperate, and his foot catches on the edge of a cliff, time slowing as he falls, until you catch hold of him. you will save him, you think, as the world springs back into motion. there is nothing else that matters. it is then that the wrongness comes. there is a boy you dislike, who is loud and brash and angry. his tongue is a knife, his heart a tide that ebbs and flows. he is furious, now. burns with it. your hand shakes, fingers made of scattering dandelion seeds, and your heart shrieks as he falls. his name is ripped from your throat, again, again, again. you have to save him. you cannot save him. he is gone.

(do these hands, these cold, lifeless things, belong to you? your tongue chases the echo of his name. every part of you longs, for a moment, to follow him. it is a foolish thing to hold, a selfish ache inside you, and yet there is a small part of you that desires it, all the same.)

you turn to face them, these men who have murdered the one you love. which of them follows the path of the righteous, clamouring for the death of the innocent? they did not deserve him. you will not let them spit on his grave.

wei ying, cries out your soul. hollow. empty. don't beg for him now, when you know he is too far out of reach to hear it. still, you are by an endless river, weight on your chest. wei ying, but it does not tear itself out of your throat, this time, only soothes the bleeding. only calms the pain.

-

When Lan Wangji wakes, grief settles over him like a blanket. It feels like a pair of secondhand shoes. His hands curl around a piece of fabric, and he looks down, bewildered. There, clutched between his fingers, is a pale white ribbon. Holding it seems strangely familiar, and he resists the urge to tie it around his forehead. Like this, his dreams have become something tangible. Something real. At least he can confirm that he isn't going mad, and there is something amiss here after all. He ties the ribbon around his wrist instead, reluctant to leave it behind completely, and takes a picture to send to his brother. Perhaps he will know more about what this could be. On impulse, he also sends the picture to Wei Wuxian, not sure why even as he's staring at their chat history, waiting for a response. He doesn't get one immediately, because he and Wei Wuxian have very different opinions on appropriate times to start the day, but when Wei Wuxian eventually deigns to wake up he receives a long line of question marks.

I will explain later, he sends back.

It's the qinpu. That must be the cause of this, but nothing in Lan Wangji's careful examining has revealed anything of this magnitude. Would he have noticed a curse? Probably. Hopefully. He's not exactly an expert, though. Curse breaking is hardly a common field of study, especially in this day and age, so although Lan Wangji is familiar with various bits of theory, that's still not exactly helpful. But it should be enough to help him identify them, and he hasn't noticed anything on the qinpu. It could be the music, of course. A piece with an effect lost to time. For once, Lan Wangji is less than enthused about this possibility. An unknown effect means unknown treatment.

He meets Wei Wuxian in the afternoon and stamps down the wave of relief at the sight of his face, unharmed. His dream knocks at his temples, firm and insistent, but Lan Wangji is good at ignoring himself. Has had plenty of practice at pretending not to care.

"So what's this ribbon thing?" Wei Wuxian asks, pulling several books out of his bag and slamming them on the table between them.

Lan Wangji shrugs. "I don't know."

Not a lie. He has no idea what the ribbon is or why he feels like it's a part of him, like something about it is too important to lose. It's harder to explain where it came from. Wei Wuxian is patient and doesn't call Lan Wangji insane, which is nice of him. In fact, he seems thoughtful, frowning as he taps away at his phone, and then he shoves it in Lan Wangji's face.

"Doesn't it kind of look like this?"

The image is a well-known portrait by an anonymous painter, titled only Father, and while there are theories on who the man in the painting is, or whether his identity could be discovered, nobody is certain. The only identifying feature is, of course, the white robes and the forehead ribbon. Which, now that Lan Wangji is seeing it properly, does look remarkably like the one wrapped tight around his wrist.

"Oh," Lan Wangji says, "I'm a fool. Why didn't I think of that?"

Everyone knows that the Lan would wear forehead ribbons. It's one of the easiest ways to identify what sect a historical cultivator was from - if there's a forehead ribbon depicted or mentioned, they're likely to have been one of the Lan.

Wei Wuxian waves a hand. "You're stressed, it's fine. I think spontaneously manifesting an unknown object is a more pressing issue, anyway."

But when they examine the qinpu together, Wei Wuxian confirms that nothing is particularly wrong. As the pieces are very old, with little information to detail any of the effects, it's entirely possible that this is a result of Lan Wangji playing one of them, instead of a curse on the qinpu or any of the pieces. At this point, Lan Wangji is hoping it'll stop on its own. If he isn't actively playing anything, then the effect should fade away eventually. The problem is not knowing when that will be.

 

A month passes. The dreams continue, growing more and more detailed, even as Lan Wangji has already filed the qinpu back in the archives. He and Wei Wuxian's search for the Yiling Patriarch is coming along somewhat, since there are a few cultivator diaries and letters that mention the loud boy who acts up in class but somehow still excels despite all the disciplinary action, and the fact that they might finally be getting somewhere is enough to drag Lan Wangji away from the despair of his dreams. One evening, the two of them are taking over at least three desks in the library with mountains of books and papers, and Wei Wuxian is grinning at him with wild eyes that burn with excitement, and Lan Wangji is -

Something. Aware of his body in a way he hasn't been before. Wei Wuxian's fire for obscure academia is, for some reason, a sight to behold.

"Hear me out," Wei Wuxian is saying, which can only mean trouble. Lan Wangji is half-listening, caught between hearing the words that slip from Wei Wuxian's tongue and watching the way his lips shape around them. "I know it sounds crazy, but I think there's evidence here for the Yiling Patriarch being friends with Hanguang-jun."

What. How has Wei Wuxian just said that with a straight face. There is no evidence that could make that sound less ridiculous.

"I don't know how to respond," Lan Wangji says, finally, when he realises that Wei Wuxian is waiting for his input.

"Fair," Wei Wuxian says. "Trust me?"

Lan Wangji does, but this is too much. "I'll trust your evidence," he says instead.

And Wei Wuxian does, it turns out, have a significant amount of evidence in the form of letters from an unknown Nie cultivator to his brother. Through them he draws connections between the boy they've tentatively labeled the Yiling Patriarch and another boy who is one of the sons of the Lan sect leader, and his theory sounds less and less preposterous as he continues on. How much of that is Wei Wuxian's charisma, and how much of it is actually plausible, Lan Wangji is still unsure about. He knows, as everyone does, that the legendary Hanguang-jun was a member of the main clan and was rumoured to have a close relationship with a friend from the Jiang sect, but this might all be speculation. Wei Wuxian could merely be choosing evidence that matches his conclusion. While it's believable, they'll never be able to convince anyone else.

"And!" Wei Wuxian exclaims, somehow still going, "the qinpu has a connection to the Yiling Patriarch because it contains Hanguang-jun's compositions!"

Where did that come from, Lan Wangji wonders. Surely a man like Hanguang-jun would label his own work. Would be proud enough of it to attach his name to it. But, a single composer makes sense. The lack of theme or structure between the pieces indicates a relationship beyond the content, which would most likely be a shared composer. That doesn't make it Hanguang-jun, though.

But Wei Wuxian's enthusiasm is infectious, and so two weeks later they dig up the qinpu from the archives again. There's not much they can do with it, really, but Lan Wangji dutifully plays his way through the pieces anyway. When he gets to one of the ones he had thought used a different form of Inquiry, his hands pause. A memory drapes itself over his guqin. His fingers play a melody he knows by heart, and yet has never heard before. A name. Again, again, again. Searching, because Lan Wangji has to save him. Blood trickles down his back, and his arms shake with the effort to stay upright, and still Lan Wangji plays. Haunted.

Wei Ying, his heart plucks out. Where are you?

Beside him, Wei Wuxian is quiet. "Is that what it means?" He murmurs, when Lan Wangji forces himself to stop.

"What?"

"It sounds weird, for Inquiry."

Because it isn't the same. Lan Wangji doesn't know how he knows that, though, so he says nothing. Asks, instead, if Wei Wuxian wants to hear anything else.

(And he shouldn't play the strange piece again, but Wei Wuxian requests it, because it feels peaceful, and Lan Wangji is helpless against him. Couldn't say no to him at all. The music rings in his bones. Folds itself into his ribcage. A memory taunts him, clambering out of sight the more he searches for it.)

-

it is dark, in the cave. you are cold and aching and awake, trying to keep him alive. there is a song on your lips that already belongs to him, a skeleton carved from his conviction, his character, his strength. perhaps, you have whittled a small part of it out of his hands, his eyes, his laughter, the ease of his joy. you cannot cage his delight in living, but you have attempted it anyway. there was a song in your soul that demanded to be written, and though it isn't finished yet his footprint is stamped all over it, your own only a shadow. he asks for the name. he will laugh if you tell him. you are not adept at naming your possessions. you tell him anyway, but he has slipped into unconsciousness. he does not laugh. he says nothing at all.

when you are rescued, he does not mention it. this is a good thing, you tell yourself. lies taste like honey.

in the darkness, a boy reaches for you. his name is blood-red in the air as you spit it from your mouth. you did not mean to. somehow you struggle with gentleness.

in the darkness, you reach for the boy, and do not falter. time slows, condensed into the space between his hand and yours. he is running. towards you or away, it is hard to tell. you chase him. always. a song spills from your chest, staining the ground with light as the two of you move in circles, until he is bright, before you. two swords cross beneath the moon. a boy falls. a man waits, and waits, and waits. the boy is nowhere to be found, but here you step towards him, arms open, and he falls into you, quivering. warm.

you open your eyes.

-

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji gasps. Wei Ying. The memories keep coming, leaving him cold. Angry. Resigned. So much has changed, since both of them were young. And yet, after all this time, Lan Wangji has found him again.

It's early. Lan Wangji doesn't care, dizzy from remembering, and calls Wei Wuxian. Wei Ying. Miraculously, he picks up.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, immediately, and hears a sigh. "How long have you known?"

Quiet. A sniffle. Almost a sob. "Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying says, and it sounds like relief. Like it's been taking everything in him not to blurt it out every moment. Lan Wangji can relate. And then, "a while."

That's suspiciously vague. "A month?" He guesses.

"Longer."

"I saw you, and it was - you know when you have a bad day, and then you come home and get into bed and suddenly everything is okay again? It was like that. I saw you, and I was coming home."

What the fuck. Lan Wangji loves him. Has loved him since they were teenagers, has mourned him and forgotten him and remembers him, now.

"Wei Ying, I have to tell you something."

It doesn't matter, if Wei Ying doesn't feel the same. The lie is salt in disguise, on his tongue, but he can't live through this again. Can't burn with regret the way he did before.

"Where are you?"

Lan Wangji doesn't run to Wei Ying's house, but it's a very brisk walking pace. He doesn't want to waste time. Wei Ying opens the door and his smile is a sunrise. Beautiful. He pulls Lan Wangji into a hug as soon as he's in the hallway.

"Lan Zhan," he whispers, and it sounds like spun sugar. "I missed you so much."

"Mn," Lan Wangji agrees, "I've missed you."

Wei Ying laughs. "You didn't remember until this morning!"

"I missed you," Lan Wangji insists, because even if he hadn't remembered he had always been searching for something.

"Okay, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, in that way of his that means he's just humouring Lan Wangji. They pull apart slowly, and Lan Wangji is cold again. Longs for his warmth.

"I have to tell you something," he repeats. Wei Ying tugs him by the arm, settles him into an armchair.

"You can tell me anything," he says softly, and Lan Wangji grasps his hands. Tries not to shake.

"Wei Ying, I should have stayed with you."

"Lan Zhan, I don't blame you for that! It wouldn't have done you any good, you know."

"Perhaps," Lan Wangji says. "But then you wouldn't have been alone. Wei Ying, I love you. I do not expect you to reciprocate my feelings, but I want you to know. I want to be with you."

Wei Ying's mouth drops open. His eyes are tearing up. "Lan Zhan, you just got your memories back! What are you saying?"

"When I met you, I thought you were insufferable. I learned that you are kind. Just. Strong. So sure in your beliefs that you would stand against the world, and I wanted to follow you then, and I want to learn you now. So I can love you now, too."

Wei Ying's cheeks are red, his eyes wide."I never thought you felt the same," he says quietly.

Does Lan Wangji dare hope that Wei Ying, precious Wei Ying, has also longed for this?

"I love you," Wei Ying says, and his voice breaks with the weight of it. Lan Wangji's heart soars. And then, "But we're different people now, right? I don't know…"

"We can take it slowly," Lan Wangji says. Truthfully, he hadn't expected even this much. "I enjoy your company."

(They get married within the year. Three years later, their book Lost to Time: The Unveiled Story of Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch is published. Unsurprisingly, nobody agrees with them. The evidence is flimsy, and a lot of it is pure speculation. But their family and friends each display a copy proudly in their homes, daring anyone else to comment. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian both know the truth, after all.

in the dark, two boys are smiling.)